Thursday, 28 February 2013


Last year I wrote a short series of posts on Jesus' miracles.  For some reason the first of the series has been read by quite a lot of people, although since not that many have read the subsequent posts it seems likely they didn't find what they were looking for.

What I was trying to say is that the miracle stories in the Gospels were not intended to demonstrate Jesus' divine power.  Jesus said explicitly that they were not, and if they were their message on this subject is at best ambiguous.  Rather, the miracle stories, like the other deeds of Jesus (I suspect the gospel writers didn't necessarily distinguish between miraculous and non-miraculous deeds), are dramas intended to illustrate aspects of Jesus' message and mission.  They dramatise the forgiveness, inclusion, abundance and peacefulness of the Kingdom of God.

Lately I've been thinking about the relationship between the miracle stories and the idea of the Incarnation - the idea that Jesus was God made human.  Paul expresses this idea in the second chapter of his letter to the Philippians.

In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:
6 Who, being in very nature God,
    did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
7 rather, he made himself nothing
    by taking the very nature of a servant,
    being made in human likeness.
8 And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death—
even death on a cross!

This is an incredibly difficult idea to get hold of, and the cause of endless controversy in the church.  My atheist friends will tell me it's pure nonsense.  How can someone be both God and human at the same time?  Can a bird simultaneously be a fish?

Yet the fact that a concept is difficult and counter-intuitive doesn't mean it's nonsense.  Quantum mechanics is fiendishly difficult to get your head around.  How can something simultaneously be a particle and a wave?  Yet it is demonstrably true.  Sadly no similar demonstration is available for the incarnation but that doesn't mean it is necessarily false.

Yet the church has always struggled with the concept, and it was the source of some of the fiercest theological controversies in the early church.  A number of alternative explanations were debated and eventually declared heretical by the mainstream church, and these continue to have analogues in the present day.

At one end of the spectrum were the Ebionites who, as far as we can tell, were predominantly Jewish Christians who regarded Jesus as the Messiah but not as divine - he was an ordinary human being, son of Mary and Joseph, chosen by God for a special mission.  This type of thinking has had a spectacular resurgence in recent years, promoted in a modern form by writers such as Marcus Borg and John Shelby Spong, and is also very close to the view of Jesus held by Islam.

At the other end of the sectrum are the various forms of Docetism (from the Greek docetai, meaning "illusionist") which held that Jesus was only pretending to be human, his body was an illusion, and he was entirely divine.

In between these two extremes were various "middle ground" positions, many of which made sense in the milieu of ancient Hellenistic philosophy but are difficult for us to grasp in the 21st century.  The Nestorians suggested that Jesus had two natures, existing side by side but not intermingling,  divine and human.  The Arians suggested that Jesus was created by and subordinate to God the Father as the "firstborn of creation", created before anything else and sent to earth in human form at the appropriate time.  Similar views continue to this day in parts of the Eastern Orthodox church and in Protestant sects like the Jehovah's Witnesses and the Christadelphians.

The "orthodox" mainstream church steered an uneasy course between these various options.  The definitive word on this subject, formulated by the Council of Chalcedon in 451 CE, tries to hold the two aspects of Jesus' nature in tension through a number of juxtapositions and negations.

...our Lord Jesus Christ, the same perfect in Godhead and also in manhood; truly God and truly man, of a reasonable soul and body; consubstantial with the Father according to the Godhead, and consubstantial with us according to the be acknowledged in two natures, inconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, inseparably; the distinction of the natures being by no means taken away by the union, but rather the property of each nature being preserved, and concurring in one Person and one Subsistence, not parted nor divided into two persons, but one and the same Son, the only begotten, God the Word, the Lord Jesus Christ....
So what does all this have to do with miracles?  Well, of course the progressive Christians, our modern Ebionites, find Jesus' miracles difficult to accommodate and prefer to focus on his teachings, the most obviously human element of the gospels.

Evangelicals are not much tempted by Ebionitism but are greatly tempted by Docetism.  This, I think, lies beneath our desire to portray Jesus' miracles as displays of divine power.  I explained in my original posts why I think this is problematic.  One key point is that they are simply not very powerful.  The kind of miracles displayed in the Old Testament - sending plagues on the enemies of Israel, parting the Red Sea, causing the sun to stand still, appearing as a pillar of cloud or fire, leading his armies to victory against impossible odds - are replaced by simple healings and feedings.

