This Month: Ethan Frome, a review & Joe Biden, an Influential Man
Ethan Frome, by Edith Wharton, 130pgs. pub. 1911
Winter in a small farming village in early 20th century Massachusetts. A poverty stricken farm in Starkfield (a hint of desperation) is center stage. Be prepared for tragedy.
Ethan Frome. The protagonist, inherits the family farm. His Father was injured in an accident and dies shorty thereafter. His Mother descends into dementia and Ethan takes over the farm. Life is a hard scrabble existence.
Zeena. Ethan's wife; petulant, uncomfortable in her skin. She cared for Ethan's Mother when she was ill. Zeena is sickly, the nature of which is unknown.
Mattie. Zeena's cousin, a pauper. The Frome's have taken her in and she sometimes helps with the cooking and other minor chores.
Minor characters make appearances in convenience of plot.
Ethan and Mattie develop a close friendship during her stay at the Frome household. Their interactions are seemingly innocent but tension soon develops as Zeena becomes suspicious of their close friendship. Ethan has grown weary of Zeena's constant gruff and petulant mood. Zeena often complains about her mysterious illness. On a couple of occasions Ethan and Mattie, while on the journey of a chore, have the opportunity to extend their relationship. Mattie tells a story of neighbors who are planning marriage. Mattie hints that she may never be lucky enough to get married. Ethan objects and proclaims that she must get married. While they approach affections for one another, these interludes only serve to cloud their relationship and they don't commit to one another in a significant manner. They walk through the wintry woods as though in a fog.....stumbling to discover each other and bring further meaning to their relationship.
One day Zeena announces that she is going to see a doctor in another town and she will spend the weekend with her relations there. Ethan is thrilled with the prospects of being alone with Mattie. In the evening there is a mood of affection between them during and after supper. Ethan make a plan to demonstrate his affection to her, but the feeling wanes and the two of them go to bed without declaring further affections. The next morning Ethan is determined to announce his feelings to Mattie but at the last moment his courage ebbs. Ethan runs an errand in town and he is surprised to find Zeena in the house upon his return. Zeena tells Ethan that her health is poor and the doctor says her health is deteriorating. Zeena tells Ethan that she is going to replace Mattie with a woman who can care for her and maintain the household. Further, she tells Ethan her illness was caused by the continuous care she had given to his mother. Now Ethan considers that she never visited a doctor and the whole story was simply a plot to rid the household of Mattie. Ethan keeps his anger to himself. Ethan goes to the kitchen and kisses Mattie. He tells Mattie of Zeena's plan to send her away and their moment together is interrupted by Zeena. That evening he contemplates the decision he must make. Ethan considers eloping with Mattie, but dismisses the idea since he is not financially able to do so. Later, Mattie and Ethan meet and Mattie proposes that they go sledding together and ram themselves into a large elm tree at the bottom of a hill and end it all. Ethan is initially hesitant but surrenders to her plea. Mattie is severely injured and Ethan is crippled.
Many years later the narrator visits Ethan, Mattie and Zeena. Mattie is a hopeless bed ridden cripple and Zeena has grown desperately ill and unable to fully care for herself. Ethan is in physical ruin and shuffles around the house attending to Mattie and Zeena.
Ethan Frome is our modern day Hamlet since he is the man who cannot make a decision. In his youth he wanted to study science at the university but he could never make the decision to attend. On each occasion he meets with Mattie he cannot seem to bring himself to propose to her or explain his love for her. He cannot decide to confront Zeena about her illness although he feels that he should. When he agrees to the fatal sled ride it becomes an act of weakness since he succumbs to Mattie's plea. He lets events happen to him or we may say there is no deliberation of consequence.
The author relies heavily on atmosphere to spin this tale of tragedy. The village of Starkfield is draped with a thin veil and accordingly the characters navigate through the plot as though they were apparitions. The dialogue is sparse and the author relies on the character's thoughts to vaguely reveal their conflicted motives. Hence, the characters become sketches of action and emotion. This thin veil over Mattie and Ethan makes us uncertain of their direction and also makes them inaccessible to the reader as fully developed characters. We are suspicious that Ethan's feelings for Mattie is nothing more than a spark of infatuation. We do know that the relationship never reaches a nascent level. The author does allow Zeena to explain her motives and anger, as it must be, since she is Ethan's foil.
Ethan Frome was a sensation when it was published and possibly it was a sensation because it appealed to that secret little urge in us. The reader takes a peek though Wharton's veil of desperate living to witness someone's messy laundry. So 'the plot's the thing' is oft said, but it is also the style in which this novella is written. The thin veil cast over the characters and the nuance of narrative adds suspense and mystery. While the reader is uncertain of outcome, we know that it will end with despair since that narrative of their lives has been alluded to though out the tale. The survival of the crippled Mattie and Ethan and Ethan's additional burden takes this tale beyond death. The outcome is the trump card on death. The duo will continue their lives in despair, but now, on a steeper slope of decline.
