Public Service Has Always Paid, Apparently

From Plutarch’s life of Themistocles, the Athenian politician and general who led the Greeks in their successful war against Persia. Themistocles has just been exiled from Athens:

A great part of his estate was privately conveyed away by his friends, and sent after him by sea into Asia; besides which, there was discovered and confiscated to the value of four-score talents, as Theophrastus writes; Theopompus says an hundred; though Themistocles was never worth three talents before he was concerned in public affairs.

A Greek talent is a little less than 60 pounds (enough water to fill a particular amount of space). Or the amount of silver necessary to pay a trireme crew for a month. Approximately 6,000 drachmas. Lots of silver, maybe 600,000. A lot of money, now or then.

But it doesn’t end there. In his exile, Themistocles presents himself to the king of Persia (some say Xerxes, some say Xerxes successor, who Plutarch does not appear to name. And receives 200 talents for offering his services to the Persians.

It seems “public service” has always paid.

Songs I Love – Jane Wiedlin, “Blue Kiss” (1985)

It was the summer of 1986, and playing fairly constantly on my Walkman (when I was allowed to listen during my training weeks at Ft. Benjamin Harrison) were: Big Plans for Everybody by Let’s Active (I played this so much the tape broke), Life’s Rich Pageant by REM, The Big Shot Chronicles and Blaze of Glory by Game Theory (the later was given to me on a cassette tape by Franklin Bruno, who filled up the other side with a collection of home recordings of original songs of his, which I also listened to a lot that summer), Belinda Carlyle’s first solo release and Jane Wiedlin’s first solo release.

Pay attention to the above list. It will come back to haunt us in the future.

Yeah, okay, the last two belong in the guilty pleasure bin. Carlyle and Wiedlin were both members of the Go-Go’s, the Los Angeles punk-turned-pop girl band that set the world on fire a few years earlier with sealed lips and getting the beat. After they broke up, Carlyle got herself all skinny, sang that she was mad about me (well, actually, anybody who was listening), and married a junior official from the Reagan White House. Which, frankly, is what we all expected from Carlyle. After the first solo song collection, I didn’t pay much attention to her career. She was the kind of character I expected to later show up at an Aggrestic PTA meeting.

But Wiedlin was different. A little deeper. Her self-titled first solo album isn’t a great record. There’s too much Yamaha on this collection of songs. It would be a good record were it not for that second song, one of the most awful and self-conscious bits of socio-political commentary ever committed to music, Wiedlin’s achingly bad anthem to hopeful secular humanism, “Goodbye Cruel World,” which features such insightful understanding of the human condition as this:

It’s so naive to believe in love
Why build bombs, we got more than enough?
The planet’s ours to use or destroy
Why rob life when life is joy?
Let’s dream it away, think it away
Put the power back in our hands
Let’s dream it away, think it away
And use the power in the mind of man
To say goodbye, goodbye cruel world

The tragedy of it all is that I can repeat this nonsense from memory. (No, I will not link to this song. Go find it on your own.) John Lennon’s “Imagine” does this sort of thing well, if you’re into believing in the human potential for goodness and progress. And “Imagine” it is not.

Okay, I’ve shaken that from my brain. When Wiedlin writes about the difficulties of human relationships on this record, she doesn’t do that bad a job. And all the Yamaha doesn’t get that much in the way (it’s not as obviously dominated by the DX-7 as a lot of mid-to-late 1980s music was). It’s a reasonably well-made little record. It’s not deep, but it’s not Carlyle singing praises to her wedding ring either. (Though to be fair, “Band of Gold” was a cover song.)

What I like most about “Blue Kiss” is that it’s a song about a last kiss. Not a first kiss. It’s about goodbye, not hello. This is about endings, not beginning. This is a sweet little song about loss, a torch song in F. (And that, friends, is where I was in early 1986.) I can imagine this song done a number of different ways — a lot rawer, a little slower, with a more Nashville sound, a Hammond organ, not so chirpy, but a lot of the production on this song plays to Wiedlin’s strengths. Listen to her sing. She cannot help but be chirpy with that pixie voice of hers. There’s a little too much upbeat in this production, in this recording, which gives the song a hopefulness I’m not entirely sure it merits. But that too helps it work. It’s about a goodbye, but maybe not the last goodbye. It’s about ending, but not the end. Something is wrong in this relationship, but Wiedlin’s hopefulness suggests that all is not lost, even as it might seem that way. The bright keyboards, and the fairly bright key this song was written and recorded in, are hope in the midst of despair. Are color in the midst of the blue.

And I played this song over and over and over again. I know. There’s no accounting for some tastes.