I suspect the problem is a failure to come to grips with Jesus' humanity, as expressed by Paul. 

...he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature of a servant,...

If we take Paul seriously on this point, Jesus' voluntary humiliation did not simply take place at the cross.  It started from the very beginning, in the womb and in the manger.  It represents God's conscious decision to win his people by humility and service rather than by force and fear.  Jesus was tempted many times to break this resolve - in the testing in the wilderness; by the Jewish leaders' request for a sign in Jerusalem; at the very end in the Garden of Gesthemane.  Perhaps his human perfection consisted in the fact that he did not fall to this temptation, did not lash out with the power he was presumed to possess as God, and finally allowed the crucifixion to go ahead.  For God to express his love, he needs to renounce his power.

Monday, 25 February 2013

Iain Banks' Gods

It's been said that to us an alien of sufficient power and complexity would be indistinguishable from a god.  It's also been said that if we had enough knowledge we would be able to prove, one way or another, the truth of religion.  However, if we could do that its character would change completely.  It would no longer involve faith and belief, it would simply be another branch of science, the gods other beings who could be studied and communicated with, heaven and hell realms of exploration and even conquest.
I'm not sure what Iain Banks' religious views are.  From his novels I would be surprised if he was not an atheist, or at least an agnostic.  Yet he has arguably the most fertile imagination of any living speculative fiction writer and he is certainly more than capable of imagining heaven, hell and all manner of gods or demons to inhabit them.
Many of his science fiction novels are set in a Galactic-scale civilisation known as the Culture, a kind of extreme libertarian society in which the problem of scarcity has been solved, virtually nothing is technically impossible, and the range of living creatures is huge and bewildering.  Yet after he has spent time exploring the emotional and dramatic possibilities of this kind of power and diversity he is left at the doorstep of the eternal, and blunders on where angels fear to tread.  After all, angels themselves may be just another species in a vast, surprising galaxy. 

His previous Culture novel, Surface Detail, dealt with the question of hell - or to be more precise, hells.  Many civilisations, it seems, view the existence of hell as useful or even essential.  Hence, they maintain virtual realms of torment to which they can send the consciousnesses of their malefactors.  The realms are virtual but the torments are real and extreme. 

Various galactic campaigners, however, see hells as cruel and abusive and are campaigning for treaty in which they will be abolished.  Not content with the slow and inconclusive process of galactic diplomacy, some activists go further, invading selected hells and attempting to subvert them and expose abuses of the practice. 

One of these campaigners is caught in the hell he is trying to infiltrate, and as punishment for his crime is transformed into a kind of gryphon, able to release one soul from torment each day.  Each kill adds one more ache to his own body so that he literally takes their sufferings on himself - but the rules do not allow him to save everyone, and he must choose more or less at random.  Does this remind you, in an odd kind of way, of any real life religion you might have come across? 

Not surprisingly, we eventually discover that most of these virtual hells are hosted in a mid-scale planetary civilisation ruled by a corrupt, ruthless dictator.  His fate and those of the hells he hosts are tightly bound together. 

Of course after dealing with hell Banks' latest Culture story, The Hydrogen Sonata, deals with heaven, or perhaps more accurately with something akin to Nirvana.  In his galaxy this is referred to as "subliming".  Individuals can sublime if they choose, particularly powerful and complex ones, but the most effective way of subliming is for a whole society to do it together.  If they do so, beings of some sort will come for them and take them to an alternative realm, some kind of multi-dimensional universe which is so far beyond the understanding of people within the "normal" galaxy that even those rare individuals who return are unable to communicate anything meaningful about it. 

Attaining the Sublime, like being sent to hell, is not a matter of virtue or spiritual discipline.  Just as you can be sent to hell on the whim of a corrupt dictator, the story of the subliming of the Gzilt around which The Hydrogen Sonata  centres shows that the path can be laid through political manipulation, lies and even murder.  Nor does the Gzilt's decision to Sublime lead to them becoming more holy - as the time approaches their polity descends into chaos.

