Saturday, January 17, 2004
THE ALEXANDER MYSTIQUE
The last time I wrote about an upcoming film, back in the editorial in ATO # 2, I managed to jinx Michael Mann’s Thermopylae movie, which has seemingly been in a development coma ever since. Not so Oliver Stone’s Alexander--based on Alexander the Great--which, as I write, is ineluctably lurching its way to a 2004 release. A competing version from director Baz Luhrmann with Leonard DiCaprio as Alexander has been delayed for “at least six months” according to the latest news, and may not appear at all. This news should be a cause for gratitude among everyone not looking forward to Gaugamela: The Musical! featuring, for all we know, dancing elephants and a winking DiCaprio telling the audience, sotto voce, that he really is “the king of the world.”
Granted, the bar, cinematically speaking, is not that high. I found the 1956 Richard Burton version a dreary mess, featuring a sloppy, phalanx-free Macedonian army that couldn’t have conquered the Amish, let alone the Persians. It would be hard for a new Alexander film to be worse, in my opinion.
Besides, I am prepared for the worst, and blithely so, because arguably no film could do more violence to Alexander than recent scholarly historiography has. Now, of course we are talking about the most written-about secular figure in human history, and some abuse is inevitable; anyone familiar with the literature can tell you how often and how grotesquely Alexander has been mutated to serve contemporary prejudices. The medieval Alexander romances, written before the formal boundaries between fiction and nonfiction, featured a nearly unrecognizable Alexander adventuring in a pure Edgar Rice Burroughs world: Building walls to keep away Gog and Magog. Finding the ten lost tribes of Israel only to hide them again. Fighting monsters, dragons, and giant ants (!), and eventually being carried directly into heaven in a chariot drawn by gryphons. Not to be outdone by Christendom, pre-Islamic Arab lore cast him as a two-horned god and, without missing a beat, subsequent Muslim traditions praised Alexander the idol-smasher. Earlier, the Old Testament Book of Daniel had depicted him as a leopard with four wings and four heads.
And yet, as fanciful and, well, odd, as the medieval chroniclers may have gotten, recent Alexander historians still have them beat. The problem is the same one that has colored nearly all scholarship in the last 30 years or so: Politicization. Regardless of the grinding, howling anachronisms generated in the effort, the contemporary university historian seems to be required to place his subject into a certain political template.
Exhibit A for recent Alexander scholarship is Brian Bosworth’s Alexander and the East: The Tragedy of Triumph (1996), which takes its readers to task for not realizing that Alexander was Just Another Western Imperialist. It’s not enough for the author to simply condemn Alexander for ravaging India; he must equate him with Hernan Cortes conquering Mexico two millennia later, just in case we didn’t get the message: “Imperialism is a strangely uniform phenomenon.” If you have an agenda, that is. Bosworth’s book is filled with one anachronistic term after another (“repression,” “terrorism.”) that would have had little or no meaning to anyone living in 330 B.C.
So does Bosworth have anything good to say about Alexander? Well…“Alexander was able to intimidate a vastly greater force by sheer technical mastery and the mystique of his reputation.” [emphasis added] When I read that line, I could just imagine Bosworth playing a wargame: “Wait a minute, I haven’t made my ‘mystique’ roll.”
Other Alexanderphobic scholars are even worse: Ian Worthington has been accused of inventing stories that never took place simply to make Alexander look bad. And the German historian Ernst Badian, needless to say lacking even the tiniest bit of evidence to support the insinuation, gives us this tendentious little gem:
We cannot be certain as to the circumstances surrounding the death of this sinister man [Coenus]. But those who remember the fate of Rommel are entitled to be cynical…
So Alexander is not just Cortes, he’s Hitler too! I could go on with more of these silly quotes, but you get the idea of what a shambles Alexander scholarship is these days. Plowing through this stuff, the reader longs for a brief, exciting moment of common sense that never, ever comes. A half-century ago, even a lowbrow popular historian like Harold Lamb could get what today’s Oxford dons fail to: “Ideology that came after Alexander has no place in this book.” Exactly. Or, more elaborately, we have the leading Alexander scholar of his day, W.W. Tarn:
To discuss the morality of the invasion [of India], and to call Alexander a glorious robber, is a mere anachronism. Of course, to the best modern thought, the invasion is quite unjustifiable; but it is equally unjustifiable to transfer our own thought to the fourth century. [emphasis added]…
Now Tarn was himself prejudiced both by his pro-Alexander bias (“a dreamy Boy Scout.” Is how one critic describes Tarn’s Alexander) and the zeitgeist of his time. Tarn was writing in the heady early days of international organizations, and his Alexander conquers the world simply to unite it in brotherhood; an inevitable contemporary permutation (from the Nazi-era German historian Helmut Berve) has Alexander wanting only to unify the “racially related” Greeks and Persians into a natural Herrenvolk.
So, in sum, there is hardly any political, religious, or social straitjacket that Alexander hasn’t already been squeezed into. Which should prepare us for anything that Oliver Stone could possibly do to him. Or should it? To say that Stone’s reputation precedes him is merely to introduce the inevitable jokes. To quote a comment I saw on an Internet message board, “Will there be a second archer on the grassy knoll?” My own recurring fear is of a Macedonian Tony Montana: “Say hello to my leetle phalanx!”
Whatever plans Stone might have for poor Alexander, I thought it was interesting to note what Colin Farrell, the noted classical scholar who has the title role, thought was most interesting about this person he was portraying. Conquered the known world by thirty? Most influential secular figure in human history? No, what fascinated Farrell was that Alexander was
Obviously bisexual — which wasn't even an issue back then…There was no term for bisexuality — it was just the way society was. People made love to men and women. It was only later on you had to pick one side of the fence. It's amazing.
He’s probably right about Alexander, though his bisexuality is completely inferential (“The truth is not attainable” as one scholar puts it). However, it should be noted that a couple of generations ago we did not have the consensus we do now about Alexander’s homosexual relations. Will Durant in 1939 and Agnes Saville in 1959, to name two, strongly disputed it. Both of them quoted the story from Arrian about the time Alexander was offered two beautiful boys, but answered: “What evil has he seen in me that he should purchase for me such shameful creatures? Tell the dealer to take his wares to hell.”
My point here is not to offer my opinions on Alexander’s sexuality, which could not possibly be of less interest to me. What always interests me is not the subject of the controversy as much as what such a controversy says about the environment in which it takes place. We live in an age when, seemingly, everything is political. And not least of all, the personal has become cloyingly political. The way we worship, for example, or the phenotypes we prefer to have sex with, are no longer just personal choices: They are de facto political statements.
And, with this in mind, The modern equivalent, the latest variation, of the medieval Alexander Romance is before us: It’s Alexander the hip bisexual. It’s Queer Eye for the Macedonian Guy! Alexandrian historiography has always been agenda-driven, and now for the first time we are seeing a popular historiography centered not on his accomplishment, but his personal life. (“I wonder how a gay-basher like Stone is going to handle Alexander's homosexuality” went one hostile Internet message board comment).
As I write, I have the miniatures rule set Warhammer Alexander the Great next to me as a sort of antidote. This is one of the best things about wargaming: One is forced to deal with historical figures exactly as they were, not as they echo our political beliefs, or as they make us feel better about ourselves. If nothing else, wargaming is an alternative to agenda-driven historiography.
And such a compelling, dominating figure is always going to have agendas attached to him. For Alexander is for us today what he has always been, and will be long after this or any other movie: Our contemporary.