Joe Biden, An Influential Man
The recent Washington Post article has covered the history of influence peddling of Joe Biden. There is little doubt that Biden's trips into the Ukraine and China as the Vice President resulted in corporate positions for his son. There were other instances over his career, as either Senator or Vice President, that were connected to positions in the U.S. Influence peddling is not a crime as long as it does not involve a quid pro quo and there is no evidence that Biden's actions were criminal. That Trump accusation has been laid to rest with several investigations, unless of course you are to believe the Star Chamber theory (historically the court of oppression) of Bannon and Giuliani, who promote the total dismissal of the corrupt FBI. Apparently the FBI has conspired to protect the members of the Star Chamber. Is Biden a member? Seriously, to look beyond the specific issue of Joe Biden, any activity in influence peddling can raise suspicions. How can the public be certain that there isn't a favor involved for the grantor? Favors can be buried deep in legislation, regulations or in the secret closets of corporations. The favor could travel through multiple channels and remain buried.
It is about appearance. It is unseemly for an elected official in the White House or Congress to travel about seeking personal favor. A country of lesser power can interpret this as subtle pressure to grant a favor. Does it appear that our elected official is an opportunist by traveling the globe at our expense with hat in hand seeking favor? Influence peddling is simply inadvisable and just plain ugly. 'cumon, Joe
Bob Woodward Interview
It wasn't long ago that the infamous bus pulled into D. Trump's locker room with the tape running to record his secret of past adventures. You could just just reach in and grab whatever you wanted. The wealthy and famous have such privilege. It is so true that the rich are different from the rest of us. Some were insulted, some amused but no one suffered irreparable harm. With this next tape, voluntary of course, another revelation was made public. This one had consequences.
By now most people have listened to some portion of the taped recordings of Pres. Trump in the Woodward book, Rage. I am sure some are immersed in the printed book. Many don't buy political books, but they do listen to the tapes or interviews of the authors.
The recording of Trump's response and rationalization of the pandemic will be referenced many years into the future and may have some influence in the upcoming election. Joe Biden has already folded the narrative into his political ads. It is the narrative of a President who always played it up to his audience then decided to play it down on this occasion. We could claim with sarcasm it would be out of character for a President that reeks of fear mongering not to want the public to become overexcited. Trump's reasoning has confirmed our earlier suspicions that the President wanted to protect his stock market and the pandemic scare was a nemesis to the market.
In the concluding comment of the book Rage Woodward simply proclaimed that Pres. Trump was the wrong man for the job. So what, so am I. It seemed to be a mild reproach of a President who willfully endangered the public's health. That casual remark had the essence of a rebuke of a person texting while driving. Woodward offered an explanation of his ending comment by reasoning that it would be better for the opposing political party to understand the inner motives of the Trump supporter rather than for him to assail Trump in his book. Perhaps the opposing party could tap into those motives and find something to attract or appease the Trump supporters. That is a most hopeful idea . It may be a reasonable strategy for a less fractious atmosphere. Though I have thrown a bon mot in Woodward's direction I agree with his concluding comment since the average reader is well equipped to draw their own conclusions.
The interview with Woodward continued with the subject of journalism and political commentary. When Woodward and Bernstein were finishing their book All The President's Men the N.Y. Post publisher Katharine Graham warned them to beware of pomposity (they may not have needed a reminder; it was a friendly hint). She said there was a lot of pomposity out there. Katharine Graham was certainly correct in her appraisal of the cultural/political environment. The cable, network and social media outlets are full of political and cultural pomposity. Every day someone is anxious to stand on the imperial podium of self-righteous indignation. Commentators may quote famous dead Presidents when addressing a political event as though the words of those Presidents are sanctified scriptures. It is as though the speaker holds a special moral position to which mere mortals are never invited because they are not worthy. If a journalist were to launch a pompous opinion to the ending of a political piece it is a declaration that the facts belong to the reader but the reader does not have the intellectual capacity to interpret those events wisely. Such writers or speakers usually wish to confer a title of importance on themselves rather that to wait for the public to affirm their importance. These speeches usually hold little value and simply add a dull hum in the background of decent journalism.
reference: CNN & CSPAN interviews
Invisible Man, by Ralph Ellison, 1952
A tale of racism in allegorical form
This is the proposition. You are human and you have the attributes of the human form and thought. You are concerned with your place in the community of man, give praise to a higher power, care for your family, consider your purpose in life, and you are a work in progress to which end you may be uncertain. Alternately you are another person. You are black and you are given an identity by white society and it is an identity given with bigotry and prejudice. They will not recognize your true identity since they choose to see through you. You are the invisible man as the black person. You are two irreconcilable people. African Americans have a plaintive call: "gee, just give us a chance."
This novel had to be written with satire and sardonic humor. Without the humor it is too grim, it would not be readable. Our protagonist, a nameless and fictitious black youth, is enrolled in a southern all black college. He is told by a white teacher. "You are like one of those African sculptures, distorted in the interest of a design." Well what design and whose?
