Monday, September 05, 2005

Thoughts on reading The Aeneid (19 B.C.) for the first time in 2005

Awkward, long title for a post, I realize. But it gets the idea across, I hope. OK. The only purpose of this post is to throw out some of my random, scattered thoughts on what it is like to be reading an epic poem written in 19 B.C (a shot of perspective: that's some 700 years after Homer's The Iliad and The Odyssey were written, or first told I should say -- from which The Aeneid borrows liberally, of course) in 2005, an age of smart bombs and identity theft and nanotechnology and multiculturalism and, well, blogging on something called the Internet.

Not that I am going to touch on any of those subjects. The point is, it's an interesting experience, as I was telling my wife the other night, to be reading something so old and (laying my cards right out on the table here) getting so much out of it. All I'm doing in this post is musing on why that's so, if such a reason can be found and/or described.

I run into my first difficulty right away because it's tricky for me to describe exactly what it is I am getting out of it. Is it practical life experience or knowledge? Not really. Reading an epic poem like this may help you out if you're at a party playing Trivial Pursuit or something (make you look cultured and all, I guess), but it certainly won't separate you from the pack in your next job interview, and (if you're single), it DEFINITELY won't impress the ladies. No, unless you find yourself touring the netherworld, founding a new empire or battling a mythical beast, The Aeneid isn't going to help you out too much in a practical sense. But of course, that's not at all why I'm reading it in the first place.

Is it for insight into human nature? Ah, that's a lot closer to the mark, I think. To me, it has always been fascinating to read works from different time periods and cultures (Mutt's great post a little while back on world literature hits on similar themes) to see how people around the world are different but, more significantly, how they are the same... and to read about how different cultures with different points of view tackle the old thorny questions we all struggle with (and always will). For example, in these ancient Greek and Roman myths, there are frequently long monologues from lovers either spurned, or brokenhearted due to the deaths or disappearances of their loved ones -- and it's fascinating to hear them relay their anguish, and to recognize so much of what they express from your own personal experiences. If you've loved you've probably lost, in one way or another, and when this kind of loss is accurately and poetically described, you'd have to be made of stone to not have it affect you in some way.

Most of us, of course, are not made of stone, and so it follows that most of us would have much to gain from reading an epic like The Aeneid, simply in terms of recognizing bits of ourselves in the characters and the very human emotions they struggle with. And yet, most of us can't imagine having the experience of gaining anything from a work like this. Why? Well, to put it very plainly, you can't gain anything from what you don't read, and wouldn't even consider reading. That sounds so obvious it borders on the superfluous, but I think it's worth articulating and thinking about anyway. The vast majority of people out there, of readers even, would never even think of finding an old dusty edition of The Aeneid or of, say, Ovid's poems and cracking into it to see what they might discover. This is not a put-down of any of them in any way, nor is it intended to somehow backhandedly prove my superiority to "most of us" because I happen to be reading one of these works. Rather, it is (or, it is now!) simply an honest exploration of the question, why do we feel these works aren't worth pursuing anymore?

Is it simply some form of mass cultural amnesia? We simply forget these works are out there, that they exist? I don't think that's it. Hell, every two years or so Hollywood is repurposing one of them for a new summer blockbuster, or they're being watered down into some cheesy made-for-cable TV miniseries. Then is it just the daunting time and effort that seems to be required to read such works? No doubt that's part of it, and to some degree it's certainly understandable. Notice how long the column on the right there says I've been reading The Aeneid -- and it's not because someone has been too lazy to update it. I don't know why in this day and age it seems like we all have less time to ourselves than people ever have before, but it does seem that way... it's almost as if there's some kind of inverse relationship between technological progress and time available to spend. (Which is ironic, since one of the drivers of technological progress is out instiable appetite for speed -- we want to not onle be able to do everything, but to do it faster.) At any rate, there's no doubt that reading a classic like this is going to require at least some kind of minimal commitment, or else there's not much point. The person who picks up Homer needs to be at least somewhat committed to finishing it, or else they're never going to see the end of it. And of course, we're not used to reading epic poetry either, with its rythm and meter and lyric way of expressing things, so there is effort required as well -- we need to "slow down" our minds as it were, to train ourselves not to keep looking forward for the payoff, for the action, but instead to savor the richness of the journey, the beauty of the language, and the wisdom of the storyteller.

Generally speaking, as a people (or as a culture), we're not being raised to appreciate stories anymore, especially long and meandering ones. There was a time when people would sit around camp fires and listen to these long tales of men and women locked in combat (actual and spiritual), grappling with monsters both without and within themselves, testing their mettle against the elements and the gods. Now, if you sit down and read one of these epics, you almost feel like you can't share the experience with someone else without them wondering whether you're working on a master's degree dissertation or a research project or something. If you were to tell them that you were reading it just to enrich yourself, to glean whatever human insight and moral wisdom can be found there, they might like at you as if you were from Mars. They might think to themselves, "You must have too much time on your hands." The idea that someone might actually set aside time specifically to read a classic today seems pretty odd to most people. Not too long ago, it would not have been considered odd, it would have been considered wise. You have to wonder when the decision was made that such practices are, in fact, a waste of time. You also have to wonder whether our forebears, as C. S. Lewis wondered, were actually smarter than we are, and whether progress means anything at all if it's not towards something worth having.

1 comment:

Mutt Ploughman said...

Duke is making sense! Meaty post here from power-reader Duke Altum. Duke's been on my case for years to read the ancient writers, the Greek classics, etc. and I have to admit I haven't done much of it. But with a blog like this, he might get me to re-think my lame efforts and fit one in soon. I have purloined his copy of both the Iliad and the Odyssey, after all. Neither of which I have ever read. The last line of Duke's post showed he's got a lot of sense. You have to wonder about that question he raises......whether progress is worth it if it isn't going anywhere helpful or enlightening to anyone. Maybe reading these classics helps one to bring out good points such as this one. Maybe they just make you more 'cultured' or able to win Trivial Pursuit games, as Duke suggested, but he knows better, and so do I.....I think when you do read classics, there is a sense of general intellectual fortification as you broaden your own personal horizons. You don't get that from many other sources. Duke, keep your nose to the grindstone!