By Photography by Justin Fox Burks
On Dec. 21, 1940, a 44-year-old disgruntled screenwriter died of a heart attack. Although he had been a major literary voice of the Jazz Age, he spent the late 1930s as a self-described Hollywood hack. At the time of his death, he was working on an episodic tale of old Hollywood’s loves and losses, told through the figure of its young mogul, Monroe Stahr. As a film historian, what I think is most intriguing about F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Love of the Last Tycoon is that this unfinished novel (republished along with the author’s working notes in 1993) offers only brief snapshots of the studio era, thereby suggesting that history may not be easily linearized. As the narrator Cecelia Brady realizes early on, the past can be narrated, “but only dimly and in flashes.”
It is this notion of history as a series of “lighting flashes,” or brief moments that spark our attention in the long continuum of yesteryear, that I find compelling in the work of Walter Benjamin. Benjamin’s The Arcades Project is a collection of quotations and reflections, arranged into categories like “Fashion,” “Boredom” and “Photography.” While the book is ostensibly about the glass-roofed Parisian arcades, it becomes a fragmented meditation on the modern age. This is not a book to be read from cover to cover. The pleasure of this text is in seeing Benjamin navigate the 19th century like a flâneur traversing the arcades, pausing wherever an ordinary object catches his eye and discovering an entire history out of a single detail.
What Benjamin does with 19th-century history, Roland Barthes performs on himself. Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes is an unusual autobiography; it does not recount events or narrate stories with a clear beginning, middle or end. It is composed of a string of alphabetized fragments—at least one for every letter, with entries on Chaplin, left-handedness, migraines, utopia, and so on—that generates a self-portrait that is both personal and fictional. Ultimately, Roland Barthes becomes a poetic consideration of the disjointed self, where fragments merge anecdote and analysis but never build to a coherent whole.
Gilbert Adair’s Flickers: An Illustrated Celebration of 100 Years of Cinema is a similarly fragmented chronicle, not of the author’s life but that of the movies’ first centenary. Adair’s text unfolds as a succession of movie stills, one for each year: from the Lumières’ first twinkling images to F.W. Murnau’s lyrical “Sunrise” to Jean-Luc Godard’s stunning “Breathless” to Tim Burton’s enigmatic “Ed Wood.” What I love about this book is that there is no overarching argument about the evolution of cinema. As still follows still, Flickers begins to resemble an old-fashioned flip book, telling the story of film’s cultural, aesthetic, economic and industrial developments, as they have flickered by over the course of the 20th century.
In that vein, Paul Auster’s The Book of Illusions turns life itself into a series of flickers. David Zimmer, a literature professor at a liberal arts college in Vermont, is distraught over the loss of his family in a plane crash, when he stumbles upon a clip from a silent film of comedian Hector Mann, who has been presumed dead for 60 years. The novel follows Zimmer’s obsessive journey to rediscover and write a book about Mann’slost films, when he receives an invitation to meet Hector himself. Auster’s text is written in the spirit of Chateaubriand’s Memoirs from Beyond the Grave, and it beautifully explores how a life might be reconstructed, however incompletely, from the traces, images and memories it leaves behind.
Greek and Roman Studies
Nullum est iam dictum quod non dictum sit prius. “Nothing is said now which has not been said before.” The Roman dramatist Terence used this proverb in the prologue to his play the “The Eunuch.” It’s not a sentiment I agree with entirely, but it’s one that came to mind as I considered what principles to use in recommending a few books to the Rhodes community. Should I choose recently published items, in keeping with the practice of summer reading lists, or should I choose items from my field—Greek and Roman studies? In the end, my criteria were simple ones. I chose works that I enjoyed reading at various points of leisure in my life. I mention them here, however, not only for their value as entertainment but because they convey ideas that I continued to ponder after finishing them.
In the summer after completing my dissertation and just before I moved to Memphis, I encountered H.H. Scullard’s The Elephant in the Greek and Roman World. I think the entertainment value of the study will be obvious: Everyone loves elephants, and many know the incredible story of the Carthaginian general Hannibal with his elephants struggling to cross the Alps. Scullard’s book provides the background to Hannibal, tracing Greek and Roman interactions with the elephant back to Alexander the Great’s expedition to India, through the adoption of Indian elephants into the armies of Hellenistic Greek kingdoms, and then to the African context of Hannibal. It’s an incredible story that gives definitive evidence of the diversity of ancient Mediterranean cultures.
My second recommendation is actually a trilogy. Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra and That Hideous Strength would seem to have grown out of C.S. Lewis’s association with J.R.R. Tolkien. The novels can be interpreted as Lewis’ response to the darkness of World War II in much the same way as Tolkien’s more famous trilogy. They recount the adventures of the philologist Erwin Ransom on Mars, Venus and, in the final work, on his return to Earth. The philology enticed me to read the first novel. So much of science fiction simply ignores the problem of language; anyone who has used an online translating device can discern the inadequacy of a “universal translator.” Ransom, on the contrary, spends a significant effort in learning the language of his Martian hosts. The larger themes of classical myth and Christian theology kept me reading the novels. Lewis, surprisingly perhaps, allows the Graeco-Roman gods a positive role in this cosmos.
