Tuesday, March 30, 2021

The least unfortunate were those who submitted

The disgrace of the Romans still excites our respectful compassion, and we fondly sympathize with the imaginary grief and indignation of their degenerate posterity. But the calamities of Italy had gradually subdued the proud consciousness of freedom and glory. In the age of Roman virtue the provinces were subject to the arms, and the citizens to the laws, of the republic; till those laws were subverted by civil discord, and both the city and the province became the servile property of a tyrant. The forms of the constitution, which alleviated or disguised their abject slavery, were abolished by time and violence; the Italians alternately lamented the presence or the absence of the sovereign, whom they detested or despised; and the succession of five centuries inflicted the various evils of military license, capricious despotism, and elaborate oppression. During the same period, the Barbarians had emerged from obscurity and contempt, and the warriors of Germany and Scythia were introduced into the provinces, as the servants, the allies, and at length the masters, of the Romans, whom they insulted or protected. The hatred of the people was suppressed by fear; they respected the spirit and splendor of the martial chiefs who were invested with the honors of the empire; and the fate of Rome had long depended on the sword of those formidable strangers. 

Since the age of Tiberius, the decay of agriculture had been felt in Italy; and it was a just subject of complaint, that the life of the Roman people depended on the accidents of the winds and waves. In the division and the decline of the empire, the tributary harvests of Egypt and Africa were withdrawn; the numbers of the inhabitants continually diminished with the means of subsistence; and the country was exhausted by the irretrievable losses of war, famine, and pestilence. The plebeians of Rome, who were fed by the hand of their master, perished or disappeared, as soon as his liberality was suppressed; the decline of the arts reduced the industrious mechanic to idleness and want; and the senators, who might support with patience the ruin of their country, bewailed their private loss of wealth and luxury. One third of those ample estates, to which the ruin of Italy is originally imputed, was extorted for the use of the conquerors. Injuries were aggravated by insults; the sense of actual sufferings was imbittered by the fear of more dreadful evils; and as new lands were allotted to the new swarms of Barbarians, each senator was apprehensive lest the arbitrary surveyors should approach his favorite villa, or his most profitable farm. The least unfortunate were those who submitted without a murmur to the power which it was impossible to resist. Since they desired to live, they owed some gratitude to the tyrant who had spared their lives; and since he was the absolute master of their fortunes, the portion which he left must be accepted as his pure and voluntary gift. The kings of the Barbarians were frequently resisted, deposed, or murdered, by their native subjects, and the various bands of Italian mercenaries, who associated under the standard of an elective general, claimed a larger privilege of freedom and rapine. A monarchy destitute of national union, and hereditary right, hastened to its dissolution.

(Slightly edited conclusion of "Chapter XXXVI: Total Extinction of the Western Empire" from Edward Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire)

I've spent the last six or so months in the company of Gibbon and 1500+ pages of his Decline and Fall. An exciting, irritating, and fascinating trip, but I am admittedly happy to be free of my pal Eddie for a while. At present I am delaying the next 1500-page chunk, the history of the Eastern Empire, until the winter.

While I don't retract any of my objections to Gibbon's disingenuous commentary on the history of Christianity, Decline and Fall is a great achievement, shining often with brilliance of thought and language. If I've warned anyone away from reading it, I apologize, and you should certainly pick it up. You might gird you psychological loins against Volume II, however. I will also warn you that the maps in the Everyman edition I read are pretty scanty; you might want to look at the Project Gutenberg edition for much more detail, if like me you are interested in maps and want to know what stretch of scorched earth an unfamiliar name refers to.

Monday, March 22, 2021

multitasking, or the ancient concept of progress


Propping up the monitor in the above photo is a copy of Henri Lefebvre's Critique of Everyday Life. I have been reading a lot of non-fiction this year, for some reason feeling a strong aversion to picking up a novel. I do not know why that is the case. At some point, I'll need to replace the Lefebvre with a different fat book so that I can read what's in my temporary monitor stand. Perhaps I'll use Modern Painters or Solomon's Mozart, both ready to hand in my home "office".

