Thursday, October 09, 2008

Umor, amor, and bookworm repellent

Reviewing The Cambridge Companion to Lucretius (ed. Stuart Gillespie and Philip Hardie), Emily Gowers writes (TLS October 3 2008):

By rejecting transliterated Greek terms like atomi in favour of metaphors like semina (seeds) and genitalia corpora (generative bodies), [Lucretius] craftily presumes the material nature of the smallest units of life in advance of further proof. And the exaggerated trickle of word into word in his honeyed verse is the cleverest means of suggesting organic interrelations in the physical world, most famously through fortuitous phonetic connections: the link between lignum (wood) and ignis (fire) "proves" the metamorphosis of timber into ashes; that between umor (semen) and amor (love) reduces sex to an exchange of bodily fluids.


The poem on "all things" [i.e. De rerum natura] is also a compendium of all stylistic moods and registers, with an almost organic identity of its own: a shifting amoeba living out its predicted cycles of growth, decay and rebirth. Where does the abrupt and gloomy ending among the Athenian plague victims leave us? Exposed, like trained Epicureans, to the finality of material thing or hopeful of yet another revival--honeybees rising from rotting corpses?


John Keay, in his TLS review of Simon Winchester's biography of Joseph Needham (Bomb, Book and Compass: Joseph Needham and the great secrets of China), notes that Needham became obsessed with notching up Chinese "inventions and discoveries" and awarding a date to each. Winchester provides a representative example of the kind of lists Needham included in his published writings:

Blast Furnace--3rd century B.C.
Book, printed, first to be dated--A.D. 868
Crank handle--1st century B. C.
Bookworm repellent--no date

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