Thursday, March 22, 2007

Arms and the Man

The Aeneid, by Virgil, Translated by Robert Fagles, Read by Simon Callow, 2006

The case of why Rome felt so inferior to Greece is a curious one. To look at Roman mythology is to see a strange instance of a people completely appropriating foreign gods and their stories and merely changing the names to more homespun variants. Likewise, Rome apparently long considered itself the Athens of Italy, setting up the classic city-state rivalry with their Sparta, Carthage. For reasons that aren’t entirely clear to me, the conqueror was culturally subdued by the conquered. Imagine if shortly after the Gold Rush of 1848, if American Protestants suddenly started doing Ghost Dances and attending sweat lodge ceremonies. There is something strangely me-too-ish in Roman history.

Taken down to the individual level, there is no better example of this national psychosis than Virgil, a man whose national epic, The Aeneid can be seen as his attempt at doing a fair imitation of Homer. All the same kind of set pieces are there: a long, interrupted journey; the interest of and interference by the gods; a lengthy scene of funeral games; long familial role calls of who died in battle and who demonstrated bravery; the hero tarries in his journey to dally with a beautiful woman and tells her the story of his journey-so-far; hell, we even get Scylla and Charybdis and a visit to Polyphemous’ island where the now-blind Cyclops still tends his herd.

There may be nothing new under the sun and there mayn’t have been in Virgil’s time either, and certainly just about any country wants to hear its story sang in heroic epics, but Virgil takes things a bit far with the one for one parallelisms.

So is there any good reason to read Virgil? Well, of course. After all, Shakespeare did the same thing essentially, ripping off earlier writers and making the material his own. Virgil may not be the poet that Homer is and his characters might seem a bit flatter, a bit less complicated (shadows of repressed Roman low self-esteem?), but there are moments of shimmering writing that must be experienced.

Perhaps this is nowhere better proven that in Aeneas’ trip to the underworld. Here Virgil, in Robert Fagles’ caustic, brutal poetry, elicits creepy shivers along the spine. Charon, less ghoulish in previous incarnations, here has the demeanor of spook show crypt keeper. Rhadamanthus, the judge in this hell, doles out brutal punishments that would inspire Dante’s hell centuries later. Reading the sixth book of The Aeneid it is instantly clear why the Florentine poet chose Virgil as his guide in The Inferno rather than other Roman scribes.

The entirety of book six nearly is one scene of horrors after another that put Homer’s best moments to the test. When Aeneas fills the bowls with blood for the shades to drink, the moment spawned a million horror films and novels over the next two thousand years. Fagles’ translation nicely captures the dead’s eagerness and their thirsty, lapping tongues.

Unfortunately, Virgil takes this same graphic approach to battles where somehow it doesn’t transmute the moments of gory slaughter to anything approaching his Greek predecessor’s glorious snapshots of men engaged in life and death struggles with themselves and their fates. Part of this, no doubt, is that Homer, the old campaigner clearly was telling a different kind of story to a different audience, celebrating a glory that seemed fleeting anymore. Virgil’s composition marks the restoration of stability under Augustus and celebrates the ascending empire.

Nevertheless, like other well known texts from centuries ago, it is quite impossible to measure how much Virgil’s text has shaped us, how deeply it has penetrated national consciousnesses and literary references. In college, I too read the work and the opening words are well known enough to have entered the territory of cliche. That would be a shabby enough reason to recommend something — “Read it. It’s not that great, but lots of other people have read it,”— but even if Virgil’s tale does sag under the weight of too many too long battle scenes to please his patrons, there are glimpses of a poetic line burnished as bright as any Roman armor and there are scenes well worth the admission, as bloody as that might be.

Simon Callow expertly renders both Virgil’s conceptions as well as Fagles’ more modern stylistic maneuvers. He manages to put voices into the characters mouths that are noble when heroic and downright shuddersome in the hell city of Dis. While the combined power of a good reader and a good translator can’t transmute the long heavy slog of battle as writ by Virgil, Callow really comes to life in the underworld. His reading was the stuff of nightmares — the good kind.


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