Horace Odes 1.11 in Three Languages

Fortunetelling Cards

Fortunetelling Cards

ENGLISH (Literal Translation)

Don’t ask—it’s forbidden to know—what final fate the gods have given to me and you, Leuconoe, and don’t consult Babylonian horoscopes. How much better it is to accept whatever shall be, whether Jupiter has given many more winters or whether this is the last one, which now breaks the force of the Tuscan sea against the facing cliffs. Be wise, strain the wine, and trim distant hope within short limits. While we’re talking, grudging time will already have fled: seize the day, trusting as little as possible in tomorrow.

LATIN (Original)

Tu ne quaesieris, scire nefas, quem mihi, quem tibi
finem di dederint, Leuconoe, nec Babylonios
temptaris numeros. ut melius, quicquid erit, pati,
seu pluris hiemes seu tribuit Iuppiter ultimam,
quae nunc oppositis debilitat pumicibus mare
Tyrrhenum: sapias, vina liques, et spatio brevi
spem longam reseces. dum loquimur, fugerit invida
aetas: carpe diem, quam minimum credula postero.


Ne’er fash your thumb what gods decree
To be the weird o’ you or me,
Nor deal in cantrip’s kittle cunning
To speir how fast your days are running;
But patient lippen for the best,
Nor be in dowie thought opprest.
Whether we see mair winter’s come,
Than this that spits wi’ canker’d foam.
Now moisten weel your geyzen’d wa’s
Wi’ couthy friends and hearty blaws;
Ne’er let your hope o’ergang your days,
For eild and thraldom never stays;
The day looks gash, toot aff your horn,
Nor care ae strae about the morn.

ae: one, a single
blaws: blows (back-slappings?)
canker’d: gusty, stormy
cantrip: magic
couthy: agreeable, sociable
dowie: sad, melancholy
eild: age, time of life
fash: trouble, bother, fret (fash your thumb = care a rap)
gash: pale, dismal
geyzen’d: dried out
kittle: tricky
lippen: trust, have confidence
morn: tomorrow
speir: ask
strae: straw
wa’s: ? The context requires something like weasand (Scots weason) = throat, but the only definitions I can find for wa’s are walls and ways, from which I can extract no satisfactory sense. Or could it be waes = woes?
weird: fate, destiny

She Could Be Someone’s Mummy

Hellenistic Mummy Burial Mask of a Young Woman

Hellenistic Mummy Burial Mask of a Woman

Rather than joining the throngs at the shopping centers for Black Friday, Martine and I visited the Getty Villa in Malibu. Not to be confused with the Getty Center off the San Diego Freeway, the Getty Villa is primarily a museum of the ancient world, concentrating on Greece and Rome.

The big draw today, however, was the Cyrus Cylinder, a cuneiform clay cylinder distributed by the Emperor Cyrus in 539 B.C. upon the occasion of the conquest of Babylon. The museum was crowded with Persian families visiting one of the most important historical milestones in their country’s history. The cylinder is shown below:

Cyrus Cylinder

Cyrus Cylinder

We tend to ignore ancient history because, well, it’s “ancient history.” What we don’t take into account is the often startling realism of portraiture, particularly by the Romans and Hellenistic Greeks. Shown at the top is a painted fabric mask applied to a mummy of a woman who died around the Fourth Century A.D. Several of the exhibit halls are filled with uncomplimentary busts of Roman emperors and commoners. One classic example is a somewhat sinister bust of Caligula, and another of a bearded old man. Roman coins, for example, make no attempt to “photoshop” their emperors with a more beautiful or imposing face. Being realists, the Romans wanted the plebs to know what their leaders really looked like.

Because we get four days off for Thanksgiving Weekend, I have usually made a reservation at the Villa for the day after Thanksgiving. Unfortunately, the idea seems to have caught on. Especially toward the end of the afternoon, the place was jammed. No matter, there is a serenity about art that has lasted for two thousand odd years. Will ours be venerated two thousand years from now? I think not.


No matter, we had a great time strolling through the

“No More Than Weeds or Chaff”

Winter Landscape by Sesshu Toyo

Winter Landscape by Sesshu Toyo

Years ago, at the opening of Dartmouth College’s Hopkins Center, I saw an exhibit of Sesshu Toyo’s Long Scroll and fell in love with it and with the Chinese landscape artists it was imitating. That was the beginning of my fascination with old Chinese landscapes and poetry.