My last selection is a novel that was recommended to me by one of my students in Search. Because of my profession, I am occasionally asked to compare the present political situation of the United States with that of the Roman Empire “just before the fall.” There are numerous problems with the assumptions of that question, but, in response, I try to point out that the United States is much younger than Rome was in the fifth century CE. A more fruitful comparison might be made between the last days of the Roman republic and the present context of the American republic. We were discussing such ideas in Search in conjunction with Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar” when Carly Taylor ’11 told me of the premise of Orson Scott Card’s Empire. In the novel, a highly fractured United States, soon after the attacks of September 11, a new civil war arises, with a possible movement from republic to empire. One of the main characters in the novel uses his knowledge of the Roman republic to manipulate the upheaval to his advantage. Empire reads like a Hollywood blockbuster movie starring Bruce Willis, but it could fill a rainy day in a cabin or a sunny afternoon on the beach with an intriguing analogy.
I am fascinated by unusual, dramatic and real stories that describe people’s facing and confronting their own humanity and mortality. Touching the Void by Joe Simpson, The Butterfly and the Diving Bell by Jean-Dominique Bauby and Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer are such books. All of them have been made into movies, but the books, in particular the one by Krakauer, is much better than its screen version.
In Touching the Void, Joe Simpson writes of his dramatic climbing accident in the Peruvian Andes in 1985. After having reached the top of a 21,000-foot peak, Simpson plunged off the vertical face of an ice ledge, breaking his leg and forcing his climbing partner, Simone Yates, to lower him to safety in the dark and bad weather. However, Simpson falls into a crevasse and Yates cuts the rope. Simpson writes honestly and vividly of his ordeal in climbing out of the “void” and of his struggle to get back to the camp with a broken leg. His immense inner strength and refusal to give up is amazing, but even more so is his intensity in the retelling of his thoughts, feelings and delirium while he crawls and hops for three days to the camp.
In The Butterfly and the Diving Bell, Jean-Dominique Bauby used the only tool available to him—the blinking of his left eye—to communicate to the world around him. Bauby had suffered a stroke at the end of 1995, at 43, that left him paralyzed from head to toe and able only to use his mind and blink his left eye to “dictate” this book. He was able to compose the book one word at a time, blinking to select each letter as the alphabet was recited to him slowly, over and over again. His memories and dreams are vivid and his irony and poetry are testament to the depth and creativity of his mind. This is one the most touching and humbling books I have ever read.
In 1992 Chris McCandless graduated from Emory University, gave $25,000 in savings to charity, abandoned his car and most of his possessions and hitchhiked to Alaska. Four months later his body was found in an abandoned bus in Alaska. Why did he leave behind his friends and family? Why didn’t he want to be found? Why Alaska? What happened to him? Where did he go and what did he do during those four months? Through interviews with his family, people he met in his travels and through the journal and the photographs found beside the body in the bus, Jon Krakauer reconstructs the journey of McCandless and offers some explanations on McCandless’ desire to reinvent his life. Into the Wild is Krakauer’s account of his own findings. The choice made by McCandless and his death angered some people at that time, but Krakauer’s book succeeds in eliciting respect for McCandless and his choices.
For those people who like epic novels, Inés of My Soul by Isabela Allende should be a good read. Only months after the inauguration of Chile’s first female president, Allende wrote the story of Doña Inés Suárez (1507–1580), considered the founding mother of that country. Allende based her book on historical records of the colonization of Chile by the Spaniards who had already settled in Peru. She follows Inés and her lover Pedro de Valdivia, who became the first governor of Chile, in their difficult journey to the south, and in their losing and victorious battles with proud and powerful native people. The Mapuche people of central and southern Chile were subjugated by the then-independent nation of Chile at the end of 1800s. Chile, with its beauty, its landscapes, its sweet and harsh climates is the other protagonist of this historical novel. Allende, who grew up in Chile, portrays her country with such love that, after I read the book, I went there as soon as I could.
At last, a book about Rome, Italy, my city. No, not by an Italian, but by a writer from Idaho, Anthony Doerr. In 2004 Doerr spent a year in Rome as recipient of the Rome Prize, one of the most prestigious awards from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Four Seasons in Rome is his memoir of that period. He finds himself in an unknown city with his wife and a-few-months-old twins, and he lets the city and its people fascinate and entertain him. His good sense of humor and ability to capture the essence of Roman life make for a very pleasurable reading. I recognized places and people, and I found myself smiling with deep appreciation at Doerr’s description of life in that city. I looked at Rome through his eyes and I found it charming, warm and sophisticated. And I am grateful that such a spirited and smart writer could spend a year in Rome and give me this gift.