Wednesday, April 15, 2009


I recently visited one of my second-rank favorite places, the scrap-metal yard. If you are familiar with the old book or movie The Magnificent Ambersons, which is about the decline of a once-flourishing family and the small town where they formerly lorded it over everyone, the Amberson's house and that town are where I live, only with 70 additional years of decline. The property having been in the family for a long time, and there being an enormous catacomb-like cellar and decrepit carriage house which serve no vital purpose to a modern household, several generations of broken tools, appliances, motors, radiators, and the like have accumulated, enough to periodically gather up a haul of good old 20th century heavy, rusted iron that has a value of $100 or more on the scrap metal market. The scrap metal yard itself is a fantastic dislocation from the present to the atmosphere of the beginning-to-teeter industrial America of 1970 or so, scarcely a sensation of any plastic or other synthetic materials in sight, corrugated-metal sheds, enormous front loaders and bulldozer-like machines roving all over the site, the earth a permanently torn up and disfigured slough of mud, and of course piles of discarded metal, our national inheritance as it were, heaped up everywhere you turn.

This has nothing to do with Caesar except that when I tried to think of associations that Caesar's name invokes in me, I thought of the scrap metal yard, and when I am at the scrap metal yard I think of Rome, or probably more precisely the Roman and Roman-inspired literature that used to be the heart of the course of study at the finest and most beautiful private schools, and the nodding, romanticized ideas of olive groves and temples overlooking the warm seas that often come to people who encounter such works for the first time in such a setting. Sculptural representations of Caesar strike me as more consistently beautiful works of art than those of other great men. The pictures of these others are often uncompelling apart from the association of their work or other feats, but the depictions of Caesar radiate a palpable strength and superiority that manifests itself in the physical person as much as the mind. He is usually shown as having a perfectly-shaped head, neither too round nor too long, but achieving a happy proportion between the two, with a very lean lower half of the face over the expressions and twitches of which his mind appears to have perfect muscular control, always in perfectly orchestrated unison or counterpoint with his eyes. It is, perhaps deceptively, a reassuring face. Samuel Beckett closer to our time had one with a similar effect. It is reassuring because it strikes one as what a man's head and bearing ought to look like, and gives us a higher view of our nature than we ordinarily possess.

Like Napoleon, Caesar's historical reputation seems to me to have been consistently quite positive, or at least his greatest qualities and achievements are seen as offsetting the negative effects of his ascent and imdomitable will, such as for example the extermination of entire nations of people in his Gallic campaigns. He was one of the great generals, or at any rate one of the most important ones, in history. His administration of the Empire when dictator is widely admired, though his skill in this may be oversold by people, and there are many such, who live in more democratic or less centrally organized states and have a strange unmet craving for more competent and efficient administration. Assuming that he wrote the books that have been published under his name for the last 1000 years, he is still, I think, a canonical, or near-canonical author, his writings both seminal documents of ancient history and models of terse prose composition. He appears to have had no small amount of sexual virility either, and enjoyed substantial and enviable success with beautiful women. Aside from a very few stout and hyper-confident iconoclasts like Samuel Johnson, I think there has been historically a general sense among scholars and artists alike that such accomplishments and such stature in the specific time and society in which he lived, with its unique set of political and cultural conditions, and the intellectual talent which abounded in and about it, demands respect. I think a more classical approach to understanding human beings and history, if it does not require this, strongly pressures one to lean in that direction. Caesar becomes in this view a repository for the whole Western tradition, its learning, its outcome, its mythology and narrative flow, for the tradition has gone too far down the particular path that he, along with others, set it on, and if Caesar is not actually "great" in the substantial ways he has been honored as great, the traditon becomes at the least unreliable, and there is a good chance as well that it is an abomination altogether. Of course a truly developed post-modernist intellect--(well, I was getting on a roll but at this point I was interrupted--I forget for what reason--and I forget what a truly developed post-modern intellect would know--probably that the tradition is irrelevant, or that Caesar was just another person like anybody else, who snored and had to clip his toenails and so on, but happened to be a hyper-privileged, overconfident bully type).

I have often thought that people who care about such things are not as emotional about particular events and episodes in the history of the Roman Empire as they are with that of other peoples and periods. One reason I suppose is that Roman life and the Roman spirit, so to speak, never wholly died or were irretrievably lost to us. Rome was a practical, adaptable, and universal state and culture, its achievements and organization familiar and really the basis for all of Western civilization that followed it. No one has the sense that Rome died too soon, or that it might have, with some different luck, achieved or advanced humanity to any higher level than it did. Unlike the Athenians or the medieval Florentines or the seventeenth century French or other outbursts of spectacular and unreproduceable brilliance among a smaller and chronologically limited set of people, one doesn't think with even the greatest Romans that he has missed something he can't get a fair way up to speed on. Thus I do not think that the thought of Caesar as an usurper of the tradition and laws of his country, and as one who in large part opoosed its collective will, upsets anyone too much. Either they don't love the ideal of the Republic, and its traditions, its meaning, or they think after 700 years it perhaps had gotten a little stale and it was time for someone to shake things up a little and grab the reins of the state. I think there is a consensus that Caesar was probably wrong, and that we should not like to be so ruled ourselves, but we know enough to feel that nothing so grand for us is really at stake...

I am really tired, and I am done this post. I don't even know what I wrote at the end, but obviously the hypothetical students whose emotions are not fired by the real story of Caesar per se but by...yeah, it's me. I have to stop.

No comments: