Sunday, June 19, 2011

The Aeneid by Virgil - Translated by Robert Fagles

Perhaps the most affecting portion of Virgil’s great masterwork on the founding of Rome is its namesake’s visit to the Underworld, which comes at the midpoint of the story.

After a trip to Sicily to honor the memory of Anchises, his father, Aeneas ventures to the land of the dead to see the man one more time. It is there that Virgil shows us the wandering souls of the dead - ‘numberless races, nations of souls/like bees in meadowlands on a cloudless summer day/that settle on flowers, riots of color, swarming round/the lilies’ lustrous sheen, and the whole field comes alive/with a humming murmur.”

Here is not only a trope from the ancient world - a hero among the living momentarily steps across the curtain to visit the departed, safe himself from the sting of death - but the poetic inspiration for Dante’s Divine Comedy, which will employ Virgil as a guide for its first two-thirds. Here are the heartbroken who have gained the knowledge that Virgil lacks. His father, by virtue of this home, reveals to his son the glories of Rome that will follow Aeneas once he leaves to fulfill his destiny.

Robert Fagles’ translation of “The Aeneid” is a worthy successor to his excellent translations of “The Iliad” and “The Odyssey.” Most of what I could say about these three works has been said many, many times. Though “The Odyssey” is the more well-known story and the most easily copied, the “The Iliad” is a more satisfying story on a much broader canvas. While Odysseus is the obvious star of the later work, there are so many personalities in “The Iliad” beyond just the angry Achilles that one can quickly lose, regain and lose himself again in its rich maze of action and character.

But both of Homer’s works were meant to be performed, declaimed, shouted even. There is an academic polish, a host of page-bound flourishes in “The Aeneid” that mark it as different in tone and spectacle. Though Virgil was obviously following the style of the two earlier epics, “The Aeneid” is its own animal. Though it takes up the story from the Trojan War and involves the Olympian gods in the affairs of men, there are several voices present here which were absent earlier.

Anchises’ prophecy, for example, points to “The Aeneid’s” main difference - the sense of destiny. That exists in the Homerian epics as well, but not the extent as Virgil’s work. Where Homer was concerned with the fate of individuals, the warriors who bled outside Ilium and on the waters back to Ithica, “The Aeneid” is chiefly concerned with the empire that will flow from the point of Aeneas’ sword. There is about his shoulders the flourish of history, the sense of fate.

“Others, I have no doubt,
Will forge the bronze to breath with suppler lines,
Draw from the block of marble features quick to life,
Please their cases better, chart with their rods the stars
That climb the sky and foretell the times they rise.
But you, Roman, remember, rule with all your power
The peoples of the earth - these will be your arts:
To put your stamp on the works and ways of peace,
To spare the defeated, break the proud in war.”

When the Fire God forges Aeneas’ shield, we are told he takes delight in the images he forges there - images that for Virgil are Rome’s glorious past, but for Aeneas will be their future - but even the Fire God knows nothing of what these events mean. He only knows that these images give him pleasure.

While Virgil wants his readers to feel the swell of martial pride at the thought of Roman arms, he also takes another cue from Homer - the terrible cost of war. At the end, when Aeneas has conquered a portion of Italy, he stands over the defeated Turnus, who yearns for his life. Aeneas shows him no mercy and stabs him with his sword after he sees Turnus is wearing the belt of the dead Pallas. The foe is sent to join Anchises in the realm of the dead. Aeneas has a nation to build.

It is hard to tell, two thousand years later, whether Virgil is decrying the same war he is glamorizing in his lines. Some of this confusion may be simply to what our modern ears expect to hear, and some of it may be the dimly perceived reminder that even destiny entails death and pain.

We get from Virgil a sense that there is ultimately meaning - for all time - in the struggles of Aeneas and his men. They are the inheritors of a proud tradition from Troy, while the home that they knew is gone forever. Their quest to build a new home, and their fortitude in doing so builds a great empire.

What we don’t know however, much like anyone who feels a personal sense of destiny, is what is to become of us and our dreams. It is Aeneas’ memory of the whispered prophecies of his father in the land of the dead which drive him onward. Like Orpheus coming back from a similar trip, his steps are deliberate, but he looks forward rather than back, because he knows nothing will bring back the home he knew. It is not worth the effort. Instead, there is only the kingdom that has been prepared for him, a kingdom for the taking.

