Philobiblon: Sickbed reading and historical consciousness

Sunday, February 27, 2005

Sickbed reading and historical consciousness

Apologies for being away longer than planned; it was a horrible cold, so I had five of those most frustrating days when you have endless hours to read but neither the concentration nor energy to read anything in the serious stacks. Instead, when I'm in this state I just want to read "escape" books - ones in which you disappear into another world for hours at a time, only emerging when the cough gets too pressing or the fever decides to have a spike.

So I dedicated myself to rereading Colleen McCullough's six-volume ancient Rome series. (They're about 800 pages each, so there's plenty of escape.)

And although these are page-turners rather than "great literature", and of course you know how it all comes out in the end (for those unfamiliar, they cover the fall of the Republic, from the rise of Marius to Octavius's defeat of Mark Anthony), they are meticulously researched and well put together - no jarring anachronisms.

Reading the second-last, simply entitled Caesar, which starts with his Gallic Wars, I was reminded that I should have already known about the European headhunters on which I posted recently, since they feature quite prominently. I also learnt that they particularly terrified the Romans since a headless body would have no means of carrying a coin (which was put in the mouth) to pay for the ride across the River Styx into the underworld, so instead all that remained of the person would wander as a demented shade across the earth.

I read the series also musing about the possibility of a historical novelist actually getting inside the head of a character from another time, prompted in part by an interesting recent post on the problems of historical mysteries by The Little Professor and in part by my small role as a research subject on the handling of ancient objects that I do at the British Museum.

I sometimes there share my question - one without an answer, but I find it fascinating nonetheless: if you could jump in your time machine and go back to meet the person who made this hand-axe you are now holding 350,000 years ago, or even further back, to the person making this chopper 1.8 million years ago, would you be able to communicate with them?

Obviously you wouldn't be able to talk to them, but would they understand the body language that communicates peaceful intentions, or a desire for food or water, or other things that I've found can be communicated very well without language in farflung parts of the world today?

I've never come across a discussion of this, but I wonder at what point a grimace - the drawing back of teeth to show threat or anger - became a smile? (Have to be careful with that in the time machine.)

So does McCullough manage it with a far easier subject, on a time from which considerable contemporary writings survive?

In some ways yes, and in the ways you might expect the sources to allow her. She's excellent on dignitas and auctoritas, I think, and not bad on issues of patron-client relationships - overall on the whole way Roman politics worked, not just the theory of it.

How can I judge? Oddly, the place where I've seen something fairly close to what she describes is Thailand; its modern "democracy" bears remarkably resemblances to ancient Rome's, including the centrality of patron-client relationships, the concept of "face" being all-important and broad scale bribery of voters.

It is on the domestic stuff, on really getting inside how people think, that she fails, or perhaps necessarily swerves into the modern. Her Romans are, I think, far too humane, too nice to their slaves, too kind to their relatives, in a society that regarded such behaviour as a weakness and a folly. (Except those characters who are out-and-out villains.)

Her Marius proscribes only when senile dementia has taken hold, her Sulla only for the necessity of state, and Caesar only while being sickened at the need to take action to prevent further bloodshed in the long term.

But then, if her main characters weren't like this, would we not be repulsed by them, or at least insufficiently seduced (and her Caesar in particular is very seductive) to stick with them for 800 or more pages?

Probably not. She is caught like the historical mystery writer by the demands and conventions of her readers. It is perhaps we rather than she who can only go so far into the head of an ancient Roman.

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