Saturday, September 09, 2006

Cleopatra, Bill Clinton, and Re-Writing History

The_Death_of_Cleopatra_arthurThe many faces of Cleopatra have been playing through my mind of late. I've just watched the entire first season of Rome, HBO's glorious series, which begins its first season in 52 BCE and ends on March 15, 44 BCE. (That should give you a clue as to what the thrust of the plot is.)
In Rome, Cleopatra is an opium-smoking girl-gone-wild, chained to her bed by her brother and his nasty eunuchs, and once set free, looking to get fucked and solidify her power, in that order.
Okay, where am I going with this? Well, I have a point, but I'm writing this in the the throes of an inner ear infection, so if this post loses its equilibrium, we'll blame the labyrinthitis. Better bring a spool of thread.
Cleopatra is a clear case of a phenomenon that is played out repeatedly, each time an historian sits down to interpret a life and give meaning to the past. In her article for The Guardian, Lucy Hughes-Hallet writes:
All legends have a tendency to mutate, to be reshaped in each successive era according to the prejudices and preoccupations of those who retell the tale. But Cleopatra's is more than usually protean. It was first formulated in her own lifetime by her enemies' propaganda. Its primary purpose was to discredit her lover Mark Antony.

Cleopatra and Antony had formed a partnership that was as much a political alliance between two mutually useful potentates as it was a love affair. But the story, as Roman poets and historians tell it, was that Antony had become so besotted with the queen of Egypt that he was willing to give up his chance of ruling Rome in order to enjoy the pleasures of her bed. So Antony, the canny politician and commander with empire-building ambitions to rival Alexander's, was reinvented as a degenerate hedonist and a traitor to Rome. As a by-product of that successful exercise in news manipulation, Cleopatra was cast as the woman for whose love's sake the world would be well lost.

Cleopatra - the gratification of every conceivable desire - has been repeatedly reimagined by writers, artists and film-makers in accordance with desires of their own. She was one of the most powerful women in the ancient world, and she was defined by the Romans and their heirs as the foreigner - at once the menacing stranger and the temptress, offering the chance of escape from the tedious limitations of one's own known world. So sexual and racial politics have shaped the variations on her story, transforming her from serpent to dove and back again to suit her public's yearnings and fears.

Cleopatra becomes a cipher, an empty signifier into which all sorts of meanings can be poured: seductress, victim, power-hungry bitch, suicidal lover, ambitious woman, Achilles' heel for both Antony and Caesar, feminist heroine, powerful black woman, example of Egyptian (read: Arab) decadence, exotic. In recent years, Cleopatra was the focus of scholarly debate sparked by Martin Bernal, who argued that Greek culture borrowed heavily from African culture, thus making Africa the mother of western civilization. But as country music fans know, she's also the subject of the song sung by Pam Tillis, "Just call me Cleopatra, everybody, 'coz I'm the Queen of Denial." In other words, Cleopatra can be everything and nothing. Dangerous, wise, and farcical. Simultaneously.
Ironically, I know jackshit about Cleopatra other than what I've read in novels, plays, western civ textbooks, movies, television shows, and histories. And ultimately, it doesn't matter what I do or do not know about Cleopatra. It's all material that has been interpreted for me by someone else.
But, even if I did have access to the primary documents about Cleopatra, even if I could have been a fly on her wall, everything I would know about Cleopatra would be contingent upon the way I interpret experience. So I guess I'm getting closer to the center of the maze I'm walking. What is it that historians know and how do they know it?

I can't speak for all historians, and given the "history wars," of the past thirty years (part of the greater culture wars), I doubt I could find two historians that have exact agreement on this point.
Here's what I think I know. Our past is a source of meaning for us. I think we're about to see a huge discussion of this with the airing of the ridiculous interpretation of history that ABC will air about September 11. The buzz on the Internet is that ABC's interpretation blames, who else? Bill Clinton for the bombings of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. ABC freely admits that there are "fictional scenes" in the docudrama, fictional scenes that paint a pretty awful picture of the Clinton administration.

And people are right to howl. But the show, for me, points to the larger issues of truth, fiction, experience, and interpretation. Intepretation does not mean that you get to make shit up. Unfortunately, because one can argue that all knowledge is contingent, one can very easily arrive at a place where we know nothing, therefore all interpretations are equal. Not so. At least not in my world. There is still a line between lying and not lying, and this administration crosses that line near every fucking day. Given the volume of lies that are thrown at the American people every day, it's no wonder that ABC thought it could make some stuff up of its own and have an impact on how September 11 would be forever interpreted. That's pretty ego-feeding stuff--the idea that your lies will become part of the "true story."
But for me, the way to correct interpretation does not mean I'm crawling over the the fundamentalist camp. Sometimes, it gets presented to us that there are only two ways of looking at the problem of words: either they're literally true or they mean nothing and can mean anything. What a mess, huh?

  I have written about thes issues before in looking at the memoir of James Frey and his public evisceration by Oprah Winfrey. I cited Joan Scott's article "Experience," in which she interrogated the notion that even reading someone's diary would ultimately not give us access to truth. Why? Because, in a nutshell, even as things are happening to us, we are intepreting the experience. We are converting sensory input into language, we are making the even make sense to ourselves, we are giving ourselves a mechanism to later understand what has happened to us.

Does this mean that shit didn't really happen? Of course not. One of the standard responses to this kind of argument from me is to immediately argue that my argument gives credence to Holocaust deniers. Bull fucking shit. But I would argue that we can read every single memoir by every single Holocaust survivor and still not really know what happened inside those camps. And that is not to deny their pain, their very real suffering, or the reality that the Holocaust occurred.

I have long questioned why we appropriate the past. I know I did because I wanted to understand humanity, ultimately, because I wanted to better understand myself.
I think this is where I want to leave it for now. I've tried to open up a huge, wide open space for discussion here. I hope you'll jump in.

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