(This is the English version of “Ogni profugo è un re in esilio”.)
Forsan et haec olim meminisse iuvabit.
Perhaps one day even remembering this will be good.
Like lightning in crystal the call came
What for? Then the sinuous rock of the path
Would show him and hide him a thousand times.
Per amica silentia lunae, with the friendly silences of the Moon… I did not write this by the seaside, at night. But I thought of it there. Better yet, it is there that I meditated upon it. That selfsame full moon which rises over the Etruscan bay also lit the last happy night of Troy, the death at sea of Palinurus the helmsman, Eurialus and Nysus’s sally.
Often we need to look behind in order to truly go forward, behind and inside ourselves. This is the core of McCarthy’s The Road, where a father and son drag themselves through the ruins of a poisoned world, where a few survivors divide themselves between equally desperate, maddened hunters and prey. The alternative to this is keeping on walking, ‘carrying the fire’. The alternative is sitting each evening in front of your own, poor bonfire, telling each other stories from a faraway place.
As George Steiner had it, writers truly are the best critics. And this is not because they notice issues and choices philologists and professors ignore, but because nothing truly penetrates one work of art like another. Because of this nobody truly understood Virgil like Dante, Tasso and indeed McCarthy did. The Road does not echo of or quote Aeneas, Julus or Vesta’s sacred fire, stolen from Troy’s destruction. Rather, it puts us before the same dynamics, it throws us into the same truth, to quote Montale.
Virgil sits at the crossroads of Western culture. It is the synthesis and maturity of the Ancient World (T. S. Eliot), and until the 19th century his influence far out-reached Homer’s. It’s practically everywhere, from the tears which Augustine shed reading him, all the way to Dante, Petrarch and the whole Renaissance. The light fall from grace under the Romantics (who worshipped the ‘primitive’ Homer) was followed by the great re-discovery and revival of the twentieth century, when H. Broch made it into the emblem of the anguish of the artist in front of the inexorably unfinished state of works of art.
During the Fascist era, Virgil suffered the same faith of Nietzsche in Germany. Mouths were filled with formal and sumptuous homages, which miserably twisted its outlook and meaning. Even today, fascists and reactionaries of every kind fill their mouths with the glories of the classical age, with the religion of fathers and ancestors, with Rome’s ‘civilising mission’, as opposed to the threats of racial and ideological invasion, the tolerance of other costumes, and the surrender to the Orient. As C. S. Lewis noted, rarely do the Neo-pagans know a single word of Greek. This piece has therefore, as Pasolini would call it, an immediate and ideological context: to show how Virgil and the Aeneid are explicitly on the other side of the barricade, with an intensity and a clarity which inspire a wry smile. As it happens in classical detective stories, the crime weapon is so clearly on display you can’t see it. That Italiam fato profugus which shines in the second and third line of the Aeneid seem to father its meaning in three simple words. Indeed.
Italiam fato profugus.
Exiled in Italy because of his destiny
We could stop here and limit ourselves to noting that for the Poet it was a Middle Eastern refugee who came to our shores in a boat (“We have Aeneas’ own blood,” the Forza Nuova fascists blared on social media. And somebody simply replied “You mean Turkish blood?”). We could be finding ourselves in the miserable and farcical condition of not recognising one of the very stories we teach in every middle and high school as it unfolds before our eyes. But this is just the tip of the ice-berg.
In Virgil truly there burns a fire, a mission, a fundamental legacy for European and world civilisation and culture, with a series of intuitions and questions which at the same time move and disturb and challenge us in our search for stereotypical and easy recipes and certainties. We need the past to interpret the present chaos, beyond the walls of our immediate, dim perceptions. We need an heirloom and a horizon on how to read the signs which star the world, scrutinising the omens which nestle both in the flight of the eagles and between the wrinkles or in the pupils of those who reach us on a boat, tired and covered in dirt. And we need all this more than ever, today like yesterday. Because, as we shall see together, every great story, it does not matter how remote by origin or setting, is always a memory of the future.
