laudamus veteres, sed nostris utimur annis

North Higgins Lake State Park

At last, 2020 disappears in our rear-view mirror. In the rush to January and in the quiet of the woods, I forgot to post a couple new reviews for the Latinists, one in Gnomon and another in Commonweal.

At Commonweal, I praise Nicola Gardini’s Long Live Latin, an “unapologetic paean to Latin literary craft,” for its “undiluted accounts of linguistic novelty in Propertius and branching syntax in Livy” and its rich treatments of a dozen other Latin authors. I’m especially interested in Gardini’s intended readership of “young students,” who would seem under-prepared for his wrought and learned prose—but I interpret this orientation as a feature, not a bug:

The positioning of Latin among other emblems of high culture is likely to resurrect the charge of snobbery or even classism—the charge that for Gardini, Latin is a subject championed by, and reserved for, the well-to-do. But the explicit targeting of a young readership might be the best defense against such accusations. Where I grew up, for instance, there are no Latin teachers and no literature professors, and Gardini’s overtly intellectual chapters often made me think what a revelation this book would have been to me if I had read it as a teenager. In that sense, Long Live Latin may be suited less for the young person at the posh prep school in New York or New England. Classics and other humanistic disciplines continue to grapple with their inaccessibility to those outside these topmost echelons of privilege, and in the spirit of the book’s intended readership, I wish it were vigorously marketed to a broader, younger audience.

Read more on Julius Caesar’s theory of analogy and Tertullian’s penchant for “paradox and oxymoron” at Commonweal.

At Gnomon, I recommend Eleanor Dickey’s Stories of Daily Life as a potent and accessible entry point for understanding non-literary dimensions of the ancient world. Dickey “packs into one slim volume quotidian but illustrative stories that show modern students many aspects of life in antiquity—banking, dining, schooling—aspects which can be difficult to excavate from some of the more literary sources students might encounter in secondary school or early university-level courses.” The review text is behind a paywall, but you can read the rest at Gnomon through your institutional library.

the year all music was house music

Víkingur Ólafsson, Debussy — Rameau: A couple years ago Ólafsson recorded a clear, warm Bach album (which in turn spawned a bizarrely Nordic music video). I think I like his new album of Debussy and Rameau solo piano works even more: it’s a rewarding across-the-centuries tour of French harmonics. And of course, it comes with its own quirky music video, this one for a sublime, suspended-in-air piano transcription from a Rameau opera.

Waxahatchee, Saint Cloud: Reviews of Waxahatchee’s new album have often compared it to Lucinda Williams’ Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, an all-time favorite album from my early adulthood spent driving across the Mississippi River. Those comparisons draw not just on the Southern-ness of the two albums, but on the foregrounding of “placeness” in both. Instead of Lake Charles, here we get West Memphis; instead of imagistic lyrics for a Delta juke joint, here we get “folding chairs, American flags, selling tomatoes at five bucks a bag.” Saint Cloud is the road trip you didn’t take in 2020.

Jeff Parker, Suite for Max Brown: I wrote about Parker’s album earlier this year and its opening admonitions to “Build a Nest.” We’re still nesting, almost a year on, but this album hasn’t grown stale one bit. My old roommate summed up its ten-minute closing track as “underworld music for some impossibly hip” Super Mario game, and Parker saturates almost every track with harmonically rich guitar work. One track (“Metamorphoses”) could have come straight off an old Tortoise album, too.

Artemis, Artemis: It was an especially good year for Cécile McLorin Salvant, but this all-female jazz super-group (whose seven members include her) shares joint responsibility and joint praise for this debut album. On some tracks, you can hear how one of these world-class musicians takes the lead—Allison Miller’s drumming on “Goddess of the Hunt,” for example, and Anat Cohen’s clarinet on “Nocturno.” But even if each member of Artemis could headline a concert herself, we get an album that miraculously balances seven heavyweights in equipoise.

Fiona Apple, Fetch the Bolt Cutters: Fiona Apple launched her career from the piano bench, but her latest albums have shown her knack for the percussive tap and clang. This last album’s title song, which layers noise upon noise upon upright bass, came at the just the moment when the whole country had already learned to mumble her lyrics, “I’ve been in here too long.” And the final track, too, captures our appetite for bursting out of collective restlessness. In 2021, we will all “move to move.”

pen pal citizenry

Since I left my home state of Michigan and its swingy, volatile politics, casting a ballot—especially in big, national elections—can feel like an exercise in statistical irrelevance more than one of civic empowerment. New York City itself has almost the population of the entire state of Michigan, and the state’s electoral hue is a predictable, deep cerulean. Even if we New Yorkers aren’t apathetic about politics—is anybody apathetic anymore?—it’s still easy to feel like we’re watching the important players from the sidelines.

These electoral pangs inspired me to volunteer with Vote Forward, an organization that allows Americans to write nonpartisan letters to their fellow citizens to encourage democratic participation. For our upcoming elections, over 150,000 volunteers wrote 17 million letters to voters in dozens of states. My own stack of 400 letters—mostly addressed to Michiganders—appears up top, on its way to the post office later this morning.

During the slow, patient labor of addressing envelopes, I would find myself looking up tiny villages on Google Maps and reading five-star reviews of nearby lakes. Their street names and neighborhood diners often seemed to have come from Raymond Chandler novels. I imagine that, like many Vote Forward volunteers, I began writing letters out of a sense of civic urgency, but these evenings spent among postage stamps became quiet rituals of civic familiarity. Double-checking a stranger’s ZIP code and articulating our shared franchise in blue ink cultivated a kind of fellow-feeling—like writing to a friendly citizen pen pal.

The close relationship between friendship and citizenship, it turns out, is an ancient interest, and in fact, Aristotle devotes several chapters of his Nicomachean Ethics to the overlap—here’s a brief excerpt:

It does seem, as we said at the beginning, that friendship and justice have to do with the same things, and involve the same persons. For in every kind of sharing community there seems to be a specific kind of justice, and also friendship; at any rate people address as ‘friends’ those sailing with them or on campaign with them, and similarly too with their partners in other kinds of sharing community. And to the extent that they share in it, they are friends; for that is the limit of the justice between them too. Again, the proverb says ‘What belongs to friends is shared in common’, and correctly so; for friendship depends upon sharing.

8.9, 1159b (trans. Rowe and Broadie)

Elsewhere in Book Eight of the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle cautions that good friendships can be hard to come by—we should expect to have just a few. Aristotle’s reservations about developing such relationships partly stem from the recognition that friendship “requires that the parties have acquired experience of each other and a close acquaintance with one another’s character, which is very difficult to achieve” (8.6, 1158a). Of course, one doesn’t become acquainted with people simply by addressing an envelope, but I found that spending a minute learning how to spell my fellow Americans’ street names could feel like getting to know them in a way that scrolling through their tweets did not. Writing letters, by granting a just-long-enough moment to imagine the lives of other citizens, “might help us to like one another, even trust one another, both necessary to a functioning democracy.

In his book To Save Everything, Click Here, Evgeny Morozov warns against the allure of “technological solutionism”—the tempting idea that algorithms and processors will cure our political and cultural ills. Indeed, those technological fixes are too easy and too fast. As Aristotle observes above, forging a political community, like forging a friendship, can’t be effortless. If repairing the American political project demands that we undertake the salutary labors of “liking one another, even trusting one another,” perhaps we might start by scribbling unfamiliar ZIP codes and developing a little cramp in our fingers.