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Unspoken Comparison in Tacitus’s Germania

Unspoken Comparison in Tacitus’s Germania

Tacitus’s Germania is a thoroughly itemized ethnographic text detailing the geography, climate and social structure of Germany and its people. Unlike his Histories and Annales Tacitus doesn’t offer a story line to be followed, but instead, he nudges forth an unspoken comparison to be made between two cultures.

Each of the Germania’s 46 passages deals with a particular area of German civilization among which Tacitus develops a two-tiered theme. The two points he tries to make generally clear are the following:

A) The Germans are barbaric, savage and stupid…but…

B) The Germans are quaint, noble and have some redeeming qualities that make them a formidable enemy worthy of fighting.

However, these two points don’t manifest themselves during the Germania’s first passage on physical location.

Tacitus lets us know right off the start where Germany is positioned in terms of its bordering territories and informs us among several other geographical details that the rivers Rhine and Danube separate Germany from the Galli, Rhaeti and Pannonii.

The name “Germany” according to Tacitus originates from the name of a tribe that drove the Gauls out of what would ultimately become German territory. Ever since those times, the name “Germany” was believed to inspire terror when heard.

Tacitus makes mention of the fact that within sections of their mythological and religious structure, Hercules and Ulysses carry significant influence and this contributes to his theory (along with their distinctive looks) that the Germans developed their particula…

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…bject of divination. The horse to the Germans is the most trusted species of augury and at public expense they have white horses kept in sacred groves for the taking of auspices which is conducted by noting the horse’s various snorts and neighs.

Tacitus claims that business was not tended to without being armed and for the younger men, a sword and shield would be bestowed upon them at a certain age which he describes as a seeming equivalent to the Roman toga of manhood. To be surrounded by a large group of picked young armed men was a prestigious and honorable thing, or as Tacitus would put it, “an ornament in peace and defense in war”.

The Germans according to Tacitus found their nobility through war and felt that it was better to receive from blood and wounds than to receive from hard work and sweat tilling a field.

Comparing Gravity’s Rainbow and Vineland

Comparing Gravity’s Rainbow and Vineland

From the author of Gravity’s Rainbow (1973), the famous apocalyptic novel of World War II, comes Vineland (1990), a trip into the California of 1984: a Reagan-era wasteland of yuppies, malls, food-preservatives and, above all, the Tube: the Cathode-Ray Tube. The opening line of Gravity’s Rainbow, “A screaming comes across the sky,” which describes a V-2 rocket on its lethal mission, finds a way into Pynchon’s latest work, albeit transformed: “Desmond was out on the porch, hanging around his dish, which was always empty because of the blue jays who came screaming down out of the redwoods and carried off the food in it piece by piece.”

One passage describes war. Another tells of birds stealing dog food. The change in scope is huge, but misleading. Some readers may scoff at first at Pynchon’s subject matter-hippie holdovers running from narcs-but there is no mistaking Vineland’s connection to Gravity’s Rainbow. The newer work acts as a corollary to the older one.

The book begins with Zoyd Wheeler waking up one summer morning with some Froot Loops with Nestle’s Quick on top. He lives in Vineland County, a foggy, fictional expanse of Northern California which makes a great refuge for wilting flower children. Zoyd is one of them-a part-time keyboard player, handyman and marijuana cultivator who acts publicly crazy (he jumps through glass windows once a year on television) to qualify for mental disability benefits. He and his teenage daughter Prairie both mourn the disappearance of Frenesi Gates, who was mother to one and wife to the other. Frenesi was a radical filmmaker during the 60’s until she was seduced by Brock Vond, a federal prosecutor and overall bad-guy/nutcase who turns her from hippie radical to FBI informant. With her help he manages to destroy the People’s Republic of Rock and Roll.

Fast-forward two decades. Frenesi is about to be kicked out of the Witness Protection Program because the government is tired of subsidizing her. Zoyd wants to find her, for obvious reasons. Vond, still the charismatic little psychopath, wants Frenesi back too, and decides to kidnap Prairie to get her. Prairie, the only sane and sober person in the book, also wants to meet Frenesi, the mother she never knew.

But there’s more, like in any Pynchon novel: Vond is apparently the ultimate law-enforcement spoilsport and he’s not done hounding guys like Zoyd.

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