At the onset the school is celebrating a debating contest with another event following. The boys must fight each other blindfolded. The winner receives a dollar and the ones remaining must wrestle one another for coins on an electrified carpet. The boxing match is brutal and the contest on the electrified carpet is no less brutal. Our protagonist wins a coin and he is a pummeled mess in the process. 'Gee, just give us a chance' has been answered. They have been reduced to animals for amusement. Next, our character is expelled from the college for following the instructions of a white chancellor. The chancellor's instruction was a violation of the school's regulations. He had taken the chancellor to a venue that was off limits to the school. He was caught in a catch 22. There is no way to turn without becoming guilty. As a result of his dismissal he moves to the north to secure employment and finds a job in a manufacturing plant. He is given a task and his work is sabotaged by a supervisor and our protagonist nearly dies as a result of a mishap resulting from the sabotage. He was given a chance and then it was snatched away as quickly as it was given. He was perceived to be so dim that he was mislead to prove the point. Later he is used by a communist organization to spread the word of equality. He is not aware that the organization was the communist league. He assumes their sincerity. The relationship crumbles when he is taken to task for advancing a single individual opinion in a speech. He is told he must adhere strictly to the mechanical manifesto that he was given. He cannot have his own voice while he is used as a trophy. He cannot be other than what they make of him. In the final scene a policeman kills an innocent black man and the combustible atmosphere concludes in a horrific, brutal battle between people of black factions. It is a riot with murder, looting, and mayhem. So are all black people the same? The point is well made: no they are not. They are a single unified organism only in a contorted perception.
The novel ends with the voice of Ralph Ellison speaking through the character. He will appreciate his own rich culture and heritage while absorbing what he appreciates in the white culture. He has no choice. He will use his power of speech and his power of the written word to advance his individuality and his cause. His extraordinary career has begun.
This highly imaginative yet gruesome depiction of the lives of African American people in America is the story of a people who were stripped of their identity upon their arrival and then given a demeaning identity. While it is true that African Americans have gained in respectable positions based on their talents we will continue to ask: "what of the personal relations with the white community?" Also, have we fully explored the nature of bias and do we judge one another by the worst of what we may perceive of them , either black or white? How often is a black person hoisted onto a podium, in some honorific posturing to become a trophy, to proclaim that we, the white people, have proof that we are not prejudiced?
The Unrequited One
By H C Wallace
Not brightest of suns could reveal a regret/
in witness of our comfort by spirit and flesh/
We surrender weak as sunk to passions habit/
a pair tempted deserving but not asking less/
to live by hours hiding all beyond this right./
But now suns eclipsed steals our moment/
those stubborn shadows disturb day on night/
to resurrect from love past a desire unspent./
Now I release one to ponder losing the other/
she rises in reunion but we resume incomplete./
Then in shadow and regret I will not recover/
and they unknown to another will compete/
not to know the tumult in this distorted love/
by the cruel seduction of the unrequited one/
The Sun Also Rises and when it did on that day in 1926 it revealed a new author who could illuminate a story with an unusually abbreviated yet forceful style. The author had captured the public's attention immediately. His narrative and style was fresh, stark and engaging. After reading one of Earnest Hemingway's novels you might think; 'yes that's the way it is alright and well said.' Hemingway had a unique talent for sparse composition that alluded to a mood laying between the words and sentences. It was nuance and choosing the right words to convey atmosphere and it was a work of simple beauty. Readers and critics have referred to his style as the iceberg method. The composition was of the modernist style, notably absent of adjectives, exhibited in earlier works by James Joyce. Hemingway could tell a story of parental grief in one six word sentence, "For sale, baby shoes, never worn"' from the novel A Farewell to Arms. Also, he could challenge the reader with hidden dialogue between deceiving lovers to focus attention on a taboo subject in the short story The Hills Are Like White Elephants. It is one of the finest examples of hidden dialogue to be written.
Hemingway had a partnership with Calliope, if you prefer a romanticized explanation of a muse, and for some reason, possibly for his honesty to the craft, she favored him for many years. In those years the public became especially enthralled with his novels in roman a clef narrative of a life lived large from zenith to abyss. I read three of his novels and then his novella about the old man and his seafaring misadventure. Certainly a unique fish story and the struggle of a humble man and an epic duel about any person facing impending failure with resolve. I came to the next novel not by any preference or duty, A Moveable Feast, which was published posthumously and possibly written ten to twelve years earlier. After his death Hemingway's reputation had gained mythical status with tales of his big game hunting, fist fighting bouts with friends, hard drinking and warring with fascists. He was the hyper-masculine male of his era in the cloak of the persona we were anxious to embrace. Judging by the title of the novel and his reputation I imagined Ernest rafting down an African waterway sipping cocktails while shooting Rhinos. No, not to be. The first few chapters were an endearing narrative of his early days. It was a life of desperate means, but it was a life enjoyed by young artists as they pursued their dreams with their compatriots. To be appreciated was Hemingway's observation of the lost generation of that era: "Just who was calling who the lost generation?" Well said since who was really lost and who had found themselves in this unique period. Who was in charge of the lost and found department? The story was Hemingway's nostalgic voyage of Jeune redux. Then I sped through the next few chapters and I was unimpressed. The following chapters were a litany of petty gossip that would compete with Louella Parsons' account of a Hollywood tell all scandal. At best he remained partially true to his writing style but I didn't have the appetite to finish the feast. I am mystified as to why so many people enjoyed that novel. Well it was Hemingway and it was Papa with fond memories.