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Friday, June 17, 2011

Of Salesmen, Living and Dead

On Tuesday, December 8, 2008, the Wall Street trader Bernard Madoff had a meeting with his brother Peter, in which it is believed he revealed for the first time the extent of his billion-dollar, multi-decade Ponzi scheme. Over the previous months, it had become increasing clear to Madoff that the economic cataclysm of the previous September and October had taken him down as well, and it was time, reluctantly, to come clean on the biggest fraud in American financial history.

In Diana B. Henriques book, “The Wizard of Lies,” she writes of the moment when Peter came to learn that most of his and his brother‘s professional lives had been built on lies. It is more likely, she says, that Peter’s mind just stopped and tried “ to rewind an entire lifetime in a split second, to get back to something real and true.”

Madoff was a salesman, who made an illegitimate fortune on an uneasy mountain of mendacity. He sold himself, in the classic American fashion, by appearing to succeed.

In David Mamet’s Pulitzer Prize-winning classic “Glengarry Glen Ross,” we are introduced to an office full of men who would be Madoffs, if they had had a few more connections. In the course of one evening, five real estate salesman are introduced to the realities of success and failure.

Levene is an aging salesman in his fifties, assuring his boss Williamson that he has been hot in the past and will be again if he is simply given better leads toward clients. Shelley “The Machine” Levene will take on the world, if he can get just one good sale in the midst of a bad streak. He attempts to bribe his way back to success, which is better than his colleague Moss, who decides it’s better just to steal the leads and give them to a rival for the promise of a better job.

Commenting on this indirectly is Roma, a charismatic salesman who desperately wants to close a deal with Lingk, a man whose wife has understandable second thoughts about the soundness of her husband’s newly purchased land deal.

Interspersed among the various and florid profanities of Mamet’s excellent dialogue is a depiction of the desperation of men whose worth comes from their ability to legitimately rob others through their personal magnetism. Levene is haunted by his past, and what he perceives is his lost ability to beguile someone out of their money. Moss is frustrated by the inability of his office to see his potential, or the potential of the market. Even in Levene’s desperation and Moss’ woebegoneness is a shared arrogance.

“What is our life?” Roma asks Lingk, in the act of seducing him into a deal. “It’s either looking forward or looking back.” Roma looks forward. He is momentarily frustrated by Lingk’s cold feet, but there will always be another sale. He has none of Levene or Moss’ angst.

Mamet’s salesmen share a common bond with the most famous salesman in American drama, Willy Loman. Arthur Miller, in his memoir “Timebends,” recalls that he wrote “Death of a Salesman” just after the end of the Second World War and the start of what he calls a new American Empire. “I wanted to set before the new captains and the so smugly confident kings the corpse of a believer,” he said, a “pseudo life that thought to touch the clouds by standing on top of a refrigerator, waving a paid-up mortgage at the moon, victorious at last.”

Willy Loman is that man, disintegrating even as he spouts the repeated platitudes of a lifetime, extolling the rewards of personal likability, connections and moxie, even as he contradicts himself in the next breath. It is mildly amusing that Miller saw Loman as an American and not universal character, which he absolutely is. In him is the pent-up bitterness not of capitalism, but of stubborn humanity requiring a positive score at the end of life, hoping for some validation to the slights and shattered dreams. “A man has got to add up to something,” Willy tells the ghostly memory of his brother Ben.

Mamet’s Roma, railing at his boss Williamson, roars out the question, “Whoever told you you could work with men?” Again and again, in both plays, there is the invocation of the characters’ masculinity, that a man who strives must be respected. It is Willy’s wife Linda who gives the memorable command that “attention must be paid” to Willy, because he is a human being and he is exhausted by a life of seemingly vain toil. And Linda’s presence amongst the men of the play identifies her with their dilemma as well, because all of Miller’s characters live by a personal sense of honor. Just as Willy has given his life for his business, so Linda has given hers in defending and defining and deifying her husband. All of that toil must amount to something, because it defines her too.

Levene though, is a man, and he eventually must pay for his desperation. Roma, who observed that Levene wasn’t really a machine, but a man and thus part of a dying breed, still wants Levene’s stuff, his commissions, as he is carted off. Whatever legacy he had will not survive even a day. Willy’s crime, in the eyes of his son Biff, is the unfaithfulness he was guilty of years before. All of his borrowed wisdom and surface integrity was shown to be a fa├žade. If this is an unfair judgment, we sense in Willy that his mental deterioration is his own verdict, that he too believes he has failed fundamentally. Willy has a Pyrrhic afterlife following his suicide, his memory a pall over his two sons and wife, his debts paid but little remaining.

