Friday, 15 April 2016

The Dream of Scipio - 4. The Academic

And Julien? Did his whole life come to nought in the end?
As a bachelor he had enjoyed a carefree existence of academic freedom and sufficient means for travelling abroad, collecting art, entertaining lifelong friends and ephemeral romances, all the time keeping in touch with Julia by extensive correspondence. She was honing her talents as a painter beyond the conventional, while Julien dedicated part of his sparetime to write a book on Neoplatonic philosophy as could be glanced from Olivier’s poems and the relating documentary from the Vatican Library, chiefly Manlius’ treatise and the archive of Olivier’s protector, the cardinal. He never finished it.

All this changed when the Germans invaded France. Julia came to live with him and their carefully guarded Platonic relationship bloomed into the full consummation of love. Despite the bleak circumstances under the occupation, together, they felt as happy as ever. Julia, being Jewish, had to go underground. Near her hiding place in the countryside she discovered Sophia’s ancient sanctuary. Inspired by murals of the saint applied by a medieval Italian master, a close friend of Olivier’s, she came into her own and, at last, sprang on her true form of expression.

No such luck for Julien. All his life, he’d stayed aloof from politics, but persuaded by an old friend who’s high-up in the Vichy hierarchy, he accepted a government job and now finds himself working for the collaborators and, ultimately, for the Germans. At first, it doesn’t bother him too much - it better be him in this position, than the odd fanatic - but when blackmailed, with Julia’s freedom at ransom, into betraying an other old friend who’s joined the Resistance Julien baulks. The stolid intellectual who was never involved beyond his personal predilections finally ‘understands’. He understands by his latest discovery in the cardinal’s archive, that he misjudged Olivier and that everything he wrote on the subject is worthless. He understands that he’s lost Julia, forever, and he understands that the betrayal of his old friend is never going to happen. From this complete understanding it’s not hard to imagine a virtuous act.

In the afternoon of the fatal day, when his friend is to be arrested, Julien walks up to the little house where the meeting has been arranged. It’s the house of his late mother, where Julia lived in hiding and where they spent their last year together in carefree happiness. Once inside, he calmly gathers his notes, all of them, and builds a big pyre in the middle of the living room. He applies the kerosene and lights a cigarette. The smoke of the ensuing fire rises in a timely warning to his friend to stay away and for the next hour or so cloaks all that comprised the essence of Julien Barneuve.

A wonderful book that has so much more to offer than this brief summary can even begin to suggest.

Thursday, 14 April 2016

The Dream of Scipio - 3. A Question of Philosophy

Into the story of these three men Iain Pears has woven many parallels. Each of them, as they’re groping for meaning and a just way to respond to life’s challences, lives in times of great turbulence, times that mark the end of an era. In such times people go desperate, and not sure of what has befallen them or how to end their plight, they’ll look for who can be blamed for their misfortunes. Those are always near at hand; they’re everyone who’s ‘different’, the heretics and the Jews in particular.
To underscore this point, all of Pears’ main characters fall in love with girls who, in this sense, are ‘different’.
In more or less normal times, bearing a stigma may cause but slight annoyances that may be taken for granted, always to be expected, never to be ignored, but when disaster strikes and spirits become incensed it quickly escalates from harassment to a matter of life and death.
So with Julia, the Jewess, in the Second World War, so with Rebecca, the heretic, when the Black Death engulfs Europe and so with Sophia, the pagan, at the fall of the Roman world, though Pears deals each a different fate.

Was Sophia’s repudiation of Manlius just?
In favour of his ruthlessness, he argues that he saved thousands of lives at the cost of only a handful. She doesn’t comply with his reasoning. Killing innocent people for a cause however noble is inhumane and, as such, always to be rejected. It depends on where one is willing to draw the line, at zero or at ‘some’. Manlius, though accepting the general principle, allowed himself some slippage, which to Sophia was unforgivable, not worthy of a true philosopher.
To be able to act, however, a man of authority always needs leeway, and when he’s crossed the line his equals will judge his actions by their outcomes and call him a criminal or raise him to sainthood, as in Manlius’ case.

