Wednesday, April 6, 2011

What Do You Want?

Home-schooled teen and I finished our discussions about The Aeneid yesterday. I've talked about HST before - she's the youngest daughter of a friend of mine who decided that, after watching her two older children graduate from high school without a passion for learning (or basic knowledge of science, which is my friend's field), she was going to take matters into her own hands. I offered to take on HST's literature class, an offer that was met with a great deal of enthusiasm since it's not my friend's area of expertise. HST and I started out reading the Lord of the Rings trilogy, then went several thousand years back in time to Gilgamesh and The Odyssey, both of which I've talked about in previous posts for their surprisingly "modernist" story-telling as well as my unabashed passion for The Odyssey. HST decided we should move on to The Aeneid and has since requested that we read The Inferno next.

I must admit, when HST asked to read The Aeneid, I wasn't overjoyed. I'd somehow managed to not have read it for the entirety of my literary life including an integrated Western canon-based Lit/History/and Rhetoric program during my first semester in college. We read The Odyssey, The Inferno, The Oresteia, Utopia, Richard II, and Plutarch, Euripides, Suetonius, Machiavelli, and, of course, Virgil. I know this because a friend of mine and I created a literary journal for our program and made the cover out of a photocopy of the spines of all the books we read (or were supposed to have). Despite this, I somehow missed reading The Aeneid, although I remember our classroom discussions about the death of Dido very well.

So, HST and I embarked on Virgil's master epic, a literary work that is, without much argument, the single most influential work in all of Western literature. Although Dante is the best known example of Virgil's influence, Shakespeare also borrowed heavily from him (I'm reading Henry V right now as I tutor an AP English student, reading these two texts in tandem has made it very clear how much the Bard borrowed from The Aeneid - the motif of fire, the struggle of a leader coming to terms with the inner desires versus the public responsibilities, the promise of a foreign bride who, though the ultimate prize of a war, is nothing more than a pawn in the masculine game of nation-building), as did Tennyson and George Bernard Shaw (his Arms and the Man is a direct reference to Aeneas). Virgil's battle scenes are a model for Tolkien and have probably influenced filmmakers as well with their blow-by-blow action that freely floats from one face to the next (with some pretty gory deaths, like warrior who's head and neck is split in two by a sword) and then homes in on one particular glorious battle, like the one between Pallas and Turnus - action, action, action, and then close-up. Even Harry Potter ends with a battle scene like this between Harry and Voldemort - and I do not doubt JK Rowling knows her Aeneid - she makes references to it throughout the series including the brother/sister Death Eater duo Amycus and Allecto - Amycus was a poisoner in The Aeneid and Allecto is the fury Juno sends down to inflame the Latins to war against the Trojans).

Anyway, we embarked. We read. We discussed. And, yesterday, we concluded, which leads me to share these thoughts.

First, some history about The Aeneid for those of you reading this who may not be familiar with it. Virgil was commissioned by the emperor Augustus to write a national epic for Rome somewhere around 29 B.C.E. Virgil was already a well-respected poet, having published two previous collections of work that were both popular and well-received. In The Aeneid, Virgil created the foundational myth for the Roman Empire, a way to explain the empire's greatness as having been pre-ordained by the gods. The basic plot is that a prince of Troy, Aeneas, escapes from the burning embers of that doomed city with the remnants of the Trojan people. His destiny is to found a new Troy in Italy. His mother, Venus, tells him this. In fact, there's a wonderful scene when Aeneas is recounting the fall of Troy where Venus pulls back the veil that shields the gods from mortal eyes and shows her son the gods themselves, Neptune, Juno and Minerva, tearing apart the walls of the city with their bare hands. And don't forget, Venus herself was the cause of the Trojan war because she bribed Paris (Priam's son) with Helen, the most beautiful woman in the world, if he would chose Venus as the fairest of the goddesses (Paris got this honor because, at the wedding of Achilles' parents, Thetis (who was a sea nymph) and Pelleus, Eris (goddess of discord) rolls a golden apple into the midst of the banqueting gods declaring that the apple should go to the fairest of the goddesses. Juno, Venus, and Minerva jump on the apple and then ask Jupiter to decide. Faced with choosing between his wife, his war goddess daughter, and the goddess of love (who in Roman myth is also his daughter), he defers to a human, Paris, to make the choice). So Virgil shows how the entire Trojan War was just a set-up for the ultimate founding of Rome.

