THE ECOLOGY OF EMPIRE
WHAT CAN AN OIL-CRAZED AMERICA LEARN FROM VIRGIL’S OBSESSION WITH TREES?
In the summer of 2002, I went a little mad. The previous fall, I had taught composition at Fordham University’s Lincoln Center campus. My second session met two days after September 11; displaced from my lower Manhattan apartment, subways disasterized, I walked to class from a friend’s home fifty-five blocks away, unsure if anyone would even show up. They did. Throughout the next few months I lived an itinerant existence, staying with friends, exes, and friends of friends, and organizing my home’s rehabilitation while working through comma splices, word order, and what my Russian student called “problem of definite article” with first-years who spoke seven languages and commuted to school from four boroughs. My reward for this effort was a laughable paycheck, an overwhelming sense of insufficiency, and the chance to audit a class. Thus it was that in June, as I and the city settled into an uneasy truce with normality, I bought a copy of Wheelock’s Latin Grammar and a fat pack of index cards. I had decided I had to learn Latin.
Astonishingly, I had a companion. My friend Sarah, a professor at Fordham, shared my mania. The course was taught at Fordham’s campus in the Bronx, which meant that twice a week Sarah and I boarded the “Ram Van” at the Lincoln Center campus on the Upper West Side. We then spent the next thirty to forty minutes shuffling flashcards and muddling our way through declensions as the apparently shock-absorber-less minibus careered up the Hudson and across the Cross-Bronx Expressway to the throbbing syncopations of Hot 97, a blasé student driver dodging gnarled traffic without ever loosening her grip on her cell phone. At the end of the trip, slightly nauseated, we spilled out of the van clutching our notes and staggered into that three-hour chalkfest for surly grad students known as the Summer Language Intensive.
What was driving this madness? Sarah could manufacture a plea of scholarly necessity, but for me, learning Latin was sheer self-indulgence. All I could offer by way of reason was that I wanted to read the Aeneid. That June, Hamid Karzai was elected head of Afghanistan’s interim government. In July, the U.S. bombed a wedding party near Kandahar, killing at least twenty civilians. Plans for an invasion of Iraq were solidifying. The Australian Institute of Marine Science announced that global warming was threatening the Great Barrier Reef. More evidence emerged that the polar ice caps were melting. At some point, I picked up a newspaper and saw Ozzy Osbourne referred to as “America’s reigning paterfamilias.” What was I doing, I wondered, studying a dead language when all around me the world was dying anew?
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