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[Alexander the Great: The Invisible Enemy: A Biography. O'Brien, John Maxwell. New York: Routledge. 1992. 336 pages. Bibl. Index. ISBN: 0-415-07254-9]
What if I told you that the greatest military leader of all time was defeated by the simple grape? Well, that is the assertion of Professor emeritus of History, John O'Brien. Let me refresh the reader with a summary of Alexander's life before I move onto the task at hand: O'Brien's unorthodox approach to this great leader's downfall and eventual defeat.
Alexander III of Macedon, commonly known as Alexander the Great, was a king of the ancient Greek kingdom of Macedon and a member of the Argead dynasty. He was born in Pella in 356 B.C. of his mother Olynpias and father, Phillip II. He went on to succeed his father to the throne at the age of 20. He died in Babylon. Alexander's spouses were Roxana (m. 327-323 B.C.), Stateira II (m. 324-323 B.C.), and Parysatis II (m. 324-323 B.C.). Polygamy was commonplace among royalty. After many successful military campaigns, Alexander established the largest empire the ancient world had ever seen. This empire stretched from the Balkans to modern-day Pakistan. During his life, Alexander served as King of Macedonia, from 336-323 B.C. During his time of leadership, he united Greece, reestablished the Corinthian League and conquered the Persian Empire.
The author's intent with this biography was with the general reader in mind and then, with an eye towards students of classical history and admirers of this great king. Military strategies and politics have been kept to a bare minimum while focusing on the inner life or mindset of Alexander. Those readers solely interested in the politics and military strategies need to look elsewhere. The ancient historian/general, Arrian, would be a good place. Also, the author has an extensive notes & bibliography section. The 43-page bibliography is one of the finest I've ever seen on Alexander. This book is not to be taken as a definitive study of the man because actual sources are at best, fragmentary and contradictory. The author is simply making an educated guess on his assertion based on the evidence.
Not only using the historical record at hand, but also relying on the modern concepts of behavioral sciences and depth psychology, the author concludes simply the why and how of Alexander's deterioration during the last years of his life: the pattern of drinking undiluted or uncut wine excessively as he grew older, turned him into a raging alcoholic. The king's obsession with everything Dionysus became his Achilles Heel. Dionysus was indeed the "Invisible Enemy" - the jealous man/god who drove mad all who did not properly worship him.
Most Greek tragedies tend to be family affairs and since alcoholism plays a significant character within these family groups, we can see how and why Alexander turned out the way he did. It is useful to acknowledge that Alexander's father, Phillip II, of Macedon (382-336 B.C.), was himself an alcoholic of the first order. So, in a sense, Alexander never had a chance because of behaviors learned and possible genetic markers.
As the author says in his Preface: "The most perplexing of all such considerations is Alexander's metamorphosis. Even as he performed one epic deed after another, this superb warrior began to exhibit a disturbing personal transformation. During the last seven years of his life Alexander became increasingly unpredictable, sporadically violent, megalomaniacal, and suspicious of friends as well as enemies. What could have caused such a lamentable transformation? This book explores that question in a way that requires the reader's forbearance until exposed threads begin to reveal patterns in Alexander's behavior."
Professor O'Brien is no historical revisionist attempting to make a name for himself but rather, his evidence is deeply rooted in many substantial and credible sources, classical as well as modern. I think his bibliography speaks volumes as proof of his deep readings and analysis on the subject. The reader is left to decide for themselves whether the grape was indeed the cause of Alexander's downfall, or merely a symptom of something else. The respect the author gives to the many factions of Alexander scholarship is what makes this book stand out from all the others in the field. He took a grave academic chance with his assertion and it paid off brilliantly.
During an email exchange with the author on 9/13/2020 he claimed: "I taught a course in Alexander the Great from an historiography point of view. Equally brilliant people could look at the same sources, one seeing a man who embodied the best in all mankind, the other seeing a rapacious narcissist who was a menace to the human race." Even after saying this, I think the good professor has stated his case in the most believable manner.
