Why learn Latin?

Nescire autem quid ante quam natus sis acciderit, id est semper esse puerum. Quid enim est aetas hominis, nisi ea memoria rerum veterum cum superiorum aetate contexitur?

Cicero, Orator Ad M. Brutum

For the last week or two I’ve been fairly obsessively ruminating about my personal biographical relationship to some little spots around the Bay of Naples and the sweep of history upon which that relationship is contingent.  And for a number of years I’ve been ruminating about the absolutely vital necessity of a Liberal Arts education for all citizens of a free society. If citizens are not trained in the arts of life in a free society (the Liberal Arts), any other training or education is the manufacturing of Orwellian cogs for a grey, meaningless social machine.

This morning a tweet by Kelly MacFarlane, a “Contract Academic” at the University of Alberta, got me a little more obsessive about getting some of these thoughts down on (virtual) paper. Ms. MacFarlane asked “What can we do to make Latin More Appealing to more students?”

I replied “I find this a troubling question. Latin IS interesting. Students must be shown why/how it is. Trying to doll it up is misrepresentation.” What I meant, in more than 140 characters, is that marketing a Latin course as something other than “learning to read the language of the Romans and to appreciate their literature and thought and all that appreciation implies” is misrepresentation. Learning Latin probably isn’t going to get you a good job. But learning Latin, like any of the Humanities, will very likely make you better at whatever job you get. It might give you intense entertainment on your commute. Other than that, pretty much all I have to offer is meaning.

Ruminations and a couple of text messages

A week or two ago as I was obsessively ruminating, I wrote to a friend on evening:

I find it exciting that just now I’m linking up Virgil and Pliny the Younger who described the eruption of Vesuvius and the death of his uncle, Pliny the Elder who described the painting of the Greek painter Apelles which description led me to paint my series of little paintings of the area around the Bay where Vesuvius erupted and Pliny (elder) died and Pliny (younger) studied, and Virgil lived and wrote, and Aeneas descended to meet his past and his future, and where I wrote and studied and marveled and . . .

I just had a vision of me as a University lecturer in an alternate universe, bawling my eyes out as I describe to a gaggle of baffled undergrads what poetry and history and life can do when it’s all working right.

It’s probably a good thing I left Academia; weeping would probably be frowned on by the arbiters of tenure.

I also wrote to my friend about some homemade wine:

I might save the apple wine for later in the summer with a crowd. Vinalia might be time to open a half bottle of last Fall’s bucket of juice from Italy and read some Ovid or something.

In those two sentences I have linked a laughing summer afternoon outside in the sun with friends and neighbours putting about a hundred pounds of apples from another friend’s backyard trees through a meat grinder. The glorious fragrant pulp went into plastic vats to be fermented into country wine. The reference to “Vinalia” is to the twice a year celebration of the grape in Ancient Rome, Vinalia Urbana, the festival of the new wine, and Vinalia Rustica, the festival of the grape harvest. On further consideration, it seems obvious to me that the poetry of Tibullus would be more appropriate than Ovid for either festival, and certainly for an Alberta high-summer backyard neighbourhood festival celebrating those apples we had processed together.

If you knew Latin, you’d fully understand the above paragraph and the following bit of verse.  And you’d probably be pretty good at whatever job you have.

nec Spes destituat sed frugum semper acervos
praebeat et pleno pinguia musta lacu.
Tibullus, I.i.

What does all this have to do with getting undergrads interested in Latin?

When I was in grad school studying Anglo-Saxon poetry I often was asked “what are you going to do with that?”

My long answer was “I’d rather drive a cab with a Master’s Degree in Anglo-Saxon poetry than drive a cab without one.”

My short answer should have been “Live.”

My best answer, an answer that I only found with time is “Live with meaning.”

Cicero wrote in a letter to his friend Varro: “Si hortum in bibliotheca habes, nihil deerit.” Ad Familiares IX, 4

I’ve always imagined that Cicero’s garden and library were often visited by friends and neighbours, that Cicero “networked” with living, present people as well as with his books.