Miller’s assault on the senselessness of acquisition and ambition is of a different plane than Mamet’s examination of human greed, mostly because Miller is writing a grand tragedy, and Mamet has created a melodrama. Miller wants to show capitalism’s moral bankruptcy, that it is a tragedy worthy of humanity’s collective tears when one small man dies the desperate death of a Willy Loman. Mamet shows a capitalism where survival is all-important, and exploitation is merely self-preservation.

Roma, in his sales pitch, gets at this, giving an altar call to both the spiritually needy and the greedy: “There’s an absolute morality? May be. And then what? If you think there is, then be that thing. Bad people go to hell? I don’t think so. If you think that, act that way. A hell exists on earth? Yes. I won’t live in it. That’s me.”
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Doubt by John Patrick Shanley

In Scene VII of John Patrick Shanley's "Doubt," Father Flynn admits to Sister James that he fabricated a story he told in a sermon on gossip. "What happens in life is beyond interpretation," he tells her. "The truth makes for a bad sermon. It tends to be confusing and have no clear conclusion."
"Doubt," which was later expanded into an excellent movie, won the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for drama in no small part because it adheres to these words.
Father Flynn's is the first voice to confront us, giving us a short sermon on doubt. We immediately like him because his voice is familiar and modern, even though the play's action takes place in 1964. He reassures us that to doubt makes us part of a larger community, struggling to make sense of all around us. Doubt obscures the truth we strain to see, but it bids us on further, changing who we are in the process. The community hearing these words beyond the church likes their easy comfort. There is no reason to take tough stands and make hard choices. Salvation is free and easy, just as God is.
We then encounter Sister James, a bright, enthusiastic teacher with the Sisters of Charity in the Bronx. She is speaking to the school principal, Sister Aloysius. We like Sister James also, because of her sunny enthusiasm and zeal for her students. She is eager and loving and quick to forgive and forget, just as God is.
Zeal describes Sister Aloysius also - but zeal of a different sort. We don't necessarily like her. In a few words of dialogue, she comes off as judgmental, unnecessarily rigid, callously traditional and authoritarian. She warns Sister James not to let students use ballpoint pens as it destroys their penmanship. She chides her for "performing" rather than teaching. And she criticizes her as overly innocent, not only to her students but to the dangers around them. "Innocence is a form of laziness," Sister Aloysius says.
There is something in us that does not like Sister Aloysius, but this feeling diminishes the longer she talks. She is vigilant, just as God is, because the world is not on our side. We recognize her as the stereotypical Catholic school nun who rules over her charges with an angry kind of devotion and puts the smell of brimstone in their nostrils. But the longer she talks, the more we perceive why she is this way. She tells Sister James to think less about herself and observe what is around her. This is sound Christian advice - after all, the sisters are there to serve. In doing so, we can perceive what follows in two different ways.
Time passes, and Sister James returns to indirectly report what Sister Aloysius suspected - Father Flynn may have had inappropriate contact with Donald Muller, the school's only black child. Did Sister James perceive something because Sister Aloysius inspired her to, or did she actually see something she wants to discount because of how she feels about the sister?
The backdrop of "Doubt" - the Catholic sex abuse scandals of the last decade - gives us reason to draw conclusions from the action. But Shanley's characters cannot be so easily pegged, nor is this play simply yet another indictment of the Catholic Church. Flynn may indeed be innocent, but there is something in his quickly offended manner that feels guilty. Sister Aloysius may be a martinet with a vendetta against a priest she sees as overly accommodating, but we are willing to go along with the behavior if she is right about Father Flynn's guilt. We want to think the best of Sister James as she struggles between the two poles of opposition, but we see her partially in the same light as Sister Aloysius, and in the same way we see ourselves. Sometimes doing the right thing is not as important to us as appearing to do the right thing. The stakes in this - the life of a child - can easily be ignored so long as our lives continue and our self-images remain. It is this climate that allowed many guilty priests to survive in parishes for so long, with so many lives destroyed.
But Shanley doesn't construct an easy dragon for vanquishing, on either side of this contest. Just consider, for a moment, how "Doubt" could have ended. If Father Flynn, for example, had been proven to be guilty, then Sister Aloysius' determination would have been justified in our eyes. We might have drawn a conclusion that her traditional ways are superior to the more modern teaching and social styles of Flynn and James. If Father Flynn had been proven innocent, then we would see Sister Aloysius as the play's villain, the forces of openness and virtue having triumphed over the church's long catalog of overzealous homegrown persecutors.