I will not be using W.H. Auden's Lectures on Shakespeare, because that book is just not thick enough, and also because I plan to re-read it very soon. Which brings us, at last, to my topic. Over on the little white attic, I have involved myself in a discussion of Harold Bloom, who never knew it but was one of my great foes. Despite which, I have read three or four of his books. This post I'm writing is not about Bloom, which will be a relief to anyone who's read any of my comments about that lamented literary critic. No, this post wonders why I read literary criticism.

I began, as perhaps many of us do, to read criticism at university, in a literature course. Introduction to Fiction was the name of that course, taught by Professor Johnson who is long dead. Our course text was Laurence Perrine's Story and Structure, which focused on short stories. We also read A Room With a View for that class, and one other novel whose identity escapes me. It had to have been short, though. Perrine's book is very good and I recommend it to anyone starting to take reading seriously. I still have a copy. I was not an English major so I did not read more criticism at university, though I did read novels, mostly science fiction and mostly for pleasure. For an economics course we read Hard Times, which put me off Dickens for a while, and for a political science course we read The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged, or at least swaths of both novels. Certainly nobody was reading those for pleasure. Certainly we were not looking at any of the literary qualities of any of those novels. You will be pleased to know that I'm going to skip a bit now, forward through time.

It was when I began to take writing seriously that I began to become really interested in what had been written about literature. Mostly I read books about writing, written by other writers: John Gardner, Charles Baxter, Henry James (the preface to The Ambassadors is a masterclass in the craft of the novel), etc. These were useful things to have read, as they pointed the way to how a good novelist looks at the work they're doing. At some point I read E.M. Forster's Aspects of the Novel, where Forster looks at how other writers have done it. This led me to more books by writers about other writers, from Francine Prose to Vladimir Nabokov to Arthur Quiller Couch (and more that I am forgetting, but I cannot be bothered in the moment to shift myself upstairs to investigate the shelves of books about writing and reading). The object of my reading was to learn more about the craft, the nuts and bolts of writing. There are some literary critics (who I won't name) who believe that "craft" is something that hack writers are concerned with, where real writers are concerned with "inspiration" and "creativity." I will just say that such literary critics are displaying their ignorance, not only of writing, but of how art in general is made. Ezra Pound was obsessed with craft, as was Dylan Thomas. As was da Vinci. As was Beethoven.

Somewhere along the line, I began to read books about reading, books about interpretation and appreciation and the way that literature behaves as art vis-a-vis other works of art loose in the world. That is, I began reading literary criticism written by literary critics who are/were not, by and large, actual novelists themselves. A good deal of this has been interesting, there have been times when my perception of a particular book has broadened, or deepened, or I've been able to connect writings by different authors into sorts of causal chains (for lack of a better term), but again, I think, I have been reading this stuff to prompt my own thoughts on what might be possible within a novel. I have not been reading literary criticism primarily to learn about the literature that lays all around us. I continue, as Francine Prose puts it, to read like a writer. 

Which is to say, with an eye to what is useful to me personally in my own writing. Which might explain my being at odds with Harold Bloom, whose criticism simply annoys me (in part because of my strong feeling that Bloom actually envied and despised artists) because he does not talk about art in a way I find interesting, which is to say, in a way that I find remotely useful. He seems to be talking about ideas about the text, not the text itself, if you see what I mean, and those are not lines of thought that I'm moved to pursue. When I read E.R. Dodds' "The Ancient Concept of Progress", I was less interested in how ancient Greek ideas of social evolution were reflected in the extant plays than I was in thinking about how it might be to live in a world which lacked modern ideas of progress. I read Dodd's essay, more or less, like it was itself a work of fiction, a story. This way of reading nonfiction is, I am aware, abnormal. It is however quite useful in the development of one's craft. Have I said anything here? No? Excellent.

