1.22.2009

Drop Tacitus!

Now that at least one of my four readers is coming around, I'm motivated to begin anew on the timeless questions.

In my favorite book ever, Herman Melville's The Confidence-Man, in chapter 5, titled, "THE MAN WITH THE WEED MAKES IT AN EVEN QUESTION WHETHER HE BE A GREAT SAGE OR A GREAT SIMPLETON," the elusive con-man of the title sets his sights on a college sophomore who he sees leaning over the railing of the river boat, holding a copy of Tacitus (in Greek!).

The con-man begins his work:
"Pray, now my young friend, what volume have you there? Give me leave," gently drawing it from him. "Tacitus!" Then opening at random, read: "In general a black and shameful period lies before me." "Dear young sir," touching his arm alarmedly, "don't read this book. It is poison, moral poison. Even were there truth in Tacitus, such truth would have the operation of falsity, and so still be poison, moral poison. Too well I know this Tacitus. In my college-days he came near souring me into cynicism. Yes, I began to turn down my collar, and go about with a disdainfully joyless expression."

And later, "Without confidence himself, Tacitus destroys it in all his readers." If you don't understand how that kind of unringing undorsement can pique someone's (a sophomore's?) interest, you won't understand where I'm headed here...

My interest spurred by Melville's con-man's admonishings, I picked up Tacitus' Annals last year, determined to find this dreadful lack of confidence. All I found was this:
Agrippina's (Nero's mother & sister to Caligula) seductiveness was a help. Visiting her uncle frequently - ostensibly as a close relation - she tempted him into giving her the preference and into treating her, in anticipation, as his wife. Once sure of her marriage, she enlarged the scope of her plans and devoted herself to scheming for her son [Nero]...

Did anyone spot Tacitus' legendary lack of confidence? A clue: Wallace Stevens knew of it:
For the listener, who listens in the snow,
And, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.

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