a Peculiar Longing
Alexander the Great was shorter than average height, with blond hair and one eye blue, the other brown. His first teacher was a demanding man called Leonidas, like the Spartan king who died at Thermopylae, who searched his student’s room every day, overturning trunks and ruffling linens to be sure Alexander was not in danger of succumbing to the decadence of an extra suit. Once, when Alexander offered incense to the gods, this Leonidas sourly observed that the prince was not rich or powerful enough to offer such lavish gifts upon the altar; after Alexander conquered Gaza, with its stores of spices, he sent literally tons of incense back to his old tutor, bidding him not to be so parsimonious with the heavens. What Leonidas thought of this history does not say.
His second teacher was infamous—a man with an orderly, capacious, avaricious mind, who dealt in systems and series, though was not so politic as he might have been. Indeed, when Aristotle published a treatise on the metaphysics he had taught Alexander, the prince was furious: what was the good of knowing something if everyone else could learn it, too?
It is a peculiar sort of blindness; I’m not sure I can explain it. I cannot call it literal. Because it is not. It is nothing of the sort. What it is, rather, is the a willful refusal to see. Perhaps not a refusal to see—perhaps an elision of what one notices. And I admit, there are many things in the world I would rather not see. I would rather not see the quarreling couple in the corner, her forehead tense, oily, and edged in smoke, his hair parted and re-parted by his nervous fingers; I would rather not see the man in the cheap suit counting his change, then passing by the café; nor do I like to see the loathsome noisy souls, whose chatter cannot hide—whatever it is they are trying to hide, perhaps the sordid fact that they have nothing much to hide, that they are nothing much out of the ordinary, and this bothers them. As I said, I would rather not see such things—or not often, at any rate. But I think it obnoxious when the bus aims at the puddles, just to see the look on pedestrians’ faces. I mean, that’s just rude.
Concerning the Impiety of Andocides
Νῦν οὖν ὑμῖν ἐν ἀνάγκῃ ἐστὶ βουλεύσασθαι περὶ αὐτοῦ· εὖ γὰρ ἐπίστασθε, ὦ ἄνδρες ᾿Αθηναῖοι, ὅτι οὐχ οἷόν τε ὑμῖν ἐστιν ἅμα τοῖς τε νόμοις τοῖς πατρίοις καὶ ᾿Ανδοκίδῃ χρῆσθαι, ἀλλὰ δυοῖν θάτερον, ἢ τοὺς νόμους ἐξαλειπτέον ἐστιν ἢ ἀπαλλακτέον τοῦ ἀνδρός.
Now, indeed, it is necessary for you to make some decision about him, and well you know, men of Athens, that it is not possible for you to live both with your ancestral laws and with Andokides at the same time, but only one of the two—so either you wipe out the laws, or you must get rid of the man. (Lysias 6.8)
The scene was, necessarily, amusing. The setting—the dining room of New College, Oxford, shadows flickering across wooden panels and stained glass from the candles upon the table, which was set for a three-course dinner. We had by this point moved on to the port and chocolates portion of the feast, a few lingering half-filled glasses of red and white wine, together with the lubricious amiability of satiated gluttony the only visible remnants of meal. The gentlemen had shifted seats for the dessert—as though it were a curious Oxford custom to move seats without reason,1 and with this new arrangement, I had the opportunity to overhear the conversation of an American professor of early Christian thought (who has taught at a highly reputable research institution for the last thirty-five years, who bears a disconcerting physical resemblance to John D. Rockefeller) weigh the relative merits of English and American universities with an Oxford don (who teaches Roman and Greek religion), a quizzical man, very like a sparrow in appearance.
The result, as could be expected, was very silly. Rockefeller was very earnest, spoke blandly about the disunity of the English university; ‘we, as you know, are all in one faculty.’ He spoke, too, of the quality of food at his university, the exquisiteness of the Institute, which has a small library, but choice—and can call upon the Firestone to fulfill all of the scholars’ more obscure academical desires. The Sparrow deflated all of these comments quietly, nodding, murmuring, not joining in the praises, not violently dissenting. ‘We are very civilized, at the Institute,’ said Rockefeller with a prim smile, a smile which might almost have been desperate, a hungry, anxious smile, which encompassed not only the don, but also the surrounding graduate students from the various Oxford faculties. ‘Yes, well, I’m sure I wouldn’t know,’ said the Sparrow, excusing himself quietly from the table.
- “ ‘I want a clean cup,’ interrupted the Hatter: ‘let’s all move one place on.’ ” – Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, ch. 7: a Mad Tea-Party. [↩]
Note to Self (4)
11 January 2003
Stop grousing. Cheer up. Read Cicero.
The house is filling up again—graduate students (myself included) returning for naught week. My neighbor slams her door, rattles her keys, rustles a storm of plastic bags. I do not imagine I seem any quieter to her. And now everything smells of canned beef stroganoff, an odor which, with the interminable rumblings of the kitchen conversations, rises through the floor. This means, of course, that it’s going to be another few hours before I can appropriate the kitchen to make vegan udon.
