The surface of things

March 1, 2010

Commentary – Romanitas, Chapter 1: ‘Embalmed’

Romanitas – the book and the series – begins with a funeral. To be more precise, it begins with the funeral of Leo and Clodia, the most glamorous members of the Imperial dynasty. This chapter serves both as an introduction to McDougall’s (re)imagined Roman world, and to the family who control it. McDougall does a very clever thing here: she taps into the idea that we only see people – and families – for who they are at funerals, and then she subverts this idea by demonstrating the utter superficiality of everything that the Novian family does in this whole chapter.

The focus here is on the appearance, not the reality. Marcus has been given a pre-prepared eulogy, and can see ‘that a touching youthful inarticulacy had been written into it. He could feel places where he should stammer, where he shouldn’t be able to go on, where there ought to be a poignant tremble in his voice’. The speech has nothing to do with the people his parents really were; it’s a performance for the longvision cameras that are busy beaming it out across the Empire.

McDougall conveys the sense of disgust and horror Marcus feels at being made to deliver such an insincere oration, as well as the trapped claustrophobia of the funeral atmosphere. Everything’s all about surface, not substance: Marcus’ parents have been embalmed and made young again; they don’t look like themselves. Marcus’ mad uncle Lucius falls sobbing upon Leo’s body; Lucius’ son Drusus murmurs to Marcus, ‘It’ll look better if we do it [restrain Lucius].’

One is reminded instantly of the modern, real-world political arena, with its emphasis on the 24-hour news cycle, soundbites and images. This chapter is a powerful critique of the way such things have caused an intellectual impoverishment both of politicians – who are now beholden to spin doctors – and the public. Everything becomes a meaningless performance, where the manner in which a public figure does something is more important than what he or she actually does. The words of Marcus’ speech bear no resemblance to the parents he is eulogising, but that doesn’t matter, as long as he manages to imbue them with just the right amount of inarticulate grief. Such a system traps both those who perpetuate it and those who are subject to it.

My first thought when I read this chapter was that McDougall must’ve begun it around the time of Princess Diana’s death and the media circus that surrounded it. In these 14 pages, she wrestles with the changes in British attitudes to public grieving in much the same way that Stephen Frears and Peter Morgan did in the film The Queen. (There’s even a line where one of the members of the public audience cries ‘poor boy!’ in relation to Marcus that seems a straight evocation of the way people responded to Prince Harry and Prince William at the time of Diana’s funeral.) The Novian dynasty seem to have better PR people than the Windsors, however, as they recognise the value of an ostentatious display of public grief and a few well-chosen words to make Leo and Clodia’s deaths mean what they want to mean. But in showing us the events through Marcus’ horrified eyes, McDougall drives home her criticism of this spin-driven ‘public outpouring of grief’. In making their grief public, the Novians are able to manage the public’s reaction to Leo and Clodia’s deaths, using mourning as a form of manipulation. The very insincerity of their sadness allows them to maintain an imperial distance from the ordinary people, while conveying the illusion of closeness. It’s a critique not just of the effects of televisual emotional manipulation, but of television itself, and it works brilliantly.

Tacked on at the end, almost as an afterthought, is a tale of the Novian hereditary madness that seems at odds with the political commentary and realism of the earlier portion of the chapter. But in fact this section – which seems as melodramatic as something out of I, Claudius – is in perfect accord with the Novian funerary rites. Both are about the Novians’ desperate obsession with style over substance. The curse comes about, in effect, because a Novian, charged with subduing a rebellious conquered population, wanted to demonstrate his tough military credentials, and crucified a young member of the resistance, with disastrous consequences.

It’s a really interesting beginning, with lots of food for thought. This theme of Novian bread and circuses is one to which McDougall constantly returns throughout the series, worrying away at it, keeping it at the back of readers’ minds. As with most of the things McDougall explores in the series, this political commentary is never referred to directly, the better to allow it to develop in readers’ minds as they progress through the books. We, the readers, see the Novians for who they really are in this chapter which is all about the superficiality of the Novians’ behaviour. It’s very cleverly done.


2 Responses to “The surface of things”

  1. Tommy said

    Thank you! I am also a romanitas fan since “Romanitas” came out. Your longvision has reminded me the empire is big, and i am not alone in liking the book(compare to many disapprovals in amazon).

    Looking forward to see more of your work soon!

    • dolorosa12 said

      Hi Tommy! I’m glad you like the site, and welcome to Longvision. I hope you’ll continue reading and commenting. It’s always great to find new Romanitas fans!

      I’m not sure if you use either Livejournal or Facebook, but there is a Livejournal Romanitas community here and a Facebook group here if you’re interested. Looking forward to seeing you around.

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