Reading An Imaginary Life right now seems entirely appropriate. According to Amy Chua in Political Tribes: Group Instinct and the Fate of Nations, “America is beginning to display destructive political dynamics much more typical of developing and non-Western countries: ethnonationalist movements; backlash by elites against the masses; popular backlash against both “the establishment” and “outsider minorities” viewed as disproportionately powerful; and, above all, the transformation of democracy into an engine of zero-sum political tribalism.” 1
In a system of zero-sum political tribalism, group identity is fostered by the rhetoric of threat and fear of the "other," resulting in the insular “us” beginning to demonize the external “they”. The "other" often becomes the simplified scapegoat for complex societal problems. This demonizing and pejorative myth making of a subgroup then serves to legitimize hostility and aggression.
This increase in polarizing rhetoric and hostility isn’t a modern problem, first century Rome controlled her vast empire comprised of disparate people groups with the fear of the "barbarian. "According to Diodorus (2) the Galatians/Gauls were savage barbarians, little better than wild beasts. They were wild and untamed with hair so thick from their “lime-water” treatments that it resembled the mane of a horse. These barbarians were blonde haired and blue eyed with “rippling muscles” and a predilection for fighting naked…but most of his grievances come dangerously close to the pot calling the kettle black. Coveting “gold and heavy jewelry of which they own a great deal” (5.28) Or my favorite example of a barbarian: “They are also sexually promiscuous and transgressive, men and women alike. The men “rage with lust, in outlandish fashion, for the embraces of males,” and they do not see it as a dishonor to prostitute themselves freely to one another.”(5.32)…Um…
In her provocative book Galatians Re-Imagined: Reading with the Eyes of the Vanquished Brigitte Kahl discusses the visual aesthetics that emphasized power over the vanquished, such as the denarii issued by Julius Caesar that showed the armor and weapons of a defeated Gaul. Even their places of worship had depictions of Gauls/Barbarians being defeated by the pantheon of the Greco-Roman Gods. Visually the oppression of the barbaric/ other was inescapable.
“Roman authors frequently used the Latin term terror when they discussed Gauls/Galatians. We should understand the Gallic War not as a singular event under Julius Caesar but as part of an ongoing, multistage Greco-Roman campaign against a Galatians ‘global terrorism;’ an archetype that has informed later occidental warfare as well.” 3
The one thing a Roman citizen could agree upon was that barbarians were less than human with little to no favorable attributes and that the last place you would want to be is in barbarian country, surrounded by horselike promiscuous men and women…
And this is where An Imaginary Life(4) begins. Ovid finds himself banished to Tomis in 8CE for a “poem and an error.” In exile from his rhetorically beloved Rome, he is surrounded by recently “tamed” barbarians in the furthermost corner of the Roman Empire.
Written as a letter in five parts to an unknown reader, Ovid tries to make sense of his life and his surroundings in the far reaches of modern day Romania. When it isn’t bitterly cold their encampment is being pillaged by hordes from the north, and for the few short months of the year when it is temperate enough to be endurable, it stinks and the horde of barbarians is exchanged for campaigns of warring insects.
“I have found no tree here that rises amongst the low, grayish brown scrub. No flower. No fruit. Even the higher orders of the vegetable kingdom have not yet arrived among us. We are centuries from the notion of an orchard or a garden made simply to please…The grasslands and beyond all lead to a sky that hangs close above us, heavy with the snow, or is empty as far as the eye can see or the mind imagine, cloudless, without wings.
But I am describing a state of mind, no place.
I am in exile here.” (p.11)
For one of the most prolific writers of the first century, to be in a place where language has failed him is a more crushing exile than his physical displacement. He cannot communicate. These barbarians speak their own form of gibberish and even their poor attempts at Latin are incommunicable. Perhaps for the first time in his life he is left entirely alone with his thoughts. And slowly the reality of where he is and who and what he has become begin to creep into the confines of his soul. No longer is he a court poet of the patrician order, none of that matters here. In Tomis he is a doddering old man, a “crazy, comic old man, grotesque, tearful, who understands nothing, can say nothing, and whose ways,…are absurdly out of keeping with the facts of our daily existence.” (p.13)
For nearly a year he has been rendered dumb. Wandering “in a dream, as isolated from the world of men as if I belonged to another species.” An old man, Ryzak, has been appointed his caretaker, and slowly Ovid begins to translate the nonsensical way of the barbarians one gesture at a time.