"Gods" appear in a number of Culture novels as well and this one has two sorts.  The first, the Zihdren, appear as angelic creatures in the "Book of Truth", the primitive religion of the Gzilt.  Unlike other similar religions, the Book of Truth has survived into the era of space travel because it makes remarkable predictions, the full import of which only become apparent as technology advances.  This is because the Gzilt have been victims of a kind of cosmic experiment perpetrated by the Zihdren, who planted them with a set of scientific information disguised as a religious text to see what would happen.  Hence, the galaxy's best candidate for a true religion is in fact a hoax and the creatures who stand in for gods are mere practical jokers.

And then of course there are the perpetual gods of the Culture, the Minds, unfathomably powerful and complex artificial intelligences which are its effective rulers and guardians.  These are the aliens so powerful they appear to be gods.  They are, paradoxically, originally the products of biological/humanoid invention, although they have long since outstripped their inventors and taken on a life of their own. 

Fortunately for the galaxy, unlike the rogue AIs of the Terminator movies or Battlestar Galactica the Minds are essentially benign, committed in the main to preserving and respecting life rather than destroying it.  Yet as the Culture novels have progressed, the Minds have grown more distant from the humans they protect and serve, or rule and partronise, or whatever.

In The Hydrogen Sonata we meet the galaxy's oldest living person, a man called QiRia who has been continuously alive for over 9,000 years.  Here's what he has to say about the Minds.

They are as gods of old were merely imagined to be; we are mud in their hands, flies to be toyed with.  Etc., blah.  They are rarely malicious, never vicious; not to us.  Mainly this is because we are so far below them it would be demeaning to get that worked up about us and our feelings, but the thing is, they are vastly powerful artefacts, with senses and abilities and strengths that we only fool ourselves we know about or understand, and the subtlest, most infinitesimal of their machinations can bruise us, crush us utterly, if it catches us wrong. 

So here are Banks' gods.  Cruel tyrants who can send you to virtual eternal torment if you do wrong, or if they just dislike you.  Practical jokers, playing tricks and conducting experiments on helpless beings, the truest religion ultimately being the most patently false.  Our own artefacts, gotten out of hand and grown so far beyond us that they have agendas we can never understand.  Yet despite his cynicism he leaves us mysteries to explore, realms beyond our understanding, and the possibility that we can become something infinitely more than we are now. 

Saturday, 16 February 2013

Oscar Pistorius meets Polly Vaughan

Apropos of Oscar Pistorius and Reeva Steenkamp, here's another little song for you.  It's an old English folk song that goes by the name Polly Vaughan, Polly Von, Molly Bond or other variations thereof.  Here's a version by Anne Briggs.

Come all you young fellows that handle a gun
Beware how you shoot when the night's coming on
For young Jimmy met his true love, he mistook her for a swan
And he shot her and killed her by the setting of the sun

As Polly was walking all in a shower of rain
She sheltered in a green bush, her beauty to save
With her apron throwed over her he mistook her for a swan
And he shot her and killed her by the setting of the sun

Then home ran young Jimmy with his dog and his gun
Crying Uncle dear Uncle have you heard what I done?
I met my own true love, I mistook her for a swan
And I shot her and killed her by the setting of the sun

Then out rushed his uncle with his locks hanging grey
Crying Jimmy oh dear Jimmy don't you run away
Don't leave your own country 'til the trial do come on
For they never will hang you for the shooting of a swan

All the girls of this country, they're all glad we know
To see young Polly Vaughan brought down so low
You could take them cruel girls and set them in a row
And her beauty would outshine 'em like a fountain of snow

Well the trial wore on, and Polly's ghost did appear
Crying Uncle dear Uncle let Jimmy go clear
For my apron was thrown 'round me, he mistook me for a swan
And he never would have shot his own Polly Vaughan

Now Pistorius may or may not have shot Reeva Steenkamp by accident, and may or may not have even claimed to have done so.  Either way, Jimmy's story about the shooting of Polly seems highly suspicious.  In what sense did she, a young woman with an apron over her head, resemble a swan even in the fading light?  What would a swan be doing hiding under a tree from a rain shower? 

