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The Reading Experience


An occasional blog on beautiful and wise books,  book writing,

book translation, and the reading experience.

From Jacek Bocheński's Divine Julius, Part III: Love

It proved impossible to secure Cleopatra’s interests without spilling blood. Caesar fought the Egyptian War for her sake. There are reports that he nearly drowned at some point when he jumped into the sea while holding some documents high above his head so that they would not get wet. Another time, he suffered from thirst because sneaky Egyptians filled in a canal and pumped sea water into his water tanks. He burned seventy-two Egyptian ships and a goodly part of the Alexandrian Library—he does not mention that last thing in his memoirs. In time, he broke up Ptolemy’s army, and when Cleopatra’s brother drowned in the Nile, Ceasar was finally free to experience the raptures of love. Cleopatra proposed a cruise up the Nile to Upper Egypt. Caesar had never seen the country, had known only the descriptions of Herodotus. They sailed upriver.

The landscapes they saw along the way are among the most gorgeous in the world. At first, the country was flat, the sky cloudless. For a long time, that was all they saw. So they spent their time in the royal apartment, furnished with oriental splendor and such refinement that Caesar, used to European restraint, had to feel a little abashed. That fairy-tale love nest made an impression on the conqueror of the world. He had never seen anything like this, not in Greece, not in Asia Minor. The young queen, one part Isis, one part Mut and Hathor, gave herself to him like a goddess. He had set her on the throne and never forgot that she owed it to him. And yet, this half-goddess made him feel divine.

This was funny business, of course, because how can anyone take such love-religious production seriously, and yet… one could not help falling under its spell. She created this very strange illusion aboard the ship. “They often feasted until dawn,” writes Suetonius discreetly.

As they sailed upriver, the views shifted. They left the lowlands, and now there were only narrow lines of greenery on both sides of the river, isolated clumps of date palms, here and there white temples raised by pharaohs millennia ago, flocks of ibis in the sky. Then this landscape changed, too, when massive rocks, which had for a long time only showed up at the far horizon, now multiplied and came closer until, until, eventually, they reached the very edge of the water. Your antiquary has no special insight into what Caesar was thinking about then, but he suspects he thought about—monuments. Any look at topographical maps suggests as much. By the time one reaches the Elephantine and the First Cataract, the lay of the land is such that one is forced to think about monuments, especially if one has seen the enormous statues of Ramses II in Thebes.

And by the time one reaches the First Cataract, the mystery of those statues becomes suddenly transparent to all who sail that way, all the more so to a mind like Caesar’s. One can resist the magic of lights reflected on the river; one can even ignore the coquettish way in which the naked rocks bathe in the water, but even the world’s coldest realist cannot escape the impression that stone Ramseses exist in nature. And thus, Caesar, who, of course, had a very broad interest in monuments, suddenly realized why the pharaohs had been unable to resist the urge to carve monuments out of this incredibly rich material lying about in readiness, in every direction, as far as the eye could see. He sailed past gigantic black granite rocks and saw how strikingly similar they were to super-human giants. One did not even have to do much carving. Just pick the right stones and set them up on plinths.

With his beloved half-goddess at his side, himself an equal of the gods, surrounded by the stony giants who would serve as his future monuments, he rose higher and higher. Besides, everything was gigantic in Upper Egypt, and one has to take this into account when trying to understand Caesar’s extraordinary love for Cleopatra. Only at the very end of their trip, as they approached Kush, which was the name of the mysterious land to the south, did something unpleasant happen: signs of displeasure among the troops.

Because the army marched right behind them, but the men were eager to get back to Italy, where they were to be paid. It was their ninth month in Egypt already, and it seems that songs about the “bald whoremonger” suddenly resounded at the First Cataract, completely spoiling Caesar’s exalted mood. Urged by his men, the commander decided to turn back.

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Updated: Sep 19

From Jacek Bocheński's Naso the Poet:

There were other such cases, mainly among river deities. Take a fellow like Achelous, for example: a god, in fact, but whoever did not know any better might have taken him for, say, a moderately wealthy patrician, an owner of a seaside villa.

