Books: Cultural Amnesia — Edward Gibbon |
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Edward Gibbon (1737–1794) wrote a book that inadvertently raises the question of whether English prose style can be, or even should be, an end in itself. The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire encapsulates—in a very large capsule—his idea that history is “little more than the register of the crimes, follies and misfortunes of mankind.” The reader can decide whether it is or it isn’t, and might very well decide that it is both. But about the style of the book, the question is not so clear-cut. Praised already at the time as one of the unchallengeable artistic creations of the eighteenth century, Gibbon’s prose style was still held up as example in the nineteenth century even when Lord Macaulay became popular for writing history in a far more conversational manner. In the twentieth century, there were still historians who praised Gibbon’s style as their true model. But in fact they all tried to write like Macaulay, and by now nobody could expect to echo the balanced Gibbonian period without being laughed at. Since much of the most substantial expository prose of modern times can be found in the writings of historians, it is perhaps worth looking in detail at the characteristic innovations within Gibbon’s prose, and at least entertaining the possibility that the reason most of them did not catch on was that they did not deserve to. At a time when one of the dangers facing liberal democracy is a loss of confidence, there is an easy reflex by which it is assumed that the powers of expression of the English language are in decline. A possible, and desirable, contrary opinion would be that the worst writers do indeed write worse than ever, but that the best writers write better. If they do, one of the reasons they do is that they have learned from ancestors who had an ear for ordinary speech. But to call that a desirable object, we have to do something about Gibbon, whose desires were quite otherwise.

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To resist was fatal, and it was impossible to fly.

ONCE READ, IMPOSSIBLE to forget; and I have used this line ever since, but always in the sad knowledge that Gibbon provided very few like it. I expected him to. I came to him late, and spoiled: spoiled by Thucydides and Tacitus, by Machiavelli and Montesquieu, by Pieter Geyl and Lewis Namier, by Mommsen and Gregorovius, by Napier’s History of the War in the Peninsula and Prescott’s Conquest of Peru, by Stephen Runciman’s set of books about the Crusades and finally by—one of the great long historical reads in the world—Shelby Foote on the American Civil War. I expected Gibbon to provide me with a heap of those readily detachable judgements that all the serious historians seem able to generate at will as a qualification for their trade.

No such luck, alas; and after twenty years I am still getting to the end of Gibbon’s long book—longer than its admirers admit, I think, because not as good as they claim. No doubt the quoted sentence translates itself from the eighteenth-century page to the twentieth-century mind with such ease because the modern condition is in it. Gibbon was talking about an empire that filled the known world, so that when a tyrant was in charge there was nowhere for the victim to run: and that was the kind of empire that Stalin, Hitler and Mao all brought into existence. Mao’s version, indeed, though admittedly in attenuated form, is still here to distort the lives of more than a thousand million human beings. But the modern condition is in any pregnant sentence from any time: current possibilities are what a classic sentence is pregnant with. In Tacitus and Montesquieu there are few paragraphs without a sentence that seems written with us in mind, and few chapters without a paragraph. Sometimes there is a whole chapter: even in Tacitus, let alone Montesquieu, there are times when time collapses and the past seems very near. You would swear, when some vengeful emperor’s proscription is raging in the Annals of Tacitus, that you were reading the secret diary of the daughter of a Prussian landed family after the botched attempt against Hitler’s life on July 20, 1944—the atmosphere of prying doom is so similar. One way or another, the modern age is always there in the best moments of the old historians: we can tell by the way the construction of the prose suddenly ceases to sound anachronistic, or even constructed.

Gibbon, unfortunately, seldom ceases to sound any other way. From him, this quoted sentence is rare first of all for its relatively natural cadence. Yes, it is consciously balanced around its caesura and makes us feel that it is: but no, it is not typical of him, because his usual classicism was neo-classical by way of the Baroque, and what he wrote rarely lets you forget that it has been written. Had he been an architect, his buildings would never have ceased to remind you that they had been built. He is one of the four master dwarves of the Rococo, but unlike the other three—Pope, Lichtenberg and Cuvilliés, the court architect of the Wittelsbachs—he can’t make you forget his injuries, which dulled, instead of sharpening, his sense of proportion. Would his capital work have ever acquired its huge reputation if it had not been a harbinger of imperialist dominance, a proof that Britain could own, not just all the new worlds, but the ancient world as well? Now that the wave of history has retreated, the book is left looking like a beached whale. A more compact version could have been the written equivalent of Sir John Soane’s Museum. Instead, Gibbon produced a hulking forecast of St. Pancras Station. But a shorter book, to seem so, would have needed less elaborate sentences: at their original length, even a single page of them is a long haul.