The following lines by Fu Xuan (A.D. 217-278) are as good as the best:

A gentle wind fans the calm night:
A bright moon shines on the high tower.
A voice whispers, but no one answers when I call:
A shadow stirs, but no one comes when I beckon,
The kitchen-man brings in a dish of lentils:
Wine is there, but I do not fill my cup.
Contentment with poverty is Fortune’s best gift:
Riches and Honour are the handmaids of Disaster.
Though gold and gems by the world are sought and prized,
To me they seem no more than weeds or chaff.

Perhaps this Thanksgiving, we should be like the narrator of this poem. Living in the midst of abundance, perhaps we do not need to fill our glass with wine. As the poet says, “Contentment with poverty is Fortune’s best gift.” There is something to that. Today, and always, enjoy your dish of lentils.

The Long Exhale

Yes, It’s All About My Nose

Yes, It’s All About My Nose

No, that’s not my nose: It looks too young. The picture is of a hijacked schnozzola. Today I’m channeling the great Eighteenth Century Scottish novelist Tobias Smollett. “Smelfungus” is the nickname that Laurence Sterne gave to Smollett after his grumbling descriptions in Travels Through France and Italy. Even more memorable, to my mind, are some of his descriptions in The Expedition of Humphry Clinker. Here, hero Matt Bramble describes a discussion about the health-giving waters at Bath:

