Le Grand Alexandnoir

Sucking on the leftover ice of an end-of-the-day brandy, I sat at my desk, ignoring the Kabbalist, Confucian, and Ancient Greek assignments laid out before me (for the time being). Years of academe had brought me more questions than answers. The one vexing me then seemed greater than the others, so to say. It was a case of missing identity, one Alexander, king of Macedon, conqueror of the Persian Empire, Master of Asia, the subject of a lengthy Iron Maiden ballad. People know of him, but no one really knows him. In my head was a swill of mixed feelings and liquor. I had my own idea as to who he was sloshing around in there, with equal parts Arrian, Plutarch, and Pseudo Callisthenes, not to mention that devil brandy. Who was he now to the global village? His fame reached every corner of the known world back in his day. What’s changed, if anything? I needed answers.

It was a Friday night, I was playing Call of Duty Zombies with my younger brother, a privilege that one only has towards the beginning of the semester. After succumbing to the dogs for the third time in a row, it was time to hit up the local Bushwick deli for some fancy chips. The hipsters had come and turned this place into a real tourist trap. Their sense of what’s cool is going to age like a banana, but the chips will always be overpriced, and delicious. I saw this as an opportunity to begin my hardboiled, investigative academic research. To protect the identities of the individuals in this study, I’ve given each a clever pseudonym.

Me: “Thank you for taking part in this study, bro.”

Agricola: “Alright, ask your questions *****boy.”

Me: “Have you heard of anyone by the name, Alexander the Great?”

Agric’: “So, Alexander was a commander and, like, pretty much emperor of… Rome?

Me: “Right, so what do you know about him?”

Agric’: “Whaddo I know about him…? I know that he conquered a ****ton, including Egypt and parts of Arabia, and he wanted to get to the other side—get to, like, the something sea. I dunno what it was—he wanted to get to an ocean.”

Me: *laughs*

Agric’: “And so he was conquering along the way. Umm, besides that… I know that he also died relatively young even for—even for that time—”

Me: “*inaudible* yeah.”

Agric’: “Like because he died of fever, I think? In an actual, like, in his war camp. I’m pretty sure.”

Me: “Right.”

Agric’: “And that kinda ****ed up his whole vision of continuously conquering—”

Me: “It kinda messes it up if he’s dead, right?”

Agric’: “I mean, how close am I? You can’t even tell me, can you?”

Me: “No, that would ruin the investigation-study, I’ll tell you later if you want.”

Agric’: “Please do.”

Me: “Yeah, one more question, where did you learn about him?”

Agric’: “Oh, I think there was… I mean it’s partially general knowledge, like weird knowledge that you just pick up over time. And then another time I had to write an essay about him, and so I actually looked him up—Googled—I should honestly know more.”

Me: “Umm, okay, so now do you also want me to record the part where I tell you what you got right and what you got wrong?”

Agric’: “Yeah! Let’s get a record of this.”

Me: “Alright, so he’s not a Roman.”

Agric’: “He’s not a Roman, I felt that, as soon as you looked at me, you looked at me like—”

Me: “Yeah, did I give you that look, like—?”

Agric’: “You gave me like the ‘you ****ing idiot’.”

*much laughter*

Me: “Oh ****. Alright, yeah, sorry.”

Agric’: “So he’s not a Roman.”

Me: “He’s Macedonian/Greek.”

Agric’: “He’s a Greek. Alright. So I feel like that’s not the worst thing that I could have said.”

Me: “It’s close—well the Romans wrote a lot about Alexander, um, I must have told you—”

Agric’: “No, I don’t think that you told me anything, surprisingly.”

Me: “It’s unknown how he actually died. It was either that he got sick, or he got poisoned, or he got sick and poisoned, I like to think that he was just ****ing tired. But maybe that’s just too easy of an explanation.”

Agric’: “Super tired and like in the middle of a war?”

Me: “Okay, so yeah, he wanted to—he didn’t want to cross a sea. He wanted to go all the way to India.”

Agric’: “Oh yeah! That’s what it was.” 

