Et in Arcadia Ego

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Et in Arcadia Ego

The title to Book One of Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited is the Latin phrase “Et in Arcadia Ego”—but the interpretation of that phrase is debated. Book One begins as the narrator, Captain Charles Ryder, realizes he has unwittingly returned to Brideshead—the English manor where he spent many days of his youth—now commandeered during the mobilization of British forces in World War II. Ryder is instantly overcome by the vivid memory of his first visit.

I had been there before; first with Sebastian more than twenty years ago on a cloudless day in June, when the ditches were creamy with meadowsweet and the air heavy with all the scents of summer; it was a day of peculiar splendour, and though I had been there so often, in so many moods, it was to that first visit that my heart returned on this, my latest.

The novel’s Prologue had described the grim monotony of Ryder’s military life. His realization that he has returned to Brideshead—and the flood of memories the realization stirs—creates a sharp contrast with the dreariness of Ryder’s present life. His nostalgia for that earlier, brighter, more hopeful time well represents the prevailing interpretation of the phrase et in Arcadia ego—“I, too, (once lived) in Arcadia.” Examples of this motif abound in modern literature. As Erwin Panofsky explains, in this brilliant essay, the motif conjures up “the retrospective vision of an unsurpassable happiness, enjoyed in the past, unattainable ever after, yet enduringly alive in the memory.”

But what is Arcadia—or Arcady, as it is often called in English? To answer that question, it is necessary to distinguish two Arcadias: the actual region of the central Peloponnese, in Greece: a rugged, desolate, primitive place, inhabited by herdsmen and the god Pan; and the Arcady of poetic and pictorial imagination: “an ideal realm of perfect bliss and beauty, a dream incarnate of ineffable happiness, surrounded nevertheless with a halo of ‘sweetly sad’ melancholy” (Panofsky). How the former was transformed into the latter is a story too big for a newsletter. Panofsky gives a detailed account, which demonstrates the crucial role played by the Roman poet Virgil. But the main subject of Panofsky’s essay is the proper translation of the phrase et in Arcadia ego—which is not, as we usually take it, “I, too, (once lived) in Arcadia,” but rather “even in Arcadia I (Death) (hold sway).”

Apart from considering the rules of Latin grammar—which argue strongly for the latter interpretation—Panofsky also closely analyzes a pair of paintings by Nicolas Poussin (1594–1665) and an earlier painting by Giovanni Francesco Guercino (1591–1666). Guercino’s picture, painted at Rome between 1621 and 1623, is the source of the Latin phrase Et in Arcadia ego, which is the painting’s title.


Et in Arcadia Ego by Giovanni Francesco Barbieri (Guercino): Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica, Rome

Panofsky comments:

In this painting two Arcadian shepherds are checked in their wanderings by the sudden sight … of a huge human skull that lies on a moldering piece of masonry and receives the attentions of a fly and a mouse, popular symbols of decay and all-devouring time. Incised on the masonry are the words Et in Arcadia ego, and it is unquestionably by the skull that they are supposed to be pronounced.… The skull, now, was and is the accepted symbol of Death personified, as is borne out by the very fact that the English language refers to it, not as a “dead man’s head,” but as a “death’s-head.”

One description of the painting speaks of the two shepherds as “gay frolickers” stumbling over a death’s-head. Far from stirring wistful feeling for a blissful but irrecoverable past, Guercino’s Et in Arcadia ego “turns out to be a mediaeval memento mori in humanistic disguise.” It is a startling summons to all who behold it to consider our inescapable mortality.

Waugh’s novel, in fact, describes a similar scene: As Charles Ryder dwells upon the memory of his prodigal youth spent in the company of his dear friend Sebastian, he remembers the various adornments of his Oxford rooms, which included “a human skull lately purchased from the School of Medicine, which, resting in a bowl of roses, formed, at the moment, the chief decoration of my table. It bore the motto Et in Arcadia ego inscribed on its forehead.” For the Charles Ryder of that moment—rich in youth and surrounded by luxury and material comfort—the prominent display of the death’s-head inscribed et in Arcadia ego is a whimsical affectation. But, as readers of the novel know, Ryder’s subsequent life becomes a lesson in the pain of abortive love, loss, and suffering—a lesson that even in the midst of his blissful youth—even in Arcadia—Death held sway.

The omnipresence of Death’s reign, however, is not the end of the story—either absolutely or as regards the interpretation of the phrase et in Arcadia ego. Panofsky, after demonstrating the proper translation of the Latin—”even in Arcadia I (Death) (hold sway)”—still allows for a legitimate development of the interpretation of the phrase: a development instigated by Nicolas Poussin’s two versions of the same theme:


Et in Arcadia Ego, first version by Nicolas Poussin: Devonshire Collection at Chatsworth


Et in Arcadia Ego, second version by Nicolas Poussin: Louvre

The first version originally formed the counterpart of Poussin’s Midas Washing His Face in the River Pactolus. “In conjunction, the two compositions thus teach a twofold lesson, one warning against a mad desire for riches at the expense of the more real values of life, the other against a thoughtless enjoyment of pleasures soon to be ended” (Panofsky). Panofsky concludes that the phrase Et in Arcadia ego—now inscribed on a classical sarcophagus, atop which rests the human skull, recalling Guercino’s composition—”can still be translated as ‘Even in Arcady I, Death, hold sway,’ without being out of harmony with what is visible in the painting itself.”

In Poussin’s second version of the theme, however,

we can observe a radical break with the mediaeval, moralizing tradition. The element of drama and surprise has disappeared. Instead of two or three Arcadians approaching from the left in a group, we have four, symmetrically arranged on either side of a sepulchral monument. Instead of being checked in their progress by an unexpected and terrifying phenomenon, they are absorbed in calm discussion and pensive contemplation.

