Sunday, July 10, 2011


Cynical and Irreverent

Cyril Connolly, The Rock Pool (1936), preface:
For twenty-four hours Christianity became the official religion, but the week-day god whom with the help of the officiating staff we struggled to cultivate was Horace. Since we were mostly engrossed with games and gossip, we did not carry the worship very far, but it was then that we were in the greatest danger. Under the ordinary system of teaching Latin which prevails in our public school it is not possible for an ordinary boy to grasp the meaning of anything he translates. He construes laboriously from word to word and in his fear of missing one of the stepping-stones to which he has to hop, he has no time to consider the beauties of the river. But many of us had no time for the stepping-stones, and so we were tempted to make use of a crib, an 'illegal rendering'. Cribs were of two kinds: pretentious and extremely free translations in verse, to which access was easy, but whose help was negligible; and word-for-word translations published by Kelly and Bohn, which employed such a remote and extraordinary vocabulary that anyone consulting them was still wholesomely far from appreciating the quality of the original. But in my time there appeared another kind of translation. This was the Loeb classical library, which printed a prose version of the Latin beside the original and which won as a prize by one's fagmaster, was available, by unwritten law, for the use of his slaves. From that moment one could no longer (I was now in my tenth year of learning Latin) spend hours over an author without discovering what he was like. And the knowledge was poison. Several of us began to understand what we read, and to find out that we had been learning by heart the mature, ironical, sensual, and irreligious opinions of a middle-aged Roman, one whose chief counsel to youth was to drink and make love to the best of its ability, as these were activities unsuitable to a middle age given over to worldly-wise meditation and good talk. Afterward there remained only an equal oblivion for the virtuous and the wicked in the unconsulted tomb. Once embarked on these discoveries we extended them with passion and soon found out other pagan doctrines even more insolent in the passages which we were taught. Tacitus, Suetonius, Juvenal, Martial, Catullus and even Petronius were among the writers whom the authorities, confident in the immunity which their method of teaching bestowed, included in the curriculum, and we were also able to find a master whose mind was naturally Roman, and who confirmed us in what we had thought. Henceforth the invective of Catullus, the bile of Juvenal, and the aristocratic bawdy of Petronius became the natural food of our imaginations, the words 'cynical and irreverent' began to appear regularly in our reports and, though a romantic period was to follow, the seeds of a philosophy were sown, a philosophy indelibly tinged with materialism, robust, arrogant, sensible, deriving from the natural glamour of 'the smoke and wealth and noise of Rome' where we now had our being, a philosophy not without elevation and melancholy, but unsuitable for the many Sundays which were to follow....
I haven't read or even seen a copy of this book—the text above was reconstructed from Google Books' snippet view. I suspect that "public school" should be "public schools". Connolly's school was Eton.

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