Arts The Last Emperor
posted by April 30 at 11:52 AMon
The last pagan emperor of Rome is Julian II. The result of a series of unexpected events was his enthronement in 380 AD, at the age of 30. At 32, however, both life and throne left Julian on a battlefield. To this day it’s not known if an enemy or one of his own killed him with a spear. Much of the reason for the confusion about his death can be attributed to the disastrous war he instigated with the aim of popularizing his flailing program to reestablish paganism as Rome’s official religion. A victorious war would have shown the people that the gods were on his side, and not the side of Christianity, which became the state religion with Constantine’s conversion near the opening of the 3rd century. Using the maximum of his political might, Julian tried to reverse the march of two generations. But the harder he pushed—persecuting Christians, reserving Greek literature for pagan teachers, returning the Altar of Victory to the Senate House—the harder nothing happened because a considerable portion of the population had nothing to gain by going back to the pagan world of Penates, door deities, and augurs. Christianity was a much better deal for them. With paganism, then a religion that had retreated to the elite, all the poor got were monuments and bloody spectacles; with Christianity, there was at least the democratic ideal of real charity—feeding and clothing the less fortunate. Julian was aware of this and tried to reform paganism, making its type of charity more like Christian charity. But before any of these changes became stable and had any effect on Roman society, Julian’s life met its terrible (and inevitable) end in a war he foolishly started.
In the way that the last pagan emperor tried to reestablish an old order on a radically new Rome (transformed by Constantine and his Bishops), George Bush tried to reestablished an older order—oil and church power—on a radically new America (transformed between the fall of the Berlin Wall, 1989, and the WTO protests, 1999). In fact, it’s not hard to imagine a future that will look at Bush and see him as the last Christian president. And the future might also see the connection between Bush’s disastrous war in Iraq and Julian’s disastrous war in Persia.
The lovely lips of Joan Chen:
The scene that first exposed me to the ultimate power of cinema: Joan Chen eating a white flower. The scene is in Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor. Chen’s character, the wife of the emperor, goes mad when she sees in the future the disaster that will become of her husband’s decision to cooperate with Japanese militarism. The weak emperor, who turned to the Japanese for support, is now nothing more than a puppet. Chen sees this fact, sees the emptiness of his power, and as the music plays in a hall celebrating the agreement between the emperor and the enemy of his countrymen, Chen begins to eat a flower, chewing its petals—her red lips, the green stem, the slow and bitter swallowing. The perfect image: beauty eating beauty.
After Burton Watson’s translation of Xiang’s “Cook Ding” story, the peak of literary greatness, follows this short piece of writing by Walter Benjamin:
Again and again, in Shakespeare, in Calderon, battles fill the last act, and kings, princes, attendants and followers, “enter, fleeing.” The moment in which they become visible to spectators brings them to a standstill. The flight of the dramatis personae is arrested by the stage. Their entry into the visual field of non-participating and truly impartial persons allows the harassed to draw breath, bathes them in new air. The appearance on stage of those who enter “fleeing” takes from this its hidden meaning. Our reading of this formula is imbued with the expectation of a place, a light, a footlight glare, in which our flight through life may be likewise sheltered in the presence of on-looking strangers.