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.