I was t’other day much diverted with a conversation that passed in the Pump-room, betwixt him and the famous Dr L—n, who is come to ply at the Well for patients. My uncle was complaining of the stink, occasioned by the vast quantity of mud and slime which the river leaves at low ebb under the windows of the Pumproom. He observed, that the exhalations arising from such a nuisance, could not but be prejudicial to the weak lungs of many consumptive patients, who came to drink the water. The Doctor overhearing this remark, made up to him, and assured him he was mistaken. He said, people in general were so misled by vulgar prejudices that philosophy was hardly sufficient to undeceive them. Then humming thrice, he assumed a most ridiculous solemnity of aspect, and entered into a learned investigation of the nature of stink. He observed, that stink, or stench, meant no more than a strong impression on the olfactory nerves; and might be applied to substances of the most opposite qualities; that in the Dutch language, stinken signifies the most agreeable perfume, as well as the most fetid odour, as appears in Van Vloudel’s translation of Horace, in that beautiful ode, Quis multa gracilis, &c.—The words fiquidis perfusus odoribus, he translates van civet & moschata gestinken: that individuals differed toto coelo in their opinion of smells, which, indeed, was altogether as arbitrary as the opinion of beauty; that the French were pleased with the putrid effluvia of animal food; and so were the Hottentots in Africa, and the Savages in Greenland; and that the Negroes on the coast of Senegal would not touch fish till it was rotten; strong presumptions in favour of what is generally called stink, as those nations are in a state of nature, undebauched by luxury, unseduced by whim and caprice: that he had reason to believe the stercoraceous flavour, condemned by prejudice as a stink, was, in fact, most agreeable to the organs of smelling; for, that every person who pretended to nauseate the smell of another’s excretions, snuffed up his own with particular complacency; for the truth of which he appealed to all the ladies and gentlemen then present: he said, the inhabitants of Madrid and Edinburgh found particular satisfaction in breathing their own atmosphere, which was always impregnated with stercoraceous effluvia: that the learned Dr B—, in his treatise on the Four Digestions, explains in what manner the volatile effluvia from the intestines stimulate and promote the operations of the animal economy: he affirmed, the last Grand Duke of Tuscany, of the Medicis family, who refined upon sensuality with the spirit of a philosopher, was so delighted with that odour, that he caused the essence of ordure to be extracted, and used it as the most delicious perfume: that he himself (the doctor) when he happened to be low-spirited, or fatigued with business, found immediate relief and uncommon satisfaction from hanging over the stale contents of a close-stool, while his servant stirred it about under his nose; nor was this effect to be wondered at, when we consider that this substance abounds with the self-same volatile salts that are so greedily smelled to by the most delicate invalids, after they have been extracted and sublimed by the chemists.—By this time the company began to hold their noses; but the doctor, without taking the least notice of this signal, proceeded to shew, that many fetid substances were not only agreeable but salutary; such as assa foetida, and other medicinal gums, resins, roots, and vegetables, over and above burnt feathers, tan-pits, candle-snuffs, &c. In short, he used many learned arguments to persuade his audience out of their senses; and from stench made a transition to filth, which he affirmed was also a mistaken idea, in as much as objects so called, were no other than certain modifications of matter, consisting of the same principles that enter into the composition of all created essences, whatever they may be: that in the filthiest production of nature, a philosopher considered nothing but the earth, water, salt and air, of which it was compounded; that, for his own part, he had no more objections to drinking the dirtiest ditch-water, than he had to a glass of water from the Hot Well, provided he was assured there was nothing poisonous in the concrete. Then addressing himself to my uncle, ‘Sir (said he) you seem to be of a dropsical habit, and probably will soon have a confirmed ascites: if I should be present when you are tapped, I will give you a convincing proof of what I assert, by drinking without hesitation the water that comes out of your abdomen.’—The ladies made wry faces at this declaration, and my uncle, changing colour, told him he did not desire any such proof of his philosophy: ‘But I should be glad to know (said he) what makes you think I am of a dropsical habit?’ ‘Sir, I beg pardon (replied the Doctor) I perceive your ancles are swelled, and you seem to have the facies leucophlegmatica. Perhaps, indeed, your disorder may be oedematous, or gouty, or it may be the lues venerea: If you have any reason to flatter yourself it is this last, sir, I will undertake to cure you with three small pills, even if the disease should have attained its utmost inveteracy. Sir, it is an arcanum, which I have discovered, and prepared with infinite labour.—Sir, I have lately cured a woman in Bristol—a common prostitute, sir, who had got all the worst symptoms of the disorder; such as nodi, tophi, and gummata, verruca, cristoe Galli, and a serpiginous eruption, or rather a pocky itch all over her body. By the time she had taken the second pill, sir, by Heaven! she was as smooth as my hand, and the third made her sound and as fresh as a new born infant.’ ‘Sir (cried my uncle peevishly) I have no reason to flatter myself that my disorder comes within the efficacy of your nostrum. But this patient you talk of may not be so sound at bottom as you imagine.’ ‘I can’t possibly be mistaken (rejoined the philosopher) for I have had communication with her three times—I always ascertain my cures in that manner.’ At this remark, all the ladies retired to another corner of the room, and some of them began to spit.—As to my uncle, though he was ruffled at first by the doctor’s saying he was dropsical, he could not help smiling at this ridiculous confession and, I suppose, with a view to punish this original, told him there was a wart upon his nose, that looked a little suspicious. ‘I don’t pretend to be a judge of those matters (said he) but I understand that warts are often produced by the distemper; and that one upon your nose seems to have taken possession of the very keystone of the bridge, which I hope is in no danger of falling.’ L—n seemed a little confounded at this remark, and assured him it was nothing but a common excrescence of the cuticula, but that the bones were all sound below; for the truth of this assertion he appealed to the touch, desiring he would feel the part. My uncle said it was a matter of such delicacy to meddle with a gentleman’s nose, that he declined the office—upon which, the Doctor turning to me, intreated me to do him that favour. I complied with his request, and handled it so roughly, that he sneezed, and the tears ran down his cheeks, to the no small entertainment of the company, and particularly of my uncle, who burst out a-laughing for the first time since I have been with him; and took notice, that the part seemed to be very tender. ‘Sir (cried the Doctor) it is naturally a tender part; but to remove all possibility of doubt, I will take off the wart this very night.’

There is no chance that I can outdo Smollett on this score, but I’ll do my best. Ever since Ronald Reagan’s “Mo[u]rning in America,” the streets of Los Angeles have become crowded with mentally unbalanced homeless. There’s one such of indeterminate age who occupies a bus bench on Westwood Boulevard and builds a fort around himself consisting of silverfish-laden old cushions and shopping carts filled with various items of detritus. As he has not bathed since the 1980s, he is surrounded by a pungent cloud of indeterminate size. Usually, I can avoid inhaling within thirty feet of him; but today I got a whiff of him after I ended a long exhale while passing him. Fifty-sixty feet! Yechhh! Yes, I feel sorry for him: I just don’t particularly feel like breathing in his vicinity.

I don’t know if there is any cause/effect relationship, but I got a nosebleed after lunch while blowing my nose. The onset of winter weather in Los Angeles means that the air is getting much drier. That, plus possibly the bum-effluvia, made me blow a capillary.

With luck, there will be no more nose news this week, except perhaps for the smell of turkey and all the fixings tomorrow.

Have a Happy Thanksgiving!


