I can’t pass up an opportunity to shill for my favorite author by pointing to a review of his book.
I found the review so in tune with my take on the book that I started looking for an email address for the reviewer. I mean, he even mentioned the edition I own and named its editor, well known in his own right.
Unfortunately I’m a bit late.
Kenneth Rexroth, a native of Indiana, became an icon of the San Francisco Beat movement. He was a political anarchist, poet, and gifted translator. Rexroth died in 1982. Many of his writings are available on the excellent Bureau of Public Secrets site.
Sounds like a man after my own heart. In fact it’s a bit spooky.
Here’s a few of the best paragraphs from the review:
One of the greatest stories, true or fictional, in all literature is Gibbon’s account of the life and martyrdom of Boethius under the Ostrogoth Theodoric. Senator, poet, philosopher, man of reason, he was the last of his kind in all these categories. The story is an incomparable masterpiece of prose. From the opening sentence, “The Senator Boethius is the last of the Romans whom Cato or Tully could have acknowledged for their countryman,” Gibbon builds a mighty organ toccata. He always seems to see ahead to every echo and resonance and inversion of rhythm, through the idyllic description of The Consolation of Philosophy to the terrible climax — the philosopher garroted and clubbed to death in the last gloomy hours of Theodoric, followed by the swift cadence, and the coda of the martyrdom of his fellow Senator Symmachus — four crowded pages of the most solemn music. Each man speaks in his own style. Gibbon speaks with such sublimity because, sitting in his quiet study, he was totally involved in the defense of reason against the triumph of barbarism and superstition and the ruin of all bright things.
At the beginning of the fall of Rome, Saint Augustine wrote The City of God; and Gibbon, looking back in his book from the walls of burning Constantinople in the final fall, on the eve of a new age of enlightenment, is in fact committed to the same interpretation of history as Augustine. Against the destructive irrationality of circumstance and the folly of mankind stands the community of the elect. In Augustine it is the community of faith; in Gibbon the elect of reason, a society that transcends history. The ideal Rome that Gibbon describes in his opening chapters on the Antonines is a passing avatar of the enduring City of Enlightenment. This, after all, is the subject of all tragedy: the defeat of the ideal by the real, of being by existence.
In his own time, Gibbon’s Latinate antithetical style already sounded archaic, yet it is still today eminently suited to his solemn subject. How else is one to describe the beauty, lechery, and political malevolence of Theodora, or the economic folly of her husband, Justinian, than in a quiet language derived from the letters of Cicero, the most ironic passages of Thucydides, and the innuendos of Tacitus? For the Muse of History appears like the child Theodora in the arena, dancing naked on the head of a bear, more often than she appears as the noble goddess of Livy’s and Plutarch’s mythologies. What better response to the spectacle than the caustic caution and gentlemanly calm, the prudent incredulity Gibbon developed in meditation on a thousand years of the slow triumph of disorder — meditation by the orderly Swiss lake of Voltaire’s exile?