Maury Green sees a self-defeating irony in my plan to give up watching sex and violence on TV and return to Will Durant’s “Story of Civilization.”
“I don’t see,” he writes, “how you can give up S and V by resorting to Will Durant’s ‘Story of Civilization.’ I’ve read the whole thing twice, and like most history it’s about 99% S and V. Besides, you won’t like the ending.”
True, history is saturated with sex and violence, and Will Durant was not finicky about describing it in salacious detail in his graceful style. It was said of Durant that he was especially fond of beautiful and intelligent women, and I saw it demonstrated when he engaged my wife in an intimate conversation at dinner one evening when he was 93.
Durant once said that of all the people who strutted through his pages, the one he most admired was Madame de Pompadour, the influential mistress of France’s King Louis XV.
No affair in history is more steeped in sex and violence than that of Abelard and Heloise, whose story Durant tells tenderly. Abelard (1079-1144) was a brilliant thinker, teacher and theologian; Heloise was a bright and pretty 16-year-old. Her uncle engaged Abelard to live in his house to teach the girl.
They fell in love. Abelard wrote later: “Under the pretext of study we spent our hours in the happiness of love. . . . Our kisses outnumbered our reasoned words, our hands sought less the book than each other’s bosoms, love drew our eyes together.”
Heloise became pregnant and went to Brittany to have the child. They were secretly married. Abelard sent her to a convent. Her uncle was enraged. He hired thugs to break into Abelard’s apartment and castrate him. Abelard took the vows of a monk, Heloise took the veil. But their letters to each other remain as classics.
Then there was Helen, whose face was said to have “launched a thousand ships.” Wife of the Greek Menelaus, Helen ran off to Troy with Paris, son of the Trojan king, thus precipitating the Trojan war. When Paris was killed she married his brother, and when Troy was captured, she betrayed him to Menelaus.
Durant also lingers over the story of Cleopatra, queen of Egypt, who was so hungry for power that she seduced Julius Caesar, then his protege, Mark Antony. She bore Caesar one child, Antony at least three. When Octavian defeated her fleet and Antony’s at Actium, she realized it was time to seduce Octavian. He resisted. She sent a false message to Antony that she was dead. He fell on his sword and, dying, he asked to be carried to her tower. Not wanting to be taken to Rome for display in Octavian’s triumph, she put an asp to her breast and died.
Sex and violence were never more dramatically entwined than in the story of Salome, stepdaughter of Herod, tetrarch of Galilee in the time of Jesus. Herod divorced his first wife and married Herodias, his deceased brother’s wife. When John the Baptist reproached him for this, Herodias goaded him into throwing the Baptist into prison. Then she persuaded her daughter, Salome, to ask for the Baptist’s head as a reward for dancing at her stepfather’s birthday feast.
Reluctantly, Herod chopped off the Baptist’s head and had it delivered to Salome on a platter. In the Strauss opera, “Salome,” Salome lusts after the Baptist but is rejected, and she kisses his dead lips. Herod also is supposed to have lusted after his stepdaughter. Scripture does not verify all that lusting or describe the famous “Dance of the Seven Veils.” But we who enjoy sex and violence, and opera, believe them.
Henry VIII of England beheaded two of his wives, among numerous other people, and Elizabeth I, his daughter by one of his beheaded wives, beheaded not only Mary, Queen of Scots, but also several good men, including Robert Devereux, earl of Essex, who had been her favorite courtier. Though she loved flirtations, the evidence is that Elizabeth was a virgin to the last.
Durant did not get as far into modern times as World War I, but it would have been pleasant to read what he might have had to say about Mata Hari. I suspect that he would have been sympathetic toward her, as he is toward most women in history.
Mata Hari is regarded as the epitome of femmes fatale, the seductive and exotic Parisian strip dancer. Mata Hari (that was not her real name) was a sensation in Paris (she danced almost in the nude) and French officers were thought to confide military secrets to her during their amours.
I tend to believe the revisionist conclusion that Mata Hari was not very pretty, had a poor figure, was used by the German spy system to pad expense accounts, was really trying to help the French, and in any case did not deserve her fate. She was stood before a French firing squad and shot.