Me: “He wanted to conquer India too, but little did he know that India is really ****ing big. So like, if India is kinda shaped like a slice of pizza, he just nibbled the crust a little bit. Or should I say, he just nibbled the Kush a little bit!”

Agric’: “Can we go back to killing Nazi zombies again?”

My brother was no help at all, which I guess is fair, because I was no help against the zombies. I was surprised to hear, right-off-the-bat, that he thought that Alexander was a Roman. I’ve been a classicist for almost my entire undergrad, had I not mentioned who “The Great” was at all? It didn’t make any sense. This man led a legendary military career, destroyed the Persian Empire, became the subject of countless lore, and yet, was apparently not that famous.

“Alexander Eddie” as he appears in the mobile game, Iron Maiden: Legacy of the Beast.

It was a Tuesday. I was clipping cigars in the classics lounge, then unwrapping them and eating the contents. In my messed-up head, I found strange correlations between the Alex of my studies and the Alex from Anthony Burgess’ “A Clockwork Orange”. Both are idealized, violent young men who are fixated on endless “conquest”. People throw around the word “toxic masculinity” a lot, and I don’t like it. I think that it exists, but its losing its real meaning from overuse. There is an existentialist bent to the grasping and territorial pissing that becomes human nature. I see the one Alex sitting in the Karova getting high off of drug-infuzed milk, and the other on a throne in Babylon dying of alcohol poisoning. I see one Alex breaking into the writer’s house and raping his wife, and the other marrying off a bunch of random women in Susa. Yeah, actually, this is all fairly masculine and toxic, I changed my mind. Why am I seeing things through rose-tinted glasses? When one watches Kubrick’s film adaptation, they wind up liking Alex, despite all of the horrible things that he does. In Burgess’ novel, its more the kooky dialect of our protagonist that stops you from really taking things in. Strip both of their pomp, and the “ultra violence” becomes exactly that. The Alexanders are simulacra of each other. Our real life Alex is larger than life. He’s wily like the Odysseus of epic. He survives the odds, much like our species has on an evolutionary level. He does bad things! But he gets away with it through sheer force of character. I was on my third cigar when I realized that in the movie version of “A Clockwork” his last name is DeLarge. This would be a suitable translation of Ἀλέξανδρος ὁ Μέγας. Megas, as in mega, as in large! But I had to stop, because I was running away with myself.

At the end of a long day of studies, I was running to catch the BeeSix bussy-wus, when I viddied a pretty ptitsa with real horrorshow groodies. I made up my rasoodocks that I would assail her with questions.

Me: “Hi, so here’s my first question.”

Dione: “Allez. Go ahead.”

Me: “Do you know a Mega Alexander?

Dione: “Qua?

Me: “Have you heard of Alexander the Great?”

D’ne: “Oui, yes of course I know. The famous Roman military leader and Roman general.”

Me: “Right, what do you know about him?”

D’ne: “Well, I know that he died in his early twenties, but he conquered most of the known world. He was a skilled general and very risque… mon dieu, no, not risque… he risked his life, he was reckless.”

Me: “Yeah, he was pretty—yeah—”

D’ne: “It paid off though, yeah? His soldiers respected him.”

Me: “I believe so.”

D’ne: “He fought en face de armee. And his teacher was Aristotle. He was very unhappy with the life that he chose, but Alex made up for it by bringing back many specimens. He met his demise by elephants, no?”

Me: “So where did you learn about him?”

D’ne: “O, where do you not learn about him? He is mentioned in every history class. But I don’t know… err… but never taught about specifically.”

Me: “They just, like, they bring him up but never—”

D’ne: “Exactament! But there are also documentaires a la tele.”

Me: “Is that where you heard about the elephants?”

D’ne: “Qua?

Me: “You said that he was killed by elephants, but that isn’t true.”

D’ne: “O no, you’ve made me look like a fool…”

Me: “No, its not just you, no one seems to know. I might be wrong too.”

D’ne: “D’accord, tu es le fou.”