The villa was quite modest, rather old-fashioned, though stylish. A mossy mansion on a dike washed by waves, an interior without excessive luxuries or coffered ceilings, and lined with shells because the host was a river. He himself was delightful, even jovial. Once, on their way back from the hunt for the Calydonian boar, Theseus and his companions got stuck there. They just couldn’t get over the rising waters. Achelous, very effusive, invited them inside. Spring thaw in the mountains, he said, the flooding river carries even cows and horses, many men have drowned, I saw it all myself. It is better to wait it out at my place. The old man must have been a little bored in his lonely palace.

Theseus accepted the invitation. The table was immediately set, the cuisine was tasty, wine was brought in, shapely nymphs served it. Theseus glanced down the legs of one, then another, swallowed, and in order to say something, asked: and over there, he said, pointing his finger to a rock at sea, what is this island? The host had been waiting for it. Heheheh, he chuckled, you can’t see it from here, but there are actually five islands, and they were all once nymphs. They are called Echinades. He laughed and began to talk about how he slept with one of them. Then Neptune turned her into an island.

There was a slight commotion at the table. Despite so many painful lessons, people still did not believe in the omnipotence of the gods. The notorious atheist Piritous was among the guests. He said quite brutally: you regale us with fantasies, my dear host, and you greatly exaggerate this power of the gods. There is no way that they can transform everything into just anything anytime they like.

There was a consternation. The old and wise Lelex decided that something uplifting should be said. And do you know the story of Philemon and Baucis? An old, poor couple, a reed-covered hut, one goose on the farm. These paupers took in Jupiter and Mercury, disguised as humans staggering with exhaustion and hunger because they had been shown the door everywhere else. Lelex told very vividly how Baucis bustled around, set a fire in the fireplace, peeled vegetables. How the table’s leg was too short, so Philemon put a shell under it for balance. How they ate radishes, chicory, cheese, eggs baked in the ash, a piece of smoked ham which they took off the hook and cooked. They served everything they had in earthenware, with young wine, fruit, and honey for dessert. They even wanted to kill the goose, but the gods would not let them. Well, today, the old couple are trees. For when they were asked what they wanted for a reward, they replied that they would like to die at the same hour so that neither would have to attend the funeral of the other. I don’t tell fairy tales, added Lelex. In Phrygia, they showed me two tree trunks standing next to each other, into which the gods had turned Philemon and Baucis. I put a wreath there.

The story impressed Theseus. Only Piritous did not seem convinced. Lelex missed an important thing. He wanted to prove that the gods could do anything, but he talked mostly about the old folks’ honesty, which meant that there were good people in the world. The gods demanded worship, while the deed of Philemon and Baucis had little to do with religion. These poor people simply thought Jupiter and Mercury were hungry, so they fed them. Theseus said: miracles, miracles, what is all this business about miracles, I would like to hear more about them. An interesting discussion ensued, though somewhat chaotic, as is usually the case with wine.

Achelous intervened again. You see, my hero, he said, turning to Theseus, miracles consist in change. After the moralist Lelex, Achelous tried to illuminate the subject from a different angle, with the matter-of-factness of the analyst, which he, alas, was not. There are two kinds of transformation, he said. Either a body transforms only once and remains in this changed form, or it can transform many times and appear in various versions. For example, the sea god Proteus is seen as a youth, a lion, a boar, a serpent, and a bull. He can also be a stone, a tree, a stream, or a fire. Achelous made no mention of something he could not have known and which Ovid probably knew: that Plato saw in Proteus a sophist, another author an orator, and another yet—a politician. There were those for whom Proteus was an artist and others who took him for a dancer.

And how about Mestra! Achelous said. The daughter of that ever-hungry Erysichthon. She also turned into things: a fish, a deer, or a bird whenever her father wanted to sell her in order to buy food for himself. But what is significant is this: while Ceres punished him with eternal, unassuageable hunger, in order to do so, she did not turn herself into hunger—this was impossible—she had to use an intermediary. Ceres, the epitome of fertility, can never become hunger, there is no contact between her and hunger, the two never even come close, never merge into one another, so certain types of transformation are impossible.

