Bedside Books

Philip Larkin took this self-portrait using the camera’s timer.

Required Reading by Philip Larkin: This collection of essays on poetry and literature, memories of his early life, and a sampling of his jazz writing clearly, in my mind at least, yokes Larkin with William Empson, or at least one aspect of Empson – their closely shared hard-minded approach to literary criticism. While they shared a fundamental view about naturalism and literary value, they expressed themselves totally differently and  yet somehow, in the end, one comes out feeling the same about both men as writers and thinkers. Empson builds his cases on detailed exegesis while Larkin springs to the same spot without strewing a trail of literary shavings. What would have been the chemistry had they been in the same room? Would Larkin’s stoical nature have shrunk before Empson’s bizarre  mental gymnastics? Would it have been a stoical and epicurean stand-off, or would they have smiled at the circularity of their approach, declaring a truce at some ground-zero level? Larkin covers a surprising amount of personal ground in these essays: Oxford, his days as a small town librarian, a great range of poetic esthetics, a surprising amount about Hardy (one of his favorites); it also includes his Paris Review interview and a long Guardian interview; all in all, very satisfying for a Larkin fan.

Roman Civilization edited by J.P.V.D. Balsdon: This collection of topics by scholars in the field underscores the profound influence of Roman law, administration and engineering on the modern world. While the Romans created little in the fields of literature, theater, philosophy or science, because of the earlier overdetermined brilliance of the Greeks, they did leave the world with a monumental gift: for a few golden centuries they were able to hold the competing forces of society together enough to show the world that the lower strata of society could be organized in such a way to benefit society at large without the two extremes and the middle wrecking the system. How much the daily openness of Rome itself and the intermingling of all classes of people contributed to the essence of Roman sensibilities is an interesting question. It was the antithesis of what’s happening in the US now, as partisans pollute the public discourse, which too often is in the hands of short-sighted nitwits with no practical sense. Classical Rome surely had its rogues, partisans, revolutionaries, privateers, all ready to raid the public coffers, or topple a government, but  it also had exceptionally great legal minds, some military geniuses, and, more importantly, some great practical minds adroit in the art of compromise.

Cicero and the Roman Republic by F.R. Cowell: This is the book to read for an insight into how a great civilization unravels slowly over centuries. Cicero was, of course, an emblematic legal and literary  figure in Rome. Cicero was profoundly influenced by the Golden Age of Rome two hundred years prior to his birth. A contemporary of Caesar, he clearly saw the loss of the Republic coming, he tried to stave it off, he acquiesced in many ways (a victim of his personality), and finally he paid for the failures of both Rome and himself with his life at the hands of assassins. He was an advocate of the sensible management of economic and political affairs to benefit the grand idea of “the people,” a belief that opens itself up to specious attacks from opportunistic figures on both the left and the right, the one-eyed partisans. Cowell is very wise. He pinned the tail on the donkey here, revealing what’s happening right now in the US political system and society. He probes the serious questions: were the defects in the faulty machinery of government, an unsound economic system, were the laws and courts unjust, all producing discontent, “or did the trouble spring from some deeper cause, traceable perhaps to some fundamental change in men’s attitudes toward life.? If so, was it a matter of alteration of social relationships between one class and another, between rich and poor, between the old families and fashionable society on the one hand and the unknown ‘common man’ on the other…Beyond all these possible sources of weakness was there a failure of old religious and moral beliefs and a decay of old habits that had in the last resort been the true source of the vitality of the State?” It’s been said repeatedly in history, Rome fell not because of an external enemy but to internal forces it had once subdued but could no longer control.

The Ancient Greeks by M. I. Finley: From whence did Rome spring? In many ways, from Greece, the civilization that was the other side of the Roman coin. In some ways, this book parallels the work of  Cowell, taking you deep into the internals of Greek society, culture and the essence of the lives of emblematic figures. You are left with the knowledge that Greece was simply many countries trying to act as one, something it could only obtain with an exceptionally strong leader, such as Alexander, who was  a Macedonian, and who relied primarily on his own generals rather than surrounding himself with Greeks. Finley is wonderful on Greek philosophy, Socrates, science, sculpture, Athens, Sparta and stoicism. In spite of its brevity, this work should be read last in any study of Greek life, because its insights and conclusions carry such great weight. I am already eager to reread it.

Sexual Life in Ancient Greece by Hans Licht: What an education you receive about Greece by looking at the role of the human figure in Greek culture, marriage, sex, prostitutes, religion, the role of love between men, women and various combinations thereof. Never has a country had such a wide open sexual culture; sex was a component of so much of Greece’s religious life, if not on the surface, then embedded in the ritualistic practices. Simply put, there were almost no taboos in Greek sexual life, and the higher courtesans offered intellectual companionship  as well as physical pleasure to their client/s. The elite courtesans rose  to the highest ranks as close associates of political leaders, scientists, philosophers and the artists of the day. Licht was a prodigious researcher with an encyclopedic grasp of Greek literature and visual arts, and he uses his skills so thoroughly that you receive a detailed survey of the literary and visual arts and how sexuality was used by writers and artisans in portraying Greek life. This book can’t be ignored; its exacting scholarship is far from prurient. If equal studies were done for other major civilizations, history would make more sense, but such a corrective is unlikely to come at this late date. One shivers at the prudery of most Western countries today. One sees how Freud mined Greek thought and scholarship in assembling his theories of sexuality. The role of hetairae, or female prostitutes, through the scholarly skills of Licht, are given a well-deserved central place in Greek society, a place they have rarely shared in societies before or since.

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