November 13, 2008

Enter the Barbarians

Livy had to explain why the Gauls had arrived in the middle of Italy. Livy's explanation takes the form of an account handed down to him by Roman tradition- but of course its an account viewed through the lens of Livy's historical intelligence and interpretation. Rather than seeing this account as anything to do with historical truth, it is best to see it as a mixture of tradition and conjecture- with the former supplying incidental data and the latter the pattern of events. It is to that pattern that I want to turn- it tells us something about the way that Livy understood the movement of barbarian tribes around the ancient world- a movement that endured as a feature of ancient politics right down unto the dying days of Rome in the 400s. Livy's explanations tell us a lot- both about the way that he thought about pastoral peoples- and about the way that he conceived of their political culture.

Livy's argument is primarily about economics- and particularly about over population. His argument goes thus. A King of the Gauls, Ambitgatus, had conquered the majority of that people and through peace their population had increased and wished to 'relieve his kingdom of the burden of surplus population'. Consequently he sent two of his nephews off to conquer new lands- one to southern Germany and the other into Italy. Bellovesus who was sent to Italy collected 'the surplus population' and marched southwards- attracted by reputation of the vineyards and luxuries of Italy they pushed on eventually over the Alps and into the territories of Etruscan city states. That story is an economic one- it is about an over populated area of the world spilling its surplus population, in the form of military migration, into Italy. (V 34)

That account though is undercut by a second account which Livy seems to offer- and which haunts the background of this economic story. He introduces Ambigatus's problem by commenting not merely on the relief to the kingdom of removing these people, but also upon the fact that 'effective control of such large numbers was a matter of serious difficulty'. The fact that the two leaders are the two nephews of the King is also suggestive of another type of story told here- lurking here- behind the economic one. One in which what we are actually seeing is a political migration- the old story that finding 'new homes' is an alternative to finding new kings. (V 34)

Livy errs towards the first- that is the emphasis in his narrative. The political story is a matter of a throw away comment- and Livy did not base this on any particular deep research into barbaric history or customs. His culture was turned inward on Rome- and his very project- a history of the city and its transformation into an empire (with the empire very much as the backdrop to the story of Roman triumph) was a project of urban and insular history, not pastoral and global history.

However implausible his stories about the Gallic rise and march on Rome are as history- they are interesting as conjecture and they add another layer to the sociological points that Livy made about the Aequi and Volscii in Book III. The point is that Livy is charting here or attempting to chart not merely the condemnation of these barbaric forces but a map of the reasons behind their rise and fall, the ebb and flow of their raids. Those ebbs and flows for Livy are ultimately determined by economic forces- by overpopulation in particular. Overpopulation leads to economic and political pressures upon the barbaric state- and Livy implies that that is the reason why those states overflow their boundaries (set by the civilised world) and embark on disturbing the urban polities that they surround.

November 12, 2008


Every historian faces a problem. History in part is about buildiing a narrative of causation- but so muhc of history is contingent, about surprise and unexpected disaster or triumph. Livy no less than other historians faced this problem. In his story of Rome, he had to explain setbacks as well as advances. Focussed on Rome, the story that Livy wanted to tell was that advance and setback were both motivated through internal factors to Rome. His view of Rome was that internal factors either undermined or promoted Rome's chances of survival: character determined history and in particular Rome, under special protection by its Gods and with a special martial character, could determine its own history. This point is central to Livy's narrative. But it leaves him with a problem- what had happened when as in 395 when the Gauls invaded and seized the city, Rome had almost failed.

Livy's answer to this is to argue that Rome's failures were owed to its temporary impiety. Like the historians of the Old Testament, he attributed failures of the state to its internal failures rather than to external factors. As the Gauls invade, a debate wages within Rome about whether Romans should move to Veii- a move that Livy, through the mouth of Camillus argues is impious. (V 30) Livy adds to that though by demonstrating that Romans at this point did something unprecedented- when the censor Gaius Julius died, they appointed a new censor to join his colleague- rather than as in the future electing two new censors. (V 32) Furthermore they neglected a prophesy about the Gallic invasion from the plebeian Caedicus (V 32). These small indicators become for Livy indicators of something greater- he gives other causes including further impiety- but it is important that he introduces the episode of the Gallic invasion with these moments, it is a demonstration for Livy that the cause is still internal to Rome. Rome's failure and fall are caused by its own failure religiously to either respect its own Gods, its own divine offices or prophesies sent to warn it.

