If you're asked, “So, what are you reading these days?” do not under any circumstances reply The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Unless, of course, you intend to frighten off acquaintances, old friends, petrified Republicans, pie-eyed Democrats, overstaying guests, job interviewers, potential lovers– heck, just about anyone. Trust me. In this age of Life, Inc., in that mumbled admission you instantly brand yourself: prolix, patrician, and pessimistic. (Yeah, names don't hurt me, but ouch.)
Look, blame Battlestar Galactica for my parade of pedantry. You might remember–– a while back I was thinking about that sci-fi epic as “Romans: Remixed,” so – as part of my new venture, Reading Books So You Don't Have To, Unlimited – I decided to check out the original track recorded by Gibbon. (Decline and Fall must have sounded pretty interesting when it premiered, in London, in 1776.)
I regret to report that, as a literary work of art, it has a few significant defects.
We'll note, dismiss and forgive its impossible length. If Bolaño could get away with it in 2666, I suppose you can too. No, no, Mr. Gibbon: what I object to is your narrative strategy: more switchbacks than a sherpa track! History moves in a straight line, Mr. Gibbon, just like a Roman road. Reading your history is like playing 'Chutes & Ladders. Like living in a hamster wheel. The pomposity and idiocy of your protagonists – and how many there are! – beggar belief. Sir, your Rome is always declining; I'm waiting for the Big Finish, okay, here's Odoacer on Italy's throne, “Goths Win!” in duodecimal overtime, and now you tell me we're playing a double-header in the Eastern Conference.
Mr. Gibbon, I am greatly crestfallen by your lack of attention to the effective construction of a cliffhanger and its resolution. You really set up a corker at the close of Chapter XXVI (the last page of Volume I in my Modern Library edition):
Such were the scenes of barbaric rage which disgraced the palace and table of the Roman emperor; and, as the impatient Goths could only be restrained by the firm and temperate character of Theodosius, the public safety seemed to depend on the life and abilities of a single man.
Bang! A worthy parting shot. Imagine my disappointment, bewilderment, and general annoyance when I began Volume II with Theodosius nowhere to be found, and your wheedling encomium to Gratian – who's he, anyway? – commandeering the page. Does “Who shot J.R.?” mean anything to you?
Furthermore, Mr. Gibbon, your paragraphs seldom feature conspicuous, easily identifiable topic sentences. They undoubtedly consternate both English teachers and test-makers of the College Board. It is impossible to cut-and-paste your work into the standard five-paragraph essay; how does this study intend to have any longevity when, as you must know by now, plagiarism is the one guaranteed form of cultural transmission left to us?
Still, I suppose we must give you credit for ingenious hilarity when it comes to the names of your characters. A tyrant named Maximin? I know of at least one consultancy and three Mike Myers movies that ought to be paying you royalties. In general, I'll admit, a sterling job. Far better than the abridged edition, published by Penguin Classics, which I tried (and failed) to read a few years ago. Now that was just a blizzard of dates and names. Ugh. Kind of like an AP exam. Like pornography without the dirty bits.
I confess, Mr. Gibbon (in the tone of an English schoolboy scolding his tutor), I'm slightly cross with you. You have so many trees in your forest that these days, there are few who have time to walk with you. Are you related to Virgil, by any chance?
Mr. Gibbon, in light of America's recent history (as epic as any you've lived through, or have written about) I'm inclined to ask different questions about your book than it seems a lot of people have been asking.
From what I can gather, we spend an awful lot of time arguing about how Rome fell, why Rome fell, the true date for the Fall of Rome; arguing whether the barbarians should have been better integrated or kept out completely, or whether Christianity or taxes or environmental pollution (lead poisoning) did them in. but as you make clear through 800 pages chronicling 500 years – your doubling-back upon a particular period six times over, framing each moment with regard to the military, the imperial family, the intrigues of advisers, the domestic economy and the “international situation” – there are no answers to be arranged in neat ScanTron bubbles.
The question to me, at least, is: “Why didn't Rome fall?” –I mean, it didn't fall for a while, at any rate. The amount of carnage, chaos and panic you describe each year, every year, 500 times over, makes our past decade look like a sunny afternoon at Coney Island. Bread and circuses in the bad times, I suppose; and between you and me, America is plenty good at baking both.
I'll admit, the Roman culture of bling looks very much like our own (but perhaps it can be said of all high societies in all of history); Abramoff and Cunningham and the K Street Project bear an uncomfortably close resemblance to your descriptions of the corrupt Roman Senate. And you puncture my hopes repeatedly, as when you sing all the virtues of Gratian's royal education, only to conclude:
Gratian neglected the duties and even the dignity of his rank to consume whole days in the vain display of his dexterity and boldness in the chase.