And notice how, after this feeble attempt to shift the blame to the light, the apron and the birdlife he even more outrageously shifts responsibility to the other young girls against whom he harbours a deep and unreasonable resentment.  If I was the judge I would be sending Jimmy to jail, ghostly testimony notwithstanding.  We all know that for various reasons victims of domestic violence often defend their partner, hoping to repair the relationship even when it is obvious to everyone else that it would be best to get as far away as possible.

Pistorius deserves our admiration for his athletic feats, and nothing can take that away from him.  He does not deserve our admiration, or even our tolerance, for being a paranoid gun-nut.  Reeva Steenkamp is dead, and nothing will bring her back.  The joy she would have brought her family and her wide circle of friends, the children she may have borne, the entertainment she may have provided to millions of South Africans, the fun and fulfillment she might have found in her own life, will never be. 

However it came about and whatever happens next, Pistorius will have live with that for the rest of his life.  Well may he weep  Well may we all weep.

Thursday, 14 February 2013

What Are Their Names?

Here's a little song for you.  Apologies about the crowd noise, they quieten down once he starts singing.  It's called What Are Their Names?.  It was written by David Crosby and first recorded on his 1971 solo album, If I Could Only Remember My Name.  He has been singing it ever since with Crosby Stills and Nash, Crosby Stills Nash and Young or as here in duet with Graham Nash. 

Who are the men who really run this land
And why do they run it with such a careless hand?
What are their names and on what streets do they live?
I'd like to ride right over this afternoon and give
Them a piece of my mind about peace for mankind
Peace is not an awful lot to ask.

Crosby and co are well known peacenicks.  They sang at Woodstock, protested the Vietnam war, sided with the anti-war protestors killed at Ohio State University, and wrote a large number of anti-war and anti-nuclear anthems.  They're still at it.  In 2006 Neil Young got the band back together to do a tour singing nothing but anti-war songs in protest at the US invasion of Iraq.  Of course this song was on the set list.

However, you can also read the song another way.  To help with that, here are two facts about David Crosby you might not know.

Fact 1 - In 1985-86 Crosby spent almost a year in prison.
After repeated breaches of his bail conditions, the judge saw no alternative but to send him to jail.  His cocaine addiction was so bad he couldn't go half an hour without a hit.  His famously uncut hair was matted beyond redemption.  His teeth were rotting.  His skin was covered with infected sores.  He was simultaneously overweight and malnourished.  He hadn't written a song in two years.  He had no assets and owed millions to the US tax department.  Every dollar he had earned in a glittering 20 year music career had been passed on to his drug dealers.

He went on to become a textbook example of the drug addiction cliche - you have to reach the bottom before you realise you need to change.  Change he did, getting clean, straightening his life out, repairing his fractured relationships, getting his music back on track.  If not completely drug free (he was arrested for drug possession again in 2004) he is still alive and functional in his early 70s.

Fact 2 - The charge Crosby was facing was a firearms charge.
Possessing drug paraphenalia was also on the rap sheet, but the most serious charge was of carrying a loaded firearm on a commercial plane flight.  Crosby is a well known gun nut with a huge collection of lethal weapons, and carries a loaded pistol with him wherever he goes.  While very remorseful about the results of his drug addiction, he is completely unrepentant on the matter of firearms.  Here's what he had to say on the matter in his 1988 biography.

I don't really believe in gun control.  I think it's absurd.  As a matter of fact, in the states where it's legal to carry guns, you don't see a lot of bank robberies.  You don't see a lot of armed robberies because if somebody pulls out a gun and says, "Stick 'em up," the nearest five people will drill the son of a bitch.

Weapons of mass destruction are an entirely different ballgame.  I do not approve....I can't see how anyone is ever going to convince me that I should relinquish my ability to defend my hearth and home and my children and my wife from some goddamn crazies who want to come in and do a Manson on us.  If they want to just take the TV, I'll help them load it in the car.  It's insured; I don't give a damn.  But if they want to rape my wife and cut my kid's hand off and then stick me with a bayonet, they're going to have to do it through a hail of gunfire.  It's not conjecture - I've been assaulted in my own home and I did shoot at the intruders.

I'm not a pacifist by any stretch of the imagination.  I'm anti-war, which is a whole different ballgame....

So what I want to know is this: when Crosby has successfully stalked the real and faceless rulers of his country and driven to their homes to have it out with them, will he be carrying his pistol?  Or does he really just want to talk?

