Buried by books, consumed by knowledge: A long post that eventually ends up with my thoughts about Wood's "In the Footsteps of Alexander the Great"

This is how I feel.

Well, that is partially true, anyway. I have been reading so much this weekend that I feel a little disoriented. This happens to me every now and then. I get absorbed totally in a novel or a subject and I obsessively devour everything I can find on it during a relatively short amount of time. The most devastating example of this happened when I returned to school after working full time for two years at Southern Living magazine. I took a year and a half to finish my English degree; however, that was only because my advisor had me under the wrong catalog and told me that I had to have both a major and minor again (really, all I needed to do was finish my English classes). So, I was taking a mixture of five English and history courses for a full year until the university realized something was wrong. Once a special committee had been formed to figure out what to do with me, it was decided that, because I had graduated with my first degree so recently, I did not need to do anything except fulfill the English course requirement. So, my final semester (of the year and a half) I took five English courses. YES...a lot of reading...but still nothing compared to my schedule in the Library science program (five graduate classes a semester plus teaching three composition courses...I remember nothing) and my year at USF (they required three graduate courses a semester...I am a Victorianist...three novels courses--Victorian novels=long--a semester means you have no life if you are actually doing the reading...and I did it) was just as busy.

BUT, back to the reading during my final semester of the English degree! So, my last semester I was enrolled in several courses in the English department. One of them was a modern British literature course. I had so much reading that I had to schedule days of reading for particular courses. Saturdays were the modern British lit days. Usually, this ended up merging into Sundays, as the novels for the course were quite long. But, our first novel assigned was Thomas Hardy's Jude the Obscure. I started reading it around 10:00 a.m. that morning and just fell into the book. I didn't break for lunch/snacks or anything. I finally finished the novel around six that night and had to get ready to meet my cousin (who was also going to school in town) for dinner. I just remember being so disoriented and emotionally drained (probably due to lack of food, but Jude the Obscure is quite a bleak novel). Yet, I couldn't stop thinking about it. I completely was a part of the story.

(Buy the Book: http://www.amazon.com/Obscure-Oxford-Worlds-Classics-ebook/dp/B003UERXOY/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&m=AG56TWVU5XWC2&s=books&qid=1298823817&sr=8-1)

It was the first time that I had read anything by Hardy, and I immediately fell in love with the darkness in his work. People either love or hate Hardy...I adore him. The book was dark and meaningful and beautifully tragic. It has stayed with me forever. My whole mind and body was overtaken by the moment and the experience of reading that book. When I finally traveled to Oxford years later, I was reminded of the story once again. As I walked down the street and felt the heartbreak of being excluded from the learning behind the huge stone walls and wooden gates, I realized that I had come across the scene somewhere else: in Jude the Obscure. Once I recognized that I was reliving that scene, I was even more devastated. I love knowledge and reading and learning--about everything--and there is something about Oxford that builds a hunger for more knowledge. The architecture, the history, the bookstores--everything.

Anyway, my point is that I was consumed while reading, and I couldn't stop thinking about it. Anyway, most of yesterday, I spent with this man:

(Source: http://img.listal.com/image/272578/600full-charles-dickens.jpg)

Oh, yes. Charles Dickens and I have spent many hours together over the last six years, ever since I discovered Bleak House and The Old Curiosity Shop. Until I read those novels in my Dickens seminar at USF, I had only read the Dickens standards of Oliver Twist and Great Expectations and David Copperfield. I loved those books but wasn't overly attached to them. At the point I entered USF, I was a George Eliot fan. But, that seminar, taught by the amazing Pat Rogers, changed the direction of my research and interests forever. Rogers saw where I was going with things and really encouraged me (though he would never remember me now, I am sure), a move that changed things in profound ways. So, since then, almost everything I have written has continued to reference Dickens. He is now a HUGE part of my dissertation. But, the more I read his work and learn about his life, the more I feel like I am in a personal relationship with him...and sometimes I don't like him very much! Ugh. He was a genius but could be a horrible man sometimes. His favorite daughter, Kate, said as much, calling him "wicked" (not a nice term then!) after his death, not afraid to attack him for the way he treated her mother and the family. His relationship with women is especially disturbing (see the history of his involvement with Urania Cottage, where he had complete access to every moment of the lives of the women he had such a charitable interest in...RIGHT...along these same lines he inspected his daughters rooms and personal items every day). Anyway, sometimes I just want to jump back in time and slap him. When I was at Westminster Abbey, I saw his grave. While I was excited to see it, there was a small part of me that wanted to get on my knees and pound the stone while yelling at him. (But I am quite certain that I would have been arrested...and I really wanted to stay in the country.)

