Review: SPQR

The Romans too wondered where they came from. To them, a city as mighty as theirs could not possibly have been of an obscure origin. So it was Aeneas, who fled the destruction of Troy, that Romulus could trace his lineage back to. To the Romans reading Aeneid, they must’ve been pleased at the thought that after ten centuries of the destruction of Troy by the Greeks, it was them, the descendants of the Trojan hero, that came to dominate the whole world.

The reality, however, couldn’t have been more different. Rome most definitely had no relation to the mythical Troy. It definitely was not a sophisticated city in its origin. The vivid, heroic tales of the early Romans were largely inventions of the later Romans, projecting their world and ideals into their past. The history of Rome was as much history of Rome the city as the history of a people trying to understand what defined them and what separated them from the others. This was one of the two impressions Mary Beard’s SPQR left me with.

The other was that the story painted by the elites was only one side of the coin. This may be obvious, but the books written by the Romans (elite Romans, for others didn’t leave much written records) themselves painted their world in quite a black and white fashion. The decline of morals and liberty, the increase of vices and the popularity of gladiatorial combat, the turmoils and crises surrounding each imperial succession were common themes. An emperor overweening, the Senate oppressed, its people distracted by bread and circuses, such was Rome in the books of Tacitus, and countless other Roman historians and moralists.

But the people of Rome most definitely saw their life in a very different light. When Cicero bemoaned at the loss of liberty, he had much to express his contempt against the uneducated and corrupted mass. It was the Roman people, he said, that foolishly entrusted all powers into the hands of Pompey. It was this corrupted mass that raised Caesar above all. He lamented at the Senate’s loss of power and authority. He predicted the upcoming anarchy and the subjection of Rome under the whims of a tyrant. But never did he reflect beyond the surface on the nature of the rise of the dynasts.

The Roman people were foolish to pin their hopes on the empty promises of the demagogues. What other choice did they have? Was it to Cato, whose principles were lifted from that of Plato’s Republic, yet wasted no time in supporting the continuing oppression of the mass? Was it to Cicero himself, a champion of the Republic, a champion more so in the art of exploiting the sorry rubes who were his tenants?¬†Was it to the body of the Senate, composed of such illuminating figures as Cato and Cicero, and others of an inferior quality still, of which its own corruption and disdain towards the populace was beyond any saving?

When Caesar lavishly distributed bread and cash to the mass, he had not the people in mind, but only their support which was to raise him to the height of power. Cicero was quite right in spotting that. But little did he consider that for the ne’er-do-wells, choosing the Senate would only mean a continuation of their oppression without the relief provided by a generous tyrant. Put simply, liberty was not worth starving for. So the people chose the tyrant and his successors, and Cicero paid with his life defending the empty principles of a corrupt oligarchy.


Review: The Kindly Ones

I must say the ending left a sour taste in my mouth. The story just stopped. Never mind there was no light at the end of the tunnel. There was not even an end.

Did Aue go mad at the end? Why did he do what he did? If he became mad, why was he able to tell the story in such calmness and clarity up until the end? Or was he never crazy in the first place? What about national socialism? He never relinquished his views. Did the war and everything horrible that happened in the war make him give up? Or did his own crimes make him give up? Did he give up?

A million questions went unanswered. I guess that is perhaps what the author intended.

Aue was a fascinating character. I took pity on him, but at the same time, much like his unlucky friend Thomas, I was disappointed. Aue knew the answer and knew what things could’ve been. Yet at every crossroad with a way out, he turned the other side. Out of his ego and out of his despair, he’d rather be destroyed than be saved. Aue knew it himself better than anyone: national socialism was but an excuse; an excuse for him to matter, to rebel against everything he saw that was against him. Against his mother, his step father, and his sister, whom he loved too much, Aue was a child, forever in rebellion, cursing at this world which wouldn’t let him have it his way. National socialism didn’t matter. The Jews didn’t matter. The dirty work didn’t matter. He was hurt, yet deep inside he wanted it to be that way.

Aue reminded his audience he was not afraid of death. Yet time and time again, he instinctively avoided it, consciously ran away from it, doing everything he could to prevent it. His murder of Thomas, a man of tremendous crime, yet of no personal guilt against Aue, was perhaps the fitting end. With Berlin burning, among ruins and corpses, Aue was in hell. Perhaps that is what Jonathan Littell is trying to convey. Hell, where flames rose to the sky, filled with the smell of corpses and gasoline, of urine and blood, never left Aue. He was in hell and still is.

The scariest of all, the most unpleasant feeling after reading this book: what would I do had I been in his position? Which path would I choose? Could I choose? Surrounded by madness, plagued by a haunting past, would I be any different?

Review: Starting Point

Hayao Miyazaki is a conflicting person. One second optimistic and uplifting, the next disillusioned and bitter. Miyazaki would at times exclaim the world was heading to a meaningless place before backtracking and extolling the beauty of innocence and the promising future found in children. He would cheer nihilistically at the end of the bubble era, while deeply sympathetic and regretful towards the declining fortune of the toddling new age, now known as the lost generation. Miyazaki’s opinions have shifted back and forth throughout the years. His bitterness was often softened by optimism; his idealism dampened by his disillusionment.

Hayao Miyazaki has questions. Some of which he had found answers which were turned into films. Some he had found through working on films. Some remain unresolved to this day. At times, Miyazaki was at a loss, not knowing which step to take. There were occasions he would take his time, and figure it out before moving on. Other times, he would move on regardless. In this book are his moments of confusion and clarity, entwined with disappointments and excitements. In this book is Mizayaki the person, highlighted by his outspoken and frank personality, not always confident or sure of himself, yet always optimistic in finding the right path forward.

My Neighbor Totoro, along with Spirited Away, left deep impressions upon me as a child. I don’t remember much of either film, but when I think back to them from time to time, warm feelings always fill up inside me. In this book are essays worth to be read time and time again. With each read, hopefully I get closer to the root of the films Miyazaki created and to the root of my own childhood.