Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Thursday, April 22, 2010

the desire of the Sybil

It’s generally understood that books are read differently in different generations: cultural changes bring themes and images to the forefront that might have been invisible, or wholly subdued, to a previous generation of readers. It took the rise of Romanticism and its associated revolutions to cast Milton’s Satan in a heroic light; existentialism made King Lear seem to be, not some strange figure from an obscure past, but our contemporary.

This can happen to lesser works as well. Recently I was re-reading The Lord of the Rings and began to wonder how it might be read fifty years from now, assuming that our scientists are able to extend the human lifespan significantly. Might it not be that Bilbo and Gollum will become more significant figures in the minds of future readers? And might not the Ring itself take on a different aura of meanings?

Think of Bilbo, in appearance “unchanged” in his eleventy-first year, who nevertheless confesses, “I am old, Gandalf. I don't look it, but I am beginning to feel it in my heart of hearts. . . Why, I feel all thin, sort of stretched, if you know what I mean: like butter that has been scraped over too much bread. That can't be right.” And think of Gollum, to whom the Ring has given “unnaturally long life”: in the end, “He hated it and he loved it, as he hated and loved himself.” In the lives of these two characters the One Ring does not appear as a Ring of Power so much as a Ring of Immortality, a ring that gives biological life without the means to enjoy it or profit from it. How many people in the future will identify in a particularly strong way with Bilbo and Gollum in this respect? — and maybe especially with Gollum, who unlike Bilbo is unable to relinquish the Ring, unable to escape or even lessen its power over him. Will biological life become all the more precious to people as they enjoy it less, according to the implacable law of diminishing returns?

Similarly, what will future generations make of that terrifying epigraph to Eliot’s poem The Waste Land, taken from Petronius’s Satyricon? The epigraph concerns the Cumaean Sybil, who made the mistake of asking the gods for extraordinarily long life without also asking for youth, so that her body wthered and shrank almost to nothingness. One of the main characters of the Satyricon, the ludicrous Trimalchio, says, “For I myself once saw with my own eyes the Sibyl hanging in a cage, and when the boys asked her, ‘Sibyl, what do you want?’ she answered ‘I want to die.’”

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