Professor of English,
Royal Military College of Canada
Kingston, Ontario K7K 7B4
Iain Pears's The Dream of Scipio received high praise when it was published in mid-2002. The novel unites three stories, which all take place in the vicinity of Avignon, in 475, 1340, and 1943. Each story concerns a protagonist whose primary concern is to preserve the values of his civilization, which are in danger of extinction. The threat comes from another, more powerful, culture. The oppressing, triumphant, and barbarous groups are those of the Burgundians (during the decline of the Roman Empire), warring factions in the church during the Avignon papacy, and the Germans during the second world war. Each protagonist weighs the cost of serious compromises with the powers that oppress him, in the hope of preserving his personal safety and his civilization. The purpose of my paper is to explore the choices of these characters by comparing them with the survival strategies employed by victims of sexual abuse.
This paper is an example of what could be called "applied literature." The impulse to comment on literature in this way arises from the interest I feel when a work deals with a problem or a subject with which I am struggling. I am drawn into the book by the fact that it engages in a real way with an issue which exists in my own life or that of someone I care about.
The main subject addressed by The Dream of Scipio is the problem of what to do when you feel that the civilization with which you identify is under threat from forces which seem overwhelming. The first example of this situation in the book occurs in the last years of the Roman Empire, around 460 AD, in southern Gaul. Manlius, a Roman noble and a large landowner, knows that the values promoted by Roman civilization, as well as the territories which he owns and controls, may be overwhelmed by the barbarian tribes which had been entering the region for the previous fifty years. The Visigoths are pushing into Provence, and have laid siege to Clermont, 300 kilometres to the north-west of his lands. The Burgundians are to the north, up the Rhone River. The Vandals have recently sacked Rome. He knows Rome cannot send armies to defend the Roman establishment in southern Gaul. At the same time he is under another sort of threat. The spread of Christianity, which is hostile to classical learning and the values associated with the ancient writers, may wipe out the heritage which Manlius considers the flower of civilization.
This novel has three distinct plots. The second occurs in the fourteenth century, during the Avignon papacy. The third presents a direct parallel to Manlius=s situation in the first plot: in the 1940s, the Germans have invaded France, and the central characters struggle with how they may be able to preserve some aspects of French civilization in the face of overwhelming German military force.
Another, smaller, survival issue occurs several times in the novel: a son is raised by a father who thinks he knows what is best for the son. Here the question is not maintaining civilization, but, for the son, the survival of his own being, his self.
So the novel poses the question, "What can you do when you are faced with a threat or force which is much stronger than you are, and which may threaten your life?" Three possible answers are suggested:
1. Merge with your oppressor. Lose your own sense of your identity, and become an instrument, a tool of the greater force. Here there are some parallels with the Stockholm Syndrome, and possibly some parallels with cases of sexual abuse of children.
2. Consciously develop a strategy of compromising with the oppressor, in order to preserve some aspects of what you value. To do this, however, you need to have some sense of your own power.
3. Resist the oppressor completely, or (if possible) hide from him and ignore him. One way to do this involves overcoming the fear of death, either by not letting it affect your actions, or by adopting a philosophy or a religious outlook in which death represents reunion with God, and so is to be welcomed rather than resisted. This philosophy is important in the book, because it is articulated (in the first plot) in a compendium of classical civilization written by Manlius, called "The Dream of Scipio." Olivier, the protagonist of the second plot, discovers a manuscript of this document, and struggles to understand it. Julien, the protagonist of the third plot, is a scholar and professor in France. His speciality is neoplatonism, and one of his main goals in the book is to use his knowledge of the period to understand the real meaning of the document which Manlius wrote fifteen centuries earlier.
What does this novel suggest about the three possible responses to an overwhelming threat--surrender, compromise, and absolute resistance? I would like to look briefly at the first two plots, with this question in mind.
Manlius's solution is compromise: he decides to engage the support of a barbarian, King Gundobad of the Burgundians, whose realm is to the north. But to do this he has to make three main concessions:
1. He agrees to become Bishop of Vaison, even though he finds Christianity a primitive and contemptible set of beliefs. He does this to increase his political power in his own region. When Vaison rebels against him at a crucial moment, he is willing to kill his son by adoption, who is acting as an emissary of the city of Vaison. This is a political gesture to terrify the inhabitants of the city.
2. He becomes a vassal of the Burgundian king, who refuses to rule in the name of Rome, and wants to rule in his own name.
