Thomas Merton, during his Asian pilgrimage, waited for days to see and photograph Mount Kanchenjunga, but it was covered by clouds. His visual sense was acute. In Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, he wrote: “Nothing resembles substance less than its shadow [words, drawings…]. To convey the meaning of something substantial you have to use not a shadow but a sign, not the imitation but the image. The image is a new and different reality, and of course it does not convey an impression of some object, but the mind of the subject: and that is something else again.” I discuss his pilgrimage and his photography in an essay under “On the Record,” which is listed in the column on the right. Merton died in Bangkok in December 1968.
Two more books completed on the classical world of Greece and Rome: Celebrity in Antiquity: From Media Tarts to Tabloid Queens by Robert Garland; Duckworth, 2006.
With the growth of cities and states, renown was bestowed on those who stood out in various ways: by the exercise of power, their beauty, their role as soldiers, their exploits on fields of sports or survival in physical contests of strength, their ability to speak or do science or philosophy, or their virtue. In the Greek and Roman worlds, such people were fodder for books, pamphlets, broadsides, letters, graffiti, statues and paintings. Garland is adept at capturing the traits of such figures, their characters, and making deft comparisons to present day celebrities. He firmly establishes the premise that history does repeat itself over and over, and, yes, we learn nothing from it, or too little to make a difference.
Caesar (circa 50 BC) was the Great Populist of his era, a genius at rallying the plebs, the lower classes, who looked to him as their patron, who protected them from the equestrian class, the “equities,” (think political, financial power brokers). He was one of the first to write his own autobiography of military exploits (in a most generous light), though he cleverly used the third person. His assassins fled the city and country, while the people canonized him into posterity.
Alcibiades (450 BC), a prominent Athenian statesman, orator, and general, was renown for his aristocratic charisma, his bad boy image, his bisexuality (as was Caesar), his lust for courtesans, his beauty (Plato said he proposition Socrates who turned him down), his lack of scruples, his scandals, his drinking in the morning, his style of effeminate dress, and the decoration of his military shield with the word “Eros.”
His private life became a subject of public obsession until finally he fell from grace, but not before setting a pattern of privilege – and public forgiveness – for people who possess an ability to hold the public eye through sheer force of talent, personality and presence.
Sports, the theater and the arts were the pathway for ordinary people to rise to celebrity status in the ancient world. To be the most successful actor, wrestler, runner, chariot driver, courtesan, or musician led to great wealth and fame.
The symbiosis between sports and entertainment celebrities and the elite and governing class was exemplified by the Emperor Nero, who lusted to be recognized as a sports and entertainment figure. Ruler of the world wasn’t enough.
Garland writes: “Such was Nero’s eagerness to acquire celebrity status that his portrait head on coins for the year AD 64 may actually have been influenced by the hairstyle of actors or charioteers…there was more to Nero’s craving for public attention than meets the eye, for it enabled him to present himself to his subjects as a popular idol. The goodwill of the plebs was in fact vital to him, as he received little support from the army, or from the senatorial class or the equestrian order.”
Sophists and philosophers, for a brief time, were celebrities. Many gave public symposia and workshops, making great sums of money. Socrates did not. But he attracted a fascinating number of followers, from both the aristocratic and lower classes, who attended his informal gatherings.
Alcibiades said: “Whenever I listen to him, my heart beats faster than a Corybant [a Whirling Dervish]…and I see that he has the same effect on many others.”
Another branch of charismatic celebrities that extends into the present day were the hucksters of every stripe and character. Alexander of Abonuteichos set up a lucrative, prosperous “oracle shrine” around 250 AD. Lucian scourged him as “equally adept in lying, guile, perjury, malice, plausibility, audaciousness, cunning, determination, con-artistry, and hypocrisy.” Alexander predicted the future, performed healings, and promised blessings in the hereafter after conveying secret mysteries.
The greatest show business celebrity ever to rise to the top was Theodora, who as a youth appeared in the theater performing sexual acts and was a notorious prostitute, yet she donned the royal purple robe to become Empress Theodora (circa 540 AD) after Emperor Justinian took her as his wife.
Her story was known throughout the classical world, and she had a devoted following of plebs much greater but akin to Eva Peron in her day. Theodora was a sexually liberated woman who used her beauty, wit – and intelligence – to rise above the rawest demimonde of poverty she was born into to be crowned empress. Justinian was devoted to her throughout his life.
Rome: The Autobiography edited by Jon E. Lewis; Robinson, 2010.
This is a rich collection of original writing by key figures, historians, aristocrats, literary artists of the day and common folk, ranging from 753 BC to 565 AD Why did these two cultures flower so grandly and others languish? I have no answer, and – other than platitudes and conjectures – neither does anyone else.
History is an amalgamation of discreet acts and lives that collectively extend beyond the individual and allow us to look at ourselves. Assembled wisely, it can tell us a story about human nature. Classical Greece and Rome offer us a story writ large over time. Take Socrates’ life, for example. It was exemplary, yet a judge and jury saw otherwise. Alcibiades was a compelling, clever sophist, out for himself. Socrates was a philosopher, out for the greater good.There’s a lesson in their lives.