Text: Pope Francis Speaks Out

Pope Francis

Pope Francis

In this context, some people continue to defend trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world. This opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naïve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system. Meanwhile, the excluded are still waiting. To sustain a lifestyle which excludes others, or to sustain enthusiasm for that selfish ideal, a globalization of indifference has developed. Almost without being aware of it, we end up being incapable of feeling compassion at the outcry of the poor, weeping for other people’s pain, and feeling a need to help them, as though all this were someone else’s responsibility and not our own. The culture of prosperity deadens us; we are thrilled if the market offers us something new to purchase; and in the meantime all those lives stunted for lack of opportunity seem a mere spectacle; they fail to move us.—Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium

Where on Earth Is Frisland?

It Looks As If It Is South of Iceland

It Looks As If It Is South of Iceland

Until late in the Sixteenth Century, maps of Europe had a largish island called Frisland (also called Frischlant, Friesland, Frislandia, or Fixland) situated south of Iceland. It is thought that an Italian mapmaker named Nicolo Zeno was first responsible for the placement of the imaginary island on his charts in 1558. Then, in 1573, the Fleming Abraham Ortelius picked it up for his maps, followed by Gerard Mercator (he of the projection) of Duisburg. In 1576, Martin Frobischer thought he was in Frisland when, actually, he had overshot it and found himself in Greenland.

I am indebted to Benedikt Jóhannesson of the Iceland Review for turning me on to this existence of this cartographic canard. I remember standing on the farthest southern point of the Westmann Islands in Iceland and looking south. I saw quite a few small, rather volcanic rocks to the south—but nothing as large as Frisland is represented to be. Perhaps it’s the original Fantasy Island.

Curiously, this part of the ocean lies along the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. There have been volcanic islands that arose from the bottom of the sea, only to subside or be eroded away after the eruption that created them spent its fury. Perhaps someone reported some such island—though no way that large—and some mapmakers picked it up and embellished it a bit. A good example of such an island is Ferdinandea, between Sicily and Tunisia, which appeared and disappeared several times. It lasted long enough for several countries in the Nineteenth Century to dispute its ownership.

Heisenberg at Dealey Plaza

The Elusive Umbrella Man

The Elusive Umbrella Man

After the rain of the day before, November 22, 1963 dawned bright with nary a cloud in the sky. It was a fateful day for America, as John F. Kennedy was about to take a bullet in the neck from a known or perhaps an unknown assassin. In the footage of the event, not only from Zapruder but from a whole pack of bystanders, there is a single man in the crowd holding aloft an umbrella. The so-called “Umbrella Man” has become one of the mysteries of that day. So mysterious that documentary filmmaker Errol Morris made a fascinating six-minute film on the subject which you can see by clicking below:

It is worth seeing this video, because, in my opinion, it is about one of the great mysteries of life. Author John Updike foresaw this when the wrote the following lines in The New Yorker in December 1967:

We wonder whether a genuine mystery is being concealed here or whether any similar scrutiny of a minute section of time and space would yield similar strangenesses—gaps, inconsistencies, warps, and bubbles in the surface of circumstance. Perhaps, as with the elements of matter, investigation passes a threshold of common sense and enters a sub-atomic realm where laws are mocked, where persons have the life-span of beta particles and the transparency of neutrinos, and where a rough kind of averaging out must substitute for absolute truth. The truth about those seconds in Dallas is especially elusive; the search for it seems to demonstrate how perilously empiricism verges on magic.

Errol Morris and his interviewee, Josiah “Tink” Thompson, understood this implicitly when they made the film. They even found the mysterious umbrella man and talked to him. It turns out his umbrella was a silent protest against John F. Kennedy’s father, Joseph, who was U.S. Ambassador at the Court of St. James in England. It seems the umbrella man thought him a Nazi appeaser. But that didn’t keep the rumor mills from spinning on.

Today there are a number of assertions believed by a great number of people that Barack Obama was a Muslim born in Kenya and who attended a madrassa in Indonesia, that the Second Amendment allows Americans to carry high powered military rifles, that Jesus taught us that people of the LGBT persuasion should be persecuted, and that abortion-mad Chinese feast on human fetuses.

Even when proofs and evidence are produced, people will still hold on to their beliefs. They have been told these things by people whom they trust, and who are you to shake their world?

