Monday, August 2, 2010

The Quotable Rhett Butler: Nihil Desperandum

I heart Horace. I just thought we'd get that out of the way first. A weird sympathy, I admit, made even weirder by the fact that Gone with the Wind is what started it in the first place. I come from a country where torture Latin is among the subjects one has to take in high school. I liked grammar, but in turn resented most of the dead Roman poets they forced upon us. Horace was an exception because--well, to be honest, because I  knew that lines like "dulce et decorum est pro patria mori" and "non sum qualis eram bonae sub regno Cynarae" came from him, and I figured nothing that had the slightest connection with GWTW could be all bad (and that in the background is my Latin teacher fainting at the blasphemy).

And now that our short medium-length episode of Bugsie's autobiography is covered for the public's enlightenment, let me introduce this week's Rhett Butler (mis)quote, which yes, actually comes from Horace:
"'Nihil desperandum' is my motto."
--Gone with the Wind, Chapter XXXIV
As you all know already, this is from the famous jail scene; it's Rhett response to Scarlett's (fake) worry over his fate. Of course, she's oblivious to the meaning of his motto and unashamed of her ignorance, in typical Scarlett fashion, which prompts him to elaborate, somewhat misleadingly:
"'What does that mean?'

'It means 'maybe,' my charming ignoramus.'"
--Gone with the Wind, Chapter XXXIV
The literal translation of what he said in Latin is actually "nothing to be despaired of," which of course sounds much better as "no cause for despair" or, with more of a stretch, "never despair." The slight problem is that the expression, initially taken from Horace's Odes (Carmina) and become a popular saying, is in fact "Nil desperandum." Rhett is misquoting it, but without actually committing any grammatical fault, as "nil" is the contraction of "nihil," and often used in poetical contexts  to attain the right number of syllables for a particular meter. Both words have the same primary sense, "nothing," and are used interchangeably (as you can amply see if you have the patience to  read through the dictionary entry linked above).

But what does "Nil desperandum" stand for in its original context? It's actually a very interesting thing, for the ode in which this expression appears (I.7, that is) seems quite fitting for Rhett. Horace refers to the mythical hero Teucer, a participant to the Trojan War whose father had disowned him and banished him from his city of birth, because he had failed to prevent his much more famous half-brother Ajax from killing himself. Teucer is to leave and found a new city, and naturally he finds this a good opportunity to address a pep talk to his crew, to assure them that there is no reason for despair while they are under the guidance and auspices of Teucer ("Nil desperandum Teucro duce et auspice Teucro").  Here is a poetical translation of the entire fragment:
 "Where Fortune bears us, than my sire more kind,
There let us go, my own, my gallant crew.
'Tis Teucer leads, 'tis Teucer breathes the wind;
No more despair; Apollo's word is true.
Another Salamis in kindlier air
Shall yet arise. Hearts, that have borne with me
Worse buffets! drown today in wine your care;
To-morrow we recross the wide, wide sea!”
--excerpted from Horace, Odes, I.7
"Drown today in wine your care; To-morrow we recross the wide, wide sea." That actually sounds like something that not only the wandering Rhett, but also Scarlett with her "Tomorrow is another day" could adhere to, doesn't it?


  1. What an incredible reference! I am awed by the breadth of your knowledge of literature. The excerpt from Horace, illustrating the context of Rhett's words, shows just what a work of genius GWTW really is. Truly that fits Rhett to a tee! Thank you Mlle. Bugsie, and a hat tip to your Latin teacher! :D

  2. I too tip my hat to you Bugsie, your latin teacher, and MM of course! I was 15 when I first started researching all of the references Rhett alludes to in GWTW. Now some (cough) 35 years later I've finally found someone who is as dedicated (obsessed?) as I am about presenting to the public the true literary value of this great novel.

    Rhett clearly had a priviledged education which may have included private tutors. Whatever the case, he certainly excelled at his studies - including Latin! In addition, his exceptionally high intellect allows his to make timely allusions or to speak metaphorically whenever the situation calls for poetic/cryptic/humorous reflection or ironic commentary. He also has traveled and seen the world (or the most significant/exotic parts of it in the 19th century American way of thinking). These world-wide experiences give him great insight into the minds and motives of other people.

    All that said, one serious issue that I have with the Rhett/Scarlett relationship is the inequality of their educational levels and overall backgrounds. He comes from an aristocratic upbringing where he was trained in both the classics and in military strategy - as was customary for young men of the day. She, however, is the cross-breed of a fallen aristocrat and an immigrant. Scarlett attended the nearby female academy and was a poor student in everything except math. She had enough education (or lack of an education) as was customary for country women of her day. She did not travel much; visiting only Savannah and Charleston before going to Atlanta during the war. She was/is rooted in Tara.

