I want to thank everyone who has been patiently following along the epic adventure BC and I have just finished with Hermann Broch’s The Death of Virgil. May all interested benefit from a slightly more trodden path! And lest you missed anything, a recap:
BC is far too kind to thank me for his challenge. I think it goes without saying at this point that The Death of Virgil is the kind of novel it’s very, very hard to get through on your own, and certainly a “project.” And that’s a very big project I’ve now completed thanks to him, and with much help.
The final section of the novel is less than 42 pages long in the Vintage edition, about 9% of the total, and its seven (yes, 7) paragraphs are the only possible capstone to the work. Jean Starr Untermeyer, whom BC discussed yesterday, writes in her translator’s note that one of the main characteristics of the novel’s form is “the musical composition of the work as a whole: the four main parts of the book stand in the same relation to each other as the movements of a symphony or quartette, and somewhat in the manner of theme and variations the successive part becomes a lyrical self-commentary on the parts that have preceded it.” Thus “Air—The Homecoming” is the inevitable wrapping up of all the themes and motifs of the whole, ending in perfect harmony and peace.
The formal properties of The Death of Virgil are the most appealing to me, but also I think the easiest to appreciate for anyone. The symphonic unity of the work is clear, even on what for me was a very extended reading. On a smaller scale, Broch’s use of juxtaposition, repetition, and morphological alteration is also fascinating. The Death of Virgil has a language very much its own. And other elements are inserted, like the Socratic dialogues in Part III.
The content, though, is more difficult to penetrate, and on my only sincere reading rather bleak (but surely I am not even at the forecourt of reality). To take a phrase BC used yesterday, Broch is exploring “the possibilities of, and the requirements for, a new literature appropriate to a ‘time of crisis.’” And the answer apperas to be that “art was incapable of achieving a cosmic unity.” Virgil reaches unity only in the obliteration of his self; what can this do to help us? Names and knowledge and anything outside of a nameless unity must drop away as we approach the shores of the underworld, and once there, the remaining aspects of personhood begin to disappear. As Virgil discovers he and Plotia are naked now, in the Garden:
…Plotia’s nakedness was likewise unremarkable, for without this detracting from her bodily charm, he was scarcely able to see her any more as a woman, he saw her as it were from within, and beheld from the core of her individual essence, she was scarcely any longer a body but rather a transparent intrinsic substance, no longer a woman, no longer a virgin, but rather a smile, the smile which gives meaning to everything human, the human countenance opening in a smile, freed of shame, and exalted through a forlorn preparation incapable of consummation, sublimated to a transported-transporting love; strangely touching, strangely wintry, was this smiling, loving gesture toward the star swimming there in cool, virginal light, and strangely cool, aye, almost childish in its virginal, sex-stripped lucidity was this yearning gesture sent up to the utter clarity of the remotest spheres.
These sorts of “resolutions” strike me first as profoundly anti-human, and second as signs of a lack of willingness to engage with reality. Can Plotia’s transportation into immanence have any message other than that of a vague, ascetic mysticism? (In case it hasn’t been at all clear, the book The Death of Virgil most reminds me of is Siddhartha.) More than telling me art has no real meaning, it seems instead that Broch is trying very hard to send me a message that seems meaningless.
The last line of the novel embodies this problem for me. As Virgil is reborn, he “floated on with the word,” Logos, “incomprehensible and unutterable for him: it was the word beyond speech.” This is, I think, the sort of thing that is often called a Mystery, and Mysteries like this are exactly what The Death of Virgil inhabits. Some people find profound meaning in these spaces; I find meaningless contradictions. I believe they are reaching toward something, but I’m never very sure what. Most likely, it seems, darüber muss man scheiben.
Part IV of Death of Virgil is called “Air—The Homecoming.” At its opening, Virgil lies supine on a boat, voyaging into the underworld, his friend Plotius manning the oars in the boat’s fore, an unnamed and (to Virgil) unseen helmsman in the aft guiding the trip. The dying, maybe already dead, Virgil sees old friends—Horace, Lucretius, Sallust—greeting him. But Virgil has a newfound ability to see these men from the “inside,” shorn of inessential parts, all part of an irreducible common humanity.
