Latin Stacks . . .

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A large reference library such as the central library here in Toronto has open shelves, accessible to the public, but the bulk of its collection (a big bulk too) is in closed stacks, the storage area. Only the librarians go there, and the pages who fetch items for which someone has filled out a stack slip.

The stacks are the deep memory of the library. Books stay on the shelves, waiting, sometimes for decades. Here are volumes of unfashionable history, here are the novelists popular in the thirties, including the dusty old books we mentioned a few months ago, and trade statistics for New Zealand. The floors are tile; the lighting is utilitarian. It is very quiet.

Stacks 5M, top floor, is given over to languages. In one alcove is the library’s collection of American Indian Languages, once a draw from all over North American, now rather neglected. This is a pity, by the way. Churchill once remarked that no one had really been to war until he had fought the Germans. Nobody can call himself a linguist before engaging seriously with an AIL such as Cree or Navaho. It fosters humility.

In the very opposite alcove of the same floor is the library’s Latin collection, which the writer was assigned to review recently. Hardly any pages come in this direction. One can find a cane chair near the elevator, bring it over to the Latin material, and leave it there by the wall with the assurance it will still be there in a week, or a month.

Our Latin collection is not extensive, perhaps 20 shelves altogether. We have much, much more French and many times more Hindi. It is not a patch on the collection at Robarts library, University of Toronto, which probably means a good deal.

Anyhow, the books we do have are interesting visually. There are large dark brown volumes bound in leather, with flaking gold lettering. There is an extensive middle range of books in flat green, brown or blue buckram, like a large congregation of Presbyterians. One of these is a concordance of Ovid that is eight inches thick. If it has ever been used, it will not be used again—such tools are on-line. The line of buckram is interrupted occasionally by sombre red rows of Loeb classics—the newer ones wrapped in plastic, the older ones with covers faded to pink. And, among the rest of the books, are here and there more cheerful items, or items meant to be more cheerful: trade paperbacks with shiny plastic covers.

This surface variation represents a range of time, from the mid 1800’s through the present. Of course, any established collection of books, a reference collection on veterinarian medicine for instance, will also mirror the history of the subject, but the point is particularly acute in the case of Latin.

Latin studies has always been as much about maintaining the tradition of Latin studies as it has been about its proper subject. Horace is a good poet, but as good as he is, the most important reasons we send (or sent) little Freddy off to Latin class was not Horace himself but the fact that great-grandfather studied Horace, and grandfather, and father, and we had to do it and by the powers the little so-and-so will not escape. Latin used to be a tradition, like the church or the army.

This is reflected in a subtheme running through the collection: Latin textbooks.

Item: Introduction to teaching of ancient languages, by L. Saveur (1879)

Item: Primary Latin Book, by J.G. Roberton (1892). “Authorized by the Educational Department of Ontario.” There is a note on a blank page inside concerning accents, written in a formal but rather shaky cursive.

Item: Bradley’s Arnold Prose Composition. Pale orange cover. A name of fear to your columnist’s generation, and to that of his parents. This book has sepia pictures of base-reliefs on the cover. A picture on the cover? We are making concessions, aren’t we? By the way, there is a pdf copy of the 2005 edition available on the web.

Item: Cicero’s Verrine V, edited by R.G.G. Levens (1946). “With Vocabulary.” There used to be money in classical textbooks.

Item: Lingua Latina Series (1983). A set of thin plastic bound texts with lots and lots of pictures. Has the air of an unpopular man trying to make jokes at a party.

Oddly enough, for an Ontario collection there is no copy of the standard textbook of the sixties, the one we used ourselves, Living Latin (It’s alive, I tell you, alive! ALIVE!) .

The textbooks mark the progress of Latin studies from an Assumption, to an Option (he’ll need it for medical school) to an Eccentricity. And that, of course, is an epiphenomenon of the well known cultural shrinkage we have undergone over the last dozen decades.

“We” here refers first to Anglo society and more widely to European society in general, and the Hispanic world as well. Actually, on this point we could use more information. Perhaps the readership knows: does everyone in grade 10 Norway still take Latin? Are they drilling them on the ratio obliqua in Mexico City? Certainly, the European branch of society is not alone in this thinning. According to Voegelin, classical studies in China have gone down the tubes. How it stands in the third branch, India, we would be glad to know.

That you cannot now drop a Latin quotation into the flow and expect someone to pick it up is patent. Once, our society, or a good part of it, or a good part of the educated part, the respectable part, had these things in common, and the rest of society (except perhaps members of the IWW) stood around in quiescent admiration. Now that is 100% not the case. But is this change a good thing or a net loss?

It is difficult to say. As a general case, the same limits that give a thing its existence make it partial and vulnerable. This is the existential core of tragedy. The city wall that protects, traps its defenders. The new basketball attack that works today may be analyzed and unlocked tomorrow.

Certainly, that the members of a society, or many of them, should have some cultural references in common, is a large good. The bible used to unite us. Everyone still gets a dose of Shakespeare. The bible, however, is open to sectarianism, and Shakespeare is treated as a modern author (which he is, in a way). Latin has deep time. To share a classical heritage is to gain a sort of three dimensionality. It provides a yardstick for conduct. It deepens personal existence.

On the other hand, what unites our crowd, divides us from others. Even within our own society, familiarity with Latin, the way it used to be, has been used for exclusion and snobbery, leaving us with house divided. You know what happens to a house divided.

On the whole, it is perhaps better as it now is. There is less quoting going on, but interest in history is more intense than ever. And, most importantly, those who do study and read Latin do it because they like it. Which is a point for human liberty. And the tools for language study are much improved and access to texts is free on the Internet. We can now study the Romans without having to pretend unqualified admiration (the Romans seem to have mixed the salient qualities of Sicilians and nineteenth century Prussians. Unpleasant lot, actually.)

To conclude, with your indulgence, on this theme of language and culture:

Our town’s sole immigrant from Potzelvania

Spends Saturdays on a park bench

Studying what he claims is classic verse.

He now and then receives a newsletter

From somewhere in the states. He says: “Is now

No Potzelvania. Good riddance.

To tell you truth, was not very

nice country.

Still, I have hundre’ jokes, a thousan’

Only make sense in Potzelvanian.

In every line our poets write

You can hear echo of imperial boots.

Once you make clever quote you crush

Woman or social climber. Dot was sweet.

-B. Celerant

Max Arnott

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Max Arnott is an independent scholar living in Toronto and has been a reader of Voegelin for many years.