The Death of Virgil part II: “Fire—The Descent”

The second section of The Death of Virgil is “Fire—The Descent,” one of the toughest things I’ve ever read—and certainly I wasn’t this section’s best reader. At least you’re not stuck with me; perhaps BC will have been better.

First, the plot of this section: Virgil has sent away his servant for the night and spends the evening in what I would characterize as a delirium. He descends into his own mind, where the narration consists of long sentences and even longer paragraphs, mostly describing what I am tempted to call nonsense (more on that later). He is aware of some outside events, like the nearing of three drunken proles arguing with each other and the coming of the dawn. He talks a bit with the servant. He contemplates burning The Aeneid. His main concern is with deepening his understanding of the universe and approaching a kind of true understanding on the way to death. His delirium takes hold, he begins to gain new understanding, he comes to a point of greater clarity, and then the narration gets a bit of the outside world in. Then the next delirium begins, hopefully bringing Virgil to the next stop in his journey. This is the general pattern of the section.

Now, I’ve called Virgil’s little voyage nonsense, but that’s Nicole the Hater talking, not Nicole the Reader. Nicole the Reader would tell you that Broch’s stream of consciousness narration is highly effective. As you read about Virgil’s passage toward understanding, you too will feel delirious and confused. As he begins to notice things outside his own head—real things, that is—you will grab onto them too. And as he comes out of each level of contemplation, you will awaken as if from a trance, suddenly beginning to realize again what’s going on, what has happened since you last came up for air, and dreading the next attack of Virgil’s sickness.

But the content of these fits…well, let’s say I’m a little hard-nosed for this stuff. For example, “in the realm of the infinite”:

The pathways of the millenniums revealed themselves as endless sheaves of light, straggling in any and all directions, they were carriers of the eternal and brought the finite into ultimate infinity, the thing done having the same weight as the thing undone, good and evil crossing each other with equal impressiveness and illuminative force, and there was no way out of the seeing-blindness, the hearing-deafness of the dream, no way out of the dream-dome, of the dream-dazzlement, the dream so estranged from discrimination that it opens up no path to the good, an unbounded, shoreless flood.

Or:

Law and time,
born from each other,
annulling, yet always giving birth to each other anew,
reflecting each other and perceptible in this way alone,
chain of images and counter-images,
noosing time, noosing the arch-image,
neither wholly captured, yet for all that
becoming more and more timeless
until, in their last echoing unison,
in a final symbol,
the image of death unites with the image of life,
portraying the reality of the soul,
her homestead, her timeless now, the law
made manifest in her, and hence
her necessity.

Or:

—, oh homecoming, homecoming into the utterly-incomprehensible that will be granted to us when we shall have become prepared to fly to it again; oh, the utterly-incomprehensible that we seek for even in dreams because in dreams fate, our fate, becomes dreamily comprehensible for us; mortal is dream, mortal is fate, both such things of chance that we, bound and dazed even in dream, shudder back from it, dismayed by the impossible; oh mortal is that chance which is not contained in ourselves and in which we are not contained; all that we comprehend of it is death, for death reveals itself to us in the phenomenon of chance, verily only in chance, but we, neither containing ourselves nor contained in ourselves, bearing death within us, are only accompanied by it, it stands at our side, as it were by chance—

No, not utter nonsense, not the utterly-incomprehensible. But it’s extremely hard for me not to write off as cheap mysticism things like “we, neither containing ourselves nor contained in ourselves, bearing death within us, are only accompanied by it.”

I do better with some of it, where I have a better understanding of the themes. One of my problems is that Virgil (and Broch?) has a very different metaphysics from my own, which would actually be normal, except that his is genuinely foreign and I don’t have a great handle on it. Why do the millennia have pathways, even in dreams? And all this talk of the spheres…and I do even worse with the talk of beauty, which is probably kind of important in a novel about art. I feel much more like I’m getting it when Virgil is on a kick about fate, like here:

for he who has left the first portal of fear behind him
has entered the fore-court of reality,
now that his perception, discovering itself and turned towards itself,
as if for the first time,
begins to comprehend
the necessity inherent in the universe, the necessity of every occurrence,
as the necessity of his own soul

But even here, I think, “He is talking about fate; fate is important,” yet the mysticism grates. A few lines later we’re talking about souls floating over abysses and blindness and nothingness again. Virgil’s journey through all these portals is, of course, paramount for him. But for this reader, the significance remains opaque. His experiences are not only internal but so heavily dependent on his self—his history, personality, hangups, problems, fears, hatreds, loves, tastes—that it’s difficult to place much meaning behind his fever-dream. At least, for now. We still have two sections to go.

4 comments to The Death of Virgil part II: “Fire—The Descent”

  • It looks daunting, quite impenetrable; this must be a nightmare to translate from the original text.

  • I’ve been thinking just the same thing. I haven’t looked at the original German at all yet, but I plan to a bit, and based on the English it really seems nuts.

  • Sorry, by nuts I meant, one hell of a job to translate.

  • Though I’ve read The Sleepwalkers, this one I’ve kept at arm’s length, fearing the difficulty you describe. In any event, Blanchot has an interesting essay on Broch in The Book to Come (called “Broch”, helpfully enough). Whether he helps with Broch’s opacity is another question.

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