Aeneas travels with his refugee population, gets shipwrecked in Carthage, shacks up with the queen of Carthage (Dido) and then leaves her a year later when the gods send Mercury to remind him that Carthage isn't the city he's meant to found. He leaves, Dido commits suicide. Aeneas sails on, has a few more adventures, and then his father's ghost asks him to come for a visit in the underworld, which Aeneas, the dutiful son, does aided by the Cumaen Sybil. Anchises, Aeneas's father, reminds him, once again, of his future, showing Aeneas the future souls of Roman leaders who are waiting to be born including Cesar, Augustus, and the doomed Marcellus (he was Augustus' nephew and chosen successor who died very young - the story is, when Virgil first read The Aeneid to Augustus and his sister, Octavia, she fainted as he talked about the tragedy of her son's early death). Aeneas sails on, lands in Italy, presents himself to Latinus, king of the Latins, gets offered Latinus' daughter, Lavinia, who, whoops, was already engaged to Turnus. War breaks out between the Latins and the Trojans - Virgil essentially refights the Trojan War in order for the Trojans to finally be victorious, which they are. Aeneas kills Turnus, wins Lavinia, and the Latin and Trojan people are united under the leadership of Aeneas, but, because of a deal Jupiter works out with Juno so she'll stop delaying Aeneas' destiny to found the Roman people, the Latins get to keep their name, their language, etc, and the name of the Trojan people dies instead.

Structurally, Virgil modeled his epic after BOTH The Iliad and The Odyssey. Both of Homer's epics are 24 books, The Aeneid is 12. The first half of The Aeneid is modeled on The Odyssey, with Aeneas wandering while he searches for a new home, being "held" by a woman (with Juno's help), and visiting the underworld. Aeneas even visits some of the same places Odysseus (or Ulysses, as the Romans called him), actually rescuing a stranded Greek Odysseus left behind on the Cyclops' island. The second six books, with their focus on war, is modeled after The Iliad.

Most modern readers prefer the first six books - the tragic love story, the adventures, the glorious visit to the underworld (in and of itself, the best-known section of The Aeneid, and rightly so. It's magnificent. HST and I spent a couple of weeks on Book VI alone), and find the endless repetition of names and battle scenes in the second half both confusing and boring. And I definitely approached Book VII with trepidation, having detested The Iliad when I read it in high school. I have to say, I found the second half of The Aeneid glorious. Virgil's tone and words beat out a rhythm as relentless as a war drum. His passages that read like a soccer announcer calling a game as he lists the names of who slayed whom and are followed by the action coming to a halt as two worthy adversaries face each other, are stunning. A model of how to build tension and modulate pacing to create a heightened effect.

(as an aside here, while I was reading this section, I listened to a radio program about dehumanization - the way in which turning an "enemy" group into animals (like rats or cockroaches) or making them less-than-human makes it easier to kill another human being and allows the genocides and atrocities of our modern era to continue. It struck me that both the Greeks and the Romans found it an honor to face a strong enemy. They did not take death lightly - they recognized what it meant to take a life, even in war, and took no honor in killing the weak. Glory in war, making a name for oneself, was the goal of every warrior. Odysseus, adrift in the ocean after leaving Calypso, laments that he could not die on the battlefield so he could have died in a way worth remembering. In The Aeneid, the woman warrior, Camilla, is taunted that her death will not bring the glory that killing a male warrior would (this despite the notches on her war belt). The contrast between the modern need to make an enemy weak, to turn them into an animal, in order to kill them versus the ancient desire to face an enemy who was your equal and prove your strength, was profound to me.)

Ultimately, though, I have to say I am not enamored of The Aeneid. Virgil is a masterful writer. His imagery in Book VI is beautiful. His command of his subject and his ability to not only tell a good story, but also fulfill a much more didactic purpose, is extraordinary. But the epic leaves me cold, and I think I know why.

Aeneas is never at risk for losing what he desires.

