What Would Have Been

A break from Middle Earth for a bit here:

My lovely colleague/mentor/master to which I am the apprentice gave me a book about Cleopatra for Christmas. Unfortunately because of the season, called the season of teaching performance Assessments, rather than the season of holidays, I was only able to read some up till now. Now I’m 90 pages into it (about 1/3) and feel I can start a review blog about it. The book is Cleopatra: A Life, by Stacy Schiff. Recently, another co-worker heard Schiff on the radio and posessed interest in reading the book. I realized that while she was talking I wanted to get signal flares, flags, and maybe sound off some klaxons to get her to NOT read this book. But I stayed polite and kept mum. Now knowing how much that one conversation provoked me, I feel I need to blog about it.

Let me start by saying that Schiff seems a very promising author. She’s won a pulitzer, and the book sounded good. Her writing has been eclectic though: a few feminist articles and four books, each on Saint-Exupery, Vera Nabokov (for which she won the pulitzer), Benjamin Franklin, and now Cleopatra. Still with biography in mind, these four are very different and not really thematically linked individuals; she appears to be attracted to outstanding interests rather than any particular field of study, especially along historical lines. Still, a pulitzer exists in her accolades, so I thought that something must have called her and that the book about Cleopatra would be an interesting read or reevaluation, or at least a good “layman’s piece” of historical non-fiction.

Being a historian, and a history teacher, I love historical non-fiction. It can be an at times dangerous field full of sensationalism for book sales and NYT bestseller’s lists, but it can also be full of gems that catalogue things in new ways or are just much more pleasant reads than textbooks and more serious and academic publishing. I have nothing against them. Still, I’m one who yells at and verbally will argue with the television when the history channel is on. Inaccuracies and half-truths unfortunately run rampant in historical works for mass consumption.

While Schiff’s work isn’t inaccurate per se, it is highly speculative. If I had a dollar for every time I read the words “would have been” and “would be” or “could have been” and “could be,” I would be taking my fiancé out for a nice dinner in the City and not writing a critique on them. Schiff does some fine research on what life was like during the reign of the Ptolemies and describes street scenes of Alexandria, feasts, Cleopatra’s childhood education and life in the palace, and quasi-ceremonial quasi-vacation trips down the nile with vivid language. She would have done well writing historical fiction for the elaborateness of her scene setting. But all these instances come with a familiar line at the beginning: the word would.

For example, take this sentence that opens up a description of a phraonic procession that lasts over a page in length: “The postwar festivities would certainly have included a victory procession, presumably down the Canopic Way.”

On it’s own, this isn’t so bad, but when I count up the massive amounts of pages lovingly devoted to scene setting and find that nearly every one is prefaced by a “would have” statement, significant trust in the authorship is lost and it’s clear that she is speculating. If you excised her biography, you’d still have half a book worth of this, and it could be a potentially good book titled something like Cleopatra’s Egypt: Life at the End of the Pharaohs. What worries me is that speculation is repeatedly used in a biography and, as with the sentence above, some aspects are left clearly open: for all Schiff’s solid research to Egyptian Life, how does she not have any confirmation that processionals would go down the Canopic way? The Romans left us that information and Egyptians were just as good historians.

Did it happen? We don’t know. Are some of these things likely to have happened? Quite possibly. Does it eat at the core of the text to use so many conditionals and hypotheticals? Absolutely. This tells me that, at minimum, her research may be spotty in some places, but she chooses to include opinions as facts anyways.

Regardless of their plausibility, treating possibilities as cold hard truth is a sin that historians have committed since the days of the people Schiff writes about. It is a crime perhaps best laid by the example of early archaeologist Sir Arthur Evans, who rediscovered Troy and publicized it by adorning his wife with the “jewels of Helen” while throwing away anything that wasn’t made of shiny precious metals. Back then, men like Evans were trying to find the glory of ancient stories and myth and there were few established methods. Today, we have better guidelines for historical practices and much greater review. To commit the same sins is one of two things: dishonesty or ignorance. I’m  not sure which is worse.

It’s far too easy to fall into it as a trap, and Schiff’s work borders dangerously close. What makes it alarming, is that this book is a bestseller; it’s not for historians and it is not a scholarly work. It’s for the layman, and that makes pieces of speculation dangerous when they are not made explicit. For someone unfamiliar with the subject matter, or isn’t paying close attention, an “it would have been” may easily become an “it was.”

Now that I’ve cut out half of the book, let’s get on with it.

Something I’ve found that plagues the book as a whole is what I am guessing is poor editorship. I worked as an editor. It’s tough work sometimes. But I’ve seen a variety of typos, misspellings, and grammatical errors that should have been flagged in proofing. Schiff jumps around a lot. To boot, many of Schiff’s sentences are unclear and confusing. For example, she often will refer to multiple people in a sentence without showing who the subject clearly is, and then follow with a sentence using only pronouns, making it difficult to tell who the new subject is. I’ve seen others complain about this on the internet. These are things that should have been caught prior to final printing for distribution, but clearly weren’t. Why is that? Common culprits are rushes on time and money leading to poor editing quality. I don’t know if these apply, but something happened. There shouldn’t be excuses for them in a high profile book.

