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Tag: Roman history

The cover of Meditations by Marcus Aurelius, translated by Gregory Hays

Meditations by Marcus Aurelius, Translated by Gregory Hays

The cover of Meditations by Marcus Aurelius, translated by Gregory HaysTitle: Meditations
Author: Marcus Aurelius
Translator: Gregory Hays
Publisher: Random House, Modern Library Classics
Format: eBook
Rating: 4 out of 5
How I got a copy: I purchased it from Kobo

I need to admit something: the books I’ve been reading so far are not for pleasure. I’m not hoping to enjoy them and escape from the world for a bit.

I’m using them as armour and weapons.

Staying strong and being hopeful while fighting for change is a form of armour. Understanding history and trying to find patterns behind past political movements in order to know what to expect is a weapon.

So is learning equanimity and steadiness, the art of how not to let change throw you off-balance. And that’s why I just read Meditations by Marcus Aurelius.

The circumstances surrounding how the Meditations became public knowledge are happenstance. Marcus Aurelius originally wrote these notes as a form of solace and guidance while wearing the heavy mantle of Roman emperor; during his military campaigns and time at court, he wrote down his thoughts so that he could keep Stoic philosophy front and centre in his mind. They were not intended for public consumption, and the repetitive, disjointed nature of the passages within the book are ample proof.

How his writing reached the wider world is a mystery. But when it re-entered the historical record in the 10th century and was published more widely in the 16th century, Meditations by Marcus Aurelius became a seminal text for many political leaders due to its focus on living a life guided by self-restraint, justice, austerity and detachment.

I went with the Gregory Hays translation because some basic research online revealed it was one of the most readable and highly regarded versions. Looking back, I have to say it was an excellent choice.

I should note first off that the Hays version has an extensive introduction placing Marcus Aurelius and Stoicism in context, with commentary on his childhood, education, and ascension to the throne, as well as on central concepts of Stoic thought. The introduction is probably about half as long as Meditations itself.

Throughout reading the book, I was struck by several things in particular.

One is that Stoicism’s focus on detachment, humility, and accepting the will of nature/logos has a strong similarity to Buddhist thought. Or at least, it bears a strong similarity given my extremely basic, extremely Western understanding of Buddhism. For example:

And if you can’t stop prizing a lot of other things? Then you’ll never be free — free, independent, imperturbable. Because you’ll always be envious and jealous, afraid that people might come and take it all away from you. Plotting against those who have them — those things you prize. People who need those things are bound to be a mess — and bound to take out their frustrations on the gods. Whereas to respect your own mind — to prize it — will leave you satisfied with your own self, well integrated into your community and in tune with the gods as well — embracing what they allot you and what they ordain. (Book 6, section 16)

From my extremely untutored perspective, this sounds very similar to the Buddhist conceit that desire (“those things you prize”) is the source of suffering (“you’ll always be envious and jealous, afraid that people might come and take it all away from you”).

On the other hand, Aurelius says quite often that the source of our unhappiness lies in our perceptions and willingness to believe that we’ve been wronged:

External things are not the problem. It’s your assessment of them. Which you can erase right now. (Book 8, section 47)

This to me, sounds an awful lot like the kind of thing Stephen Covey talks about in The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People — specifically the sections on proactivity vs reactivity.

Connecting those two books and authors may be valid, but it makes me feel skeevy somehow, because the contexts I associate with each of them are so different — the noble, long-dead philosopher king vs. the epitome of corporate self-help gurus.

Speaking of kings, one of the other things that I really had to come to terms with in Meditations by Marcus Aurelius is that, to modern readers, Aurelius’s words are imbued with a high amount of unexamined privilege:

Don’t let your imagination be crushed by life as a whole. Don’t try to picture everything bad that could possibly happen. Stick with the situation at hand, and ask “Why is this so unbearable? Why can’t I endure it?” You’ll be embarrassed to answer. (Book 8, section 16)

I mean, yes, it’s important to stay strong and try to withstand hardship. But, as a Roman emperor, Marcus Aurelius had resources available to mitigate the worst things that could happen to him: the most competent administrators, the best food, the highest quality medical care. So much of his advice focuses on agency and action, but, given the time and place in which he lived, he had an exceptional amount of latitude to exercise his agency in the first place.

Try telling an Indigenous protester at Standing Rock to accept destruction with tranquility and see how far that gets you. The people who do that with a straight face either don’t understand the risks involved or aren’t negatively affected by said destruction. In other words, they just wouldn’t care.

