Tuesday, March 26, 2013

The impasse of Aeneas

Recently I had the pleasure of listening to Professor Elizabeth Vandiver's lectures on the Aeneid -- a most rewarding six hours -- and it prompted me to consider how such an imposing accomplishment, the epic of Rome given the imprimatur of Augustus himself, might change the game for Ovid.

The closing books of the Metamorphoses have much to do with Aeneas in the new land of Italy, so naturally this is where Ovid's poem most pointedly engages Virgil's epic.

Large accomplishments have a way of taking all the poetic oxygen out of the room. For 800 years or more, the Iliad had stood without a worthy epic successor. When Virgil came along, he was able to draw upon the untapped history and legends of another people, a "humble" tribe that was busy fashioning an empire.

Ovid could have chosen another historic theme, or written love lyrics, but Catullus and Propertius had that pretty well sewn up. Horace's mastery of the urbane poetry of comment, satire, and of the ode was incontestable.

What's a talented and ambitious latecomer to do?

Ovid was ambitious. His Heroides show unabashed delight in taking a range of characters from Homer and the tragedies, and breathing richly complex, recognizably human souls into them. Metamorphoses is a display of intricate art, poetic invention, psychological insight and masterful storytelling, yet it chooses to do without a single overarching epic narrative to give it an obvious thematic and imperial unity.

To appreciate the strangeness of Ovid's choice for his masterwork, it might help to consider it in relation to the Aeneid. For Virgil, to sing the saga of the translation of a people from Troy to Rome was to become the architect of his people's destiny. He poured his consummate study of Homer, Hesiod, the Greek tragedians, and the philosophers into a song that moves from the fires of Troy to Dido's Carthaginian pyre to the gloomy underworld of death and rebirth before immersing itself in a series of Iliadic battles that climax in the slaying of Turnus.

As Vandiver notes, the controversial end of the poem has split readers and scholars into symmetrically opposed interpretive camps: there are those who say Aeneas's killing Turnus was justified -- he is fulfilling a larger destiny, a mandate of Fate. Others believe that Virgil is portraying the pius father of Rome as overwhelmed by tragic, vengeful furor (his feelings for Pallas, whom Turnus had killed). The arguments on either side grow quite complex, as Vandiver explicates in her final lecture.

Aeneas kills Turnus

What does it mean that the song of Rome ends not, as does the Iliad, in a profound moment of tragic understanding, wonderment, and suspended bloodshed, but in a brutal act of violence?

Calibrating his epic to come to rest on a final act that lies open to two symmetrically opposed judgments is no playful ambiguity on Virgil's part. The ending presents the reader with the crucial need to decide whether to approve or condemn the hero whose poem the reader has just now "finished." If that necessary decision proves undecidable, then in a sense the reading of the song of "arms and the man" lingers in the air, never to be completed.

Virgil's epic arrives at an impasse borne of the enigmatic legacy of Greece: we inhabit a world in which our knowledge is partial, our will is hedged round with limits difficult to ascertain, our public and private loyalties are in conflict, and our loves are roiled by unmastered forces beyond both our consciousness and our powers.

At this point, a reader of Virgil might ask, "how did we get here?" What are the roots of this understanding of the world, this vision of the human? A return to origins, to the sources of the legacy of Greece and the history of Rome, might be just the thing. Research into how we became what we are, a quest for what we yet might become, seems called for: an inquiry into the nature of the new that is sufficiently provocative and searching to conceive nature anew.

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