“pulcherrimarum clade terrarum”

We are a network of experiences, of memories applied to each other, to the present, and to the future. We are not the product of our personal history, we, at this very moment, are our personal history made manifest, a history which includes what we read, what we see on Netflix, the games we play, the people we have met, the places we have been, our family . . . . The richer our personal history, the deeper our references and experiences, the more we have personal connections to the deep history of our families, of our nations, of our cultures, and of humanity itself, the richer, deeper, and more alive we are, the more meaning our time on this whirling ball of rock has, whatever we may be doing in the present moment.

When young, the network is loose. It’s hard to see how things fit together, we search for meaning, too often we give up.  Trust me, it gets tighter. A point will come as you pursue you living and learning, whether that learning involves Latin or another language or languages, when everything starts to fit together, where everything is linked to everything else in a glittering, beautiful, tragic and joyful web of association and causality and meaning. The depth is plumbed gradually, but my own life has shown me that within a couple of years of first taking Latin, experience was enriched, landscapes came to deep life, and things began to fall into place.  And I began to understand other languages. And even others. It all meant something.

Making a loaf of bread in the Bakery of Modestus

Because of Latin, and travel in youth, when I knead bread  I am connected, to my mother, of course, but, more deeply, I am connected to a man named Modestus who owned a bakery in Pompeii. Modestus most likely died on August 24, 79 A.D., shortly after enjoying Vinalia. But I have a photo I took of his bakery, and I have a photo of my mother standing in that bakery many years later, after I painted a little picture of Modestus’ grain mills. And I painted that picture because of the words of a man who died that same day, in that same Hellish disaster.

When I knead bread, I am connected to my mother, who taught me to bake bread, and who stood in the Bakery of Modestus where I had stood years before, and to people who died half a world away and two thousand years ago.

The Bakery of Modestus, Acrylic, 4″ x 6″

We are connected in this way because I learned Latin.

Below is a reverse timeline that may show some of the depth of connection that Latin has brought to my life.

A Reverse Timeline

Sometime before the end of 2006 A.D., a middle aged Canadian man started painting some tiny paintings using only red, yellow, black, and white paint.

Sometime after the end of 2005 A.D., a middle aged man from Canada chanced upon a passage about a Greek painter in a natural history written by an uncle who had launched the ships under his command to investigate a volcanic eruption, an eruption which soon claimed his life.

In late summer of 1983 A.D. a young man from Canada was having a wonderful time admiring the landscape and studying in the library of the Villa Vergiliana, in Cumae, Italy, just over the ridge from Misenum, on the Bay of Naples.  He wrote in his journal:

I’m in heaven, or perhaps Hades. I’ve got a vast (comparatively) library at my disposal, including The Idylls of the King and Dryden’s Aeneid; and Avernus is on one side while the Sybil’s cave is on the other. Up on the roof I can see for miles.  We’re staying in the Villa Vergiliana, a possession of the American Virgilian Society. I’ll never have enough time here. . . .

In the spring of 1981 A.D., a young Canadian was happily studying in an introductory Latin course at the University of Alberta.  The professor had big ambitions for his students and they rose to the challenge.  As the leaves budded out in the North Saskatchewan River Valley, these students, Latin neophytes a few months before, were reading their way through an epic description of a descent into Hell at Cumae and Lake Avernus. This glorious poetry had been written two thousand years earlier by a man from Gaul who was quoted by a man from Como in his description of his own descent to Hell.

Around 110 A.D., a middle aged man from Como in Northern Italy, who had studied as a volcano erupted, was asked by an historian friend to describe the events around the Bay of Naples during a late August week in his youth, when Vesuvius buried Herculaneum, Pompeii, and dozens of other cities, towns, and villages.

In late summer of 79 A.D., a young man from Como was contentedly studying literature at his uncle’s villa in Misenum. The Vinalia Rustica, the great festival of the grape harvest, had concluded a few days before. Every expectation was that in the spring the Vinalia Urbana, the festival of the new wine, would be celebrated in the towns and villages on the slopes of Vesuvius and in the villas along the bay.

As the young man studied, his uncle, commander of the Roman fleet at Misenum and author of an important work of Natural History, climbed to a high point of land to observe an unusual cloud on the far distant opposite shore of the Bay.  He stood studying the cloud with a scientist’s eye and soon decided his ships should be launched for a closer look. That closer look soon turned into a rescue mission.