There’s nothing to be done but huddle close to the radiator, which, though it is on the highest setting, is but tepid to the touch, and read. And begin to think that maybe I should stop reading and go for a walk.
The pigeons, though, sound disposed to be violent; it might be safer indoors.
It was very simple once; just a chronicle, a chronological exuberance bogged down in the details. E.g.:
13.01.2003 — Monday — Up late, then to the Bodleian, Gorgias, Blackwell’s (Sylvie & Bruno, £9.99 — cash), coffee, groceries, room, read… &c.
But that is not quite right, is it? For who really wants to make of their days one great et cetera, smiling always at this bit, frowning at that, thinking one is noticing things, when all one sees, in fact, is oneself—noticing?
Not that there’s anything wrong with that.
Addendum: there’s something just a little funny in seeing someone carry a vase of flowers along the sidewalk—as though they were hedged about in their own private garden, into which the world at large was intruding.
From the Journals of Charlotte Forten Grimké, black abolitionist and activist (2003.3):
Tuesday, June 15, 1858. Have been under-going a thorough self-examination. The result is a mingled feeling of sorrow, shame and self-contempt. Have realized more deeply and bitterly than ever in my life my own ignorance and folly. Not only am I without the gifts of Nature, wit, beauty and talent; without the accomplishments which nearly every one of my age, whom I know, possesses; but I am not even intelligent. And for this there is not the shadow of an excuse. Have had many advantages of late years; and it is entirely owing to my own want of energy, perseverance and application, that I have not improved them. It grieves me deeply to think of this. I have read an immense quantity, and it has all amounted to nothing, because I have been too indolent and foolish to take the trouble of reflecting. Have wasted more time than I dare think of, in idle day-dreams, one of which was, how much I should know and do before I was twenty-one. And here I am nearly twenty-one, and only a wasted life to look back upon. —Add to intellectual defects a disposition whose despondency and fretfulness have constantly led me to look on the dark side of things, and effectually prevented me from contributing to the happiness of others; whose contrariness has often induced me to do those things which I ought not to have done, and to leave undone those which I ought to have done, and wanted to do,—and we have as dismal a picture as one could look upon; and yet hardly dismal enough to be faithful. Of course, I want to try to reform. But how to begin!
To go with Grimké—Phillis Wheatley: ‘What would happen, then, if we ceased to stereotype Wheatley, to cast her in this role or that, but, instead, read her, with all the resourcefulness that she herself brought to her craft?’ (New Yorker)
Spent the morning reading articles on Cicero’s De Oratore, all of which seem to say exactly the same thing: it’s too long by far, and not philosophical enough; in fact, it’s just plain too rhetorical. Which is, apparently, unexpected in a rhetorical treatise. Fun stuff, though, and only two were in German.
Afternoon reading What Maisie Knew. Which I like. Immensely. I haven’t said that in a long time about anything, not even something I’ve read. It’s been that long. However:
Everybody was always assuring everybody of something very shocking, and nobody could be jolly if nobody had been outrageous. (2003.5, p. 19)
Highly rhetorical, don’t you think? Parallel structure of the clauses, the rhythm of the whole, &c. &c.
…What makes the man and what
The man within that makes:
Ask whom he serves or not
Serves and what side he takes….
– Gerard Manley Hopkins
(‘(On a Piece of Music)’)
An evening mildly out upon the town, following that vaguest of inclinations: civility. The plan had been to step out to the pub on the corner by the house; but peering in the windows at the sodden murmurings of the gray-haired regulars at the bar, we four, young and indecisive, given rather to nights ‘at home,’ turned towards town.
Oh you studied creatures, you flimsy confections of powder and resin, set in tinsel and imitation leather! Even on such a cold night as this, one could count the even freckles on a back whose coppery tan cost a pretty penny to acquire. How your braying diffuses in the smell of lipstick, and spilled beer, and ashes strewn across the floor! There are so many faces—stretched out of all proportion in shouts, harsher laughter, nonsensical roarings, and private jokes made public.
How strange these things seem to me. For I am temperance written in letters ten foot high; I am sharp and unamiable as the morning’s sorrows, whose shadows lie jagged across the smoky evening; I am the merest transpiration rising from the ruddy-orange rain-swept streets. And I am tired.
Reading the Alexiad (or life of the Byzantine emperor, Alexius Comnenus), which was written by his daughter, Anna Comnena, when she was an old woman. She describes everything homerically, from the Odysseus-like Alexius, to his Nausicaa-bride, Irene; and Robert of Lombardy, his foe during the first few books, is obviously nothing more (or less) than a double-eyed Polyphemus. I like this description of the Empress Eudocia:
The Gorgon’s head, so they say, turned men who saw her to stone, but a man who saw the empress walking, or who suddenly met her, was stupefied, rooted to the spot where he happened to be and speechless, apparently deprived in that one moment of all feeling and reason. Such was the proportion and perfect symmetry of her body, each part in harmony with the rest, that no one till then had ever seen its like among human kind—a living work of art, an object of desire to lovers of beauty. She was indeed Love incarnate, visiting as it were this earthly world (3.ii).