Livy would move to describe then why he deemed the Gauls had moved, and why Rome's response to them was particularly bad- but these indications set the tone of his commentary. The Gallic invasions were due not so much to Gallic activity- as to failures in Roman character.

November 10, 2008


Ryunosuke Akutagawa's short story shares its title and setting with Kurosawa's famous film but little else. It is the decline of a civilisation expressed in a short burst of important prose. Unlike Kurosawa's film which has almost no time to it, Akutagawa's is located very definitely within the history of Japan and Kyoto- and the decline of the nobility in the middle ages. The Rashomon is a ceremonial gate just outside Kyoto- at the time of which Akutagawa was writing though, 'no one bothered to maintain the Rashomon. Foxes and badgers came to live in the dilapidated structure, and they were soon joined by thieves. Finally it became the custom to abandon unclaimed corpses in the upper storey of the gate, which made the neighbourhood an eerie place everyone avoided after the sun came down'. Under this gate sits an ex-servant of a nobleman who has just been sacked- the servant 'had no idea what he was going to do', his only objective was 'to find a way to keep himself alive for one more day' and thus he sat, deciding between starvation and becoming a thief.

Ethically Akutagawa leaves us in no doubt of the correct judgement- it would be right for the servant to starve- suicide in this case is a duty. The story though is about that choice- the servant meets a woman in the upper hall of the gate, who is stealing hair from the corpses in order to make wigs- she justifies this by saying that she needs to survive and that the dead when alive sold snake meat and pretended it was fish so that they might survive. The argument that morality may be broken in cases of necessity, has become through the poverty of Japan, an argument that may be used in any eventuality. This is a society that lives by necessity not by morality. Every character ultimately in the ten pages faces a bleak choice- to die or to deal another blow to right and wrong. In Kyoto's decline the issue is what should the servant do?

Exploring that moral choice, implies that such a choice exists. Akutagawa definitely thinks that there is a sense in which there is a choice and a sense in which there is not a choice here. The servant can deliberate about this- he chooses when he does rashly in a moment. But equally the factors impelling the servant along the path he treads are the grimmest possible- in the Western tradition where say a Jew may eat non-Kosher if it saves his life and a Jesuit may utter a politique lie if it saves his the servant might be entitled to commit the crime. He has our sympathies. The issue is complicated by the way that the novelist captures the moment of choice- we often think of choice as deliberation, but actually what he describes is an impulse. As Heisenberg says in Frayn's play Copenhagen- it is only after we make choices that we can see what they meant and what they say about us. Free will here is not an illusion but is an impulse- our actions are not considered, they are committed.

Something follows from this which is a bleak insight into human life- and particularly political life. The darkness of the short story is envisaging a time of uncomfortable bleakness- but Akutagawa's point is that this darkness permeates us. That the soul is not its own place- that we are ourselves contextualised beings. The appeal to neccessity can be abused- and there is a worthwhile argument that all these people are abusing it- but it also exists and it exists for those who face great troubles. As those troubles advance, so our moral judgement recedes- as the sky grows darker outside, so do the rooms inside the head (and to complete my analogy, we have no electric lighting!) Contextualising moral decision is important- whatever theoretical understanding theology or philosophy can give us into how people make decisions, decisions are made here and whilst there are almost no theoretical decisions, there are many actual ethical decisions. To reduce to principles is to ignore the context that explains and may limit the role of moral thinking for each individual.

November 09, 2008

Of Time and the City

Of Time and the City is about a journey- it is not a conventional journey from a start point to an end point- but a journey from birth to death and yet a journey that's circular, that pivots around a series of points- religion, personality, politics, childhood, adulthood and last of all, Liverpool. You cannot separate this film from its director, Terence Davies, Catholic, Homosexual and Liverpudlian nor can you separate the man, lonely in the immensity of the darkness surrounding his voice, lonely in the midst of the images of Liverpool, from his context, from his history. In that sense- this is a repetition- in the best way that art can repeat of the point that Borges made in Pierre Menard- that we are all trapped in our times, trapped in our bodily form, trapped ultimately in history.

