Wednesday, May 11, 2005

You don't have to live like a refugee

Finishing Virgil's Aeneid a few weeks ago was a great read for me. I urge everyone who hasn't read it to do so, and those who have to pick it up again. Virgil's takes his readers through the adventures of a band of refugees who are on their way to their destiny, the founding of the Roman republic. Unlike Odysseus, Aeneas is fleeing defeat and destruction, not returning to his homeland as a conquering hero.

It's a great book. Aeneas is full of nobility. He's not outsized in nearly inhuman greatness like Achilles. He's not the resourceful Everyman that Odysseus is. Aeneas is bound by duty and piety and finds his identity in them. That's something a lot of fathers can relate to.

There's a disturbing sense of circularity in the work. According to legend, Dardanus, the founder of Troy, was an emigrant from Italy, so his descendant, the refugee Aeneas, is also returning to a storied ancestral homeland in returning to Latium. In completing this circle, he finds himself in Carthage with Queen Dido, dooming her and setting up an emnity between Rome and Carthage that will come to fruition in the bloody Punic Wars that result in the total destruction of Carthage. Upon landing in Latium, he wrests the princess Lavinia from a would-be suitor Turnus, thus reenacting the ravishing of Helen by Alexander, and in the same manner, this causes a bloody war and siege. All history is a vertiginous cycle, round and round, no rest from the iron cycles of history, no respite from the caprices of the gods.

At the center of this is a journey to the underworld, similar to the one in the Odyssey. Unlike that trip, in this journey our hero passes through the netherworld to the upper regions, the Elysian fields, which somehow seem less than heavenly: they appear more like a pleasant distracting earthly holiday in a nice bit of real estate. From this vantage, Aeneas's dead father Anchises surveys future Roman history and the critical role his descendents will play in it.

I wish I could say more -- maybe I will someday. I'm still working on it.
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