Platonic love

Dennis Pryor took us for lectures in a small room on the second floor of the Old Arts Building, in groups the size of tutorials given the lack of interest in this most ancient of subjects.

He knew us all by name, which bothered me as not only did he know our names he also recognised something of our talent or lack thereof in translating Virgil or reading the poems of Catullus.

Vivamus, Mea Lesbia Let us live, Lesbia.

The words rolled out effortlessly as if he spoke this language every single day when everyone knew that Latin was a language as dead as dead can be.

‘It killed the ancient Romans and now it’s killing me.’

I should have stuck with French when I left school and began my degree.

I knew French, I understood its peculiarities, its seemingly feminine wiles, but Latin with its strange declensions and different uses of the conditional tense troubled me for its hard edged logic.

I came to think of Latin as a masculine language and French the feminine, and yet I took it on this man’s language out of love for a woman, love for and a desire to be loved by my favourite teacher at school.

Sister Mary Vincent still wore a habit but would soon shed it for the life of the laity but before she did, she and I concocted a plan that one day soon, after I had finished my university degree, I would join her in the convent cells where I could hide my horrible body behind the habit of a nun and never again have to worry about all the things that bothered me in those days, most particularly my attraction to men and theirs to me.

The nuns had warned us school girls away from men and even though I had five brothers not one of them gave me a hint of sexual desire and my father’s creepy advances in the night left me determined to steer clear of men until I could get through my university degree, find a job or enter the convent and so be free.

Dennis Pryor asked us questions with the confidence of a teacher who believed – and in large part he was right – that all his students shared his love of Latin.

He asked questions confident that we would know the answers.

I bumbled my way through the translations like someone in a trance, Still I managed to get through his classes without too much obvious embarrassment, much as I felt a fraud.

I had studied Latin for my favourite nun. She taught the language at school and although she did not love Latin quite so much as Dennis Pryor she loved it well enough and understood it well enough to leave me with a sense that if I were to understand it too and excel in it, then despite all the protests from students in earlier years when Latin was compulsory that Latin was dead, I could fine a way of communicating and turn her into a woman in love with me.

It was platonic love I looked for then, the sweet and gentle, the uncomplicated, the non body oriented, the love that required nothing by way of physical exchange but only demanded soft sighs and the deep understanding that comes of being with a person with whom you feel as one.

The joy of holding that person in my mind for hours and hours on weekends and when we were away from one another, of being able to imagine my teacher in the small cosy corner of my pocket and sliding my hand inside from time to time to stroke her hair.

To know that she was mine and I was hers and that the two of us had a bond so secure, nothing, not even the slightest discord could pull us apart.

Mea Lesbia, vivamus, atque amemus. Let us live and love.

I could be Catullus writing to his beloved Lesbia whose name he chose as a tribute to the poet Sappho from the island of Lesbos.

But my wishes were more of the possessive love of tiny children towards their mothers, od the AA Milne variety like

James James Morrison Morrison Weatherby George Dupree who ‘took great care of his Mother, though he was only three… “Mother,” he said, said he;

“You must never go down to the end of the town,
if you don’t go down with me.”

Nor the solid love of King Solomon. He solved the problem of two mothers fighting over the same baby by threatening to cut the baby in half. The real mother then stepped forward and let the other have the baby, preferring to have a live baby not in her care than to have a half a dead baby.

In those days I might well have been the false mother the one who was happy with her half dead half alive baby as long as she was in my control, and so it came to pass that the months rolled by and I struggled through my Latin assignment and scraped by with mere passes in all my exams.

Dr Pryor stopped asking me questions in class and I resolved to stop studying Latin by the years end and concentrate instead, not on getting into the convent with my beloved favourite teacher but instead of concentrating my attentions on the fickle hearted boys who had once seemed so off limits and now seemed so much more desirable.

