The Aeneid continues to impress

October 27, 2008

This is one of those days in which I feel like I have so much to talk about, it’s almost overwhelming. Where to begin?

Book IV of the Aeneid covers the rise and fall of the relationship between Dido and Aeneas. As an avid reader of fantasy novels, it’s difficult for me to suspend the suspension of my disbelief and try to read the intervention of the gods as allegory rather than reality. I mean, Eros shows up and works his mojo on Dido, and I’m supposed to say, “Well, that didn’t really happen, it’s just a representation of Dido’s sudden and intense desire for Aeneas.” This gets especially tough when Mercury tells Aeneas in no uncertain terms that he’s been dallying too long and he needs to make with the sailing to Italy already.

We then have what may be the worst breakup scene in the history of literature, and by “worst” I mean Aeneas utterly fails to be James Bond about it–he doesn’t even manage Odysseus-level rhetoric. He starts with the absolutely unpardonable cliché that amounts to “you deserve better than this” and goes downhill from there. And of course, it’s not his fault that the gods have fated him to leave Dido so his descendants can found Rome. But if you try to read it assuming the gods aren’t real, then he is a total ass. I don’t know if there’s another suitably harsh word–cad? knave? heel?–to describe a man who does the horizontal polka with someone for a year and then suddenly gives them the boot.

Of the five people who participated in the class discussion on this topic, three were pro-Dido and two were pro-Aeneas in this situation. Ironically, it was the females (myself included) who were pro-Aeneas, mainly because we were reading the situation literally and were perfectly ready to blame the gods for the whole problem. I am still not wholly sure what to think of that.

Book V was basically a big party for the most part, certainly with some lovely descriptions and exciting moments if you’re the kind of person who likes sporting events. Otherwise you skim it and move on to Book VI, which is the visit to the Underworld. Much more interesting. Allow me to note what interested me, personally:

DANTE RIPS IT OFF BIG TIME.

How did I not know this? I must have read excerpts from the Aeneid and Dante’s Inferno on at least three separate occasions in school. I am not such a poor student that I would have missed it had a teacher mentioned that the Inferno steals liberally from the Aeneid. And yet here I am, absolutely reeling from shock. I’m sure I’ll recover. Someday.

That said, this book was excellent. Some lines that particularly excited me:

The prophetess began, “Born of the blood
of gods and son of Troy’s Anchises, easy–
the way that leads into Avernus: day
and night the door of darkest Dis is open.
But to recall your steps, to rise again
into the upper air: that is the labor;
that is the task.”

It’s easy to die, but hard to come back. Ooh, gives you chills. And one name for the underworld is Avernus or Aornos, which means “birdless”; what a way to describe the place. It is underground, and so without birds. Another image, of Aeneas getting in Charon’s boat:

He clears
the other spirits from the gangways and
long beaches and, meanwhile, admits the massive
Aeneas to the boat, the vessel’s seams
groaning beneath the weight as they let in
marsh water through the chinks.

The boat normally holds insubstantial spirits, so when Aeneas gets in, it starts to leak. Incredible.

And of course Aeneas runs into Dido, who, in case you didn’t know, built herself a funeral pyre and then stabbed herself in the chest on top of it. So she’s in the Underworld when Aeneas gets there. He’s not entirely surprised, given that she said she’d commit suicide if he left, but he cries anyway. The man cries, for goodness’ sake. How the reader could think he was a total jerk for ditching her against his own will, I’m not sure. And while in Book IV she had eight monologues, including after his terrible breakup speech, here he pours his heart out in an apology and she gives him the cold shoulder and leaves. It’s a bit easier to analyze the psychology of such a moment; Aeneas feels guilty, but it’s too late to make amends because Dido is already dead, and so he has to carry the guilt with him until he joins her. Not that she’d take him back, because she found her first husband down in Dis so she’s no longer available. But it’s an extremely poignant moment.

Given that I’ve rambled extensively, I suppose I’ll leave the rest of this underworld journey for another day. But rest assured, I have not exhausted my enthusiasm for this subject.

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