Tuesday, September 01, 2020


I Fell in Love with Caesar

Mary McCarthy, Memories of a Catholic Girlhood (1957; rpt. San Diego: Harcourt, Inc., n.d.), p. 154:
Not having started Latin until the year before, I was tutoring with Miss Gowrie in Caesar to meet college requirements and at the same time taking Cicero in classwork. The very first day, as we sat at her desk with the Commentaries between us and learned the divisions of Gaul, the fantastic thing occurred: I fell in love with Caesar! The sensation was utterly confounding. All my previous crushes had been products of my will, constructs of my personal convention, or projections of myself, the way Catiline was. This came from without and seized me; there was nothing that could have warned me that Caesar would be like this.

Probably it might have happened with another—with Thucydides, say, if Greek had been offered at Annie Wright. I can experience today the same inner trembling when I read, "Thucydides of Athens has written the history of the war between the Peloponnesians and the Athenians." But, as it came about, the first piercing contact with an impersonal reality happened to me through Caesar, just, laconic, severe, magnanimous, detached—the bald instrument of empire who wrote not "I" but "Caesar." The very grammar was beatified for me by the objective temperament that ordered it, so much so that today I cannot see an ablative absolute or a passage of indirect discourse without happy tears springing to my eyes. Classicist friends laugh when I say that Caesar is a great stylist, but I think so. I know the Gallic War is regarded by historians as simply a campaign document, but in my heart I do not believe it. The idea that critics exist who pretend to tell you, at a distance of two thousand years, what "really" happened at Gergovia or in Britain fills me with Olympian mirth. For me, Caesar's word is sufficient; he did not palliate his cruelties or stain the names of his opponents.

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