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Grief, Vulnerability, and War: Lessons from Book VI of Virgil's Aeneid

by David Shaddock

This is the second of a column I will be writing for Poetry Flash that looks at poetry to illuminate issues relevant to health, mental health, and coping with our lives today. The series title is meant to be taken broadly.

IN BOOK VI OF the Aeneid Virgil interrupts the main action of Aeneas and his men—escaping from Troy and founding Rome—to tell a very different sort of story. Aeneas risks everything to go down into the underworld, the land of the dead. There, among other encounters, he meets the soul of Dido, who committed suicide after he sailed away and left her; has a tragic encounter with the spirit of his lost father, and witnesses the dead Trojan soldiers coming back to life as members of the Imperial Army of Rome. I will greatly oversimplify the story of what he finds in the Underworld in order to highlight these three stops in our human development. What I want to describe here is the way we turn our feelings of grief and vulnerability into fantasies of power and invulnerability. Some two thousand years after Virgil, it would seem we are having a moment that recapitulates that move, though comparing Trump to Aeneas is a stretch to say the least. But great poetry is a mirror, and I believe if we look from the right angle we can see both ourselves and our president in this story.

In my forthcoming book "Poetry and Psychoanalysis: The Opening of the Field," I liken Aeneas's journey to the underworld to the process of therapy. An apt analogy, but here I want to speak more generally to three stages of development in which we (1) realize how callous and selfish we've been (especially in love), and how riven with loss and guilt we feel; (2) see how much grief we feel for a lost father, or parent, and how unfixable that grief is; and (3) try and restore our sense of self through fantasies of power and invulnerability. These three stages correspond to three encounters Aeneas has in the Underworld, with Dido, his deceased father, and the souls of Trojan warriors.

Dido. Passing through the Fields of Mourning, Aeneas meets those "Who suffered hard and cruel decline / In the thrall of an unremitting love" (the quotes here are from Seamus Heaney's magnificent translation of the Aeneid Book VI.) He seems moved by these tragic stories, then a bit stunned to encounter his own beloved Dido among them, "still nursing her raw wound." Dido, who killed herself following Aeneas's abrupt, god-ordered, departure from Carthage. The story is this: Dido and Aeneas meet and fall in love when he and his men land in Carthage; when the gods order Aeneas to leave and complete his journey, Dido builds a funeral pyre that he can view from the sea and throws herself into it. But not before she curses Aeneas and his offspring. Here in his underworld reverie, Aeneas seems stunned and mortified to encounter what he has done:

Unhappy Dido! So the news I got was true,

That you had left the world, had taken a sword

And bade your laws farewell. Was I, O was I to blame

For your death?

But if you blink you miss it, because the moment gives way almost immediately to rationalization:

…I swear by the stars, by the powers

Above and any truth there may be under the earth,

I embarked from your shore, my queen, unwillingly.

Orders from the gods, which compel me now

To travel among shades in this moldering world.

Then oscillating back, he says 'How could I believe my going would devastate you with such grief?" Dido refuses to meet his gaze, and Aeneas, recognizing the finality of his loss, says "These words I'm saying to you are the last / Fate will permit me, ever"

Anchises. Flash forward to a more profound loss. Meeting, and perhaps resurrecting, his father Anchises was the purpose of his perilous journey into the underworld. He meets him, but not as he perhaps unconsciously hoped for, in the flesh, but as a bodiless spirit. A close reading of this passage reveals it is more joyous and fulfilling for the dead father than the living son. When he sees Aeneas, Anchises raises his arms and cries out,

…At last! Are you here at last?

I have always trusted that your sense of right

Would prevail and keep you going to the end.

And am I now allowed to see your face,

My son, and hear you talk, and talk to you myself?

To see, to be seen, to talk, are enough for the spirit father, but the son longs to touch as well. For the son it is a disappointing reenactment of the visions that had led him on through his journey:

Often and often, father, you would appear to me,

Your sad shade would appear, and that kept me going

To this end. My ships are anchored in the Tuscan sea.

Let me take your hand, my father, O let me, and do not

Hold back from my embrace. And as he spoke, he wept.

This passage of incredible subtlety [this subtle passage] reveals the imbalance of longing and need between father and son. The son has lived in service to the lame father, carrying him out of Troy and onto his ship. The elusive representation of his father has driven him on through danger, through his finding the Golden Bough and through the terrifying and piteous journey underground. Stories and sight are enough for the father, who can live again vicariously through his son's exploits. The son though wants the consoling truth of physical contact, even as he fears that his father will hold back or recoil. But here the inviolate physical boundary between the living and the dead is sorrowfully enacted:

Three times he tried to reach arms around neck.

Three times the form, reached for in vain, escaped

Like a breeze between his hands, a dream on wings.

The magical number three, as in wishes and fairy tales, will not suffice to quench the son's longing for a father's lost embrace. Even for the hero, who has undergone trial after trial, the dead remain dead. And our grief remains, in the moment when we embrace the air, inconsolable.

Pride and Joy. This tragic note is followed immediately with a very different one. Anchises leads Aeneas to the "peaceful haunts" of a valley by the River Lethe, where souls, among them the "pride and joy of the Trojan nation," prepare to be reborn. In an almost cinematic jump, Anchises leaves the sorrow of the "dream on wings" departing to say to his son, "So now I will instruct you in what is to be, the future glory of the Trojan race." "Look at them! Marvelous, strong / Young men" who will proceed to found the Roman Empire, whose aspirations are "high as heaven," among them Caesar, "your own bloodline in Rome." Sorrow, age, and loss banished and replaced with a fantasy of eternal youth and imperial power. The psychoanalyst Robert Stolorow describes this move as a "ressurrective fantasy," denying and compensating for our embeddedness in mortality.

Virgil, of course, means to celebrate all this. But 2,000 years later, we hear it differently. We read Dido as a symbol of all women, and by extension (suggested by Susan Griffin in her groundbreaking work Women and Nature) to the way we have treated our planet. And we read the encounter with Anchises as a realization of the inevitability of grief and loss. Blows to our narcissism, our sense of power, guiltlessness, and invulnerability. And as to the restoration of that narcissism through war and imperialism: in dialog with this text, I say let's break this cycle. Let us grieve our losses, admit our culpability, and invent a new kind of heroism, one that ends not in imperial triumph but in healing and restoration.

David Shaddock PhD is a poet and psychotherapist. His most recent book of poems is Vernal Pool. His newest book, Poetry and Psychoanalysis: The Opening of the Field, is due in 2019 from Routledge. A Book of Splendor: New and Selected Poems on Spiritual Themes is also forthcoming. He is the author of two books on relationships and couples therapy and lectures widely on those topics. He has a private practice in Berkeley.

— posted November 2019

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