Archive | March 2015

A snooty word for “snooty”

One blog per month at least, they say, or you might as well chuck it in. I’m struggling with that at the moment, and not, believe me, for want of things I want to write about. But to manage a blog in March 2015 I have four hours and the kids to put to bed, so here goes.

A bit of Horace, I think.

Especially in his lyric poetry, the Odes, Horace was a word artist who can make even Virgil seem ordinary, and you know how hard I find it to admit that. In the first poem of the third book of his Odes, not for the first or last time, he chides people who believe that material comfort is the answer to their problems. In the ninth and tenth stanzas of the poem he focuses in on the rich man building a fancy villa by the sea:

contracta pisces aequora sentiunt
iactis in altum molibus: huc frequens
caementa demittit redemptor
cum famulis dominusque terrae

fastidiosus: sed Timor et Minae
scandunt eodem quo dominus,
neque decedit aerata triremi et
post equitem sedet atra Cura.

Fish feel the shrinking of the water when massive piers
are dropped into the deep. Here come crowding
the master who has wearied of dry land
and the contractor with his slaves throwing in

the building rubble. But Fear and Foreboding
climb as high as the master. Black Care
stays aboard the bronze-plated trireme,
and sits behind the Knight.

No matter how visibly successful you are, commanding a ship, parading through Rome as a Knight, or building a villa that extends out into the sea, you cannot escape the troubles that attend all humanity, high, low and in between.

Horace in the Odes is working on a very small canvass, the miniature metrical schemes he’s borrowed from archaic Greek poets such as Sappho and (here) Alcaeus. His response was to develop a style of poetic expression that a character in Petronius’ Satyricon called curiosa felicitas (118), “meticulous appositeness”, a precision in word selection, word placement, and word combination. At its most brilliant, Horace’s poetry identifies the mot juste, situates that mot juste perfectly, and combines it with another mot juste to intensify poetic felicity to the maximum degree.

So that’s as clear as mud. We need an illustration, and here it’s the three words dominusque terrae// fastidiosus (“and the master who has wearied of dry land”) that in the Latin bridge the two stanzas.

We need to appreciate that these tiny poetic stanzas work rather like individual lines in more expansive metres, in the sense that the stanza is felt to be a unit, and that carries with it an expectation that the end of the stanza will coincide with a sense break (even though it often doesn’t). Here there’s a very marked disruption of the integrity of the stanza, a single expression strung between the two, and the very least that does is delay our apprehension of the complete meaning of the expression, giving special impact to the first word in the second stanza, fastidiosus.

Which we shall contemplate for a spell, for it is the mot juste, perfectly placed, and perfectly combined. Roughly, this word means “bored”, and it governs terrae, “of dry land”, and it describes the dominus, the master of the property, proprietor: “the master bored of dry land”.

But that isn’t to do fastidiosus justice. Fastidium is an aversion to something, to be fastidiosus is to have that aversion, though I refer you to Robert Kaster in TAPhA 2001 for a proper discussion of a word and a Roman emotion that are very fascinating: all my examples comes from Kaster. For now, though, you might feel fastidium if, like Pliny the Elder, you were contemplating having to eat a lizard (Naturalis Historia 30.90), or at the very mention of bedbugs (29.61); or you might prove yourself a very inadequate Roman indeed if you betrayed the fundamental principles of amicitia, “friendship”, by being in aequos et pares fastidiosus, (something like) “contemptuous of your equals” (Rhetorica ad Herennium 4.52).

The man building his house out into the sea is wrong-headed in the same way a Roman being a snob about his fellow Romans, but to an extreme degree. This man is so disconnected from reality and sense that he can’t stomach something as basic as dry land. Terrae fastidiosus is a paradox capturing what Horace would consider a profoundly unhealthy state of mind.

So I think that’s mot juste and combination of mots justes covered. But what about placement? Well, the delayed word fastidiosus captures the extreme perversion of his tastes and priorities, and the impact is the greater for the delay before the killer word fastidiosus is introduced.

But there’s a bit more to say, because by separating the word for “land” and the word for “bored/contemptuous of” between the two stanzas Horace is also visually illustrating the man’s unhealthy thinking on the poetry page. What’s really superb about the placement of fastidiosus is that it makes the word itself look contemptuous of terrae. Fastidium is all about putting space between you and something unappealing: Cicero talks of us being caused by fastidium to back away (abalienemur, de Orat. 3.98) from something. What do we do between stanzas of a poem we’re reading? We pause very momentarily, take a breath: the result is that fastidiosus is separated, unnaturally, from the rest of its expression. Horace has put some oh-so-snooty space between fastidiosus and the land of the previous stanza, and the over-refined decadence of the villa-builder is nailed.

Gotta publish: it’s 11.59.