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Sunday, April 06, 2008

Closing on "The Aeneid" & Taking a Little Literary Detour...

Aeneas fights the Harpies. Thinking about it makes me squirm, reasoning as well that I hadn't ever heard of the Harpies until I read the poem "Old Ironsides," by Oliver Wendell Holmes. At any rate, Aeneas and his crew are cursed by the Harpies and their journey continues to more exciting and pressing adventures: let's link "The Odyssey" to this maelstrom of stories. I suppose Virgil does a great job with this, but it leaves one a little confused at the end of Book III.

Dido falls for Aeneas, or did she? Many people overlook the fact that Dido's affection also has a connection that by uniting with Aeneas, Carthage will become more powerful. I think this is so because Dido is portrayed as the victim of a bad love when Aeneas plans his escape in secret and abandons her in despair. To complicate matters even more, both Dido and Aeneas have "councils" to decide their own separate futures. The storm, the cave, the insinuation that Dido and Aeneas have given themselves over to lust sounds like a common television soap opera. It isn't until Mercury--acting as council--reminds Aeneas of his rightful destiny to found and people Rome that Dido and Aeneas' passion goes sour. Her attempted suicide aside, I don't think it would have been a good match to begin with. Imagine, you and your love interest trying to forge a future for yourselves and a massive amount of gods overlooking and deciding in turn what eventually is "best" for you both. I know I am taking a modern view of the plot, but it's so complicated one spends half of the time trying to see which path the protagonists are to follow.

The Christian overtones of the voyage to the "underworld" renders this text a "masterpiece" in the Europe of the 1400s and 1500s, but it does nothing to entertain. Later, Dante will draw much of his vision of the "Inferno" from Book VI of "The Aeneid." Virgil's persistence to show the underworld as a challenge the protagonist needs (or is forced) to overcome is what seals the deal with later classic theology about the soul having to overcome sin in order to avoid the underworld. It's amazing to think how much of this is precursor to Christian belief, but how much of it remains the seminal foundation for what we believe today.

Turnus and Aeneas "duking it out" serves as the closing of the story. Again, the gods play "chess" with the characters. The battle is not described in as much detail as the sacking of Troy was at the very beginning, but Virgil does provide the reader with the one-on-one, blow-by-blow final meeting between Turnus and Aeneas. Aeneas is saved by Venus' balm when he is wounded on his leg by an arrow that cannot be dislodged. Once the balm does its thing, Aeneas returns to beat Turnus. In a moment of twisting hesitation, Aeneas pities the defeated foe whom he had decided to allow to escape with his life. But, as a master stroke, Virgil makes Aeneas realize what Turnus wears Pallas' belt around his shoulder... violence and death are the real legacies of Aeneas. He kills Turnus.

I took a little literary detour this week when I surrendered to re-reading "Oracle Night," by Paul Auster. I am reading differently now, however, seeing technique and way of introducing things into a story--not giving it all away at the beginning; how to make a character real; developing sub-plots, etc. Auster is the master of the "alternative driven" fiction. That is to say, characters are forced to make decisions that impact their entire lives and the plot of the story really is fueled by these decisions. First person narratives are the best for doing this. Friday alone I read over 200 pages in little under 3 hours. I simply adore Auster's prose, and I am learning a great deal in terms of what to do in my own writing.

The China trip is still on the works despite the little spurs of dissent about the Olympics and the violence in Tibet. I am to leave here on Wednesday, April 16th (I leave at 3 PM, have a lay over of 10 hours in Chicago, fly 13 hours to Korea spending 4 hours there, and finally arrive in Beijing at 10 AM of the following day). I suppose I could show some excitement for going, but after traveling most of Southeast Asia (while avoiding the communist countries), China sounds like a "burden" rather than an "exciting or exotic" trip. I am not quite sure where it is that I am teaching, other than the school at Changchun that is. I'll be counting the 10 days to return... and reading my way across most of the countryside (I have a six hour train ride from Changchun to Shanghai). I'll be taking more books than actual luggage with me.

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