Friday, October 24, 2008

de scribendo

I've been reading Love in the Time of Cholera recently, and the other day I came across a passage which reminded me of something Ovid wrote. Firstly here's the passage from the book:

The worst years were the early ones, when he was appointed clerk to the Board of Directors... Florentino Ariza wrote everything with such passion that even official documents seemed to be about love. His bills of lading were rhymed no matter how he tried to avoid it, and routine business letters had a lyrical spirit that diminished their authority. His uncle came to his office one day with a packet of correspondance he had not dared put his name to, and gave him the last chance to save his soul.

"If you you cannot write a business letter you will pick up the trash on the dock," he said.

Florentino Ariza made a supreme effort to learn the mundane simplicity of mercantile prose, imitating models from notarial files with the same diligence he had once used for popular poets... But at the end of six months, no matter how hard he twisted he could not wring the neck of his die-hard swan.[His uncle] kept his threat to have him pick up trash on the dock, but he gave him his wod that he would promote him, step by step, up the ladder of faithful service until he found his place. And he did. No work could defeat him, no matter how hard or humiliating it was, no salary no matter how miserable, could demoralize him, and he never lost his essential fearlessness when faced with the insolence of his superiors... Florentino Ariza moved through every post during thirty years of dedication and tenacity in the face of every trial. He fulfilled all his duties with admirable skill... but he never won the honor he most desired, which was to write one, just one, acceptable business letter.

Late in life, in exile far from Rome, Ovid wrote of his own experience as a young boy, when he was first drawn to poetry:

frater ad eloquium viridi tendebat ab aevo,
fortia verbosi natus ad arma fori;
at mihi iam puero caelestia sacra placebant,
inque suum furtim Musa trahebat opus.
saepe pater dixit 'studium quid inutile temptas?
Maeonides nullas ipse reliquit opes.'
motus eram dictis, totoque Helicone relicto
scribere temptabam verba soluta modis.
sponte sua carmen numeros veniebat ad aptos,
et quod temptabam scribere versus erat.
(Ovid, Tristia IV X.17-26)

My brother tended towards oratory from a young age,
he was born for the bold weapons of the noisy forum;
but the holy rites of heaven pleased me more, even as a boy,
and the Muse was drawing me secretly to her service.
Often my father would say 'Why try such a useless pursuit?'
Even Maeonian Homer left no wealth behind.'
I was moved by what he said, and left Helicon behind completely
and tried to write words set free from rhythm.
But of its own accord, a poem came, in a suitable meter
and whatever I tried to write was poetry.

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