There are parts of Gibbon’s autobiography to prove that a simple declarative sentence was not beyond him. In The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, for some reason, it was. Having chosen a tall theme, the small man got up on stilts, and stayed elevated for twenty years. Not the least of his heroism was that he could make a single page seem like an eternity. His secret was—we had better say is—to make you read so many of his sentences twice even while you think you are reading them only once. His aim might have been compression and economy, but the compression was a contortion and the economy was false. In a single sentence, two separated adjectival constructions often served the one noun, or two separated verbs the one object, or two separated adverbs the one verb, and so on through the whole range of parts of speech: it was a kind of compulsive chess move in which a knight was always positioned to govern two pieces, except that the two pieces governed it. Whether this conspicuous stroke of ingenuity ever really saved time is debatable, but when properly done it added the value of density, or at any rate seemed to. Take this observation about the two sons of Severus and Julia, the “vain youths” Caracalla and Geta: “Their aversion, confirmed by years, and fomented by the arts of their interested favourites, broke out in childish, and gradually in more serious, competitions ...” (volume 1 of the Modern Library edition, p. 111). There is more to the sentence, but all we need note here is that “childish” and “more serious” both qualify “competitions”; and that there is no great hardship in following the train of thought, because we don’t imagine that a noun to fit the adjective “childish” will fail to arrive eventually. Gibbon worked this forking manoeuvre over and over, but it was a dangerous habit, especially if the first adjectival construction could be mistaken for a noun. After Caracalla’s oppressive tax had made a mess of Rome’s finances, the “prudent liberality” with which Alexander restored them attracted Gibbon’s admiration. But Alexander was still left with the problem of how to meet the expectations of the troops, and Gibbon with the problem of how to mirror Alexander’s perplexity. Gibbon would no doubt have packed my previous sentence into a smaller space, but he might well have made it as awkward in its compactness as this one of his: “In the execution of his design the emperor affected to display his love, and to conceal his fear, of the army” (vol. 1, p. 133).

By now the danger needs no explaining, because you have just tripped over it. Until you read further, there is nothing to say that the first comma might not as well be a full stop; and the same applies to the second comma; so you must get all the way to the end before you read back again and make the proper sense of what you previously mistook. When you have been long enough with Gibbon you learn not to mistake it, and always wait for a re-reading before settling on what must be meant; but it is a tiresome necessity, and makes for the kind of stylistic difficulty which leads its admirers to admire themselves, for submitting to the punishment. There was never much to the assumption that a sentence is only ever read diachronically from left to right with never a backward glance: the eye doesn’t work like that and neither does prose. But there is still something to the assumption that a sentence, however the reader gets to the end of it, should be intelligible by the time he does, and that if he is forced to begin again he has been hoodwinked into helping the writer do the writing. Readers of Gibbon don’t just help: they join a chain gang, and the chain gang is in a salt mine, and the salt mine is reached after a long trip by galley, during which they are never excused the feel of the oar or the snap of the lash.

Gibbon was quite capable of working his favourite bipartite effect of pretended compression twice in a paragraph and sometimes three times. In one of his best early chapters of summary, chapter XVI (a.d. 180–318), he has a paragraph that begins very promisingly. “History, which undertakes to record the transactions of the past, for the instruction of future ages, would ill deserve that honourable office if she condescended to plead the cause of tyrants, or to justify the maxims of persecution” (vol. 1, p. 453). This is almost good enough to remind you that Montesquieu was alive at the same time, although by now the reader has recognized Gibbon’s favourite stylistic device to be a nervous tic, and the tic has transferred itself from the writer’s quill to the reader’s face, so that he flinches while wondering if the word “future” should not have a comma after it too, in case “past,” like “future,” is not a noun but an adjective sharing the task of qualifying the noun “ages.” I suppose that if Gibbon had meant that, he would not have put a “the” in front of “past,” but it gets hard to give him the benefit of the doubt after you have realized that he was in the grip of mania. The proof is only a little way away in the same paragraph, where three sentences in a row are all lamed by the same hobble.

