Sunday, January 10, 2010

Reading Caesar

I've been reading chunks from Caesar's Commentarii de bello Gallico, Caesar's autobiographical report about his, let's call it adventures, in what's now France, Switzerland, Belgium, Germany, and Britain. For centuries, Caesar's writings were a standard part of the Latin curriculum in schools: the limited vocabulary and fairly straightforward nature of his style made him typically the first author one would read in the original Latin. (I'm reading Caesar because I'm teaching more and more Latin, and my most advanced class is approaching a level at which they could read this stuff.)

I have to say that, while I don't hate Caesar's language, I'm not particularly impressed by its elegance either. But the way Jules messes around in northwestern Europe is frightening. On almost every page there's something that's so upsetting that I have to stop reading to tell my wife about how the Great Roman is massacring one tribe or another.

Here is the worst line I've found so far. It's at the end of Chapter 11 in Book Two. Caesar has just cleverly defeated a massive army of Belgians, who have decided to quit and return home to take care of Other Business. But for Caesar, that's not enough: he sends his complete cavalry and three legions of infantry out to attack the fleeing Belgians. The attack is "successful", of course, and then it comes:

sine ullo periculo
tantam eorum multitudinem nostri interfecerunt
quantum fuit diei spatium.

And so,
without any risk,
our men killed as great a number of them
as the length of the day allowed.

Killing as many as the length of the day allowed... Does that remind you of any twentieth-century ruler? Frankly, I can think of only one.

The scary part is, I think, that at some level, when reading this, we all think: Wow--That Caesar! A bit naughty, perhaps, to kill all those nice Belgians, but nonetheless: What A Great Guy! I think that's somehow in Caesar's writing. Willy-nilly you find yourself taking his side against those Barbarian Tribes.

It does make me wonder about reading Caesar in school (this last year, he selected to be the single one prose author on the new AP Latin exams here in the US). If we have to, well, I guess, so be it. But it seems to me that teachers would have to be very, very careful putting whatever Caesar is saying in as fair a light as possible. If there's something to be learned in Latin class beyond grammar and syntax, than the lesson from Caesar is certainly how not to behave in international politics.

And that's putting it mildly.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

In Love with Sanskrit

A while ago, a very good and long-time friend told me that she had realized how important Sanskrit was for her, and how she was thinking of going back to learning it. She quickly got me all excited: I offered to learn it together with her and immediately asked advise about textbooks--and indeed about the viability of the whole undertaking--from two experts. Unfortunately, and I feel terribly sorry about this, I seemed to have overwhelmed my friend a bit, as we haven't spoken about Sanskrit since, although we see each other all the time.

But the idea is still on my mind, and as I'm reading this wonderful new book Latin Alive (by Joseph Solodow, just out from Cambridge University Press), I hit upon these utterly beautiful lines about Sanskrit. I've sent them to my friend, but I thought I'd post them here for everybody else to read. It's actually prose, but of such a poetic nature that I couldn't resist starting a new line with every new part of a sentence. That way, with lines of almost identical length, the fragment almost looks like two stanzas of a sonnet:
The Sanskrit language,
whatever be its antiquity,
is of a wonderful structure;

more perfect than the Greek,
more copious than the Latin,
and more exquisitely refined than either.

These words were first said by Sir William Jones, addressing the Asiatic Society of Bengal at Calcutta in 1786. In that very lecture, Jones became the first scholar ever to suggest a common ancestry for Latin, Greek, and Sanskrit. In other words, he started the study of what is now called Indo-European, the pre-historic language we only know by ever-more precise reconstruction.

That's all very exciting stuff. But isn't it beautiful how, in a few simple lines, Jones tells you about what--I suppose-- must have been the love of his life: Sanskrit.

Starting This Blog

I've wanted to start a blog for a while. At the moment, as I happen to have a bit of time on my hands, I do quite a bit of reading (and movie watching, but that's a different story). Twice in the last few days I took the time to type out a paragraph of a book I was reading and to email it to a friend whom I though would be interested in that particular paragraph. It occurred to me that I might as well post the information as a blog so that I don't have to keep telling all my other friends about the same interesting thing (although hopefully I still can if I want to).

Before I came to America (more than ten years ago), I used to write regularly for a very nice local newspaper in my home country, The Netherlands. Though the subject of my writing was usually totally unambiguous--almost always something to do with music--I had quite a bit of freedom in what I wrote and how I wrote it. I really liked that I could, as it were, chat about something that interested me with a whole lot of readers at once. I'm curious to see if this blog can give me a similar kind of springboard idea: to simply talk about things I've hit on and that I'd like to tell others about.

I am a musician by training, have performed internationally, and taught music at the college and university level for almost ten years. In recent years--thanks to fate, my wife, and others--I have gotten into teaching languages (so far Latin, Ancient Greek, and Italian) in addition to music. Since the language teaching is becoming a bigger and more important part of my life, but since I could never not be a musician, I called this blog what I called it. My intention is to write about whatever I want to write about--but most likely it will fall in one of those two categories.