12 November 2006

Quo vadis? by Henryk Sienkiewicz

I finished reading this book about 2 hours ago now and I'm still reeling. Rome has fallen. Hard.

Sienkiewicz's novel depicts the decline of Rome and the rise of Christianity, primarily through three characters - Markus Winicjusz, Petroniusz, and Nero. The centerpiece of the text is the love affair between Winicjusz and a young woman named Ligia, and his resulting conversion to Christianity, but as the text progresses, its scope widens, and events start occuring on a more cataclysmic scale. The tone shifts subtly in the work as the Roman perspective grows increasingly foreign and barbaric, and the Christian worldview becomes more familiar. It's impressively done. The ideology of Christianity is introduced from without in a clever way; first in a sort of speculative fashion - "Have you heard anything about this Christianity thing? I hear they eat babies!" and then indirectly - as people explain the teachings to Winicjusz, the reader encounters them as a foreign idea that gradually becomes more familiar. The reader, initially immersed in the Roman worldview, likewise experiences Christianity as something unknown, new and different. And gets in on the ground level, because after all, the people preaching have personally hung out with Jesus, which is really kind of novel and exciting. It's kind of interesting, in that Winicjusz's conversion happens in a fashion that I imagine is somewhat backwards from the way that people convert nowadays - he is fairly easily persuaded that Jesus was a real, living guy who died and was resurrected, but the teachings themselves are a bit harder to swallow. He's willing to buy the whole resurrection bit - why not, strange things happen all the time, and Paul seems like a trustworthy guy, so if he says it happened, ok, but this turn the other cheek, love your neighbor business, that's a whole other can of worms.

And yet, the logic of the novel inexorably insists on the wisdom of these ideals, and by the end of the text, there is simply no other way to see the world. It's pretty incredible. At page 200, you're right alongside Winicjusz, being completely baffled by these new, strange ideas, totally unable to understand them, and by page 500, you simply can't see how one could think differently. Which isn't to say that the work is polemical. Actually, what's somewhat surprising, to me, is that the text ends more on a note of eulogy for the world that is left behind than the triumphant kick one would expect. The climactic scene, more than anything, is the death of Petronius. With Nero's death, the evils of the Empire are laid to rest, but with Petroniusz, a particular way of loving beauty is lost. Though Petronius originally appears as a rather amoral aesthete, by the end of the work, he actually seems like the one who has things figured out, more so even than Winicjusz and Ligia, who, one must admit, get a bit dull. Petroniusz seems to be able to claim the best of both worlds - the ethical rigor of Christianity but the grace of the Ancient view. Christianity, he says, teaches that one must love everybody, and he's just not capable of loving what is ugly. If the Lord meant him to love everything, why couldn't he have made it all beautiful? Good question Petronius, and one that the text doesn't really answer. Whereas Nero's love of the beautiful makes him a monster (the burning of Rome again reminds me of Benjamin's claim that man has become so estranged from himself that he can appreciate his own destruction as an aesthetic act...), Petroniusz seems to be a good middle ground...

Epics are so neato. We don't often think of things on such a grand, sweeping scale these days - we have too much a sense of relativity, I think. It's just incredible to watch an empire topple, to see a new movement gathering speed and ultimately setting a new world order. People like to compare the US to Ancient Rome and project doomy doom - they have no clue. You start thinking about what it would really take, these days, to unleash that kind of apocalyptic sea change, and it seems like nuclear holocaust would be a bare minimum. And the charm of the historical novel is its ability to somehow encapsulate changes of this scale through a telescoping view, with a scant few characters. True, there may be some compromise in terms of psychological complexity, but one doesn't have a sense that the people are totally flat. Perhaps this is because the interest of the work is in the mental shift that's occuring, the clash of two systems of ideas. So the key moments are generally sights of human interaction rather than physical events. It's not Glaukon burning alive, it's the moment he forgives Chilo, and the ensuing change in Chilo. Though it must be said, the burning alive thing is pretty impressive. The brutality of the Roman world is actually pretty mindboggling. I don't think the reality of the Coliseum and the gladiatorial games had ever really hit home for me, but my god. It's terrifying.

All in all, wow. Quite a book. No wonder they gave the man a Nobel prize.

I passed this on my way to school today:

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