September 27, 2007

Early notes on Dracontius

The poetry of Ovid laid the foundation for a kind of self-knowledge by which the self is not an objective, essential text, which can be deciphered, but as a text constantly open to reinvention, refashioning, rewriting. Unlike Augustine, Ovid presents a self that can always be reinterpreted, recuperated: self-revelation is not necessarily self-renunication.

Dracontius is a late 5th century African poet, a Christian who composed (at least in his early career) on Pagan themes. If we consider the differences that Foucault observed between pagan and early-Christian “technologies of the self”, he, like Ovid in Fraenkel’s study, can be considered a “Poet Between Two Worlds”.

He succeeds Ovid more directly in his (unfortunate) continuation of the genre of Latin exile poetry. The Satisfactio is a poem that tends to be criticised for its “needless repetitions… unnecessary amplifications… untoward digressions… (lack of) logical sequence.” However, the poem explicitly recognises the power of words to both heal and harm: Dracontius was imprisoned for praising in his verse a ruler other than the Vandal King Gunthamund. Taking its indication from the relationship between poetry and an absolute, arbitrary power from Ovid’s Tristia, the Satisfactio seems to self-consciously negate its own meaning.

Found in the Satisfactio is “a self that exists at a remove from the immediate, which is constructed around the valorization of the infinite deferral of meaning, a self first glimpsed in (Ovid’s) exilic poetry” (Miller 2004: 235).

Conte in his entry on Dracontius in Latin Literature: A History remarks: “This attempt to use culture, the technical ability to write verses, as a commodity of exchange with the king is interesting… to address a poem to Augustus or Constantine was quite different from writing for the barbarian Gunthamund” (1994: 719). However, the assumption that the barbarian would even have read the Satisfactio (consider Ovid’s skepticism that Augustus ever read the Ars), or even that he could have been swayed by its rhetoric, remains open to question.

It is in some sense an empty gesture, a poem written because that is what a famous poet does when he is put away by the ruling power: writes elegiac poetry.

June 22, 2007

A Reason To Start Doing Something

The blurb on the new paperback edition of George Monbiot’s Heat trumpets its author as the “scourge of big business, riler of governments, arch-enemy of climate change deniers everywhere”. When he held a live question-and-answer session on Guardian Unlimited on Tuesday, I asked him if it was his idea to promote himself in this way. He replied that it wasn’t, but that he had acquiesced to Penguin, who ‘know far more about selling books’ than he does.

You have to wonder if they’d even read the book in the first place.

The problem is that big business, governments, climate change deniers – the ‘lying industry’, as they are branded elsewhere on the cover – are quite happy to be scourged, riled and baited – so long as they don’t have to change anything. Monbiot’s book seeks, rather, to engage. Working from the basis that the world must achieve a 60% overall cut in greenhouse emissions (a 90% cut in developed nations like the UK) to prevent the two-degree temperature rise that will accelerate global warming beyond human control, he pitches practical, reasonable, well-researched solutions: a vision for a modern, ecologically-viable world as a political and economic reality.

This is his real achievement. If the problem of tackling climate change resembles untying a large tangle of twisted knots, Monbiot resists the temptation to struggle or force it. If he were the elected leader of a developed nation, he’d probably find the largest possible pair of scissors and cut it through. Instead he sets to the task with patience and diligence, following the various threads as honestly as he can.

This means subjecting his fellow environmentalists to the same scrutiny as the multinational corporations, the developers of ‘green solutions’ like biofuels, wind turbines and solar panels the same as Virgin, Toyota and Shell. His fifty pages of notes rely mainly on references to government studies and peer-reviewed academic journals. He is not satisfied with the word of anybody with any kind of investment.