In-between those novels I heard of a story between Hemingway and his uncle. The story takes place on Mt Kilimanjaro. Hemingway (in character) is hiking up the mountain, makes a turn in the path, and lying in the path is a dead leopard. The leopard apparently died very recently, perhaps only a day or so ago, did not show any signs of starvation, sickness, predatory attack, and it was not cold enough to die of exposure. Hemingway claimed the leopard had lost its scent and could not find its way to return to its den, became confused and resigned itself to a final end. The tale does require some imagination but then reading fiction require the suspension of disbelief. The story relates to his short story The Snows of Kilimanjaro. I did see the movie and it seemed to be a mess of a story and that spoiled the story for me. I doubt that the short story was as bad as the movie. However, I did remember that story of the leopard.
Hemingway's writing style began to change in later years. Something had thrown him off course in his literary journey and his personal life. Suddenly he began writing in very long sentences, lacking the former style. He converted to a stream of consciousness method that was at times convoluted. His recent novel Across the River and Into The Trees was not well received by the critics or the general public. He had penned a couple of clunkers in his career. Also, there were medical complications from a couple of plane crashes in Africa, war injuries, and a serious car accident. His drinking had increased considerably. Troubles were mounting.
Friends know. They can tell when a wheel is straining on level ground, when a three quarter step replaces a full step, or when something formerly joyous becomes laborious. Friends and associates know the signs. They took him to the hospital. Doctors stuffed a bit in his mouth and ran high voltage currents through his cranium. In general terms it is a procedure used to reroute bad messages that become log jammed in neural pathways. When he emerged from the torture chamber he commented that the procedure was a success for the doctors but not for the patient. He couldn't continue writing and day to day living was a struggle. He took his shotgun into his office and wrote his last chapter, an irony of demise that was the leopard's story. He had lost his scent, his center, his purpose.
Most of us might claim that we haven't learned anything about the human condition from a Hemingway novel or any novel of literary fiction. A perceptive literary critic once claimed that we already know what is illustrated in the novel. So true I believe. What is essential about a good novel is the context and writing style in which people are characterized in given circumstances. It is written with such dynamic force that the story crystallizes. We already knew about the center to one's life but to put it in the raw structure of a leopard losing its scent makes it metaphorical and that creates a stronger impression. And the leopard's death....that forced it front and center as a truism. Hemingway was a wonderful illuminator.
By H.C. Wallace
By Vesuvius sagging shoulders/
they are cradled in the balance/
of the flame and the water/
The ancient kettle smolders/
while sea tongues whisper an omen/
A witness speaks of their delusion/
for living in the creation's caldron/
Surely they tease cremation/
as their nostrils will spew steam/
and bones crumble bitter to ash/
The witness they will not deny/
yet not omit their pleasures/
They sing, rejoice in shadow flames/
then dance at the mouth of the oven/
while a rumbling augur tells of ruin/
Children have their wicked rhymes/
that came with the first of days/
and recite poems of mystic rune/
The little ones who will not obey/
will be devoured by the angry mother/
Harpies gulp from a devil's ladle/
and swim in the molten metal/
They have their devious schemes/
and are envious of those laughing/
then belch sulfur from their kettle/
Desire runs to lava in longing arms/
and headboards tap the ancient walls/
Lulled in the music of amorous sighs/
they sleep deep on the vespers of evening/
rocked in the arms of Vulcan's vapor/
Tomorrow is shuttered deep in hope/
where the stoked furnace spews/
with the furious flame and smoke/
La vita is this moment/
the furnace may burn tomorrow/
Miles of Racism
it was 1959 and Miles Davis had just recorded and released his seminal jazz album Kind of Blue. It was only two years earlier that he had released his album Birth of The Cool to great acclaim among jazz aficionados.
He was performing at the jazz club Bird Land and at the conclusion of a set he walked outside to take a break. He accompanied a white woman to a waiting cab a few steps away and then returned to stand by the marquee. There were several people standing around and under the marquee. An NYC policeman approached Miles and told him to move along since he was loitering. Miles explained that he was working at the club and was taking a break. He pointed at the marquee; "That's me, Miles Davis." The officer ordered Miles to move along. The newspaper account claims that a scuffle ensued around Miles, the nature of which we don't know. A plain clothes officer rushed past the uniform policeman and struck Miles on the head with a billy club. Miles was taken to the hospital and received five stitches and the wound was bandaged. He was taken to the police station and charged with disturbing the peace. He was released on a $10,000 bond.
Why was Miles Davis singled out of the crowd? Further, how could he be loitering if he worked there? While most people in America did not know him outside of the jazz scene, people in NYC knew the name if they were jazz fans or not. Many people in NYC could recognize him from a photograph. Certainly the police of that precinct knew who he was. Who was this bespoke black man, a black man escorting a white woman, this man of immense talent who could perform for $400 for four hours hours of work? A policeman's salary was $100 a week. Was it envy because this black man rose above a status to which a white policeman thought he did not deserve?
