A Malcontented Blogger Turns His Back on Aggression: Roman Empire/Super Bowl Edition

If ever an event exists that epitomizes Late Empire decadence, it’s the Super Bowl, the trashy teenage illegitimate daughter of Walt Disney and Joan Rivers.

First, there’s the obscenity of the salaries of these gladiators who essentially entertain us through ritualistic war, a string of overhyped “battles,” each becoming less memorable as the Roman numerals march on into Super Bowl oblivion.  Admittedly, it can be fun to watch these impressive specimens of predatory machismo smash into one another, sidestep tackles, propel perfect spirals, and make acrobatic diving fingertip grabs (though their inability to master the snap count can become tedious).[1] Nevertheless, you can’t help but wonder if the over-compensation for these essentially physical skills is indicative of some sort of skewed cultural atavism that harkens back to Spartacus.  Why, for example, does the secondary coach of the Baltimore Ravens, whoever he is, earn considerably more per annum than Pulitzer winning novelist Richard Ford?  Not to mention Deion Sanders[2] whose career earnings undoubtedly dwarf Cormac McCarthy’s, Toni Morrison’s, and Philip Roth’s combined?

Because our priorities are fucked-up perhaps?[3]

Can you guess which house belongs to Deion Sanders and which to Robert Frost?

Second, there’s the Roman circus of the halftime show, which began innocently enough in the late Sixties with marching bands, but now features antediluvian rockers like Steve Tyler and the Who or commercial hiphoppers like the Black-Eyed Peas.  These performances nearly always end up flat (Prince and Springsteen being exceptions) and occasionally can be painful to watch (Grandpa Jagger frenetically cavorting back and forth across the stage as if it were strewn with red hot coals).[4]  I’m far too lazy to research the cost of these extravaganzas, but I suspect we could coax the Dalai Lama and Thich Nhat Hahn to meditate on the artificial turf at halftime for free, which would be more entertaining than 90% of the halftime shows I’ve suffered through.

Brittany Spears passing gas at the 2008 spectacle

What, may you ask, binds together all of these facets of this undeclared national holiday – the verbal jostling of the interminable lead-ins (Terry Bradshaw bickering with Howie Long) – the game itself, the outsized attempt at halftime entertainment, the pratfalls of the commercials?

Aggression, that’s what.  Aggression is what separates the winners from the losers, those who pay sticker price from those who browbeat the salesperson into surrender, those who claw their way to the top from those who rely on honor and integrity to guide their lives, those who bury their helmets into the runner’s chest from those who wanly attempt an arm tackle.

Aggression is what fuels capitalism, and sports is a wonderful training ground for aggression, from the bestial grunting of tennis players returning volleys to the narcissistic celebratory endzone fandangoes of wide receivers.  These gladiators are worshipped in their high schools and wooed by head coaches who during recruiting banter with mothers they would never actually associate with otherwise. No wonder most professional football players possess Caligula-sized egos. These mannish boys have clawed their way to fame and fortune (the latter thanks in part to their labor unions).  

Who can blame them for copping the Conan the Barbarian look?

Mike Roemer Photography Inc

[1] When I played junior varsity football for the mighty Summerville Green Wave, we were so collectively stupid that we could only go on “hut one.”

[2] I had the misfortune to share an elevator with Deion once, who exuded all of the warmth of a Secret Service agent as he avoided eye contact with the children asking for his autograph.

[3] Here’s a longish quote copped from Business Insider website that discusses one of the reasons for the fall of the Roman Empire: 

The richest 1 percent of the Romans during the early Republic was only 10 to 20 times as wealthy as an average Roman citizen. Now compare that to the situation in Late Antiquity when an average Roman noble of senatorial class had property valued in the neighborhood of 20,000 Roman pounds of gold. There was no “middle class” comparable to the small landholders of the third century B.C.; the huge majority of the population was made up of landless peasants working land that belonged to nobles. These peasants had hardly any property at all, but if we estimate it (very generously) at one tenth of a pound of gold, the wealth differential would be 200,000! Inequality grew both as a result of the rich getting richer (late imperial senators were 100 times wealthier than their Republican predecessors) and those of the middling wealth becoming poor.”

[4] To be fair, I saw the Stones in 2019, and they were terrific. The Supper Bowl performance was an aberration.

Southern Gothic

Where to begin?

How about with invasion, muskets versus bows and arrows. Wind borne lamentations. Later, clinking chains, songs of woeful repetition.  The worst kind of karma, evil spreading out in concentric circles, spreading like an oil spill, sullying every man, woman, and child.

This degradation is Faulkner’s great theme: the darkness of terrible wrongs blighting the landscape, passing from generation to generation, destroying both the rich and the poor, Joe Christmas and Quentin Compson.

These shadows – genocide, slavery, the War – incubate the genre’s monsters: incestuous aristocrats, necrophilic halfwits, sadistic Alabama sheriffs – not to mention the supernatural, hoodoo and haunts.  No wonder Southern Gothic has become a genre unto itself.

WB Yeats is purported to have said, “All of the leprechauns are dying out because no one believes in them anymore.”[1]

You need people who believe in the supernatural for Gothicism to thrive.