3. The Burgundian king insists that, if he is going to defend Manlius's estates, he must encounter no resistance. To ensure this, Manlius kills the man who has been his closest friend for twenty years. Manlius had promised to support him, but he is the head of a rival Roman clan. Manlius also steals the lands of this clan, and uses them to reward Burgundian soldiers.
Manlius is successful in his political goals. He is also successful, to some extent, in getting the Burgundian king to set up a legal system based on that of Rome, thus preserving the Roman legal legacy.
But the novel makes very clear that Manlius achieves no peace within himself. He has compromised some of his core values: telling the truth, honouring friendship, and securing a succession for his family. In addition, touching on a theme which will become much more important in the two subsequent plots, he persecutes the Jews of the region who will not convert to Christianity. This seems to be clearly part of a plan of his that he become a saint after he has died. So the conclusion to this part of the novel is that Manlius is successful in his strategic goal, but he compromises his integrity and values so much that he loses his soul.
In the Avignon plot, the leading figure, Cardinal Ceccani, is quite like Manlius: he would like a return to the past (in his case a return of the Papacy to Rome, after sixty years in Avignon). Like Manlius, Ceccani is highly political, and aware of his own power, and he is willing to compromise. But the figure who carries the main meaning in this plot is Olivier, a young poet and scholar who enters Ceccani's entourage as his messenger and factotum. This part of the novel contains an excellent depiction of a patriarchal relation. Olivier has his own interests and identity, but he is explicit about being willing to serve Ceccani and promote his political goals. When Olivier accidentally discovers Ceccani's plan to collaborate secretly with the English, in order to force the Papacy out of Avignon and back to Rome, Ceccani says,
"What is your opinion of this plan?"
"I have none, sir."
"Do you not find it shocking? Fascinating?"
"Because I am your servant, My Lord, indebted to you for everything I have. And because the doings of princes are not my affair. Whether Aigues-Mortes is French, or whether it is English, or whether it belongs to the emperor of China is of no matter to me. I serve you to the best of my ability. What else should concern me?"
Ceccani replies, "By God, I choose my servants well." (207)
But later in this story, Olivier realizes that Ceccani is also plotting to have the Jews condemned and persecuted, as part of his overall strategy. By this point Olivier is deeply in love with a young woman who is thought to be a Jew, although in fact she is of Cathar background. The only way he can save her is to betray his master, Ceccani, and reveal Ceccani's treacherous plot to the Pope. When he plans to do this, he realizes that he is breaking the rules of civilised behaviour, and that none of his friends would agree with what he is doing. The author comments, "By the standards of his day and age, his sin could not have been greater" (254). The Pope himself is astounded that Olivier is willing to betray Ceccani, and asks him why he is placing himself in danger of violent reprisals by his master. All Olivier knows is that he is responding from the depths of his being:
"I do not know, sir. I can discover no reason or justification for it, and do not wish to. I am neither a theologian nor a philosopher, a lawyer nor a politician. I cannot find reasons; my skill is to sing about the impulsions of the heart, and that is enough." (367)
This is one of the key statements in the novel. Its content is reminiscent of Keats's definition of negative capability, that gift of the poet: "the ability to be in mysteries and uncertainties, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason." It also recalls existential moments in some novels in which a character acts with his whole being, in spite of what seems to be in his interest, rationally calculated. What Olivier does is right in his own view, but he suffers horribly as a consequence.
In the third plot in the book, set during the Second World War, Julien becomes the link for communication between two of his old school friends, one of whom is a highly placed administrator collaborating with the Germans, and the other a leader of the underground resistance. Julien knowingly compromises and collaborates, hoping to preserve some values which he considers crucial to French civilisation, until he realizes that he cannot count on agreements struck with the German regime, or with his friend the collaborator. His final act, like Olivier's, is an expression of who he truly is, and a rejection of all compromise.
What The Dream of Scipio suggests is that both submission to and compromise with an overwhelmingly strong power may promote the survival of the individual, but at such a great cost that survival may not seem worth while. Self-assertion and defiance, in contrast, may lead to death, but the authenticity achieved is much more satisfying.
In what way might this book's presentation of collaboration and resistance be applied to current problems? For many teachers of literature, the survival of our literary heritage, in an era of rapid change in the media of communication, is something that may only be achieved through compromise. For all of us, our relations with authorities in our own lives will (almost certainly) necessitate compromise. The Dream of Scipio suggests a range of possibilities in this area which are stark, but which may also be illuminating when we need to choose our path.
Pears, Iain. The Dream of Scipio. Toronto: Alfred Knopf Canada, 2002.