Literary Serendipity

20 June 2009

Saturday


Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire

Today I was very pleased to find at the library an unabridged recording of Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire — but not the whole thing. As I had just finished listening to Red Mutiny last night, I stopped at the library to turn this latter book on CD in and to quickly check out what else might be available. I almost always cast a quick look over available titles, but I am not always so well rewarded.

Edward Gibbon

Edward Gibbon

While not the whole of Gibbon’s Decline and Fall, what I found was Volume Three, Part Two, of the complete text, and this alone runs to twelve cassettes. Now that I know this is available I’m sure I can get the other parts if I like and listen to the whole thing. I should be more systematic and looking for classics available on tape or CD, but it simply doesn’t occur to me to check what is available, and the few times I have looked up classics they usually aren’t available for listening. In any case, I now have something really substantial to which I can listen and that should give me with ample food for thought.

After listening to side 1 of tape 1, my initial impression is that Gibbon is easier to follow in print than in audio format; listening will require some level of concentration. I’ve read some of Gibbon previously — certainly not the whole thing — and found his Enlightenment prose to be eminently approachable and clear. But listening is another matter. I think that we must focus differently on information derived from hearing and information derived from seeing. Gibbon is definitely prose that is meant to be read, so listening to him goes slightly against the grain.

Alfred North Whitehead

Alfred North Whitehead

In the Introduction to his Adventures of Ideas, Alfred North Whitehead wrote, “…throughout his history, it is Gibbon who speaks. He was the incarnation of the dominant spirit of his own times. In this way his volumes also tell another tale. They are a record of the mentality of the eighteenth century. They are at once a detailed history of the Roman Empire and a demonstration of the general ideas of the silver age of the modern European Renaissance.” Though I read this many years ago it has stayed with me, and I always think of it when I think of Gibbon. But not only Gibbon.

Adventures of Ideas

Recently when I praised Kenneth Clark’s BBC series Civilisation (in Historical Viability and Civilized Aspiration) I had the Whitehead quote above in mind. I enjoyed Clark’s presentation of Western history so much partly because he is forthright in his judgments and he makes his exposition personal. That is to say, Kenneth Clark had a personal relationship to Western civilization; he is not talking about it merely because he was born in the midst of it and knows nothing else. And his judgments are his own: in Whitehead’s words, through Civilisation, it is Clark who speaks.

Kenneth Clark had good things to say about Albrecht Dürer's engraving Melancolia I, which he calls a prophetic document

Kenneth Clark had good things to say about Albrecht Dürer's engraving Melancolia I, which he called a prophetic document...

I like this, and I respect it. He does not repeat second hand opinions just because they are familiar and are not likely to be challenged. For example, he shows the works of Albrecht Dürer, but he makes it pretty plain that he doesn’t think much of them (with the exception of Melancholia). I don’t agree with this. I especially don’t agree when Clark says that Dürer’s famous watercolors of a piece of turf and a hare lack “inner life.” These two works implicitly criticized by Clark are among my favorites, but I am challenged by Clark’s rejection of Dürer and that makes me explore my own tastes more carefully.

...but Clark says that this famous picture of a hare lacks "inner life." I disagree. I see a close parallelism between this portrait of a hare and Dürer's self portraits, and indeed Clark comments on the psychological depth of Dürer's portrait of Oswald Krell.

...but Clark says that this famous picture of a hare lacks "inner life." I disagree. I see a close parallelism between this portrait of a hare and Dürer's self portraits, and indeed Clark comments on the psychological depth of Dürer's portrait of Oswald Krell.

So it is with a sense of intellectual adventure that I set off listening to Gibbon’s masterpiece. I expect to be challenged, and I expect to be fully exposed to the prejudices of the eighteenth century, and that is a good thing.

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