    This all begs the question: how could HE possibly fall in love with HER? Romantic relationships are born in similarity. You usually meet romantic partners through people you associate with because of their common background or interests. While both Rhett and Scarlett have a common Southern heritage and they are alike in their hard-headed and practical approach to life, their similarities end there. They are, in fact, polar opposites. He's the poetic adventurer. She's the home-based pragmatist. He wants marriage and children. She wants neither (until the very end, of course, when she wants both). He has a sense of humor and a sense of fun. She is too serious and too literal minded.

    One could argue that this is the yin-yang of their relationship - there is enough similarity between them to draw them together, and more than enough differences between them to pull them apart. MM wrote in one of her letters (to the Macmillan team) that in the end she hoped the reader would see Scarlett and Rhett as antagonists who never really wanted the same things at the same time.

    While it makes perfect sense for Scarlett to fall for Rhett, I really think that if the relationship would have progressed past the passion stage (i.e. they became an "old married couple") he would get really bored with her because of her general ignorance. In the end, they would literally have nothing left to talk about.

    I'm very interested in hearing your thoughts about this.

  3. @Rita- What a great question! It's one I've thought about too. Call me a hopelessly naive optimist (it's okay- Bugsie does it all the time anyway), but I don't think Rhett would have gotten bored with Scarlett. It's certainly true that he had an impressive classical education and an appreciation for culture. But in what we see of him and his actions throughout most of his life in GWTW, his cultural allusions and asides appear to be mainly just that--asides that inform him and his worldwide but take a backseat to his pursuit of other activities he finds more rewarding or adventurous. I do think Rhett highly valued intelligence and education, but not at the expense of life experience or expressing personal freedom.

    So in this way I think in this way he saw Scarlett as a rare counterpoint--a woman reared in the same Southern tradition, but who like him was hard-minded and selfish, capable of living outside the confines of genteel society. That must have been a nearly impossible combination to find in the GWTW-era South and I think Rhett loved the challenge of locking horns with a woman like him in this regard. So, to this end, I don't see him getting bored with Scarlett once they've progressed past the passion stage--just finding new and interesting things to bicker about well into their golden years.

    Moreover, to be perfectly honest, I'm not sure Rhett wanted an intellectual equal in a partner. I love Rhett dearly, but the man had some pretty serious issues with control and emotional insecurity. I can't see him being able to let go of those things well enough to feel fully at home in a relationship with someone who was 100% his match--aka both Scarlett-like and scholar-like. He would always be searching for a way to maintain the upper hand. So in some ways, Scarlett's ignorance served as a handy ingredient in creating that particular (and obviously dysfunctional) Rhett-and-Scarlett relationship cocktail we know and love. :)

  4. @ Iris. Aw, thanks. Glad you enjoyed it. And once I get my teacher some smelling salts, I'm sure she'll say the same :D

    @Rita. Interesting point. If we take the novel as it is, yes I think Rhett's culture is part of what sets him apart from his wife, and one more hint that their marriage is designed to fail. Also, his classical education is a clear connection to the Old South. He sometimes uses it as a whip against its prejudices (like in the Thermopylae example from last week), but in the end he will come to long for that world, a world he's always been ambivalent towards (joining the army, helping the Klan etc). It's Scarlett with all her faults and qualities that represent the New South, and, with it, a world that is too raw for Rhett at the end.

    If we consider them outside the novel's frame, I actually think the fact Scarlett lacks a sense of humor would be more of an impediment than this difference in education. I agree with iso that, unlike Ashley, Rhett doesn't make culture the center of his world. It is however an important part of his personality, but I think they'd manage. I know couples that have different backgrounds, like humanities vs geekery/exact sciences etc and they find a common background by sharing what they love about their respective fields. If Scarlett came to love Rhett, she would strive to understand him, like she did with Ashley. It's up to Rhett to find the right things to share that wouldn't bore her, to show her that there is fun to be had. But then again, I strongly believe that no one can be immune to great literature if they are introduced to it in the proper way, so this might be a naive stand.

    @iso. You know I agree that bluestocking Scarlett would be too large a mouthful of Dead Sea fruit for even Rhett to chew.

  5. Interesting comments ladies...I have often thought that if MM would have written a sequel, that the story would have naturally continued in Charleston for a number of reasons - including the city's continued military occupation (reconstruction) and the twist in the Rhett/Scarlett dynamic, where SHE now chased HIM. Regardless of the setting, as a new element to their story I would have liked to see a new love interest introduced for Rhett. This woman would have been a "bluestocking Scarlett" or a sexier version of Melanie. I think it would have been a very interesting plot device and one in which the reader could have seen new personality traits in both characters.

