When simple murder is not enough

[and yet another bit from the seemingly never ending novel A Republic of Books, that is the ‘work in progress’, more of which is to be found elsewhere on this ethereal site.]

I once wrote a novel about Phidias. There is almost nothing to know about the man but what you’ll find indirectly in Plutarch’s Lives, written centuries after. He was a sculptor, painter, teacher, warrior. But before him, art was of the stylized sort you will see on urns at the museum with two-dimensional cartoon figures chasing each other on the circumference. After him Aphrodite might step from the pedestal in front of your very eyes and plant a kiss upon your lips. At least, that’s the sort of thing I thought she might do while spending my hours at the Museum of Fine arts as a kid. And a few times afterward as well. Phidias simply changed the world that we might know—all that we could know.

One key mistake Mr. Phidias made was to work primarily in bronze. Marble has a longer half-life in our utilitarian world. Even before he was dead some tyrant or other was melting down the great works of Phidias to make sword hilts or bracelets. But I have always been grateful to the man for giving me my first idealized glimpses of the opposite sex. The great Laurence Alma-Tadema painted a splendid representation of Phidias with the artist showing off his frieze work at the Parthenon to his friends while posed on the scaffolding. It’s that Phidias that I see in my head now.

Now, as anyone reading this is aware, I am not a Classical scholar, nor have I ever attempted to master Greek or Latin. So, writing a novel about a great figure of classical Greece was a trick. At least, I saw it that way. I could not even presume to understand how that man thought, or spoke, or the reasoning that drove his life, even if some of that were known to the historical record, which it is not. My trick then was to do this by sleight of hand. I wrote about someone who was writing about Phidias, instead.

I thought I did a fair job of it. My plot was good. I still find the characters fascinating. But I could not find an agent, much less a publisher. After a few dozen queries, I gave it up as an onerous task—like the endless washing of dishes after a great meal—something that would spoil the great fun I had in writing it. I put the manuscript away then with the several others I had already accumulated. Now, however, in retrospect, I have come to think about that story again.

This is the thing. At the time, one particular agent wrote me to reject my submission—a woman I had chosen for her apparent fondness for both mysteries and historical fiction—unlike the others, however, she did not send me the usual form letter. She wrote a criticism of the work. I was astounded. Several of her points were good and I took them to heart, rewriting a portion of the novel as a consequence. But her primary cavil was with my assumptions about the classical world and that they would think, as I had, about murder, and death, much less life and art.

The agent, I will call her Judith, represented herself as knowing something about the subject. I was curious. My research at the Boston Public Library shortly afterward established the fact that she had gotten a Ph.D. in Classical philology at Cornell University, and her dissertation was entitled ‘Pericles and the Tyrannical Roots of Napoleonic Conquest and Administration.’ I had an immediate crush. I was also struck by the fact that she was almost exactly my own age.

This was many years before Margaret and I divorced, but it may say something about my state of mind that I was immediately smitten with Judith even then. It must have helped that she had a very pretty picture in one of the Cornell magazines of 1989. I mention the year because Judith’s interests in the facts of history and philology would not have been permitted in the years following that. In those later times, as my marriage became more and more unhappy and I retreated into self-created fantasies for solace, I conjectured that Judith may in fact have become a literary agent, instead of a professor at some college, for exactly this reason—she cared about the facts of what was known about history and in uncovering more of that, had been ostracized by the rising politics in her field of study and for her care for truth, and thus she was uninterested in speculating what some (then 20th Century) twit might imagine it was like (that would be me). And I came to understand that specific reality a little more as the political onslaught against Classical historians became better known to those of us outside the specialties of philology and ancient history during those years of the 1990’s.

Actually, I was first made aware of that schism in my own shop, when I was excoriated out-loud by a Boston University professor, who lived just a few blocks away up Beacon Hill, for not carrying a particular book, Black Athena, which I had dismissed as the racist garbage that it was even though it had won several awards. I believe, when pressed for why I refused to carry it, I had compared it to the Von Daniken books purporting the influence on human culture by Gods from outer space. I do remember that the BU professor’s face changed color and she raged for at least five minutes before informing me that she would tell all her friends about my stupidity and ignorance and beg them to join her in never darkening the door of my establishment again. I think I thanked her for the effort to improve my clientele. I know that Margaret was there in the shop at that decisive moment and told me I had been rude, but took several hundred words doing so. It was a bad day.

Back to Judith. I should say here that I never corresponded with her, though I wrote her several letters. At least I had an idea that it was best not to actually make contact, but I could not help myself from having half the conversation.