The funeral barge loses speed, but increases in mass, ultimately reaching an infinite size (Broch was fascinated with physics and mathematics, and one goal of his art was to represent relativity). Lysanias, the boy-servant who has attended Virgil, stands on the prow of the boat; his ring, Virgil’s own and given as a bequest at the end of Part III, becomes a star, a transformation followed by Lysanias flying away toward a “night-rainbow” portal of seven colors. In his stead, Plotia, the woman who appeared in Part III as a former lover, materializes to guide Virgil’s continued trip. She takes Virgil’s hand, and, together, they walk into a magnificent landscape, one populated by peaceful animals and abundant vegetation and crowned by a tree full of golden fruit. Virgil falls asleep, and, in his dreams, finds a mystical union with Plotia; she enters his flesh, bones, and marrow. When he awakens, the woman (Woman) has disappeared.
If it seems to the reader as if Virgil and Plotia have happened into the Garden of Eden, well, that seems exactly right. But the story told is not that of Creation, but of Creation-in-reverse. Plotia/Eve does not spring from the rib of Virgil/Adam, but rather is absorbed back into the bones of that original man. And the six days of creation unfold distinctly but in rewind. The animals become not docile but ferocious; they march through valleys that unfold behind them. The birds and the fishes merge into the void. The sun, moon, and stars lose luster. At the end (beginning) of this devolution, on the first/last day, only the crater of creation remains – even light is swallowed up by the primal night. Virgil, now have lost any human uniqueness himself, is part of the womb of the “precreational godhead.” This might seem like a fine place to end the novel. But it is Virgil’s rebirth not his dissolution that concludes Death of Virgil. Creation is re-enacted in the final pages of the book. Virgil’s humanity is restored. The animals appear, and they are peaceful again. Restored, both man and beast look to the east, where they see a vision of mother and child, radiant with beneficence: the Logos.
Thus ends Death of Virgil. Let me make just a few discursive comments in concluding my contribution here.
1. I owe Nicole many thanks. I suggested Death of Virgil for her reading challenge, and I must confess that I didn’t know the size of the task that awaited us. I’ve now written more than 6,500 words on her blog; that’s valuable space, I know, and I appreciate her offering me the chance to write about it. She probably has found things she disagrees with in my discussion of the book, so I’m doubly grateful for her intellectual indulgences.
2. My understanding of the book (including what I’ve written about Part IV here) has been indispensably aided by secondary sources. Hermann Weigand, a professor of German literature at Yale, wrote about the book in several reviews, which I have drawn upon. I’ve already mentioned two biographies: Hermann Broch by Lutzeller and the Unfortunate Passion of Hermann Broch by Perez Gay.
3. The translation by Jean Starr Untermeyer has already been lauded by Nicole. One rather fascinating aspect of the Death of Virgil is that the book was written and translated almost simultaneously. Broch, in exile from Austria, was invited to Yaddo, the artist colony in New York, where he met Untermeyer. The novelist had hoped that Edwin and Willa Muir, who had translated his The Sleepwalkers, would agree to work on his new novel as well. But the Muirs were busy, and they didn’t like the book much either. So Untermeyer, a poet, agreed to do the forbidding endeavor. The final drafts of The Death of Virgil benefited from her input in what was no doubt a frustrating task of translating a section, finding Broch to have rewritten it overnight, and then beginning once again. Untermeyer was by no means a German scholar; she was a singer by training and had learned the language mostly through Lieder, which she had studied as a professional singer at an earlier stage of life. As she wrote of Death of Virgil, “I began with a sentence. It turned into a life sentence.” Nevertheless, she realized, as memorialized in her Private Collection: A Personal Reminiscence of Literary Figures, which has a chapter devoted to Broch called “Midwife to a Masterpiece,” that the novel would be her most lasting artistic achievement.
4. Last week, Nicole reviewed All Things Shining. While I’ve only read reviews, it does seem that the concerns of this new, popular philosophical work are the same as those of Broch, the novelist. What to do when all the traditional modes of meaning have eroded (or been erased)? How to live a life amidst these ruins? This was a great concern for the intellectual milieu of early 20th century Vienna—a world whose inheritance is incontrovertibly carried by Dreyfus, one of the authors of All Things Shining, and probably this country’s foremost scholar of Heidegger. Broch believed that life was impossible without a system of meaning; no happiness in nihilism for him (Nicole, defend yourself!): totalitarianism was the inevitable response to the demise of values, as an ethically unstable people were vulnerable to irrational appeals. The rise of Hitler reinforced this sentiment, with great personal consequence to Broch (not only his exile to America, but his mother died at Theriesenstadt). The case for Broch’s greatness is that, more than any other novelist, he saw the possibilities of, and the requirements for, a new literature appropriate to a “time of crisis.” As we’ve noted before here, Broch saw the era of Virgil—with its declining faith in traditional gods—as a time parallel to his own. (I think it significant too that the book takes place in Brundisium, a place where the influences of Rome and Greece were joined.) At the same time, it is hard not to conflate the situation of Virgil and Broch: artists at a time when art was incapable of achieving a cosmic unity; rootless exiles, desperate to escape the insane masses.
