Joanna Klink, the Tin House Writer-in-Residence (and a damn fine neighbor), recently engaged in an email conversation with John D’Agata, whom she first met while the two were studying at the University of Iowa. Unlike some of his more famous correspondences, this discussion was decidedly cordial. Centered on his latest project, a new translation of Plutarch, D’Agata spoke at length about his respect for the Greek historian, our need to modernize the past, and the ways in which an author can have a personal and public persona.
Joanna Klink: Tell me about your latest project?
John D’Agata: I’m translating some of Plutarch’s lesser-known essays. All of them are about love, in one way or another—some directly, some tangentially so—and while none of them were ever gathered together by Plutarch himself, it’s clear, given how many of these essays he wrote, that he was fascinated by the subject.
JK: How many did he write?
JD: About a dozen of varying lengths. Some are as short as a paragraph. One is over 50 pages.
JK: Okay, so what is Plutarch’s stance towards love in these essays?
JD: Well, he seems to know very little about the subject. Or maybe that’s not a fair statement. What I mean is that Plutarch doesn’t always believe what I’d like him to believe when it comes to love. We celebrate Plutarch because he feels like one of the most personable and readable authors from antiquity. And so we want to modernize him, we want to make that infectiously intimate voice of his not just sound modern but also be modern, with the same sorts of opinions that we might hold today. But the reality is that Plutarch was quite old-fashioned in a lot of ways, even for the very conservative period during which he was living.
For example, his longest sustained essay is a dialogue about a young man who is seduced by an older woman. Now that conceit is pretty modern-sounding, but Plutarch only uses it as bait to lure us into a lecture about heterosexual versus homosexual sex—how the former is more virtuous than the latter.
I find this fascinating, because in another of Plutarch’s essays he introduces us to the legend of the Sacred Band of Thebes, a military regiment that was made up of 150 male couples. The Greeks formed this regiment under the theory that soldiers who were in love with one another would fight more bravely (and perhaps more viciously) than soldiers who were merely close comrades. We naturally want to protect our beloveds. Or so the theory claimed.
But it turns out that the theory was right. The Sacred Band remained undefeated for decades. And Plutarch goes out of his way to celebrate these men, not just as fighters, but as lovers, spelling out their virtues as gay soldiers. That intrigues me, because after reading it I’m left wondering how this same writer could have published an equally passionate essay about how wrong gay love is.
In another example, I like how Plutarch can give us an infuriatingly conventional essay like “Advice to Newlyweds,” in which he essentially tells women to be subservient to men, while his own wife was supposedly writing a book of her own about marriage. That book has subsequently been lost to history, but there’s pretty good evidence that it existed, and suffice it to say a book by a married woman in 2nd century Greece would have been wildly uncommon. This was a society in which women were seldom allowed out of the house without escorts. And so that text not only gives us a glimpse into Plutarch’s marriage, a partnership that had to have been uniquely supportive and respectful, but also into the complications of Plutarch’s mind. Who is this guy who publicly argued that a woman’s job is to shut up and do what she’s told, while privately he encouraged his own wife to openly express herself? That’s interesting.
JK: Yes, it’s delightful how guys throughout history have ordered women to be subservient while actually knowing better.
JD: It’s gross, but it’s interesting. Because that hypocrisy is something that we see in nearly every kind of literary decision Plutarch makes. He was notorious for altering facts and quotes in his essays—something that a lot of essayists throughout history have done—and yet he wrote a venomous essay entitled “The Malice of Herodotus,” in which he takes another notoriously inaccurate essayist to task for the looseness of his facts.
All of this is to say that I admire Plutarch’s willingness to follow the whims of his mind. In his essays, he is far less concerned with consistency and with presenting to us a morally invariable persona than he is with digging into ideas because they interest him—even if those ideas contradict each other from one essay to another. He was a natural born essayist, in other words, a wanderer through paradoxes and into the sticking points of his own mind.
JK: Does Plutarch use any stylistic techniques, in the pieces you’re translating, that you find powerful, or weird, or just endearing?
JD: I call them essays, not “pieces.”
JK: John, you call everything you like an essay. Over the past seventeen years I’ve heard you call poems essays, films essays, classes and sunsets essays—a really good meal an essay.
JD: Um . . . yes, true. I’ve called some poems essays, because some of them frankly are. As are some films. And what else is a really good class but a single mind’s attempt to seduce an audience onto a journey?
JK: These poems you refer to as essays—some of us call them “long poems.” Anyway—how did Plutarch conceive of the genre in which he was writing?
JD: Well he never had the word “essay,” but he certainly would have recognized the qualities of essaying that Michel de Montaigne identified in the 16th century when he first applied that term to this literary form. In fact, Montaigne admired Plutarch more than any other writer from antiquity, praising not his skills as a historian or a moralist, but rather as an essayist—a writer more interested in finding resonance in an experience than resolution to a problem:
In whom can the spirit of the essay be more clearly seen than our Plutarch? How variously does he discourse on the same topic? How many times does he present us with two or three contradictory explanations of the same subject, without making a choice and telling us which we must embrace?
