Monday, April 6, 2009
THE DREAM OF SCIPIO a masterpiece by IAN PEARS
Of course, I know the DREAM OF SCIPIO, as a fragment I read in Moses Hades's old Modern Liberary anthology of Cicero's writings. There is no queston Dream of Scipio is a masterpice to be put on the same level as Flauber's Salmbo and the best historial novels of all time. It is that good. Pears masterly entwices three separate story lines, in three different historical settings. This is a tour de force by a man of an very impressive breadth of culture. I hesistate to say but I few Americans today, even those with vaunted Ivy League degress have the culture to appreciate such a book.
The first story, chronologically speaking, centers around Manlius Hippomanes, a member of the 5th century Gallo-Roman artistocracy. The Roman Empire is being shattered under the weight of of barbarian hordes from without out and a cultural malaise within. Manlius, is a man of culture and his intensely proud of his Romanitas With horro he watches his world gradually fall apart all around him.
I remember vividly the last teacher of rhetoric; he is killed when the ceiling literally falls in on him. His few students merely stare at him and grumble they won't get their money back and wander off. Such is the ignominius death of an academy that was probably centuries old and boasted thousands of graduates.
Manlius is anxious and desperate and enshroued with gloom and hoplessness until he becomes aquainted with Sophia, the brilliant daughter of a prominent scholar of Greek philosphy. Manlius falls into love with her, more for her mind than her body. Their learned conversations are fascinating and of course echo spiritual and cultural problems of our time. Sophia convinces Manlinus that the only institution capable of keeping the spark of civilzation and learning alive is the Church. Manlius becomes a Bishop and shows how the seeds of Caesaropapism are born. He is faced with problems unimaginable, invading armies, internal strife and decay. His transformation is fascinating to follow. Sophia herself lives to a very old age and dies. Much later she is transformed into a saint of the church.
Many centuries later, a young poet and scholar Olivier de Noyen, begins to study the writings of Manlius, which are fictional by the way. They appear to be a sequel to Cicero's stoic and neo-platonic writings (most of which were lost in the Middle Ages) but I think they sympbolize the intellectual and philosophical heritage of Greco-Roman civilzation.
Noyen also lives in times of trouble, with the Catholic Church descending into corruption. Meanwhile the Black Death sweeping through Europe. Noyen gets swept up in a plot to move the papacy back to Rome from its position in France, giving power back to the Italian church officials. During his travels, Noyen falls in love with the servant girl of his Jewish teacher. He falls absolutely in love with her, but he can never have her because of her religion. As the plague sweeps through Europe, many in the church urge the mass slaughter of the Jews of Europe. This is an ironic precuror of course to the Holocaust and a great stain on the history of the Roman Catholic Church. Noyen must see to it that this does not happen, while continuing an academic tradition that once again is near extinction.
The last story center around Julien Barneuve, a 20th century scholar from France. Julien is a student of Oliviers writing, and begins to understand the dedication of the man and his campaign to preserve knowledge.
Julien's Europe is one of trouble, with the Nazi's ascendent and many in France, including the "learned" class, encouraging new forms of government, i.e Fascism or Communism. Freedom is old, a failure. As the Nazi's invade, Julien becomes a censor for the Vichy government. He too falls in love with a Jew, who he hides desperately from the authorities. He is forced to examine his own actions and his personal philosophy as civilization, again, seems to be quickly dying.
The Dream of Scipio's central theme is that when civilzation fails, when things fall apart, when the dark side of humanity -what I call the mire-catha or ancient blood lust, there is still hope. One can carry on an hope to preserve knowledge and wisdom for better times. Of course it is most often through serving one's one group that one can benefit mankind. A nation, a regiment, a profession, a creed often commands all our loyalties because it contributes irreplaceable values to the sum of our civilizationand therefore individual human happiness. The men and women of culture know that the present does not exist. Only our 'splendid ancient heritage" exists and only the future exists. We have a duty to them both. Scipio's Dream is one of those splendid books that one can read over and over.