So, after working with Dickens all day and becoming increasingly angry and frustrated with him, I turned to a book recommended to me: Michael Wood's In the Footsteps of Alexander the Great. I asked someone on Twitter for a travel narrative recommendation and this is one of the two books he listed. I chose this one because I am fascinated by Alexander the Great. I don't know as much as I should about him, but this book is helping me remedy some of that. The writing is seductive and it is a general enough history (but not at all simple) that it appeals to me as a story rather than a listing of facts...because English majors don't like that kind of thing. :)

Anyway, the book is fascinating. I began reading it while waiting for some friends at a restaurant. (NOTE: and this is another sign of my imbalance when it comes to books...I have to choose my purses and bags according to how big of a book I can fit into it. I am so like Rory on The Gilmore Girls. Anyway, it is true. I don't have a small purse or bag. The Kindle fits in anything, but I still require a bag big enough for a book. OH...and speaking of my Kindle...it is full! I have had it less than a year and it is already full! My ipod, bought back in 2009, still has tons of room on it, even with audio books! So sad!) ANYWAY....sorry for all of the detours....am still tired. So, I began reading about Alexander last night at the restaurant but had to put it away when my friends arrived, of course! But I picked it back up around 10 last night and have made it around half-way through. It is just amazing, and, though I don't have a great background in history about this era, Wood's account seems very fair. (Alexander as both hero and tyrant.) I also find the little untold stories that I am picking up on in this narrative to be amazing...of the women and children abandoned by Darius...of the relationships between Alexander and the men and women he came in contact with over the years...of how there was such a cult of and respect for the warrior (both past and present)...and, most interesting to me, the experiences at the oracles. I don't know why this intrigues me so much, but it does. I loved the section (approx. page 117) about the Zoroastrians, their eternal flame, and their resentment of Alexander...so much to learn from this story. Anyway, stopped reading sometime around 1:00 a.m. because my eyes were tired! But, just as with good old Jude the Obscure, I couldn't stop thinking about it. Every time I woke up (and that was a lot), I was thinking about Alexander's story. My mind is too busy. I wish I could stop it! This happens to me all of the time, lately, and I have to force myself to stop thinking (good thing that I have the centering prayer/meditation background, because that really helps). Anyway, that is where I am, physically, mentally, and intellectually, today!
Will update later about finishing the book...So, sorry for the ramble...but that is the best I can do!

Update...slowly coming in...Oscars are calling me...

But a quote to hold us over:

"In the spring of 327 BC Alexander stood on the slopes of the Hindu Kush, somewhere in the mountainous region between Pakistan and Afghan Nuristan. He was twenty-nine; a tough, stocky, hard-bitten little man, still possessed of demonic will and energy; his iron constitution not yet wrecked by the dozen battle wounds, malaria, dysentery, and his increasingly frequent alcoholic binges...The end of the earth was nowhere to be seen. Perhaps, however, he was driven still to see it; driven now as much by the desire to know, as by the need to conquer" (170).

...yes...in spite of your feelings about him, it is amazing. What was I doing at 29? Not that. And, as a funny aside, my friend Kelly and I were talking about Alexander tonight. We were also talking about horses, and riding horses...and, anyway, she came to the conclusion that (in her words): "When men were more likely to ride horses, they were more likely to embody that spirit as well...When did we become so separate from the natural world that our lives could be nullified or less vibrant because of it?" (She went on to make an argument about contemporary masculinity, as well...but this isn't exactly the forum for that argument!) Anyway...something to ponder.


Update the Second: Between the Oscars and midterm exams for my students, I am behind schedule! Anyway, as for my impressions of the second half of Wood's book and the overall feeling about the book as a whole:

The second half was just as good as the first. I especially enjoyed all of the information about Alexander's campaigns (is that the right word?? I am just enough of a girl with no military history background that I have to ask...) into India. A couple of years ago, I took a fascinating class about the Victorian literary response to the Sepoy Rebellion (also controversially called the "Indian Mutiny"). The resilience of that country and people is amazing. Alexander certainly made his mark, but, as the author also says at the end of the book, without his actions (good and bad) history would have been completely different for the entire world.

Alexander was an amazing person. I don't know what adjective to ascribe to him other than "amazing." To call him "admirable" might be a stretch. Certainly his ability and power were awesome things (not in the pop. culture definition of "awesome"). But as I finished reading yesterday afternoon and thought about things today to finish up this post, a particular poem kept forcing itself into my head. Whenever I think of my reaction to Alexander the Great now, I think about William Blake's poem "The Tyger:"

Tyger! Tyger! burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

In what distant deeps or skies
Burnt the fire of thine eyes?
On what wings dare he aspire?
What the hand dare sieze the fire?

And what shoulder, & what art.
Could twist the sinews of thy heart?
And when thy heart began to beat,
What dread hand? & what dread feet?

What the hammer? what the chain?
In what furnace was thy brain?
What the anvil? what dread grasp
Dare its deadly terrors clasp?

When the stars threw down their spears,
And watered heaven with their tears,
Did he smile his work to see?
Did he who made the Lamb make thee?

Tyger! Tyger! burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?

