COWEN: Why does studying Lucan’s The Civil War make extra sense in 2021 than it may need 30 years in the past? To me, it appears remarkably modern — greater than Virgil. Individuals are loopy. They’re at one another’s throats, however not likely for any good purpose.

BARTSCH: Lucan appears modern. Lucan may be very a lot after and in response to Virgil. He reads Virgil as saying the potential for the nice state, the nice empire is an actual factor. What Lucan says is, “No, that’s by no means potential. There’ll at all times be males grubbing for energy and killing one another, and civil struggle is, frankly, a situation of life, a situation of historical past. Proper now, I’m writing below Nero, who is just not an excellent emperor. I’m writing concerning the occasions that led to Nero coming to energy, and I hate them. They’re horrible. Folks lie to one another. Brothers killed brothers. Associates slashed one another within the face, all for political causes. Folks use language, once more, incorrectly to distort what they meant, after which — right here’s the rub — as a result of I’m writing below Nero and since Nero is likely one of the unhealthy emperors, I can’t complain about writing below Nero. I’ve to reward him. In any other case, I’ll get in bother.”

So that you get this lovely juxtaposition of a poet beginning out his poem with nearly over-the-top reward. “Oh, Nero, you’re going to heaven, and also you’re going to be a star within the constellations. There’s by no means been anyone so sensible as you. Civil struggle was price it should you had been the end result.”

Then the remainder of the poem is that this blistering indictment of the current, which is the current below Nero. By indicting the current however praising Nero, he successfully exhibits us that his reward is fake, however that false reward is what everyone has to have interaction in in a world the place there’s no freedom. Possibly that’s what appears topical to you. Or possibly it’s nearly pretend information, and also you see Lucan is writing pretend information at first of his epic.

COWEN: I believe the shortage of apparent self-interested motivation for the polarization is what strikes me as so modern about Lucan. It’s not primarily about rent-seeking. There’s merely some logic of escalation that by no means stops. Now, possibly on the finish of the poem, there’s a return to sanity in some methods, however there’s nonetheless this whole immersion in violence, and the dynamics of that, the nonrationality or arationality — it struck me if I had learn Lucan in 1991, I might have been fairly puzzled, like that is one thing of vintage curiosity. However I learn it as we speak — I’m not so pessimistic concerning the Western world, however it appears to hit a lot nearer to residence.

BARTSCH: Why is that? Sorry, you’re presupposed to be asking me questions, however why does it appear to strike nearer to residence to you now?

COWEN: There appears to be a logic in modern politics the place individuals take reverse sides of a difficulty as a result of different individuals have taken a facet. They don’t essentially care anymore what it’s about. This may increasingly have moderated in the previous couple of months, however there was a way, if Trump tweeted some view about Turkey, some individuals would agree, and different individuals would take the opposite facet, whether or not or not they’d settlement about Turkey.

BARTSCH: Completely. The polarization of political opinions — that’s fully in Lucan. Every thing is binary. Either side are at one another’s throats. The issue is, neither facet is sweet. They’re simply each opinionated. Sure, he continuously exhibits us horrible, meaningless scenes of butchery, which is able to by no means result in something significant. I believe in that sense, sure, it’s an fascinating comparability to what occurs as we speak.

One other fascinating factor that he does is that, regardless that every thing has been boiled down into them versus us — or truly them versus them as a result of there’s no person good within the epic apart from Cato, who finally ends up dying — whilst he takes on so critical a topic, he refuses to partake of its seriousness in a means. What I imply by that’s that his battle scenes are ridiculous. They’re not life like.

Right here’s an instance. You’re combating for Julius Caesar, and also you’re on a ship, and also you’re attempting to get onto a ship that belongs to Pompey, so that you seize it with one arm because it comes by, however the individuals in Pompey’s boat chop off your arm. Then you definately seize it along with your different arm, after which they chop that arm off. Then you definately’ve obtained no arms. So, what do you do? Properly, Lucan says, you simply lob your self onto the boat armlessly and hope which you could make a distinction that means. There’s legs and arms flying in all places.

In Virgil or Homer, any person stabs you, you groan, blood comes out, you die. In Lucan, you simply bop round like a puppet dropping limbs and legs. That’s very unusual.


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