Comfort Classics: Steve O’Sullivan

The world is in a state of upheaval at the moment, and we’re all looking for things to make us feel less anxious. Maybe Classics can help.

Today’s interview is with Steve O’Sullivan

Is there a source from the ancient world that you find yourself coming back to when you want to feel better?

I graduated from university 30 years ago (!) with a Classics degree.  Although I now work in telecommunications software, I find myself reflecting on something classical every day.  Mainly Homer and Greek tragedy, although in the past couple of years Tacitus has been coming to mind more.  I’ve also enjoyed the recent translations of the Oresteia by Oliver Taplin, and the Odyssey by Emily Wilson, and I’m eagerly waiting for her translation of the Iliad.

However, none of these are a way to feel better.  For feeling better, I turn to Catullus.

When did you first come across Catullus?

I was introduced to Catullus when studying for A-level Latin.  Then at University, while studying the Aeneid, our tutor had us read Catullus.

Can you tell me a bit about Catullus and his context?

Catullus was a Roman poet in the 1st century BCE, in what turned out to be the last years of the Republic.  His poems cover a range of themes:  some are chatty, some are (hilariously) insulting, some are more reflective.  Many cover the various stages of his up-and-down intense relationship with “Lesbia”, and a handful are longer and reflect on myths.

Illustration by Aubrey Beardsley

What is it about these poems that appeals to you most?

Catullus has something for every mood I find myself in, and even though he’s as adept at literary allusions as any other Roman poet, his personality comes through more than the other Roman poets.  I can easily imagine that if Catullus were alive today he’d be writing poems about his obsession with scrolling through Lesbia’s Instagram, and poking fun at friends who insist on buying and showing off the latest hi-tech gizmo.

A couple of his insult poems come to mind when I find myself dealing with annoying people, or when I worry that I am becoming the annoying person.  They are Catullus 49, his put-down of the notorious blowhard Cicero, and Catullus 39, about the annoying Mr White Teeth.  Catullus 39 is a comfort to me whenever someone’s trying to impress me with their fancy vacation / expensive hobbies / important job.

When I’m in a more pensive mood, Catullus 46 hits the spot.

But most of all, it’s Catullus 51, the dulce ridentem poem.  The bulk of it is a translation/tweaking of a beautiful love poem by the Greek poet Sappho, and then Catullus adds an additional stanza about otium (idleness?  too much free time?  leisure?): how bad it is for him, and in a sudden zoom-out, how it’s destroyed cities and kingdoms in the past.  This seems to be Catullus already seeing how this relationship is going to end up.

Over the years, this has grown on me more and more.  What’s the tipping point at which reflecting on and appreciating one’s circumstances, whether good or bad, becomes narcissistic, self-involved and self-destructive?  And this is particularly relevant in this time of forced otium.  I’m one of the fortunate people:  I’m still employed, and my family and I are still healthy.  But, I’m certainly spending more time on the sofa than in the past.  I use this poem by Catullus as an encouragement not to sit around feeling sorry for myself, and not to spend the whole time complaining about what I’m not able to do.  It doesn’t always work, but at least I’m trying.

And finally… what do you do, outside of Classics, to cheer yourself up?

My wife and I have finally given in to our kids’ entreaties, and we have a new puppy.  That’s certainly one way to make sure we don’t have too much otium.

Steve O’Sullivan graduated from Magdalen College Oxford with a Classics degree in 1990.  Since then he’s worked in the field of communications software.  He lives in Washington DC with his wife and children.

Catch up with all the Comfort Classics interviews here.

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