Still, I think it would be interesting to see what someone else would do with this song. What a female singer with a different voice would do — a stronger voice with a wider range — how hope and despair might be differently balanced.

This is an odd little video. It tries to work with the color scheme Wiedlin used on her album cover (it is a nifty color scheme, green and blue and yellow and black with a dab of bright red), uses some out of place images (but what 1980s videos don’t?) and I don’t quite get why she’s in the back of a truck, except maybe because it worked with the color scheme. It isn’t as strange or incongruent a video as “Rush Hour” (the closest thing Wiedlin had to a hit single), which featured images of Jane frolicking with dolphins in a song equating being in love to driving in rush hour traffic (and that apparently is a good thing).

For more of that wonderful 80’s Yamaha feel, check out the extended dance mix of “Blue Kiss.” I didn’t know until a few minutes ago that this existed. Did people really dance to these? Because I don’t feel like dancing. This mix treats her voice better than the album version — it strips the song down a bit, and her voice becomes somewhat thinner and a little more pronounced. I also really, really like the harmonies she sings with herself (beginning at the 1:20 mark) — that’s almost completely obscured in the LP mix. And I’m almost inclined now to say the drums are real (or at least real drums flavored with triggers), as opposed to synth drums or a program. Almost. But you know what? The most annoying thing about this song are the syntho hand claps. And those didn’t need to be played up. They just didn’t.

Translated to a Higher Condition

At a Bible study the other night we talked a bit about Elijah being taken up into heaven (2 Kings 2:9-12) as part of our introduction to the Gospel of Luke, as John the Baptizer is heavily identified with the Elijah (as is Jesus, and one way to look at Luke-Acts is Jesus as Elijah and the Church as Elisha). The next day, reading the life of Numa Pompilius in Plutarch’s Parallel Lives, I came across this:

Elijah riding the N-Judah line to heaven.
Because Yes, the N-Judah goes there too.

    In the thirty-seventh year, counted from the foundation of Rome, when Romulus, then reigning, did, on the fifth day of the month of July, called the Caprotine Nones, offer a public sacrifice at the Goat’s Marsh, in the presence of the senate and people of Rome. Suddenly the sky was darkened, a thick cloud of storm and rain settled on the earth; the common people fled in affright*, and were dispersed; and in this whirlwind Romulus disappeared, his body never being found either living or dead. A foul suspicion presently attached to the patricians, and rumours were current among the people as if that they, weary of kingly government, and exasperated of late by the imperious deportment of Romulus towards them, had plotted against his life and made him away, that so they might assume his authority and government into their own hands. This suspicion they sought to turn aside by decreeing divine honours to Romulus, as to one not dead but translated to a higher condition**. And Proculus, a man of note, took an oath that he saw Romulus caught up into heaven in his arms and vestments, and heard him, as he ascended, cry out that they should hereafter style him by the name Quirinus. (p. 49)

 So, Romulus has become a god. Actually, ascending to heaven in or on a pillar of fire or cloud is a common trope in antiquity, and fills many a Greek, Roman and Hindu story.

I’d like to see some politician try to get away with the whole “well, he was taken up into heaven” thing today. I think that Rahm Emmanuel could even get away with it…


* Awesome word. I intend to use it soon!
** Nice euphemism!

The Dream of Equality

I have been reading (yes, we are back to commenting on books!) Plutarch’s The Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans (yes, Grecian is a word — you cannot fault George W. Bush for that), the version  translated by John Dryden, revised by Arthur Hugh Clough and published as part of the series Great Books of the Western World by the fine folks at the Encyclopedia Britannica in 1954. It’s one of the many books I was able to clean — with official approval — from the weeding of the JKM Library over the last couple of years. My set is mostly complete — I’m missing one volume of Shakespeare (I already have the complete Shakespeare anyway) and another volume. I forget which one, and they aren’t in front of me right now.

I think it’s Boswell’s Life of Johnson. Volume 44 of the 1954 set.

At any rate, I am reading Plutarch. I had the Penguin classics of Plutarch, but their editions ripped Plutarch’s lives from their parallel context — Romulus and Thesius, for example, were separated, and placed in volumes entitled “Founders of Rome” or “Founders of Greece” or some such. And not as Plutarch, as Greek historian and author living during the time of the last of the Julio-Claudian emperors, the Flavians and the early Antonines, for the most part intended.

I like reading books of ancient history written by the ancients themselves. There is a different approach to truth, the presenting of multiple stories without attempting to find which story is “factually correct.” It’s more about story and myth, about poetry and meaning, rather than fact. Facts rarely tell their own story. They must be chosen and discarded, and then carefully edited and woven into something that tells us who we are. Or wish to be.