The head wound, since not serious, was simply emblematic of that evening. The following day someone wrote a blurb in a neighborhood newspaper: "crazed jazz musician falls headlong into a policeman's billy club." A bit of satire on the jazz music form and a poke at what was certain to be a laughable narrative from the police department. The event can be characterized as a personal racist action of an agent of the government. The policeman's personal animosity become the law that evening in lieu of respecting the freedom of a private citizen. The crimes committed were the false accusation by the NYC police department of disturbing the peace and assault. Dorothy Kilgallen the NYC columnist and a friend of Miles who was at the club witnessed in part the event. Her column the following day exposed the truth of that evening. She rightly pilloried the NYC police department for their abusive treatment of a black person. The charge of disturbing the peace against Miles was dropped...precipitated by the newsprint? Probably it had some influence.
In 1949 Miles Davis and his quintet accepted a tour invitation to Paris. The quintet was booked to play at the first Paris international jazz festival since the war. Nothing could have prepared Davis for the reception he would receive in Paris. "It changed the way I looked at things forever. I loved the way I was treated. Paris was where I understood that all white people are not the same."
The quintet performed at the Salle Pleyel concert hall to enthusiastic crowds and it become obvious to Miles that the French considered jazz to be very important music. Davis was soon introduced to Boris Vian, the polymath. Boris introduced Davis to Picasso and Jean Paul Sartre. The group would sit together in hotels, cafes and clubs in the Saint Germain district and discuss the topic of the day, music, the art scene and philosophy (I'm sure Sartre captured his attention). It wasn't long before Miles took up with the French actress Juliette Greco and they soon fell in love. They would explore Paris together and the sight of a white woman and a black man did not cause a second glance, unless they recognized Miles and waved to him.
Miles was stunned at the freedom he had in Paris. The country he left behind was still segregated, discrimination was common and most US states enforced anti-miscegenation laws. Miles said that when he was in France he felt as though a great weight had been lifted from his shoulders, he had lost that tense feeling, he could walk around day or night without being on guard, he could stay in any hotel, eat in any restaurant, and walk into any cafe. He returned to Paris again through his career and it must have been a haven, a respite for him to be treated as an equal. I can imagine that on that dark evening at Bird Land in 1959 Miles thoughts returned to Paris, freedom, and equality.
Miles bought a Lamborghini after he achieved international acclaim and the wealth that went with that. In a magazine interview he said he expected that any day a policeman would pull him over and ask him if he had permission to drive his master's car. Black humor. But the truth of the statement is evident. He was not driving that Lamborghini in Paris.
(the day of reminding)
by H C Wallace
The flags remain furled, the tin trumpets rest mute/
no granite statue has risen, history will not share/
a golden crepuscule will sigh and sink indifferent/
while the busy clanging of everyday pierces the air/
A world plays in frenzied pace chooses not to confirm/
but we in this mourning will interrupt for our moment/
for a humble recalling of their brevity holding our turn/
when we were drawn with devotion into their orbit/
We recount their years lived to this day of sleep/
and dispose to the quick of shadowed rhymes writ/
for we compose ours inked on their spirit to keep/
bitter and sweet depart, to the winds they submit/
we whisper our elegies on this minor departing/
and know the wind will consume our dust swiftly/
Julian, by Gore Vidal
The Roman Emperor Julian, 361 A.D. was given the title The Apostate by the Christians. The title is not undeserving but he could as well have been given the title The Resurgent. Julian proved to be a man of letters through his life into his days as the emperor. That was atypical for a Roman Emperor. Julian bequeathed three journals of his brief life for posterity. Gore Vidal has used these journals as the enormous palette of this period of Roman history to tell the story of an emperor of the post Hellenist period who stubbornly defended the old gods and culture of Hellenism against the wave of Christianity. Vidal colors in the history with the imaginative prose of dialogue, court intrigue, treason, and character conflict. In doing so, he stays within the margins of the accepted Roman history that is familiar to us. The brief history of Julian is a significant revivalist movement and Vidal has followed the critical sign posts of this period in his work of historical fiction.
Christianity had taken a foothold in the Roman Empire before the birth of Julian. His Uncle Constantine was the first emperor to adopt the new religion and decreed Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire. He was a professional soldier with ambitions who had appreciation for political power and he wisely detected the emerging popularity of the new religion. Possibly, he saw this as a means to an end. At an early age the orphan Julian was assigned a tutor, Mardonius. Mardonius schooled Julian in the principles of Hellenism to include sophistry, rhetoric, virtue, aesthetics, the philosophies of Plato, Aristotle, and the ancient stories of Homer. Julian also studied the bible and remained a Christian through his youth. In adulthood he came to embrace the principles of Hellenism as more sensible for a harmonious and meaningful life than the new religion referred to as Galilean.