And as he discovers, climate change is a very knotty problem indeed, made up of troubling paradoxes. For example: that the people most responsible for causing climate change are the ones who will suffer least from its effects, and suffer most from the changes required to prevent it. He concludes in a wonderfully meditative epilogue: “it is a campaign not just against other people, but against ourselves.” In spite of this, he is resolute in his belief that the costs of failing to act on climate change – economic, social, political – will be far worse than the costs of doing so.

The other inconvenient truth that Monbiot uncovers is this: that the newer, more efficient technologies championed by many as the key to beating climate change can by themselves do little to achieve the required cut. The progression of science and the development of technology is matched step-for-step by the demand for energy. This is why the number of journeys taken by bus and train in Britain can have increased alongside the number of journeys taken by car in the last ten years; this is why the average American car does fewer miles-to-the-gallon now than the original mass-produced automobile, the early-20th-century Ford Model T.

The fundamental feature of Monbiot’s programme, then, is an unavoidable ‘carbon cap’. The right to produce carbon is rationed, with individuals using their carbon ration to pay for what they use in heating, electricity and travel mileage: the rest of the country’s allotment (Monbiot splits it about 40-60) is divided by the government between corporations, who cover the carbon cost of goods etc for those who buy. Unused rations can be sold to those who require bigger cars and more electricity.

In the rest of the book, Monbiot explores the most viable solutions for providing energy, housing, transportation and shopping in accordance with his 90% cut. The problem, I suspect, is not that people themselves would have trouble accepting the restrictions if they were universally imposed. What hardship is it really if our fridges, TVs and cars no longer guzzle energy needlessly, if our houses no longer bleed heat into the street and money from our pockets, or if our supermarkets are forced to provide us with good quality seasonal food? The problem is that the lobbyists for oil, energy et al will block the changes before we even have chance.

And indeed, certain of Monbiot’s proposals I cannot see ever happening. A system of regular, direct, deluxe coaches to take the place of motorway traffic? An almost total reduction in airline travel, for which the technology capable of reducing its vast greenhouse emissions remains entirely potential? Still, there is no excuse for the powers that be to procrastinate over even the easy (or profitable!) solutions; less still for committing billions of pounds to building new airports and motorway lanes.

Ultimately, though, Monbiot’s message is that we cannot give ourselves up to the problem of climate change before we even attempt to solve it. This is something we can do. Together: personally I find it quite an uplifting prospect in that sense. Where we don’t yet have the answers we have to give ourselves every chance while we attempt to figure them out. At the close of the book he makes a direct appeal to the reader to take action, to make changes, to stop waiting for somebody else to act first. In that respect it may be the most important book that you ever read.

May 21, 2007

Classics PG Colloquium, 22 May 2007

Ah, my old blog… I should have done this weeks ago, but- what can I say?

The 2nd annual Classics PG Colloquium will be held from 10am tomorrow (22 May). You may have noticed already the posters that I furtively pinned to Humanities noticeboards in the dead of night. Basically, this is an opportunity for Postgraduate research students within the Classics Dept to showcase their work to peers and members of the Faculty. If you’re an undergraduate thinking about doing research in the Classics, or a postgrad from another Dept simply wanting to find out whether we’re more or less clever than you, I think you may find it interesting.

We will be meeting in H344. The programme looks a bit like this:

09:30 Welcome

10:00 ‘Maximian and the Old Age of the World’
Ian Fielding

10:45 ‘The role of the biblical Patriarchs in Philo of Alexandria’
Eva Mussio

11:30 Coffee

11:45 ‘Subjugation, appropriation, emulation? Or, how Egypt captured Rome’
Vanessa MacKenzie

12:30 Lunch

13:15 ‘Goatherds in Idylls’
Naoko Komiyama

14:00 ‘Modernist Visions of Piety: the Fate of Thoas in Gluck’s Iphigénie en Tauride’
Joe Platnauer

It’d be lovely to see you there.