Semper cedentia retro quarenda
The fields to be looked for, and which always draw back
Molle atque facetum (Satira 10) was what his friend Horace already called it. With Virgil the “sweet new style” already explored by neoteric poetry took a quantum leap. Even the most trite tropes, the most worn details took on a new shine. His epic poem was awaited and announced by his friends with feverish expectation. Cedite Romani scriptores, cedite Graii, | Nescio quid maius nascitur Iliade, gushed the admiring Propertius. In many ways Virgil is one of the first artists, in the purest and most mature sense. Latin with him reached such heights that it makes it difficult to decide what not to quote. From the sources we know of his reserve, his shy homosexuality (“Partenia”, celibate virgin maiden they called him, someone who preferred the sweetness of “Partneope”-Naples to the chaos and intrigue of Rome), the nervous tension and obsessive precision which made him very similar to Manzoni.
As Pasolini once declared in a public debate in his Medea, in the end you always direct the same movie, just like you always write the same poem. Virgil is certainly not the author of only one book, but it is true that is art hinges on a few mainstays, which are deepened and return, again and again, like waves to the beach. “The same feeling in different paintings”. As Nietzsche had it, if you have character you have your own inner experience, which always returns. And in Virgil we see recurring and deepening the same central knows, both personal and collective, from the first to the last line. They chase and they elude us, like the coasts of Italy Aeneas longs for: Ausionae semper cedentia retro quarenda. It is no coincidence that the first Eclogue of the Bucolicae opens with a shepherd crying his Nos Patria fugimus. And it is no coincidence that the same Eclogue closes with the same umbris of the final line of the Aeneid.
Nos patriam fugimus
We leave the land of our fathers
The Bucolicae appear immediately perfect, already a masterpiece like Dante’s Vita Nova, and they are a spring poem, full of hope. Virgil sets them in an Arcadia which he definitively sanctified as a universal myth, and which will return in the Aeneid as well as an ideal community. Its shepherds are a community of song and poetry, in which we can see in filigree the Epicurean otia of the Naples of Syro and Philodemus of Gadara. And yet, not even the beloved Epicurean quiet and poetry are enough. History, with its dust, blood and sweat, with its burden of death and contradiction, hovers. Already the shadows come down from the mountains, and not everybody has somewhere to hide. For one shepherd-poet who (like Virgil) was protected from the state espropriations in favour of the veterans by a powerful man like Octavian, there are many others who were not, and had to leave what they love forever. Nos patriam fugimus. We leave the land of our fathers. Already the Bucolicae open with a motherland that was redeemed and lost, with a reunion and an exile. And love itself, long before it swept through Dido’s palace, was an equal ruin for both the sheep and its shepherd. The final Eclogue closes with the poet friend Gallus who wanders inconsolably. There are wounds, both public and private, which we already know to be incurable.
Crudelia retro fata vocant
Merciless fate calls me back
The Georgicae mark, or should mark for Virgil the moment of greatest closeness to the ideology of Augustus (the Ancient World’s true Andreotti); after Actius’ triumph we can feel the need for a renewed ideological cohesion. Maecenas, the attentive minister of culture, asks Virgil for a great Hesiodean poem to exalt the Italian middle class and the traditional Roman identity values, in explicit anti-Lucretian key (even though the quotes from the corrosive Epicurean poet are very frequent). Taking up a different stoical perspective, even the fatigue caused by work is interpreted as a gift of Jupiter’s divine mind to mortals, and not as the consequence of a condemnation as in most myths about the lost Eden.
