“It is as if everywhere one loses something one had hoped to keep.” “It is awful how things go on when you are not there.” Two sentences, several hundred words apart, on the last two pages of The Lawless Roads by Graham Greene I just finished The Lawless Roads. I read it for the first time 25 years ago. The second reading was a shock. What I’d read first as a very adventurous travel book became a stylistic leap into a more serious immersion in class cruelty and the despair-of-the-world hopelessness that later defined his best novels (it was published in 1938). Greene travels through Tabasco and Chiapas, two tropical, backwater Mexican states reeling from a purge of Catholic churches and priests, and he draws on a rich cast of characters that he crosses paths with, many who foreshadow the fictional characters in his best moralistic novels . In those portraits he reveals himself in a way he mostly covers over in his later, more declarative autobiographical books such as A Sort of Life and Reflections. Greene was near the peak of his religious fervour following his conversion to the Catholic Church, and he seems to discover his future moral crossroads and his aesthetic voice in the book. You get Greene as a man in The Lawless Roads – his coldness, distance and cynicism (stoical realism?) encased in a deep religious longing to merge with something that offers salvation – an explanation, a reason – for the moral decay and horrors of humanity found throughout the world. It moves with great force and only in the final few pages did I feel I was, finally, coming up for air at the journey’s end. Greene was a needy young man (see Sherry’s biography), a weak reed who was barely connected to his sense of selfhood. He flirted with the moral and social structure within the Catholic Church, and it captured him in spite of doubts he had from his first encounters. He bought into it with the hope that it would offer him some solid support, but after experiencing the world more broadly and directly (Mexico, Africa) his belief dissolved from a structural/faith connection to a mystical, personal connection. Unlike Greene, I couldn’t accept the story of Christianity as I read and heard it when young, but now, with much deeper reading, I understand the story was crudely simplified to appeal to the broadest numbers of people. The “elect,” as defined by the gnostics, never accepted the New Testament version of Christianity as literal and reinterpreted its dominate themes and symbols. Before and after the New Testament writers, gnostics had their own version of transformative spirituality which followed many Eastern spiritual ideas and techniques. Gnosticism could not survive the rise of the Catholic Church, but many of its texts can be found here. The attraction of Roads is the sustained, long, detailed account of how Greene went through those days that made up the chronology of the trip. It’s a rare, full account of the physicality of travel that couples with a ghastly account of repression and morality turned upside down, a very complicated story when looked at in detail, but one that mirrors the same issues that attracted people to religion and spirituality 2,000 years ago: where is some salvation in this hell on Earth of repression and lack of compassion for the poorest of the poor. Greene found his perfect religon-based story in real life before his eyes, one that might have ensured his own loss of faith eventually. He saw, in real terms, that it is most often the ones with the least who hold most fiercely to faith as a last hope. The whisky priest in his subsequent novel, The Power and The Glory, is about a person much like Greene himself, someone in extremity of belief and faith who wants to be at the center of the religious quest even if he himself doesn’t understand the why or how of it. He was moved by the plight of people who have nothing and yet go on without the benefit of a saving grace. He saw the pattern in many people’s lives everywhere, and he made it one of his great themes. Roads is special because so much converges at this crucial point in Greene’s life.
Here’s the illustration by artist Hannah K. Lee for The New York Times‘ book review of Harold Bloom’s The Daemon Knows (a link can be found below this…). The book and the illustration are infused with capital A art. Read Lee’s illustration with the writers and poets in mind, and you will see what I mean.
Amy Bloom writes: “I scan the latest tower of books in front of me on the dining-room table, not even bothering with the stacks listing toward the far end, where Jeanne’s laptop sits, ready for her correspondence and Harold’s dictation.
“Some of today’s stack: Dialogue on Poetry and Literary Aphorisms, by Friedrich Schlegel (“Very important to me”); Elizabeth Bishop, by Colm Tóibín (“That very well-done novel on Henry James, very good”); The Poetry of Kabbalah, by Peter Cole; Jewish Cryptotheologies of Late Modernity, by Agata Bielik-Robson (“Splendid lady”); Nothing to Declare, by Henri Cole (“Very good. The best poet of his generation”); Shakespeare’s Horses, by Joseph Harrison (“My pupil. Next to Henri Cole.”), and multiple books by authors I expect to see: Hans Jonas, Gershom Scholem, Friedrich Hölderlin.
“Then there is a pile of stuffed animals on the living-room couch that belong not to their grown sons but to Jeanne and Harold. I ask, and he tells me, happily. “Well, there’s Valentina, the ostrich, named after Valentinus, second-century author of The Gospel of Truth; she presides…” For the article, click here.
The language problem but you have to try.
Some solid ground for lying could she show?
The heart of standing is you cannot fly.
– A stanza from Aubade (1937) by William Empson
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.
The sunlight on the garden
Hardens and grows cold.
We cannot catch the minutes
Within its nets of gold.
When all is told
We cannot ask for pardon.
– The opening stanza of “The Sunlight On The Garden,” a poem by Louis MacNeice, used as the epigraph on Chapter I of A Woman of Bangkok by Jack Reynolds.
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.