In a vastly different way, China experienced equally admirable growth in governance and culture during the same period, but elsewhere there are no real comparisons, except for the Middle East (and I’m silent here, totally deficient to say anything about its history; an embarrassment considering the state of the world now). In an ideal world, reading Greek and Roman history would be a component of the moral dimension of public education, at first offered very simply, from the earliest grades, to more detailed study through high school. It provides a missing reality, devoid of myth. It prepares one to know the world as a dangerous stage, impossible to fathom only through the lens of contemporary culture.
On a larger scale, if one has to have a descriptive God, a sweeping take-away from my classical reading is the fitness – the absolute rightness – of the God described in the Old Testament. The God of the New Testament offers solace, but who or what is it? It offers much less in the way of a true picture of life on Earth. It’s little wonder the gods of the classical world were swept away by the God of the New Testament; people were grasping for a saving grace from the world they knew, which is our world too.
Listen to and look at the words and acts of the God of the Old Testament. He gives fair warning of what’s in store for the children of light. The Old Testament God appears as a worthy stage manager, preparing the audience for the tribulations of life. Reocurring themes of apocalypse are bows to human nature’s intractable flaws.
Even with the progress in standards of living, life on Earth can be Hell – or a constant struggle – for people during their brief time on the planet. Heaven, perhaps, for a lucky few. Some survive life’s journey more or less intact, but many are culled in the swirl of fate, trial, pain, despair, sorrow, and, for some – an eagerness to exit the travails.
Greek and Roman history tell us that material progress and technology – our cleverness – are not enough to provide happiness or change human nature. That should be enough of a cautionary warning for humankind to do much better than we’re doing, but it isn’t.
Upon Robert Stone’s recent passing, Madison Smartt Bell wrote at The New Yorker’s Page Turner blog that Stone “was one of the most widely read people [he had] ever met. . . . All his knowledge never settled into wisdom’s contentment—his streak of anger was too broad for that, and he learned all he knew in order to make art out of it, art with a furious energy.”
See Stone’s penetrating essay on Stephen Crane in Brick Magazine here.
Here’s a tender recollection of Jack Kerouac by Gary Snyder. It’s included in The Allen Ginsberg Project website, here, along with a video of the interview. The date and source of the interview was not given:
“I only knew Jack (Kerouac) personally, in an intimate way, for those few months from the Fall of (19)55 to May of 1956 when I set sail for Japan. I never saw him again, and it was like a brief camp-out together when we shared that cabin in Marin County through the Spring of that year, practiced meditation together, talked Buddhists texts, wrote poetry and drank a lot of Tokaj – and then I left. At that time, all that Jack and I were doing together were practicing mountains, practicing wood-cutting, practicing flowers and birds and practicing Buddhist studies.
Interviewer: Does The Dharma Bums…Is that a really accurate story or is a lot of it made up?
GS: Some of it’s a novel, some of it reflects things that happened, but even the reflection is novel too, like (William) Burroughs would say.
Interviewer: Did you know he was going to write a book about you?
GS: Yeah, he told me, towards the end. He said, “I’m going to write a book about you, Gary, you’re going to be really famous!” – “Really?”
Interviewer: Do you think he had a sense of himself as being a major novelist. I mean as like a..
GS: Yes. I do, at that time even.
Interviewer: In what sense..?
GS: The clear sense of his skill, his power, his vocation, and his energy, and that there was something that he was going to be saying
Interviewer: In a way, there’s a funny kind of worship, you know, of what you represented.
GS: Well, he does that in the novel. He plays that in some of the other novels too, where he makes his first person singular into kind of a naive character that elicits information from people by pretending not to know (and he didn’t do that much with me in person, although, it’s true, he was real naive about some things.
Interviewer: What was.. what was..
GS: He didn’t really know what was involved in going back-packing and hiking and climbing. It was all new to him, but he was a quick learner. And he didn’t know much about nature, or that you could know about nature really, in its specific way. And so, spending some time on the Spring bird migrations and the many species that were coming through Marin County that year – five hundred a year come through Marin County on a Pacific fly-way – so we were checking off species as they came through that little shack and Jack really appreciated all that information.
…Like we were cutting some eucalyptus and splitting eucalyptus for fire-wood the stove and he was like a kid – learning how to start a chain-saw, how to handle a maul – same way as when we went back-packing. Oh, I was going to say, we did another trip too (besides to the High Sierra). We did a.. two-night maybe? camping trip, hiking right from Homestead Valley over Mount Tam. and camping out on the drainages on the north side of Mount Tamalpais..local places..and swinging around and coming back…
Interviewer: Was Kerouac really as frightened… there’s a thing where he..
GS: (shaking his head): Mm-mm
Interviewer: Oh, interesting.
GS: Well, that’s part of his story-telling.
Interviewer: Because he says, “I was a coward” – He says “I was the Buddha known as the coward. At least I have joy”, or something like that [editorial note – Kerouac’s actual line –“I realized I have no guts anyway, which I’ve long known. But I have joy.”]
