Wednesday, May 03, 2006

A dirty ancient man

Match Point, which has just made it to the Rialto theatre down the road, is a Woody Allen film for people who don't like Woody Allen films. The movie's English setting, lack of one liners, and generally understated quality all mark it out as radically different from the likes of Husbands and Wives and Deconstructing Harry. Woody doesn't appear on screen, and the man somehow manages to be conspicuous by his absence, in the same way that Miles Davis could make himself conspicuous by sitting out a track on one of his albums. The movie follows the exploits of a flawed smooth operator as he attempts to ingratiate himself with a particularly enervated section of the English bourgeoisie.

I won't say anything detailed about the plot, for fear of pre-empting the reader's viewing pleasure, but I did want to note that Woody gets it wrong when he has his protagonist, who is a bit of a literary buff - the bloke carries Crime and Punishment (hint!) about with him -
attribute the line 'Best thing of all never to be born' to Sophocles. The words actually belong to Theognis, a Greek poet who lived in the city of Megara in the sixth century BC.

I know it might seem pedantic to point this misattribution out, but Theognis has been my favourite Greek poet ever since I encountered him in high school, and he could have done with a nice little reference in a film that will be watched by millions. When you've been dead for two and a half thousand years you need some occasional free PR to help shift your books. Sophocles, Homer and a handful of other Greek writers may be household names, but Theognis is one of a large number of exceptional ancient scribblers who have been relegated to 'minor' status and seem to be read only by specialists. Theognis' reputation probably hasn't been helped by the fact that his poems mostly deal not with the grand tragic themes we find in The Iliad and Oedipus Rex, but with the delights of sex - sex between men and teenage boys, especially. The piece Woody's anti-hero quotes is, thematically at least, an exception in Theognis' ouevre:

Best thing of all never to be born.
If you are born, then get yourself under the rich black soil,
as quickly as you can.

That's how I remember it from the book of translations I found at school, anyway. I suppose the gloominess of the piece must have resonated with teenage angst and morbdity. More typical of Theognis are the following lines:

Boy, you're like a horse.
Just now sated with seed,
You've come back to my stable,
Yearning for a good rider, fine meadow,
An icy spring, shady groves.

Hmm. Not very PC, is it? Whatever modern mores make of his subject matter, the fact remains that Theognis' poems are still remarkably pithy and witty and, well, true today:

A young wife is no prize for an old man.
She's like a ship whose rudder does not work;
Her anchors never hold. At night she breaks
Her moorings, and drifts to another port.

Those lines can be found on The Dirty Ancients Page, a site devoted to exposing the raunchier side of ancient literature. The site's owner claims that:

Too often, the "uglier" side of ancient literature is overlooked in favor of that which is less offensive. Most of us were introduced to mythology in our early years, read parts of _The Iliad_ or _Oedipus Rex_ in high school, and maybe something of Plato or Seneca in college. Few of us, however, have ever even heard of Hipponax, or Nicarchos-- ancient poets whose topics are not exactly classroom reading material. We are taught the great epic deeds and apocryphal catastrophes recorded by ancient writers. We are left in the dark regarding their more base inclinations, their "nastier" penchants. Ignoring this side of ancient civilizations makes them seem less human, and more like characters in a fable. The purpose of this page is to make available, in one place, early civilizations' more bizarre, debaucherous, and downright disgusting literary works. It is, in a sense, a "banned books" of the ancient world.

Check the dirty old buggers out...


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