The main problem with the Alexiad, so far as I can see (I mean, aside from the obvious biases and blatant glorification of the ‘good’ people and vilification of the ‘bad’) is a lack of elephants during the battle scenes. Any good battle scene worth the name ‘pre-modern warfare’ should have elephants.
For the words and facts of the ancients are as bricks, from which we build the fortresses of our arguments, ever quarreling over the lines of the walls. These walls are torn down and rebuilt with such haste and such fury, that it does not seem strange when they are torn down again, or prove useless for defense. For that is the point, is it not? That is why we build these walls, to have some sort of defense—to collect the little commonality of mankind into some semblance of order…
And for this I sit in my room, walled round with books, and play with smaller blocks, culled from one work rather than a corpus, as toys. Is it any wonder, then, that being used to playing at construction, when called upon to handle mortar I find myself at a loss? Why expend the labor on a wall to be torn down, even if one does see how the bricks might go?
From the streets seep the sounds of the football fans, set free from the evening’s match; I do not know who won.
I don’t know. Maybe I was expecting something different. It’s possible. Something other than the nights of fog and afternoons of rain, rudely punctuated by dawns and dusks and gloamings serene and unencumbered. Come to think of it, though, no one uses the word ‘gloaming’ anymore; nobody sane, anyway. Certainly not the young woman screaming at the cyclist this morning; I turned my head to look, but she was gone, the screaming one, in a fury down the road. Nearby, a sanctimonious woman stared at me, appalled at my gaping, the cold morning run red against her cheeks. I walked quickly to the library, where pages cracked, spines bent, and nobody smiled.1
- Not much, anyway; though it is difficult not to grin, if Ptolemaic land-leases or Greek optatives or German monographs make you giddy. [↩]
Sed Vitae Caesaris
At last reading Ronald Syme’s famous book, The Roman Revolution (Oxford, 1939), a history of the end of the Roman Republic and the beginning of the principate. It begins slowly, with a grim overview of the career of C. Julius Caesar Octavianus (later known as Augustus) and a bit of Republican background. Once Caesar has been assassinated, though, the plot picks up. Everybody knows that the history of the years 44 to 31 bc2 is the stuff of tragedies, but in Syme’s book, with the wealth of prosopographical detail, one feels the busy-ness of the scene, how everyone knew the Republic was going to perdition and nobody could or would do anything about it. This comment on Brutus is typical:
Whatever be thought of those qualities which contemporaries admired as the embodiment of aristocratic virtus (without always being able to prevail against posterity or the moral character of another age), Brutus was not only a sincere and consistent champion of legality, but in this matter all too perspicacious a judge of men and politics. Civil war was an abomination. Victory could only be won by adopting the adversary’s weapons; and victory no less than defeat would be fatal to everything an honest man and a patriot valued. But Brutus was far away. (147f.)
That’s the real question, then, isn’t it? What do you do, as an honest man and a patriot, when your country is bent, not on self-destruction, but on the destruction of those values which make it worth defending? But there is room for neither philosophy nor morality in politics; no, and never has been, I suppose.
- The title of this post is from Hirtius’s conclusion to Caesar’s de Bello Gallico, 8.praef.2; Hirtius completed the commentary, bringing the narrative not to the end of the civil war (ad exitum non quidem civilis dissensionis), to which he could see no end (cuius finem nullum videmus), but to the assassination of Caesar (sed vitae caesaris). [↩]
- That is, from the assassination of Caesar on 15 March 44 to the battle of Actium on 2 September 31. [↩]
an Observation (1)
Oh, elegies are easy, I suppose. It is simple to sing of sorrows, and tumble through agonies towards some great katharsis, as though every strong emotion needs its purge. All happinesses are alike, the knowing novelist intones.
But this very violence in ourselves, this need for grief, for rage, for some last word, even to our joy unlimited—mightn’t this be the problem, too? For though we grovel in an ecstasy of humiliation, bathed in the stoic light of self-righteous self-admiration, yet does an empty pride, an arrogance, leave us blind to the very things we are, still dreaming we are the things we would be, much as the empty porches once drowned in voices settle and sink at last into the quiet neglect of twilight.
And it is easier to wail for all the virtues we have lost, than to find such strange things anew. We do wrong, we cry, alas, alackaday! No. It is not just. It is not good. It is not right. And yet it is. So either fix it. Or quit complaining.1
- Reflections on the state of the union; or, on being unable to mend the toaster, which is broken. [↩]
an Observation (2)
Somewhere in his letters to Atticus, Cicero says something to the effect of:
I would rather fight with Pompey, and lose, than see him victorious.
The death of Pompey signaled the end of the optimate cause, and the beginning of Caesar’s supremacy. Had Pompey won, though, the optimate cause, along with the Republic, would still had failed, shuffled away behind the authority of Gnaeus Magnus. As it happened, Cicero accepted the clemency which Cato rejected; Cicero lived to see the death of the Republic, lived to misjudge the young Octavian, lived long enough to be proscribed. Yet even he was ‘an eloquent man, and one who loved his country.’
We know, however, that love is irrational, a survival mechanism perhaps past its prime.
And we know, too, that people do stupid things in the name of love. The love of one’s country is no exception to this rule.