LONG AGO AND FAR AWAY

2 04 2009

I had an interesting literary experience recently. I bought The Ghostly Tails of Henry James, and found that now, 40 years after I was first required to read it in college, I can truly appreciate that famous story collection. His convoluted style, which then I admired in a cold, analytical kind of way, as a species of literary showing off, now appears to me an exquisitely detailed instrument for dissecting subtleties of feeling that I simply didn’t know existed way back then.  Lots of the stories were really moving this time around–something I don’t remember noticing very much when I first had to read that book.

This could be one of the fruits of getting old.

Now I am going to try to read The Aeneid. I never read it before–certainly not in college. I knew then that no college youth could hope to appreciate something so distant in time and place. But in the many years since then I’ve read a great deal about Roman history, and the Romans have become my pet figures of mingled admiration and pity. They were such brave, proud, manly, smart men, and they have been nothing but dust for 2000 years!

I admire the memory history keeps of the ancient Romans as a kind of alternative to admiring today’s high-status Americans. The Romans tended to be as status-mad as modern Americans, but I can’t stand to find myself admiring the Big Business Guys of today, people whose one avenue to great status (a status that I have to admit I deeply envy) has been greed, and who have in general tended to pursue that avenue with obsessive and pitiless single-mindedness.

The Romans were often greedy too, but I think of some of them as having had a kind of aristocratic pride that ruled out being entirely ruled by that emotion. What I like best about those men from so long ago is that high status among them required them to be willing and able to go off and lead military expeditions, as needed by their society, into their 40s. Can you imagine any of our modern business vultures being willing to risk his precious skin on the battlefield?


Or better simplify all that to this: I am living in a patrician past as an antidote to living my own plebean present.


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3 responses

3 04 2009
javajune

I can’t say that I love history too much but I do love ancient architecture. It does amaze me that such old civilizations like the Romans were so advanced. Interesting post; I liked your comparrison to todays business giants. Take care
jj

3 04 2009
MagiMysteryTour

The problem is required reading. You can’t enjoy reading if enjoyment isn’t your prime reason for doing it. That’s true for anything.

I disagree with your opinion of the Romans. I think you’re idealizing the Roman past, because it’s easier and comfortable. But America is the modern Rome, everything you see taking place here now is a repeat of what happened in Rome.
Rome to me was a sadistic disturbing society. The daily bloodbath shows at the Colliseum, the widespread practice of crucifixion, the need to conquer and dominate the whole world. The legacy of Rome still lingers, directly, and the mentality lives on in the modern Americans.

3 04 2009
nightman1

I can’t deny what you say about ancient Rome. It’s all correct. And I do idealize it. The reason is too much reading of English lit when I was a kid. There are a lot of aristocratic values in those old English novels — honor, rigorous honesty, gentle behavior to the weak (literally, being a “gentleman”), abjuring greed, and living with dignity and style. I absorbed all that with my mother’s milk (She was a poor immigrant from Scotland who looked up pretty uncritically to the British aristocracy.)

I grow up…and there is none of that in the our American Big Money people whom the other poor folk around me admire. Our Captains of Industry are simply greed and status-hunger personified (as lately clearly proved). So I am a twenty-something with a major hero-deficit. Who am I to turn to but the ancient Romans, who, despite otherwise being pretty much exactly like Americans, at least had a sense of honor: There were certain things some of them, at least, would not do. By contrast, re the characters of our current Masters, see my post, WHY I AM NOT PATRIOTIC.

And, yes, I admire the Romans’ military excellence. It really was amazing how they just about always won!

The hardest thing in the world for some people to do is to live without heroes.

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