In The Odyssey, by contrast, Odysseus' happy homecoming is ALWAYS in doubt. Not only does he have to survive a war, he also contends with homicidal monsters, a vengeful god, TWO goddesses that want to keep him as their boy toys, and a houseful of suitors who would like nothing more than for him to be killed in front of Penelope so she'll finally have proof her husband isn't coming home for dinner ever again. Even though we're pretty sure Odysseus will survive all his trials, Odysseus doesn't know it. The risk of his death, or the death of his son, at the hands of 120 suitors is real to him, so it becomes real to us, the reader.

In The Aeneid, we know Aeneas will succeed. Virgil has taken great pains to make sure we know Aeneas will succeed. The gods tell him his future over and over again. Venus and Mercury both tell him he needs to leave Troy and Carthage, respectively, because it is his destiny to found another city in Italy. Aeneas is shown the pageant of Roman heroes in the underworld. The river god, Tiber, tells Aeneas his son, Ascanius, will found another city, Alba, along his banks thirty years after the war is over. In Book 8, Aeneas goes to Pallanteum to ask for help from King Evander, and the king shows him his city, essentially giving him a tour of what will become Rome, pointing out a grove his people believe is favored by some god (this will be the future site of Jupiter's temple in Rome) and other places that will become famous Roman landmarks. In the same book, Venus has Vulcan create armor for Aeneas to wear including a shield which shows scenes from the Roman history (history to the readers/future for Aeneas) to come. Aeneas does not know what the scenes portray, but he knows he is hoisting his future as he raises his shield. And we, the readers, know it, too. The entire book is predicated on the conceit that Rome, and Roman supremacy, is inevitable. There is no tension. There is no fear that Ascanius will die like Pallas (as there was fear that Telemachus might be killed in the battle with the suitors) - he can't, he's going to found Alba and his descendant will be Romulus who will be the founder of Rome. There is no fear Aeneas won't succeed or will succumb to any inner desire on his part to do something contrary to his destiny. He won't. Even Juno eventually yields to the inevitability of Aeneas' fate. There simply is no risk, no danger, that Aeneas will lose the thing he desires.

It is this that makes The Aeneid, as technically brilliant as it is, ultimately unsatisfying for me. It's a lesson, too, as I move forward in my own novel, to remember how powerful the threat of a character NOT getting what they want is. It's the question I come back to again and again as I write drafts of query letters for Altar. What does Matt want? Up until this week, I kept answering that question by saying he wants his brother back. Which was unsatisfying. He can't have his brother back. His brother is dead. He knows he can't have his brother back. So I knew that wasn't the right answer.

Last night, in a workshop I'm taking from a really brilliant teacher (here's his website:, we talked about connecting and disconnecting, desire and the intensity of wanting something. Then, as usually happens when I take a class with Matthew, he gave us an exercise that was so perfectly attuned to the scene I'd been struggling with in my novel yesterday, it was as if he'd been sitting on my shoulder the whole time and said, "Hey, I've got exactly what you need." I got it. And I got what Matt (my character) wants more than anything. He wants connection. It's why Denny's death affects him so deeply - Denny was his connection to the world and, especially, to his family. It's why his girlfriend becomes so important to him (she's the first person he connects with in his entire life who wasn't part of his life when Denny was alive - she's his lifeline into a post-Denny world). And why, when he's standing in his mom's bedroom trying to do something for her and she keeps shutting him down, he is wounded. And there, in fifteen minutes of a writing exercise, was the answer to the essential question of my query, the lack of which has been preventing me from writing a satisfying query letter. What does Matt want? He wants connection. What keeps him from getting what he wants? He has to learn how to connect without Denny. (Okay, that's a little weak yet, but it's in the book, I just have to come up with a snappy, unique way of saying it).

I guess, in summing up, I want to say, this is why we read. Because the things we read can explain our own work (and our own minds - there are things I realized about myself and what, within myself, created this novel) to us, can lead us to think about what we are doing and how we are doing it. When I write about conflict, I can draw on this model of pacing from Virgil now. Bam, bam, bam, exhale.

So now, HST and I are taking a short break from the classics to read some short stories, and then we're going to hell with Virgil as our guide.

(P.S. I also want to give a shout-out to my friend, Traci Chee, who's putting up some really great posts from the other end of literary time at I'm Traci Chee and This is My Blog)

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