Text: “A Human Being by Definition Only”

Walker Evans Photo

Walker Evans Photo

A civilization which for any reason puts a human life at a disadvantage; or a civilization which can exist only by putting human life at a disadvantage; is worthy neither of the name nor of continuance. And a human being whose life is nurtured in an advantage which has accrued from the disadvantage of other human beings, and who prefers that this should remain as it is, is a human being by definition only, having much more in common with the bedbug, the tapeworm, the cancer, and the scavengers of the deep sea.—James Agee, Cotton Tenants: Three Families

Ginza West

Christmas Tree at Japanese Village Shopping Center

Christmas Tree at Japanese Village Plaza

Before ascending the foothills to visit my friend Bill Korn in his Altadena mountain fastness, Martine and I stopped in Little Tokyo for lunch. As usual, we ate at the Suehiro Cafe on First Street. Both of us had bento box lunches (the Okonomi Plate) with miso soup and a choice of optional mains and sides as shown on the menu. Then we walked over to the Kinokuniya Bookstore on Weller Court where—miraculously—I didn’t buy any books or samurai films on DVD. Then, we went over to the Yamazaki Bakery at the Japanese Village Plaza. As a diabetic, I was only able to watch as Martine bought some tiramisu for herself and strawberry cream puffs for Bill and Kathy Korn.

Had we the time and inclination, we could also have visited several other adjacent Japanese shopping centers, two Buddhist temples, dozens of gift shops and food stores, and the Japanese-American National Museum. There is also the Japanese American Cultural & Community Center, where one delirious day I once saw four consecutive Raizo Ichikawa films, including one of the now hard-to-see Kyoshiro Nemuri samurai films directed by Kazuho Ikehiro.

Immersing ourselves in another culture is one of the most fun things to do in Los Angeles. My interest in the Southern California Japanese began early, in 1967, when I lived in a little Japanese neighborhood off Sawtelle Boulevard in West Los Angeles. Around the same time, I started going by bus to the Toho La Brea Theater to see Hiroshi Inagaki’s Samurai trilogy and all the latest films from Akira Kurosawa. As I made more friends in the film department at UCLA, I discovered four other Japanese cinemas in the area: the Kokusai and Sho Tokyo (both running films exclusively from Daiei Studios), the Kabuki (Shochiku Studios), and the Linda Lea (Tohei). We used to eat at the old Ichiban Cafe at the corner of First Street and San Pedro Street.

Japanese Magazines at the Kinokuniya Bookstore

Japanese Magazines at the Kinokuniya Bookstore

There are a number of other ethnic neighborhood concentrations in Southern California. The largest are probably the Mexican neighborhood in “East Los” (East Los Angeles) and Boyle Heights; the sprawling Koreatown along Olympic Boulevard as it approaches downtown; and Little Saigon in Orange County. Then there are the Central Americans in Pico-Union, the Armenians in Glendale, and the Russians in Hollywood and West Hollywood. And those are just the ones I’ve visited!

For Love of a Tree

Fanning Her Insomnia with Dreams

Fanning Her Insomnia with Dreams

Poems written in other languages have a difficult passage to get to English. In the end, what we see is a mere simulacrum of the original. Still, the greatness of a poem will out. If a poem was originally written in French, Spanish, or Hungarian, I can get more of a feeling for the original; but what of the poems of the great Anna Akhmatova (1889-1966), which were written in Russian? I have approached several of her translated works and loved them, or else loved the pale reflections they cast in English, such as this one:


In the young century’s cool nursery,
In its checkered silence, I was born.
Sweet to me was not the voice of man,
But the wind’s voice was understood by me.
The burdocks and the nettles fed my soul,
But I loved the silver willow best of all.
And, grateful for my love, it lived
All its life with me, and with its weeping
Branches fanned my insomnia with dreams. But
—Surprisingly enough!—I have outlived
It. Now, a stump’s out there. Under these skies,
Under these skies of ours, are other
Willows, and their alien voices rise.
And I am silent … As though I’d lost a brother.

(Translated by D. M. Thomas)

The poem becomes clearer when you understand what its author endured through her long life. I quote one paragraph from the Wikipedia entry on her:

Primary sources of information about Akhmatova’s life are relatively scant, as war, revolution and the totalitarian regime caused much of the written record to be destroyed. For long periods she was in official disfavour and many of those who were close to her died in the aftermath of the revolution. Akhmatova’s first husband, Nikolai Gumilev was executed by the Soviet secret police, and her son Lev Gumilev and her common-law husband Nikolay Punin spent many years in the Gulag, where Punin died.

Perhaps if an ogre like Stalin could take everyone you ever loved away from you, then perhaps your soul will be fed by “the burdocks and the nettles.”