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.

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