Tuesday 5 September 2023

Great Literature is Often Obscure

The classical scholar Isaac Casaubon (1559-1614) was responding to the charge that Persius’s satires are often too difficult to understand:

quid? solus hic obscurus? non etiam optimus quisque attentissimum et πολυμαθέσατον requirit lectorem? Non commemorabo Thucydidis τὰς περινοήσεις, τὰς ἐμπεριβολὰς, τὰ γλωσσηματικὰ καὶ ξένα, τὰ ἀνακόλουθα et similia multa quibus obducta caligo ingens illius historiae. silebo Platonis τὰς ἀκράτους καὶ ἀπηνεῖς μεταφοράς, de quibus Longinus. hoc solum dicam, maximarum difficultatum ea potissimum scripta esse plena, quae omnium seculorum docti homines maxime sunt admirati. quis Pindarum intelligeret aut Aristophanem absque eorum interpretibus foret? quis Graecis literis doctus choros Tragicorum inoffenso pede percurrit? Theocriti τὰ σκληρά notant veteres critici: neque indignentur.  
What of it? Is Persius alone obscure? Does not every great writer require a most attentive and polymath reader? Shall I not recall Thucydides’ subtleties, amplifications, foreign idioms, strange phrases, anomalous inflections and many similar things which enshroud his history in a great mist? Shall I be silent concerning the excessive and harsh metaphors of Plato, which Longinus wrote about? Let me say this: the writings of the best authors, which learned men from all ages have most admired, are especially wrought with difficulties. Who would have understood Pindar or Aristophanes without the commentators? Who is so learned in Greek literature that he would run through the choruses of the tragic poets without skipping a beat? The ancient critics marked the difficult parts of Theocritus, but they were not upset by them.
Persius, Satirarum liber, ed. by Isaac Cassaubon (Paris: Apud Ambrosium & Hieronymum Drouart, 1605). fols. e1v-e2r. Emended γλωοσηματικὰ. My translation.

Compare with this passage from one of Casaubon’s manuscripts, cited by Anthony Grafton and Joanna Weinberg:
Obscuritas prophetarum. Nemo leviter prophetarum scripta attigit quin eorum obscuritatem animadverterit. huius rei multiplex est causa. Ac caussam quidem caussarum investigare cue Deus OPT. MAX. uoluerit sic eos loqui non est tenuitatis nostra: quibus persuassimum est, ita Deo visum quia ita optimum: ita esse optimum quia sic Deo visum. Sed propriores huius obscuritatis causae multae possunt adnotari, aliae e rebus ipsis profiscuntur: quae altae, sublimes, interdum etiam futurae: ut de iis non potuerint prophetae nisi obscure loqui. aliae sunt in ipso dicendi genere: quod sane rebus est accommodum ὑψηλόν ὑψηλαῖς. Itaque quicquid est apud Longinum et alios rhetoras quod τὸ ὕψος τῷ λόγῷ concilet, id omne reperietur in prophetarum sciptis luculentissimae expressum.
No one who has ever even touched the writings of the prophets in passing has failed to notice their obscurity. The reasons for it are many. It is not for one of my low station to investigate the fundamental reasons why God wished them to speak in this manner. I am firmly convinced that God decided thus because it was best, and it is best because God decided thus. But certain intermediate causes of their obscurity can be noted. Some derive from their subject matter. The matters they deal with are lofty, sublime, and sometimes in the future, so that the prophets had to discuss them obscurely. Others have to do with their style, which is clearly the right one for their subject: a sublime style for sublime things. Whatever Longinus and other theorists of rhetoric say about how one attains sublimity in speech will all be bound, brilliantly expressed, in the writings of the prophets.
“I have always loved the holy tongue”: Isaac Casaubon, the Jews, and a forgotten chapter in Renaissance scholarship (Cambridge, Mass.; London: Belknap, 2011), p. 107.fn140 [Bod MS Casaubon 51, 19 recto].