Ralph Waldo Emerson admired the same thing in him, describing Plutarch’s writing as being “rammed with life,” more interested in enthusiastically ranging over the possibilities of a subject than in its “microscopic subtleties”:
His style is realistic, picturesque and varied; his sharp objective eyes seeing everything that moves, shines, or threatens in nature or art, or thought or dreams. Indeed, twilights, shadows, omens and spectres have a charm for him. He believes in witchcraft and the evil eye, in demons and ghosts. . . . His vivacity and abundance never leave him to loiter or pound on an incident. I admire his rapid and crowded style, as if he had such store of anecdotes of his heroes that he is forced to suppress more than he recounts, in order to keep up with the hasting history.
And St. Augustine, who lived a couple centuries after Plutarch, said something similar about the essayist’s natural proclivity for awe over anything else. “Let others wrangle,” he said. “I will wonder.”
JK: And about the techniques issue—
JD: Right. So besides his hypocrisy, Plutarch is a masterful craftsman. He perfected a technique in Greek that was called anazōgraphēsis—literally, “word pictures”—a literary strategy that relied more on illustration than exposition in order to make an argument. In Plutarch’s essays it’s common for us to experience a kind of piling-up of images so that their vividness is what persuades us. This is what Emerson referred to as his “rapid and crowded style.” Plutarch lets us “see” for ourselves the point that he is trying to make so that we find ourselves agreeing with him without his needing to explain anything.
For example, in an essay about Marc Antony, Plutarch presents the first encounter between his protagonist, Antony, and his antagonist, Cleopatra, in so evocative a scene that artists as varied as Shakespeare, Dryden, George Bernard Shaw and Cecile B. DeMille have drooled over themselves attempting to recreate it. Plutarch writes:
And so despite having been summoned earlier by one Roman or another for several years since Caesar’s death—and having ignored each and every one of those requests up till now—Cleopatra finally left her palace in Egypt and made her way slowly, by barge, just a couple miles a day, to Antony’s military camp.
She arrived on a ship whose prow swept up dramatically in gold. Its sails undulated like a purple breeze as rowers pulled in unison against silver-covered oars and an orchestra of flutes accompanied. She herself reclined at the stern of the ship beneath a canopy of embroidered gold, flanked by a small army of beautiful young boys who were made up to look like the god of love, fanning her with fronds and feathers, as flags from her country flew overhead. Behind them, beside the rudder, an equally beautiful flank of young girls resembled an army of water nymphs and muses, while she, the Queen, played the part of Venus, the empress of the heart, lying in the center of it all.
Around the barge as it advanced upstream there wafted clouds of incense that smoked from casks along the deck, and then, once the barge gently made contact with the shore, the Queen moved onto a litter, as people from local villages formed two flanks on either side of her to escort her, as if instinctively, to the place where Antony was.
Plutarch is not just setting the scene for the meeting of two historical figures and the cultures they represent—Antony from the conservative Roman west, and Cleopatra from the exotic east—but he’s foreshadowing a relationship that’s going to change history. What we know by the end of this scene is that Antony and Cleopatra are going to fuck. It’s inevitable, as Plutarch renders it. After all, the villagers “instinctively” form a runway for Cleopatra to slink down as she makes her way toward her man. But before that Plutarch makes sure he frames Cleopatra as not just an exotic sex goddess—surrounded by dancers and incense and tambourines and sequins—but as someone who’s as powerful as a god in her own right. Cleopatra is reclining at the back of a barge that’s basically a giant phallus projecting right out from under her until it thrusts up dramatically in a prow tipped in gold.
So here’s this big sequined dick making its way up the river—“slowly, by barge, just a couple miles a day,” a syntactically unhurried and measured description that moves at its speed, on its terms—until it finally arrives at Antony’s camp, “making contact with the shore,” which is my favorite line in the essay. The great Roman General is made subservient to the Asian Queen.
By the end of the scene we know that Antony is going to get fucked in more ways than one. Their meeting is the end of his power as a military leader, of his influence as a politician, and of his very life as well. By using a palette of vivid sensory details, Plutarch tells us that this meeting marks a moment when history is fundamentally changed, when Antony becomes distracted from his war with Octavian, and the Roman Republic is lost forever.
JK: What else about Plutarch’s style is essayistic?
JD: He is known for anecdotes, some of which can go on for pages and pages, such that I think this proclivity for the anecdotal is what’s given Plutarch and his descendants a reputation for being “digressive,” as if that were a bad thing. True essaying, however, is necessarily digressive, because an essayist is a natural wanderer, always finding herself far from the projected path that a thesis might have promised.
