Thursday, March 2, 2017

Nous autres

In class today we were talking about the differences between Vergil and Homer. The difference between the deep administrative state that Vergil is describing, and the eternally contextualizing hierarchy against which Homeric personal relations play out. Dr. Johnson sees the silence of Dido in Book VI of The Aeneid as one of the clearest ways in which Vergil ornaments his poem with sparkling Homeric lusters that he can't resist, and complains of how much less affecting it is than the silence of Ajax in Book XI of The Odyssey. But he misses the lesson of one of his own points: Vergil unites the beauties of The Iliad and The Odyssey, yes, but he reverses the order: the intense personal experience that burgeons throughout The Iliad and culminates in The Odyssey is in Vergil a turn away from that experience to the violence that the always emerging possibilities of political violence that state develops from and resists.  The end of the Vergilian Odyssey is in Book VI of The Aeneid, at which point Aeneas turns away from the Homeric characters in the underworld and leaves them behind forever.  Dido's silence is a recognition of this, and a forerunner of Lavinia's equally conspicuous silence in the last six books.  It's not about her, and barely about Turnus or Pallas or even Lausus and Mezentius, the Vergilian equivalents of Hector and Priam.  (We get something like Achilles's point of view, remembering his own father when Priam supplicates him, as Aeneas thinks of his own son when he kills Lausus and sees Mezentius's intense mourning and desire to die. Achilles threatens to kill Priam but takes pity on him and gives him safe-conduct back to Troy; Aeneas takes pity on Mezentius by killing him, so he needn't out live Lausus very long.  Another farewell to the Homeric characters.)

The deep state administers and monopolizes and so restricts the violence that threatens everywhere. That insight is what leads to the proto-Miltonic moments in Vergil, the moments when the narrator speaks, for the only time, from the perspective of the first person plural: we Romans, in Vergil, we fallen humans ("all our woe") in Milton.  And the place where I saw that today is in this moment which, of all people, Henry James may be picking up on in The Golden Bowl.  Vergil's narrative insight is to narrate any intense incident, more and more as The Aeneid progresses, from the perspective of those in distress or pain or despair. This is particularly true in the shifts in perspective in the last moment of The Aeneid, the loss and death of the supplicating Turnus.  We go from his perspective to Aeneas's when he sees Pallas's belt: of course the very last moment is the flight of Turnus's indignant (indignata) soul down to the shades.

But even before that Turnus has the nightmarish experience of being unable or barely able to hold his own:

...velut in somnis, oculos ubi languida pressit
nocte quies, nequiquam auidos extendere cursus
velle videmur, et in mediis conatibus aegri
succidimus  (XII.908-911) in dreams, when languid rest has pressed our eyes at night, we seem in vain to wish to stretch forth our eager running, and in the middle of our efforts we sink down exhausted.

As has been pointed out (e.g. by Christine G. Perkell), this is a Vergilian recasting of a description of dream-frustration in The Iliad (22.199-200)

James's omniscient (or near omniscient) narrator uses the first person far more frequently (singular and plural, though the plurals are a bit more specific, designating narrator and readers, not all human beings), but not like this, except perhaps for this passage near the end of The Golden Bowl:

He was so near now that she could touch him, taste him, smell him, kiss him, hold him; he almost pressed upon her, and the warmth of his face--frowning, smiling, she mightn't know which; only beautiful and strange--was bent upon her with the largeness with which objects loom in dreams.  (Chapter XLI)

The first person here is latent but all the more powerful for that: James knows, and we know, what our experience of dreaming is like.  This is James’s version of the Proustian nous, as impersonal a first person plural as we ever find in Proust, since it applies to all of us in our lonely and isolated dreams: a universal loneliness, a universal separation.  So too is Turnus all alone, as all are. For Vergil this is the birth of the administrative state, the real entity that has replaced Homeric human relation.  Blanchot says the choice in Homer is violence or speech.  In Vergil, in the modern state, our choice is only violence or silence.