GS: He likes to play with that. He’s an athlete.
Interviewer: Did you think of him as an intellectual?
GS: No. But well-read, to make the distinction. A very well-read person and a very sharp person with a critical acuity when he wished to employ it, but not like a practicing intellectual, which is a style, (that) is all it is…
GS: The Buddhist metaphor?
GS: Suffering, impermanence, the First Noble Truth – everything is impermanent and we must find our joy and our freedom in suffering – finally. He swung around through that, to the Buddhist understanding of that – and it’s all through his writing – and then settled back into, maybe, the more familiar comfort of Catholic metaphors…
Now you asked me “Did he seem very American?” and I said “Yes”, and you said “Why?”, and I was ruminating on how to answer that. He was in his physical health and strength, in his unconscious grace, in his child-like-ness, (which was real a lot of the time), in his openness to experiencing new things and learning new things, his paradoxical joy in a kind of freshness in the world (paradoxical, because at the same time he was aware of suffering and impermanence), and maybe all of that is sort of American – And a total absence in Jack of anything elite, or yuppie, or academic, or intellectual, or any of that posturing at all that we associate with learned people, middle-class white people. He was more like your aunt, you know, sitting at a table in the kitchen, or your grandma, sitting at a table in the kitchen, speaking in common-sense truths about orderliness and kindness, basic instructions, and so, very much like my old aunt from Texas, and easy to be with.
Here is a beautiful prose poem by James Fenton on Mexico that celebrates attention to place, while also offering a primer on how to ignite creativity – always a solitary exercise. A friend reminds me of the story of Fenton riding on the top of a North Vietnamese army tank that breached the gates of the Presidential Palace during the fall of Saigon in 1975. Has any great poet had such a send-off story to mark the eve of their career? His experience in Vietnam and Cambodia from summer 1973 form sections of All the Wrong Places (1988), a collection of essays.
“The guy has a chicken neck, soft rolls of fat under his chin, wispy white hair. He’s like a little boy in front of the most beautiful girl in the village. His eyes never leave me. He says go out, go to room. I think: Go out with this old animal or not?
“I tell myself again – Pai, if pay enough, never say no. I decide to test his money. A little bar-fly girl in a black and white school uniform flits by in her white sneakers, bouncing up and down like this to Proud Mary on the jukebox.
“I see that little girl likes you, I say, using my best smile. I help you. You want her? Only $60 dollar.
“He said the name of Jesus, the God. ‘No, honey. I like you. Don’t you want to go with me?’
“I want to go, I said, but I have to ask for a lot of money. I have to pay rent. I have two children.”
“My head was a broken plate from tequila the night before. After work all the dancers went to Mr. Spicy’s. The men went crazy buying us drinks. We had a lot of fun. Now I feel like dry shit.
“He says again, ‘Don’t you like me, darlin’? I need another tequila.’
“‘Me, too, I said. I start to feel better because that was my 74th drink this month. I make 65 drinks before the first twelve days of the month. Now the mamasan knows I work hard to make money. $1 a drink for me, and $3 for the bar.
“Then the old animal says he needs more tequilla to make his carrot grow. When I don’t understand what they say, I smile and laugh. ‘Me too,’ I said. One more dollar. He smiles and nods his head. Then two young Australians threw ping pong balls onto the dance platform. Little Blue pulled off the bottom of her costume, picked up a ball and shot it back at them. Big cheers. I can’t do that. Everybody clapped their hands and yelled. Momasan walks around the dance floor, ‘Tomorrow, everything is 50 percent off,’ she says. ‘Not me,’ said Blue.
“The old animal said, ‘Ok, put up or shut up.’ I know what shut up means so I stopped talking. Maybe he will buy me another drink.
“I told him, ‘You give me $100, Ok? We go now.’ That’s how I got the $30 to send to my mother this month. My mom’s in Burma in jail. Two more years. I need her with me. I’m a baby too, really. I need her close. I want to cry all the time.
“Tomorrow night Blue and I go to the temple for Makha Bucha, about the Buddha talking to people. I will pray to take care of my mother and live to be old with my children.”
And the next night the temples filled with people. The moon was big and red like tens of millions of nights before on the full moon of the third lunar month. Pai and her two children prayed for her mother in Burma, and she prayed to have a good heart and be a good mother.
My friend Lary Wallace tackles why stoicism is largely misunderstood and not viewed as an early, elegant philosophy, a view I’ve come to share and ponder. The whereof probably stems from the early coupling of stoicism with Sparta and the fearsome emergence of the single-minded, nearly unconquerable Greeks of that era, who encouraged endurance in the face of physical hardship. Endurance translates to a honing of the will, or a view of the mind, of what Wallace calls “indifference.” That’s a really tricky term with shades akin to the Buddhist idea of “letting go,” a way to encourage non-attachment – again a tricky term.
When we’re in this area of Truths, deep understanding, words blur and it brings us to a place where truths slide around and through each other, a philosophical fusion. Anyway, Lary is, as usual, on target in his essay, which can be found here in Aeon, a new online cultural journal that’s one of the best serious websites going now. Look at it…