Hermann Broch was occasionally mentioned as a possible recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature; his cause was advanced in the United States by some of his fellow émigrés (like Einstein and Mann, both friends of Broch). It is said that, in the 1950s, the Nobel Committee asked the Austrian cultural authorities about Broch. But the Austrians said they’d never heard of the man. Both far behind and distantly ahead of his own enfeebled time, anonymity, undeserved but not unexpected, was to be Broch’s fate. If for no other reason (and there are many), thanks to Nicole for helping put together—for the first time on the internet—a discussion of The Death of Virgil, In so doing, we’ve done our small part to rescue Broch from oblivion.
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.”
Finishing up the third section of Death of Virgil leaves one with a great sense of relief, and also, I must admit, a small but very detectible tremor of fear. The relief comes from knowing that the bulk of this acclaimed work lays behind; the fourth and concluding section of the novel is only a few dozen pages in length, and there is little doubt of its terminus: the poet’s death. The trepidation, albeit one tempered in part by the conclusion’s brevity, arises from a sense that life’s last rattle will be even less comprehensible than the professional obscurities of the first three movements. No exaggeration: Death of Virgil requires a serious intellectual investment, one supervised by a will that must be a taskmaster if not slavedriver.
I’d like to give a brief synopsis of the plot of this, the longest part of Death of Virgil and one which is entitled “Earth—The Arrival.” Then, having outlined what Broch would no doubt consider the novel’s least interesting aspect, I’ll try to examine what the Austrian novelist is really after in this modern epic. It is of course a question always worth asking, as Nicole’s recent post on the critical endeavor reminds us. And it is if anything a question more important than usual in the case of Death of Virgil, for the book offers (at least to me) few real pleasures. Maybe (just maybe) a very brief revisiting of Broch’s life and philosophical preoccupations can offer insight into his ambitions and techniques. In this effort, I am immeasurably aided by two books I’ve recently read ancillary to this guest-blogging: Hermann Broch by Paul Michael Lutzeler, considered to be the definitive biography of the writer; and The Unfortunate Passion of Hermann Broch by Jose Maria Perez Gay, a Mexican writer and diplomat. (By the way: Gay says in his introduction to Broch’s work that his plan is, or was, to write monographs about Broch, Musil, Canetti, and Karl Kraus—now there’s a worthy reading list for future bibliographing challenges!)
Part III is—and I would emphasize that this is a comparative judgment only—more conventional than Parts I and II. There are discrete scenes, dialogue that twists into real conversation, and a sense of dramatic development driven by characters that are not (at least in full) mere figments of Virgil’s dream-memory. Seven episodes are identifiable. The first episode finds Virgil still committed to the Aeneid’s destruction, having resolved in the long night of Part II to burn the manuscript that lies nearby in a chest by his sick-bed. The poet’s friends and—as we shall later learn—executors, Plotius Tucca and Lucius Varius, arrive and attempt to dissuade him from immolating his long poem. But, finding themselves unable to reason with Virgil, the two men request the presence of Charondas, the court physician, to minister aid to the obviously irrational Virgil. The second episode occurs as Virgil awaits the physician’s arrival, and again the interior monologue presents itself rather formidably. Lysanias, the boy-servant, and an anonymous slave, assisting in Virgil’s care, are present, although the reader (this one!) is unsure whether they are there in fact or are just part of Virgil’s recurring hallucinations. Whether real or imagined, the three men engage in some philosophical/theological discourse, culminating in a prayer, led by the slave, that