Thursday, May 26, 2005

The dream

Iain Pears' The Dream of Scipio will stay with me a very long time.

I started reading this book months ago. Previously, I quoted this bit:

Was Julien a mere bookworm? Or was he sensitive to the outside world, could he absorb time and place, feel history in the stones and use this to make his work more sensitive and more subtle? Are you a mere pedant, Monsieur? Or do you have the spark of vitality inside you? Will you do something with your life? Answer my question with all the wit at your disposal and let us see.

Because I've been reading this over such a long time, it has read very much like a dream. I've lost the details, but the mood lingers. Bits of it come back to me when I'm otherwise engaged, taking me on journeys to investigate my motivation, my actions, my inaction.

The dream of the title is a reference to a classical text. From the New York Times review:
In his essay "De Republica," Cicero digressed to tell the story of the great general Scipio, and the dream he had of being taken up into the heavens to meet his ancestor Africanus, who shows him the machinery of the cosmos and teaches him a lesson about the vanity of fame and the necessity of virtue. This digression is missing from the manuscripts of Cicero's essay that have come down to us; it was preserved only in a long commentary by the Neoplatonic thinker Macrobius, which circulated in several manuscripts in the Middle Ages.

It is appropriate then that the novel is full of philosophical digressions, and that I digressed while reading it. The vanity of fame and the necessity of virtue. Pears does not deign to teach his readers a lesson, nor do his characters much learn one, but every digression leads the reader deeper into her won soul.

According to The Guardian, The Dream is "a lengthy meditation on cultural history, with characters as pegs for thoughts. The plot has more in common with an academic treatise than with a thriller." Which is just fine by me.

The characters: three men at three different critical moments of Western civilization, linked by some writings and by geography, interwoven in such a way as to invite comparison and the drawing of parallels. Each of these men's stories revolve about a woman from whom they have much to learn.

From a review in The Washington Post:
Pears does not tell these stories in sequence, but rather weaves from one to the next, a risky strategy for the storyteller and, initially, a demanding one for the reader. But both risk and effort prove worthwhile, for this structure allows the echoes and resonances of each to build into an entirely satisfying symphony of story and substance.

Although Pears' 1998 novel An Instance of the Fingerpost was a critical and popular success, to me it seemed a flabby book, bloated on its own mannered cleverness. In The Dream of Scipio, Pears has abandoned cleverness for wisdom, paring his style to a cool elegance that allows some very large ideas the room they need to breathe.

I read An Instance a couple summers ago. The idea of the structure was clever — the story retold form the perspectives of four different narrators — but after one and a half tellings, the story bored me. The murder mystery became mired in political details, and so my focus wandered and waned.

The Dream of Scipio follows the path of an intellectual's life in Vichy-run France and his investigation into a poet's writings during the time of the Black Death, framed by the writings of a bishop witness to the collapse of the Roman Empire. They consort with painters, philosophers and rabbis, government and church officials. Art, love, religion. Following are some of the passages that gave me pause.

Critique of Julia's painting (p 121–2):
"You've looked at too many pictures, you know too much. You are too aware of what you're doing and of the past. That's what's wrong with it."
"You have Matisse and C├ęzanne and a bit of Puvis there. A touch of Robert, perhaps, as well. I look at that picture and I can see what you've built it out of. That's what's wrong."
"It's the painting of a dutiful daughter," he said eventually, looking at her cautiously to see her reaction. "You want to please. You are always aware of what the person looking at this picture will think of it. Because of that you've missed something important."

The soul dies (p 153):
The phrase of Manlius which led Olivier to the rabbi was at least a considered one, and one of the greatest importance. Indeed, it was at the summation of nearly eight hundred years of thought on the relationship which must exist between the physical and the metaphysical. The soul dies when it falls to earth. More Christian heresies were contained in this statement than in almost anything else in the entire document. It contradicted the idea that the soul is created ex nihilo — at birth, at quickening or at conception, a question never precisely answered. It contradicted the idea that man is born and dies once only; it contradicted the idea that salvation lies through God alone; indeed it suggests that man is responsible for his own salvation, but through knowledge, not through deeds or faith. The idea that birth is death, and death is life again hardly sat easily with contemporary Christian doctrine, although it echoed all too readily with the heresies of the Cathars.

The blanket over men's minds (p 154):
It was a duty, not a labour of love, that made her teach, for she could not but be aware that each newcomer to her door, however curious, knew less than the one he replaced. The ability to argue diminished; the grasp of basic concepts weakened; and the knowledge that comes from study grew perpetually less. Christianity, which spread over men's minds like a blanket, put faith above reason; increasingly those brought up under its influence scorned knowledge and thought. Even those with a spark given to them by the gods wanted to be told, rather than wanted to think. Getting to accept that the goal was thought itself, not any conclusion at the end of thought, was hard indeed. They came to her for answers; all they got instead was questions.

