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Fellowship Report from Charles McNamara

When I arrived in Munich, I had just finished teaching a survey of political philosophy in Columbia’s Core Curriculum, a fascinating and rewarding course but one that moves at a breakneck pace. The survey introduces sophomores to rich texts—Plato’s Republic, Hobbes’ Leviathan, Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, to name a few— but the course progresses so quickly that one can blink and pass through centuries, skip over generations of human experience in a week. My move to Germany, then, turned out to be not just a geographical shift, but a temporal one, too: when I left America, I also left that edifying pedagogical scramble for the deliberate, even cautious labor of lexicography. Almost immediately, my attitudes and practices as an American early-career academic metamorphosed, and my year at the Thesaurus Linguae Latinae added to my study of Latin a scholarly precision and a newly diligent rhythm of research.

Itself a product of more than a hundred years, the Thesaurus allows philologists to experience a radical patience. Even if the texts in our archives span a millennium of Latin literature, the meditative task of writing Thesaurus entries forces one to stay put in a century, in a book, often on a single page until one has as firm a grasp as possible of these ancient words. During my first days at the Thesaurus, for example, I mulled over the few extant instances of remisceo, a word that first appears in Horace’s final ode, where his poetry is “remixed” with Lydian flutes. Presciently anticipating our modern interest in musical remixes, this appearance of remisceo differs from its descendants, each use prompting fresh consideration of an inventive metaphor or novel context. In Seneca, the word describes the “remixing” of winter air with a warming spring atmosphere. A small bottle, perhaps used to store oil or perfume, brings to mind Alice in Wonderland when it asks its owner to “remix me” (remisce me). And Paulinus of Nola, far afield from Horace’s earliest use, explains how at the Second Coming a resurrected soul is “called back into the very same body,” the person whole again after the body has been “remixed” (corpore remixto). With so few attestations, a word like remisceo still eludes our sure understanding, but even this first assignment at the Thesaurus instilled a new kind of rigor and even wonderment in my approach to ancient texts.

Other words at the Thesaurus offered similar opportunities for careful excavation, not with the archaeologist’s axe but with the lexicographer’s pencil. During the springtime, I studied the history of nidus just as melodious birds were building the very nests I was unearthing in the Akademie’s archives. And in the works of Augustine, I discovered one of my favorite passages of the year where the nest is creatively reimagined as a place of safe-keeping for one’s thoughts—the Bishop of Hippo asks his listeners to “prepare a nest for his sermon” (praestate vobis nidum 1 sermoni). I was captivated, too, by the adjective nervosus, which even over the course of many centuries of Latin texts never quite morphs into our anxious English cognate. (Anorexia nervosa, for example, is a nineteenth-century coinage.) Staying close to the word’s original meaning of “strong” or “sinewy,” a few late antique texts begin to assign the name nervositas to the peculiar collection of tough tissues that descends from the skull—that is, the nervous system. This survey of “nervousness,” too, has inspired me to be a better reader of English, since now I notice how in a chapter of Moby Dick on the harpoon, Herman Melville adheres to the original Latinate meaning when he explains how someone “needs a strong, nervous arm to strike the first iron into the fish.” And Thomas Hobbes writes that the state’s “nerves” can be found not in some university or institute but in its brawny forces of “punishment and reward.” (I will be sure to teach Leviathan more carefully in my next survey course!)

By investigating the birth and development of Latin’s words, one often gets a sense of parallel cultural chronologies, too, and not just the stories of individual verbs or adjectives. In my review of remunerator, I was struck by its rather late debut in Tertullian’s descriptions of the Christian God and the lexical creativity that shifts in religion had precipitated. In my survey of ren, I found how the views of medical practitioners had evolved in (mis)understanding kidneys as organs of excretory and reproductive functions. By looking at our surviving grammatical texts, I came to appreciate how even obscure ancient scholars themselves looked back at their own language’s long life in befuddlement—that my confusion about the gender of ren or the perfect tense of reminiscor was not simply a matter of my own modernness but instead a matter of Latin’s consistent foreignness. As a foil to these extended histories of the healing arts and religious belief, the much shorter period of an individual lifetime often jumps out and captures the lexicographer’s attention: in one poignant second-century epitaph that I encountered while studying renideo, I read how a dog owner memorialized the glistening smiles of a beloved canine companion.

Exploring these philological histories, of course, has been more than a mere exercise in curiosity or cataloging; it has been immediately helpful for refining the methods I use in my own research projects. As I continue to build on the philological work at the center of my dissertation, which analyzes the shifting meaning of certus in a variety of Latin authors, and as I revisit some earlier work on the vocabulary and metaphors of ancient notions of information, my work at the Thesaurus and new familiarity with its methods have already proven beneficial. The fellowship also afforded me the time to encounter a vast range of under-studied (and sometimes simply unstudied) works and authors from periods well beyond the career of Cicero and the reign of Nero. During my fellowship, I developed interests in various philosophical and rhetorical works of Augustine, in the sixth-century declamations of Ennodius, and in the stunningly virtuosic poetry of Publilius Optatianus Porphyrius. In the hope that I might replicate these benefits for other researchers in the United States, I am eager to host practical workshops for faculty members and graduate students on how they might use the Thesaurus to discover relevant ancient sources for their scholarship and how to extract information from this reference work’s compact yet rich articles.

In fact, it would be hard to leave the offices of the Thesaurus without renewed ambitions of scholarly cooperation and a deep appreciation of the labors of one’s peers and predecessors. In the margins of countless books in the library there, one finds aged annotations and multi-lingual cross-references pointing to this dusty Romanian 2 commentary or that echo in a fragmentary fifth-century author. And these notes, of course, are the material counterparts to the warm, generous camaraderie of learned scholars on the second and third floors of the Bayerische Akademie. At work it sometimes felt like we lexicographers, both those present and those already gone, were joined in piling together a medieval cathedral, one that no single generation can call its own. I only contributed a dozen or so bricks to the construction of the Thesaurus during my brief tenure, but I am grateful to have had the opportunity to help build this massive philological edifice.

Even though they are limited in number, these lexicographical contributions owe so very much to all my supportive colleagues at the Akademie. I extend particular thanks to Nigel Holmes and Marijke Ottink, my editors during the fellowship, and to Renato Fischer, with whom I shared an office and many jokes. My other colleagues, too, were kind enough to invite me to concerts, to help me improve my German, and to decipher the illegible penmanship of several Zettel. Upon my return to America, I was grateful to have acquired a firmer grasp of philological scholarship and, in some other way, of the English word “fellowship”—not simply as an academic position but as the friendship of those united in timeless scholarly pursuit.

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