Sunday, December 2, 2007

(November) Post

Ah, although it is in fact December, this is my November post, so I will technically be writing two this month.
Anyway, this month's book was All Quiet on the Western Front, by Erich Maria Remarque. It is set in World War I, and was in fact written between the first and second World Wars. Paul Baumer is a young man enlisted in the German army, experiencing the war front firsthand. Remarque uses his own recollection of the war to paint a grisly picture in which no detail is spared - he is extremely graphic in his descriptions of the death, gore, and violence of trench warfare.

Baumer's company is made up of other young men who were his schoolmates before enlistment, and become his comrades and family. The psychological damage he sustains is heightened by the horrific deaths of his friends, casualties of a war fought for leaders they don't know, and reasons they can't justify. Once, allowed to return home on leave, Baumer realizes how much he has changed. Home seems irrelevant and out of place next to the meadows where people die every day. His father keeps asking him questions about the war, wanting to know what it is like and what is happening, while Baumer simply avoids the questions and waves them away, because it is impossible to describe to someone else. The war and its soldiers inhabit an entirely separate realm, detached from civilian life. The only people who can understand are fellow soldiers.

While Catullus typically writes of love, and his wars are personal, All Quiet on the Western Front could perhaps be related to the "dead brother" poems. They have in common the loss of someone dear, and the pain of death. Baumer loses most of the people close to him and so becomes expectant of death, knowing that one day soon it will be his turn, but is continually struck as each one of his friends fall.

As Baumer's friends are his brothers-in -arms, certain lines of Carmen 101 apply directly:
"Heu miser indigne frater adempte mihi..."
"Oh, sad brother from me unfairly taken..."
"atque in perpetuum, frater, ave atque vale."
"and in eternity, brother, goodbye and farewell."

Like the death of Catullus' brother, the untimely and unfair death of close friends contributes to Baumer's grief and bitterness. The killing of his best friend Kat finally overwhelms Baumer, leaving him detached, hardened, and resigned until his own death a few months later.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Travel Companions

This month, I read A Walk in the Woods, by Bill Bryson. The key friendship here is that between Mr. Bryson and his travel companion, Stephen Katz. Katz is an old high school friend, and ends up being the only one willing to voluntarily hike the Appalachian Trail with Bryson, a huge and serious undertaking. Therefore it is more a friendship of convenience and simple companionship than of depth. Bryson realizes from the start that Katz isn't the companion of choice, but all he's got unless he wants to hike alone with no experience in a wild and potentially dangerous journey. They're a mismatched pair, Bryson a family man with a grand idea, Katz a recovering alcoholic trying to keep his life on track.
Catullus doesn't tell quite the same story, but he has certainly had his share of traveling companions. Carmen 11, suspected of being a combination of two separate poems, has a first half that concentrates on Catullus' friends, Furius and Aurelius, and descriptions of distant locations, presumably to which they have traveled together.
"Furi et Aureli comites Catulli,
sive in extremos penetrabit Indos..."
"Furius and Aurelius, companions of Catullus,
whether he will reach into the furthest Indies..."

Although Catullus apparently uses this as a setup to insult Lesbia (tell her a few nasty words), one can assume that Catullus forged a bond with his friends that enables him to tell them this. Traveling can bring people together unintentionally, and as Catullus probably traveled with the same companions several different places, he would have had the opportunity to know his companions well. Especially as Roman travel conditions were vastly inferior compared to modern circumstances, having a travel partner then was also likely a matter of safety. Even Bryson and Katz, not exactly material for best friends, find that their shared experiences on the trail and survival of hardships lead to a bond of friendship and understanding that little else could have created.
On a more personal note, I know very well from experience how traveling can bring people together. Dealing with unfortunate circumstances is a matter of life, but becomes easier when one has someone else to depend on for support and empathy. While I imagine the Roman dangers of the road still outrank being without a change of clothes, the common street pickpockets in modern day Italy are probably about the same.
Thankfully, French airports did not exist in Catullus' time.

Friday, September 7, 2007

The little ship leaves port

Hear ye, hear ye. This blog shalt focus on the different kinds of companionship portrayed in Catullus' poetry. Yea verily. Nimirum.
I would like to examine the various types of human relationships documented by Catullus with those in modern society. I plan to concentrate especially on friendships and the bonds established between friends and acquaintances, deep or shallow, short or long term, and for a variety of purposes. Although I am addressing a broader theme rather than an individual poem, I imagine Carmen 109 will show up in at least one instance.
My standard for modern comparison will be based on current literature. Therefore, I shall read a book every month and analyze personal relationships across the Roman-American culture gap.

Vale, amici.