In 77 A.D., the uncle who would die on a scientific expedition turned rescue began to write his monumental Natural History. That Natural History contained a brief passage about an Ancient Greek painter who had miraculous abilities with a remarkably limited set of four colours.

Sometime before 19 B.C., a man nearing the end of his life who had once lived at Cumae wrote a line of verse that would be quoted by a man from Como as he undertook to describe his own journey in flight through Hell on Earth across the Phlegraean Fields near Lake Avernus.

In the late summer of 49 B.C., a yet-young man from Cisalpine Gaul was living at Cumae, carefully observing the volcanic countryside, and studying, creating the mind, the sensibility, the developed consciousness, that would produce some of the greatest poetry in World Literature.

In the depths of mythic time, a hero arrived from Troy to the shores of Italy at Cumae. After retrieving the Golden Bough, he consulted with the mystical Sybil and then, on the banks of Lake Avernus, in the heart of the Phlegraean Fields, that hero descended to the Underworld, met with the dead, learned of his past and of his future, and returned to the land of the living through the Gate of False Dreams.

And, because I learned Latin, I was there. For all of it.

Why study anything?

Because I studied Latin with Dr. Bob Buck in 1981-82, I grew to love the poetry of Virgil, was able to read the letters of Pliny the Younger and the Natural History of his uncle, Pliny the Elder. Because I could read Latin, I learned of the Greek Painter Apelles. Because I could read Latin I painted a series of paintings which launched a funny little late-life career.

But, most important to me, those months in Dr. Buck’s class helped give to my life a rich depth of meaning. I am a network of experiences. I am linked to Apelles, to Virgil, to Pliny the letter writer and Pliny the Naturalist.  I have stood on the same ground. We have wondered together at the power of Vesuvius. We have looked deeply into other lives and other times with the tools forged by study and tempered with a life in society, and we have found meaning.

If that doesn’t make Latin interesting . . .

B

New Voices

What an inspiring evening hearing New Voices I just had!

I’m still trying to process a bunch of stuff:

A young lady I’ve seen have scary tantrums and whom I’ve also seen around town doing the kind of menial jobs that people with developmental disabilities are sadly so lucky to get when they can — this young lady turns out to be a beautifully soulful singer;

Artists with developmental disabilities hobnob at their music video launch with Miss Sarah Chan and her husband, the Mayor of Edmonton;

The head honcho of ATB Financial announces that his company’s downtown office building is lit up in purple in honour of an inner-city art studio where professional artists mentor artists with developmental disabilities, were artists with barriers of all sorts are given the opportunity to exhibit their work, where musicians and dancers from the larger arts community mentor the resident Collective;

And, I can’t shake from my mind the fact that an outfit “advocating” for the disabled shunned the wonderful institution that brings all these people together, from business, from politics, from the arts, and from the all-to-often-invisible disabled community — I can’t shake the memory that an organization claiming to advocate for the disabled rejected this wonderful, integrated, outward-reaching place as “segregated”.

No. This place, The Nina Haggerty Centre for the Arts, which I’ve written of before, is a place of true integration. This isn’t a place of art lessons for “normal” people with a chair or two set aside in the corner for “special” people. No. The Nina Haggerty Centre is a place where people are helped to be a part of the larger community, of a larger community than most of us “normal” people ever get to be a part of. The Nina helps people to find their voices, voices they often themselves don’t know that they have.

And what voices they are!

Please listen to Angela Trudel singing words composed by her Nina Collective colleague Alana Gersky, and then listen to Angela singing her colleague Amber Strong’s words as Amber plays her own music on the piano.

Please listen. And hear.

I won’t name the agency that argued that the Nina Haggerty Centre was segregated. I understand their opinion has changed, perhaps in small part due to my online rants.

The Nina Haggerty Centre is all that is best about Edmonton and about Canada. It is about finding the beauty in each of us and helping each other to share and enjoy that beauty. Sure we screw it up a lot. Sure we are often tone deaf and we have bad days or years or centuries where we just don’t seem to be able to hear each other. Sure we’re hateful, impatient, hurtful, stupid and just plain tired lots of the time.