But even this triumphal march must hide a cry of pain. Even this cortège must avoid looking too long at its borders, if it doesn’t want to see a man’s outline melting into the shadows. Like the Bucolicae, this poem was meant to close with praise of the poet-friend Gallus, who had become Prefect of Egypt. But Gallus had fallen out of favour with Augustus, who knew how to be icy and implacable (as poor Ovidius would learn at his own expense). In the end, it was Power and not Love who pushed the songmaker to suicide. The conclusion of the poem was cut out. Was it a painful act of flattery? In fact, its place was taken by a collective entity (the bees) which rises as atonement for a private tragedy and a private defeat, that of Orfeus and Eurydices, where love and poetry almost defeated History’s violence. Almost. Crudelia retro fata vocant. Merciless fate calls me back. For whoever knows how to read carefully, the allusions to the X Eclogue and Gallus are more than explicit. Moreover, Virgil experiments here on a smaller scale what will become the great choice at the basis of the Aeneid: preferring myth to history, on the one hand avoiding the ‘servant praise’ of a bought audience, and on the other hand entrusting himself to the only eternal dimension of human existence. Here he wishes to truly look at the mysterious knot of hopes, beliefs and anxieties which run through everyone’s existence: myth.
Virgil had been the Latin Theocritus and Hesiodus. Now, swimming upstream “from the mouth of the river to its source” (as H.U. von Balthasar and Mario Luzi would say) he would attempt to become Homer, just like Augustus wanted. But in ultimate analysis, perhaps not how Augustus wished.
Medias acies mediosque per ignis invenere viam.
A way amidst armies and flames
Like Milton, Virgil too wants to justify the reasons of a cosmic and historical divine order, which hinges on Rome’s mission. But Antonio La Penna, one of our greatest Latin philologists, titled his splendid study “History’s Impossible Justification”. In Augustus’ mind, Virgil should have composed an epic poem on the pax he had finally ensured for the Roman world, and certainly in the Aeneid we find a firm condemnation of the horrors of contemporary history, from the civil wars to the Orient of Antony and Cleopatra.
Augustus might even be seen as the prophetic Messiah who is to heal a sort of “original sin”, the Furor and Envy which, from the time of Romulus and Remus, brought to the fraternal slaughter of the triumvirates. But in his choice of eschewing the present, of being apparently un-topical, since he is focused on what is eternal and on the mythological foundations of society, this very providential read is almost submerged by pity for the costs it demands, for the human sacrifice with which it is littered. It is not just the evil and the enemies of Rome which reap innocent victims. A strong political antagonism runs through the whole text, a silent but not less felt or tearing disappointment. The frame, or better yet the horizon here, is the effective introduction of epic in Western literature, at least the epic in the sense it has been understood as in European culture until the 18th century. Homer himself was re-read in a Virgilian key. As C.S. Lewis noted, Virgil truly introduced “The Great Subject”, which is no longer a specific heroic event in which life’s perennial flow is reflected, as in Greek literature.
“The third paragraph of the poem (11. 1 2 to 33) furnishes us with examples of nearly all the methods whereby he makes his comparatively simple fable carry the weight of so much destiny. Notice the key words. Carthage is an ancient city, facing the Tiber’s mouth a long way oﬀ. He is already spreading out his story both in time and space. Juno hoped to give it empire of the earth, if the fates allow: but she has already heard a rumour that one day (olim) the Trojan seed will bruise it. The whole Punic War has come in. But Juno is not thinking only of the future ; an older war is rankling in her mind-she thinks of her Argives at Troy wall, of the Judgement of Paris, and Ganymede exalted to immortal place. We are not, you see, at the beginning. The story on which we are embarked fades backward into an even remoter past. The heroes whose adventures we are to follow are the remnant (reliquia) of some earlier order, destroyed before the curtain rose ; survivors, and, as it were ghosts, hunted (and here wideness in space comes in again) maria omnia circum, while Juno bars them from Latium, Leading them far, for-wandered, over alien foam; So mighty was the labour of the birth of Rome. The labour, the moles, is the point. These men are not fighting for their ow hand like Homeric heroes; they are men with a vocation, men on whom a burden is laid.”
On this background, we find a narrative choice-intuition equally grandiose for irony and provocative intent: it’s a fugitive refugee, a defeated man, a leftover to found that civilisation which for Virgil is to reach the peak and the solution to the entire human path (imperium sine fine dedi). He is a man who, like the shepherd from the first Eclogue, can cry out Nos patria fugimus. Fate asks him to be the evangelical seed which needs to break to bear much fruit: a breaking which is marked by the two halves of the poem, six books each, and which hinges on the descend in the land of the dead.