In the cause of virtue (p 254–5):
And so Julien judged Olivier de Noyen harshly and without pity. He even referred back to Manlius and the example he set, using the test of The Dream of Scipio as the link; for Olivier knew Manlius's words, but had utterly failed to comprehend them, it seemed. "no one can possess wisdom if consumed by intemperance", says Manlius, quoting the Protagoras, yet Olivier's actions were surely intemperate. Another statement, this time derived from Cicero, also gave him comfort, for the wisest of all Romans stated that "you cannot act rightly by taking up arms against your father or your fatherland". Was that not what Olivier had done? For in that age without countries, Cardinal Ceccani was both father and fatherland to Olivier, and he had turned against both. Julien's own position was the more clear, surely?
It is significant, however, that Julien did not ponder the next passage from Manlius's manuscript until much later, for it might have brought with it further reflection. He had noted it years before in the Vatican library, correctly ascribed its origins to Theophrastus, then filed it away. "An amount of disgrace or infamy can be incurred", Manlius quoted, "if it is in the cause of virtue."
Had Julien been less influenced by his own predicament, then he might have looked harder and guessed the poet's motivations earlier than he did. He might also have considered the possibility that Manlius, in writing these words, was passing a verdict on his own acts, rather than providing a philosophical basis for them.

Are we fated or not? (p 267):
The question is a false one, for the concern of man is not his future but his present, not the world but his soul. We must be just, we must strive, we must engage ourselves with the business of the world for our own sake, because through that, and through contemplation in equal measure, our soul is purified and brought closer to the divine. There is no reward for good behavior, as the Christians suppose, no judge to decide. The more nearly our soul resembles the divine, the closer it is able to approach the model from which it was formed and which it ceased resembling when it became tainted by the material on falling to earth. Thought and deed conjoined are crucial. Faith means nothing, for we are too corrupted to apprehend the truth.
The attempt must be made; the outcome is irrelevant. Tight action is a pale material reflection of the divine, but reflection it is, nonetheless. Define your goal and exert reason to accomplish it by virtuous action; success or failure is secondary. The good man, the philosopher — the terms to Manlius were the same — would strive to act rightly and discount the opinion of the world. Only other philosophers could judge a philosopher, for only they can grasp what lies beyond the world.

"Can there be no good man?" (p 269–70):
"Action is the activity of the rational soul, which abhors irrationality and must combat it or be corrupted by it. When it sees the irrationality of others, it must seek to correct it, and can do this either by teaching or engaging in public affairs itself, correcting through its practice. And the purpose of action is to enable philosophy to continue, for if men are reduced to the material alone they become no more than beasts." ... Only a man who realised that civilisation might not continue could have reformulated classical ideas in such a way...

In the paragraphs that follow it is made clear that "as a piece of philosophy, it was not of the highest order." Here, the thoughts become pegs for the characters.

I should mention that in each of the three eras, Jews are being persecuted. Although in some ways this is incidental, it serves to make the climactic point (p 370–1).
They may be mad, but they're not fools. What they're doing goes far beyond the war. Something unparalleled in human history. The ultimate achievement of civilisation. Just think about it. How do you annihilate so many people? You need contributions from so many quarters. Scientists to prove Jews are inferior; theologians to provide the moral tone. Industrialists to build the trains and the camps. Technicians to design the guns. Administrators to solve the vast problems of identifying and moving so many people. Writers and artists to make sure nobody notices or cares. Hundreds of years spent honing skills and developing techniques have been necessary before such a thing can even be imagined, let alone put into effect. And now is the moment. Now is the time for all the skills of civilisation to put to use.
"Can you imagine a greater, a more enduring achievement? This will last forever, and cannot be undone. Whatever benefits we bring to mankind in the future, we killed the Jews. No matter how great the advances of medicine, we killed them. However high our achievements may soar, however perfect we become, this is what is at our heart. We killed them all; not by accident, or in a fit of passion. We did it deliberately, and after centuries of preparation."

I think these passages speak for themselves. It is simplistic philosophy, critique, examination; but these digressions feed the characters with motive and rationale (right or wrong) and give the reader the example of their lives as a framework for self-reflection.

Reading group guide.

Iain Pears' The Portrait has just been released.
The Washington Post:
We are in for much more than a mortal reckoning between artist and critic (though we get that, too). This is a novel of pitiless revenge. ("A critic is to a painter as a eunuch is to a man.")

A final word on The Dream's geography, which connects its characters, all walking the same stones of Avignon (p 261):
Even for the atheist and the rationalist, there are places in the world which are special, for no reason that can be easily explained. The footsteps slow, the voice lowers and speaks more softly, an air of peace works its way into the soul. Each individual has his own place, it is true; what is holy to one will not be so necessarily to another, although the reverberations of some are all but universal.

Outside the papal palace. Posted by Hello

I spent a week in Avignon in 1995. Reading The Dream makes me want to go back.
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