But the princes and magistrates of ancient Rome were strangers to those principles which inspired and authorised the inflexible obstinacy of the Christians in the cause of truth, nor could they themselves discover in their own breasts any motives which would have prompted them to refuse a legal, and as it were a natural, submission to the sacred institutions of their country. The same reason which contributes to alleviate the guilt, must have tended to abate the rigour, of their persecutions. As they were actuated, not by the furious zeal of the bigots, but by the temperate policy of legislators, contempt must often have relaxed, and humanity must frequently have suspended, the execution of those laws which they enacted against the humble and obscure followers of Christ.

When I first read this the name of our redeemer had already sprung to my lips before I saw it in print. In a way I am still reading it: years have gone by but the anguish in the brain has not abated. Gibbon has that deadly combination of talent and determination which can put jagged awkwardness into your head as if it were a melody, and keep it there as if it were a splinter of shrapnel.

Talented he was; a genuinely superior individual; but he wanted his readers to be optimates like him. He was continually testing them. Especially he tested their powers of memory. Quite often he expected them to remember the layout in detail of one sentence while they were reading the second. Take this for a first sentence. “Like the modesty affected by Augustus, the state maintained by Diocletian was a theatrical representation: but it must be confessed that, of the two comedies, the former was of a much more liberal and manly character than the latter” (vol. 1, p. 332). Got that? You will need to have done, because the next sentence depends on it. “It was the aim of the one to disguise, and the object of the other to display, the unbounded power which the emperors possessed over the Roman world.” Just to make it feel like Groundhog Day, the second sentence has the familiar two-part forking routine as well; but in the long run the reader—who will either develop a more muscular attention span or, more likely, postpone into old age his commitment to what the counsellors call closure—is obliged to accept the memory test as an equally inescapable, if not equally frequent, event.

How did you do? You had to look back? But of course you did. Everyone has to, all the time, and it makes reading Gibbon a long business, which some of us never seem to quite finish. An expert will judge from my citations that I have got not much beyond a third of the way through. Actually, over the years, I have several times gone further: but I could do it only by ceasing to make notes, and for one of the few times in my reading life I have skipped and tasted, in the manner that the egregious twentieth-century British politician R. H. S. Crossman unwarrantably dignified with the name of “gutting.” As well as the Modern Library edition, which is ugly but strong and therefore good for travel, I also own Bury’s handsome but fragile seven-volume edition of 1902, and at home, in fits of fire-lit studiousness during a cold winter, I have sometimes dipped into the later volumes, hoping to find some uncluttered going, but always in vain. The one passage everyone quotes is indeed a standout, and that’s just the trouble. “Twenty-two acknowledged concubines, and a library of sixty-two thousand volumes, attested the variety of his inclinations, and from the productions he left behind him, it appears that the former as well as the latter were designed for use rather than ostentation.” Roguish Gibbonians assure us that the younger of the two Gordians has thus been impaled unforgettably on the skewer of satire. By Gibbon’s usual standard it certainly counts as a moment of light relief, and indeed it isn’t a bad gag even with its donnish dressing: you could just about say that the elevated diction multiplied the mirth. But even here, you need Quiz Kid retentiveness if you aren’t to be driven back to the beginning of the sentence to sort out which was the former and which the latter. The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire is a Grand National with a fence every ten yards, each to be jumped backwards as well as forwards; and you have to carry your horse. At one stage I skipped all the way to the end, and found the pages about Cola di Rienzo blessedly free of most of Gibbon’s most irritating tricks. But not even Wagner can be fully boring about Rienzo, and in Gibbon the road to the final excitement is very long.