Wednesday, 13 February 2013

City of Illusions

In the years after the Second World War, science fiction was essentially a pulp genre.  Magazines and niche publishers put out small print runs of short stories and slim novels.  Most of the writing was clunky, the stories strong on technological marvels and weak on plot and characterisation. 

This all started to change in the 1960s.  Not all at once and not everywhere - there is still plenty of pulp science fiction written even now - but a new breed of writers started to focus more on the fiction and less on the science.  Philip K Dick's best novels are masterpieces of imagination, beautifully characterised and exploring issues of drug use, mental health, religion and the meaning of being human.  His school-mate Ursula Le Guin wrote stories of lyrical beauty and moral depth.

Some legacies of the pulp era remained.  Circulations were still small, and if they wanted to make a living from their writing they had to keep churning it out.  Novels were short, and frequent.  Expanding Novel Syndrome, which blights a lot of more recent authors (JK Rowling for example) and bloats their novels into lumbering epics, was thankfully not an option.  Dick averaged a novel every year between 1955 and his death in 1982, along with numerous short stories, and another ten novels were published posthumously.  Many of them were dire, some were brilliant.  Neither he nor his publishers could afford to be choosy. 

Le Guin's early output was similar, although she slowed down after 1975.  She published twelve slim novels between 1966 and 1976.  Unlike Dick she managed  to maintain a consistent quality.   These twelve novels included the first three of the Earthsea stories and the first six of the "Hainish" novels including The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed, the two novels which made her famous. 

Her first three published novels were all set in what has come to be called the Hainish "world" - Rocannon's World  and Planet of Exile, both published in 1966, and City of Illusions which appeared the following year.  All three were out of print for some years until 1996 when Tor republished them in a single volume entitled Worlds of Exile and Illusion.  Between them they take up fewer than 400 pages, yet you never feel rushed or cheated by their brevity.  Her lucid prose, her finely tuned pacing, her way of making you feel with her characters and her judicious use of  detail quickly immerse you in her worlds and her stories.

The term "Hainish" is a little misleading in relation to these early stories, as the Hain are merely one member of a galactic coalition.  This alliance is between peoples who are very similar - humanoid in appearance, with just enough variation that they can tell each other apart and cannot normally interbreed.  Nor are these novels part of a "series" in the strict sense of the term - although they take place in the same imaginary world and there are some links between them, each is a separate story. 

I enjoyed both Rocannan's World and Planet of Exile, which I was reading for the first time.  However, City of Illusions has a special place in my heart.  It is the first Le Guin novel I ever read and despite others being more celebrated it is still my favourite. 

It takes place on Earth in the far future.  The planet, it seems, has gone from a technologically advanced space-travelling civilisation to a sparsely populated ruin.  Its people live in small communities, mutually suspicious, remnants of advanced technology existing alongside cultures at various stages of primitivity.  The world is apparently dominated by an invader species, the Shing, who the people of earth hold to be masters of deceit.  But who are the Shing, where do they come from, how many of them are there, and do they exist at all?

One morning a man appears on the edge of a clearing.  His mind is completely empty, he is like a huge baby unable to speak or even feed himself.  The people of the settlement take him in and care for him, naming him 'Falk' (their word for yellow) because of his strange yellow eyes.  Within five years he is once again a functioning adult, but with no memories from before his arrival in the clearing.  Who is he, and how did he get there? 

To answer this riddle he sets out on a hazardous journey to Es Toch, the City of Illusions.  I won't tell you what happens because you might like to find out for yourself.  In any case the plot, while interesting, is really the string on which Le Guin hangs a number of questions.  How can you tell truth from lies?  What is the real state of affairs in a world ruled by deception?  If its rulers lie openly, how can you know when they are telling you the truth?  How do you know who to trust, or what to believe?  Is it possible for an honest and naive person to survive in a jaded, suspicious world?  Falk has to navigate this hall of mirrors with an inherent disadvantage - he does not even know who or what he is. 

