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  • Brief Mention: Shameless Interests: The Decent Scholarship of Indecency*
  • Kenneth J. Reckford

Good intentions go astray. I had meant simply to celebrate the ease and naturalness with which classical scholars treat obscene subject-matter nowadays, but there were difficulties, which may prove instructive.

I had felt oddly grateful, after reading and reviewing Dover’s 1993 Frogs, for how he explained (and of course, printed) the old scatological jokes that Merry (1905) had omitted, and which Adam Parry copied onto the blackboard for our fascinated Greek 106a class in fall, 1951. How strange they seem now, all those expurgated editions, those unhelpful commentaries, those mystery-keeping professors. Like Byron, we all had comic encounters with the “grosser parts”:

They only add them all in an appendix,

Which saves, in fact, the trouble of an index . . .

Perhaps we worked harder than Byron. I remember, early on, struggling with Cat. 56 (which even Housman misinterpreted in his notorious 1931 “Praefanda,” for Catullus does not look on, masturbating, but plunges in, making a threesome); and I struggled with Martial. I may even, at sixteen, have been the last of the Victorians, learning about sexual by-paths from Latin poetic grammar and syntax. (Loebs were forbidden under pain of death: but had I consulted Ker’s Martial, I would have found the offending passages translated into Italian, not English: “On the theory,” Rolfe Humphries once said, “that God doesn’t understand Italian.”) We laughed; it was good fun. Yet our half-prurient inquisitiveness was mixed with genuine philological research; we resented roadblocks to learning; and years later, when Fordyce’s Catullus appeared with twenty-two “dirty poems” left out, we felt absolutely betrayed.

So I give thanks for unexpurgated texts and helpful commentaries (such as Dover’s Clouds and Frogs, and Henderson’s Lysistrata, and Ferguson’s Juvenal); for good translations, too, like Charles Martin’s The Poems of Catullus (Johns Hopkins, 1990), which combines plain speaking with a certain subtle elegance. I honor the pioneers: Arrowsmith and Parker, and Sullivan; Henderson’s Maculate Muse (1975) and Dover’s Greek Homosexuality (1978; earlier writings too); Adams’ Latin Sexual [End Page 311] Vocabulary (1982) and Richlin’s Garden of Priapus (1983).* Here were basic materials for further study and interpretation. Definitions and distinctions came first: between primary obscenities and euphemisms; between different generic conventions and expected attitudes (as in oratory, comedy, epigram). In art, too, the blacking-out of erect penises on Greek vases has been removed; wall-paintings from Pompeian brothels have been made accessible, even without a bribe; budding scholars of both sexes discourse learnedly on such subjects as “Male Discharge Imagery on Greek Vase-Painting” (at a 1995 colloquium); and now Martin Kilmer’s Greek Erotica (1994) has brought new precision to the study of, e.g., intercrural intercourse between “courting” men and youths, and heterosexual intercourse a tergo (where an oil flask may suggest anal penetration, as against vaginal). The details, the illustrations and descriptions, are increasingly accurate. Gradually, too, old-time scholarly taboos have been breached, so we can handle “dirty” words and pictures without fear of degradation. We are most grateful that obscenities are no longer kept in quarantine, or treated as the exclusive hunting preserve of a “gentleman’s club” (writing in Latin, of course), so that, taking our cue from Catullus and Martial, whose “poems are dirty but our lives were pure,” we may pursue the decent scholarship of indecency.

Let me, though, introduce two caveats for philologists. First, that the poetic indecencies of Aristophanes, Catullus, Martial, and Juvenal remain “untranslatable”: not from embarrassment now, but from linguistic impotence. Take Catullus’ mentula, that ugly, dangling noun, so much more evocative than “prick” or “cock”; or take irrumabo and irrumator, those powerful, almost onomatopoeic four-syllable words. “Fuck in the [End Page 312] mouth” (early Richlin) explains but loses the tone. Martin does better with Cat. 16:

I’ll fuck the pair of you as you prefer it,

oral Aurelius, anal Furius . . .

a touch of wit, accessible to non-Latinists. (Will Shackleton Bailey’s new Loeb of Martial send American students scurrying to their dictionaries to look up “sodomized”?)

My second caveat is more nostalgic. In our innocent (or...

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