Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Quiet Battles

I’ve read about several battles in the last couple of weeks. While I finished this year’s assignment in Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Clovis and the Franks battled the Burgundians, Theodoric the Ostrogoth defeated Odoacer in Italy, and Justinian’s forces subdued Isaurian raiders near Constantinople. And this morning, while reading Plutarch’s life of Dion, I witnessed a coup in Syracuse.

These battles came with lots of fanfare – literal fanfare – and other noise. But I’ve also been reading about a number of quiet battles in many ways more dangerous and tense than those of the military type. In Anthony Trollope’s The Eustace Diamonds (a rare example of a Trollope novel that I don’t entirely enjoy), poor, feckless Lord Fawn gets himself engaged to the widow Lady Eustace before discovering what a scoundrel she is and then watches as the battle between wisdom and socially approved behavior rages on in his mind. Can he marry a woman who claims a £10,000 diamond necklace as her own when legal experts say otherwise? Having made an offer of marriage and received acceptance, though, can he honorably withdraw from the engagement?

Another internal battle begins when Lord Fawn announces at the dinner table that Frank Greystock is no gentleman. Lucy Morris, dining with the family because she serves as governess to the two youngest Fawn daughters, is engaged to said Frank and tells Lord Fawn that what he says is untrue. Now, Lucy knows that accusing a gentleman of telling an untruth is, socially speaking, a worse sin than telling an untruth to begin with; but can she see her beloved’s reputation suffer abuse and let the incident go by unnoticed? The battle then spills over into Lady Fawn’s mind. Is she to defend her son and dismiss Lucy or honor Lucy’s devotion to her future husband and counsel her son to overlook the scene?

Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead, which I recently slipped in between planned books, is about almost nothing but internal battles. How does dying pastor John Ames pass on wisdom to his seven-year-old son? What wisdom should he include in the extensive letter he writes? And is it even wisdom? How should he represent his feuding father and grandfather in the memoir? How does he speak to his brother, who has departed from the faith? And perhaps most importantly, how much should he warn his wife and son about Jack Boughton, a man with a troubled past who hovers around the soon-to-be-fatherless family like one of Penelope’s suitors? All these dilemmas, each with its own transcendent, eternal consequences, duke it out in Ames’s mind while the quiet life of Gilead, Iowa goes on around him.

Considering that minds all around Gilead are engaged in their own battles, though, is that life really so quiet?

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