Julian maintained a lengthy period of celibacy in adulthood and adopted the lifestyle of a priest. On his journey as a priest throughout the Roman Empire he meets others who have sharp opinions of the new religion. Why are Christians slandering and destroying those of other religions because they did not share similar beliefs? Aren't we tolerant of the Egyptians who believe in other gods? This is something new to us. How can the father, the son and the holy spirit be one and the same if the son is of mortal blood? The Jews of the Old Testament were monotheists and the Galileans have professed the triple god of the father, the son, and the Holy Spirit. The Galileans must be atheists. Why are these Christians so preoccupied with death, the life afterward, as opposed to the Hellenists who appreciate life and question their existence and practice the aesthetics of life? Are we to believe there was no god until the appearance of a rabble rousing carpenter three hundred years ago? Hellenists professed that Jesus was crucified for sedition . Was the first god, the god of the Jews and the lawgiver, die then replaced by another god of the Gospels? These are critical questions from the viewpoint of the Hellenists who believed that humans cannot die as gods but confer with gods through mysticism or magic (after death, Elysium, in Homer's original view, was a place only for heroes and then apart from the gods). Did not the philosophers of Greece explain more logically and completely the fall of man through the tales of Prometheus? Did not Homer explain in explicit detail the creation of man and nature through his stories? The bible is full of ambiguities, contradictions, and absurdities. Our gods are not confused since they are immutable and constant. These are not disingenuous questions or mere sophistry. Hellenism was ingrained in the culture of humanity for hundreds of years. The stories of Homer were taken as answers to the spirit and life of man. How could a religion be new? What would follow our gods would have to be false. However, in the undercurrent of these dismissive opinions of Christianity unease brewed in the Hellenist ranks. Diocletian had issued a decree years previously that all boys would follow in their father's vocation. The rule was intended to insure that skills would not be abandoned or forgotten in their society. Additionally, reading and writing were neither required or endorsed. The Christians gave their children the freedom to pursue their vocations. Most importantly the Christians promoted literacy in their homes and private schools. Christians had become interpreters, secretaries to senators, worked for libraries, and held jobs in commerce. The new faith had also spread through the military ranks.
During Julian's travels his half brother Gallus was made Caesar in the east. Gallus proved to be an able warrior but proved to be reckless with his authority and was found guilty of treason, the catch all crime of that era, and was executed. Julian went into hiding since it was a dangerous time for him. Would he be assassinated as a possible usurper to the throne? He could be under suspicion since he was in the lineage of Constantius II. It was decided that he should be sent to Gaul as a general. In Gaul he became famous as a leader capable of subduing the marauding Franks. Gaul was safe and secure. The legions were enamored of his skills and conferred upon him the title Caesar. He accepted.... in feigned gratitude. Julian had adopted Hellenism to include the old gods during his time in Gaul. Julian advances to the title Augustus while in Paris and Constantius II proclaims that Julian will succeed him as Emperor. Shortly thereafter Constantius II dies.
Julian's first objective as emperor was to reform the government of the Roman Empire. He eliminated hundreds of bureaucratic positions in the central government and ceded considerable power to the individual local governments. Government stipends to the Christian community were eliminated. Was the empowerment of the cities an attempt to emulate the city states of Greece?Julian attempts to restore the old gods to their rightful place and restore the temples which have fallen into disrepair. The attempt proves difficult since many of the old Hellenist priests have long since died. Julian tells his friend that he will fight the Galileans with reason and by example and he will not despair the effort. He feels that in time he will be able to restore the temples and recruit young priests.
After a brief period in Antioch, Julian devised a plan to secure his eastern border from occasional raids by Persian operatives by laying siege to the Sassanid capital of Ctesiphon. The full motivations were unclear at the time but it quickly became obvious that he had deeper ambitions. It was claimed by those in his circle that he longed for revenge against Persia. Julian reflects on Alexander the Great and his exploits as emperor. Could he follow the example of Alexander? Is there a twofold ambition? Alexander was a follower of the old gods and his teacher in youth was Aristotle. He was an apt model for Julian as a king and conqueror. Shouldn't the Roman Empire extend itself to lay claim to that old enemy Persia as did Alexander? It was Xerxes who burned Athens the name sake of Athena and a center of Hellenism. Could the old gods and culture of Hellenism be restored fully after its dissolution. Julian readies his army of 90,000 soldiers and begins the Persian campaign.
Julian's army wins a few minor battles and after several weeks of progress into the heart of Persia lays siege to major cities. Persian cities are burnt, some officials are executed, treasure and slaves taken. Three months into the campaign Julian wins a major battle along the Tigris nearer the city of Ctiesphon. Sapor, the Emperor of Persia, continues retreating with his army and remains secure in the capitol city. Sapor sues for peace and considerations are extended to Julian. Sapor offers Julian a large fortune in gold and a province in the empire of Persia in exchange for peace and a Roman retreat from Persia. Julian does not answer Sapor and continues his progress. In the next battle Julian is mortally wounded with a spear and dies in a few days.... age thirty-three. The Roman army retreats.
Sapor's offer to Julian does not comport with most annals of the Persian Campaign and the cause of Julian's death is generally referred to as unknown circumstances. There were several stories circulating at the time and in later years. It is here that Vidal takes the podium with his version to express his severe appraisal; a rebuke of Christianity. Julian's doctor removes the spear from Julian and identifies it as a Roman spear. It must have been Callistus, a Christian convert and the personal protector of Julian who delivered the fatal wound to Julian. It must have happened in the confusing torrent of battle. There were no witnesses to the killing. How fitting that a Christian would dispatch the aspiring emperor of resurgent Hellenism in an act of violence. And ironic that Julian was to die as a flawed hero as it would have played in a Greek (Hellenism) tragedy.
