August 25, 2002
No Escape

Do you think reading old novels is a good way to escape from the horrors of the contemporary world? Do you think that a historical novel would be an even better bet? If so, don't try George Eliot's Romola. I was leafing through it in Border's a few days ago and ran across this passage, from Chapter 49, "The Pyramid of the Vanities" (the title character is taking a walk through Savonarola's Florence in, I think, 1499):

She chose to go through the great Piazza that she might take a first survey of the unparalleled sight there while she was still alone. Entering it from the south, she saw something monstrous and many-coloured in the shape of a pyramid, or, rather, like a huge fir-tree, sixty feet high, with shelves on the branches, widening and widening towards the base till they reached a circumference of eighty yards. The Piazza was full of life: slight young figures, in white garments, with olive wreaths on their heads, were moving to and fro about the base of the pyramidal tree, carrying baskets full of bright-coloured things; and maturer forms, some in the monastic frock, some in the loose tunics and dark-red caps of artists, were helping and examining, or else retreating to various points in the distance to survey the wondrous whole: while a considerable group, amongst whom Romola recognised Piero di Cosimo, standing on the marble steps of Orcagna's Loggia, seemed to be keeping aloof in discontent and scorn.

Approaching nearer, she paused to look at the multifarious objects ranged in gradation from the base to the summit of the pyramid. There were tapestries and brocades of immodest design, pictures and sculptures held too likely to incite to vice; there were boards and tables for all sorts of games, playing-cards along with the blocks for printing them, dice, and other apparatus for gambling; there were worldly music-books, and musical instruments in all the pretty varieties of lute, drum, cymbal, and trumpet; there were masks and masquerading-dresses used in the old Carnival shows; there were handsome copies of Ovid, Boccaccio, Petrarca, Pulci, and other books of a vain or impure sort; there were all the implements of feminine vanity-rouge-pots, false hair, mirrors, perfumes, powders, and transparent veils intended to provoke inquisitive glances: lastly, at the very summit, there was the unflattering effigy of a probably mythical Venetian merchant, who was understood to have offered a heavy sum for this collection of marketable abominations, and, soaring above him in surpassing ugliness, the symbolic figure of the old debauched Carnival.

This was the preparation for a new sort of bonfire - the Burning of Vanities. Hidden in the interior of the pyramid was a plentiful store of dry fuel and gunpowder; and on this last day of the festival, at evening, the pile of vanities was to be set ablaze to the sound of trumpets, and the ugly old Carnival was to tumble into the flames amid the songs of reforming triumph.

This crowning act of the new festivities could hardly have been prepared but for a peculiar organisation which had been started by Savonarola two years before. The mass of the Florentine boyhood and youth was no longer left to its own genial promptings towards street mischief and crude dissoluteness. Under the training of Fra Domenico, a sort of lieutenant to Savonarola, lads and striplings, the hope of Florence, were to have none but pure words on their lips, were to have a zeal for Unseen Good that should put to shame the luke-warmness of their elders, and were to know no pleasures save of an angelic sort - singing divine praises and walking in white robes. It was for them that the ranges of seats had been raised high against the walls of the Duomo; and they had been used to hear Savonarola appeal to them as the future glory of a city specially appointed to do the work of God.

These fresh-cheeked troops were the chief agents in the regenerated merriment of the new Carnival, which was a sort of sacred parody of the old. Had there been bonfires in the old time? There was to be a bonfire now, consuming impurity from off the earth. Had there been symbolic processions? There were to be processions now, but the symbols were to be white robes and red crosses and olive wreaths - emblems of peace and innocent gladness - and the banners and images held aloft were to tell the triumphs of goodness. Had there been dancing in a ring under the open sky of the Piazza, to the sound of choral voices chanting loose songs? There was to be dancing in a ring now, but dancing of monks and laity in fraternal love and divine joy, and the music was to be the music of hymns. As for the collections from street passengers, they were to be greater than ever - not for gross and superfluous suppers, but - for the benefit of the hungry and needy; and, besides, there was the collecting of the Anathema, or the Vanities to be laid on the great pyramidal bonfire.

Troops of young inquisitors went from house to house on this exciting business of asking that the Anathema should be given up to them. Perhaps, after the more avowed vanities had been surrendered, Madonna, at the head of the household had still certain little reddened balls brought from the Levant, intended to produce on a sallow cheek a sudden bloom of the most ingenuous falsity? If so, let her bring them down and cast them into the basket of doom. Or perhaps, she had ringlets and coils of 'dead hair?' - if so, let her bring them to the street-door, not on her head, but in her hands, and publicly renounce the Anathema which hid the respectable signs of age under a ghastly mockery of youth. And, in reward, she would hear fresh young voices pronounce a blessing on her and her house.

