Last week I finally got around to buying an edition of Plutarch's Lives, something I'd been meaning to do for quite some time. I went for the Dryden translation, recently republished in two volumes by Random House under their Modern Library imprint. As far as I can tell, this is the only 'complete' edition of Plutarch available on the market.
I, like most reasonable people, shrink in terror from editions touted as 'abridgements', or, worse, 'selections'. But sadly, in the case of many classics, that is the only form in which they are available to a monoglot audience. Now, I know in the case of Plutarch, the 'Lives' included in the Dryden edition were never intended to be published as a single work, but...who cares? I just want a convenient edition for reading and reference. Montaigne came by one easily enough in the sixteenth century; so why is it so difficult for me to get my hands on one now?
Ah, but there's always the Loeb, I hear you say. Well, apart from the fact that I don't much like the look of those sickly green tomes on my bookshelf, and quite apart from the fact that I'm not after a parallel-text edition, deficient as I am in Greek, I wouldn't much relish the prospect of reading the whole shebang in LOEBESE (a strange language, existing only in written form, which some philologists have argued is a subdialect of the archaizing English spoken in University Classics departments around the turn of the century; others claim that it resembles no human language on record: the jury's still out). Even if I were after a parallel-text edition, and the greenness thing ceased to be an issue — as was the case some time ago when I was looking for a complete edition of Martial's epigrams (the red tomes of the Loeb's Latin editions sitting much more handsomely on the shelf), buying the however-many-volumes, at fifteen quid a pop, would prove prohibitively expensive. Speaking of Martial, it's worth noting that classics publishing seems to have descended to such a parlous state that it's impossible to buy a complete edition of Martial, even in Latin. What chance, then, of a complete unabridged edition in translation? Fat chance.
Admittedly, Martial has never attracted many translators, even in the modern era, partly because his punning style poses some insurmountable difficulties, and partly (probably mostly) because censorious Victorian attitudes to sexual humour never quite died off. But it isn't only Martial. So many classical works are available (if they are available at all in English) only in abridged editions. Try finding a complete edition of Seneca's letters — something, incidentally, that would have been easy to come by in the Renaissance. The worst is when the edition presents itself as a complete work and reserves the subtitle ~A Selection~ for the copyright page. Oxford World Classics, Penguin Classics, and especially the cheap and cheerful Wordsworth Classics — all are guilty of this charge.
Casting an eye outside of the sacred realm of 'the Classics' the situation gets immeasurably worse. Not only are English translations of complete works by early-Christian and Renaissance authors just as scarce, original language editions get to be like hens' teeth. Even the Loeb library hardly touches on these areas: Jerome's letters, for example, are available only under that dreaded rubric: ~Selections~. If a full edition of Jerome's letters, in English or in Latin, were cheaply available, I would snap it up like a shot. The closer we get to the great works of secular Renaissance authors the harder it is to find complete editions in English, let alone Latin (the Christian authors are probably better serviced by minor non-profit publishers run by Christian interest groups — Jesuits and the like). To some extent the tendency we observed in publications of the classics has been reversed: translations are more freely available than Latin editions. I found this out to my cost when I was after a complete edition of Erasmus's Colloquia: I could have had a complete multi-volume translation in German, or French, or even Flemish; but an edition in the original Latin: not a chance. And Eramsus is one of the better-serviced authors of that period. Still, at least there's the I Tatti Renaissance library...
Ahem. Please forgive the digression. What was I talking about? Oh yes, Plutarch. I was horrified to read in A. H. Clough's preface that most of this so-called Dryden translation was not in fact done by Dryden at all, but by jobbing ghost-translators, Dryden's name being slapped onto the front cover to sell more copies to a gullible seventeenth-century audience. What a con!
Actually, the thing that prompted me to start writing this entry was a coincidence. I find that in my life, for whatever reason (draw your own conclusions), the most striking coincidences happen more frequently in my reading than in the realm of action. This particular coincidence doesn't amount to much, but I found it satisfying on some level.
As the reader knows from previous entries, I have been reading Fernando Pessoa's Book of Disquiet. Encountering in that book several references to Carlyle's Sartor resartus, and having heard intriguing things about this work in the past, I decided to give it a read. By the way, it's well worth a look, if you have a spare moment. A few chapters in (grâce à Project Gutenberg, naturellement), I came across a reference to Plutarch's life of Themistocles, an anecdote to the effect that the Athenian admiral, when asked what he knew of the Art of Memory, replied: I had rather you teach me the Art of Forgetting. I liked this quotation so much that I betook myself to my library (well, my bookshelf), and picked up my newly-purchased Plutarch (Vol 1). I spent an enjoyable half-hour reading though the life of Themistocles, but found no trace of the quote attributed by Plutarch to Themistocles on the attribution of Carlyle. Perhaps I overlooked it in my haste; perhaps Carlyle (and many subsequent authorities, as evidenced by Google) had been no less slapdash than Plutarch himself. In any case, in that 'Life', Plutarch gives an account of a dispute between Themistocles and the Spartan captain Eurybiades. Eurybiades, losing his temper, raised his staff to strike Themistocles. And Themistocles calmly said: 'Strike, if you will, but hear'. Keen readers will note that this is the title I gave to my last-but-one post on Schopenhauer.
Tout se tient.