Living by her principles is what made Sophia stand out as ‘different’. Ironically, she, as a pagan holding convictions completely at variance with Christian doctrines, also became a Christian saint, not on behalf of the clergy, but by her veneration by common people.

Manlius’ second argument regards the virtue of his acts. According to him, an act can’t be called virtuous, unless it is performed in full understanding of the circumstances and the possible consequences, and the virtue of it derives not from the act but from the understanding.
What he means to say is that what he did to save Provence from devastation should be seen as virtuous, because he ‘understood’, beforehand, all its facets and implications. By understanding it in its entirety, having foreseen everything it entailed, including murder, and assuming responsibility, he absolves himself from guilt, as any act, however cruel and despicable in itself, that is part of a virtuous endeavour becomes itself virtuous by understanding it in its context.
A self-serving sophism, if ever there was one, though in wide acclaim: ‘The ends justify the means,’ as we learn from Machiavelli.

It reminds of Obama, when he remarked with the arrogance of power: ‘... but we tortured some folks’ and, subsequently, drowns the fact in a sea of exonerating circumstances. It reminds of the Inquisition and, of course, of the Nazis who ‘understood’ everything about extermination, which they called ‘die Endlösung’ - the Final Solution, and cleared their conscience by comparable lines of reasoning.

Referring to this passage in Manlius’ ‘Dream’, Pears has the old Jewish philosopher say to Olivier the Noyen:
‘Dear boy, I must tell you a secret.’
‘I do believe it is wrong.’

If anyone, Pears couldn’t have chosen a judge more suitable to the case, as the old man had every reason to weigh the concerns of those on the receiving end of history.

I doubt if, at that instant, the subject got Olivier’s full attention. He had decided to make a stand for the sake of righteousness and live up to the consequences, which in his case proved to be harsh. As Pears so poignantly puts it, much of his remaining years he spent in the sanctuary where Sophia had lived ninehundred years earlier. There, he composed his best poems inside his head, lacking in means to communicate them, but lovingly cared for by his Rebecca.

Wednesday, 13 April 2016

The Dream of Scipio - 2. The Saint

In the fifth century the Western Roman empire was coming to its sorry end under constant batterings of wandering barbaric tribes. The Vandals sacked Rome in 455 AD and after them the Visigoths took possession of what remained of the Eternal City. Gaul, for its greater part, was overrun as well by Visigoths and to the east Burgundians had settled north of the Rhône valley. Gallia Narbonensis, southern France, including what later became known as ‘Provence’, was the last remaning part of Gaul under Roman rule, but in an appalling state of decline. The Gallo-Roman nobility that owned large stretches of land, saw their slaves and serfs, wary of ever rising taxes, flee their properties and try their luck as freer men under pagan lords leaving farms depopulated and the lands untilled. Left to their own, the well-educated elite had to endure the encroachment of Christian values on their cultural environment, a development they greatly despised as Christians, in general, were of low birth and lacked any regard for philosophy and knowledge.

One of those nobles was Manlius, who lived in the neighbourhood of Vaison, the then richest city of ‘Provence’. After his father was murdered, probably on instructions from Rome, Manlius retired to his estate and, though being the richest man in the province and one of the most influential by that, spent all of the next twenty years as a landowner shunning politics and pursuing knowledge and the pleasure of literature, while marauders began ravaging the countryside and the tribes prepared to invade.
His mentor was a Greek girl from Alexandria, Sophia by name, who taught Neoplatonic philosophy in Marseille as a way of life. Manlius, on their first meeting still an adolescent, became deeply impressed by her independent personality, her disdain of fame and worldly goods and the practical style of her teachings, which, of course, she delivered in dialogue form.
Over the years, he kept consulting her, learning to use his reason properly, bridle his emotions and become a man of humane standards, in the meantime growing a deep affection for her, even a great love that might have made him cross the boundary of the Platonic once, if only he had dared.

