David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Month: April 2012 (page 2 of 2)

Lucan’s Civil War: Last Thoughts

The last two and a half books of Civil War, while seemingly adrift and lacking the cumulative direction of the first seven, don’t make me think any less of the epic as a whole. Lucan’s talent was an emergent one: he was not about to construct a work of pristine beauty and organization. Any unity to the work would come out of the chaos that he was wrangling into magnificent and grotesque forms.

The artistic cost of dealing in such chaos is great, and while it’s frequently the poets who get the greatest acclaim for it (I’m thinking of Rimbaud), working with it in lengthy form and not having the entire mass collapse is in my mind a greater achievement. Melville’s two most psychotic books, Moby-Dick and Pierre, both throw aside almost all restrictive reins placed on their narratives and characters. Both engage in a digressive and barely controlled narrative style reminiscent of Lucan’s staccato jerks from one scene to the next. Interpolated tales like Moby-Dick’s “The Town-ho’s Story” serve a very non-picaresque purpose in such works.

In the 20th century, Catch-22 and the early works of Celine also pitch similar wrestling matches between disintegrating forms and visceral narrative force. Characters melt together. The threats of the past and the future blur the present moment. The plot is not a line, but a tree on which are hung different shapes and ornaments. For contrast, Pynchon’s works never let go in such an uncontrolled way. Pynchon’s starting point is always that of artifice, and so reality ends up peeking through his gaudy slats meekly, rather than rising up in force against the writer’s struggle to organize the material.

While the Roman Empire survived beyond what to Lucan must have looked like a terminal point of bad governance and corruption, epic poetry pretty much didn’t. Statius wrote his estimable Thebaid shortly after Lucan, but it is a retrenching in Greek mythology, albeit with a Lucan-esque darkness and bloodiness added. Silius wrote a very long and boring historical epic about Hannibal and the Punic Wars that has none of Lucan’s virtues. And while there are later works like Nonnus’s ridiculously long Dionysiaca, Dante is comfortable enough sticking to Virgil, Ovid, Lucan, and Statius in invoking his predecessors at the beginning of the Inferno.

So I see Lucan as really sounding the death of the classical epic and its nationalistic and preservationist ideals, ridiculously soon after Virgil had revivified them artificially. Virgil is probably the greater artist, the greater poet, but in their arguments and their representations of the world, I think Lucan stands toe to toe with Virgil.

Lucan’s point of view was a privileged one. The paradox is that he was simultaneously in a position of immense good fortune as well as great danger, and he apparently engaged with this position impetuously. James Zetzel makes a point about just how atypical Lucan’s circumstances were:

Roman writers are, and write for, an elite. Their perspective, above all that of a writer like Lucan, is extraordinarily narrow and self-serving. To invent a universal Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder on the basis of what a Lucan felt or believed is neither good history nor good criticism–and it is also, quite evidently, deeply imbued with late twentieth-century preconceptions that would have left most Romans puzzled or revolted.

James Zetzel

In the history of literature this is hardly unusual. Most pre-modern literary works were created within the context of some elite establishment, either out of patronage or for privileged audiences. The Aeneid is an extreme example. But it’s worth remembering that Lucan had unusual access to both power and information, and that he was exceptionally close to an unstable and inept ruler. Waves of force were emanating from a very close source while leaving him untouched, at least for a while.

But to read Lucan while being in the first world at this point in history is to be in something of an analogous position. Lucan does not and did not feel for all of the Roman people, but he did have a sense of how anonymous populations are swept up mercilessly into uncontrolled historical events. Now that we have the scientific and communications tools to track those phenomena, we first-world newsreaders get the actual accounts of Fortune’s caprices and its agents every day. It makes the Aeneid seem a little quaint, or at least more suitable to subversive readings than to enthusiastic fist-pumping for Rome. But Lucan, in his refusal to represent history and warfare as the human and the emotional, speaks in the dissociated machine-gun language of contemporary reportage.

In se magna ruunt: laetis hunc numina rebus
crescendi posuere modum.

Lucan’s Civil War: Caesar’s Fall and the Ending

The Pharsalia … has no privileged center except for the energetic, bitter, and witty skepticism that devotes itself to demolishing the structures it erects as fast as it erects them; Lucan’s heroes lend their zestful assistance to this demolition, and that is their chief function.

W.R. Johnson, Momentary Monsters: Lucan and His Heroes

I’ve said before that I think that Johnson overstates the case a bit and that there is a bit more coherence and structure to the Civil War than he allows. Nonetheless, I think his remark is accurate in spirit: Lucan’s ultimate message is one of upheaval and chaos, his commitments contingent and temporary. Book IX made the extent of how contingent humanity is. Book X breaks off at roughly its halfway point, which is as much of the poem survives and likely as much as Lucan wrote. Cato does not appear in Book X. Caesar follows Pompey to Egypt, only to find him already dead, and then allies with Cleopatra against her brother. (Lucan’s opinion of Cleopatra is about as low as you’d expect.) Caesar dodges an assassination attempt as well. Lucan attributes Caesar’s good fortune to Pompey:

Your shade, Magnus,
came to his [Caesar’s] aid,
your spirit rescued your father-in-law
from bloodshed, lest the Roman people might
come to love the Nile just less than it loves you.

