Sunday, February 15, 2009

Sulpicius Severus, Life of St. Martin 26

Here is the penultimate installment of Sulpicius Severus', Life of St. Martin.


But this book now demands an end, this discourse must conclude, not because everything which must be said about Martin has been exhausted, but, because we, just as an incompetent poet, careless at the end of the work, succumb, defeated by the amount of material. (2) Although his deeds can be set out in words, no speech, I truly admit, will explain his inner life, daily conversation and his heart which was always intent on heaven. I truly acknowledge, of course, his perseverance and moderation in abstinence and fasting, his power in vigils and prayers, days and nights spend in like manner and no time free from the work of God in which he indulged in leisure or business nor indeed in food or sleep, unless to the degree the necessities of nature forced . (3) If, as they say, Homer himself emerged from the dead, it is not possible to explain all of this. To such an extent all this is greater than can be conceived in words. No hour or moment was ever wasted in which he did not apply himself to prayer or pursue reading, although even amid reading or if, by chance, he was doing something else, he did not relax his soul from prayer. (4) Truly, just as is a custom among blacksmiths, who beat their own anvil amid their work as a break in their labour, just so Martin was always praying, even while he seemed to do something else. (5) O truly blessed man, in whom there was no deceit: he judged no one, condemned no one, returned no evil for evil to anyone. Naturally, he displayed such great patience against all injuries that, even when he was the supreme priest, he was insulted by the lowest clerics without punishing them nor did he ever remove them from their position because of the insult or, as much as was in his power, did he drive them out from his affection.


With this section, we're in the home stretch and Sulpicius is getting ready the rhetorical fireworks which tend to begin and end of ancient literary efforts. Rhetorically, we can see the return of Sulpicius' modesty and his insistence of his basic incompetence for the task of writing about St. Martin. If you go back to the preface (which I translated two and a quarter years ago here), you'll see the same theme. For that matter, we have seen Sulpicius' protests of his literary incompetence throughout this life. We're not really used to this particular rhetorical theme- we tend to boast about our abilities, not denigrate them when we write-, so I think we misunderstand Sulpicius' scruples, dismissing them as insincere and/or tedious. Yet, if we think about it, I think this rhetorical trope has some interesting historical implications.

Sulpicius is hardly the first Latin or, for that matter, Greek writer to use this trope. Indeed, this sense of one's incapacity for high literary efforts is common from the 2nd century AD onwards. Partly, it reflects the sense of the post-Golden Age writers (Vergil, Horace, Livy etc) that the real glories of Latin literature are over and that the job of the contemporary writer was to use these examplars as touchstones for their own literary productions. By the time we get to the fourth century, there is a strong sense among many Latin writers- pagan and Christian- that, no matter how well they write, they'll never reach the level of the glorious writers of the past.

Add to this the rather ambivalent attitude that Christian writers had to pagan learning such as rhetoric or philosophy or, even, historical writing. No one could deny the worldly benefits of these pursuits, especially rhetoric. Yet, herein lies the problem. There is an element where excellent ability in writing was a little suspect because it reflected, perhaps, too much attention to the pagan arts. The literary standard for the Latin Christian writer shouldn't merely be Vergil or the school authors, but, also, the Bible whose rude style offended the delicate sensibilities of the young Augustine, but which was also authoritative in the Christian community. Sulpicius' shyness in claiming literary skill can also be understood as a subtle rejection of the pagan literary world and of the world in general. It is, in a sense, a part of Sulpicius' vicarious participation in St. Martin's ascetic life. In a sense, it is an assertion of the Christian dictum of the weak shaming the strong by their faith.

Furthermore, I hope that you see what Sulpicius thinks he can't describe. It isn't St. Martin's deeds, but rather it is his interior life, his life in prayer. Here we come to the heart of the problem that Sulpicius has been dealing with since the beginning of the work- how to portray the all-important life of prayer which is so important in a saint. St. Martin, like many of the monastic clerics and saints, was, first and foremost, a man of prayer. That is part of what made and makes him such an inspiring figure. St. Martin's claim to fame isn't his deeds- whether we're talking about his famous clothing of a beggar or his efforts to Christianize the Gallic countryside around Tours- but, rather, his participation in the life of Christ in the world through prayer. This is why he was so compelling a subject for Sulpicius and, ironically, why Sulpicius cannot really do justice to him.

Well, stay tuned for the last few bursts of rhetorical fireworks in the next installments. With the end so near, I think I will probably finish up this series next week. Then, I'll post links to all the installments and give some ideas of where my translating efforts are going to lead.


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