Eventually, Sophia prods him into action. If he wants his precious Roman province preserved he ought to do something about it. There’s no one more qualified than he is, being the richest, the mightiest and, before all, trained by her. Manlius follows her advice. Considering there’ll be no more help from Rome forthcoming and that secular power has shifted from her hands to the Christian clergy’s, he sets out on a path of his own design. To everyone’s surprise, he has himself baptized by the Bisshop, becomes a Christian, has himself anointed bisshop of Vaison and clad in the robes of his new dignity and power opens negotiations with the king of the Burgundians.
Manlius has reached the conclusion that the best way to save Provence from destruction by barbarians is to peacefully hand it over to the least barbarous of them, that they may shield it from being overrun and devastated. To secure his objectives Manlius doesn't shy from killing, a casual execution of his own adoptive son in front of the opposition to break their morale, a cold-blooded murder of his once best friend, now a potential enemy; the scant resistance remaining is efficiently dealt with by Burgundian troopers.
Some years afterwards, when he has settled everything to his satisfaction, Manlius retires to his estate to write ‘The Dream of Scipio’, the vindication of his acts. He is proud of himself. The Church holds him in high esteem; they’ll even make him into a saint for converting the Jews of Vaison to Christianity, truly a miracle, though it involved some more killings to get it underway.

When finished he sends a copy of his treatise to Sophia, whom he hasn’t seen or heard of for years now. She doesn’t respond. She’s outraged, not by his interpretation of Neoplatonic principles so much as by his high-handed use of authority, by killing innocent people.
She doesn’t spare him when, finally, he shows up to see her. He’s utterly failed her, never understood anything of her teachings; curtly, she orders him away and resumes her reading as if he never existed.

Tuesday, 12 April 2016

The Dream of Scipio - 1. The Poet

Like many people who are retired I use to delve in my bookcase, or rather the boxes in the cellar, for books that stir faint memories of merit. This time, I happened upon a rare treasure.

‘The Dream of Scipio’ has a complex storyline of three different narratives, each of them situated in the same part of Provence and spanning fifteen centuries, together.

Firstly, there’s Julien Barneuve, an intellectual of the first half of the 20th century. Still young and travelling the Mediterranian, on a cruise he meets Julia, a Jewish girl to become the love of his life, who’s dedicated to painting. In Rome, in the Vatican Library, Julien uncovers a folder that contains the extant poems and a stash of other documents of an unknown medieval poet of the 14th century, Olivier de Noyen, who lived in Avignon under protection of a cardinal at the papal court. Julien is intrigued by Olivier’s copy of a lost manuscript written in the 5th century by a Gallo-Roman nobleman, Manlius. It will take him the rest of his life to come to an understanding of Olivier’s and Manlius’ philosophy and motives and to realize for himself the threads of fate, thought and feelings connecting the three of them.

Olivier, too, has an all consuming love for a woman who, as he’s to discover later, is hiding from the harsh realities of the time as a servant to a recluse Jewish philosopher. It’s to her, Rebecca, that he dedicates his poems, writing in the vernacular and a first to transcend contemporary, literary mores, unknowingly, a harbinger of the Renaissance. Though living at the papal court in the seething den of Christianity, his craving for knowledge and understanding leads him to Neoplatonic concepts as described in Manlius’ paper, ‘The Dream of Scipio’, its title a reference to Cicero’s ‘Somnium Scipionis’, but on matters completely different.
Being a Christian, Olivier can hardly grasp the full significance of living by reason instead of by faith, but is surprised to learn of vestiges of Manlius’ pagan wisdom to have survived up to his own age, notwithstanding the rabid persecution of ‘heretics’ by Christian fanatics over the preceding centuries. In the end, however, he never fails to recognize its moral implications as he sacrifices himself for the common good, as well as for deliverance of his beloved - herself a victim of persecution - and her Jewish protector.