In the flight from Troy the three ages of personal and collective existence are summed up dynamically in the image of Aeneas who carries his father on his shoulders and holds his child by the hand. Past, present and future. Until the descent into hell, where he finds again his departed father, the fugitive’s understandable great temptation is to fall back on the past. The surviving Trojans wander the sea tired and worn as ghosts and “Aeneas himself is mistaken for a ghost in the next book. In a sense he is a ghost of Troy until he becomes the father of Rome. All through the poem we are turning that corner. It is this which gives the reader of the Aeneid the sense of having lived through so much. No man who has once read it with full perception remains an adolescent” (Lewis). It is every founder’s tragedy to find the seed of the future in the ashes of the past, inside and outside themselves.
Old Anchises wishes he could be left himself to perish in the destruction of Troy. It is only when he sees a sign on the hair of his grandson that he agrees to leave, and he keeps looking into the world for more signs, auguria, auspicial, to allow him to take another step, and then one step more. The third book of the poem, with the Mediterranean run in stages by these tired men and women, a Promised Land which progressively comes into focus among prophecies, mistakes and curses, should be acted out today by a Syrian or Somalian to come back once more in all its strength and despair.
And yet. Virgil once more doesn’t just show us a luminous path, however difficult. He wants – or would want – to scrutinise and accompany this process’ mystery through the story’s sorrows and contradictions. Even if Fate sows mourning with both hands. At the end of the poem the different divine wills (Jupiter’s, Venus’, and even Juno’s) harmonise and reconcile with each other. But human wills don’t. Even in the afterlife the theodikea, the providential reasoning stops functioning. Dido, who went mad and died for love, remains hurt of an incurable wound, and she shirks Aeneas who holds out his arms to her and begs for reconciliation. The list of those sacrificed on Destiny’s altar runs through the poem: the young who died before their day, Creusa, Aeneas’ first wife, who needs to disappear to make space for Lavinia, Palinurus the wise helmsman who falls in homage to Neptune to ensure safe anchorage, Ripheus, the most righteous and devout of Trojans, who is massacred in Troy (and that “the Gods wanted otherwise” so tormented Dante that he boldly put that mythical pagan in the eye of the Eagle of Justice, in Heaven).
And this isn’t just among Aeneas’ men. His enemies too, when they more or less wilfully oppose the designs of Fate, have their story told with deep, painful empathy. Nobody is the “villain” of his own story. There are reasons which clash inexorably, and the justice and the important of one position do not by necessity vilify an alternative and completely different point of view. And this is not just about Dido (who is Aeneas’ mirrored double, herself a widow and a refugee, who fled from the East, and who, both a woman and alone, managed to found a city and an empire); this is also about Mesentius, the tyrant who despises the gods, the old, gloomy warrior who prays to his hand alone (and he is thus the model for the superb, titanic atheists in Dante, Tasso and Milton) and who only loves two things, his son Lausus, and his trusted horse Rebus. This applies even to Turnus, the new, arrogant Achilles, who kills young Pallas.
It’s one of the more tragic ironies of the poem that the young Rutulian prince who wants to chase away the “foreign invader” who threatens to take away his land and woman is opposed to the pius Aeneas, just like ferocious Achilles was cast opposite the noble Trojan Hector (who is, after all, related to Aeneas). But on second thought, when we look more closely at the plot, it’s Aeneas who has to take on the narrative role of the much less noble Paris, in taking away a maiden who was already betrothed to another and thus triggering a bloody war between peaceful peoples. And later he has to take on the role of Achilles himself, avenging with merciless harshness the death of young Pallas. Hector instead appears to project his magnanimous shadow over Turnus himself, who becomes the standard-bearer of those simple, honest Italian virtues which were at the heart of the Georgicae. Dante understood this narrative short-circuit better than anyone else, and thus made “his” Virgil say that it wasn’t just the victorious heroes who founded Italy, it was the others too.
