May 06, 2002
Juvenalian Delinquents or Why Blog?

There's something about blogging that has seemed familiar, somehow, though I couldn't quite put my finger on it. In fact there are two somethings, and I just realized that both had to do with one of my favorite poets, the Roman satirist Juvenal, who wrote under Trajan in the early 2nd century.

The first parallel is in motivation. Surely I'm not the only blogger who has spent years reading editorials and op-eds, slapping my forehead and shouting: 'You get paid to write this crap? I could do a better job in my spare time!' And surely I'm not the only blogger who has wasted many hours over the years writing cogent and well-argued letters to the editors of newspapers and magazines that were either ignored, rejected for lame reasons, or, if published, edited (that is, butchered) to cut out all the best parts and bring my thoughts into line with what the editor thought I should be saying.

(Coming soon to this blog, a new series: 'Fact Checking Their Asses' Fifteen Years Later: What I Wrote And What They Printed.)

Here's Juvenal, translated by Peter Green, opening his first satire by telling us why he decided to become a writer, and a satirist:

Must I always be stuck in the audience, never get my own back
for all the times Iíve been bored by that ranting Theseid
of Cordus? Shall X go free after killing me with his farces
or Y with his elegies? No come-back for whole days wasted
on a bloated Telephus, or Orestes crammed in the margins,
spilling over on to the verso, and still not finished?

After noting that he too has had the standard Roman rhetorical education, Juvenal goes on:

                    When you find such hordes of scribblers
all over, itís misplaced kindness not to write. The paper
will still be wasted.

Sound familiar? Juvenal is talking about bad poets, not bad commentators, but otherwise sounds just like a blogger. Another parallel is the self-deprecation mixed with the abuse of others. Juvenal offers us not absolute truths but his own personal 'ramblings', 'bleats', 'curmudgeonry', 'arrogant rants', perhaps even 'bunch of crap from a moron'.

A second parallel is in subject matter. Bloggers tend to comment on whatever catches their cold, cynical eyes in the daily news or everyday life. So do satirists. Later in his first satire, Juvenal pictures himself standing on a streetcorner in Rome with his notebooks (actually wax tablets), watching the crowd of celebrity criminals go by:

Don't you want to cram whole notebooks with scribbled invective
when you stand at the corner and see some forger carried past
exposed to view on all sides, in an all-but-open litter,
on the necks of six porters, lounging back with the air
of Maecenas himself? A will, a mere scrap of paper,
a counterfeit seal -- these brought him wealth and honour.
Do you see that distinguished lady? She has the perfect dose
for her husband -- old wine with a dash of parching toad's blood.
Locusta's a child to her; she trains her untutored neighbours
to bury their blackened husbands, ignore the gossip.
If you want to be someone today, dare acts that could earn you
prison or island exile.

Locusta was a famous poisoner, supposedly pardoned by Nero so that she could work for him. There are Latin texts of Juvenal on-line here and (a personal favorite) here. Unfortunately, there is no English translation on line, but Peter Green's Penguin, which I quote above, is now in its third edition, and is excellent, inexpensive, and well-annotated. (Like comedy, satire in all languages tends to be allusive and difficult, and needs notes.)

(Because of copyright laws, there is actually far more Latin literature on-line in Latin than in translation. I plan to write more on this problem later.)

Samuel Johnson's adaptations of Juvenal are well-known, especially "London" and "The Vanity of Human Wishes", which rewrite Satires 3 and 10, respectively, with modern historical examples substituted for Juvenal's ancient ones. Professor Jack Lynch of Rutgers has put very handsome texts of both on-line: here are the URLs for "London", "The Vanity of Human Wishes", and a whole mass of other interesting English texts.

Finally, here is my favorite translation -- or rather loose adaptation -- of Juvenal. It is by Catherine Davis (1924-?), reworks Satire 3, lines 40ff., and is one of a series of seven short poems called "Insights":

4. In New York

What can I do here? I could learn to lie;
Mouth Freud and Zen; rub shoulders at the "Y"
With this year's happy few; greet every hack--
The rough hyena, the young trimmer pack,
The Village idiot--with an equal eye;
And always scratch the true backscratcher's back.
All this, in second Rome, I'd learn to do;
Hate secretly and climb; get money; quit,
An absolutely stoic hypocrite.
This, but no more. New York is something new:
The toadies like the toads they toady to.

The last joke has no equivalent in the Juvenalian source passage.

Posted by Dr. Weevil at May 06, 2002 10:36 PM