On a day when I hope we elect Hillary Clinton as the first woman president of the United States, I thought I’d talk about a couple of books I finished recently – one a female ruler of an ancient state, the other a femme fatale of the imagination.
CLEOPATRA THE GREAT
Cleopatra the Great , by Dr. Joann Fletcher, is a history of probabilities. Dr. Fletcher weaves the few known facts about Cleopatra with what scholars and archaeologists have been able to discover about the life, habits, and customs of Egyptians in general and Egyptian royalty in particular at the time. And so the book is full of “widespread customs,” “it is likely that"s, and “she no doubt would have”s.
One might at first be put off by these – my own reaction was “so what makes you think she did – but I quickly got over the quibble. What Dr. Fletcher does give us is a picture of Egyptian and Roman life in the first century BCE, and a working idea of how Cleopatra, Julius Caesar, and Antony would probably have fitted into the scene.
That scene includes all of the civilized Mediterranean of the time, and gives us tidbits of information such as:
…face veiling dates back thousands of years … it was a widespread custom amongst elite women from Assyria in the east right through to the Greek colonies of Asia Minor and even in Athens … [to] "wrap their heads in their himatia such that the garment seems to cover the whole face like a little mask; the eyes alone peep out…"
Even the idea of “war criminals” is ancient. On hearing of the terrible massacres which had accompanied his conquests of Gaul and Germany, Caesar’s opponents in Rome…demanded he face trial as a war criminal… Apparently, the objections to such massacres were drowned in the face of the benefits of the conquest itself, something else that might strike a familiar chord.
And in a scenario with which we are all too familiar, when hard times come, the blame is shifted to foreigners, to outside influences. At times, the wording cuts a little too close to the bone: It was certainly not lost on the Republicans, who had long blamed anything they didn’t like on the nearest "non-Roman" source, be it Greek or Egyptian. Republican, in this case, referring to those who insisted on returning to the original idea of the Roman Republic, fearing the “big government” of the Caesarian faction.
And if you still aren’t convinced that they is us, here is an ancient description of drinking protocol at a banquet:
Three bowls of wine were regarded as the limit for any gathering, since Dionysus himself claimed "the fourth krater is mine no longer, but belongs to hubris; the fifth to shouting, the sixth to revel, the seventh to black eyes, the eighth to summonses, the ninth to bile and the tenth to madness and people tossing furniture about".
QUEEN LOANNA (THE MYSTERIOUS FLAME OF)
The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana refers to the flames of recollection rekindled by the detritus of childhood, in this case a collection of magazines and comic books discovered in the attic of a country house by Yambo, an antiquarian book dealer, who has suffered a stroke and lost his memory.
Umberto Eco takes us on a tour of the popular culture of Mussolini’s Italy through the eyes of Yambo, as he lets these images serve as clues to his own history, in a psychological exploration of memory and search for self.
There was one problem I had accessing this novel. Yambo’s childhood reading was not mine. Even the American comics he references were not comics I read – my parents banned comic books. It wasn’t until he began to connect the books he read, the magazines of the time, the school assignments he ran across, that I realized that he was also trying to figure out who he had been, who his parents and grandparents had been, in Mussolini’s Italy. And that gave me an avenue of access. What myths inform our childhood – and when and how and under what kind of influence do we begin to question them? When do we begin to turn into ourselves?
What follows is the only marked passage that I left. It follows his discovery of a patriotic essay he had written for school, one in which he looks forward to Italy continuing its glorious path toward winged victory.
Did I really believe all of that? … Among the books in the attic, I had come across an old copy of Heart, the famous late nineteenth-century children’s book by De Amicis, in whose pages, among the heroic deeds of the Little Paduan Patriot and the magnanimous acts of Garrone, I found this passage, in which Enrico’s father writes to his son in praise of the Royal Army: “All these young people full of strength and hope may from one day to the next be called upon to defend our Nation and within a few hours be smashed by bullets and grapeshot. Every time you hear someone at a festival shout, "Long live the Army, long live Italy," I want you to picture, beyond the passing regiments, a field covered with corpses and flooded with their blood, and then your hurrahs for the army will spring from deeper in your heart, and your image of Italy will be more severe and grand.
He understands then that even the massacres in the Illustrated Journal of Voyages and Adventures must not have seemed exotic to me at all, since I had been raised in a cult of horror…That was how we, fathers and sons, were taught to live, through stories of how beautiful it was to die.
The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loanna eventually licks at his memory enough for him to remember, and to recognize himself in the memory. The Queen herself, however … well, that is another story.