Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Rebecca West - Tart and Acid

More evidence in Black Lamb and Grey Falcon of Rebecca West’s dry wit and acid tongue. First, the dry (or tart). Speaking of the emperor Diocletian, she observes,

It would have been easier for him if what we were told when we were young was true, and that the decay of Rome was due to immorality. Life, however, is never as simple as that, and human beings rarely so potent. There is so little difference between the extent to which any large number of people indulge in sexual intercourse, when they indulge in it without inhibitions and when they indulge in it with inhibitions, that it cannot often be a determining factor in history (145).

(She goes on to add, wisely, “The exceptional person may be an ascetic or a debauchee, but the average man finds celibacy and sexual excess equally difficult.”)

The acid comes into play when West goes on to describe the abuse and bloody violence to which Diocletian’s daughter was eventually subjected after her brutish husband died. She refused to marry another powerful man, who then brought “fraudulent legal proceedings against her. All her goods were confiscated, her household was broken up, some of her women friends were killed, and she and the boy Candidianus were sent into exile in the deserts of Syria. It is only in some special and esoteric sense that women are the protected sex” (147-8).


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