Et tu, Teddy White

Caesar at the Rubicon

by Theodore H. White
Atheneum, 174 pp., $5.00

The fundamental difference between the good professional historian and even the best amateur historian is that the latter, sooner or later, decides that there is nothing new under the sun. Theodore White tells us in his prologue that Caesar was “oddly modern and romantic,” that he was “perhaps more a man of our time than of any other time but his own.” And he means that; the assertion that Caesar was also “so naturally barbarian” and all the archaisms, the little pedantries which pepper the play, prove to be stage props, serving to show off the author’s knowledge of the antique without seriously impinging upon the argument. As for Samuel Butler, he didn’t bother with explanations, he simply took it for granted that not only was the author (ess) of the Odyssey a Victorian novelist, but that the values and emotions of the characters in the poem were identical with those of his time, as he judged them.

In a clever piece of special pleading, David Grene, who introduces this reprint of a work first published in 1897, corrects Butler on the first count (and exculpates him because in his day Homeric scholarship had not yet discovered the key to oral poetry), but misses the second. It is enough to follow Professor Grene and quote Butler on Penelope and the suitors:

Sending pretty little messages to her admirers was not exactly the way to get rid of them. Did she ever try snubbing? Nothing of the kind is placed on record. Did she ever say, “Well, Antinous, whoever else I marry, you may make your mind easy that it will not be you.” Then there was boring—did she ever try that? Did she ever read them any of her grandfather’s letters? Did she sing them her own songs, or play them music of her own composition? I have always found these courses successful when I wanted to get rid of people.

Of course, says Professor Grene, this is a “kind of spoofing” and debunking—but at the same time such “funny questions…have a suggestive bearing on the meaning of this remote poem of anonymous authorship and largely anonymous provenience.” Have they? That depends on what “meaning” means? If one is interested in the Homeric world, Butler’s remarks, like his challenging the choice of Laertes’ shroud as Penelope’s excuse for delaying a decision, or his complaints about the absence of young romantic love in the poem, are neither spoofing nor debunking nor suggestive. They are irrelevant and nonsensical because Penelope didn’t have either the options or the procedures available to the ladies Samuel Butler knew. If “meaning” is to be taken as pertaining either to the poet or to his audience or to Greeks in the ensuing centuries, then Butler’s book contributes nothing. Yet it is good to have the book available again, as a study in late Victorian values and aesthetics, and as a companion to Butler’s prose translation of …

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