seems to foretell nothing less than the salvation offered by Jesus. The third episode centers on the conversation between Charondas, now arrived, and his patient. This is by far the most straightforward part of the entire book, and is seen by Lutzeler as echoing Thomas Mann. Charondas’ exit prepares for the entrance of Augustus himself in what is the longest episode (#5); this important episode is however forestalled by an odd and somewhat inscrutable phantasmagoria in which Virgil’s lucidity once more take flight. Plotia, a beautiful woman seemingly spurned by Virgil in his feckless youth, appears in the room; she’s a temptress for sure, and Virgil imagines making love to her. This sensual experience is interrupted by a vision of, er, the buttocks of Alexis, a young boy that plays a role in Virgil’s Eclogues. These competing sexual encounters/fantasies are themselves interspersed with a debate between the presumably corporeal boy-caretaker and the slave over the nature of love and duty, with the former arguing for a return through death to the great feminine (Plotia) and the slave asserting the importance of duty. Augustus does finally arrive, interrupting the reveries of Virgil, and a very long (100 pages plus) Platonic dialogue ensues. The nature of the state, the role of beauty and art, practicality versus idealism: all are considered. It does little justice to this debate—a debate that can’t be summarized adequately or even explicated, only read and experienced oneself—to say it concludes with Virgil deciding to not burn the Aeneid after all. No real explanation is given for this about-face; maybe it is indeed that Virgil lives in a a world beyond causality. Episode 6 finds Augustus announcing to Virgil’s assembled friends the joyous news of the Aeneid’s preservation, and Part III concludes, in Episode 7, with Virgil dictating a new will, naming Plotius and Varius as custodians of the poem and also freeing his slaves.
The influence of Joyce, noted in earlier discussions of this book, becomes obvious in Part III. Now most of the way through the book, a reader is made keenly aware that the book is happening in something like real time, akin to Joyce’s Ulysses. It is also apparent that Broch is that most interesting of artists, a cultural conservative committed to a relentless avant-gardism. The world has lost its Platonic totality, and only a restoration of that unity will do; its elusiveness has created a void in which politics will always prevail and in which the masses will become increasingly deranged (remember those crowds in Part I of the novel, and also remember that Broch was in exile from Nazi Germany). The novel can capture this lost world better than can philosophy, with its sterile debates about logic, but only when it abandons traditional forms and reinvents itself. Art, however, cannot alone save the world; the political—in the form of Augustus’ demands—always prevails. For this reason, an aesthetic life is untenable. Broch was also implacably opposed to what he called “kitsch”—the attempt to create “effects” through art. Maybe this explains why, despite its experimental prose style, there is no striving toward eloquence or aphorism in Death of Virgil.
That Death of Virgil would repay multiple readings is obvious, although these returns are available only to those willing to expend significant mental outlays in the first place. It is certainly an easy book to admire—what with its experimentalism, philosophical reach, and cultural ambition. Broch apparently believed that every novel is itself a “theory of the novel” and you can see that he meant it. No one would confuse Death of Virgil with workshop fiction! That the book is harder to love should not be too surprising either. The very attributes that make the novel so admirable can easily befuddle (and did to me, often). Nevertheless, Death of Virgil stands as a monument to a generation who believed that the novel was the epitome of art, and that art was an existential matter. As we conclude our discussion here in a few days, I’ll try to offer more thoughts about Broch’s worldview, other works, and critical reception.