But the play is about doubt, which means that neither outcome will happen. Indeed, no real accusation is ever fully stated. The worst intimation is that Flynn gave Donald wine. When Sister Aloysius confronts Flynn about what may have happened, he responds, "What exactly are you accusing me of?" This is to be expected, and it may be calculated on Flynn's part. He could be goading the sister to either make an accusation or retreat, gambling perhaps that she will retreat. She instead reminds him that she hasn't accused him of anything, but merely asked him what happened. The accusation is one he perceives - but he is right in assuming there is one.
The audience will side one way or another, but they will see that perhaps a traditional nun, no matter how dictatorial, may have been that way for a reason. They may see that a man accused cannot necessarily prove himself innocent without losing something, or everything, in the process. They will see that choosing sides is never so easy as rallying to a cause against this or that irredeemable force.
Shanley throws another wild card into the works with the entrance of Donald's mother into the play, who is summoned for a conference with Sister Aloysius. Nothing is ever spelled out, but Donald's mother is clear on one thing - Donald is different. Does this mean he is receptive to what Sister Aloysius believes are Flynn's homosexual advances? We aren't sure. We do know that Donald is different enough to spark angry beatings at the hands of his father. The mother tells Sister Aloysius plainly that she is willing to put up with whatever attention Father Flynn gives, because it will only last until the school term is up. Donald needs this education. She is willing to ignore the rest. As with much of this play, we suspect what is going on- but we don't know for sure.
This adds another layer - not of race, though Donald's blackness adds to the tension. Father Flynn is a man, and still in a position of authority in 1964. (It is interesting that this play takes place just before the Sexual Revolution.) Sister Aloysius, Sister James and Donald's mother have to navigate their powerlessness. Even Sister Aloysius must be circumspect in how she proceeds with her accusations, knowing that they could be easily ignored by her male superiors within the church. Donald's mother doesn't care about the sister's concern - she will side with her son "and those who are good to him," meaning Father Flynn.
The mother also offers this judgment: "You can't hold a child responsible for what God gave him to be." In the current environment, this sounds like an defense of what we perceive is Donald's homosexuality. But what of Father Flynn? Did God make him a child predator? Is he a child predator? What is Donald? We are never sure. Even this statement, which appears to be a defense, cannot be digested whole.
Shanley is not content to give us an ending with Father Flynn quietly removed from the parish. Indeed, he is promoted, and even the rock solid Sister Aloysius is left to doubt whether her suspicions were ever correct.
But there is also the layer of faith to all of this. We must never forget these characters are devout and carry on their lives in a community of belief. Does Father Flynn's promotion mean that God has protected him from a false accusation, or is this ironic comment on the protection the church provided predatory priests for decades? Does the fact that such things happen give us serious doubts about the justice of God, or even His existence? That feeling of emptiness, where something has occurred but we are not sure of its exact nature, readmits us to the community of doubt where we began the play. There is no last word, Shanley says, not even in a church, an indeterminate distance short of Heaven.

Set Your Fields on Fire

The award-winning novel by William Thornton
Available now

Some of the coverage of "Set Your Fields on Fire"

 You can order "Set Your Fields on Fire"for $14.99 through Amazon here.
It's also available on Kindle at $3.99 through Amazon here.
Read an interview I did with on the book here.   
Here's my appearance on the Charisma Network's CPOP Podcast. 
Here's an interview I did with The Anniston Star on the book. 
Shattered Magazine wrote a story about the book here. 
The Alabama Baptist wrote about the book here.
This piece appeared in the Marietta (Ga.) Daily Journal.
Here's the write-up from The Birmingham Times.
Read a story for Village Living here.
This story appeared in The Trussville Tribune and this video.
Here's my appearance on East Alabama Today.
Story and video from WBRC Fox6 here. 
Here's the write-up in The Gadsden Times on the book.
Read a piece I wrote for WestBow Press about writing the book here.
A piece about some inspiring works for me.
This is another interview with the fleegan book blog here. 
Read a piece I did for WestBow Press about writing the book here.
Read another interview with the fleegan book blog here.