Among the many books on my bedside table, I try to always keep one book that I consider intimidating. This book could be a scholarly work, philosophy, science, contemporary fiction (with a reputation for difficulty), experimental poetry, or one of the “classics.” The intimidating book is one that I feel I’m not smart enough or educated enough to read, but how else will I educate myself if I don’t read it. Also, I don’t like the idea of being bullied around by some printed pages.
The intimidating book currently on my bedside table is The Aeneid; I’m about a hundred pages (three books) from the end. What surprised me the most is how much I enjoy reading it, and that my enjoyment was similar to that of watching a campy horror or action film. In other words, I MST3Ked it. Now I’m probably far from the ideal reader for Virgil—my understanding of Roman history and culture is spotty to say the least. I bring, probably unfairly, my modern perspective upon the work. While this may mean that some allusion will go over my head, I can’t believe that works of literature should be read as though they exist out of time. Of course The Aeneid will read differently for Virgil’s contemporaries, scholars in the 19th century, and me in the 21st Century.
First let me mention the things that frustrated me. Right now I’m in middle of reading about the war in Italy, which started because Aeneas wants to marry Lavinia and so does Turnus. We hear what Aeneas wants (to make the Trojans a great country once again), what Turnus wants (Lavinia and the throne that comes with her), what Lavinia’s father, King Latinus, wants (for Aeneas to marry Lavinia), what Lavinia’s mother wants (for Turnus to marry Lavinia), and what the Goddess Juno wants (to muck things up for Aeneas). We never learn what Lavinia wants. While I know that given the cultural background of this work, this over site is to be expected, it still annoys me. Here is a character that they are starting a war over, but her main characteristic is that “she was ripe now, ready for a husband.” Yuck! I’ve always found the woman who is a fruit ready to be plucked metaphor gross.
I was similarly annoyed when Mercury warns Aeneas to get out of Carthage and says, with regards to Dido, “An ever/ uncertain and inconstant thing is a woman.” Or, when the Trojans are leaving and see Dido’s suicide-funeral pyre and Virgil writes, “They cannot know/ what caused so vast a blaze, and yet the Trojans/ know well the pain when passion is profaned/ and how a woman driven wild can act.” Yep, Dido is crazy for expecting Aeneas to hang around—she only destroyed her political reputation at home and caused a war with a neighboring king by shacking up with Aeneas. If Dido hadn’t committed suicide, her fate was still a pretty bleak one. So yeah, I feel she deserved a little slack. At least she got to snub Aeneas in the underworld.
I’m enjoying reading about the war in Italy; it makes me laugh. Take Euryalus and Nisus who sneak off to warn Aeneas that the Trojans are under attack but stop to kill some Rutulians and pick up some loot, meanwhile I’m yelling “You have a job to do. Warn Aeneas!” I’ve seen lots of action movies. From them I have learned that the moment you start killing people, it is only a matter of time before the enemies start noticing you, especially if you steal and wear some of their shiny armor. While Virgil presents their death as heroic and tragic, they don’t seem to understand what being a messenger sneaking through the enemy camp entails. Considering their message was something along the lines of “Help we’re under attack! Need Reinforcements!” they kind of screwed over their comrades.
Yet no one is really good at their job as soldiers here. Oh, they are heroic, glorious, and brave in battle, but they are crappy soldiers. At one point the Trojans, who were ordered to defend the fortification until Aeneas returns, get so caught up in battle they open the gates to better attack their enemy. Opening the gates to attack is not really a good move when you’re defending against a force with greater numbers. Their enemy of course use this moment, and the enemy’s leader, Turnus, finds himself inside the Trojan fortifications where he goes on a killing spree. In fairness, Turnus isn’t good at his job either. As Virgil points out:
The Trojans turn and run in fear and trembling;
and if the victor the had taken care
to smash the bolts, to let his comrades pour
inside the gates, the day had been the last
day of war and of the Trojan nation;
but rage and an insane desire for slaughter
drove Turnus on against his enemies.
Oh Turnus, if only you had called for back up, you could have won.
I realize it may seem like I’m nitpicking this great work of literature. I can’t deny the beauty and the power of Virgil’s work, and I’m grateful to Allen Mandelbaum for giving us a translation that is so readable and poetic. However, often works of literature seem to be put on a pedestal just out of reach for the rest of us, who have decidedly plebeian tastes. But as I read this great work, I saw the same tropes I see in Bond and Schwarzenegger films. I enjoy watching these cheesy movies—I enjoy sitting at home and yelling at the heroine to run instead of investigating the basement. I love yelling at the megalomaniac madman to stop monologuing about his plans to take over the world. And if I can find that same joy reading the “classics,” I don’t think there is any good reason in denying it because it’s high art.