So Part II – “Fire—The Descent” – arrives, and it arrives with an amping up of the difficulty, arriving with sinewy sentences, going on for pages and pages, interminable pages and pages that sometimes find the prose arrested by flights of poetry cum philosophy that leave a reader mystified and unsure of meaning but with a fear or maybe dread that something important is being said but that you don’t really understand it but could if you had read a library of German and Greek philosophy, but you were of course too busy raising kids or washing dishes or watching NCAA basketball so you don’t really understand it and even feel kind of guilty and this kind of guilty feeling makes you loathe to criticize it because so many great critics have found Broch’s novel praiseworthy but also have done so in the most discursive of fashions, discursive because you suspect they did not have the temerity to explicate the damn thing and so they leave their plaudits like Fermat’s jottings, asserting that what was nearly impossible was in fact simple, so simple as to need no proof, seemingly impossible but in fact so simple its apparent greatness could be noted in the equivalent of intellectual marginalia, so that generations after that are left to ponder what they themselves could be missing, how they could have overlooked the obvious, without even contemplating that maybe Fermat couldn’t do it himself and that all of these titanic titans of art-artistry maybe just couldn’t do it themselves either and that an epigrammatic style is just cover for a lack of courage but in the end you are left knowing that the Gasses and Steiners and Blanchots and Arendts, the Gasses and Steiners and Blanchots and Arendts who love the book so much, who love the book so much but are there really as self-projected witnesses to and judges of your own obtuseness, your own inability to put into eclipse the sphere of your imaging-image and the sphere of your real-reality, the futility of it all enough to make you laugh out loud, to really laugh out loud, to laugh out loud except you know Broch thinks laughter to be the Devil’s work, or would be if there was a Devil, but there isn’t, so laughter becomes some kind of portal into a psychological hell, that’s why the laughter of those three drunks, the three drunks who yell profanities about Caesar Augustus, play such a big part in Part II, play a big part in the psychic fugue of Virgil’s last days, play a big part if only because there is no other action in the whole long section, as it begins with Virgil laying in bed contemplating his curled-up knees and moves to Virgil at the window, from which he sees those three drunks, their laughter practically an affront to the Teutonic seriousness of the novel, but really made serious in the way only such a writer as Broch can do it: laughter is not one of the sham-infinities, nor the infinity, an infinity which is in part manifested by beauty, but laughter, the drunks’ laughter, is like a “language that is no longer a bridge between people, like an extra-human laughter, its range of scorn playing about the factual worldly-estate as such, that in reaching beyond the realm of all things human no longer derides humanity but simply destroys it by exposing the nature of the world;” and if you don’t know what this means I don’t either but it is exactly what Broch/Virgil says/thinks and so it must be important in some way or the other and I think it is important in that the three drunks’ laughter marks a turning point of some kind, a turning point related to the breach of a “pledge” by the drunks and by Virgil too, a pledge whose obligee is never specified, whose terms are never delineated, but which leads to the poet concluding that the only duty on this earth is “helpfulness” and also that poetry, his own art, is not too helpful, and as a result Virgil the poet is as much of a perjurer (of what?) as were the drunks – is this helpful in its helpfulness?- no? – and I would remind you that the concept of perjury, like that of laughter, did I mention that no one laughs in dreams (or so Broch says), but if there are no dream-laughs then there are life-laughs and you don’t want these because they are the rumblings of the void (or so Broch says) and this rumbling, while long sensed, is made clear only on page 175 at which time, at which surly time, in what might be called a climax, Virgil makes the decision to burn the Aeneid, to destroy the Aeneid, to immolate the Aeneid, and all his other works too, although these have maybe been already published and in so doing he reflects on Aeneas killing Turnus and for the life of me I wish I could fully remember that episode from the actual epic, not this modern one, but I think Aeneas almost doesn’t killed Turnus but then decides he must and he’s in a full fury when he does so and this is somehow connected with the founding myth of Rome and while Aeneas killed to found a state Virgil will kill his book to found, what? a religion of some sorts? well, Broch doesn’t say as much but as Nicole has pointed out there’s a lot of quasi-Christian mysticism here and Broch did convert to Catholicism late in life so a proto-Christianity is present, a proto-Christianity that might seem ridiculous but which is after all what the Church Fathers also saw in Virgil, and what maybe the Church Fathers chose to punish, the mystical parts that is, but maybe the mysticism is needed to reunite here and beyond which is Broch’s task, and only then can come the homecoming, the homecoming of time and space, the homecoming of here and then, the homecoming of the spheres of physical and spiritual, and lots of other homecomings too that I didn’t all understand except that the repetition of the word homecoming so many times means it must be important and maybe it is the laughter again, which blends into the night’s harmony, blends in but is not absorbed, blends in only to taint the whole thing, showing that beauty too contains within itself a taint, and that is why the Aeneid must be sacrificed, sacrificed with full pomp, but no! with no pomp but right now instead and then Virgil is transported to a world beyond men, beyond language, a second world, a second language, pre-creational, ageless pre-creation, but he only does this after his boy-servant gives him wine, so maybe he’s drunk, because he envisions a savior of some kind, but this time one that will redeem man and God too, and this savior is overcoming fate in the form of the holy father-summons, revealing itself as the tone-picture of the annunciating deed: “Open your eyes to Love!” and this brings forth an angel of some species to seemingly say: “Tough luck” but in a way that Heidegger would have uttered such a commonplace and meaning that the book’s sacrifice just won’t cut it at all, for now Virgil is in the creation that once was and again is, and Virgil lays exhausted and the section ends and I’m exhausted too, and Nicole is probably mad that it took me this long to write the post but if there was ever an excuse its name is Broch because the whole crazy thing is written like this post, and if you made it through then you might be ready for Broch, or a drink, or maybe you’ll secretly wish Virgil had burned the Aeneid because if he had we’d have lost not one epic but two, and maybe that’s a fair trade.
