Define "a Life"...

... still searching for a clear definition of that thing people keep telling me I need to get...

Location: Springfield, PA

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Hunted or Haunted?

I’ve been followed by two quotes in the past week. Yes, followed. It happens. If it’s a song, well, I won’t jump to calling it "following" unless there’ve been several unlikely recurrent encounters. And if the song is for one reason or another air-play likely – a recent release or big hit, say – then the whole idea of it following me is just dismissed out-of-hand. When I run across things as esoteric as these twice inside of the space of a few days, however, I can only conclude that I’m being followed.

One of them is a quote from William Blake and the other is in Latin, for pity’s sake.

First the Latin (although I think it was the initial appearance of the Blake that actually popped up first).

cras amet qui nunquam amavit; quique amavit, cras amet

I did a little online hunting, and found it identified as “the refrain from the 'Pervigilium Veneris', a poem which describes a three day holiday in the cult of Venus, located somewhere in Sicily, involving the whole town in religious festivities joined with a deep sense of nature and Venus as the "procreatrix", the life-giving force behind the natural world.”

The first pop-up came when I was unpacking a box from State College. (Well, it’s not really accurate to say “unpacking,” in as much as I don’t have anyplace to unpack this stuff to, if you see what I mean; I guess it’s actually more a matter of opening a box and going through the contents.) This was one of several boxes of books, musty but welcome. I cannot just look at books and move on. I need to look at the books, sometimes look through them. This made things a little mustier, as I thumbed pages. The box was all paperbacks, standard mass-market things, a mix of entertainment (a couple of Destroyer books – yea!) and literature (Isak Dinesen, F. Scott Fitzgerald) – decide for yourself where E.L. Doctorow falls.

Among them was John Fowles’ The Magus. Now, the odd thing is that the one line from this book that I’ve carried with me since I read it was not the quote that popped up and started following me. That would be the Latin. Nor was it the Blake, which was already on my tail and lying in wait for me here as well. That line I’d held onto, Fowles’ own, a commandment to replace the childish Old Testament Ten, is “Thou shalt not inflict unnecessary pain.” Even years distant and pulled from the context of the book, it sticks with me as a sort of truth in the imperative tense.

The Latin is a sort of a postscript to Fowles’ novel, two lines hovering unattributed below the last words of his prose. Unattributed, and untranslated.

cras amet qui nunquam amavit
quique amavit, cras amet

Below it on the page in my paperback is my own translation, probably done sans reference with my even-then rusty Latin:

Let he who has never loved, love
and he who loves will tomorrow love

Obviously, I was having some trouble with the tenses in that second bit.

A day or two later, the same thing showed up in the daily quotes e-mail I’d signed up for a couple of weeks earlier. I have to say I prefer my version of the first line, although it’s not specific about the “tomorrow” time frame, but their translation is certainly a good deal clearer about the second bit:

“May he love tomorrow who has never loved before; and may he who has loved, love tomorrow as well”

You must admit that the appearance of something like this twice in a few days’ time is pretty odd in its own right, never mind the ways its meanings might apply to my mood and life of late. Pretty damned odd. Wanna knock it up a notch? Grab your literary Spice Weasel and follow me…

Back on May 5, Terry Gross interviewed writer/publisher Charles Ardai, founder of the Hard Case Crime publishing group, on Fresh Air. I don’t think I heard the episode when it first broadcast; I think I heard it sometime the following weekend while driving out to work; that was when the Blake quote first appeared. How the Hell does William Blake get into an NPR interview about the preservation and revival of pulp crime novels? Good question. Ardai was a literature major in college, and was particularly drawn to the English Romantic poets as an undergraduate. (It is, not surprisingly, very easy for an individual of a certain slant to be greatly drawn to the Romantics as an undergraduate. I’ll willingly attest to that, as will the markings and marginalia in a certain section of my Norton Anthology Vol.II if I ever find it again.) The protagonist of the two novels Ardai has written himself is named after Blake; the books’ titles are taken from Blake; most of the chapters start with a quote from a Blake poem. One of the examples Terry Gross pointed to was this line from Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell:

“Sooner murder an infant in its cradle than nurse unacted desires.”

Flash forward a couple of days. I’m flipping through that paperback of The Magus, looking at passages I’d underlined years ago. Perhaps I was looking for that commandment. I can’t really say with certainty. But what do I come across? A passage that references our line from Blake. “Sooner murder an infant in its cradle than nurse unacted desires.” Underlined, by me, years ago. So I’m pretty definitely being followed by that line of Blake. How abso-fucking-lutely unlikely is it that something like that – Hell, that any Blake quote, never mind one that’s not among the most common – should show up in two such disparate places in the space of a few days? Seriously. But this? This line that slices cleanly through the meat and scrapes along the bone as though carving some accusatory scrimshaw in the pallor of my own ossified passions. This unflinching summary of the lost half of my life. This condemnation of all my unacted desires – not of my desires themselves, but of me in my having effectively repudiated them in never having acted on them. This line of Blake? What am I supposed to do with this?

More – elsewhere in that same paragraph, double-underlined by my hand:
“Despair is a disease.”

Don’t I know it.

The thing is, I have no way of knowing whether these two stalking quotes are working together or individually. I’d prefer to think they’re both agents of the same agency. Maybe they’re just doing the good-cop–bad-cop thing. I really can’t help looking for meaning, because this all speaks – screams – so loudly and emphatically to my soul at the present time. “Let he who has never loved, love…”

One last fragment to toe over as we wander these ruins, this one not stalking, nor stumbled upon, but sought after and found. Auden, way out of context, from “Anthem for St. Cecilia’s Day” -- Weep for the lives your wishes never led.

cras amet qui nunquam amavit


Blogger Brian R Tarnoff said...

"Plate of Shrimp"

Sorry, not to be any more flip (than my tendencies steer me), but the dodgy latin translation you found in the last instance reminded me of the old chestnut:

"Blow job at night -- sailor's delight!
Blow job at morning -- still pretty good!"

3:06 AM  
Blogger Rob S. said...

I've always loved that Blake quote. For me, it's all about prioritizing. There's plenty of time to nurse unacted desires later, but these babies aren't gonna strangle themselves!

Thanks for the heads-up on the Adair interview, btw... I love the Hard Case books!

10:25 AM  

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