5 thoughts on “Platonic love”

  1. Before we got to pick the subjects we would sit O-Levels in we first had to endure two years of general subjects. In my third year I dropped all languages and sciences and have never regretted it. Two years of French and one of Latin I was compulsory, however, and although I didn’t appreciate them at the time, I now find myself grateful because they enhanced my appreciation of English. I remember very little of the classes. Amo, amas, amat: I love, you love, he/she loves. That’s about it for Latin. That and the word ‘bibit’ from which we get the English ‘imbibe’ which is not a word I’d ever used but it was the one that caused me to sit up and pay attention; suddenly I could see the point to learning a dead language. God alone knows why that word and none of those that preceded it. I would’ve far rather taken Latin than History but that wasn’t a choice. I hated History. I hated Geography even more and I didn’t really know what Modern Studies involved but it was the only other option in that slot and the reason I didn’t take it was because someone told me only dummies took Modern Studies and I believed them without finding out for myself.

    Of course by the time I went to the Academy the one subject I would’ve rather studied than any of the other things on offer was bodies, especially female bodies. I discovered them when I was about eleven. How had I not noticed them before? I don’t know how old I was when I first heard of the notion of Platonic Love but it made no sense to me, certainly not the contemporary version of it. Women were differentiated by one thing only: how much I wanted to have sex with them. It was taken for granted I wanted to have sex with any woman who’d let me (not that any did). Friendship with a woman was therefore either a way to get her to have sex with you or a bonus if you were already having sex with her.

    Or as Harry put it (from When Harry Met Sally):

    Harry: [N]o man can be friends with a woman that he finds attractive. He always wants to have sex with her.
    Sally: So you’re saying that a man can be friends with a woman he finds unattractive?
    Harry: No, you pretty much want to nail ’em too.

    1. Your words remind me of things Gerald Murnane writes, Jim. His curiosity about females and to some extent his desire for sex. Though mostly as a child/adolescent he was just plain curious. Repressed households perhaps fuel this maybe more than other households but I suppose hormones have a big part to play too, those so-called ‘raging’ hormones of adolescence going into adulthood. They account for a great deal. But I reckon it’s complicated. As for Latin, I’m pleased I studied it too now with the benefit of hindsight. I only wish I’d had my head out of the clouds and could have taken in more while I studied the language rather than float over the surface without real understanding out of crazy love. Thanks, Jim.

  2. I never got no Latin lessons! French & German were our only choices (and English). I love languages. I love the history of language, I love the meaning of words (‘petrichor’ is my favourite) and I love beautifully chosen words. I am also a spelling & grammar pedant. I am very proud of my spelling, not so much my grammar. If I could only define who/whom, it would be a triumphal moment for me. I’ve read all the rules and I still get it wrong.
    I also get mortally offended whenever there is a discussion about relaxing the rules of english for school children. I am frustrated daily at work by my younger colleagues – and my manager!
    I also don’t believe I ever had a crush on a teacher, or any adult for that matter. I was not an able student and my like/dislike of teachers was based on how much humiliation I felt they could inflict on me for my lack of comprehension. I suspect I may have (had) ADD due to my mother’s alcoholism. Maybe I still do. (I should be doing something else right now.)
    I think every teacher should approach their students with the belief that they share the same love of the chosen subject. Otherwise, how else would you talk passionately about it? And I do admire passion.
    Too bad Jim and I never met as teenagers. My discovery of boys was in line with his discovery of girls. And that’s all I’ll say about that.

  3. Latin was no longer offered by the time I went to school. My uncles and father had learnt it, and Dad told us stories of being caned by the Christian Brothers if he got it wrong.
    I did love French, too, partly because of the language, which is melodic and legato, like music. And partly because of our French teacher, Madame Creek. She came from Geneva in Switzerland and seemed so exotic to me, different to anyone else I’d ever met. I loved the way she dressed—très chic! I stayed in contact with her after school and she even came to our wedding.
    It’s nice to have these memories of favourite teachers! x

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