What was to follow the rise of Christianity but a thousand years of religious pogroms, crucifixions, gruesome crusades, and raw bigotry. Then in that journey they abandoned their dedication to literacy. What came with Christianity was the loss of tolerance. The Christians were intolerant and absorbed with a self-righteous doctrine; convert or burn at the stake. It bore the face of fascism since they strove to force their ideas to become your ideas.
Over a thousand years after Julian's death Spinoza arrived to proclaim that the bible was a fantasy story and that god existed in the laws of nature.
It would not be fair to label the novel as a podium for Vidal to crucify the Christians (although Vidal does bring some heavy artillery to the fore). Vidal breaths life into the Roman past and explores Julian's maturation, his relationships, and conflicts in a way to carve a personality from a Roman statue. Buried therein, Vidal, subtly via his characters, poses critical ethical and religious concepts of the day. Neither would it be fair for the reader to claim that Julian was simply hungry for power. Every political or religious figure wants power. Power can be judged by motive, means, and results. A serious student of the tolerance of Hellenism would not have unjust motives nor employ murderous means. One may be tempted to label Julian as a quixotic character but that would be in error since what he fought was an actual threat and what he pursued was a cultural ideal. The more plausible explanation is that Julian was a religious romantic who dreamed of the golden age of Hellenism that through his studies and influences held a deeper devotion. It was a sentiment of something in the past that held greater glory and promise than the present day.
It is a possibility that Julian could have won the day in Persia. Would Hellenism in full have been restored? There was confusion among Romans concerning the behavior of this intellectual Emperor. Roman citizens and senators were accustomed to having an emperor who was above them. The emperor should sit on a throne above the people, should not give long winded lectures to the senate as would a politician, and above all should not walk among the citizens. Julian had these unsettling habits. Romans wanted a hero who rose above them, not to be one of them. Was this Apostate too democratic? How would the common citizens and senators accommodate themselves to Julian's idiosyncratic political methods? What would a shift in this cultural paradigm mean for the future?
Notes: I have used the term Hellenists to specifically describe those in the novel who professed the Hellenism culture well past the ending of the Hellenistic era. Alternately, there were those who embraced the Greek culture of Hellenism but rejected polytheism and accepted Christianity in this same period. Those are briefly referred to in the bible.
Our call to arms worldwide today is Man Made Climate Change and our response is Declare War on Climate Change. The answer has become a tidal wave of political action to reset the natural order of the climate for planet earth. Alas, we are late with our enthusiasm. It was a prediction and warning of scientists forty years ago. However, while the empirical modeling was generally accepted as accurate there were few anomalies within the range of our senses to grab our attention. If we could not see the results of our carbon based life style then it must not be urgent. The climate was not changing before our eyes and consequently we continued to casually listen and not act.
In the not so distant past we dealt with two critical environmental issues. One was related to the climate and the other was related to our health. CFCs were being dispersed into the atmosphere with deleterious effects on the ozone layer. CFCs were eventually banned over a ten year period. Lead molecules were belching from our automobiles and our health was at risk. It took about fifteen years to reduce lead in gasoline. These two issues were relatively easy to tackle since they were one dimensional environmental problems and the solutions did not interrupt our daily life style to any serious extent. The problems could have been accomplished in a couple of years if it were not for political and corporate resistance. We can rally to relatively simple problems quickly and scientists can provide solutions. The immediate problem captures our attention and the problem that is distant avoids immediate attention. The flu shot that you need next week is on your mind today, your annual physical in six months is only on your iphone calendar.
Today man made climate change is accepted as fact by the scientific community and the populace has fallen in line with their predictions. Plans for resetting the climate are being promoted by politicians and it has become an election issue. The youth around the world are speaking up, demonstrating, and demanding action. These are the usual criteria for a movement. Not only is the climate changing, but it is progressing with a rapidity not previously predicted. In the past five years we have increased fuel mileage for cars and trucks,sold electric cars and built an untold number of solar panels and windmills. During this period the carbon emission count has increased and by the year it has increased exponentially (exponentially as a numeric expression to be raised as opposed to a verbal expression). The remedial influences that have been introduced have undoubtedly had some positive effect but scientists calculate that there is an increasing carbon foot print each year. Carbon usage increased or accumulated beyond what was implemented to offset emissions. There are compelling reasons for the exponential factor. The worldwide population continues to increase and for the past ten years the economy around the world has been in an expansion phase. With economic expansion came increased production since more durable and consumer goods are sold and with the expansion phase we use more energy in the form of coal, oil, and natural gas. It appears that we cannot reach the break even point with our current efforts. This problem is not about using paper straws. The solution requires a 180 degree turn in our life style.
