“overpowering was the compulsion to make them understand, so that they should not be estranged from him”

BC’s post on Part III of The Death of Virgil touches on several things I knew I would want to write about while reading the section. And he’s done the hard work of researching Broch and his philosophy, which has been incredibly helpful for me (who have been a bit lazier!).

First, I was extremely relieved at the more-conventional nature of Part III. Though Virgil is still in a state less than fully conscious for much of it, his interactions with so many other characters that do seem to be real, and the heavy dialogue component of the section, are unusually welcome after such long sections featuring nothing of the kind. And I’m pleased that Broch allowed his readers, like Virgil, to wake up after a long delirious night of despair, even if we only did so to argue.

BC also noted that one of the discussions in Part III “seems to foretell nothing less than the salvation offered by Jesus.” The allusions to Christianity in this section are numerous. At first they surprised me; I simply hadn’t expected this as an aspect of the novel. At first the references were more indeterminate—they applied to Christianity, but not exclusively. For example, Virgil blurts out to Plotius Tucca and Lucius Varius, “although he himself hardly knew what it meant,” that “[l]ove is the reality.”

So it became audible and suddenly it was no longer enigmatic. For the gods had blessed man with love to ease the pang of his lusts, and he who has partaken of this blessing perceives reality; he is no longer a mere lodger in the realm of personal consciousness in which he is caught. And again he heard: “Love is the reality.”

Octavian himself later tells Virgil, “Your words sounded rather obscure…though that happens often with you; if one reflects on them afterward they seem to have become wisdom.” Virgil does not speak in parables, but the reaction from his interlocutor makes him seem just a little bit Christ-like. Augustus echoes this same idea later, and Virgil makes the clearest reference yet:

“The profundity of your work often seems like a riddle, and now you are talking in riddles.”

“The bringer of salvation will bring himself to the sacrifice out of love for men and mankind, transforming himself by his own death into the deed of truth, the deed which he casts to the universe, so that from this supreme and symbolic reality of helpful service creation may again unfold.”

And later still, Virgil contemplates the boy and the slave: “Both of them were looking toward the east, joined in a new concord by their eastward glancing; and the star would rise on the eastern firmament.”

The idea of Virgil prefiguring Christ, and almost considering himself a failed Christ, still confounds me a bit. But that’s what I get for not knowing nearly enough about Virgil’s own writings, I assume, which were, according to his friends, very much about love. It also recalls Virgil’s role in the Divine Comedy, yet another work I have not read and which would, I’m sure, contribute to greater understanding here.

I’m relatively eager to see how it all plays out in the (mercifully) short fourth part of the novel, “Air—The Homecoming.”

2 comments to “overpowering was the compulsion to make them understand, so that they should not be estranged from him”

  • All of the “Virgil prophesying Christ” business comes out of a medieval interpretation of his fourth Eclogue. It’s only a couple of pages long, and well worth reading in Dryden’s translation or a more modern one. My prediction is that you will discover that medieval readers had powerful imaginations.

  • Thanks, I’ll have to get on that!