November 09, 2006

Thursday 9 November


Submission and the Best-Laid Plans

I wanted to hand in my thesis last Tuesday—but not being able to finish the final review with Andrew even as we rode the bus into Leamington on Monday evening really put paid to that idea. So I let Tuesday pass, making last alterations and enjoying the feeling of doing nothing before seven days’ work. I set my mind to finally putting project to bed on my next day off.

That was yesterday. I was still in my pyjamas when I came across the form for the nomination of examiners, which is required by the Graduate School “at least a month” before submission, apparently. Not a huge setback: the potential examiners have been identified and contacted, at least, but the delay should push assessment back beyond when I’m due to start my PhD in January. Still, I could tell that this wasn’t going to be as easy as all that.

When I finally got the copies of my dissertation into the Copyshop, I was told that I’d missed my last chance for binding that day and would have to pick them up this morning. I resigned myself to going back to campus to hand them in today. Then I get a phone call to say binding machine was broken and that copies might not be ready on time. As it was, I picked them up at lunchtime, and went on my way to formally submit. At last.

Only then, I saw that all three copies were bound without Introduction.

Doing something this stupid can be very painful indeed.

Fortunately, Copyshop can undo the binding for a (relatively) small fee, and insert the missing Introduction – so I won’t have to pay the full £25 for all reprinting and rebinding. But the afternoon shipment has gone (again) – there’s no way to get it done today. Work intervenes, and submission is put back another week. I have Wednesday 15th circled on the calendar.

How I feel now, if that’s the sum total of the delay, if I can – for example – avoid trying to use dissertations to put out a chip-pan fire, posting them to the Inland Revenue, or simply dropping them in the toilet, I will be happy. My own capacity for the spectacularly feckless has me totally dumbfounded.

For now, I’ve come home to sit, sulk, watch Torchwood taped off BBC2 last night, and reflect on the fact that even top-secret, alien-chasing (albeit fictional) institutions can make real howlers on a week-to-week basis too…

October 31, 2006

Tuesday, 31 October

At the stage now of making the final cosmetic changes to thesis draft.

Final draft

The process of finishing my Master’s over the past month has been painfully slow: held up by having to produce and submit a PhD application, having to take a full-time job in order to get by until said PhD gets going, and having to work around Andrew’s unfortunately hectic schedule: we concluded last night’s review of the draft on the Unibus outside Zizzi’s. But nearly done.

Working the next six days in a row, so I should submit next week now.

Have really been letting the Junkyard gather dust over the past month or so, but I hope it won’t be closing for good in the near future. If I don’t put up any odds and ends between now and Christmas, I’ll haul off the tarpaulin early in 2007 and start scraping together bits for PhD project…

September 29, 2006

Friday, 29 September

Time, I suppose, that I submitted another proper update.

As it is, the study to which I have devoted this Blog in the last nine months is 95% finished. My five chapters, Introduction, Conclusion, Bibliography and so forth are all written and require only finishing touches before I can call it complete. These finishing touches, though, represent all the painful little jobs that I’ve postponed doing for some time now [double-checking references, finalising translations, that sort of thing] and could take up an indefinite amount of time before I submit. Who was it that said you never finish a piece of work, but rather you abandon it..?

My aim is to have everything I can corrected, polished and finalised by the time I meet with Andrew on Tuesday afternoon to discuss the work I’ve done over the summer. As the sum total of that represents over 12,000 words of my study, there could be any amount still to do after we meet before I can finally put it in to be bound. The deadline for submission is actually tomorrow [September 30] but by virtue of being a Research student I’m actually given a whole year’s grace period to play with. Still, barring any significant delays I’m hopeful I’ll be rid of all this within three or four weeks…

September 22, 2006

Friday, 22 September

Musing in the Caramellas, September 2006

September 07, 2006

Thursday, 7 September

And so with another entry, I can mark out another three-week lacuna in my blog where nothing worth recording was accomplished on my project. I can only defend myself by claiming that I was detained by other committments; moving house, visiting family, discussing and feeding back on Kate’s theories on the significance of satyrs in vase-paintings, for her now-handed-in dissertation.