When I was little, I remember asking our maid Alice who was part Cherokee and part African if she believed in ghosts, and she told me that she had seen her father standing in her backyard the night after his death. Sitting in a Ford Fairlane 500 in the parking lot of the Summerville Piggly Wiggly, I could see wonder and dread in her face when she told me about that visitation.  I heartily believe if you had pumped Alice with sodium pentothal, she would have sworn she had seen her father’s ghost in that backyard. The dog was howling she said; a howling dog is a sign of a death.

Lots of white folks believe in ghosts as well.  Even some of my students believe.

So, down here, or at least in the Lowcountry of South Carolina, I suspect that ghosts aren’t in any imminent danger of dying out.

* * *

Then, there’s that other non-supernatural strain of Southern Gothicism, the suicide hanging in the attic, the alcoholic great aunt who gave birth to the idiot child.

A few years ago at one of Shirley Gibson’s killer dinner parties, I got a heavy dose of that more mundane variety of Southern Gothic when I sat next to [potentially off-putting name-dropping warning] Walker Percy’s niece (Melissa).  She told me the story of her grandmother’s death, her plunging her car into a creek with Melissa’s father in the car. Her father, only nine years at the time (six years younger than his brother Walker), somehow managed to extricate himself from the automobile, but his mother would or could not escape.  Uncle Walker, she told me, regarded the death as a suicide. Suicide runs in the family.  Walker Percy’s grandfather, the son of a Civil War hero, had killed himself with a shotgun; his son, Melissa’s grandfather (Walker’s daddy), also committed suicide.

After crawling his way up the creekside, Melissa’s father waited on the side of a desolate Mississippi road in the middle of nowhere, his mother a corpse in the car.  He sat there alone for twenty minutes. Melissa said that the next car that came by was Uncle Walker’s.  They, along with another brother, were now the orphans of suicides, fortunate to find a good home with their uncle but forever darkened by the ever-spreading shadow. At the time, her father was still alive – though not alive – in a nursing home, one of the living dead.

The Attic by Wesley Moore III

Of course, as they widen, concentric waves eventually dissipate, and it seems logical that with the passing of years and with the homogenization of the South, Southern Gothicism might well be on the wane as a literary genre.  I do know that the Charleston brogue has about had it. A few of my students’ parents still motor aboot in boo-oats casting for shramp, but none of their sons and daughters do.  They clept their mamas and daddies moms and dads. I’m a dad myself.[2]

Nevertheless, Southern Gothic seems more durable than our regional accents, at least as long as Cormac McCarthy, Donna Tartt, and Ron Cooper dream into being their dark worlds where the ghosts of the past still rattle their chains, where bigotry, fanaticism, and incest still breed monsters.  People seem to enjoy the macabre, get a rush from skulls and insanity.  It makes them feel alive I suppose.

Some types of creepiness do possess a certain amount of charm:

Southern Gothic by Maggie Taylor

Others not so much.

Or so it is writ/tattooed . . .


[1]I  can’t remember where I read this quote, and I so want it to be true that I dare not attempt to verify it.In fact, I’m starting to feel like a ghost myself sometimes.

[2] In fact, I’m starting to feel like a ghost myself sometimes.

America’s Dystopia Jones

Motorcycle Gang in The Wild OneOh, for those quaint days of yore when the worst your uptight cinematic town had to fear was a motorcycle gang led by Marlon Brando cutting doughnuts on Main Street, shattering the plate glass windows of hardware stores. [TRAILER HERE]

how-to-be-on-the-walking-deadNowadays, it’s brain-eating zombies upsetting the ambiance of the townships of Televisionland, shuffling like Roman Legions down Martin Luther King Boulevard, crossing the tracks, headed toward gated communities guarded by underpaid military retirees in police uniforms.

For whatever reason, we First World consumers crave catastrophe, whether we’re curling up on the sofa with Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, programming our DVRs to record the latest episode of The Walking Dead, or listening to the dulcet intonations of NPR announcers bringing us up to date on Ebola and ISIS.

Horror is all the rage in Late Empire America. Walking your rescue dog past young Bentley’s house, you can hear heavy gunfire and explosions emanating from his manipulations of a video console. Hmm, sounds like he’s playing Mortal Kombat Armageddon, or is it World of Welfare: Let’s Kill the Bloodsuckers?

Edwin Butler-Bayliss

Edwin Butler-Bayliss

All of this got me to wondering when the West quit writing utopias a la Thomas More and started portraying the future world as a nightmare. Of course, my go-to unscholarly source is Wikipedia, and it anoints Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver Travel’s as the first dystopian “literature “– though Oedipus Rex might lay some claim to being the first with its plague-ridden Thebes ruled by a tainted king whose sexual misdeeds make the Clinton/Lewinski dalliance seem downright wholesome in comparison. But Oedipus Rex predates empire, and I suppose you must have an empire, a nation state, or a fucked-up planet to qualify as a dystopian society. My colleague Aaron Lipka tells me the civilization must be a fallen one. I’d add that God has to be Dead.