I ordered Lord Mahon’s The Life of Belisarius on a recommendation at NRO The Corner from Victor Davis Hanson. For the amateur history buff, perhaps the most interesting aspect of the book, which was first published in 1829, is its depiction of a 6th Century Mediterranean world riven by competition and war, still under the shadow of Rome well after the conventional date for the eclipse of the Roman Empire. Though the last Western Roman Emperor had long since given up the imperial purple, classic Roman institutions like the Senate, in Rome itself, and the Consulship, awarded in Byzantium, persisted up to this period. The former fell victim to a war in Italy that might have restored the old imperial heartland, when the old Senatorial families were taken hostage and in large number executed. The Consulship was by this time a merely honorific position, but had retained enough of its old aura to excite the jealousy of Emperor Justinian, who emerges in the tale as the very embodiment of vain and unwise leadership (he “imposed his name on no less than nineteen cities, and of these not a single one has served to prolong his memory”) – especially against the character of Belisarius, who is depicted as a great and good general, the very embodiment of loyalty and patriotism. The book is filled with marvelous characters and great events largely forgotten to history (outside of specialist realms), but the chief pleasure of reading it may be in Lord Mahon’s aphoristic asides and wry turns of phrase, reminiscent of Gibbon:
The national altar and the national throne cannot be merely foreign and indifferent to each other; if not allied, they must be hostile.
…he was invested with Patrician dignity, and spent the remainder of his days loaded with honors and contempt.
It is rarely that men reject any tale, however fantastic or improbable, provided it tends to show that their own sect or country is the peculiar favorite of heaven.
I, Sniper: I wonder whether Stephen Hunter still believes in the genre – mystery/suspense thriller – that he has mastered as few others have. His tone in this novel is so self-conscious, so knowing about his own authorial tricks and tactics, it reads almost as a set of gestures – love bouquets to the NRA and to veterans of foreign wars, dead flowers to the New York Times, poison bon-bons for the cultural-political left – rather than as a fictional world for a reader to inhabit. I found myself wondering just how pissed off Hunter, a Pulitzer Prize-winning film critic as well as one of our best genre writers, is about what Mark Wahlberg and company did to his work when they turned the first Bob Lee Swagger novel, Point of Impact, into the only slightly better than barely watchable movie Shooter. Yet Hunter’s audacity – from an opening series of fictional assassinations of characters obviously based on well-known leftwing celebrities, to a climax built around the exposure and destruction of yet another such figure – makes up in large part for a lack of genre-level seriousness, and longtime fans will find more than enough Swaggering good-guy-ism propelled by mind-boggling detail work to read the story with apolitical satisfaction. And anyway, most of ’em, I suspect, will feel more like standing up and cheering than giving up on the book when they encounter speeches like the one about the “all-powerful… narrative [that] rules us… rules Washington… rules everything”:
“The narrative is the set of assumptions the press believes in, possibly without even knowing that it believes in them. It’s so powerful because it’s unconscious. It’s not like they get together every morning and decide ‘These are the lies we tell today.’ No, that would be too crude and honest. Rather, it’s a set of casual, nonrigorous assumptions about a reality they’ve never really experienced that’s arranged in such a way as to reinforce their best and most ideal presumptions about themselves and their importance to the system and the way they’ve chosen to live their lives. It’s a way of arranging things a certain way that they all believe in without ever really addressing carefully. It permeates their whole culture. They know, for example, that Bush is a moron and Obama a saint. They know communism was a phony threat cooked up by right-wing cranks as a way to leverage power to the executive. They know Saddam didn’t have weapons of mass destruction, the response to Katrina was fucked up, torture never works, and mad Vietnam sniper Carl Hitchcock killed the saintly peace demonstrators. Cheney’s a devil, Biden’s a genius. Soft power good, hard power bad. Forgiveness excellent, punishment counterproductive, capital punishment a sin.”
And so on.
Caroline Alexander, The War that Killed Achilles: If you ever find yourself tempted to pick up the Iliad, maybe for the first time since you studied it at school, you might want to consider reading this book first, or even instead. Seemingly fully in command of nearly 3,000 years-worth of prior criticism and related works, of recent archaeological research, of linguistic nuance, and of general history and popular culture, author Caroline Alexander reads the ur-epic of Western Civilization from the first lines to the last, generously excerpting and, where necessary, re-translating important passages, and revealing Homer not just as a great poet, but also as a subversive, a kind of ancient modern or modern ancient, a tragic realist whose material happens to depend on the actions of gods and superhuman heroes. The Iliad, she explains, doesn’t just seem different from other epics or other writings in the epic tradition: It decisively challenges their main assumptions and typical purposes. Using words reminiscent of Muhammad Ali’s famous statement against serving in Vietnam, its central figure declares his disinterest in the war he’s forced to fight, and stirringly urges others to sail home rather than sacrifice themselves for “glory.” The product of an extended epoch characterized by the sorrows of war, the Iliad may have been experienced in its own time, and for centuries seems to have been received, less as a celebration of martial virtues, patriotism, and pagan faith than as a moral indictment of heroic culture at its worst – as in battle scenes in which warrior-victims in their deaths are humanized in somewhat the way the New York Times, in a widely read and appreciated series of obituaries, once commemorated 9/11 victims. It’s no accident, in Alexander’s view, that Homer’s Trojan War so often appears worse than pointless to a modern sensibility, and that the story’s most sympathetic figures are the ones least invested in prosecuting it.
It would be too much to call the Iliad “anti-war”: The idea of a world without war almost seems nonsensical within the ancient worldview. (For one thing, peace would bore the gods to death.) As the maker of a certain contemporary epic described his work, the Iliad wouldn’t be “anti-war,” but “anti-bad war,” a work of social self-criticism more than self-glorification – and all the more justly a fundamental text of Western civilization for that reason. It’s an eternal tale of war that ends with a last look at a moment of mournful peace, as experienced by a people on the verge of being wiped out:
They piled up the grave-barrow and went away, and thereafter
assembled in a fair gathering and held a glorious
feast within the house of Priam, king under God’s hand.
Such was their burial of Hektor, breaker of horses.
It’s one of the main accomplishments of Alexander’s work to bring the pathos and underlying moral intention of such lines fully alive, 2,700 years after they were written.