Monday, March 1, 2021

I came not warring here for any ill the Trojans had done me.

View of downtown Seattle from East Duwamish waterway fishing pier. Photo credit: Mighty Reader.

Last night, Mighty Reader finished reading Madeline Miller's Song of Achilles, a modern retelling of the Achilles myth as narrated by Patroclus. In Miller's version, Achilles is shot in the back by Paris in a moment when the hero has removed his armor to rest. Sort of like Hector's death in Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida, I guess. This got us wondering how Homer portrayed the death of Achilles, so I pulled the Iliad off the shelf and of course Homer's epic ends with Hector's funeral, and Achilles is still alive at that point. We have the Fitzgerald translation of the Iliad, which I highly recommend, and while I had the book in hand I looked at the first couple of pages of Book XII, one of my favorite passages in the work, where Homer is about to describe the attack of the Trojans on the massive rampart the Greeks have built along the beach to protect their ships, but first the poet pauses the action to look far into the future past the fall of Troy when the elements (as guided by the gods) will tear away and erode the bulwark to leave no trace of the Greek military presence on the shores of Asia Minor. It is a brilliant moment, a daring narrative gambit on the part of Homer, and wildly successful I must say. Note to writers of fiction: structure is thematic, not chronological.

Achilles being the subject at hand, and also having narrative structure in mind, I turned to the beginning of the Iliad and revisited the anger of Achilles. Oh ye Greek heroes, what egos you all have. The scene in Agamemnon's tent where he and Achilles trade insults and threats is terrific stuff. In fact, all of it is terrific stuff. I just kept reading and reading until I remembered that I was looking for the origin of the Achilles heel myth, and also that I'm in the last half of the third volume of Gibbon, and at the midpoint of Ovid, so I don't need to start in on yet another epic at this time. No, I do not.

Achilles' ghost shows up in the Odyssey when wily Odysseus descends into the underworld, and while there is some interesting dialogue (Odysseus: "Sure you're dead, Achilles, but we all just worshiped you when you were alive, man, we thought you were the bee's knees, the absolute bestest of the best and we all wanted to be your pal. So you must be, like, top dog of the underworld, a pretty choice gig if you ask me." Achilles: "You know, I'd rather be the guy who licks clean the shovel for the stable boy and gets whipped every night before collapsing unconscious in a pile of dung than be king of hell, so why don't you just shut up and go on your merry way?" [translation mine]), the specifics of Achilles' death are not mentioned.

This morning, Mighty Reader looked into The Meridian Handbook of Classical Mythology while I did some poking around on JSTOR (because Bulfinch doesn't give his sources in depth and Robert Graves fails to tell us much in his Greek myths books) and we have discovered, to our somewhat surprise, that although the wounding of Achilles in the lower leg probably dates back to pre-Homeric times, the dipping of our hero into the river Styx as a child can't be found any earlier than the Roman era, and is possibly a misreading or conflation of several stories that are more about Thetis' pride as a demigod than about attempts to keep Achilles safe in battle. The wound to Achilles' lower leg is significant because, aside from his great strength, Achilles was mostly noteworthy on the battlefield for his great speed (recall if you will his battle late in the Iliad against the river Scamander, which entails little more, if I remember correctly, than Achilles running like mad across the Trojan plain while the river tried to catch and drown him). Had Achilles been severely wounded in his leg, his great advantage of speed would be impaired and it would be easier for the Trojans to surround and kill him. And, you know, as a footnote to the story of Achilles in Bulfinch points out, had Achilles actually been invulnerable (except for that heel), he would not have needed the special armor and famous shield from Hephaestus over which Ulysses and Ajax contended upon our hero's death. No, our hero would've only needed a brass boot for one foot and could have otherwise marched into the field naked, sword and javelin in hand, ready to put some Myrmidon stick about.