25 – Poor Catullus, stop being such a miserable fool

Or, paraphrased: kindly get your shit together. It starts when we’re young, really. They tell us all those stories, the fairy tales, where the prince is cursed into being oblivious to true love and the poor princess has to fight the curse and do all sorts of things to prevent the idiot in question from being an idiot. Or the other way round: the princess pisses someone off and ends up meant to be become dragon food, or asleep forever, or otherwise inaccessible and the prince has to find a way to rescue her. The worst kinds of fairy tales, however, are those where a kiss turns a toad or a beast into a beautiful young man (and I am sure there will be some female version of this nonsense, too). Eventually, everyone succeeds in their quests and they live happily ever after.

So that leaves us with three enormous illusions before we even start school:

  1. there is such a thing as happily ever after;
  2. it is somehow acceptable (if not expected) to withstand all kinds of suffering to win someone’s love;
  3. and finally the most dangerous of them all: it is OK to expect that the other person can/will change with the power of our love.
  4. Ok there is a fourth one: they teach us girls that eventually some bloke will turn up and solve all our problems. Yeah, sure.

I shall not discuss the happily ever after, as I still need to come to the point that marks the “after”. But I guess I still somehow hope it’s possible. I think we all do, women and (to some extent) men alike. I think that is what keeps us going after all, what keeps us trying. I’ll come to the second point in a minute, but as for number three, I will never cease to be amazed how many people I know live in situations where they wish the other person changed. Why is it that we meet someone, are attracted to them, get together with them and then try to change them? Wouldn’t it be better, wouldn’t it be an effort better spent to accept the differences, the flaws, the person as a whole and learn to love them for what they are instead of hoping they can change? And if the differences are too big to bear, isn’t it better for everyone to just let go? Oh, I have made that mistake more than once. And I suspect I may end up making it again. Some lessons are never learned.

Now, to the second point. They indoctrinate us with all this sentimental nonsense when we’re of tender age. And then they continue throughout the entire school curriculum. We are fed all kinds of love stories when (if) we study literature, but really instead of teaching us that a rose by any other name would smell as sweet(*), they should introduce us to some of the wisdom of the ancient Romans. Take Gaius Valerius Catullus (the guy the airport in Verona is named after) for instance. Neglected outside Italy, and it’s a real shame, because I am convinced that if we had all learned when we were teenagers what he’s saying to himself in the Carme VIII (bellow), all of us would have been better off. They should insist, with violence if needed, that we know those verses by heart, they should tattoo them on our skins, they should make sure that we can recite them if waken up in the middle of the night, and more importantly, someone should explain to us what they really mean and make sure we understand. It may spare us more than one episode of embarrassing behaviour, it may prevent us from acting like total miserable idiots and maybe help us to gather some dignity next time we find ourselves in love with the wrong person. It may teach us how to face rejection.

Miser Catulle, dēsinās ineptīre,
et quod vidēs perīsse perditum dūcās.
Fulsēre quondam candidī tibī sōlēs,
cum ventitābās quō puella dūcēbat
amāta nōbīs quantum amābitur nūlla.
Ibi illa multa cum iocōsa fīēbant,
quae tū volēbās nec puella nōlēbat,
fulsēre vērē candidī tibī sōlēs.
Wretched Catullus, stop being a fool,
and what you see has perished, consider perished.
Blazing suns once shone for you
when you would always come where the girl led,
a girl beloved by us as no girl will be loved.
There when those many playful things happened,
things which you wanted, nor was the girl unwilling,
truly, blazing suns shone for you.

Let’s see, Catullus wrote those verses more than 2000 years ago, and they are still so strikingly up-to-date. Clearly we haven’t evolved all that much since. Same as Catullus, I have talked to myself full of contempt and self-loathing on more than one occasion, though not quite in limping iambic. Stop it, you stupid cow, stop making a bloody idiot out of yourself and accept that if it looks like it’s over, it’s over. Sounds familiar? Yes, life was full of sunshine once, when you would follow your lover wherever he led you; and you would play many games of love that you both desired. Wasn’t it just perfect? Yes, I guess it was. Those days then they are your only thought from the instant you wake up to the moment you fall asleep, when everything feels easy, when your job is a piece of cake and nothing can unfaze you. When you get hardly any sleep at night, yet you have so much energy that you feel you could steal the Sun from the sky if they asked you to.