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.
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
—, 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.
Nicole and I have talked about how dense the book is, and “Water—The Arrival” is probably the most straightforward of the novel’s four parts. To put some flesh on this first part, I put together a program that would break things out sentence by sentence. Here are the vital statistics on “Water—The Arrival.”
- There are 420 sentences.
- The longest sentence is 456 words!
- Mean sentence length is 49 words.
- Median sentence length is 167 words.
There are, of course a number of one- or two-word sentences, usually conversations between characters or jeers from the unruly Roman crowd. There are also some unusual grammatical features: —fragments set off like this one by a colon and dashes. I counted each of these as a separate sentence. If I were to exclude these short declarations, the average would obviously creep up. That’s why median sentence length is perhaps most illustrative of the novelist’s grammatical style.
Oh yeah, my mistakes. In an earlier post, I said that Broch had enrolled (in mid-life) at university to study with Rudolf Carnap. That’s exactly right. But I then said that the Vienna Circle was antipositivist. Not exactly right. In fact, not even close to right. The Vienna Circle is of course the progenitor of logical positivism. But Broch himself was an antipositivist, and it was his frustration with Carnap and others that led him to turn toward art.
I also want to make sure I’m clear on Broch’s publishing history. The Sleepwalkers was published in German in 1931, and was translated into English in 1936. So the fallow years of Broch were between 1925 and 1931, not until 1935 as I had said in an earlier post. The Death of Virgil was published in 1945. My apologies for the confusion! I’ve been reading too much Broch….
Nicole has done a fine job summarizing and taking apart Part I of The Death of Virgil. I am delinquent in posting on the section myself as I am almost done preparing a program that will examine the text of the novel and break it out sentence by sentence, giving an analysis of average and median sentence length, number of sentences, unusual word choices, and other somesuch. I haven’t quite got it to work yet, so I’ll have to have an addendum to this post in a couple of days in which I’ll offer this data.
In the meantime, let me just add a couple of thoughts to Nicole’s analysis. Suffice it to say there’s not a lot of action in Part I; indeed, The Death of Virgil makes The Wings of the Dove look like Hunt for Red October. At the start of Part I, Virgil is on a boat in the port of Brundisium; by its end, he is in some kind of quarters, not too far away, having been borne through the teeming streets by a cohort of porters with the assistance of an unnamed urchin-servant.
Part I has five subsections, separated not by numbers much less titles but only by a couple of extra blank spaces. In the first of these, Virgil lies on the boat, seemingly feverish. The oddities of Broch’s style become immediately apparent. First is the occasional but jarring use of compound past participle-present participle neologisms. For example, Broch describes Virgil’s fatigue as “quieted-quieting” and the atmosphere of the ship (in a different form of this) as “damp-draughty.” Second is the repetition of word upon word, phrase upon phrase, as in this excerpt, chosen almost at random and which comes in the midst of a multi-hundred word sentence (emphasis added):
…the furled sails, dead in their rigidity, living in their repose, a strange, dusky, knotted and confused network that lifted itself darkly from the shiny oily-dark surface of the water toward the unmoved evening brightness of the heavens, a black spiderweb of wood and hemp reflected spectrally in the waters beneath, flashing spectrally above from the wild flickering of the torches swung all about the decks with the shouts of welcome, spectrally lit from the splendor of lights on the land-place: in the rows of houses surrounding the harbor, window after window was illuminated even up to the attics, illuminated the osterias ranged one after the other under the colonnades….
This example is more or less typical of the prose style of Part I.
The second subsection finds Virgil leaving the boat and entering the hellish city. The metaphor of water is not abandoned, though—remember, Part I is called “Water—The Arrival”—as the litter on which he is carried seems to surf on the filth and degradation of the Roman crowds. All about him Virgil sees the “gulp-muzzles, the shout-muzzles, the sing-muzzles, the gape-muzzles, the opened muzzles in the closed faces, all of them opened, torn apart, beset with teeth behind red, brown, or pallid lips, armed with tongues.” The “mass-beast” Virgil calls these crowds. He also smells (ah, the repetition) the “dusty dryness of the corn-sacks, the wheat-sacks, the barley-sacks, the spelt-sacks, one could smell the sourish mellowness of the oil-tuns, the oil-jugs, the oil-casks….” Near the end of this subsection, Virgil reflects, or rather hallucinates, on his mother, his father, and his bucolic youth, lamented in its loss.
