I’ve spent an hour or two in the afternoons loafing in the Bodleian, which is to say, I’ve read thirty or forty lines of Theocritus, with middling confidence I know roughly what it means; by the way, that’s why you should never use translations: confidence will be higher, but that’s all. There is no substitute for the schoolboy method, not because it has a sobering and salutary effect on confidence, but because it is the thorny path to a richer sense of understanding as hard-won; strait is the gate. Loafing, because that’s a sluggard’s portion, and I have of course spent most of the time skimming through books on Hellenistic poetry — not a frivolous distraction, though I may be putting the cart before the horse, because it makes all the difference how you take things; or rather, the ultimate purpose of this immersion, should I pursue it, is not to extract the sense from the text by torturing it with a dictionary, but to arrive at some feeling of its “effect”. I wrote the other day that the poetry of the period is “highly literary” or some such nonsense; that question may be summed up in the remark of one critic that while the scholars of the past (till some date in the C19th, presumably) had praised Theocritus for his fetching portrait of authentic rusticity, it was only the poet’s consummate skill that made such a reading possible. Where a pre-war Australian commentator took the fine feelings of certain erotic passages as proof of the poet’s high morals, now they are recognised as pastiche of archaic originals, the important question being how much they add, to earn their keep in the canon. Some time in the sixties, it became fashionable to understand the rough country ways of bucolic in tension with Epicurean high-mindedness — whether to undercut it, or as its foil. And lately, scholars feel the crushing weight of what has been lost, both contemporary verse that may have been less highly wrought, and archaic models whose looming presence can just about be discerned, hovering over the shoulders of the text like an iceberg on a foggy night, making it impossible to come to any firm understanding of what the authors of the Hellenistic period were up to, beyond the assertion that it was something. The thought that this scholarly culture, materially expressed in the technology of the library at Alexandria, only came into existence because the descendants of Alexander’s generals thought patronising the arts would improve their thuggish image, explains the resonance of the literature of the period in the time of Augustus, who also faced a problem of legitimacy, to which his answer was Maecenas.
I am being a little unkind; these are not unreasonable things to bring to bear on texts that have surely lost some of their ability to speak for themselves. But I am reminded of something said to me recently by a friend in a gallery: maybe it is better to just look at the paintings, and as it were sink or swim. That isn’t a philistine attitude; at least, not necessarily. And it is increasingly apparent to me (with age) how much curation (perhaps, then, criticism too) simply brings to bear the passing preoccupations of the time on work that one imagines casting them off with an Olympian shrug of the shoulders.
There is, perhaps, another danger too (meting out a further turn of the screw of philological despair). There are good grounds for attributing certain preoccupations or ideas to their Zeitgeist, as with Epicureanism and Stoicism. In much the same way, when we try to think about certain questions that provoke musing and pontification, we naturally reach for what is in the air, with a satisfying feeling of having been rational and cerebral, when in fact in every age and time, that gesture, that little upward stretch, that simian flourish, is a nostrum for stilling thought, with its attendant discomfort.
The question of Epicureanism and eros is pertinent to Theocritus; my flippant survey above of the literature is meant to provoke at least a provisional tolerance of not taking any particular view. There is something unsatisfactory to the modern mind in the rumination of the period on reducing suffering. We might perhaps say that one who is not prepared to risk, and even entertain suffering will not really live. In a quotation I can’t now find, Lucretius counselled as a cure for love emptying one’s seed with “any old” (quaeque) partner — presumably, a prostitute; get it out of your system, as it were. Memory or understanding may not serve, but my point is the exasperation provoked by that sort of stuff. (I will go back to the library, and look it up, and cite chapter and verse in a comment below). If we now reach out into the air from our armchair, the word “relationship” is likely to be conjured up, the advance guard to a host of prim platitudes about how love should properly flourish. If I can roll my eyes at them, why not the Greeks, at the self-help of their day?
C.S. Lewis, in his book The Discarded Image, provides a literary history of the cosmological furniture of the middle ages, richly present still in Shakespeare and Milton — those celestial spheres. Anyone disposed to expatiate on the constitution of the universe had ready to hand a richly-stocked imaginarium, and people were probably on the whole content to believe that something on those lines was roughly right. But as Lewis says, great men such as Michelangelo were the exception; they knew it was just flimmery, because they really thought about “the nature of things”. We can’t all be Michelangelo, but God equipped us with shoulders that we might shrug them.