This poem, written in 1794, has no end of interpretations attached to it. Still, one response to it is that the poem is about the power of imagination and creation. The poet wonders what kind of creator/God/artist made a creature as beautiful but as violent and potentially deadly as the "tyger." "Did he who made the Lamb make thee?" In other words, the "tyger" is so amazing, shocking, and powerful that it calls into question the motivations of the creator and of the purpose of the creation itself. Okay...I will stop now because I am not teaching this and I don't want to bore anyone...but I really think this poem is appropriate in some ways to Alexander. At several points, Wood would refer to the legend of Alexander's divine birth and the incredibly powerful emotional and physical consequences his destiny brought to so many people. It is just such a powerful story.

As Wood will say, "Alexander was much better to have as a friend than an enemy" (187). Very true. Throw some food to that "tyger" to keep it as tame as possible, my motto would have been! As much as I am fascinated by his story, I am also terrified of him. I understand the violence of the age and all, but, as Wood points out, Alexander could become erratic and terribly unbalanced, killing people due to a justified cause or a drunken whim.

His friendship with Hephaistion is always in the background, as well, and I found his words concerning his relationship with the man he grew up with to be touching: "Others loved me because I am king. Hephaistion loved me for myself." I have no doubt that his grief, when he said these words after the man's death, was real. Also real is the fact that shortly after he "'massacred the entire male population from the youth upwards' [in a] human sacrifice to the spirit of Hephaistion, just as Achilles had killed Trojan youths over the grave of Patroclus." I had to read this section twice to make sure that I had not misread it. Apparently, in agony over losing his friend, he fought against a "nomadic tribe in the Zagros Mountains" in order to "'lighten his sorrow, as if tracking down and hunting live human beings might console him,'" according to Plutarch (223).

Another amusing section for me is Wood's attention to nineteenth-century readings of Alexander's life. The Victorians, as Wood says around page 215 or so, tried to whitewash him into a moral and noble hero in order to justify their own occupation in the empire. Oh, yes. I can see those Victorians doing just that!...have seen them doing just that!

But it will be Alexander's descent into monomania and extremism that Wood explains is his downfall. It really is such a strange story. People, by the end, were terrified of him. Possession of the body when he died proved just as political as his life, and I find it sad that we don't have a location for his tomb. But we do have his story...or as much of it as we can, right now. As the author says at the end: The events of Alexander's life "exist forever in the retelling, an event which has permeated the culture until now" (238). (By the way...fascinating that storytellers throughout Iran and other places still tell Alexander's story to street audiences.)

As one last point: something I have neglected to touch on in depth in my post from yesterday is the fact that in the background is a travel narrative. I have been consumed by the history of Alexander himself...but Wood's own journey retracing his steps is fascinating to read. The interesting thing is that Wood can jump seamlessly from his own journey into the continued story of Alexander. Sometimes, when a travel writer attempts to cover both his own journey and the history of the land/people, there is a sense of disruption. I don't remember feeling that way at all.

So, there is the end of my very long post...but, then, you guys are used to that by now!


Cathy Copeland said…
What an awesome blog post...I get the same way with some books I've read. When I was doing dissertation work, it got even worse because I was talking/discussing supernatural creatures, and it just felt that my mind was seeing supernatural archetypes and creatures in everyday life and always, ALWAYS pulling me back into thinking about Hamlet's ghost or werewolves or devils or angels!

However, since the PhD didn't work out, I find myself wondering how people eventually found their perfect niche. How many degrees do you have, and how long did it take to get them? Sorry if it's too personal, but you always struck me as well-rounded and I'm just wondering how my path will evolve. :)
Susie said…
Hi, Cathy! I know what you mean. If I start reading too much supernatural stuff, then I start imagining all kinds of things! And you found your niche, by the way. That whole situation was a fiasco that was totally separate from you as a scholar.

Unfortunately, I have way too many degrees. I have always said that I am probably only suited for being paid to quote poetry on the corner of 15th and McFarland...but in this town, that gig probably wouldn't pay much. :)

Anyway, the first was in Journalism and Spanish (hence the really long post about The September Issue)...then English...then the MA in English...then the MLIS in Research...and now the PhD. It seems like a lot. I guess that it is, but it happened so quickly and good opportunities and funding came along and I thought, "Well, why not?"

Your path will be amazing. You are so smart and well-rounded, too. It is really frustrating when life throws something at you like what you experienced. I am feeling anxiety right now, too, because of funding. I applied for the Graduate Council Fellowship, but that didn't work out. I am applying for Blount, but so many great people are applying for that one position that my chances aren't great. I have one other option that may work out, but if it doesn't then I will probably post an panicked rant! Anyway, hope things are going well for you! I love your blog, by the way!
Cathy Copeland said…
Thanks for the info, Susan. It's always so interesting to read about others' paths. Thanks for your kind words too...I'm still not quite sure what will happen, but that leaves a little room for excitement and interest, right? :)

Good luck with Blount; I can't believe the people the Graduate Council Fellowship misses sometimes. Granted, they have a tough job---but not giving it to you really bites!

Loving your blog too! I'm happy we're blog-buddies!

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