Living with a Dead Language:
My Romance with Latin
Hardback: Viking, 2016.
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Reviewed by Sam Chamelin
It seems unlikely that anyone would pick up a book about learning Latin, unless you have already had the pleasure of diving into this dusty corner of academia. That’s precisely how I came to this book. Like Ann Patty, I am a Latinist, and her descriptions of small, dark, and somewhat awkward undergraduate Latin students returned me to my own studies at Ursinus College. I remember that my professor, John Wickersham, once brought an impression made from a ring of Julius Caesar as a “Show and Tell” piece, and he encouraged us to take a look. We obliged, and yet somehow failed to match his excitement over the piece. When we had finished our staid examination of his child-like exuberance, he chastised us with surprising fervor, saying that we hadn’t properly paid respect to our proximity to history. “You are touching something that touched something that touched Julius Caesar,” he bellowed. “I want you to touch it, get your fingers into it. LOOK at it.” With that, we passed it around again, paying more fervid attention to this historic item to the third degree.
While Ann Patty lacks the characteristic eccentricity of professional Latinists, she seems just as eager as Dr. Wickersham to connect the lives of readers to this far-from-dead language. In this surprising and engaging memoir, Living with a Dead Language: My Romance with Latin, Patty leads us to put our minds, our fingers, and indeed even our lives into the study of this language. In doing so, she introduces us to a world where languages aren’t dead; rather, the continue to be a primary means by which we make sense of the world and our own lives. Patty is happy to allow her life to serve as a template for this journey.
This is the story of a woman who is in love with words. She is a highly successful retired publisher, introducing some of our most popular authors to the world. But as she settles down, she finds the country life of Poughkeepsie a bit too quaint for her liking. “Words were my way to becoming who I wanted to be, both in my own mind and in the world” (8), but her retirement removed her from the daily barrage of words that her profession required, she struggled to find a way to make sense of her post-career life. Being an active woman and struggling to avoid sliding into post-career putrescence, she seeks something to challenge herself. She enrolls at Vassar College, and begins introductory Latin under the instruction of Dr. Curtis Dozier, who shows her that life is found in a “dead language.” The subtitle is apropos; this is indeed a “romance,” a delicate dance between a woman, a subject, and her attempts to make sense of her life in literature and relationships in the context of this language that, like an old flame that never seems to die away.
Patty’s writing style is engaging, and she is an accomplished storyteller. This is not a funny book, though there are moments at which the reader will want to crack a smile. But she is obviously a linguist, one who understands the nuance of language and invites her reader into her love of language. The reader will immediately be struck by her diction. She often chooses words that seem lofty and elitist, but they are well-chosen and are proper for her topic. In this way, it’s as if she is writing an extended joke, and she desperately wants the reader to be in on this joke. Her choices leave you thinking that she winks at the reader, desperately wanting you to get the joke, but elusive enough to avoid outright explanation.
In this way, she deftly invites the reader into the long, convoluted, repetitive experience of learning Latin. Her descriptions of dark classrooms, eccentric teachers, and students who are equal parts nerdy and disinterested are so compelling that one can almost smell the musty books. In this way, she has become the teacher, one who has put in the hours of work, and now desires to pass along this information. She also serves as the advisor, sharing stories of life and love and career, giving her readers some living declensions to consider their lives while she yet struggles with the implications of her own.
She quotes a yoga instruction, Kofi Busia, who often reminded his students, “You cannot change your future, you can only change your past.” Patty, in her self-determined way, decides to change her past be reaching even further into that past. She does this most effectively in her treatment of the Ablative Absolute. A challenging grammatical concept, she discovers a useful concept to help make sense of her life, “In fact, I like the ablative absolute, the way it could wrap up entire epochs in two words, then move on: It felt like a no-fault divorce from the main sentence, rather like mine from my second husband, whom I now refer to as my own Ablative Absolute” (54).
But for those expecting a book replete with declensions, obtuse grammar references, and quintessential images of Julius Caesar and the Roman praetorium, your expectation will be quickly dispelled. Here, we meet an underground Latin, a Latin of the poets, one filled with lust, debauchery, and fraught with sexual tension. Catullus, Ovid, and others lead us into the language, stories, assumptions, and perspectives of an ancient civilization that may yet have something to say to our own time.
So having dug into my own past a bit, remembering my own dark classes complete with the Ablative Absolute and wondering what in the world this dead language has to do with anything, I am grateful for a companion like Patty, who not only deftly shows us a little glimpse of the whole cacophony of human experience that language can unlock, but also challenging me, as I move into my own next steps, to continue the process of self-exploration, challenge, and development. Dead languages still have a way of romancing the living.
Sam Chamelin is the pastor of Lazarus United Church of Christ in Linboro, MD and Sustainability Coordinator at Gettysburg Seminary. He write about faith formation, ecology, and agriculture. He blogs at poormansshamrock.net.