** Saturday afternoon, alone in the house. On the television Time Warner Classics is giving a preview of the upcoming movies that will be shown the coming week. Scene after scene taken from wonderful, now-classic movies from the 40s, 50s and 60s. Even a couple from the 30s. With all the wonderful movies that have been made, what reason is there to make more of them? Who needs more movies? If that’s true, who needs more paintings? More books?
At one place Greta Garbo is quoted: “Life would be such a wonderful thing if only we knew what to do with it.” Two things occur in the brain when I read that observation. The first is an image of the actor Walter Pidgeon sitting at a table with others in Musso Franks on Hollywood Boulevard. That was in the 60s. I grew up with Pidgeon in the films of the 40s and 50s maybe and was surprised to see him sitting there that night. Still, what the devil was the brain doing this afternoon?
The other thing was that the brain became aware that the word “more” had gotten my attention. The vastness of the history of the Chinese people. The endless conflict in the life of one man, Julius Caesar. I’d read a little in The Tweleve Caesars by Suetonius maybe twenty years ago and recently took another run at it. The Robert Graves translation. I found that after thirty or forty minutes I had become bored with Caesar’s endless politicking, struggling, betraying, threatening—the ceaseless ambition. It may have been Suetonius, but I didn’t want anymore and turned to the end of his account for the specific details Caesar’s death. A simpler drama. He was stabbed in the chest, just beneath the throat. “Twenty-three dagger thrusts went home as he stood there.” He was left where he fell until three of his household slaves carried him home in a litter, “one arm hanging over the side.”
Okay. I was finished with Suetonius. It was like reading about Democrats and Republicans infighting with swords. Boring. I was tired of the politics. It never ends, but how did these guys end up? How did they die?
Augustus died in bed at the age of 76. Tiberius died at 77, some thought by poison. Caligula was murdered at 29, his jawbone split by a sword, his genitals run through with swords. Claudius was poisoned, maybe a favorite eunuch, maybe his wife, at 64. Nero stabbed himself in the throat to evade being murdered. He died at 32 “with eyes glazed and bulging from their sockets, a sight which horrified everybody present.” Galba was murdered at poolside and decapitated by an ordinary soldier. He was 73. Otho killed himself at 37 to avoid being murdered. A dagger to his left side. Vitellius was murdered by soldiers with “the torture of the little cuts.” He was then dragged to the Tiber with a hook and thrown in it. He was 56. Vespasian died of fever and diarrhea in the arms of his attendants at 79. Titus died of fever at 42. Domitian was murdered with daggers at the age of 44.
It that was the way it was for those on top, we can only marvel at how it must have been for ordinary folk. And then, now that it's all over, what do we have?
At this moment hundreds of millions, billions, of human beings are in conflict with their wives, their husbands, their children, their neighbors. Numbers beyond the capacity of the brain to imagine. The numbers yes, I can write the numbers, but the facts embraced by the numbers, not possible. Going on year after year, century after century, tens of thousands of years. The reality of human life. Unimaginable.
How is it possible in the long run that anything is significant? Reading Suetonius I see it all playing out 2,000 years ago. Nothing has changed. Only the weapons. We are as the Romans were. As the Chinese of the Han were. We don’t even try to understand. Where is human relationship studied? What’s the name of that department at our universities? Cosmology is all the rage. Anything to confuse the issue. As if it’s out there somewhere. Go to the moon, to mars, to heaven, but don’t take the trouble to look around the neighborhood, to go next door.
I can only imagine how tiny the concept of Holocaust revisionism must be once it’s placed in its historical context. Of course we can let go of historical context if we choose. But if we do, so what?