And all this comes together in that unfinished ending which, in hindsight, almost feels inevitable. How could such intense contradictions be solved, when there were such strong opposite currents? Justic and injustice, valour and fury are indissolubly tied first in Aeneas’ hesitation before Turnus’ plea, and later in the wrath raised by the sight of Pallas’ baltheus which suddenly persuades him to sink his blade into the enemy chest. And the soul of the defeat, arrogant and valiant, disdainful but honest, melts into the same shadows which came down from the mountains in the Bucolicae’s first Eclogue, many years before.
A way where there seems to be no way.
Before such deep mechanisms any attempt at a conclusion would ultimately seem ridiculous. There are however two images which we need to keep looking at, however. The first is, if we may say so, a great warning to society, and it takes up what I first sketched out at the beginning of this essay. If we can’t see a king in exile in every profugus Fate pushes on our shore as they flee war and famine, any speech on the preservation of tradition and culture is shown up for what it is, that is the systematic ignorance of what wields it like an ideological club, a mere pretext to rest on our previous, dumb, comfortable safe spaces, “absorbed in thoughts of our own quiet”, as Manzoni mocked.
Fascists, Lega Nord supporters, Catholic traditionalists would do well not to recruit to their cause Zeus, protector of Guests and Beggars (nor the Christ who preached “I was a foreigner and you welcomed me”), unless they want to trip over the seemingly downtrodden Ulysses’ golden bow, or end up under the Trojan sword. The very glory of their beloved Rome boasts of being founded by one who, if it were up to them, would be chased back to Dido’s Lybia. . Medias acies mediosque per ignis invenere viam, they made their way amidst armies and flames. Is there any line who can express the daily life of millions in our world more than this one?
I think I have already shown how Virgil’s text has all the depth to show us that to greet the profugos is anything but easy. And that wrongs will be done, perhaps even radical ones. In this sense the words Fate, Destiny are even more neutral and honest, perhaps, than “Providence”, a word which insists on solving all accounts on a positive note. Fate is simply what we can’t avoid to face and live, and only shallow men and demagogues can deceive themselves or deceive others about the fact that we might somehow avoid this global movement of peoples and persons.
And the second image we must keep in mind concerns us all in a perhaps more intimate, no less important way, and it comes to our aid in the very difficulties, small and great, of accepting this moles, the burden of this task.
Dopo che Enea è disceso nel regno dei morti e gli è stata narrata la futura gloria di Roma, egli deve bere dal Fiume Lete e dimenticare quanto visto. Tuttavia, nello scudo forgiatogli da Vulcano, quegli stessi eventi sono istoriati nell’oro. Egli contempla le armi divine, e non capisce perché, ma quelle immagini oscure gli suscitano un moto di gioia misteriosa. Egli non lo può sapere, ma sono una memoria del futuro. E se nella prima parte del poema, egli si era messo il padre sulle spalle, adesso “in sulla spalla/ alza la fama e il fato dei nipoti.”
After Aeneas has descended in the land of the dead and he has had Rome’s future glory unveiled to him, he needs to drink from the Lethean river, and forget about all he has seen. However, in the shield Vulcan forged for him, those same events are written in gold. He beholds the divine weapons, and he does not know why, but, those obscure images inspire in him a mysterious joy. He cannot know this, but they are a memory of the future. And if in the first part of the poem he had taken his father on his shoulders, now “on his shoulders/ he raised the fame and fate of his descendants.”
Is there anything more moving than hoping and struggling to fight and voyage, carrying on our shoulders not just the weight of the past, but that of the future?
At their heart, these images are indissolubly tied. The father and son from McCarthy’s The Road were right. There is no treasure more necessary than this, in a world where no one can still seriously believe that the Fate of other men does not concern us: we hold our hands to the fire, and let a story sung two thousand years ago, in a similar moment of collective crisis, help us once more to capture a hope with which to move another step, and then one step more, amidst armies, and waters, and flames. Via invia, as Virgil said. A way where there seems to be no way.