Part I weaves Ovid’s waking life with his dream life. His dreams still tether him to a semblance of reality that grounds his identity. He reminds himself of who he was and the legacy that he has had, all meaningless now, but the memories serve as a talisman to ward off the barbarianism. His dreams are filled with frenzied searching at the edge of the world for something he can’t quite conceptualize. He digs and claws at the earth, begging it to reveal it’s answers:
“I fall to my knees and begin digging with my long nails in the earth. Sometimes wolves come, and they claw at the earth besides me. Howling. We dig together, and they pay no more attention to me than they would a ghost. But I know that whatever they are scratching after, I must discover before them, or I am lost. So I dig harder, faster, sweating, with the moonlight greasy upon me. Unable to tell myself: this is a dream.” (p.14)
This nightmare is reminiscent of the story of Nebuchadnezzar.(5) Another exile, driven away from his people, who slowly devolves into a wild animal “eating grass like an ox, his body drenched with the dew of Heaven until his hair grew like feathers of an eagle and his nails like the claws of a bird.” While left in an animal like state he is forced to wrestle with his dependence on God for even his sanity. When Nebuchadnezzar acknowledges God his sanity is restored and he returns to his rule as king of Babylon.
Ovid doesn’t believe in the gods, he has no one to call on that could rescue him or unravel the algorithm that has brought him here. He is stuck in the quagmire of Cartesian materialism. Cogito ergo sum seems unhelpful when surrounded by the desolate wasteland at the edge of civilization. There is no recognition of a truth that will reinstate him to his former life of conspicuous living. He is stuck here. Stuck asking one question after another, trying to find himself, trying to find a way to survive.
One of the questions Ovid is seeking an answer for is what makes us human and what is our place in this vast cosmology. Ovid defines his humanity in terms of his place within Roman society; all others are compared and found wanting. The Getae have a language that sounds barbarous and guttural, even as Ovid contemplates the sounds of this foreign tongue he feels himself slipping back “a step in the order of things” toward a lower species. This lower order of beings he describes as having “not yet climbed up through a hole in their head and become fully human, who have not yet entered what we call society and become Romans under the law.”(p.16)
As Part I comes to a close, Ovid has exchanged the gods of the pantheon for the gods of human potential. “We are creating the lineaments of some final man, for whose delight we have prepared a landscape, and who can only be god.” (p.26) With enough time and the Roman predilection for cultivation, they (humans) will graft and transform the landscape slowly until it reveals “to us the creatures we long for and must become.”
Over time Ovid begins to assimilate into the culture around him and grudgingly he begins to admire aspects that had originally felt foreign and barbaric. He begins to admire his caretaker, the old man that each day seems more noble and gentle than any Roman. Idealistically he makes a 180 degree turn:
“I now almost understand these people’s speech almost as well as my own, and find it oddly moving. It isn’t at all like our Roman tongue, whose endings are designed to express difference, the smallest nuances of thought and feeling. This language is the raw life and unity of things. I believe I could make poems in it. Seeing the world through this other tongue I see it differently. It is a different world. Somehow it seems closer to the first principles of creation, closer to whatever force it is that makes things what they are and changes them into what they would be.” (p.60)
The hopeless pessimism of Part I has been exchanged for almost blind idealism in Part II. The natives are still being classified but this time on the other end of the spectrum, reminiscent of Rousseau’s noble savage. In a sense Ovid has past the first test and has been able to see beyond the presumed rhetorical savagery and has come to respect these tribal people as a type of fellow human. His next test is another proverbial step down the ladder: he will convince the tribe to adopt a wolf boy he has found while on a hunting expedition.
