While on my way to Rome, I stopped off in Oxford for several weeks at my mother-in-law’s. If you set out to imagine a don’s house, it would look a lot like hers. Three stories packed with books, from the orderly shelves of the study where she keeps those closest to her heart and work to the half-sorted heaps and two-deep shelves of the landings where several lifetimes of reading are stored: hers, her ex-husband’s, her children’s. As I went up and down the stairs I’d often stop for a browse, wondering whether to take the Life of Johnson down to breakfast or an undiscovered author up to bed (Rose Macaulay, Barbara Pym, a whole canon of British fiction from every phase of postwar life). It was in this way, on an earlier visit, that I first began to love Iris Murdoch. This time I was caught by a name more familiar to Americans: Edmund Wilson. His Europe without Baedeker was propped next to some other old Hogarth Press editions, a fine Henry Green with curious art deco cover, some Virginia Woolf. Wilson, Edmund is a strange name to find in a house more accustomed to Wilson, Angus and Wilson, A.N., but there he was.
The book is a collected series of essays that Wilson wrote for the New Yorker during the months just before and after V-E day in the spring and summer of 1945. He visited London, Rome, Paris, Greece and points in between, much in the manner of the classical “Grand Tour” of Americans and Englishmen of the 19th century; hence the allusion to the bible of English-speaking travelers in the title. But as the back of the book announces, “He had no need of his Baedeker for the Second World War had just ended and ancient ruins were replaced with a whole heap of new ones.” Wilson knew Europe before the war, but his accounts are almost entirely free of nostalgia or even acknowledgment of the past. He wasn’t there to write a guidebook, and the guidebook genre makes a clumsy frame for what became a furious polemic against the English at the moment when only a few red rays of Empire remained. Every chapter details the petty hypocrisy of the British officials, the hash they make of everything they occupy, their casual racism, and also the destructive realpolitik of the little wars in Greece and Yugoslavia that followed the great war.
Better than a guide, though, Wilson had introductions. He seems to have done pretty much as he pleased: his Europe is populated by the officials he meets, Roman aristocrats, Russian emigrés, and, oh yes, plenty of prostitutes. It’s hard to imagine that today’s New Yorker would publish the journals of, say, a fifty-year-old sex tourist in Amsterdam, Moscow, and Thailand, but Wilson describes such encounters as naturally as he might a play attended or a new writer discovered. He picks up prostitutes whenever he feels “at a bit of a loose end,” whether in London, Paris, Rome, or Naples. At least his behavior certainly seems better than that of the GIs he sees “taking” women against the walls of the Via Veneto. With the manners of an old-fashioned gentleman, he pays his dolls extra to stay and talk, or takes them out for a nice dinner in a black market restaurant. He interviews one French prostitute he picks up in London who tells him (of course) that the English are bad lovers and the Americans among the best: “They were rather bruyants, but then they were ‘loin de chez eux‘ and no doubt behaved better at home; and, in any case, they were gay to go out with and really liked to have a good time.” Who wouldn’t be seduced now, reading this vision of our greatest generation in action!
Above all, Wilson writes as an American in Europe at the dawning of the age of American world domination. He declares the new world order in which the formerly provincial powers of Russia and the US move to the center: “The little European nations, among which England now must be counted, have fallen into the provincial role in relation to the larger societies of the Soviet Union and the United States.” He recognizes that the Second World War brought an end to European nationalism and praises the superior organization of Russian and American life that seems to push them toward his imagined social democratic utopia. As much as he recognized the defects of Stalinism, Wilson remained both a russophile and even a bit of what we’d now call a patriot.
Sixty years and a lot more separate me from Wilson and Wilson’s Europe. For one thing, I’m not on assignment or gifted with the mystical passepartout of something called a “war correspondent’s insignia.” I’m younger than Wilson was when he left, less established, and consequently as riven by self-doubt as the other was buoyed by being Edmund Wilson. (There’s a hilarious scene in Wilson’s travels when he visits ancient George Santayana in Rome and is briefly nonplussed to realize that the old philosopher has never read a word of his.) And, in a way unimagined by the men of Wilson’s heroic age, I occupy a curious subsidiary role, that of faculty spouse. Here at the American Academy of Rome they call us by the polite but uncanny name of “fellow travelers,” though no one is condescending.
Europe has long since been rebuilt. It moves in fits and starts toward a greater unity and a federal system closer to that of the United States than the former Soviet Union. Nationalism has never really gone away, though, especially in Italy, where it’s enjoying a resurgence of sorts under the bombastic “Forza Italia” party of Berlusconi. And, in what is perhaps the greatest difference between Wilson’s time and mine, when my plane touched down in Rome the new ruins were all behind me, in New Orleans. At no time since the end of the cold war has American dominance seemed more precarious, our superior attitudes more shambolic, our government so manifestly incompetent and indifferent to human suffering. Although a nominal liberal, I’m no less implicated in this indifference than our president and his cronies. In my newfound European refuge, I too have turned my back on my fellow citizens, as I lead my good life as a strange kind of American courtier, or, as I prefer to think of it, a member of a monastic order of artists, writers, intellectuals, and academics who, like the medieval monks of long ago, live within a walled cloister, its security assured by those captains of industry who still feel enough pricks of conscience to wash their money in the blood of culture.
Under the loggia in the Rome Academy courtyard, it’s easy to feel a sense of distance. The walls are decorated with fragments and ruins of old Europe, bits of late classical and medieval sculpture, inscriptions and graffiti from old Rome, and in this atmosphere I can slip into the long perspective. Is New Orleans our Pompeii? Pompeii too was a pleasure-dome kind of place, of brothels, circuses, and strange gods of the dark and decadent east. Its inhabitants knew they lived under the shadow of disaster, and yet were unable to save themselves or be saved. The end of the city was felt as a divine judgment and a crack in Roman imperial triumphalism. The analogical leaps come easy when you live in the ceaseless presence of the past, and forget the anxieties of the present only to give shape to them in work. People look for patterns. A guy I knew at college looks me up on the internet and sends me an email with a link to his new artworks. Among them, a poster: “It is of utmost importance that we repeat our mistakes as a reminder to future generations of the depth of our stupidity.” Santayana, vanished from Rome, is not amused.
Among the Rome Prize fellows is a woman researching the persecution of private Christian worship after Constantine’s conversion; she began her presentation with the AP photograph of the Ten Commandments being wheeled out from the Alabama courthouse. Is it really possible to understand the roots of our own church-state separation by looking at how the worship of the father who sees in secret was forced into the open? There’s also one of those excellent Indiana Jones–inspired archeologists whose frat-boy persona provides cover for a curious mind. He’s working on the Aurelian wall, a part of which runs through and under the academy property. “Why was it built so far from the center of the city?” he asks, “What were the late Romans afraid of?” His thesis: the building of walls is itself a sign of decline. A security wall is a symptom of collective insecurity. The barbarians are already in, so walls are built to pretend to keep them out. These academic historians are our augurs; they sift the entrails of the past to know what the future has in store for us, and only a few superstitious types will be willing to put up with the trappings and mumbo-jumbo of Foucault and Bourdieu long enough to heed their warnings. Someday, someone will ask why the Americans built that chain-link, barbed-wire monstrosity so far from what turned out to be the new border of NorteAmerica.