Saturday, July 20, 2013

Welp, Proust and Genji Just Weren't Doing It For Me

Socrates committed suicide rather than go into Exile from Athens, and although I don't take it that far I can't seem to quit politics, no matter how dark it always seems here in the land of the eternal neo-confederate revival we call the US.  But its possible to put it all into perspective, just like reading the life of Mary Stuart puts the various minor "constitutional crises" of Victoria's reign into perspective. When your heroine has had to ride for her life through a black Scottish night, surrounded by assassins you have to laugh a bit when Victoria's government almost falls because some lady-in-waiting got pregnant out of wedlock.

So I've put aside my Proust and my Genji for a while, and even my Writing with Scissors, Idols of Perversity, and Objects of Desire and I've returned to Ancient Rome. In other words I'm plowing my way through Colleen McCullough's brilliant, multi-volume, recreation of the period from Marius through to Caesar and Anthony. And it certainly puts the chaos and maneuvering of American factionalism into proper perspective.  Its true that she writes a kind of "great man" history--in fact the series is called "Masters of Rome." But her real forte is in describing the struggle between great men and their goals within a complicated system of voting, fighting, taxing, and conquering in which family money and honor is used to buy political power, and political power is used to buy family honor and money in turn.  Our size, our short history as a people, and our ideology militates against any such great man and great family style history of this country (setting aside a few jumped up "new men" like the Koch brothers and the other wealthy oligarchs who usually use others to do their political bidding).  But the basic divide she describes between populists and oligarchs, between the Romans of Rome and the foreign and subordinate Italians and potential new citizens is stunningly like arguments we are seeing between Republicans and Democrats about increasing the suffrage--whether by permitting the induction of the former slaves, of women, or of the undocumented Hispanic population.

Its just far enough away that I can admire, in turn, the strategies used by each of these far distant politicians and dictators without needing to grab the phone to, say, begin shouting at Harry Reid's office to get him to finally destroy the filibuster--which, indeed, the Democrats finally did.  If they'd read more Roman history they would have done so at the outset of the first Obama administration, and dared the Republicans to revolt.  Hell, if they'd read more Roman history they'd have crushed Mitch McConnell with roof tiles.


  1. >>Hell, if they'd read more Roman history they'd have crushed Mitch McConnell with roof tiles.<<

    Or sent over a basket of hand-picked toadstools for his dinner.

    I thoroughly approve of your turn to the Masters of Rome series in lieu of Proust and Genji. Mostly because I have read every book of it, albeit many years ago.

    She does a great job, and I never thought I'd enjoy battles as much as I did when she laid them out with such clarity.

    One of the things I remember quite clearly is her description of the peculiarities of the society, and the seemingly bizarre motivations that grew out of its demands. Human nature is not always and everywhere EXACTLY the same.

  2. Its my second time through for this series on Rome, and it holds up remarkably well. I picked up Ceasar while travelling in Italy for the first time about five years ago and then read the entire series afterwards. Its interesting to revisit, with her, places I've now seen. She does an incredible job of the military and political issues. And she basically makes it unforgettable.