Friday, May 13, 2016


The Great Master of the Prefix

Richard Jenkyns, Virgil's Experience. Nature and History: Times, Names, and Places (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), pp. 216-217:
Lucretius is the great master of the prefix: 'con-', 'dis-', 'in-', 'ex-', 're-', 'per-'—these innocuous syllables come to express the unresting force of atomic movement, the pulls and pushes, the collisions, penetrations, tearings apart.11 Several times he draws the parallel between the infinite number of meanings that can be created from rearranging the alphabet's few letters and the limitless number of diverse objects created by the rearrangement of atoms.12 So the similarities and differences between (for example) such words as 'coniectus', 'eiectus', and 'distractior' do in quite a strong sense mimic the wrenching and jostlings of the elementary particles.12 Moreover, the constant repetition of these prefixes and their very ordinariness convey the ceaseless activity of ordinary matter always and everywhere. The repeated 'con-' in the fourth and fifth lines of the exordium, the very first of the innumerable prefixes that are to flood the De Rerum Natura, marks the modest beginning of a large idea. What is creation, says the Epicurean philosophy, but the coming together of pieces of matter? What is death but their drawing apart? These are simple, natural processes, and therefore not to be feared. 'Con-', 'dis-'—in the simplicity of the syllables lies a moral lesson.

11 Two good examples of the expressive force of prefixes are 4.916-19 and 4.956-61.
12 Lucr. 1.196 f., 823-9, 907-14; 2.686-92, 1013-22. Cf. P. Friedländer, 'Pattern of Sound and Atomistic Theory in Lucretius', AJP 62 (1941), 16-34 (reprinted in C.J. Classen (ed.), Probleme der Lukrezforschung (Hildesheim 1986), 291-307).
13 Lucr. 4.956-61.

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