George Steiner, William Gass, Milan Kundera, Hannah Arendt: just a few of the great critics who recognize Broch as a preeminent figure in the theory and practice of the novel. So, let me ask, with the inspiration of those distinguished commentators if not perhaps their thoroughness and perspicuity, about what Broch was trying to achieve in The Death of Virgil and his other works. I’ve already talked, in a previous post, about Broch’s philosophical interests and professional career. So let me turn here to a brief synopsis of The Death of Virgil–with an emphasis on how it relates to Broch’s aesthetics–and then to the novel’s unique structure.
At the risk of being facile, I would sum Broch’s position as something like the following. Modernity has broken up the consensus that underlay, say, the medieval world, in which all forms of art mirrored a generally-accepted view of reality; Gothic architecture (so Broch says) was the perfect confluence of physical art with metaphysical essence; the goal of an artist, then, is to recapture this missing totality, without which civilization is impossible. It is precisely this task–finding the universal oneness–that Broch’s Virgil sets for himself, and it is of course the same task that the younger Broch had so fervently pursued. More specifically, the conflict (if such is the right word) in The Death of Virgil turns on the poet’s decision to destroy the Aeneid, which, although finished, he carries with him to his deathbed unpublished. Why would the dying Virgil want to commit such a radical act? Because art was (or so Broch asserts) Virgil’s attempt to achieve real knowledge–a unity of the physical and ideal world–and he has come to believe, near death, that art (like his Georgics) was less useful than, say, an agricultural treatise. Art, too, is a false god.
To dramatize these ideas, there is nothing, with the exception of the The Death of Virgil’s opening paragraph, which reports on the arrival of the fever-stricken Virgil to the port of Brundisium, that is commented upon or discussed except that which enters the wild perceptions of the poet, right through to an epic conclusion as death itself finally, thankfully, arrives. All of this stream of consciousness is spiced with literary and philosophical allusion, plentifully offered in service of rendering a novel-as-cosmology. Indeed, as Arendt noted in a famous essay on Broch, “The philosophical content (of The Death of Virgil) itself resembles a Spinozistic Cosmos- and Logos-speculation in which all things we know to be separate and particular appear as the ever changing aspects of an eternal One, so that the manifold is understood as the merely temporary individualization of the all-comprehensive whole.” To translate for those not a paramour of Heidegger, The Death of Virgil is Broch’s stab at recreating a metaphysical wholeness that he sees as having been fragmented beyond hope or ambition of repair: to recreate Plato, to say it another way, after Plato has been killed off; to substitute the “no longer and not yet” for The Sleepwalkers’ raw recognition of decay everywhere round. Broch’s Virgil pursued art as the means to attain true knowledge of the universal oneness–the word before words–and it is his deathbed despair over the value of this project that makes him choose to burn the Aeneid rather than see it come to public light. Like Broch himself, Virgil (or at least the Virgil of The Death of Virgil) doesn’t so much as carry the banner for culture as show himself the last man standing among the ruins of a once-great world.
In discussing the structure of the novel, I would turn to two essays by Steiner, included in his collection Language and Silence. In the 1967 essay entitled “Literature and Post-History,” he wrote:
While most of the energies and inheritance of prose fiction are being assimilated by documentary forms, there is a small group of experimental works from which the poetics of tomorrow may emerge. These are the most exciting, least understood of modern books; in them, the classic divisions between poetry, drama, prose fiction, and philosophic argument are deliberately broken down. These works admit of no single definition; they declare their own forms of being. I have in mind metaphysical fantasies or mock heroics of logic such as Valery’s Monsieur Teste and Elias Canetti’s Auto-da-fe. Hermann Broch is one of the masters of free form. His novels conjoin poetry with prose narrative and the art of the philosophical essay. The Death of Virgil, one of the major works of our age, attempts to vitalize language with the contrapuntal logic and dynamic simultaneities of music. More radically than Joyce, it subverts the time-structure and linear progressions on which prose fiction is normally built. Broch’s style has an uncanny spell, because tangential to it are intimations of entirely different codes of statement, such as the use of silence…, or the projection into language of the grammar of mathematics. Contemporary writing has scarcely begun to avail itself of Broch’s instigations.
More specifically, Steiner was among the first to note that The Death of Virgil “is composed in the form of a string quartet, the prose of the different sections being imitative of the mood and rhythms of corresponding musical movements.” As he went on to explain, this time in “The Retreat of the Word”:
The Death of Virgil is a novel built in four sections, each of which is figurative of one of the four movements of a quartet. Indeed, there are hints that Broch had before him the structure of a particular late quartet of Beethoven. In each “movement,” the cadence of the prose is meant to reflect a corresponding musical tempo: there is a swift “scherzo” in which plot, dialogue, and narrative move at a sharp pace; in the “andante,” Broch’s style slows down to long, sinuous phrases. The last section, which renders Virgil’s actual passage into death, is an astounding performance. It goes beyond Joyce in loosening the traditional bonds of narrative. The words literally flow in sustained polyphony. Strands of arguments interweave exactly as in a string quartet; there are fugal developments in which images are repeated at governed intervals; and, at the last, language gathers to a dim, sensuous rush as remembrance, present awareness, and prophetic intimation join in a single great chord. The entire novel, in fact, is an attempt to transcend language toward more delicate and precise conveyances of meaning. In the last sentence, the poet crosses into death, realizing that that which is wholly outside language is outside life.
Alluded to but never named by Steiner, the four movements of The Death of Virgil are entitled: “Water–The Arrival”; “Fire–The Descent”; “Earth–The Expectation”; and “Air–The Homecoming.” We’ll be talking about each of these sections in turn. (While we’ll be posting each week on just one section of the book, Herman Weigand, a long-time professor of German at Yale, has suggested reading the whole book in one sitting, a task he thought achievable in 24 hours. “When preceded by a proper regimen of training,” he observed, “it should prove no more difficult than Charles Lindbergh’s solo flight from New York to Paris.” So for you ambitious readers out there…)
Perhaps, if you have managed to track this post, you have already picked up on one of the contradictions of The Death of Virgil. It may be a masterpiece, but, if so, it is one that is self-abnegating, one that calls in a strike on its own existence. This is a point made by the very insightful (and equally forgotten) Erich Heller, one of the great scholars of German literature. In reviewing an appropriately unfinished late novel of Broch (The Spell), Heller placed Broch in the grand procession of Viennese genius, but believed The Death of Virgil “problematical, for it attempts to give literary shape to the author’s growing aversion to literature.” It is certainly true that, almost immediately upon publication of The Death of Virgil Broch called literature “the domain of vanity and mendacity.” But if The Death of Virgil is a suicide note, then Broch would want it to be one for all of us. In any event, I hope you can join us in reading this great work and see if you agree with this sobering assessment.
And with that, I’ll throw it over to the proprietor of this great site…