The beardless inquisitors, organised into little regiments, doubtless took to their work very willingly. To coerce people by shame, or other spiritual pelting, into the giving up of things it will probably vex them to part with, is a form of piety to which the boyish mind is most readily converted and if some obstinately wicked men got enraged and threatened the whip or the cudgel, this also was exciting. Savonarola himself evidently felt about the training of these boys the difficulty weighing on all minds with noble yearnings towards great ends, yet with that imperfect perception of means which forces a resort to some supernatural constraining influence as the only sure hope. The Florentine youth had had very evil habits and foul tongues: it seemed at first an unmixed blessing when they were got to shout 'Viva Gesu!' But Savonarola was forced at last to say from the pulpit, 'There is a little too much shouting of "Viva Gesu!" This constant utterance of sacred words brings them into contempt. Let me have no more of that shouting till the next Festa.'

Nevertheless, as the long stream of white-robed youthfulness, with its little red crosses and olive wreaths, had gone to the Duomo at dawn this morning to receive the communion from the hands of Savonarola, it was a sight of beauty; and, doubtless, many of those young souls were laying up memories of hope and awe that might save them from ever resting in a merely vulgar view of their work as men and citizens. There is no kind of conscious obedience that is not an advance on lawlessness, and these boys became the generation of men who fought greatly and endured greatly in the last struggle of their Republic. Now, in the intermediate hours between the early communion and dinner-time, they were making their last perambulations to collect alms and vanities, and this was why Romola saw the slim white figures moving to and fro about the base of the great pyramid.

Some desultory comments:

  1. The chapter provides a good Christian parallel for the various Muslim Committees for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice. As today, Savonarola recruits the young and easily-led for his Christian Taliban.
  2. Unlike pre-liberation Afghanistan, contributions to the bonfire seem to be voluntary, and there are some who stand aloof "in discontent and scorn" (end of first paragraph quoted).
  3. Does anyone really think there is any danger of similar scenes being enacted in the U.S. any time soon? Yes, preachers in the South sometimes stage bonfires of Black Sabbath and Eminem tapes, but not with the full force (or any force) of the government behind them. Do leftists really fear that John Ashcroft is going to send regiments of beardless youths -- perhaps Boy Scouts -- on house-to-house searches for subversive literature, porn, and video games?
  4. Did Tom Wolfe get the title for The Bonfire of the Vanities from Romola, or from some other source? His title does seem to allude to Savonarola's Florence.
  5. I had never gotten around to reading George Eliot, mostly because her best books are all quite long. I was thinking of tackling Middlemarch first. Should I read Romola instead? According to the blurb on the jacket of one edition, she thought it her best work, though it doesn't seem nearly as popular as several others.

    Actually, I hadn't realized that she wrote short stories, mostly because she wrote only two. I read "The Lifted Veil" yesterday -- very grim -- and will read "Brother Jacob" today. After that, I plan to tackle something more substantial: Middlemarch, Romola, Daniel Deronda, and Silas Marner are the obvious choices.
Posted by Dr. Weevil at August 25, 2002 10:29 AM

Tom Wolfe has said that Bonfire of the Vanities is indeed a Savonarola reference, although I've never heard him mention Romola.

Posted by: Aaron Haspel on August 25, 2002 02:09 PM

I recommend Middlemarch, but it is long. If you want to dip a toe in the water, try Silas Marner, which is a mere bagatelle. Both include insightful psychology and quite a bit of humor. But Marner goes awfully strong on the angel child theme. Or perhaps meme.

Posted by: Joanne Jacobs on August 25, 2002 07:09 PM

I agree with Ms. Jacobs. I would read in order Middlemarch, Silas Marner, Daniel Deronda, then Romola.

Posted by: Janis Gore on August 25, 2002 08:13 PM

"* Do leftists really fear that John Ashcroft is going to send regiments of beardless youths -- perhaps Boy Scouts -- on house-to-house searches for subversive literature, porn, and video games?"

If such a thing happened in America, would the Boy Scouts ever turn in the subversive lit, porn, and video games? Or just throw a really big party?

Posted by: Robert Crawford on August 25, 2002 11:28 PM

Yep, Wolfe knows Savonarola, but the Bonfire is a common trope in Renaissance studies - he didn't have to have read Romola, though he had (isn't his Ph.D. in 19th c. lit?).

I strongly recommend with long 19th c. fiction finding an edition that shows you the publication breaks - either syndication (in the case of things like Dickens) or the volume breaks (Eliot). Stop and take a break where the original audience got a break and the novel doesn't seem so long.

Posted by: Michael Tinkler on August 26, 2002 09:44 AM

I actually prefer Daniel Deronda (her last novel) to Middlemarch.

But don't give up on Romola. If you can get into it, you'll end up with a very different view of Savonarola who, despite his ambition, Eliot makes out to be a better person in most respects than the Florentine politicians around him.

Posted by: Dave Trowbridge on August 26, 2002 06:03 PM