In the third subsection of Part I, Virgil and his bearers enter a dark “alley-gorge” in the city. Virgil again is arrested by the pestilence of it all:
Here at the very spot where house after house discharged a beastly excremental stench from the opened doormouths, here in the dilapidated dwelling-canal through he was being borne in the high-held litter so that he could look into the squalid rooms, must look into them, here, met by the furious and senseless maledictions flung into his face by the women, ….
The style changes and rather noticeably, too, in these few pages. The third subsection is the first to see any direct quotations and they come from the howling chorus of demons that surround Virgil, who yell profane imprecations (“Suckling!” “Diaper-pisser!”) at the passing poet. These are interspersed with Virgil’s impressions of the taunts, impressions which most of the time agree with the crude accusations against him.
The palace of Augustus, where “hope and disappointment counterbalance one another,” is reached in the fourth subsection and, by the fifth subsection, Virgil finds rest in a room of the palace, ministered to by the young boy who has accompanied him, watching the nightfires of the city from a bay window. Here the novel takes a more realistic turn; for the first time a conversation takes place. (The previous few quotations in The Death of Virgil are more like overheard fragments.)
“You are Virgil,” says the boy. “I was once,” says Virgil, “perhaps I shall be again.” “Not quite here but yet at hand,” came like a corroboration from the boy’s lips.
By the final subsection—the sixth—this readerly respite has been taken away, and Part I ends with a rambling, dense meditation on death, poetry, the meaning of Aeneas.
This summary hardly does justice to the novel, which fills up the page like a vessel; there are few white spaces here, as the text typically starts at the top left and goes without break to the page’s conclusion. For this reason, among many, The Death of Virgil is a long 500 pages! It is also, as I have talked about in earlier posts, deeply philosophical. And I will conclude this discussion of Part I with a passage that comes from the first subsection. Virgil hears a song (Nicole discusses this) amidst the gluttonous feast taking place on the deck of the ship that carries him. Music, of course, is the ultimate art for Viennese pessimists; more than any other art, music encompassed the world in all its totality (paging Dr. Faustus) and it in Vienna that atonality flourished as a response to the destroyed philosophical harmonies of the common practice era. Well, so, too, for our Viennese-inflected Virgil:
Forward on the bow a young slave, one of the musicians, was singing…mildly flowing the song, floating insubstantially, like rainbow tints in the nocturnal heavens, mildly flowing the strings, soft-hued as ivory, human accomplishments, both the song and the strings, but removed beyond their human source, delivered from mankind, delivered from suffering; this was the music of the spheres singing itself… guidance the song; secure in itself and for that reason guidance; just for that reason exposed to eternity, for only the serene may guide, only the singular, wrested, nay rescued, from the flow of tings, lays itself open to immensity, only that which is held fast—ah, had he ever succeeded in getting such an actual, guiding grasp? — only the truly comprehended, even though it be only for a momen in the ocean of milleniums, onl the firmly-retained becomes timeless, becomes permanent, becomes a guiding song, becomes guidance; on, for a single life-moment enlarged to eternity, enlarged to the limits of understanding, susceptible of immensity: high above the shining song, high above the shining sunset breathed the heaven, whose sharp-clear autumnal sweetness had repeated itself unchanged for milleniums past and would repeat itself unchanged for milleniums to come, nevertheless unique in its manifestation here and now as the silky bright shimmer of its dome was overcast by the silent breath of the oncoming night.
The brush cleared, or maybe thickened, Part II nevertheless beckons!
The first section of The Death of Virgil, “Water—The Arrival,” tells of Virgil’s arrival at Brundisium along with Caesar Augustus and his retinue. Already ill, Virgil has submitted to the “importunity” of Augustus and agreed to return to Italy from Athens, where he had hoped “that the hallowed and serene sky of Homer would favor the completion of the Aeneid,” which would have allowed “the boundless new life which was to have begun…a life free alike of art and poetry….”