But when we get it, when we listen, when we just darn well work hard for what is right, and true, and beautiful. When we simply ask “what are you feeling?” and listen — truly listen — to the answers, especially answers from New Voices, we do pretty amazing stuff.

Yes, we make a mess of so much. But, do you suppose we can, like Nina Collective artist Yvette Prefontaine, keep on Searching for Hope?

Thoughts Arising from the Passing of Stuart McLean

At some point yesterday I idly tweet-quoted a CBC tweet-link about the death of humorist Stuart McLean, adding a little thought:

 

I choose to remember the times I sat in the car long after parking listening to Mr. McLean’s terribly clever & essentially human absurdities.

 

I confess, I was not a devoted listener of Mr. McLean’s, but when I did catch his stories – usually on the car radio – I always experienced as joyful and love-of-humanity-filled laughter as I’ve ever experienced.  I will never forget the story of the two boys witnessing what they thought to be the explosion of a human head due to a held-in sneeze.  That was just one of the many times I sat in my parked car, tears of laughter freely flowing down my cheeks.

I didn’t think again of my idle tweet until late last night when I was surprised by a direct message on Twitter from, of all people, Shelagh Rogers!  She was asking me permission to quote my tweet in a piece she was writing.  Who asks permission to quote a tweet these days?!

I replied “Heavens to Murgatroyd! Of course you may!”

I don’t use the expression “Heavens to Murgatroyd” very often, but when I do it always calls up warm but dim-with-the-passage-of-years memories of my father inventing bed-time stories for toddler me about Murgaroyd the rabbit and his adventures avoiding Farmer MacGregor.  I’m sure my father cursed the night he first started taxing his creativity with that project!

I’m not sure where I picked up “Heavens to Murgatroyd”. Isn’t it funny what becomes a habit of mind? Isn’t it interesting how our memories are stories. and wonderful how those memories are polished by life and time into memories of feelings?

I’m ever grateful for those happy memories of a bunny living in a bramble bush and a working man rising to poetry for a moment each night.

A great many Canadians will, I’m sure, be ever grateful for laugh-filled memories of Dave and Morley and the rest, and for memories — for the feelings — of Stuart McLean lovingly making poetry of the absurd, the mundane, and the ordinarily and essentially Human in us all.

Thank you, Mr. McLean.

Cardiac Theatre’s Production of “Peter Fechter: 59 Minutes”

Westwärts
schweift der Blick;
ostwärts
streicht das Schiff.
Frisch weht der Wind
der Heimat zu . . .

— Richard Wagner, Tristan und Isolde

What a wonderful opportunity it is to see Jordan Tannahill’s Peter Fechter: 59 Minutes on stage five short blocks from home! Cardiac Theatre’s production did not disappoint, even on the first-night-preview-shakedown-cruise of a terribly powerful and difficultly precisely timed script.

I’ve written before of Peter Fechter when discussing Tannahill’s Governor General’s Award-winning three solo play collection Age of Minority. I was excited to see that Cardiac Theatre offered for sale copies of Age of Minority after the show. For literally decades I’ve wished that Edmonton theatres would make available copies of the plays they stage to their patrons. I overheard one theatre-goer this evening quite anxiously asking to buy a copy of Age of Minority. It might be a thought for theatre companies to include the cost of a dozen copies of their plays when they put together their grant applications.

But, enough about my hopes and dreams . . .

I immediately noticed that Director Harley Morison had opted for something akin to the original workshopped staging of the play, as playwright Tannahill describes:

The performer traversed the physical space of his memory onstage and would then be thrown back into the excruciating present of the Death Strip. The audience was in alley configuration (i.e., on either side of the performer), mirroring the ‘east/west/ spectatorship along the wall.

Age of Minority, p. 64

Barbed wire hangs above the stage, shoes, books, a telephone, and a perhaps anachronistic pyrex coffee pot snagged in the barbs. Apart from that hanging symbol of division, the set is bare. A chair. Four spot lights on the floor, angled upward.

I’m not certain that this staging is better than the one Tannahill chose for his self-performed premier of the play in Berlin. I was not there. I can only imagine. But imagining Tannahill standing still and alone, a spotlight on his face, as he performs his play, immobile like the wounded and paralyzed Peter Fechter, I can’t help but feel I someday want to see that staging of Peter Fechter: 59 Minutes.

