The truth told slant

Yesterday, I wondered why, in Virgil’s Aeneid, the gods disguise themselves before communicating with humans. One case I considered was that of Venus appearing to her son Aeneas in book I. I suggested that her disguise perhaps indicated the impossibility for truly direct communication between gods and humans: Aeneas wants from her the simple truth, but she can only give him the truth told slant.

But Venus does not always appear to Aeneas in disguise. In Book VIII, when she presents to him the shield her husband, Vulcan, forged, she appears as herself and speaks simply. Disguises are, apparently, optional.

In this case, however, the communication is not really through her words. Rather, it is through the gift she brings, which her words serve merely to introduce. On the shield, Vulcan and his workers have engraved the future history of Rome, the great civilization that will be the fruit of Aeneas’ efforts. There follows a long description of the shield’s contents. Only following this do we learn of Aeneas’ reaction:

All these images on Vulcan’s shield,
His mother’s gift, were wonders to Aeneas.
Knowing nothing of the events themselves,
He felt joy in their pictures, taking up
Upon his shoulder all the destined acts
And fame of his descendants. (VIII.987-92)

This explains it: Aeneas looks on the shield, not with understanding, but with naïve wonder and joy. The truth is itself communicated directly; here the “slant” lies in the understanding itself. Thus no disguise is necessary.


Tangentially, I cannot but remark the tremendous poetry of Vulcan’s workshop, which lies beneath Mount Aetna. This volcano, which earlier in the Aeneid had been a source of murky clouds, a disrupter of clear vision, contains beneath it a forge in which the future is set in steel. How apt, that it should be the fumes of this future-revealing process that so obscure that very revelation!

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Parry

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