Instead, the old man is about to land at Brindisi, where, “[s]teel-blue and light, ruffled by a soft, scarcely perceptible cross-wind, the waves of the Adriatic streamed against the imperial squadron….” This opening passage of the novel, as BC noted yesterday, is the only one told not through Virgil’s “wild perceptions,” and it’s quite different from what we’ll find elsewhere. It continues:
And here, as the sunny yet eathly loneliness of the sea change with the peaceful stir of friendly human activity where the channel, softly enhanced by the proximity of human life and human living, was populated by all sorts of craft—by some that were also approaching the harbor, by others heading out to sea and by the ubiquitous brown-sailed fishing boats already setting out for the evening catch from the little breakwaters which protected the many villages and settlements along the white-sprayed coast—here the water had become mirror-smooth; mother-of-pearl spread over the open shell of heaven, evening came on, and the sound of life, a hammering of a summons, was blown over from the shore.
Virgil doesn’t care for the soft waves—they make him sea-sick. He also doesn’t care for the signs of human life and settlement; in “Water—The Arrival,” humans are like water too, a streaming mob. And they likewise make Virgil ill. As the servants assigned to him attempt to carry Virgil’s litter through the city streets to the imperial palace, “[h]e gazed over a sea of heads, he glided over a sea of heads, surrounded by a human surf, for the present, however, only at its edge, the first attempts to overcome this surging opposition having until now utterly failed.” Closer to the palace, the human stream begins to foreshadow the next part, “Fire—The Descent,” as the blaze of its lights
gleamed like some magic luminary which converted all that moved about into a compulsorily automatic stream, one could almost think that even the litter swam with it, floated with it automatically, scarcely that it was being carried, and with every step, with every forward glide, the power of that mysterious, calamitous, senselessly-magnificent lure became more definitely felt, became more terrifying, more urgent, more intrusive, near and nearer the heart, growing, growing, growing, till at one stroke it revealed itself in that instant when the litter, shoved, pulled, carried high and swimmingly afloat, suddenly came to the entrance of the street; for here, quite abruptly, wreathed by fire, surrounded by tumult, stripped of every shield for light, of every shield for noise, in an unshielded dazzle of light and noise, gleaming and glittering, the imperial palace came to view, partly residence, partly fortress, arising vulcanically, infernally, glaringly, from the center of a shield-shaped, hunched, almost circular plaza, and this plaza was comprised of a single conglomerate flood of creaturekind, a massed, formed, forming, boiling human-humus, a flood of glossy eyes and glossy glances, all of them rigid in their ardor as though dispossessed of every other purport, directed toward the one and only goal, shining without a shadow, a human stream of fire avid to lick this fiery coast.
Virgil needs a shield from all this because creaturekind is disgusting. At first it seems his main source of disgust is human greed, which causes ships “laden with people, laden with arms, laden with corn and wheat, laden with marble, with oil, with wines, with spices, with silks, laden with slaves” to ply around the world, “bartering and bargaining, one of the worst among the many depravities of the world.” The imperial flotilla that has brought Virgil to Brundisium is full of gluttons who have spent the whole voyage stuffing themselves with food and drink, the smells of which make the poet feel even sicker. But it goes deeper than wanton greed and gluttony; Virgil has realized now that the problem is “a tide of evil, an immense wave of unspeakable, inexpressible, incomprehensible evil [that] seethed in the reservoir of the plaza”—more water imagery for you. Virgil is obsessed with “the people’s profound capacity for evil in all its ramifications, their possibilities for human degradation in becoming a mob, and their reversion therewith to the anti-human, brought to pass by the hollowing out of existence, by turning existence toward a mere thirst for superficialities, its deep roots lost and cut away, so that nothing remained but the dangerous isolated life of self, a sad, sheer exteriority, pregnant with evil, pregnant with death, pregnant with a mysterious, infernal ending.”
“Superficialities,” though, seems to include an awful lot. Virgil is just as disgusted by eating and drinking apparently done out of genuine necessity as he is by real gluttony. He is revolted by the miserable alley he travels through full of the poor, barely able to eke out a living. Sexuality too is evil and like death. Anything human, it would seem, is like death, a concept that obsesses the dying man before us.
Stylistically, most of the first part is like the passages I’ve quoted here, except that opening description of Brundisium’s harbor and some dialogue Virgil has with a slave boy. The stream of consciousness is relentless, all the more for being the consciousness of such a troubled soul. Jean Starr Untermeyer’s translation is lovely, though.