The best science fiction is not about distant galaxies and the wonders of space travel, it is about us.  Falk's problem is ours also.  Amidst the machinations of Gillard and Abbott, of Obama and Putin, of the climate skeptics and climate warriors, of Netanyahu and Abbas, what is the truth?  What is really going on in this world?  Are the rulers we see the real rulers, and are they who they appear to be in any case?  Who can we trust, who will kill us out of fear and suspicion, and who is just trying to exploit us for their own devious ends?

Perhaps our answer is the same as Falk's.  Before we can answer these questions, we need to know who we are.

Thursday, 7 February 2013

Dan Sultan and Scott Wilson, Meat Loaf and Jim Steinman

It's hard to avoid Dan Sultan these days.  Ever since he appeared in the ridiculously funny Bran Nue Dae he's been constantly in the media, recieving music awards, playing at celebrity concerts, promoting worthy causes.  He seems a level headed young man, comfortable with his Aboriginal heritage and not afraid to speak up for himself.  He's also no mean singer, belting out an infectious brand of soul-inflected pop music.

However, I have to admit I find myself a lot more fascinated by his long-time collaborator Scott Wilson.  When I first saw Sultan live on stage - a vibrant set at Byron Bay Bluesfest - it was obvious Wilson was the key to the band, playing lead guitar, counting everyone in,  holding the whole thing together while Sultan did his charismatic performing thing.

So I've been digging.  On Sultan's most recent album, Get Out While You Can,  released in late 2009, Wilson plays a large number of different guitars and is credited as co-producer.  He's also the dominant song-writer, receiving credit for 12 of the 13 songs, six on his own and another six co-written with Sultan.  By contrast, Sultan gets sole credit on only one song.

Apparently the story goes like this.  The pair met somewhere around 2000 at a pub in Williamstown, outer suburban Melbourne.  Wilson was in his late 20s, a veteran of touring bands looking for a break.  Sultan was a 17 year old trying to earn a bit of cash singing karaoke.  They got together and played some music, and have been doing so ever since - at least until late last year, but more of that later.

So in a sense Wilson taught Sultan everything he knows.  He mentored him in the music industry, provided the songs, arranged the band, held the show together.  Everything, that is, except the voice and charisma.  It seems Wilson had little to teach Sultan on either of these scores.

So what I wonder is , why does Wilson not have equal billing?  Why is this not a duet - "Dan Sultan and Scott Wilson"?  Or perhaps a band - "The Williamstown Boys" maybe?  The charismatic singer and the musical genius working together for your pleasure.

Which is, of course, almost exactly the story of Meat Loaf and Jim Steinman.  Meat Loaf and Steinman met in musical theatre, where Steinman was a pianist and band leader and Meat Loaf a singer and actor with a weirdly appropriate stage name.  They put together their own show.  Steinman wrote the songs, played keyboard and bossed the musicians around while Meat Loaf sang and filled the stage with his huge, charismatic presence.  Millions of dollars later I think everyone sees it as a success.  But you have to be a music nerd to know this story.  To the general public Steinman is invisible while Meat Loaf is - well, he's Meat Loaf.

All of which makes Sultan and Wilson's recent split very interesting.  Sultan says, "I've been in a bit of a rut for the past few years creatively for various reasons and I've made a few changes recently.  You know the old saying, a change is as good as a holiday and it all seems to be flowing pretty freely at the moment."

I suspect for him this is part of growing up.  He's done with being mentored and now he wants to do his own thing.  He takes his charisma and profile with him, he still has his voice, and no doubt he has learned everything he can from Wilson about writing and arranging songs.  It will be interesting to see if he can build all this into a lasting career.

I feel sorry for Wilson, though.  After a twelve year creative partnership in which he was equal in literally all but name, what does he get out of the relationship?  Was he in a rut, or was he having the time of his life?  Before he met Sultan he played pub gigs and toured Australian country towns trying to get that big break. Yet when the break came it was Sultan's, not his. If he were to put out his own album now people would ask, "Scott who?". 

After Jim Steinman and Meat Loaf split, all Steinman really had to do was sit back and count his royalties, the odd legal issue aside.  No doubt various other projects came his way, and no doubt he did some of them, but he was free to choose.  Depite Sultan's recent profile, I doubt Wilson is in the same position.  You just can't sell that many CDs in Australia.  Wilson will need to keep working to pay the bills.  What does he have to trade?  He plays a mean guitar, writes some pretty funky songs, has some skill as a producer and arranger.  Will it be enough? 