[About the Author: John Maxwell O'Brien is an emeritus professor of history (Queens College) who has written numerous articles and books on ancient history, medieval history, and the history of alcoholism. His celebrated biography of Alexander the Great has been translated into Greek and Italian. he also just recently completed a novel, Aloysius the Great (which parallels James Joyce's Ulysses). The author, who is 81 years young, currently resides in New Milford, Connecticut.]
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[ Aloysius the Great. O'Brien, John Maxwell. United States: Propertius Press. July 2020. 332 pages. ISBN: 978-1-71689-483-1]
What might your reaction be if I told you that an 80-year old, retired university professor living in small town Connecticut is channeling the spirit of Irish author, James Joyce?
Well, it's true! After reading the story I can't help but think something remarkable and supernatural is going on here. Those in the know make the claim that the only chapter worth reading in James Joyce's Ulysses is the 70-page chapter known as the "Ithaca episode," the penultimate section. It's also informally known as the "catechism chapter." The reader can rest assured that chapters 20 & 33 of O'Brien's novel are significant, but unlike Joyce, this author's entire story is worth reading.
Aloysius the Great is the timeless tale of Aloysius Gogarty, a young alcoholic American professor, pressured into becoming resident director of his colleges study-abroad program in England. He leaves the United States full of apprehension and resentment of the task before him. He is also disturbed at having to leave behind a young lady he has become obsessed with. While in England, Gogarty finds himself on a runaway roller-coaster of rebellious students, drugs, sex, and academic politics. As he continues to court his lady friend from afar, his drinking spirals out of control. Gogarty gets help in coping with his problems from an Oxford counterpart who is a wickedly witty and steadfast companion. They consume epic quantities of alcohol while concocting outlandish schemes to address these challenges. Gogarty not only survives the cacophony of events, but emerges on the other side as a hero and crowns his achievements by coming to grips with his alcoholism.
O'Brien's novel is a powerful Rabelaisian romp fest that at first read can be a companionate volume to Joyce's Ulysses. They should actually be read together, if you have the time, to get the most out of this book. After the first reading of this novel I could not stop thinking of the Irish folk song, "Seven Drunken Nights." Even if I had never read any of Joyce's works, this story is a fine, well-crafted character novel bubbling with clever dialogue and humor. If the reader happens to be Joycean aficionado like myself, it becomes a treasure chest of Joycean puns, saucy dialogue, comedic relief, and many allusions to Ulysses. That's why chapters 20 & 33 are so important to this work.
As a Joycean knock-off, the author definitely achieved his goal and was enormously competent at it, as shown by the following scenes in the novel. At Ensign Ewart's Pub, the Scottish barkeep is giving Aloysius advice on whiskey:
"Now, let me tell you something about whiskey. It's like a woman: it's all a matter of taste. I can give you something smooth with a long, round finish; something spicy with a peaty aftertaste; or something soft with a heathery, honey flavor. What suits your mood today?"
This Scottish barkeep further advises Gogarty on the wisdom of when you know you've had enough to drink, which is hilarious:
"Me dear departed father once told me, he said, 'Billy boy, every man has his own God-given quota when it comes to drink, and you'll know when yours has been reached. That'll be the crossroads. Either you'll keep sucking it up like a sponge or you'll step back and watch the other laddies blow themselves up with it.' I reached my limit seven years and thirteen days ago."
"How did you know your time was up?"
"When it dawned on me I was allergic to the stuff."
"Allergic? How did you know you were allergic to alcohol?"
"Because when I overdid it, I kept breaking out in handcuffs."
"I choke on a mouthful of Devchars, spitting some of it on the bar. He wipes up the mess cheerfully, pleased with my reaction."
