Sunday, April 04, 2010


Shenstone, Schopenhauer, and Claudius

Dear Mike,

Schopenhauer's penchant for Shenstone (mention actually comes in vol 2 chap. VIII not VII) dates from a London book-buying spree of 1803 when he was fifteen (Patrick Bridgewater: Arthur Schopenhauer's English Schooling p. 352).

'... his humour is sometimes gross, and seldom sprightly' was Dr J's verdict on Shenstone, but Schopenhauer thought little enough of Johnson: 'The man Sterne is worth a 1000 Pedants and commonplace-fellows like Dr. J.', 'as bigoted as an old woman', 'a philistine', 'a vile scribbler', 'an arch-Anglican ass', 'a bigotted priest-ridden narrow-minded fellow'.

The Claudian dispensation forms part of this res gestae as imagined by Zbigniew Herbert (tr. John Carpenter and Bogdana Carpenter):
The Divine Claudius

It was said
I was begotten by Nature
but unfinished
like an abandoned sculpture
a sketch
the damaged fragment of a poem

for years I played the half-wit
idiots live more safely
I calmly put up with insults
if I planted all the stones
thrown into my face
an olive ground would spring up
a vast oasis of palms

I received a many-sided education
Livy the rhetoricians philosophers
I spoke Greek like an Athenian
although Plato I could recall
only in the lying position

I completed my studies
in dock-side taverns and brothels
those unwritten dictionaries of vulgar Latin
bottomless treasuries of crime and lust

after the murder of Caligula
I hid behind a curtain
they dragged me out by force
I didn't manage to adopt an intelligent expression
when they threw at my feet the world
ridiculous and flat

from then on I became the most diligent
emperor in universal history
a Hercules of bureaucracy
I recall with pride
my liberal law
giving permission to let out
sounds of the belly during feasts

I deny the charge of cruelty often made against me
in reality I was only absent-minded

on the day of Messalina's violent murder—
the poor thing was killed I admit on my orders—
I asked during the banquet—Why hasn't Madame come
a deathly silence answered me
really I forgot

sometimes it would happen I invited
the dead to a game of dice
I punished failure to attend with a fine
overburdened with so many labours
I might have made mistakes in details

it seems
I ordered thirty-five senators
and the cavalrymen of some three centurions
to be executed
well what of it
a bit less purple
fewer gold rings
on the other hand—and this isn't a trifle—more room in the theatre

no one wanted to understand
that the goal of these operations was sublime
I longed to make death familiar to people
to dull its edge
bring it down to the banal everyday dimension
of a slight depression or runny nose

and here is the proof
of my delicacy of feeling
I removed the statue of gentle Augustus
from the square of executions
so the sensitive marble
wouldn't hear the roars of the condemned

my nights were devoted to study
I wrote the history of the Etruscans
a history of Carthage
a bagatelle about Saturn
a contribution to the theory of games
and a treatise on the venom of serpents

it was I who saved Ostia
from the invasion of sand
I drained swamps
built aqueducts
since then it has become easier
in Rome to wash away blood

I expanded the frontiers of the empire
by Brittany Mauretania
and if I recall correctly Thrace

my death was caused by my wife Agrippina
and an uncontrollable passion for boletus
mushrooms—the essence of the forest—became the essence of death

descendants—remember with proper respect and honour
at least one merit of the divine Claudius
I added new signs and sounds to our alphabet
expanded the limits of speech that is the limits of freedom

the letters I discovered—beloved daughters—Digamma and Antisigma
led my shadow
as I pursued the path with tottering steps to the dark land of Orkus
Best wishes,
Eric Thomson


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