We encounter this same kind of wandering spiritedness in Plutarch’s word choices too. He was probably one of the best-read men of his age (he supposedly held one of the largest private libraries in Europe) but he was also one of its most stylistically daring. In Greek literature, convention tended to relegate some words exclusively to prose and others to poetry. And while Plutarch frequently quotes from poets in his prose, he sometimes also goes one step further by using “poetic” words in his essays outside of quotation.
For example, there are words that appear in poems by Pindar or plays by Aeschylus—texts that were written a few hundred years before Plutarch’s lifetime—and then they don’t appear again anywhere in Greek literature until Plutarch uses them in an essay. That’s the mark of a voracious vocabulary, but more interestingly I think it also demonstrates a spunkiness that likes bucking convention—not necessarily just for the heck of bucking it, but rather because what Plutarch wants to create is an effect that readers wouldn’t have ever encountered in prose before. Literally.
And I think that’s what makes him feel so personable and still so modern, that jolt of surprise that we can still feel in his essays today, two thousand years after he wrote them.
JK: John, explain why—given the whole trajectory of your writing life—you’re doing these translations now.
JD: I was reading Plutarch, or abridged versions of his work, when I was a young, lonely, burgeoning nerd—
JK: How does a nerd burgeon?
JD: I never learned French or Spanish when my friends started studying those languages in middle school. My mom thought I should know Greek and Latin instead. But because my school didn’t offer Greek or Latin, I had to have a series of private tutors. That made the act of studying Greek and Latin seem secretive, as if every vocabulary lesson or grammar quiz were part of an initiation into a private club. And that felt exciting. So despite the fact that I now know as an adult that this “club” is made up of considerably more people, it still feels special, in the same way that the space of a Greek sentence can feel exhilaratingly expansive and unobstructed, as if it’s terrain that no one’s ever tromped on and no one is likely to wander into after me.
In reality, though, Plutarch is one of the most translated writers from antiquity, so all of his sentences have already been thoroughly tromped on, even the ones that haven’t been as widely translated into English. So what I mean is that the sculptural nature of Greek syntax can make a sentence feel fresh, as if no one else has ever been in that sentence before, because in some ways, technically speaking, nobody ever has. There’s a lot of interpretative work that goes into reading even the most rudimentary Greek sentence. When I’m working on an essay by Plutarch, I’ve always got a bunch of other translations open too, and what’s amazing is that if I get snagged on the Greek somewhere and turn to these other translations for help, I sometimes find that none of them agree as to how the sentence ought to be translated, and that’s because it’s pretty clear that none of them agree on what the sentence even means. That’s obviously kind of frustrating sometimes, but it’s also really exciting, as if there’s still something new to discover in these ancient, ancient sentences.
But also, immersing myself in ancient Greek feels comforting because it’s a private world to which few people have access. It’s a respite. Of course, going back to the roots of the essay in this project is helping to remind me what it is I most care about in the genre.
JK: Yes. And you’re also traveling to Greece soon—wait, any day now?—to do some Plutarch-sleuthing. What will that look like?
JD: Not this summer. I can’t afford it. I don’t fly, so it is always an elaborate process for me. But when I get there next summer (I hope) I’m going to hook up with some Plutarch scholars, hang around Delphi, where Plutarch worked as a priest, and then hike between Tangara, where Plutarch did a lot of teaching, and his home in Chaeronea.
That hike is the real purpose of my trip. Plutarch’s most beautiful essay is about the death of his two-year-old daughter, which opens with an apology to his wife for having missed the little girl’s funeral. I’ve always found that apology enticing. Tanagra is just a day away from Plutarch’s hometown, which is a journey he probably would have made by foot, although possibly by cart. But nevertheless, it’s close. So why didn’t he cancel the lecture that he was booked to give in Tanagra and go to his daughter’s funeral? Did he need the money? Nope. He was one of the wealthiest men in Greece. Is it because girls weren’t as important as boys? Not according to Plutarch, who tells us in the essay that this girl was his only daughter and that she was a particularly joyous addition to their family. So is it because bodies in the ancient world needed to be disposed of quickly so that their death juices wouldn’t start leaking out, and he just couldn’t get there in time? Some funerals lasted for days in antiquity, so that can’t be the reason.
I don’t know why he skipped out on the funeral.
Maybe this personable guy whom we’ve enjoyed chumming around with for the past few millennia was actually a bashful introvert who spent a good part of his life avoiding all of those crucial life experiences that he writes about so wonderfully. Maybe those of us who love to be with him on the page would have actually hated the real guy who was hiding behind the literary persona. Maybe he didn’t attend the funeral so that he could write an essay about not attending the funeral—recognizing that the death of his daughter and his absence at her funeral was a gift from the essay gods. Writers have done grosser things.
John D’Agata is the author of About a Mountain, Halls of Fame and editor of The Next American Essay and The Lost Origins of the Essay. He teaches creative writing at the University of Iowa in Iowa City, where he lives.