Since the guests were curious about Erysichthon’s fate, Achelous, a storyteller rather than a theorist, eagerly entertained them with a longer story about the torment of this sacrilegious man who had eaten everything and ended up devouring himself. The audience, goblets in hand, munching this and that, experienced perverse impressions. But why all this talk, their host said suddenly, why all this talk about other miracles when you do not have to look far. In fact, I am able to take various shapes myself. A murmur rippled across the atrium. After all, a strong argument had just been used. Oh, added Achelous, I do not take any old shape without restriction, but I have already appeared in the form of a snake and a bull.

Here, the host sighed. His guests bombarded him with questions. How? When? Where? Oh, sorry, Achelous teased. No one likes to talk about their own defeats, although, frankly speaking, it is not a shame to lose to a great champion. Theseus, however, asked to hear the story.

Thomas Hart Benton, Achelous and Hercules, 1947, tempera and oil on canvas mounted on plywood, 627⁄8 x 2641⁄8 in. (159.6 x 671.0 cm.), Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Allied Stores Corporation, and museum purchase through the Smithsonian Institution Collections Acquisition Program, 1985.2

Have you ever heard about Deianira? the god asked. Of course, who has not heard about her, the wife of Hercules. Well, I tried to bed her and had to fight Hercules. As long as the duel was verbal, I was undoubtedly on top. Things got worse when Hercules said that in talking, yes, I was better, but maybe we should try to settle the matter like men. What to do! I shed my shirt and stood my ground. The fellow first threw sand in my face. I responded in kind. Then he grabbed me by my throat, then by my legs, then by the throat, then by the legs. But I flowed through his paws, I am a river, after all, and not a small one, either. Achelous was carried off by his own topic again. So then I dunk him, and how! He dives, but I dunk him again and hold him under. Only the fourth time, I remember well, the fourth time he somehow wriggled out, and then he sat down on me. I had a mountain on my back, I tell you, a mountain, such a burden fell on me. He pushed my lips to the ground, squeezed my neck, and started to choke me. That was when I turned into a snake—there was no other way. One flick, I slipped out of his hands, and stuck out my tongue at him. He laughed. I dealt with snakes in my cradle, he roared and grabbed me by the throat again, and, boy, did he have a grip! Iron tongs, not a hand, I tell you. I try this and that to break out, all for nothing. So, I tried the last defense. Suddenly, I became a bull in his embrace. He was struck stupid for a moment and let go. I caught my breath and went at him. He flexed his muscles and went at me. I did not win, of course. He grabbed me by the horns, knocked me down, dragged me in the sand, and finally drove my horns into the soil. And as if that were not humiliation enough, he tore one horn off—the nymphs later turned it into Cornucopia. Oh, there it is, Achelous said to his guests. A nymph bearing a horn came in to serve dessert. Maybe some fruit? asked the host. It was already daybreak, and the feast was over.

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Part of the Notorious Roman Trilogy by Jacek Bocheński

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More fun in the Orinoco:

[His tribe has compelled John Bober to wear thehateful boots, the Spanish uniform, and the Jaguar skin to a Judgment of Ants ceremony in the village of the Warao]

Gourds with kashiri were constantly circulating from hand to hand, but I took smaller and smaller sips, and finally, I only wet my lips. Despite this, completely unaccustomed to liquor, I felt slightly dizzy and terribly hot. In the cruelly steamy air, sweat poured off me in streams, and not only off me—off everyone.

At one point, in a fit of frustration and despair, I peeled off the jaguar’s skin, threw it onto the pier, and stamped on it passionately with my boot. I thought people would be outraged, but—no. On the contrary. Jekuana accepted my acti on with admiration, as a symbol of domination over the nature of the jaguar, and he cried out, clapping his hands:

“White Jaguar!… Our brother: White Jaguar!”

Encouraged by this, I stripped off my captain’s uniform and just as vigorously trod it on the ground. The Indians, led by the same intuition, took this as a sign of my contempt for the Spaniards, and they rejoiced amid shouts:

“The tamer of the Spaniards! The killer of the Spaniards!”

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