Thursday, July 23, 2009

Uva uvam vivendo varia fit

Readers who love Larry McMurtry's Lonesome Dove -- and you can count me among them -- often wonder what the celebrated motto Uva uvam vivendo varia fit means. Augustus McCrae had seen it somewhere and scratched it into the Hat Creek outfit's sign (along with the cautionary "We don't rent pigs"), resulting in an exchange along these lines with Woodrow Call:

"What does it mean?"

"It's a motto. It just says itself."

Call was quick to see the point. "You don't know what it means. It could be telling someone to rob us."

"That would be fine with me. Just once I'd like to trade shots with an educated bandit."

(This is from memory, so the actual exchange is somewhat different. This is the gist, though.)

McMurtry never translates the motto, letting it stand as a symbol of the cowboys' illiteracy even as they conduct a life-changing epic cattle drive from the Rio Grande to Montana. It's McMurtry's way of contrasting the Hat Creek outfit's lack of school learning with the education in living that they pick up on the journey north.

I once asked a friend of my son, a friend who studied Latin through high school, what it meant. He studied it curiously, informed that it didn't make any formal sense, then took it to his teacher. They parsed it out as best they could and came up with this:

Each man finds happiness in his own way.

This dovetails nicely with the novel's theme of the wisdom of avoiding the pursuit of obsessions in favor of appreciating the adventure of everyday living.

The Witliff Collections at Texas State University offers a different, if related interpretation:

A grape changes color [ripens] when it sees another grape.

In other words,

the phrase serves as a metaphor for the group's journey, as many of the story's characters go through a process of personal maturation and development. Much like grapes ripen in the presence of others.

As to why McMurty chose to garble the actual Latin, your guess is as good as mine. I like to think that it's a private joke at the expense of Augustus McCrae, who otherwise generally has the upper hand in the novel.

My favorite supporting character in Lonesome Dove is the top hand, Dish Boggett. His obsession with Lorena leads him to defend her honor at every turn and to love her in spite of her dismissal of him. At odds with the demanding Woodrow Call at the beginning of the book, Dish’s regard for the captain increases at the same time that Call grows to respect Dish’s abilities. Eventually, he becomes Call’s trusted lieutenant. Dish, of course, does not perceive that gaining Call’s regard is a greater triumph – a more certain one , at least– than attaining the love of someone who doesn’t want him. After all, as Gus McCrae observes, the problem with wanting something too badly is that it lets you down once you have it.

If you haven't read Lonesome Dove, move it to the top of your reading list. I've read it five times and I have no doubt that I’ll read it again. There's humor and wisdom on every page of the simple and oft told tale of a cattle drive. As the characters grow and mature, they become beloved. Not many books can claim that...

I believe when I fall in love this time it will be forever....

Shoes...

I can't believe these looney tunes still squawk about the President's citizenship. Don't miss the link to Chris Matthews laying waste an idiotic Republican congressman. Unbelievable...

More shoes...

My wife and Claude Monet...

Still more shoes...

Nearly 7,000,000 more Americans will lose health insurance by the end of next year...

14 comments:

Annette said...

Good post.. I too love Lonesome Dove, and always thought it was neat how they interacted and learned to love each other while they grew up, even as they aged. It is a wonderful story. I think one of his best, if not his best.

K. said...

It's McMurtry's best, a legitimately great novel. I want to reread it next year.

Foxessa said...

What happens to Lorena (and other women) is so graphic and prolonged I'll never be able to read Lonesome Dove again. It triggers depression for days.

This I do not know, but I have heard people of Native American descent insist that not even Commancheros -- is that who Blue Duck was, I don't quite recall -- treated women that way. But I don't know.

Love, C.

Rastamick61 said...

Funny I only read one of his books, Texasville,and loved it. Something to look forward to I guess. I have a similar mantra that I derived from the intersection of Zen and 12 step theory : "Don't worry about having all that you want, just make sure you want what you have." Peace.

Scrumpy said...

Going on my list...

Bill said...

I still haven't gotten around to reading it, maybe I'll pick it up once I'm finished with the "L.A. Quartet."

The exchange between Call and Gus is definitely one of the best moments in the movie.

K. said...

How's the Quartet going?

Bill said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Bill said...

It's going good. I'm about 3/4 of the way through "The Big Nowhere."

The jump in the quality of the writing between "Dahlia" and "Nowhere" is pretty amazing given that they were published a year apart. I enjoyed "Dahlia," and thought that it was pretty well written, but "Nowhere" reads much more smoothly and is much more electrifying, in my opinion at least. I also felt like the big twist about 2/3 of the way through Dahlia felt a little forced.

I think the most impressive thing about Ellroy's writing is how multifaceted his characters are. Buzz Meeks is probably my favorite character in "The Big Nowhere" just because there are those two amazingly different sides to him. At first you think that he's just a scummy, corrupt, ex-cop (which he is really), but then when he starts seeing Audrey you get this completely different side of him where he's this gentle, sensitive (crying even), loving man. You can't help but to have a soft spot for the guy, especially when compared to Mal, who seems like an upright citizen/good guy, until he beats the crap out of his wife when she tells him she's leaving.

Dudley Smith is also shaping up to be a great bad guy, which I'm excited to see develop through the series.

K. said...

Does Ellroy have a way with names or what? "Dudley Smith" sounds every bit the evil villain he is!

As for the leap in writing skills, wait until you get to LA Confidential.

Jackie said...

At the U of Iowa, I asked my Latin professor what "uva uvam vivendo varia fit" and he said it meant "The grapes, by drinking the grapes, become different." I like that one a lot better but can't find any confirmation of it!!

K. said...

That's a wonderful translation. Thanks for sharing it.

Anakiklosis said...

There is a pretty easy explanation if you know also the Greek quote coming from Aristophanes.
"Botrus pros Botrun pepainetai, epi ton exisousthai philoneikounton."

The first part (Botrus pros Botrun prepainetai) was translated into latin (Uva uvam Videndo varia fit). The explanation is that one person (a grape) is getting mature through contact with other people. That also can be used between friends, meaning that the character of one is builded through the contact with his friends. The discussion arise due to fact that the contact may lead to a good or bad person but due that may mean also that the contact with good or bad people lead a person to be good or bad.
Aristophanes add (exisousthai filonikounton) one more quote that the translation is "trying to become equal". That means that every person in a society or a company, under the interaction with the rest of the people or his friends,try to become and to be consider as an equal in the society that he's part of. The path he choose (the path of Virtue or the path of Vice, according the Greek/Roman Beliefs) is defined by his contact with specific persons (the grape touching rest of the grapes).

K. said...

Thanks for introducing and explaining the Greek element. Your overall interpretation is consistent with the themes of the novel. BTW, Anak, if you haven't read Lonesome Dove, it's a must.