I explained to Judith about my awareness of my own ignorance concerning the classical world. I tried to gain her forgiveness for abusing what little knowledge had fallen to me as an excuse to exercise the fun of a delightful plot and fraternizing with characters of my own choosing. I then argued my case as best I could. The historian-philologist in my novel, Ronald Davy has been accused of murdering a colleague, Mary Stemitz, who had supposedly refused his romantic advances in favor of remaining faithful her husband, also a professor at the fictional Portsmouth University. Davy and Stemitz had jointly worked on a field study of Periclean Athens and investigated the death of Phidias shortly after completing his statue of Zeus for the people of Elia. That murder was really only a McGuffin for playing with larger ideas about the death of Phidias. In her criticism, Judith had pointed out that Plutarch’s more accepted account of the artist’s death was that Phidias had died in prison as a scapegoat for animosities toward his friend Pericles. But this was not established. Plutarch had lived four centuries later, and there were several divergent contemporary accounts, including one that attributed his murder to the authorities at Eleia in order to avoid paying for the statue of Zeus which they had commissioned. But in fact, it was my thought that killing Phidias was an excellent metaphor for the death of art in a post-modern world. I especially liked playing with the imagery of the Golden Ratio, associated with Phidias, in contrast to the chaos our art had become.

I suggested to Judith that a little ignorance can go a long way. That what would seem unthinkable to a good historian like herself might be the very heart of inspiration to the author of fiction. Fiction, reasonably imagined, could offer context to disparate fact; and that facts without context should otherwise always be held aside.

I thought to appeal to her feminism by pointing to my acquittal of the great beauty Aspasia, Pericles’s lover, and her influence over the statesman, and the artist, as well as their friend Socrates. Because I had dismissed the idea that Aspasia was a hetaera and brothel keeper, Judith had chastised me in her rejection for ‘presuming to know more than historians who had spent years studying the small details of the time.’ I argued that the character of Pericles stood against this interpretation, that the family honor of the Alcmaeonids would not have allowed it, and that the contemporary history of Aspasia and Pericles was written by their enemies and rivals—even in the contemporary plays of Aristophanes—making my own revision of historical fiction very much in context. That, because of the subsequent dominance of Macedonia, and then of Rome, there was little chance of our knowing more than to speculate based on the character of those individuals themselves, as we in fact know them through their actions, and the key to this was Pericles, who was and is, a hero of mine. I topped that argument off with the speculation that Phidias had used Aspasia as the model for his great statue of Athena and would not have committed such a sacrilege if she were only a high-class prostitute.

The murder of Phidias itself, as I imagined it, turns on the theft of gold intended for the statue of Athena. It seemed most appropriate to me that the hinge of history should be a petty theft.

What I had missed in my novel, not having lived through this circumstance myself—not yet—was that the killing of Phidias, whether by imprisonment or by a more immediate execution, was not only a good metaphor for an end to the triumph of art over craft, just as the death of Socrates was a poisoning of free inquiry and the untimely death of Pericles from sickness was symbolic of the plagues within society and its inability to accept the responsibilities of the nascent democracy he had furthered.

Phidias especially appeals to me, for brave Pericles understood the risks of battle and engaged his enemies willingly. Certainly Socrates understood his fate. But I suspect that Phidias had no idea of the demons he released by giving art a third and fourth dimension. Unlike the modern artist who foolishly insists on playing with Euclid’s cubes to simulate an optical trick, Phidias understood that the fourth dimension of art was truly in its ability to engage the mind of the viewer—and not in a single sense—so that it might come alive like Shaw’s Eliza Doolittle transformed Galatea, or Henry Higgins became Pygmalion, or even as in my own juvenile experience with Athena. Shaw, always brilliant, understood that engaging an audience in his fantasy would require more than togas. He set his play in the present—the present of 1912—and told it with metaphor complete. I think Shaw was aware of what Phidias had done. He had all the sad and glorious history of the centuries between them to see. But I imagine poor Phidias must have been disheartened beyond endurance by the destruction of his art. He could not know then the change he had wrought from the same metal that was used for murder.

For my part, I had failed with my own effort to capture all this by missing the obvious—what had actually happened to me as a boy standing in front of the Grecian marbles at the museum. Perhaps Judith would have appreciated my effort more if I had engaged that aspect. Likely so. . . . I imagine so.

In keeping with the way history so often exceeds the mere conjuring of fiction, I had ended my fictional account with an actual event, when the benighted knights of the 4th Crusade, greedy for fame and fortune and wholly ignorant of the Western culture they were supposed to be saving, apparently destroyed the Phidias Athena in January of 1204.