Pagan themes have been a ready source of inspiration for popular culture for decades, providing mythic heroes, sinister occultists, and enduring symbols in every genre of entertainment. But rarely has any inspiration been so widely used and so widely misunderstood. Join us for thoughts, criticism, and commentary on the intersection of Paganism and popular culture.
Nothing in excess, Augustus
I realize that the usual wheelhouse of this blog is "popular" culture - comics, video games, stuff like that. The peculiar artistry of nerds. Today, however, I need to talk about something a little closer to "literary" culture (which, ironically, has far less mainstream exposure than any artifact of the geek fraternity.)
I stole Gore Vidal's 1964 novel Julian from a friend back in 2010. ("Stole" is the proper verb. I borrowed it from her and then moved away without giving it back.) I intended to read it as research for a novella I was writing. I never got through it back then, partially because squeezing yet another 500 page novel into one's final semester of graduate school is quite difficult, and partially because I knew the ending would break me in half. But I knew I would have to finish it someday. I picked the book up again this fall, incited by Vidal's death earlier this year, and finished it this morning.
I doubt I have ever been so shaken by a book.
Julian is a work of historical fiction, dramaticizing the life of Julian the Apostate, the last Roman Emperor of the House of Constantine. Julian was known - and for most of the centuries since, despised - for rejecting his family's embrace of Christianity and his decision to reinvigorate Roman paganism. Unfortunately, he died only a few years into his reign as Augustus, killed while on campaign in Persia. He was last of the pagan emperors.
Vidal builds the novel out of a fictional memoir composed by Julian in the last months of his life, echoing the similar device used by Robert Graves in I, Claudius. Unlike that novel, which simply presents Claudius's fictional biography as the entire text of the novel, Vidal introduces two other narrators. Libanius and Priscus, both philosophers and friends of Julian, comment on Julian's book from a distance of several decades after his death. They fill in the details the Julian has omitted for reasons of modesty or pride and question him when his stated motives seem suspect. I happen to love structural play, and Vidal's brightest moments within the book come from the interaction between Julian, writing for posterity, and his survivors, who have lived to see his promised golden age fail.
Vidal's Julian is a complicated, contradictory figure – simultaneously an unassuming scholar, a wunderkind soldier, a fearful child, and an ambitious emperor. The commentary of the philosophers – especially Priscus, who is present for most of Julian's adult life – provides this texture, as they point out the places where Julian's actions clash with his intentions. (A sentence that remains in my mind: just after Julian has explained, in self-aggrandizing terms, his edict against Christians teaching the classics, Priscus bluntly interrupts. “Julian is here misrepresenting everything.”) Far from making Julian into a liar or a hypocrite, Priscus and Libanius keep the Augustus human, and keep Vidal's novel from descending into mere hagiography.
The ending, which takes the form of Julian's abbreviated, harried war journal, acts like a slowly-spreading poison. Julian recognizes his own doom, trapped as he is by hostile country, treasonous Christian underlings, and his bull-headed belief in his own destiny. Much like a horror film, moments where I felt compelled to shout warnings at him abounded: “Don't go to Persia! Stay in Constantinople and institute your reforms!” “Take Sapor's treaty and come home a war hero!” “For gods' sake, don't ride out without your armor!”
But of course, he does. That's history. There's nothing to do but read on.
The most arresting passage in Julian comes a little over a third of the way through. Julian, after years of dreaming of the event, has finally managed to convince his uncle, the Emperor Constantius, to let him study philosophy at Athens. Despite having his entire reign as Caesar and then Augustus ahead of him, this is the high point of Julian's life – the one time he seems to finally live as he would have liked to have lived, if not for the unfortunate accident of his birth.
In Athens, Julian meets a woman named Macrina – a rare female philosopher. Macrina is the most immediately likeable character in the novel: witty, and daring, and unashamed of her sexuality. I quickly found myself hoping something would develop between her and Julian, if only for my vicarious pleasure. And it does – Julian and Macrina engage in a passionate affair, as much of the mind as of the flesh, to the point that rumors spread that they debate Pythagorean philosophy mid-orgasm. Macrina is, as far as I can tell, an invention of the author, but my, what an invention.
But again, Vidal keeps this from being some distracting, gratuitous romance sequence stuck in the middle of the book. Julian, famously, was celibate in his later years, after the death of his wife Helena, and demurs from describing his romance with Macrina – which leaves the job to Priscus, the disagreeable old Stoic, who never cared for Macrina in the first place, and misogynist to the core. (“Not many men like to bed a talking-woman, especially when there are so many quiet ones to choose from,” he says.)
Priscus's description of their relationship does not end with Julian's departure from Athens by the command of Constantius, unsure of whether he will be crowned or killed. Instead, Vidal takes advantage of Priscus's distance to show us what becomes of Macrina after Julian's death. Priscus recounts one afternoon where he encounters Macrina in the agora, and they find themselves discussing Julian. Now old and fat (at least by Priscus's standards), Macrina sighs and contemplates how she believed Julian would have married her, had fate not planned otherwise.
“Yes,” Macrina says, “I should have liked to have been empress of Rome.”
“I doubt it,” says Priscus. “If you had been empress, you would be dead by now. The Christians would have killed you.”
“Do you think I would have minded that?” She turns on Priscus. “Don't you realize – can't you tell just by looking at me, my dear wise old Priscus – that not a day has passed in twenty years I haven't wished I were dead!”
In that moment, Macrina and I, the reader, were one and the same: doomed to live in a world where Julian lost, and dreaming of the world that might have been.
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