What interests me today is Plutarch’s life of Lycurgus, the creator of Spartan law and organization. He is set side-by-side with Rome’s second king, Numa Pompilius. Lycurgus is credited, in Plutarch’s telling, with creating a tightly organized society in which there was no gold and silver money (just bars of iron tempered in vinegar to make them difficult to alter), women were effectively the common property of all men, children we the property of the state, encouraged sexual relations between young men and older ones, and the society devoted itself to war and war making. The goal, Plutarch states, is social equality and leisure, so that the citizens of Sparta could pursue “higher things” than commerce. He writes:

It need not be be said that upon the prohibition of gold and silver, all lawsuits immediately ceased, for there was now neither avarice nor poverty amongst them, but equality, where everyone’s wants were supplied, and independence, because those wants were so small. All their time, except when they were in the field [at war], was taken up by the choral dances and festivals, in hunting, and in attendance on the exercise-grounds and places of public conversation. (p. 45)

Life was strict for Spartans, but that austerity had a purpose, allowing Spartans to spend “their leisure rationally in conversation” and “passing judgment on some action worth considering; extolling the good, and censuring those who were otherwise, and that in a light and sportive manner, conveying, without too much gravity, lessons of advice and improvement.” (p. 45)

Lyrcurgus was not without a sense of humor, and he did encourage laughter during the communal meals Spartans shared “as a sort of sweetmeat to accompany their strict and hard life.” But the purpose of Spartan life was clear:

[Lyrcurgus] bred up his citizens in such a way that they neither would or could live by themselves; they were to make themselves one with the public good, and, clustering like bees around their commander, be by their zeal and public spirit carried all but out of themselves, and devoted wholly to their country. (p. 45)

What struck me most about Plutarch’s description of Spartan society in the first quote above is just how similar it is to some very early conceptions of what true communism would look like. (They may have even been Marx’s conceptions.) A society in which all men labor and leisure. Minus the slavery of the Helots, of course, whose actual labor probably allowed for Spartan society to even function. (Plutarch doesn’t describe the situation of the Helots in his life of Lycurgus.)

This is an old dream, of a world in which there is no avarice, no clamor for lucre or wealth, in which human beings are equal and there is meaningful work for all and leisure for all. It was, I think, the dream of most communists — when they spoke of the end result of liberation, of ending man’s exploitation of man, this was the liberation they spoke of. Every man a farmer or factory worker in the morning, an artist in the afternoon, and a philosopher at night. It’s not so much articulated politically anymore — mostly folks yearning for a better society are aiming much lower, at a kinder and more-equal polity and society, and not one in which all ills are cured, all wounds healed and all brokenness made whole.

I’m not sure anyone really believes politics can do all these things anymore. But people once did. They believed fervently. They fought and bled and suffered and died for an imagined better world.

But I have a greater concern about this dream of equality. In the case of Sparta, it is welded to the purposes of the Spartan state. No individual human being is free to find their own purpose or meaning — not Helot, not Laced√¶monian — but their purpose is determined entirely by state and society. You are what the people around say you are. You live and die for what the people around say you will live and die for. You mean what the people around say you mean. And nothing more.

Yes, notions of individualism that we have in modernity are very foreign to antiquity (though probably not so foreign as we think). But often, the dreams of recreating Lycurgus’ Sparta — a world where there is no want and no avarice, in which people are freed to lead better lives for the collective or communal good — are bound to creating the kind of society and state in which individual human lives don’t matter so much. And individual human beings have little or no role in sorting out the meaning of lives, what they will and die for. Mass industrial society, and the wreckage of that society we now live in, was a society in which all were to become “one with the public good.” In which we were to become bees around our commander (whoever that might be). Individual human life has no meaning and no value save for its place in the “public good” — a “public good” arrived at solely by the assertions of the powerful in the community.

This is why I fear collective politics. I have, in the last couple of years, backed away from a positive libertarianism, mostly because human beings can only rarely choose the conditions of their existence. And efforts to choose neighbors becomes an exercise in choosing who I or we will not care about.

All the same, I still fear the destructive power of the state — and the corporation, especially as it works closely with the state (as all have since the 1870s) — to attempt to create that well-ordered world of, if not equality and leisure, then at least one in which I am just one more cog in a great machine that is society, to be used until broken and discarded when no longer convenient. (Or to be bent and abused until I am deemed useful.) I’m not so afraid of that power as I once was, mostly because we don’t live in the world of 1914. State power, while ominous and looming, is constrained in ways it was not a century ago.

But the dream inspired by Plutarch’s description of Spartan society is an old one. Somewhere it captivates. And no doubt it will captivate again. And it will devastate and destroy again too.