That aside, Schiff has a conversational voice. Coupled with her vivid descriptions, I can see how for some, the book could be quite entertaining. If you don’t read the endnotes. Oddly, many of the more controversial points treated as facts are not sourced while many points that are taken as common knowledge are regularly sourced, sometimes sourced multiple times. The points that are not sourced really should be. As a historian, I can’t tell if she is getting them as facts from some other work or they are matters of opinion. What is clear is that Schiff is no historian; she frequently shows misunderstandings in the historical record or sources from the Ancient world. True, she does point out that some sources are clearly more trustworthy than others, and some have reasons to pick bones, she takes some others at pure face value. She also leaves key evidence out and reintroduces it later. For an example of these points, turn to a passage where she quotes Herodotus.

Herodotus, a Roman, famously describes Egypt as a place where “women ventured into the markets while men sat at home tending their looms” and “the women urinate standing up, the men sitting down.” Schiff wants to point out that Cleopatra  had a sense of humor and would have found these laughable, but that Herodotus was very wrong – though he “was entirely correct” to say that Egypt had many wonders and “works that defy description.” What Schiff leaves out (that she mentions chapters later) is that women in Egypt had a reputation for being strong and were backed up by powerful female pharaohs and Isis worship, all of which seemed odd to other peoples (not just the Romans). What she leaves out of both passages is that Herodotus was a scathing and popular wit and political satirist. If Cleopatra would laugh at what he says, she would equally know that Herodotus was making a joke for her to laugh at; Herodotus was the Jon Stewart of his day. Possibly Colbert. It’s rhetoric, but Herodotus isn’t wrong.

Similarly, Schiff takes the line that when asked for, Egypt “conjured” a navy “nearly overnight,” when Egyptian naval warfare was legendary prior to Caesar’s arrival in Alexandria. Cleopatra’s navy was one of her biggest assets, as was the breadbasket of the Nile. Could these be motives for Julius Caesar or other Romans? Schiff seems to not know they existed.

This also highlights a theme in her book: Schiff has a running theme of strong women and weak men. The Ptolomies are ripe for this interpretation. Cleopatra and her sisters were assertive and fought for power while her brothers are treated as weak and, sadly, dispensable. Ptolemy XIV, her second husband-brother, 10 years her junior,  is thrust into the scene simply because she needs to be married. Caesar is under Cleopatra’s control, as is the rest of Egypt. The derision for most of the Roman historians is palpable, compliments to Cleopatra are only given by them “begrudgingly.” And she refuses to call the Emperor Augustus Caesar anything but his boyhood name of Octavian. Schiff continually demeans the men in her book while Cleopatra is continuously the woman in charge: she “presumably collaborated,” “engineered,” and “was behind” Caesar’s actions. This is sad, not for the memory of poor Julius, who is equally described as a “supremely logical” and intelligent man and a mastermind, but because she later notes in describing the two’s relations during the war with her brother, she contributed nothing to Caesar’s endeavor. Schiff’s text is not only subtly sexist (not feminist, but sexist) but also contradictory.

On the note of feminism, I did mention that I thought that this was going to involve some level of revisionism. In her introduction, Schiff paints a picture of tarnished stories where “myth runs in” and that most, if not all, ancient historians were more concerned with painting Cleopatra out to be a villainess, unable to separate propaganda from Augustan wars from facts and retellings. Cleopatra was likened to Dido, the tragic Queen of Carthage who fell in love with Aeneas, once upon a time. But we don’t get that story. We only get how she was likened to Queen Cleophis, the “royal whore” of India and how she must have “captured the old man with magic.” At this point in the tale, Roman men are weak have flaws, Egyptian Queens have none.

What really gets my goat though is that Schiff makes it out like a feminist revision of Cleopatra’s story – actually trying to sift through the propoganda and varied accounts for kernels of balanced truth – is new. It’s not. We’ve known for quite some time that you should take Catulus with a grain of salt, that Virgil had Augustus for a patron, and that Dio, while using more sources, has some things to say in his own opinions. We know that the propaganda machine during the Civil Wars and later Augustus’ battle against Marc Anthony was legendary and all encompassing (he really needed it to get Rome to back him and not kill him). We also know that Cleopatra was admired more for her brain than her beauty, though with how she acted, beauty from confidence and attitude is nearly guaranteed. We also know of unrest against her within Egypt, not that dissent against the queen is very popular with Schiff. The point is, that what Schiff derides and casts down into the fire have already been there for years. Her book is a rehash of old ideas, and with the glaring issues in her book, there are far better reads (and ones that are written by women) that are far more accurate, that should replace Schiff’s on the bookshelf. There is nothing new in this text and Schiff is hunting the already condemned.

Of course, I promise to comment again when I finish the book.

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~ by glasslajora on January 12, 2011.

One Response to “What Would Have Been”

  1. What a great book review. I feel like I have a grasp of what the book is all about. Very thorough assessment. Mt favorite line in the post “Inaccuracies and half-truths unfortunately run rampant in historical works for mass consumption.”

    Mad props.

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