Monday, February 24, 2014

Catullus and Some Thoughts on The Art of Competition


So, I had a thought today.  It is a thought I have had in various formations throughout the years and that thought is that ‘art’ thrives on competition. To me, competition is essential to growth.  It is training, it is a weeding out, it builds stamina and it builds appreciation for your fellow players.  There is competition in the A vs. B sort of way and there is also that form of competition that is against oneself. 

The juicer type is the more collective sort.  This is when there is someone, or a group, that is the locust of your fixated drive.  There is a reason why arty people flock to certain cities and why more equals both more art and many times better art.  Seeing this in New York is so evident that it is at times ghastly.  The competition aka ‘the game’ is so primary here that at times it seems to destroy all evidence of actual personality in some people.  But back to the positives, having peers or a peer group where some are doing amazing, others the stealth geniuses and a variety of deserved and undeserved forms of accolade, success, recognition and, darlings lets face it, money, makes everyone around this person/this group, swarm and vibrate a bit.  If they can do it, you can do it because gawd damn it you are as smart, sexy and talented as they are.  ‘Polite’ people say that they don’t care about such things but let’s be honest; the art world is not made for polite people.

Then there is the other kind of competition.  The one that is self-inflicted and this form is truly the w-o-r-s-t.  You know that you are this amazing bud of a thing and you know that you can do better/do everything but somehow you can never ever (ever) be satisfied with yourself.  Well, sometimes you are satisfied or what some call “happy” for a few minutes, a month, perhaps even a year but then you look back at something you did, made, accomplished and you think, ‘shoot me.’ Everyone who has half a brain is their own worst critic.  The inner competition within oneself is at times spurred by outside forces but this feels much different then the matchy-matchy group tit-for-tat form of competition.  This feels deeper and it can be the most paralyzing force but yet the thing that will help you transcend all those creative hurdles. 

The basic-ness of the concept of competition and art was reignited this past week by the poems of Catullus.  For those who took Intro-Latin or Intro-Poetry or some such course his name will probably be familiar.  For those who have not, such as moi, he was a poet who lived in the late Roman Republic, (?84-54 B.C.E.) and he was a part of a group of young poets that Cicero, (their older contemporary), called the “Neoterics” (“the younger ones” or “the innovators”).  This was not meant as a flattery on Cicero’s part, but I love this name because it reflects some of the loose freshness that Catullus and his peers wrote with in their new metering and subject matter. 

To put it bluntly many of Catullus’ poems are what could be called shit-talking and much of it is about his fellow poets.  I mentioned this to a friend the other day and he said it was almost like a form of rap.  The dissing, the gossip, the self-aggrandizement and debasement are so sharp it seems bizarre in its contemporariness.  I have only begun to read his works and one only can cringe at the level of translation errors that have occurred from then to now but I would like to share some poems by Catullus to show that competition is and will forever be one of the most basic of human motivations.

More then my own eyes I love you, Calvus,
you great tease: were it not so, for that ghastly
gift of yours I’d hate you like -- Vatinius!
What did I ever do or say to make you
finish me off with all these rotten poets?
May high gods heap troubles on that client
who sent you such a parcel of blasphemers!
Still, if (as I suspect) this new recherché
gift came to you from Sulla, Man of Letters,
I don’t take it amiss, but am delighted,
seeing that all your work has not been wasted.
Great gods, what a disgusting little booklet,
and you carefully chose the time to send it
to your Catullus, so that you would kill him
on that best of all days, the Saturnalia!
No, you won’t get away with this, you smart-ass--
first thing tomorrow morning I’ll go round the
booksellers’ stalls, buy Caesius, Aquinus,
Suffenus, all the poison on the market,
pay you back with counterdose of torture.
Meanwhile, you lot, out-- back where you hauled your
bad feet from, time’s trash, appalling poets!


My friend Varus saw me lounging in the Forum,
Dragged me off with him to meet his girlfriend.
“Little scrubber” was my first impression--
not unsmart, though, not entirely witless.
When we got there, conversation turned to
every kind of subject, and among them
how were things in Bithynia, what was happening,
had my posting brought me in a windfall?
I replied with the truth: not even praetors,
much less aides, could find even the slightest
hope of deals that would fatten their resources--
not least when said praetor was a fuckface
and didn’t give a shit for his poor staffers.
“Well, at least,” they said, “you must have picked up
some of what we hear’s their major export--
litter-bearers?” Anxious to impress his
girlfriend, make her suppose I was a fat-cat,
“Sure,” said I, “though I got a lousy province,
life wasn’t all that bad for me-- I somehow
found myself eight able-bodied porters.”
(Truth was, neither here nor there so much as
one spent shag did I won, the kinds who’d barely
manage to heft an ancient broken bed-leg.)
At this -- predictable bitch -- she said, “Catullus,
darling, please, please, lend me them-- I only
need them a little while, I want a ride to
Serapis’s temple.” “Whoa,” I told her, “What I
claimed just now that I had, I really hadn’t,
my mind was slipping, actually it’s my colleague
Cinna, first name Gaius, bought then-- though why
should I care who it is that they belong to?
I still use them just as though I owned them.
Not but what you’re a bore, a walking pest, who
won’t let pass even slight exaggerations.”


I hate and love. You wonder, perhaps, why I’d do that?
            I have no idea. I just feel it.  I am crucified.


If maybe there are some of you who’ll read my
stupid ineptitudes, and won’t recoil from
reaching out and laying hands upon us…

[ poems from: The Poems of Catulls, A Bilingual Edition, ed. Peter Green, University of California Press, c.2005 Peter Green]