Don’t get me wrong: Bradley Doré, even in this preview, gave a wonderful performance. I felt it was a little shaky at the beginning, but he hit his stride almost immediately. And, who am I — I who forgot a line in Sunday Costs Five Pesos and had to be bailed out by my Bertha at the age of eleven — who am I to criticize a young professional who stumbled once or twice in a preview but still managed to nail the fifty-nine minute deadline?

Have I mentioned the timing? It was impeccable.

But wait! “What is this play?” I hear you asking.

Well, this play, Peter Fechter: 59 Minutes, is a one-minute-less-than-one-hour one-act one -man show based on the short life and excruciatingly long death of Peter Fechter, an eighteen year old German fellow who, with his friend tried to escape East Berlin in 1962. Tannahill exercises a great amount of poetic license with the historical events, but he has made the narrative-construction, the meaning-finding of the dying Fechter powerfully believable. And Doré rises to the challenge of bringing Tannahill’s words to life.

A personal note: I can’t help but think that my response to a play about an eighteen year old who died in 1962 when I was not yet one year old will be different from both the twenty-something playwright and the twenty-something actor. They don’t remember the Berlin Wall! They don’t remember the Cold War! They don’t hear Bowie’s ‘heroes’ the way I do. They don’t hear Bowie’s “Where Are We now?” from his penultimate album the way I do. But then, when I was twenty-something, I didn’t hear ‘heroes’ the way I do now. And when I was twenty-something, I wrote a little play that I’m only coming to understand today, in my dotage. Jordan Tannahill is writing powerful stuff that will last. And Bradley Doré has brought it to life.

My friend decided to sit this play out, feeling that the subject matter was a little too intense. Yes, it is intense, and painful. But I couldn’t help but think as I tried to explain to her afterward that, in fact, there is something uplifting in the narrative Fechter constructs, in the life he creates, in those fifty-nine minutes at the wall, and in the Pieta-like image of him being lifted by the East German Border guard as the clock, Peter’s clock, ticks down to zero.

Peter Fechter: 59 Minutes runs until January 22, 2017 at the PCL Studio Theatre in the ATB Arts Barns in Old Strathcona. Tickets may be had at the Fringe Theatre Adventures Box Office.

And please read Jenna Marynowski’s behind the scenes interview piece,  “Searching for the reason behind the risk in Peter Fechter: 59 Minutes” and her review, Theatrical experiments abound in Peter Fechter: 59 Minutes.   Jenna’s blog, After the House Lights, is one of the best things for Edmonton’s theatre world!

A Fragment

A fragment discovered during excavations at San Giovanni di Ruoti in 1983.  It seems to be part of a much longer epic, but at this point it is impossible to discern the intended development of the narrative.

. . . the shout was heard from R’oti unto Bella
as then came down the wrath of bold Wendela
for Jackie had climbed up the pot-strewn hill
and talked to Jenny, ‘gainst her leader’s will.
The shout died out and all around no sound
nor sight of one who cared could there be found.
Now with the speed of treacle in the snow
fair Jackie hastened back into her row
and as she wandered pass’d, wise David said
that Romans on the mould of cows were fed.
Up from the trench stood Jeremy the good
expounding that he’d not heard of such food:
“In all the years that I have Latin took
I’ve never found such words in any book.
I don’t know where you find your silly lies.”
He turns and up the eastern hill he hies.
And Mary Ellen strode through all the ranks —
or rather limped — she had herself to thank:
the other night, in battle with a beer
she’d broke a foot, and swore no doctor’d see her.
So on she limps, her metatarsals blue,
and she’ll dig on ’til rock — or bone — shows through.
And all of this came to the Doctor’s sight
as he watched from the Tip-Pile’s foggy height.
He shook his head and twirled his trow’l around,
said, “Well, we’ll see” and turned and stumbled down.

 

(Dedicated to the memory of Bob Buck, who taught me Latin, and to Alastair Small, who arranged that trip to Cumae, and who together somehow wrangled us all that summer.)

