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Reading Virgil in the Time of Coronavirus
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Published: Wed Sep 09 2020
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Reading Virgil in the Time of Coronavirus

Twice in the first two books of the Aeneid, Aeneas wants to embrace someone he loves, but cannot. First his mother, Venus, appears to him, disguised as a young Spartan huntress. Aeneas tells about the storm that has led him and his people off course, after which his mother reveals her identity and then immediately disappears. Aeneas cries out:

                              Why is it that you,
As all the others do, so cruelly mock
Your son with images, false images?
Why cannot I hold hands with you, my mother,
And hear true words and speak true words to you? (translated by David Ferry)

Then, in Book II, as he is fleeing the fires of Troy, Aeneas encounters the ghost of his wife Creusa:

The image of her receded into air,
Leaving me weeping, with so much still to say.
Three times I tried to embrace her and to hold her;
Three times the image, clasped in vain, escaped
As if it were a breeze or on the wings
Of a vanishing dream. (trans. Ferry)

These moments always choke me up, as I’m sure they’re meant to. This is, after all, a book of tears: Sunt lacrimae rerum. Even if your mother is a goddess, you have no special access to the divine. Even if you are a hero to your people, you are still vulnerable. You will reach, but not hold.

Now, though, I read this poem and think not just of my own personal losses, but of the life that seems to be slipping through our collective arms, the life that was ours just a few months ago. Each of us is Aeneas, trying to hold onto the ghost of a job or a class or a routine, the sense of the normal, even as all of that slips away, “as if it were a breeze or on the wings of a vanishing dream . . .”

Aeneas’s grief at not being able to touch those he loves has taken on a dark echo. We embrace—with heightened poignancy—our kids, our spouses. But there are others we want to embrace and cannot. We speak to family and friends through Zoom or Skype. We visit our grandparents through nursing-home windows. Those we love, seen through screens darkly, can too easily seem as intangible as vanishing dreams, ghost versions of themselves.

The future hovers like a hazy limbo; we don’t know when this exile from each other will end. As Aeneas goes to the underworld to receive a vision of the future, he prays to his mother (Love personified) saying “do not fail your son / in a baffling time” (translated by Robert Fitzgerald). Ignored, harassed, and pushed around by the gods, Aeneas won’t give up hope that love might serve as a guide.

Baffling times and inner bafflement feed off each other—this m­ight be why the character of Aeneas appeals to me so much this time around, the way he’s continuously at war with himself and his fate. He is not at all the hero we might expect. He is not leading troops or defeating an enemy—the first time we see him—but succumbing to hopeless despair. The storm seems to be about to devour his entire fleet, and Aeneas cries out:

O those others are three times, four times, blessed,
Whose privilege it was to meet their fate,
Watched by their fathers as they died beneath
The high walls of their native city, Troy! (trans. Ferry)

The brave face he puts on for his men is faked:

             Burdened and sick at heart
He feigned hope in his look, and inwardly
Contained his anguish. (trans. Fitzgerald)

Some may claim that feigning is no virtue. But courage, all courage, is in a sense faked; you cannot act bravely if you are not afraid.

This Roman ability to switch between private worries and public strength feels acutely relevant. I think about it every time I remind my kids to stay away from strangers, or wash their hands, again, or put on their masks. I find myself baffled about what message I’m sending, what message I should send. Do I sound too worried? Not worried enough? Am I teaching them to be safe, or afraid?

T. S. Eliot argued that the Aeneid holds (or should hold) a central place in the Western canon because “Aeneas is himself, from first to last, a ‘man of fate’ . . . a man fulfilling his destiny, not under compulsion or arbitrary decree, and certainly from no stimulus to glory, but by surrendering his will to a higher power behind the gods who would thwart or direct him.” This pandemic has reminded me how necessary it is to surrender my will, my plans, my expectations of normalcy; to know my duty and fulfill it. It reminds me that I am, after all, subject to fate. I don’t have to launch ships to escape a burning city, granted. But I might have to play the umpteenth round of Uno with my kids. I don’t have to found a new state, but I have to find new hiking trails through the local hills. We need new patterns until this baffling time comes to an end.

And when it ends, where will we find ourselves? How normal will the new normal be? How normal should we want it to be? In Book III, Aeneas and his people land in the city of Buthrotum, where they discover other exiled Trojans working hard to turn the city into a second Troy, an exact replica. Buthrotum would be a tempting place for Aeneas and his people to settle down: after all, why build a new city in a strange land if one has already been made in the image of your lost home?

But like the obstacles that Odysseus overcomes on his way back to Ithaca—Calypso, Circe, the sirens, the lotus eaters—this false Troy must be rejected. It seeks after the old normal rather than allowing for the new. To take up residence in a replica would be to succumb to a warping nostalgia.

From the Greek nostos, or “homecoming,” and algos, “pain, grief, distress,” nostalgia is exactly what Aeneas fights against, book after book. He cannot go home, no matter how much he wants to. He is not like Odysseus, enacting a true nostos to regain what he has lost. As the founder of a new city, a new empire, Aeneas’s nostos is not a homecoming, but a home-making. Not a starting-from-scratch, not a total abandonment of the old, but still, an imaginative and hopeful embrace of the new. Our post-pandemic nostos, I think, will be similar: part homecoming, part home-making. We will be forced to consider which parts of the old normal we can discard, and which parts we should save. It will be a return, but a return to something new.

As Troy burns, Aeneas puts his father on his shoulders, takes his son by the hand, and leads them out of the ruined city. This famous image—perhaps the image of Western civilization—is depicted in many sculptures and paintings; one of my favorites was done by Filippo Parodi (1630–1702). I love it because not only is Aeneas carrying Anchises, but Parodi has positioned young Ascanius, Aeneas’s son, to make it seem as if the boy is holding up his father and grandfather and the household gods, the whole Russian-doll-like stack of them. Ascanius, young as he is, has a job to do: to learn how to be a grown-up; to prepare to shoulder the burdens of the world.

The coming months will bring more of our version of storm and shipwreck, loss, danger, and fear. But there is so much to be gained. So much of value, hidden before, is slowly being revealed. Covid has shown that my kids are much more resilient and patient and curious and ambitious and hard-working than I knew. It’s never been clearer that one day they’ll be ready to carry me. This strange nostos, whether it lasts weeks or months more, has many more valuable truths to reveal—and maybe not despite the storms that still lie ahead, but because of them.

Contemplating the state of the world after the war—humankind’s final abandonment by the gods—Heidegger wondered what kind of remedy there might be for such an abandonment, and posed a question prompted by a poem of Holderlin’s: what are poets for in destitute times? It’s possible this question assumes a mystery where there isn’t one. Where better to turn in an emergency than to the art whose primary functions, to borrow from another Roman, are to delight and instruct?

Great poems show us how to live. They refresh our sense that certain ways of transcending catastrophe are both timeless and beautiful; that humans can be greater than the gods, who have no need to be noble, self-sacrificing, patient, or brave. Vulnerability is the only basis for greatness. It’s what makes Aeneas mourn what he’s lost, and embrace—or try to embrace—what he loves. It’s what teaches us all to endure.

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