Friday, July 16, 2010

life is theirs no longer, and

The dread of death, and I know not what strange anguish at this all-important moment, blanch those human faces, to which the choicest wines of Greece and Italy had just given a hue of purple. These men feel -- instinct tells them -- that life is theirs no longer, and they have not the courage to die!

The opulent freed-man calls to his slaves, and promises them their liberty if they consent to risk their lives in an attempt to save his. But the vile herd is already dispersed; the porter alone remains -- for no one had thought to liberate him -- and he, in his impotent fury, replies by insulting clamours to the cowardly supplications of his quondam master.

Reading this part of the Pantropheon, a chapter called "A Roman Supper," which describes a feast laid on for semi-enemies by a rich freed slave named Seba, I thought Soyer was inventing behaviour for a real person, as Hackforth-Jones did in her Barbara Baynton biography. Only after I had finished the book did I try to find out if Seba had existed, and discovered that he was probably the Frenchman's invention. "So why" I asked myself, while I was still believing him real, "aren't I insulted by this, why don't I react with irritation, the way I reacted to Aitch-Jay and her fake Baynton?"


1. Because Seba was an ancient Roman, and so much has been written about ancient Romans that their reputations have become impenetrable. People rarely write about Barbara Baynton. Therefore anything written about Baynton seems precious. Anything written about ancient Romans does not.

2. Soyer's piece is one chapter in a long book. Baynton's piece is the book itself.

3. Soyer is old and dead and foreign and therefore quaint and unthreatening. Hackforth-Jones is none of these things. There is more of a temptation to judge the living, who are our competition.

4. Soyer is an entertaining writer, Hackforth-Jones is not, or not as much. Entertained, I feel recognised and included. I'm ready to forgive someone who entertains me.

5. Hackforth-Jones was privileged by her intimacy with people who knew her subject. Baynton's son-in-law was her uncle. Soyer didn't have anything comparable. More hope rests on Hackforth-Jones because she could have achieved more. Hers is possibly a cornerstone biography and she's padded it with misinformation. In the future it could be taken as a given that Barbara Baynton's son Alexander Frater was precocious at the age of five, and theories built around that -- someone might get hold of that idea, look at Drought Driven, and say, "Yes, the son is this story is obviously based on Alexander Frater," not realising that their Alexander Frater (Hackforth-Jones' Alexander Frater) is based on the boy in the story. Then they'll go on to write about an Alexander who is not the real Alexander and not the boy in the story but a hybrid imaginary animal, like a mermaid. Naturalists don't tolerate mermaids, so why should ...

6. I care about this why?

7. I should relax. This Hackforth-Jones way is the way history goes and has always gone. This is natural. Someone hears a truth, decides it needs to be embellished; entertaining, it becomes a rumour. Someone else continues the rumour, throws in some extra details, sees a gap, fills the gap. On it goes. The creature that comes out is not quite real, not quite false, and this is History. Pliny says that Seba's friend Nero was a monster; Lucanus tells us he was not so bad. But the monstrous Nero is the Nero who has survived. The ordinary Nero still hovers around us invisibly but he is not well known, no one summons him up with a saying ("Fiddling while Rome burns"), John William Waterhouse did not find him a compelling subject for a portrait, he does not appear in animated Warner Brothers shorts saying, "Release the lions," his name is not a byword for overbearing spoilt-brat tyrants or for anything else. If Nero had been nothing but good (not only in fact, but in the minds of historians) he wouldn't have the reputation he does now, and everywhere we think of Nero we'd be mentioning Heliogabalus or someone else instead, or no Roman at all, but a different figure from a different place and time.

8. I am identifying myself with Alex Frater and thinking, "I would not want someone to steer me around like that after I died, I would prefer to maintain the integrity of myself at the age of five."


9. Fear of posthumous possession.

The ancient chronicles say that in the 12th century a German cathedral held the cranium of John the Baptist at the age of twelve ...

Umberto Eco: The Infinity of Lists


  1. Hmm, a thought-provoking post, Deane...
    I too have reservations about inventing history for real people - even though (as you say, though more poetically than I do) that is what history is ...

  2. I think my problem stems from this: manipulation is what we do to objects, unconscious things, and when someone rewrites someone else's life (as H-J did to Alex Frater) it's as if they're saying, "You are an object. You are not what you feel you are --" which is a human being, a bead of conscious thought and somewhat independent movement "-- you are not human, I consider that you are not under your own control, you are under mine." I think it's not unusual for people to regard other people as if they're objects (because we can't read one another's minds, any more than we can read the mind of a table, and so another person can be interpreted as, "That thing there that can be relied upon to behave in a certain predictable way for some reason that I can't quite fathom") but it's bad, bad manners to admit it -- and H-J is admitting it.