“Lady Windermere’s Fan” (and other stuff) at the Walterdale Playhouse

Nowadays people seem to look on life as a speculation. It is not a speculation. It is a sacrament. Its Ideal is Love. Its purification is sacrifice.

-Lady Windermere in Act 1 of Lady Windermere’s Fan

I’ve just had a truly remarkable day of theatre experience, all of it in the old brick firehall now known as the Walterdale Playhouse. I’ve long had a warm place in my heart for the Walterdale and its people. For Walterdale people, the Ideal of Theatre is Love, and they purify their Theatre with sacrifice.

My day began with an intense Cradle to Stage workshopping session with Brian Dooley (Director of New Play Development at the Citadel Theatre), Vlady Penchoff (Cradle to Stage Festival Coordinator), Payam Saeedi (Associate Dramaturge), Eric Smith (Director), and nine members of the Citadel Theatre’s Young Acting Company. These thirteen people spent the daylight hours of an Edmonton December Saturday voluntarily taking a dry script written by yours truly from words-on-a-page to passionate performance — twice. No one was being paid. There wasn’t even free coffee. And no one except the fourteen of us witnessed the event. Everyone was there from a pure love of Theatre.

Those young actors sacrificed more than just their Saturdays. They weren’t there to just walk through the piece. They passionately engaged with the text. They dug down into their young selves and somehow pulled out flashes of powerful — unbearably powerful — feelings of humans twice their age. They patiently worked through my ridiculously long and convoluted sentences and found the coherence. They even happily recited some Old English verse after a tiny bit of coaching.

It was a wonder and an honour to behold!

Edmonton is a wonderful theatre city. I’ve said it before: over the course of each year there are literally thousands of individul theatrical performances within a half hour walk of my front door — most of them within a lazy ten minute stroll.  But the Walterdale is its own kind of special. The Walterdale functions completely on the Love of Theatre, on the belief that Theatre is human nature, and on a mad certainty that if people act as if they are the glowing heart of Theatre, they will damn well be the glowing heart of Theatre. The people who muck about in Old Strathcona’s Number One Firehall (AKA The Walterdale Playhouse) have an Ideal and a Love of Theatre. And they make it pure through their individual sacrifices of time and effort.

The evening of my Walterdale day was a delightful two hours with Oscar Wilde’s Lady Windermere’s Fan. I’ll not go too deeply into the production or the play as Jenna Marynowski has already offered one of her always sensitive and insightful reviews at After the House Lights. Just a few observations.

It was a full house and the house was in stitches throughout.  The costumes were sumptuous, the set was lovely and far more elaborate than expected by minimalist me, and the performances ranged from good to remarkable. The crowd on the stage nailed it and the crowd in the seats loved it.

If I were forced to name a stand out performance, I might choose Marsha Amanova as the absolutely self-sacrificing Mrs. Erlynne.  But I just as likely would select Emanuelle Dubbeldam for her brief, understated, almost totally body-language turn as Lady Windermere’s maid Rosalie. David Owen’s Lord Augustus is wonderfully bug-eyed-stunned, and Patrick Maloney’s Lord Windermere is perfectly achingly conflicted. And Hannah Haugen as Lady Agatha out does Vin Diesel as Groot in Guardians of the Galaxy: her repeated “Yes, Mamma”is an “I am Groot” that is actually easily comprehensible to the entire audience in all its varied meanings.

But the centre of the piece is Miranda Broumas’ Lady Windermere.  At first I thought “she’s stiff. she’s thin.” like a stick is stiff and like water or American beer is thin.  But quickly I realized that Lady Windermere is very young in a very formal society, that she is not yet fully formed, but trying to be strong. She’s a young willow trying to be a stout oak.  Broumas has brought something to the role a more seasoned actor (this is her first Walterdale performance) might have moved beyond and abandoned. This Lady Windermere has, through her theatrical Ideal of Love and Sacrifice, created a truthful performance, to the great benefit of that full house of which I was honoured to be a part.

Lady Windermere’s Fan plays at the Walterdale until December 17, 2016.

Go see it. It’s a hoot.
P.S. Ever notice the influence of Othello on Lady Windermere’s Fan? Think about it. And Othello‘s in Stoppard’s The Real Thing, too.