The Hare and the Tortoise

I have been making very, very slow progress with Theocritus. Ken Dover’s edition, with glossary, professes to enable the curious and less scholarly reader to discover at least “what the Greek means” (an ambition that bears comparison with Ranke’s as a historian to ascertain “wie es eigentlich gewesen sei”, what it was really like), but I don’t think I could have done so without recourse to the comprehensive and magisterial edition of Gow, from half a century ago. And even then … The trouble is, Dover is often silent on the really tricky points (and his glossary also). Perhaps he assumes the help of a teacher. There is a tension between working out roughly “what it means” and ruthlessly chasing down all those foxes; behind that lies the tension between taking the word of the notes in whichever edition you use (if they even say anything to illuminate whatever remains opaque), and making one’s own judgment. Something like this occurs when children learn an instrument, and assimilate a musical tradition, before eventually forming their own performance style and personal musicianship: the journey to Mündigkeit.

I have a tentative idea for a project to provide a bit more help to other lapsed classicists to ease the way; apart from anything else, few have access to sufficiently equipped libraries to go it alone (or rather, not alone). That might consist of two parts: an introduction offering general hints on such matters as how to cope with the “hyperdoricism”; and a series of short disquisitions on the really tricky bits, where there is genuine uncertainty about how a line should be taken or a word parsed. Or on the other hand, certain intriguing oddities of thought: I have one in mind about a slipperiness between thought and word and perception that suggests a different relationship than ours to the “inner voice”. Needless to say, one must tread carefully, just as with Whorfian speculations about exotic languages such as Hopi embodying a different way of thinking; but it’s something I think readers should think about, rather than being glossed over. Really that one takes me beyond the idea of the sporadic commentary, as it leads straight to such questions as, but is that just a parody of Homer? Certainly beyond my competence. Many German scholars of the nineteenth century wrote fat volumes speculating about the contours of ‘archaic thought’, and the territory is treacherous.

For now — having read just two Idylls — I’m turning to a diversion. In March I mean to see a play on the Phaedra myth, and I thought it would be fun to read the classical texts (by Euripides, Seneca and Racine). I dipped into the first (Hippolytus) and the Greek is so easy by contrast with tricksy Theocritus! It’s a lot to read in a few weeks, and I’ll have to be more hare than tortoise, or fail.

Before I do that, though, I would like to try the experiment of reading the third Idyll in just a few days. There is another tension which is that of confidence: if you doubt everything, you can make no more progress than Achilles, faced with the lumbering tortoise always just ahead of him. It’s a test of how much osmosis has occurred through this immersion. Or how much fire is in my Grecian mind.


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