Making that impression count, making it work means showing us the history. The most spectacular thing about this film is that it uses a stock of old black and white images of Liverpool- this is worth buying on DVD just to see those images of the Liverpool of the fifties and the sixties- the old streets going down almost vertically, lines of houses marching in parade, the front door steps of working class houses shining in the sun, the docks, the factories. It is a film about the story of Liverpool as much as it is about the state of Liverpool- Davies repeats across the soundtrack the words of Shelley on Ozymandias- the lone and level sands stretching far away for him are the passing steam trains roaring into tunnels. The civic Ozymandii stand at the town hall- their domain Victorian industrialism, their downfall the story of Liverpool since the days when it was the crucial point in a system of commerce binding together the north and the south, the west and the east.

Politics overlays this film in another way too- for if you cannot escape the history of Britain over the last fifty years- from war and coronation to war and Coronation Street- then you cannot escape a more profound story. Across the face of the film come images of a past that the West will never escape- the image of the Cross, that Constantine saw upon the Milvian Bridge and that ever since has dominated Western politics and conscience. This is a film about Catholicism- not only about its pull on the conscience- Davies is quite clear about his own process of atheising- but about its pull on the imagination. For Davies in his historicity is a Catholic- he may be an atheist but he is a Catholic atheist. For him the waters of Babylon are the reminders of loss, the drinkers in the bar of a hotel remind him of the Mesopotamian revellers who disgusted the ancient Israelites and the power of the church remains as architecturally present in this film as any other power. The Church, the building and the faith, dominates his imagination just as it dominates the imagination of any sentient Westerner- we cannot avoid or evade it, we may not live in a society of Christian faith, but we live in a society immersed in the even longer and more important though less eschatological story of Christian history.

History of course is both civic and patriotic- as we are discovering with Livy- but it is also personal. For Davies- like for Guy Maddin in My Winnipeg (a film that this is similar too) our pasts are our presents. For Davies his life coils around the city of Liverpool- it runs through and in and out but it is always present there- but the Liverpool his life is influenced by is both a real place and an imagined place. He shows us at one point images of the present Liverpool- of scummy council houses and graffiti- of the British ability to turn the heights of display into images of disappointment and signs of the dismal. The film has a cutting social edge- Davies reminds us the poor have no time and the rich have the time to make other people spend their time. Betty and Phil (the Queen and her husband) are shown strolling up and waving demurely at the people- and counter posed with pensioners who can hardly find the money to afford a cup of tea and a cold piece of toast.

We must not lose sight though of the personal- for Davies's point is more interesting than most- it has to do with the difference between contemplation and experience (a difference that C.S. Lewis usefully borrowed from Alexander in the 1930s). The point that Davies makes is that we live through our childhood and then we contemplate about it for the rest of our lives- we become an endless curl of contemplation, an endless return. Nirvana in this sense is in our self forgetting. "Is sleep death?" he asks- not so much for an answer but for a reminder that both share the same quality- in both moments we might imagine absolute contemplation (which could well be absolute nothing) fused with absolute inaction. From childhood to adulthood to the dream world where we ourselves dissolve into our thoughts.

I have rhapsodised on some of Davies's themes- he doesn't make all these points in the same way as I have- but his form is an essay and I feel entitled to run with some of his ideas and see what use I can make of them. His form is an essay I say- it is an essay running through a film- using music and image to suggest and amplify and even define a point. His voice, a soft formal presence, is also there- alone save for a couple of moments (one where Round the Horn comes on) it takes us through the streets of Liverpool. Some people say the voice is sarcastic- I don't think it is, rather I think it is a sad voice- sad not so much that the world is worse than it was but that his world is worse than it was. He has made the transition from youth to age, from the toddlers so wonderfully captured on film (there is one priceless moment where a little girl steps forward, decides to step backwards and then runs to tell her mother of the achievement) to the dignified pensioners also there, with their craggy scouse features, bent on the doorsteps of the industrial remnant of their town.

This is an excellent film- and I have not done it justice- it is beguiling and its imagery is wonderful. Basically an old man's memories, it captures your attention with a wit I have not described fully (tu es petrus does indeed translate as You're a brick Pete, but I'm not sure that is the current official Vatican version)- and it is profound and interesting. Watch it if you are interested in cinema- if you are interested in the history of Liverpool, watch it and I'd even say when its out on DVD buy it.