Wednesday, 6 February 2013

Mark Antony Meets Berthold Brecht

Over the past few days I've found myself wondering what the socialist German playwright and poet Berthold Brecht would have made of my short post on Plutarch and his biography of Mark Antony.
The trouble with using someone like Plutarch as your source of historical information is that as a biographer, he is only interested in the individual.  You learn plenty about Mark Antony but not much about those around him, and virtually nothing about those under his command or under his rule.  This can make him seem like a romantic figure, an actor in a glorious tragedy.

You do learn enough, though, to know that things were not so glorious for others.  When he stuffed up the campaign in Parthia thousands of his soldiers died, and the others had to resort to eating bark and leather to survive on their long retreat through the desert.  Thousands more died in his ill-fated naval battle against Octavius, while he and Cleopatra high-tailed it back to Egypt with their gold on board.  No wonder his troops deserted in droves during the final battle.  The joys of Dionysius are all very well for those with wine to spare, but not of much interest to those who only have bread and water.

Not that Octavius cared much more about the common soldier, but at least his orderliness and discipline provided a platform for ordinary people to get on with their lives with a modicum of decency.  Glorious romantics tend to be chaotic administrators.

Still neither Antony nor Octavius would have hesitated to have the rabble-rousing Brecht crucified.  One of the 20th century's most innovative and caustic playwrights, he loved nothing better than to poke pointed fun at the pretensions of power, and to elevate common people to heroism.  Here's his poem A Worker Reads History.

Who built the seven gates of Thebes?
The books are filled with names of kings.
Was it the kings who hauled the craggy blocks of stone?
And Babylon, so many times destroyed.
Who built the city up each time? In which of Lima's houses,
That city glittering with gold, lived those who built it?
In the evening when the Chinese wall was finished
Where did the masons go? Imperial Rome
Is full of arcs of triumph. Who reared them up? Over whom
Did the Caesars triumph? Byzantium lives in song.
Were all her dwellings palaces? And even in Atlantis of the legend
The night the seas rushed in,
The drowning men still bellowed for their slaves.

Young Alexander conquered India.
He alone?
Caesar beat the Gauls.
Was there not even a cook in his army?
Phillip of Spain wept as his fleet
was sunk and destroyed. Were there no other tears?
Frederick the Great triumphed in the Seven Years War.
Who triumphed with him?

Each page a victory
At whose expense the victory ball?
Every ten years a great man,
Who paid the piper?

So many particulars.
So many questions.

Saturday, 2 February 2013

The New Dionysius

Reading ancient authors can be disconcerting.  It's hard to be certain if you're inhabiting the same mental universe as they are.  How similar are we to our forebears of two millennia ago, and how much have shifts in time and culture made fundamental changes to our outlook?  For instance, my recent reading of some of Plutarch's Lives.

Plutarch was a Greek author and philosopher who wrote at the end of the first and beginning of the second century CE.  He was a philosopher, trained at the Academy in Athens, and also a priest of Delphi, the famous shrine of Apollo from which Greek and Roman leaders sought oracles before they set out on important ventures. 

However, he is best known for his "Lives", a series of short biographies of prominent Greek and Roman leaders from various eras.  He produced these in pairs - one Greek, one Roman - intended to illustrate different moral and political lessons and to compare and contrast Greek and Roman civilisation.  The Penguin editor tells us that he was not so much concerned with historical fact as with moral lessons.

Penguin Books obviously didn't feel Plutarch's original concept would sell to 20th century readers.  Instead, in the late 1950's and mid-1960s they extracted two collections of his Roman lives and published translations respectively titled Fall of the Roman Republic and Makers of Rome.  Most of the biographies are from the two centuries before Christ, when Rome was expanding its influence and territory.  Its city-state polity was awkwardly suited to a growing empire and unrest at home grew as the wealthiest citizens captured the riches of empire and the rest got nothing. 

Roman society was deeply religious.  The early Christians were not despised because they were religious but because they were not.  They refused to worship the Roman gods, including the emperor, and insisted on exclusive fidelity to their single God/man.  Such irreligion would bring the wrath of all the other gods down on their heads if the Romans didn't deal firmly with it. 

