This blog isn’t about Ole Miss football at all. Maybe it is, in some tangential, existential sense. We’ll get there eventually, as we always do. Don’t worry, it’s always there.
We know virtually nothing about Titus Lucretius Carus, the most brilliant voice of the Roman literary canon. We know that he was born sometime in the early first century BCE and died probably sometime in the 40s BCE. We know that he was drinking buddies with Catullus, Gaius Memmius, perhaps Cicero, Caesar and others. Certainly he ran in the highest political and intellectual circles of the day. As well he should, because he was the smartest man who ever lived.
Lucretius wrote a monumental, six-book Latin epic titled De Rerum Natura, On the Nature of the Universe. Stephen Greenblatt’s Pulitzer-winning monograph, The Swerve, about the transmission of the text is utterly sublime. It will teach you everything you need to know about how the western canon came to be, which is a fascinating story.
Lucretius’ poem is a didactic exposition and explanation for how our world works, from an Epicurean bent. The basic principle of the didaxis is this: everything that you and I can see and feel and experience is made up of two principles, atoms and void. Squint at it, and Lucretius pretty much got it right. Atoms fall through an infinite void, merge together — swerve together — to form what we call “buildings” and “human bodies” and “cats,” then swerve away from one another and those things cease to exist. Atoms make bodies, corpora, then unmake corpora. It’s actually very simple.
The fundamental premise of Lucretius’ project is to allay our fear of death. If the entirety of human and animal and natural existence is merely the arbitrary product of the coalescence of atoms falling through an infinite void, then there is no afterlife. The soul is a material object — composed of atoms — and when our body, our corpus, dies, so does the soul, the animus. Therefore, there is no afterlife. The soul has nowhere to go because it no longer is a constituent thing. There’s no judgment to face regarding our life’s actions. This doesn’t allow for a total amorality, though. No, Lucretius says our task here, while we’re here, is to make others and ourselves happy. Why not leave life full of food and drink, just like a banqueter, he asks, and that’s a wonderful prospect.
But there’s real sadness in this man’s voice. His constant insistence that we shouldn’t fear death perhaps betrays his own fear of death. This brilliant, bright, screaming intellect that’s been shot out of the dark abyss of Latin literature. We know nothing about the man. His name was Lucretius. We know that Cicero of all people edited the poem and that he stamped it as something that passed aesthetic muster. This is Epicurean philosophy turned into Latin epic hexameters, and Lucretius did it for over 8,000 verses of absolutely perfect poetry. That’s a lot of poetry.
What’s interesting about Lucretius’ and Epicurus’ concept of time is that it’s not time as we understand it, rather it’s distance. Time is how far we’ve fallen through the void astride the microscopic atoms that have carried us through. Time is distance. 24 hours is a mere blip in the continuous waterfall of atoms descending through the void. 24 hours is a single line of Lucretian poetry. A mere one-off in this grand thing that you and I call existence.
This is a very Roman way of thinking about the world, where time and space are essentially overlapping categories. It’s no wonder that the Latin word ubi means both “when” AND “where.” It absolutely would take a Roman to spell this out in legible, poetical, terms for an audience, and thank god that Roman was Lucretius, because he’s the smartest man who ever lived.
It’s remarkable that Lucretius’ poem — all 8,000 or so lines of it — concludes with a detailed description of the plague that descended upon Athens in the summer of 429 BCE. The height of the Peloponnesian War. The height of Athenian intellectual, philosophical, artistic, and literary endeavor. The Athenian Renaissance. Athens’ most brilliant minds were there. Socrates, Euripides, Sophocles, Aristophanes, Alcibiades, Kleon, Thucydides, a very young Plato. All these men were present and accounted for through the plague at Athens, which killed off a full 25 percent of the population. It was probably a horrid case of the measles that did it. You can read about it here.
The plague at Athens killed a quarter of an entire population in a single summer. The plague at Athens rounds out Lucretius’ great document on why we shouldn’t fear death, or really anything in this life. The plague unbinds the fundamental ties of our sociopolitical agreement. That we should bury one another properly. That we should tend to the infirm when in need. That we should risk contagion ourselves though our family members be suffering. That we should be human and humanitarian when the world is falling apart around us. Lucretius’ plague upends the entirety of his entire poem — be good to one another, dammit — and it’s the most wonderful document I’ll ever read in Latin letters.
That undoing of the DRN, though. Where the bottom falls out. Where the world dies. Where the entire universe shatters and people jump off into the ocean only to feel reprieve from their fever, that moment of utter and complete and universal despair ends Lucretius’ poem. Bodies are being deserted in the street and on funeral pyres because no one wants to tend to real, actual funerals anymore. Just leave them. They’re diseased cadavers. Even the dogs are dying — the damn dogs because they love their masters too much — and the birds have all disappeared. The entire natural order overturned in the course of a summer because no one could escape this goddamn plague.
There’s no way out, though, and that’s the grand premise here. Death catches up to all of us. Go to heal the sick and you yourself will be infected. Some who survived did so after amputating limbs, including their genitals. People died not knowing why their own 21-year-old sisters had died. But they did, and that’s one of this story’s great horrors. Where did she go? She was just here.
This particular blog isn’t strictly about Ole Miss football or college football generally. Maybe it is, in some tangential, existential sense. That the endpoint of this Ole Miss season — of last season, even — was full-on existential dread. I don’t know. All I know is that I’m currently teaching a college seminar on horror and classics and that Lucretius sits on top of me every day of my life. Ever since Lizzie left me, us. Ever since I first encountered Lucretius and tattooed him on my ribcage. Totum video per inane geri res — I see matter borne through the entire void. Ever since I overcame my fear of flying or whatever because I wasn’t afraid to die anymore.
I’m just atoms.
As Socrates said, it’s better never to have been born than to have experienced this thing called life. That’s probably most applicable to Ole Miss’ poisoned well right now. It’s applicable to right now. It’s applicable to the shitshow we see everyday. It’s better never to have watched the game, to have invested as much as we did in this thing.
It hurts to say right now, but be not afraid. Nothing is hereafter. We’re all candles that will soon be blown out. Let loose and forget everything. Ole Miss will pass off into the candlelight, and we with it.