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The Uncivil Servant (servus incivilitis): discipula latinae

Mitchell Abidor
July 14, 2016

by Mitchell Abidor

Discussed in this essay: Living with a Dead Language, by Ann Patty. Viking, 2016, 244 pages.

abandonANN PATTY had a powerful job in the world of publishing, then she lost it. She left Manhattan, moved to upstate Rhinebeck, and, after a period when she was at sixes and sevens, she decided, as a lover of words, that she was going to learn Latin. “How much better would I understand words, grammar and syntax if I went back to the mother of Western tongues? I could, at long last, complete my education. I could, after all these years, learn what Latinate actually meant.” Living with a Dead Language is her wonderful account of her dedicated and occasionally stumbling attempts to do just that.

She locates a Latin class at Vassar, contacts the professor there, and proceeds to audit. She had futzed around with various projects upon her forced retirement, but now she’d found something she loved: “I loved being a student again. . . . I no longer felt as if I were merely killing my time in worthless pursuits and cul-de-sac mental meanderings.”

Patty’s accounts of working through the declensions are delightful, and her stick-to-itiveness becomes all the more admirable as she describes tenses she must deal with:

“Past contrary to fact (If I had learned Latin in high school, I would have studied Greek now). Present contrary to fact (If I were an A student in Latin, I would be proud). Future less vivid (If I keep studying Latin, I may one day comprehend the language). Future more vivid, which has certainty rather than uncertainty and takes the future simple tense (If I study long enough, I will comprehend this language).”

Or there is this question she posed the professor; “Would Bona placenta est edere (Cake is good to eat) be a proper translation of your example of the epexegetical infinitive?” (At this point let me quote from a Latin-based language: “Lasciate ogni speranza…”)*

THE BOOK is also about sitting in a classroom again; about observing her fellow students and their shifting relationships, foibles and attire; about developing a mild crush on a fellow student; about the off-putting omnipresence of laptops (“Guy, with his laptop ever at the ready to look up a word in class, was just as often surfing the Internet and shopping when it wasn’t his turn to translate. I knew because I sat next to him.”)

Patty strives mightily to read and translate the Latin poets, experiencing the thrill and difficulty of encountering Catullus and Horace in the original and the frustrations of the translator (“No English translation can capture the ghostly mood of sola sub nocte per urbtam.”). She goes to Rome and participates in a Summer Program for Latinists, and, most rewardingly, teaches a Latin class to poor kids from Bushwick while loving every second of it. She also discovers a word that is simply too wonderful not to work into this review: “ultracrepidarian,” which is “one who states opinions above one’s area of expertise.” Brilliant.

The book is not flawless, and I could easily have done without her wanderings into New Age mishegos. Learning Latin was also a way for Patty of dealing with her troubled relations with her mother, and during this period she was learning Latin she was also maneuvering through romantic waters, none of which is merely as interesting as her pursuit of Latin. Still, this is a lovely book, an informative book, a funny and inspiring book.

More than anything, Living with a Dead Language is proof that there is indeed a second act in American lives; that when your job is no longer that which fills your day, you have the liberty –- if you choose to take advantage of it -– to do something you’d never had the time to do, never thought you could do, or never even knew you wanted to do. And it doesn’t matter if it’s in the least bit useful: all that matters is that, like Latin for Ann Patty, it brings you joy.

I picked up the book because it had long been my plan to learn Latin when I retired, and had even looked up universities where I could take classes. I’ve tried to teach myself Latin many times, and I have a pile of teach-yourself books gathering dust to prove it. The language has always defeated me, and having read Living with a Dead Language, I don’t know that attending a class would work for me much better.

I wrote about this to Ann Patty, and she wrote back saying that I shouldn’t allow myself to be beaten.

In any event, this uncivil servant, not long retired from the civil service, no longer has the time for Latin, having developed a second act that has seen me publish several books of translations, with more to come. It’s all, frankly, amazing, and Latin will just have to wait.

That’s the beauty of Ann Patty’s lesson: just as Alain de Botton in his How Proust Can Change Your Life tells us that you don’t need to eat madeleines or live in a cork-lined room to be like Proust, we can all find our own Latin.

The Latin of two friends of mine is taking the subway, getting off at an unfamiliar stop and discovering a part of New York they don’t know.

Another’s Latin was buying a cabin on an island in the Pacific Northwest and finally devoting all his time to painting.

Another’s Latin is failing to compete a biography he started forty-five years ago.

Another friend, who will soon retire, has the hammered dulcimer as her Latin.

I live for the day when my wife retires and we have a shared Latin. The two of us, like a couple out of Bloomsbury say, Leonard and Virginia Woolf, sitting under a tree in our backyard, she with her pencils, sharpener, and pad, drawing, and me, books and dictionaries piled on the table, working at a translation of a 1,000-page biography of Trotsky that five people will read. Et in Arcadia ego.**


* Abandon all hope

** And I am in Arcadia

Mitchell Abidor, our contributing writer, is the recipient of a Hemingway Grant from the French Ministry of Culture for his new translation of Emmanuel Bove’s A Raskolnikoff. His other new books are Voices of the Paris Commune and his collection of writings by and about the anarchist “propagandists of the deed,” Death to Bourgeois Society. His translations of the poetry of Benjamin Fondane can be found in the collection Cinepoems and Others, published by NYRB Poetry.

Mitchell Abidor, a contributing writer to Jewish Currents, is a writer and translator living in Brooklyn. Among his books are a translation of Victor Serge’s Notebooks 1936-1947, May Made Me: An Oral History of My 1968 in France, and I’ll Forget it When I Die, a history of the Bisbee Deportation of 1917. His writings have appeared in The New York Times, Foreign Affairs, Liberties, Dissent, The New York Review of Books, and many other publications.