For them the gods were very close and personal, so personal that an emperor of sufficient power could be a god himself, if not in his own lifetime then soon after his death.  It's not easy to know how seriously the emperors themselves took this.  Those who overplayed their divinity, like Caligula or Nero, were generally portrayed as mad.  Yet they always ensured their immediate predecessors were swiftly deified.

Plutarch takes religion as a given.  He doesn't discuss it much, apart from repeated references to augury (the practice of reading omens in the behaviour of birds), but it's there, not far from the surface.

Some of his characters are instantly recognisable types.  Cato the Elder, for instance, is a classic moralist.  His chief virtue was thrift.

He tells us that he never wore a garment which cost more than a hundred drachmas, that even when he was praetor or consul he drank the same wine as his slaves, that he bought the fish and meat for his dinner at the public market...that when he was bequeathed an embroidered Babylonian robe he immediately sold it...

This admirable thrift and simplicity was, however, also applied to human beings.

...he never paid more than 1,500 drachmas for a slave...and when they became too old to work he felt it his duty to sell them rather than feed so many useless mouths.

It's hard not to hate Cato and Plutarch doesn't try to persuade you otherwise.  He could easily be one of Charlotte Bronte's cruel, self-righteous parsons.  He made me think of the priest in one of Ellis Peters' Brother Cadfael books who is described as having all the Christian virtues except compassion.

Mark Antony is a completely different kettle of fish.  He could be extravagently generous, passionate and forgiving, as well as violent and cruel.  He was noted for his wild drunken parties and his seductions, for his habit of disguising himself as a slave and wandering the streets of the city in search of adventure.  His entourage, instead of generals and diplomats, was made up of actors, singers and circus performers.  Each night there was feasting and revelry.  In so many ways he was the model for the later emperors, for men like Nero and Commodus who ruled with passion and extravagence.

As the republic tottered on its last legs, Antony at the peak of his power was virtually the sole ruler of two thirds of the empire.  He could have become the first true emperor if he had not been outsmarted by his younger rival Octavius, who went on to become the Emperor Augustus.  Yet for a modern reader his motivations are a mystery. 

Plutarch is also a little mystified, and is inclined to attribute his misjudgements to passion.  Blinded by his love, or his lust, for Cleopatra, he throws away opportunities for victory in order to be near her.  Yet by this time he was already an experienced leader and she was no mean political schemer herself. 

I would actually hazard a guess (in true Plutarchian style, quite possibly despite the facts) that Antony's problem was that he was a religious idealist, even a fanatic.  He was the opposite kind of fanatic to Cato, that strict, old-fashioned Roman who allied fidelity to the old gods with strict morality.  Cato, like the later Octavius, was passionately opposed to the introduction of Greek ideas into Rome, and particularly to the spread of the rites of Dionysius (the Roman Bacchus), god of wine and revelry.

Antony, on the other hand, was a lover of all things Greek.  His family was reputed to have descended from the Greek hero Hercules, son of Zeus, but Dionysius was his own particular deity.  He was even referred to as the "new Dionysius", the first Roman ruler to be lauded as a god.  To Octavius his maintenance of performers, his drunken feasts and revelry, were simply immoral.  Yet for a Dionysian they were acts of worship, devotion to a life of pleasure inspired by the god of joy and feasting.  Nothing gave Antony more pleasure than to glorify and serve his god. 

His affair with Cleopatra inspired him to new heights of worship.  If he was the new Dionysius, then she was the new Isis, the Egyptian mother goddess, bringer of fertility and new life.  Together they flaunted convention, outdid each other in their devotion to pleasure, in the extravagence of their feasting and their gifts.  So much so that the pleasures of empire paled.  It was hard for Antony to remain interested in war or politics.

Of course it eventually brought them undone.  Their followers wanted victory and spoils, not parties.  Their extravagence bankrupted them and impoverished their empire.  Octavius' prudence and discipline overcame them.  He established the kind of relentless, disciplined empire that was built to survive. 

Yet I suspect Antony might say that survival is not everything.  For him, a life lived on Octavius' terms was no life.  Without the regular Bacchanalia his life would not be worth living.  The Catos and Octaviuses of the world may end up with the spoils, but only the Antonys really know what to do with them.