It started in the Midwest.
I grew up in Iowa City, a hip university town. I wish I could live in a university town: Iowa City, Madison, Bloomington, Ann Arbor, it hardly matters, since they are all nicknamed “the Athens of the Midwest.”
In some ways, Athens saved me. That is, fifth-century Athens.
The Athens of the Midwest failed me for a year and a half.
I was happy growing up in Iowa City. Then, in my teens, my idyllic life crumbled when my parents divorced. My irresponsible father, who was my guardian, left town to live with his girlfriend. Now that was a good call. And so I became the live-in concubine of a lesbian English teacher (fortunately not my English teacher). It all started innocently, as far as I was concerned. She invited me out for coffee repeatedly, and lent me her copy of Anne Sexton’s poems. Then she got hysterical over the phone about Sexton. Oh, her notes in the margins would tell me she was a lesbian, she wept, and she didn’t know how I’d feel about it. I politely said it didn’t matter, and it didn’t, since I had no intention of reading Sexton.
Nonetheless, I ended up living with her. Having a place to live was a big part of my decision. (I had been staying with some benevolent hippies, in a back room without a door.) A room with a door had its appeal, and lesbian feminism was not only fashionable but attention-getting. But it was dull, and I only dared tell a few of my most radical friends, because she was in her thirties and stressed I was a minor and she could go to jail, plus it was still taboo to be gay.
All right, I was extremely bored. We had nothing in common, the sex was terrible, and I wasn’t even gay. She never read a book, liked to shop at K-Mart (so unhip!), and listened to Melanie (Lay Down Candles in the Rain).
I was unhappy. I did not see how life could go on like that. And it didn’t. I got away a few years later and had lots of books and boyfriends. And what else does a person need?
But it is no exaggeration to say my discovery of classics in college saved me. The beauty of ancient languages, the enjoyable memorization of paradigms, the fascinating vocabulary, hours with lexicons and grammars, and the joy of translation gave my life a much-needed structure.
I started with Greek, though everyone said I should start with Latin. Baffled by Lattimore’s Homer—how could anyone take his prosy epic seriously?—I wanted to read the Iliad in the original. Soon I was spending hours with Homer, Lysias, Euripides, Sophocles, Aeschylus, the Greek lyric poets, Plato. And I also studied Latin, a cognate language of Greek, and was unprepared for the wit and vivacity, because it is a literature that does not translate well into English. And yet it always felt familiar to me, and I came to love it more than Greek. It is the literature that influenced the Western canon.
My literal translation:
I hate and I love. You may ask why I do so.
I don not know, but I feel it and I am tortured.
Here is Horace Gregory’s four-line translation, which is also fairly literal and much more elegant.
I HATE and love.
And if you ask me why,
I have no answer, but I discern,
can feel, my senses rooted in eternal torture.
Here are the two lines of Latin”
Odi et amo. Quare id faciam, fortasse requiris.
Nescio, sed fieri sentio et excrucio.
Can you tell odi (“odious” is a derivative) means ” I hate” and amo (“amiable,” “amatory”) means love? Bet you can!
And, by the way, another wild girl from my high school also took Latin. We agreed to keep mum about our past lives. “I’m working on getting my virginity back,” she said.
I’m pretty sure both of us managed to do so because of our hours of study!