I could log many more pages of this kind of Joycean humor but it would spoil all the fun for the reader. I highly recommend this novel for the Joycean aficionado as well as for the general reader looking for a good page-turning story with lots of punch. It is the kind of novel to be read twice, or even thrice, to pick up all manner of nuances, puns and stylistic allusions missed in the first reading. For this, a previous reading of Ulysses would be helpful.
[John Maxwell O'Brien is an emeritus professor of history (Queens College) who has written numerous articles on ancient history, medieval history, and the history of alcoholism. His bestselling biography, Alexander the Great: The Invisible Enemy (Routledge), has been translated into Greek and Italian, and he authored the article on alcoholism in the Oxford Classical Dictionary. Professor O'Brien's second life has been devoted to his first love, creative writing, and he has published a variety of poems and short stories in literary journals. Aloysius the Great is his debut novel and was inspired by James Joyce's Ulysses.]
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Being an observer of human nature and society-at-large, I came to the conclusion a long time ago that humankind has the innate inability to learn from history. Even though history does not repeat itself, as is the prevailing common myth, it has echo's and shadows that modern humans latch onto in a most negative and self-destructive manner.
In today's America of 2020, people have latched onto some of the ugliest echo's and shadows of the past. The cause of this reality is a multiplicity of events and fears leading to a perfect storm: COVID-19 pandemic; permanent job loss on a massive scale; historic wild fires caused by a climate crisis; social-political-religious divisions fueled by the irresponsible rhetoric of the President of the United States; and social media driven conspiracy theories fed to the public twenty-four-seven. We are at war with one another and the outcome does not look good.
Looking back to Corfu of 427 B.C., we can note a comparison of civil strife and unrest leading to death and destruction, not unlike today. The historian, Thucydides, in his The War of the Peloponnesians and the Athenians, book 3, section 81-85, edited by Jeremy Mynott, he says:
So it was that every kind of wickedness took root in Greece as a result of these civil conflicts. Simplicity of spirit, which is such an important part of true nobility, was laughed to scorn and vanished, while people were largely divided into opposite and mutually suspicious camps. No words were binding enough, no oath terrible enough, to reconcile them; all those who were sufficiently strong calculated that it was hopeless to expect any security and preferred to protect themselves against injury rather than rely on trust. And the less intelligent were the ones who most often came out on top. They were afraid that because of their own shortcomings and their opponents' cleverness they might be defeated in any battle of words and be caught unawares by plots devised by their quick-witted opponents. They therefore committed themselves boldly to action. Those, on the other hand, who disdainfully assumed that they would foresee things well in advance and that there was no need to secure by action what would come to them by power of intellect - they were instead taken off-guard and perished.
Thucydides goes on to say further, specifically about Corfu:
It was in Corcyra (Corfu), then, that most of these outrages were first perpetuated. there were all the acts of retaliation you might expect men to commit when they see an opportunity for revenge on rulers who have shown them more arrogance than moderation. There were the deliberate crimes of those who were prepared to break the law to escape their familiar treadmill of poverty and who as a result of their hardships cast especially covetous eyes on their neighbours' property. And there were acts of savage and pitiless aggression by people who were not in this case motivated by personal gain but who turned particularly on their equals in a frenzy of uncontrollable passion. At this crisis in the breakdown of civic life human nature, which is in any case conditioned to defy the laws in doing wrong, now triumphed over them and revelled in showing itself powerless against passion, too strong for justice and hostile to anything superior. No one would otherwise have put revenge before reverence and profit before the avoidance of wrongdoing, but for the pernicious power of envy. As for the common laws about such things, from which everyone derives hopes of their own salvation when facing disaster, men see fit to abolish them in advance when they are inflicting revenge on others, instead of leaving them in place against some time of danger when they might need their protection.
In conclusion, I don't have any real solutions for our American civilization today, other than one: the reading and analysis of history from youth, continuing into adulthood. And hopefully, by doing so, we can make a little bit of progress towards an enlightened future for our children and grandchildren.