Most noteworthy, the death’s-head has been entirely eliminated. Thus,

we have a basic change in interpretation. The Arcadians are not so much warned of an implacable future as they are immersed in mellow meditation on a beautiful past.… In short, Poussin’s Louvre picture no longer shows a dramatic encounter with Death but a contemplative absorption in the idea of mortality.”

The effect of Poussin’s development of the theme is to invite (“almost compel,” says Panofsky) the beholder to mistranslate the Latin phrase by relating the ego to a dead person instead of to the tomb, by connecting the et with ego instead of with Arcadia, and by supplying the missing verb in the form of a vixi [I have lived] or fui [I have been] instead of a sum [I am].… Here, then, we have the occupant of the tomb substituted for the tomb itself, and the whole phrase projected into the past: what had been a menace has become a remembrance.


“Sauntering” and la Sainte Terre

My brother Jason wrote to me about the etymology of the word “saunter” given by Henry David Thoreau in his essay “Walking.” To “saunter” is to “to walk with a leisurely and careless gait; to stroll. Also, to travel by vehicle in a slow and leisurely manner” (Oxford English Dictionary). A now-obsolete meaning is “to wander or travel about aimlessly or unprofitably; to travel as a vagrant.” But the original meaning of the word was “to muse” or “to be in reverie.” Thoreau himself offers two possible etymologies of the word:

I have met with but one or two persons in the course of my life who understood the art of Walking, that is, of taking walks—who had a genius, so to speak, for sauntering, which word is beautifully derived “from idle people who roved about the country, in the Middle Ages, and asked charity, under pretense of going à la Sainte Terre,” to the Holy Land, till the children exclaimed, “There goes a Sainte-Terrer,” a Saunterer, a Holy-Lander.

Of this etymology, Thoreau comments, “They who never go to the Holy Land in their walks, as they pretend, are indeed mere idlers and vagabonds; but they who do go there are saunterers in the good sense, such as I mean.” He then offers a second derivation:

Some, however, would derive the word from sans terre without land or a home, which, therefore, in the good sense, will mean, having no particular home, but equally at home everywhere. For this is the secret of successful sauntering. He who sits still in a house all the time may be the greatest vagrant of all; but the saunterer, in the good sense, is no more vagrant than the meandering river, which is all the while sedulously seeking the shortest course to the sea. But I prefer the first, which, indeed, is the most probable derivation. For every walk is a sort of crusade, preached by some Peter the Hermit in us, to go forth and reconquer this Holy Land from the hands of the Infidels.

Alas! Modern etymologists have rejected both of the derivations proposed by Thoreau, although they do note that the word is “of obscure origin.” The American Heritage Dictionary derives “saunter” from Middle English santren, “to muse, wonder”; the OED offers a derivation from Anglo-Norman santrer, “to venture oneself,” but admits that this is “unlikely.” Well, even if Thoreau’s etymologies of “saunter” are wrong, what a wonderful coincidence of sound! Wonderful, and serendipitous—in that the coincidence is responsible, at least in part, for inspiring Thoreau’s essay. Serendipitous, by the way, is another word with a fascinating etymology.


Lingua Franca

My old friend—oldest friend in fact—Dr. Nathan Peffley of Mayo Clinic sent me this fascinating article, which describes a call within France to replace English as the official language of Europe with—wait for it—Latin! The case for Latin as lingua franca of Europe is made by Sundar Ramanadane in the journal Le Figaro.

Latin, he argues, is a natural choice. This is particularly given that every shared historical political experience in Europe leads back to Latin. From the Roman Empire and Christianity, to the Renaissance and Enlightenment, Latin was present throughout it all.

It’s not lacking for culture either, says Ramandane, used through nearly 2000 years of history as the only common link between European minds, leaders and scholars. He goes on to argue that it’s no stranger to modern languages, having shaped them deeply.

More importantly, he argues, Latin is well-suited to politics. In fact, some of the greatest orators and legal experts spoke in Latin, and one that will make it possible to train political leaders and civil servants in rhetoric and logic, much like ancient Greece and Rome.

The biggest reason of all would be symbolic unity. A single language could unify Europe and let it evolve into the next great political union, rather than a loose scattering of states brought together by shared financial interests.

Many readers will surely reflect that Latin, after all, is still the official language of the Catholic Church—and so not, as is often supposed, a “dead” language. In fact, to quote Pope St. John XXIII, lingua Latina est lingua Ecclesiae viva—”the Latin language is the living language of the Church.”


Carne and Carnival

My friend and colleague Dr. Christopher Shannon writes in his latest CWR piece on the historical, social, and moral significance of Carnival—a word which, as Dr. Shannon notes, derives ultimately from the Latin word for meat or flesh (carō, carnis).

During the weeks of Carnival, people traditionally indulged and over-indulged in the consumption of meat. The practice grew out of the practical limitations of food supplies and food preservation in premodern agrarian societies. By the early months of the year, the food from the Fall harvest was running low and meat from slaughtered animals had to be used up before it spoiled.

As the Church gained public authority in the Roman Empire, it glossed this natural seasonal practice with supernatural significance: the holy feast of celebrating Christ’s birth would give way to the holy fast of Lent, a season of preparation for the celebration of Christ’s redemption of mankind at Easter. The carnal excesses of the old pagan celebrations persisted into the Christian era.

Dr. Shannon discovers in both the historical and the still-active practice of Carnival today—as in New Orleans—an enduring testament to the carnality of Catholic culture, which “is by nature public,” and when lived out most fully, involves practices that sustain our bodies as well as our souls.

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