John HENDERSON, Fighting for Rome: poets and Caesars, history and civil war. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998. Pp. 349. Hb ISBN 0 521 58026 9.
Review by Anton Powell
University of Wales
Some may find this book refreshing, for bringing street language to academe and mixing rock stars with august antiquity. Others will put the book aside, in bafflement or revulsion. It has few virtues. But its vices are bright and fashionable. So it's worth pegging them up to view.
The book is a re-working of articles by Henderson on Appian and Caesar; Horace, Lucan and Statius; Tacitus and Livy. It imitates fairly recent Parisian modes of assertion. Argument - let alone counter-argument - is not its style. The hybrid writing includes flashes of calculated demotic (`sussed out') and pub wordplay: at Augustus' death the succession of Tiberius is a 'sucksessionö. Henderson aims de bas en haut, from the gutter to the stars. But it is a privileged gutter, the gutter of King's Parade, Cambridge, and the stars are those of the Left Bank. Cambridge in the Reformation was known as `Little Germany' - a provincial echo of Luther. Now Henderson introduces us to Cambridge as Little Paris.
Henderson's unifying theme is the written text as a political fact, with text commenting on text. Appian is shown to have a big role for documents - the written death-lists of the Proscriptions in 43BC. Caesar's writing is about - Caesar's writing: 'All Caesar's writing in the Bellum Civile constitutes a commentary on that first, slighted, text of hisö (p.41). Reflexivity, texts about texts, texts about themselves: this is a big theme in Parisian writing, reflecting the high status in France of the ecrivain . Aristotle's deity contemplated his own perfection; the authors of texts look in the mirror.
The ecrivain can even get close to power. Henri Malraux and Regis Debray became government ministers. Hence in part arises the big French dream of Henderson's book: writing may be the reality of politics! He writes, "Virgil's moment to `realize' (in both senses) the essential destiny of Caesarian primacyö (p.3); ' `Virgil' was the abiding `Augustus' of literatureö (p.4). Hirtius, writing the continuation of Caesar's war-memoirs, 'had only months to draw up his columns of commentarii ' (p.305). 'Writing history, we are put in the same triumviral business of writing death.ö (p.18) Aren't writers important!
There's a small problem. Most people stubbornly feel that texts are not the main reality of
politics. Henderson weaves round the difficulty, with wordplay, scare-quotes, and high-serious long sentences whose obscurity may just contain the holy grail: text=reality. All this resembles the rite of well-dressing: weaving dense, fragrant, moribund flowers around a dark central hole.
The substance of the book is unexciting, erratic, often stale. Henderson has the old view, that Caesar's commentaries pose as a report to the Senate (p.37). (In reality the commentaries are sui generis, references to SPQR pointedly replaced by references to PR: Populus Romanus.) Horace writes 'a satirical parable for the 30sö(p.16); in whose mind did the decade exist? Journalistic too is the sense Henderson gives to the concept of hybris ; Fisher's re-definitive book on Hybris has been out some years...The cited rock-stars are curiously dated, from 30 years ago - the Who, Pink Floyd, The Doors and predictably that doyen of pretentious lyricists, R. Zimmermann (`Bob Dylan'). They contribute to no point of substance about the Romans. Henderson, writing of Caesar's deliberate destruction of the Greek town of Gomphi, says: 'regrets, he had a few - but then again, almost too few to mentionö (p.48). In fact Caesar expresses no regret about Gomphi. The claim is made by Henderson to drag in a reference to a song of Frank Sinatra; shooting from the hip, by the hip. Sinatra and the rockers are there to make a point about the author's persona. You wonder whether that would-be fashionable persona, and not Rome, is the central subject of the book.
Henderson's translations also falsify, if more subtly. Here he is claiming to translate Caesar: `fostered against him for full many a year...The whole shooting match was readied' (p. 67). Consider the flavours of the English here:`fostered' is mandarin English; `full many a year' is Merrie-England; `shooting-match' is officers' mess; `readied' is NASA. In contrast to this disorienting medley, Caesar's actual style was an unusually homogeneous and pointedly non-foreign way of writing. For Henderson, Pliny writes of 'genesö (p. 278); Nero's dying words are 'I am the Last Movieö (p. 294). Henderson knows what he is doing with these anachronisms. So do learned readers, who know the Latin. Add philosophic bombast bought
in enthusiastically from France (`to paint the king's portrait is to make the portrait of all possible future kings'; p. 55). The approach excludes a wide readership.
Henderson decries 'the unspeakableö of today: 'Northern Ireland, Romania, Iraq, Bosnia, Rwandaö(p.8). A man of conscience and sensibility, therefore? His wordplay focuses strangely on violent death. A particularly thorough Roman massacre is 'truly a red-letter dayö (p. 46). Nero kicks Poppaea to death in her pregnancy; this, Henderson writes, 'turns her into an Egyptian-style mummyö(p. 293). The funny side of a fatal miscarriage? Henderson achieves tabloid writing - without the good taste.
George Orwell analysed the art of Salvador Dali, someone who himself did witty things with the image of a dead young woman. (One picture was called `Mannequin rotting in a taxi-cab'.) Orwell saw in Dali an accomplished draftsman who, sensing his own dated tastes and lack of ideas, turned to a simple formula. In Orwell's words, 'Always do the thing that will shock and wound people...Along those lines you can always feel yourself original.ö (The Collected Essays etc. vol. 3, 1968, p. 164) Henderson shocks alright, and means to. But why? A similar shortage of new ideas, perhaps? A similar anxiety, on the part of an ensconced scholar, to prove to himself and a select few that he is a radical guy, not a conservative gent? But perhaps the radical still relishes privilege after all. Think how it must feel for a writer to get Cambridge University Press to pay for strong binding, good paper and superb proof-reading* to publish sentences like: '(Bob) Dylan has been the index of temporality for this book as writingö (p.302). That takes real clout. As with Nero on a public stage, the outrageous mediocrity of the art proves the institutional power of the artist.
*Though Henderson's foray into German, Waffungstillstand (p.47), has gone wrong in its second syllable; it should be Waffen -. And as a Francophile, he should have known the accents on deja (p.58).
a Roman myth of power which may, like Statius' `Thebes', never be un/tied from/to its
particular referent - however distantiated and disavowed. assertiveness of the intellectual too famous to need to write intelligbly.