Despite these challenges reading Meditations by Marcus Aurelius, what I connected with most strongly was the sense that it was written primarily for private use. The thoughts within are intimate, personal. Aurelius’s thoughts are not polished, but the fact that he returns to the same ideas so often — justice, restraint, impermanence, mortality — is evidence of just how thoroughly they occupied his mind. In a way, it reminds me of my own existential scribblings from high school. And anyone who can remind me of that aspect of my teenage years without making cringe deserves to be read.

Elysium by Jennifer Marie Brissett

elysium_coverTitle: Elysium
Author: Jennifer Marie Brissett
Publisher: Aqueduct Press
Format: eBook
Rating: 4 out of 5
How I got it: I purchased a copy from Weightless Books

Elysium is a challenging book to describe. Imagine combining the alternate-reality concept of The Matrix with the gender-switching concept of Orlando and the retelling-Roman-history aspect of Julian Comstock, and you’re nearly there.

Adrian and Adrianne are the same person. So are Antoine and Antoinette. And so are Hector and Helen. These identities swirl around each other, interacting in several vignettes across the story of Elysium. In one vignette, Adrian and Antoine are lovers, and Hector becomes Adrian’s safe haven as Antoine slowly dies. In another, Antoine is a solider coming home from war, desperate to rescue his brother Adrian from a mental hospital, and Hector (who in this instance is trans and identifies as Helen) is Adrian’s fellow patient along for the ride as the city crumbles around them.

In a third vignette, Adrienne is a Vestal virgin in a far-future setting, and Antoine is the soldier she’s secretly willing to break her vows for. In yet another vignette, Adrianne is the last survivor of a ruined, foggy world who develops wings after constant exposure to airborne alien dust.

Brothers, sisters, parents, children, friends, lovers. What separates each vignette, each set of relationships, are weird interstices of code like this:

>> .
>> createdoc
# — check if daemon process
# is running in the background
ps -ef | grep -v grep | grep Gauns
# if not found – equals to 1
if [ $? -eq 0 ]
then echo “Found daemon process…”
>> execute check_for_daemon

Every time such a snippet of code appears, the story resets. But as the book progresses, the vignettes become darker. In one vignette, Antoine, Hector, and Adrian watch alien ships crash into the buildings overhead, destroying several towers and coating the area in dust.

In another, Adrian loses Antoinette in childbirth; he distracts himself from grief by creating a city for the human survivors driven underground by the alien dust in the air. Ultimately, Adrian develops a database to store humanity’s knowledge and encodes it into the atmosphere, so that their presence can never truly be wiped out from Earth’s history after the alien invasion and genocide. The final software update to the (both literal and figurative) cloud is a memorial to Antoinette.

Adrian(ne) is almost always the survivor. Antoine(tte) almost always dies or gets wounded. And Elysium — the cloud, the atmospheric database, the afterlife — is his/her final resting place.

I won’t reveal the story’s conclusion, but I will say this: Elysium is a slow burn. It’s a book that requires patience, focus, and curiosity to enjoy — it’s not a quick, cursory read. (In fact, at one point when I was reading this, my husband looked over my shoulder and was convinced that my eReader was malfunctioning because I was on a page full of code.)

I appreciate Brissett’s sense of purpose and deliberation. This book is a Jenga tower, full of interlocking and interweaving blocks, threatening to teeter and fall due to its sheer ambition. However, at several points of Elysium, the prose was flat-out boring, with little variety in sentence structure or length. For example:

Then Adrian saw it. He turned to his brother. Antoine had his finger to his lips to tell him to hush. It moved like an animal. It had a strange stride. Adrian had to stare for a long time to accept what he was seeing. It stood on two legs and walked like a man. But its head was not a man’s. At first it seemed like a hat. Adrian squinted. The darkness was thick and the dust was still falling, so he felt like he may have been mistaken, but the creature seemed to have antlers.

Was this an intentional choice on Brissett’s part? I believe so, because there are other sections where the prose is much more poetic and varied. I noticed that the flat prose occurs only in vignettes where the “wrongness” of the world is further exposed.

I think Brissett is using this style to heighten the reader’s sense of dislocation because such a gambit is in keeping with the other complexities of the plot. However, it’s a risky move. The periodically flat prose, combined with the slow revelation of the story’s truth, creates a reading experience that may not be everyone’s cup of tea.

I’m still puzzling out all of the layers within Elysium. There’s so much else that I haven’t touched on here, like the fact that the characters are all black or hispanic and that the book has strong afrofuturistic elements. Or the fact that the inspiration for the story of Adrian(ne) and Antoine(tte) is the real-life relationship between the Roman emperor Hadrian and his teenaged lover Antinous. I also haven’t discussed how Adrianne takes control at the end of the narrative and how her actions echo contemporary discourse around colonization and cultural appropriation.

I’ll leave you to discover those things yourself, because seeing how the puzzle pieces of the story fit together is one of Elysium‘s chief pleasures.

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