I also told her that he wasn’t a Roman, and that my brother had made the same mistake. What a twist! Was this a common mistake? And if it weren’t my field of study, would I fall victim to it too? Despite his glory, Alexander inhabits a liminal space, at the end of Classical Greece and the beginning of the Roman Empire. A German guy once said, “The name of Alexander marks one age in the world, the beginning of another” (Johann Gustav Droysen, Geschichte des Hellenismus) . So the confusion makes perfect sense. Alex isn’t the bread of Hellenist or Latinist study, but the yeast. What a conundrum! A legendary bread—OOPS!—A legendary MAN, who is shrouded in the bristling leaves among the sprawling trees of history. I’ll put it you this way, there are two things obscuring the real Alex: legend, lore, and hero-cult, i.e. the rose-tinted lens; and the middle-space of history that his life inhabited, brought on by him, but leading to inevitable confusion.

Malcolm McDowell as Alex DeLarge

Wednesday. I was eating Lucky Charms cereal and doing shots in the reading room of the library. I’d spilled plenty of ink over ol’ Alex Megas. I’d come so far over two lousy interviews, but not far enough. I was feeling ineffectual in my approach, yet too far not to take it once more further. I had a colleague who worked in the offices, a fellow classicist. Maybe we could get to the bottom of this case and I could get on with the rest of my life.

Me: “Hey Kandace, thank you for helping me out. I will try and, like, not make this awkward for you while you have your lunch.”

Kandace: “I never thought that I would be eating lunch and conducting an interview at the same time.”

Me: “So first question: do you know who Alexander the Great is?”

K’nd’ce: “I would hope so.”

[That answer was good enough for me, so I moved on.]

Me: “What do you know about Alexander?”

K’nd’ce: “Well, he was the King of Macedon. His dad was King Philip II, his mom was Olympias. He had some wives and lovers, I know that one was named Roxanne…”

Me: “I only know about Roxanne, but I think you’re right…”

K’nd’ce: “Yeah, geez, I dunno.”

Me: “Maybe I should try some new questions. How do you feel about Alexander’s occupation of Egypt versus Napoleon’s?”

K’nd’ce: “Umm, what did Napoleon do in Egypt?”

Me: “I think that he graffitied some monuments or something. [This statement is not wholly accurate.]”

K’nd’ce: “**** Napoleon.”

Me: “Yeah, Napoleon sucks.”

K’nd’ce: “Well, I know that in the Alexander Romance, he finds out that he’s a descendant of the God Ammon.”

Me: “Yeah! The Romance is Awesome.”

K’nd’ce: “Yeah.”

Me: “How did you learn about him? The Romance?”

K’nd’ce: “So in first grade, they gave us these little kids’ Greek history books. And they mention him, but only briefly.”

Me: “Yeah, I was writing about how Alexander’s time was kind of like a transition time from one period to the next.”

K’nd’ce: “I could see how that could be true. Not bad.”

Me: “Yeah?”

K’nd’ce: “Yeah.”

Me: “If Alexander had a favorite food, like if we could know, what do you think it would be?”

K’nd’ce: “Cake. I like to think that he would like cake. It would juxtapose his military personality.”

Me: “So yeah. I think that people tend to jump over him since he was, y’know, in such a middlling sort of time.”

K’nd’ce: “Middling?

Me: “I dunno, like middle?”

K’nd’ce: “Sure, I think so.”

The case is never closed on the past. It garbles up remnants, loose strings that don’t seem to connect so lucidly (or not immediately so). Now I’d like a slice of cake, for Alex and myself. Better to give up violence, grasping, and toxic masculinity for cake. If I had the whole world, like Alex, I wouldn’t know what to do with it. And neither would you. Neither did he. Us classicists are chasing ghosts. I think that if Alex had a piece of cake, some fancy chips from the deli, and a turn on the Call of Duty Zombies, he’d be chilled. The global village has a sort of short, fractured memory anyhow. I’m not satisfied, nor should I be. Nor should you. Let’s keep asking questions. But don’t expect answers.

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