On February 11th, Alex Miller Jr. presented a defense of pomposity, which he elegantly couched as criticism, invoking Eliot’s Prufrock and the “Fall of Rome” to make his case. When I first read the piece, I thought I agreed with him. But a seemingly throw-away comparison stuck me and kept me wriggling: “A society like that deserves to go the way of Rome, which, by the way, began to crumble at exactly the historical moment our own society is now reaching.”
Unfounded comparisons to Rome are high on my list of historical pet peeves, between citing Hitler as the epitome of evil and paeans to “American exceptionalism.” The abounding simplifications of the Roman Empire represent the worst sort of historical thinking. People squeeze the universe into a model that doesn’t conform to reality, then they roll out that model as a case-in-point to support their own ideology. Let us look at a little more context to clearly see how Mr. Miller does this:
But if it was true, than by losing the little Latin we learned in middle school, watching modernized DVDs of Shakespeare instead of slogging through the plays, and more or less continuing to prioritize the quick, passive entertainments that our incredible advancements in communication have made possible over forms of pleasure that have higher learning curves and less tangible payoffs, we are forking over the soul of our civilization for an hour’s worth of booty shorts and explosions. A society like that deserves to go the way of Rome, which, by the way, began to crumble at exactly the historical moment our own society is now reaching.
The point he makes seems to me that he prefers entertainment that costs something. By extension, perhaps, we may assume that Mr. Miller believes black coffee better for the soul than that which is corrupted with milk/cream/non-dairy substitute. Perhaps he has no need for coffee spoons… but I digress. In this case, I care less about his point than I do his aphoristic reference to the Fall of Rome.
What’s supposed to have happened is this: at the height of its power Rome got self-absorbed and “decadent,” the Romans began to care more about tea and cakes and marmalade than maintaining the empire and this distraction led to a decline in the level of civilization, ultimately resulting in the collapse of the empire to the less-than-civilized barbarians. Hawkers of this model usually have an axe to grind, some Kantian imperative that they believe should be imposed on society in order to avert an impending disaster. They are Lazarus, come from the dead to warn us. The problem is that Rome was neither built nor did it fall in a day.
The “Fall of Rome” represents one of the great moments of cultural amnesia in the west, because it exclusively references the fall of the western empire. Never mind that it takes about 400 years of historical development and simplifies it into a single-variable equation (Rome + Decadence = Powerless Empire). A continuous Roman Empire continued to exist for nearly 1000 years until 1453. This Empire, called Byzantine in order to distinguish it from the fallen, western version, had reconquered much of the Mediterranean in the 6th century, continued to provide a common coinage through the Crusades, which were originally launched, in part, to defend it, and ultimately fell to the Ottoman Turks for a number of reasons. Gunpowder had more to do with its fall than decadence. Yet the power of the “Fall of Rome” as a trope continues.
Since the unhistorical “Fall of Rome” is a well-known reference, has Mr. Miller done anything wrong by utilizing it? Perhaps not, shooting off a historical allusion in an article about aesthetics is acceptable, unless one is appealing to the reader’s sense of distinguishing taste. I tend to agree that society would have us etherized upon a table. However, the alarmist expression that we are “forking over the soul of our civilization” and the comparison to the “Fall of Rome” sound too much like Chicken Little. Would he assert that if we do not change our civilization will be destroyed by a barbarian tribe? It well may be, but I do not think he would.
This gets us to the heart of the problem with hackneyed historical references. By their oversimplification they have ceased to be real events at all. They have become illustrations-with-weight because their supposed historicity makes them, as though by a magic lantern, universal cases for all time. Real events are different. Real events defy easy definition. Let us take the following propositions regarding the 2012 election. That is a fairly recent event, so we should be able to understand its meaning.
Proposition #1: President Obama won the election because Republicans failed to deal with illegal immigration when they had the opportunity during Bush’s second term. This led to the disaffection of hispanic voters, an important new voting block.
Proposition #2: President Obama won the election because he is the incumbent and incumbents often have an advantage.
Proposition #3: President Obama won the election because the Republican base is growing older and the GOP does not appeal as well to younger voters.
Proposition #4: President Obama won the election because urban voters and rural voters have fundamentally different attitudes toward government, but there are more urban voters than rural ones.
Whether any of these propositions represents the truth of the 2012 election is beside the point. They serve to illustrate the complicated nature of interpreting real events, rather than the two-dimensional trope of the “Fall of Rome.” What Democrats and Republicans do in 2016 will be fundamentally guided by their beliefs regarding this real event. They will make decisions and revisions based on their belief of history’s meaning. How you or I or Mr. Miller go about our time also depends on our beliefs about any number of events, some real, some misinterpreted, some legendary, mythical, or otherwise.
In this respect, Mr. Miller is correct, I too hope for people willing to maintain a critical eye. Disciplined historical thinking keeps our narcissism at bay. It forces us to deep consideration, rather than to come and go talking of Michelangelo or how we’re balding or want to lose weight or whatever suits our trendy fashions. Most powerfully, historical thinking allows to hold space for all we cannot know, rather than assuming we have seen and heard and known it all. I wish Mr. Miller had followed his own advice before referencing the “Fall of Rome.”
Ultimately, what Mr. Miller wanted was a society destroyed because it thought poorly. He wanted an aesthetic, rather than a historical, example. But real history is messy and complicated. For every Roman example of “booty shorts” is a Pantheon inspiring generations. The city fell, but the meaning of that fall continues to evolve and change over time. I cannot, in good conscience, allow Mr. Miller to present aesthetics as history without protesting, along with Eliot, “That’s not it at all.”