Nunc iam illa nōn vult: tū quoque impotēns nōlī,
nec quae fugit sectāre, nec miser vīve,
sed obstinātā mente perfer, obdūrā.
Now, now she is not willing; you, powerless, must not want:
do not follow one who flees, do not live miserably,
but endure with a resolute mind, harden yourself.

Now he doesn’t want to continue with these games anymore. And you must not insist. You must not chase the one who rejects you. You must not despair. Get your shit together, man up, and carry on. Fuck them. (Figure of speech, obviously). If they don’t want you, they are not worth your grief. Which is substantially true, but easier said than accepted. There is no greater sorrow than to recall happiness in times of misery, another great poet teaches us(**). We spend our nights wide awake trying to come up with a satisfactory explanation of what changed, what happened, wondering why they don’t want us any longer. Not that knowing why helps. No reason in the world will make us feel any better, and deep down we know it. The important bit is, they don’t want us in their lives any more, and that’s what matters, the why is irrelevant. It hurts, of course, and the pain is only ours to deal with. What Catullus is saying, and what is essentially true, although it takes a great deal of strength, the amount and the duration of heartache is within our control.

Valē puella. Iam Catullus obdūrat,
nec tē requīret nec rogābit invītam.
At tū dolēbis, cum rogāberis nūlla.
Scelesta, vae tē! quae tibī manet vīta?
Quis nunc tē adībit? Cui vidēberis bella?
Quem nunc amābis? Cuius esse dīcēris?
Quem bāsiābis? Cui labella mordēbis?
At tū, Catulle, dēstinātus obdūrā.
Farewell, girl! Already Catullus is firm,
he will not seek you out, nor will he ask one who is unwilling.
But you will be sad when you are not asked.
Woe to you, miserable woman! What sort of life remains for you?
Who now will come to you? To whom will you seem pretty?
Whom now will you love? Whose will you be said to be?
Whom will you kiss? Whose lips will you bite?
But you, Catullus, be resolved to be strong.

In the second half of the poem, Catullus’ monologue stops and he speaks directly to the girl “beloved as no other shall be loved” in a very touchingly human manner. Well, you may consider it touchingly human if you can relate to it, if you’ve ever been in that state of mind. If you haven’t, chapeau, you are a far better person than I am. You shall regret this one day. No one will ever love you as much as I love you. Why don’t you see that I am the one for you? I hope you realize your mistake one day, and I hope that when you do, it will be too late. I hope you live unloved and abandoned for ever.  We may act with as much dignity as we’re capable of on the outside, but inside we’re screaming. I have (thank God) so far always managed to stay lucid enough to avoid actually saying this to someone’s face and I hope it stays that way. But I’d be lying if I claimed that I have never had such thoughts (usually fuelled by tears and elevated alcohol intake). And of course having such thoughts is understandable, natural even, but utterly wrong. Because it doesn’t matter if I am convinced about my feelings, about being the one, about him being the one. My love alone is not enough. Feelings have no value unless they are appreciated. Not only there is no way one can win another person’s affection, unless the affection is already there, there is no way to win back another person’s affection, if it’s gone. Unless the whole world is playing games. Then I guess this whole post is delusional, and I am fucked. Figuratively speaking.

At tu, Kacenka, destinata obdura.


*) William Shakespeare: Romeo and Juliet, Act 2, Scene 2
**) Dante Alighieri: Divina Commedia, Inferno, Canto V

4 thoughts on “25 – Poor Catullus, stop being such a miserable fool

  1. The meter of this poem is also relevant for what you say. it is choliambic, or halting iamb. The last syllable inverts the accent of the previous ones.
    tatà tatà tatò tatà (pause) tàta. The last sillable stands like a barrier trying to stop the flowing stream of iambs. It’s like reason and reflection trying to restrain passion. A weak barrier, indeed. As Jonathan Swift said: “Reason is a very light rider, and easily shook off”. It’s true; this poem teaches to “Get your shit together”. But it also shows that you almost certainly fail to do it. And yet, that’s just what to do, although you know it as an impossible and, in the end, vain task.


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