Is it worth the struggle? Yes, certainly. I still don’t think Gibbon is the Virgil with whom to take your first journey into ancient history. If it takes multiple volumes to make the effort feel valuable, about Greece you can do well with Grote, and about Rome you can do very well with Mommsen. And there are single-volume histories that have served schools well for decades, through telling the story first, before getting down to the implications. In Gibbon the narrative would be hard to retain even if he wrote as fluently as Macaulay, and nowhere, not even in his autobiography, does Gibbon even look like doing that. (When you hear Macaulay’s style belittled, guard your head: there is an owl in the room, and it is not Minerva’s.) What Gibbon does give you is not ages past in summary, but his own age in one of its several cordials. He gives you contrivance. In him we can study the arrangement of prose pushed to its limit—not to the limit of prose, but to the limit of arrangement, where a trellis weighs like a bronze door. Though the intention might be the opposite, there is a risk of turning the permanent into the evanescent.

Gibbon had a knack for the permanent. It showed up when he was simple. The epithet “vain youths” is a token of what he could do: it was understatement, precisely calculated to sound that way, as a sign that the facts were too extreme to be evoked. After Probus imposed peace on the vanquished nations of Germany he used German troops to reinforce the legions throughout the empire, “judiciously observing that the aid which the republic derived from the barbarians should be felt but not seen” (vol. 1, p. 288). That is good, plain narrative, and this is better: “The feeble elegance of Italy and the internal provinces could no longer support the weight of arms.” The two-word coupling “feeble elegance” is excellent: a thought compacted but not crippled, it encapsulates the theme for the chapter and indeed for the whole work, which is the story of an empire dying from the poisonous fermentation of the fruits of its initial success. That there is something feeble about Gibbon’s own elegance is an idea his admirers would resist. I think there is: but I am in no doubt about the elegance, or at any rate about the initial fruits that lay behind it, before the mania of his stylistic ambitions began to waste them. A proof of the gift he began with is that he could often revert to it, so long as the occasion was sufficiently unimportant. His footnotes, for example, are almost always better than the main text. “With regard to the times when these Roman games were celebrated, Scaliger, Salmasius, and Cuper have given themselves a great deal of trouble to perplex a very clear subject” (vol. 1, p. 300). What a pity that the same was true of Gibbon. Not that he always had to take trouble: sometimes he could create confusion through ordinary carelessness. His otherwise exemplary tirade about the decline of Roman jurisprudence and the rising tide of lawyers (vol. 1, p. 536) is ruined by a sentence in which there is no sorting out the personal pronouns except by guesswork. “Careless of fame and of justice, they are described for the most part as ignorant and rapacious guides, who conducted their clients through a maze of expense, of delay, and of disappointment; from whence, after a tedious series of years, they were at length dismissed, when their patience and fortune were almost exhausted.” Who, after the semicolon, is dismissed, and whose patience and fortune are exhausted? We will have to read it again.

We will always have to read it again, but sometimes the requirement is a blessing. “The same timid policy, of dividing whatever is united, of reducing whatever is eminent, of dreading every active power, and of expecting that the most feeble will prove the most obedient, seems to pervade the institutions of several princes, and particularly those of Constantine” (vol. 1, p. 540). If only he had written like that all the time. He scarcely ever did: a fact made more galling when we find out that he could. We want more than enjoyment from our historians; but it is hard to make do with less, and to find them tedious is no sure sign that they are thorough. There are eminent readers who say they wallow in Gibbon. They are hard to believe. When that old showman Harold Macmillan retired into his valetudinarian role as Lord Stockton he noised it quietly abroad that he was occupying his slippered hours with reading Gibbon “again.” He got away with saying that. When Lady Thatcher let slip that her idea of cloistered intellectual satisfaction was a second reading of The Day of the Jackal she attracted scornful laughter. John Major knew just how high to pitch his claims: in retirement he allowed it to be known that he was closeted with Trollope, whom he had always always loved, but could now read properly. Stockton sounds to me like the odd man out: i.e., the one who was dressing the set. It is fitting that a retired Tory prime minister should punish himself with hard reading, as a belated participation in the sufferings of the poor. But if we ever hear that the old man was propelled into slumber by every second Gibbonian period, I will be no more surprised than Gibbon was in that famous moment when a blind man felt his face and thought it was a baby’s bottom. Gibbon was resigned to the absurdity of his appearance. His true absurdity, however, is that he tried to make up for it with the dignity of his style, and his style was never enough at its ease to be truly dignified. It could have been: but in the great work on which he staked his reputation it died from the strain of hauling on its own bootstraps.