Civil War X.7-10

Coming after the comparatively sympathetic treatment of Pompey in Book VIII, this is a shock. Pompey will not allow Caesar to die in Egypt lest Pompey’s own efforts against Caesar be forgotten. In other words, Pompey now wants Caesar to become dictator of Rome so that its people will see why he fought and think highly of him. This is hardly love of Rome or love of freedom, but just love of self. While Pompey’s brief appearance suggests more (figurative) power, Caesar is growing more and more brittle. Immediately after the battle at Pharsalia, he was already set upon by guilt and nightmares. The Caesar of Book X is savvy, but far less secure. Fortune is no longer quite so strongly at his back. Barricaded in the palace as one of the opposing Egyptian generals attacks, he experiences two very human emotions: anger and fear, reinforcing each other in a vicious circle.

knocks his spirits; so do fears: he’s afraid
of their incursion, and angry that he fears.

After Caesar makes his escape and the generals are killed, Lucan makes it explicit: Fortune is now on Pompey’s side.

So now a second victim is offered to your shades,
Magnus, but Fortune does not think that this suffices.
Banish the notion that this brings to conclusion
your just retribution. The tyrant himself
would not be vengeance enough, nor would all
the royal court of Lagus. Until the fathers’ swords
reach Caesar’s guts, Magnus will not be avenged.

It’s odd for Lucan to be talking of Fortune and justice in the same breath, but I suppose Fortune does permit justice to prevail sometimes. Or perhaps Lucan’s attitude is that Pompey will be avenged by definition at the moment of Caesar’s death. I won’t pursue this matter further except to say that the poem makes it clear that Caesar is now in eclipse. It’s difficult to say how the loss of Cato and Scipio’s army to Caesar would have played out in this thematic context. If the poem was to be 12 books long, as most think, the book would have ended with Cato’s suicide. Would Cato have gained some greater victory through losing, as Pompey now seems to be doing? Would he have died secure in knowing that he had stood his ground and that Caesar was as mortal as other men? Appropriately enough, Plutarch’s grotesqueaccount of Cato’s botched suicide reads like something straight out of Lucan:

Cato drew the sword and stabbed himself below the breast. But he could not apply much force because of his inflamed hand, and so this did not immediately end his life: writhing in his death agony, he fell off the bed and knocked over a geometric abacus that was by the bedside. The noise this made alerted the servants, who raised a shout, and Cato’s son and friends immediately burst in. They saw him covered in blood, with most of his entrails hanging out, but still alive and conscious. Everyone was appalled, and the doctor came to him and tried to replace the entrails, for they were intact, and to stitch up the wound: but Cato recovered enough to push the doctor away, then snatched the entrails apart with his hands and tore open the wound. And thus he died.

Plutarch, Cato, 70

A few scholars (such as Jamie Masters) have dared suggest that the poem is in fact complete as is, breaking off in the middle of Book X. For structural and other reasons I find this very hard to believe, and that seems to be the greater consensus as well. I can’t completely rule it out without knowing more, but it would lower my respect for Lucan if it were the case, since 2.5 more books would have permitted Lucan at least the possibility of making the latter part of the epic as satisfyingly messy as the first half. (Or else the first seven books should have been less satisfying, if this were his intent.) Yet even though I think the poem is incomplete, the point at which it breaks off is brilliantly serendipitous. Caesar reaches his lowest point yet, stuck on a ship surrounded by enemy Egyptian ships:

On the tiny causeway, with his army cramped,
as he readies to move the fight to open ships,
suddenly all the terror of war surrounds
the Latin chief—on one side crowds of ships
fringe the shores; at rear, infantry taunt him.
No path of safety, neither flight nor valor,
scarcely even hope for death with honor.
No routed line or any great heap of carnage
was needed then for Caesar to be conquered,
nor any blood at all. Caught by his chance position
he hesitates, unsure if he should fear or pray
for death…. He looked back in the crowded throng
for Scaeva, who already had earned titles
of eternal glory on your fields, Epidamnus,
when all alone, with the battlements breached,
he blocked the walls being trampled on by Magnus.

He looked back. Caesar has lost all momentum, and at the critical moment, he no longer charges forward, knowing such a course to be deadly. Fortune is no longer with him. Knowing this, he has no resources of his own. He looks back for help from his talented lieutenant Scaeva, and in that vulnerable moment is contained the entire remainder of his life to his brutal murder. Caesar escaped this moment in fact, though Scaeva did not help him. Caesar jumped overboard and swam to another ship. His own ship sank along with most of the men on it.

And ending on that moment of crisis and humiliation, Fortune’s cycle having passed into a new phase and Caesar knowing it, is a sudden, haunting cut to black.

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