September 23, 2008
Fitzgerald's "The Aeneid"
If the word "classics" intimidates you, consider the Fitzgerald translation of The Aeneid. I never could abide the Dryden long enough to get past the first page: all that incessant rhyming! (I don't understand this compunction to rhyme translated verse--haiku, for example--since it means imposing a form on a form already distorted by the translation process.)
Granted, even with that hurdle mostly surmounted, there are still obstacles: lots of names I have no idea how to pronounce, bounteous references to historical incidents and heroic characters I know too little about, portentous foreshadowings such as Hannibal crossing the Alps and Caesar crossing the Rubicon that I missed completely until I read Fitzgerald's commentary at the end.
Nevertheless, a good story is a good story, and this is a ripping good yarn. A strong authorial voice (it helps to read it aloud in your head as you go along) and a galloping pace guaranteed to fill the cheap seats, while sneaking in enough high-brow commentary to keep the intellectuals tuned in. It convinces me that, indeed, Sam Raimi is the definitive modern interpreter of the Greco-Roman tradition.
Of course, Shakespeare accomplished the same. And like Shakespeare, Virgil is a master of the concrete metaphor and the action verb, as well as being an astute observer of human behavior. His analysis of how small dust-ups can lead (or be manipulated) into all-out war resonates well with contemporary geopolitics.
And there's something for everybody. Today it'd be called Aeneas, the miniseries. Every element of the modern dramatic style is touched upon at some point: man against man, man against nature, man against god, man against himself; you've got romance, adventure, political intrigue. A whole chapter for sport enthusiasts. And lots of combat scenes.
With lots of explicit detail, who stabbed who where, and where the blood and guts went. This isn't depersonalized violence. Before some poor piker gets his head whacked off, Virgil takes a few moments to tell us who he is, where he came from, what he had for breakfast, and how he loved his mom. It's rather disturbing, frankly.
All of this plays out under the gaze of the Roman pantheon, which is half the fun. Jupiter tries very hard to be a good deist--not getting involved unless to answer pleas based on individual merit--except that Juno and Venus are running around getting the rest of the gods involved in their knock-down, drag-out proxy war.
Juno, for reasons I am not well-informed about enough to explain, hates the Trojans with a white-hot passion. Aeneas, leader of the Trojans, is Venus's son by a mortal father (these gods are unapologetically polyandrous). Having grown up with the Botticellian image fixed in my mind, Virgil's Venus was a pleasant surprise. None of this demure, floating in on the half-shell stuff. She's tough, feisty, cunning, loyal (to Aeneas, that is; when she snuggles up to husband Vulcan to get him to crank out some quality armaments for the Trojans, he grouses, "You know, I'd do it even if you didn't sleep with me").
There are a number of strong female characters. Camilla, for example, kicks Trojan butt all over the place, and Juturna, Turnus's nymph half-sister, does Juno's dirty work, mostly in order to keep her brother (the villain in the piece) from getting killed by Aeneas. Though in the ends-justify-being-plain-mean department, Juno is way ahead of all of them. Husband Jupiter finally pulls her aside and says, "Enough already!" In an ironic twist, Juno wins for losing: as part of the deal, the Trojan identity is subsumed by the Etruscan Italians.
Fitzgerald comments on the curiosity of the Romans (way, way after the fact) identifying with the Trojans in their founding myths, along with a fair amount of trashing of the Greek demigods (i.e., all the enemies of the Trojans) in the tale. It was a way of one-upping Greek civilization while stealing from it.
What impresses me the most is the extent to which The Aeneid fits into the modern, western, narrative tradition, both in style and subject matter. And, additionally, how un-odd the religious context is. Many scenes of sacrificing animals and beseeching gods could easily be confused with Old Testament accounts.
Consider as well the concept of the hero being the child of a god and mortal parent. The transition from patron god to patron saint is a simple one. I think Virgil would be at home with the theological dynamics of Touched by an Angel. For example, like Juno and Venus, Camilla's patron god, Diana, is limited in the extent to which she can interfere with Fate and keep Camilla from harm once she decides to join forces with Turnus. Human free will seems to rule the liberty of the gods rather than the other way around.
It makes me believe that Rome never fell. In the same way that China absorbed invader after invader, instead of conquering Rome, the barbarians from Northern Europe became Roman, and so brought to Britain and then to America that self-dramatizing, essentially Ptolemaic view of ourselves. The universe revolves around us--we are the cause of everything good or bad that happens--and in the end, if we pray to the proper gods, they will be on our side.
(John Hamer analogizes The Aeneid with The Book of Mormon here. I consider the comparison apt.)