Still, with my various other duties fulfilled I have returned to work this week and, virtuously, completed all 3,000 words of Dante chapter (Chapter I) in the matter of three days. Ultimately, the meagreness of source material [there’s only two Dante eclogues, and the second of those probably isn’t his] meant that it was something of a struggle; I can see now why the scholarly treatments that I found tend to be either very succinct, or padded with all sorts of peripheral information. I hope that what I’ve done falls somewhere between the two.

My thesis stands, overall, at 32,000 words now. I can go away to Catalonia next week [did I not mention that this entry would mark the beginning of another lacuna?] with only my Introduction and my Conclusion pressing on my conscience. Whether, between them, they’ll make up the shortfall of my 40,000-word requirement will be the main cause for anxiety—but then, there’s still plenty of scope for details to be sourced from Andrew’s various inspirations and added to my already-written but still-unpolished chapters before I have to hand in.

I have christened the study In the Guise of Tityrus: the Pastoral Tendency of Dante, Petrarch and Boccaccio. There were a couple of alternatives, but that’s what I’m going with for now. Any feedback [unless it’s to tell me I’m poncy and gay] is welcome.

August 14, 2006

Monday, August 14

Fulfilment of obligation to not shirk writing something worthwhile on finishing chapter

No, I didn't honestly think I could get away with slithering through the chain–link gates without producing a fuller report on my efforts yesterday. It's just that I'd finished the chapter, wanted to immerse myself in my few hours of guiltless freedom, had used up almost all my quota of written expression power et cetera

Worth noting that the chapter was dangling about 400 words away from being finished for almost all of last week. All that I actually added yesterday lunchtime — although clearly, it was so taxing as to leave me too enfeebled to blog properly — was a concluding paragraph that questioned the wisdom of reading Boccaccio's Buccolicum Carmen as overwhelmed by the personal presence of Petrarch.

Try saying that with a mouthful of dry Weetabix…

My feelings on the chapter are that — although it is maybe a little top–heavy, with the power of analysis rather dwindling in the second half — it is fundamentally sound and definitely illuminates Petrarch's Bucolicum Carmen in a way that Chapters II–IV do not and cannot. If I can't get it to Andrew before the start of term I hope to supply him with an email attachment for feedback.

Also pleased with having finished in less — alright, only one day less — than three weeks, which I suspect makes it my least sluggish chapter to date. I make it that there are about six weeks until my present library card expires and with almost 29,000 words in the bank, it may not be folly to think I can at least have the components of a Master's thesis together by that time. Mightn't be all corrected, revised, polished and refined but the body of the words themselves could be there.

What I have to smear the remaining 7,000–10,000 words between are; some kind of concluding section [a Conclusion], and my Introduction — both currently embryonic in my thinking; and my final — ironically enough, what will be the first in the final study — chapter, on the Latin eclogues of Dante.

I'm thinking Chapter I will be only half the length at best of the others, as there are only two poems and I may not be able to gather the resources on other medieval ecloguists to really bulk it out. At the moment, I envisage that the chapter will take as its epigraph Boccaccio's comment on all the bucolic writers between Virgil and Petrarch being "obscure and not worth considering" and use Dante's poems to ask whether Petrarch deserves to be thought of as a reviver of the Eclogue.

I have a few days this week where I can bury my nose in the books and set myself thinking about how the chapter will take shape. I'm away this weekend for a wedding and probably moving house next week so I could do with taking advantage of what time I have now, while I still have it.

So anyway. That seems fairly thorough. Can I go now?

August 13, 2006

Sunday, August 13

It appears two weeks have gone by since I last blogged. Very sorry about that.

Finished my chapter this afternoon, anyway. I am reasonably pleased with it.

Anyone wandering types who'd like to read, please email

Only about 7,000 words left to write on the project. Plan to launch into my Dante chapter as soon as possible.

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