    What would Rhett have done and how would he have behaved if he met a woman he both desired AND respected? We all know Rhett loved Scarlett for her shrewdness, determination, and willpower, but I mean loving a woman for her intellect and personal refinement as well.

    How would Scarlett have reacted if she knew there was a woman whom she considered to be her equal(perhaps even superior)who was in love with HER husband? Or, to add even more spice to the story, have this woman and Rhett secretly pining away for (lusting after?)one another without Scarlett suspecting (refusing to believe?) anything. Can you see Rhett fantasizing about another woman when he's in bed with Scarlett? ;-0

    What would the marriage have been like if Scarlett refused to grant Rhett a divorce and he remained married to her for the sake of her reputation, or because he didn't want to jeapordize his new-found (reclaimed?) respectability? She tolerated (privately despised) his relationship with Belle because she knew that it was due to her closed bedroom door and her desire for Ashley. But what if her bedroom door continued to be "invitingly ajar" and he continued not to accept her invitation?

    I think these are interesting storylines of continued domestic conflict to explore within the backdrop of Charleston's/South Carolina's continued political turmoil. The irony, of course, would be that Scarlett would now be cast as the "cuckold". Could the fans of GWTW have accepted an unfaithful Rhett - one who no longer had a justifiable reason to stray from the marital bed? Would this have caused Scarlett to be seen in a more sympathetic light? Would we even want to see our Scarlett as a more sympathetic, traditional romantic heroine?

    Personally, I would have liked to see Scarlett fight for Rhett and their marriage. I think it would have brought a new depth and wisdom to her character. I would also have liked to see how she dealt with more children, given her new willingness to have intimate relations and "more babies". In all, she had four pregnancies in GWTW, with two surviving children. Imagine her as the mother of six or eight children, including a teen-aged Wade and Ella!

  6. Well, I will say this. I read fan fiction and though admittedly this particular twist is rarely explored in stories (Rhett actually being in love with another woman), it is one of the things that I don't like reading about. It is an irrational dislike, I know, but a pretty intense one nonetheless. And if it unsettles me in fics, I can't imagine what a sequel written by MM would do to me :D (In fact, I have a suspicion. You see, an extremely talented lady wrote a wonderful sequel once in which a French mistress featured. She still hasn't sent me the money for all the Kleenex I used.)

    It's an interesting idea, though I can't really see Rhett at the end of the book--worn out as he was--investing that much into a new relationship. Perhaps if a woman managed to embody all the charm and grace he was looking for. Hmm...Would she be his Ashley? After all, Ashley was a form of clinging to the idealized past in Scarlett's case, so a Melly-like character could serve the same function for Rhett.

    On a different note, I think that yes, Scarlett would have made tremendous efforts to get him back, regardless of any other circumstances, and her character development would be an interesting thing to follow.

  7. Iso and Bugsie, first off, congratulatoins on your wonderful blog!!

    Iso, I have to agree with you that Rhett probably wasn't terribly interested in having an intellectual equal as a partner. Despite his relative enlightenment (the pregnancy discussion comes to mind), his remark about how reading newspapers "addles women's brains" still carries some resonance. :)

  8. This is a fascinating discussion, given all the elements you ladies have introduced.

    @Rita, your "obsession" is most welcome in this forum. Your analyses and observations are well-thought out and so elegantly expressed! The way you describe Rhett and Scarlett's similarities and differences is brilliant. Great comment from MM alluding to the cross purposes theme, too.

    I'm not sure Rhett would enjoy being chased by Scarlett unless she demonstrated some growth of character. To me, he seemed to be thoroughly disillusioned with her at the end. Throughout their brief, bitter marriage she showed herself to be a crass materialist, a bully with pinchbeck pretensions. In his final speech Rhett tells her he has no interest in waiting around to see if she can change. Yet, it's almost as though he is challenging her to change in order to prove him wrong. When she echoes Ashley's words, reflecting some sensitivity and cultural knowledge, in response to Rhett expressing his yearning for something of the old days, his eyes light up. When he realizes she is only parroting Ashley, he loses interest again. In order to charm him anew, IMO she would need to acquire some emotional intelligence, and cultural knowledge. Her feminine wiles would be insufficient to get him back.

    Now the scenario presented, Rhett falling in love with a hot Melanie, or a bluestocking Scarlett, is intriguing. In a way, I think Ripley was trying to achieve that end with her Anne Hampton character, but failed.

    @Bugsie, LOL!


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