Given the trend analysis we can expect severe changes in the climate which will bring more severe tornadoes, hurricanes and forest fires with greater frequency and accelerated polar melting leading to rising ocean levels. The day has arrived when we can see these effects and many have personal experiences with recurring heat waves, frequent flooding and hurricanes. The damage is apparent with decreasing fishing harvests , wildlife fleeing their natural habitats and dying coral reefs. The solutions are wise and well intended. The current movement demands more solar panels, electric batteries for cars and trains, thermal energy, wind and wave power, and biomass all of which are currently a minor portion of our total energy production. However, we are using carbon based resources to manufacture solar panels, windmills, and equipment for natural gas wells so as we produce carbon free products we are burning carbon to reduce our carbon foot print. A better trade off assuredly, but we can see the unavoidable effect of adding more carbon to emit less carbon. The law of physics holds true that one consumes a source of energy to produce energy. An additional problem arises from our inability to find a method to store energy produced from wind power, wave power, and solar.
What will happen around the world while we strain to get past the exponential increase factor and then how many years will it take to actually reduce the carbon emissions by a significant amount? And can we expect countries as China, India and Russia to take this threat more seriously? It does take full participation to solve the planetary problem. The more ingenious solutions may be years away from fruition. There are numerous designs for smaller, safer nuclear power units that could take considerable time for development. What is the possible cost? Water to hydrogen is an intensive process that consumes energy and the distribution of hydrogen is problematic for safety reasons. The challenges are enormous and the effects on civilization in the interim phase of reducing carbon emissions significantly will be devastating. There will be massive migrations out of already desperate countries. Where will they locate? There could be food shortages as extreme weather ravages farm land and fishing areas, there could be serious relocation issues in shoreline cities, taxes could rise to support energy efficient projects, there could be revolutions, riots, and people might be thrown out of work as resources contract and jobs in the old technologies evaporate. All of these disasters are conceivable if the trend analysis is marginally accurate. We will be racing to a continuously moving finish line.
In spite of the odds we will continue the efforts for reduced carbon emissions as we should. Our best efforts may only lead us to a bleak future of a mere existence but it will be an existence. It will be a dystopia of severely compromised living conditions with lower life expectancy, intermittent riots, rampant disease and little hope for future generations . If our best efforts fail our planet will
become a sister to Venus; burned out and uninhabitable. The last tribe that survived will have left a tome behind for another species in the universe. It will be a story of a voracious animal that consumed everything within easy reach without consideration for future generations. They were capable of great accomplishments and great ideas but they created a problem that they could not solve. In their desperate journey of self-destruction they disproved a favorite human adage that was: it's never too late. If the trend analysis holds true.
I watched a program on NatGeo about two or three years ago that narrated the most arid places on earth. Naturally most arid places are the deserts, but also included was the Antarctic region which receives less snowfall/moisture than some deserts. Included in this program was an item describing the Atacama desert of Chile. There is an observatory in the Atacama that was chosen for its extreme altitude and scarce cloud cover. More or less this is a recent criteria for the location of observatories. I was curious about the observatory and I down loaded a few photographs from the internet. Was I amazed. The celestial view with the naked eye was extraordinary. There it was; a panoply of bright stars from horizon to horizon. There was absolutely no obstruction in the view.
As a youngster I vividly recall standing in the open pasture of our farm late in the evening gazing at the stars. The stars stretched from horizon to horizon and fueled my youthful imagination. Would we ever set foot on the moon and what would we find there? Were there other worlds populated with strange beings and would they descend someday to visit us? It was not only in the distant farm lands where the view was unobstructed. You could find a location in the suburbs where the starry horizon met the ground and a person could have the same inspiring view of the night sky.
The brightly lit universe from our eyesight has dimmed considerably over time. The shimmering canopy has become a smudge obscured by flood lights, headlights of cars, street lights, security lights, twenty four hour stores fully lit from sundown to sunrise. Adding to the obscurity are the particles of progress which are emissions from industry, autos, buses, and trucks. Seldom can one have a clear view of the stars since the sky has become an opaque blur of commercial, industrial and residential man made light. The night sky has become a soup speckled in faded white dots cleaved by shafts of a yellowish blur. It is difficult to be aware of a degradation that evolves over an extended period of time. The eye becomes accustomed to the changes. We certainly are not spending our idle time star gazing on a daily basis unless you are an astronomer. Additionally, those who are younger did not have a frame of reference for what the heavenly view was in the past. The evolution occurred without our daily observations and the clarity faded without fanfare.
Later I noticed the change when I drove past our former family farm. It was a cloudless spring night, about nine o 'clock. I pulled my car to the side of the road and walked to the barbed wire fence. I looked in the direction of the creek which was the rear boundary line of the farm and I witnessed a broad band of light behind the tree line stretching over the entire horizon. The horizon and part of the sky above had become blurred. Since the days of my youth another community had sprung up beyond the tree line and their lights had captured the horizon and held the stars hostage. The stars of my youth had vanished and I left there thinking of the former brilliance of my youthful starry nights that were similar to that photograph of the Atacama. I thought of mankind taking a step forward with an eraser and sacrificing something wondrous from the past. When we rush to the future it is possible that we may lose something of worth. It does not have to be a destruction or loss of an artifact, but it can be something as simple as a natural wonder beyond our touch.