You do this time and time again, setting pride up for a fall like a bowling pin. I can see my cocktail conversants' point: you are a bit of a pill. But I think that in this, by this constant accrual of negative example, you have a close companion in Plutarch (even as that writer tends to celebrate his subjects): you're seeking to sculpt an idea of the character of leadership that commits such actions, whether for good or ill.
The Roman emperors were too large, their decisions too capricious and absolute: like the Olympian gods they emulated, I suppose. So distant in the past (unlike the monsters of the 20th century), so baroque in their depravity, they're almost comedic – like comic-book SuperHero/Villains – or miniaturized like the clay figurines posed by Zeus in that “Clash of the Titans” amphitheatre. It seems to me as though, as types, they comprise a vast range of leadership styles from which one might mix and match – were one an emperor. Or, shall we say, from the one-armed bandit of heredity and ambition, every couple dozen years, Time puts in a quarter and cranks out two BARs and a Cherry; every century or so, a JACKPOT. One that restores or re-creates the identity of Roman-ness to, shall we (hedgingly) say, fight another day.
It's funny: over the last decade, through volleys of the term hyperpuissance hailing from “Old Europe,” America spent some time debating whether or not it is, in fact, an empire. (And then: what kind of empire is it?) As I recall, those most vociferously denying that allegation of imperialism, were actually performing that imperial role most energetically by invading Iraq.
Now, I wasn't intending to put Joni Mitchell and Colin Powell in a blender to make an Obama smoothie, but the catchphrases “You don't know what you got 'til it's gone” and “You break it, you bought it” are earworming my brain. I think that we're only now fully comprehending the ramifications and scope of the American commercial and cultural empire, now, in its fading colors: its endangerment raises its visibility, like the California Condor.
Mr. Gibbon, I don't know how you managed to accomplish this work in the space of a single lifetime. I can't even catch up on C-SPAN Congressional hearings, not even with a TiVo. I heard about that failed romance of yours; maybe… overcompensatory sexual sublimation? After all, when you finished Decline and Fall, and there was no more history for your pen to ink, your testicles swelled up. But I think I understand why you wrote it, why it consumed your life: you were trying to help your country. You had a Mad King George, tossing away his empire. By your last volume, we'd written a Constitution over here across the pond. (Can I just say, thanks for taking the time? No, seriously.)
Mr. Gibbon, noting the slowness of your voluble pen, and your considerable antiquarian nature, I think you'll find a couple of recent events most interesting. First, there was, rather is, this rather monumental financial crisis. Think of it this way: the barbarians we'd let in to protect the empire (you know, under that whole “competing self-interest” thing) – yeah, well, they've just sacked Rome. It's an inexact comparison, open to a lot of debate I'm sure, but it's a serviceable model for now.
That's sort of snowballed together with the Decline and…Whoknows of the media establishment, which delivers the raw material you and I try to make sense of. But, as you'd say, something funny happened on the way to the Forum.
President Obama made that White House Correspondents' Dinner address. Shortly afterward – coincidence, surely? – I discovered some writers you'd find really fascinating. Mainly a gentleman named John Lanchester. It's as if he's tailed the Vandals all the way to the Breadbasket, by which I mean the Financial District. Two articles, one right after the next: in the London Review of Books, Lanchester shows us how you make 3+5 = 64 with a 10% down payment. Meanwhile, over in The New Yorker, Lanchester teaches us how Wall Street bakes an upside-down cake with zero calories! It's a miracle! – no, not this financial chicanery, which would dip Attila the Hun's knee to admiring genuflection – but the speed, the rapidity, with which we are learning the detailed history of our Dark Ages.
On June 4, two other remarkable events occurred. First, Obama gave a landmark speech at the University of Cairo – an initial attempt at reconciliation and progress with the Muslim world which, in its admissions of colonialism and proxy wars, reminded me slightly of Gorbachev's Glasnöst. Second, June 4 marked the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square Crackdown in Beijing: an event that, we learned in the days preceding the anniversary, has been totally excised from the Chinese historical record. Totally? Not quite. In the last few days, the New York Times has reported on a handful of Chinese activists and artists who are struggling to fill in that titanic national aporia.
Learning about this, I can't help but think back to my own American history education. Twenty years after 1968, what could I know about the '60s? To a lot of American parents, the decade was an embarrassment – “if you remember it, you weren't there” and Joe Cocker slurring Beatles' lyrics at Woodstock – and, as I recall, “The Wonder Years” was primary source material, right? At any rate, it was a handful of pages in an outdated textbook, covered at the very end of the year, and you could probably wing the one question they'd place on the AP Exam.
See, Mr. Gibbon, I'm getting the impression that history works like the human psyche: trauma results in amnesia. It took more than 11 centuries for you to collect the fragments of Western memory into a coherent pattern. We don't have that much time. But we're working fast.
Wish you were here, Mr. Gibbon. I'm sure you'd have something interesting to say. You Twitter, right?