Here’s his chance at cultivating and sculpting a human tabula rasa. An eleven year old boy, raised by wolves, unsullied from the politics of man. Ovid takes this boy on as a project and his life is renewed with a sense of vitality and purpose. While Ovid believes he is rescuing the boy, albeit for a science experiment, he admits that he cowardly refuses to trap and truss the boy. As the boy is being “rescued” by the hunting party Ovid looks on:
“When he suddenly stumbled into the clearing and stopped before me, he was in a state of utter panic, exhausted, half-crazed, his shoulders torn and bleeding where twigs had caught them…”(p.63)
Ovid justifies a bit of brutality in the belief that speech, i.e. Latin or Getaen will humanize this young person and allow him to experience reality in a far superior way. Very slowly, in fits and starts Ovid begins to form a type of trust with this wild boy. As Ovid begins to teach the boy the language of men the boy in turn teaches Ovid the language of the birds, mimicking with perfect accuracy the language of the world around him:
“All this world is alive for him. It is his sphere of knowledge, a kind of library of forms that he has observed and committed to memory, another language whose hieroglyphs he can interpret and read. It is his consciousness that he leads me through on our walks.” (p.88)
Ovid begins to have doubts about who is teaching whom. This wild-boy slowly begins teaching the language of the landscape, exposing the secrets buried deep within the earth, that have always remained on the periphery and inaccessible to the “cultivated” mind. The boy reveals a world beyond Ovid’s imagination, beyond his capacity to dream up or conceive. “I think therefore I am” seems isolating and narrow in a world of possibility. Perhaps “I see therefor I hope” begins to creep into Ovid’s epistemology.
Despite his best intentions, Ovid has plucked the boy out of his world and enforced his own upon him. When the first snowflakes begin to fall the boy is desperate to return to the wild and has to be physically restrained and for the first time Ovid begins to feel a sense of overwhelming guilt:
“All these weeks I have been following my own plan for the Child, and have never for one moment thought of him as anything but a creature of my will, a figure in my dream. Now as he kneels in the snow, howling, tearing his face with his nails, I have a vision of his utter separateness that terrifies me.” (p.102)
The story doesn’t end here though. There is another important lesson for Ovid to learn about his “noble savages.” He has almost neutered them in his idealistic rendering of their society and now must confront the fact that these tribal people are complex and mercurial, like all human societies, with rites and rituals outside of his purview.
During the winter the wild-boy gets sick and as he lies on his pallet for days battling a fever, the matriarch cautions the family members to keep their distance. The boy contains the spirit of some animal being that is trying to escape in order to devour one of their own. Despite the matriarch’s disapproval the young mother offers care and compassion to the sick boy, a cup of cool water, a cloth across his brow. But as the wild-boy gets better the young tribal boy, Lullo, gets sick. The old woman believes that:
“…the Child’s spirit has worked all this (sickness) out of malice, and that the boy’s mother has indeed been made the carrier, but through her own weakness and pity. In turning aside to care for the Child she has betrayed her son’s life to him. She has permitted the death spirit to pass between them.” (p.116)
In the end it is fear of the unknown other that galvanizes the tribe into action. Thankfully Lullo gets better before the wild boy can be sacrificed or murdered, but then the old man, Ovid’s friend and protector gets sick and the matriarch again claims it is the fault of the boy and his evil animal spirit. The old man gets sicker and then is bludgeoned to death by the tribal men so he will die fighting and be victorious in death. While the funeral rites are taking place Ovid and the boy sneak off into the wilderness and run for their lives across the edge of the known world into the endless void at the ends of the earth.
An Australian author, Malouf wrote An Imaginary Life in 1978, when issues with the systemic treatment of the indigenous people of Australia was beginning to be questioned. Ovid’s blatant attempts to colonize his indigenous wild boy and cultivate his little plot of soil reveal the brokenness of such narrow perspectives. Unfortunately, this lesson is not easily learned. The tendency to gravitate to “us” vs “them” language is almost an inherent human quality. While it seems Australia has made a few steps forward in recognizing the sovereignty of their indigenous people, in the United States tribalism is fostering group hatred and fanaticism.
Perhaps we should all spend less time getting sucked into political tribal rhetoric and more time reading books.
1. Amy Chua, Political Tribes: Group Instinct and the Fate of Nations (New York: Penguin Press, 2018),12.
2. Diodorus, Library of History (80-29 B.C.E.) You can find the complete text here
3. Brigitte Kahl, Galatians Re-Imagined: Reading with the Eyes of the Vanquished (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2010)
4. All quotes from: David Malouf, An Imaginary Life (London: Vintage Books, 1978)
5. Daniel 4:33