Monthly Archives: January 2017

An especially apt passage from Pessoa, in light of my recent post:

The highest honour for a superior man is to not know the name of his country’s chief of state, or whether he lives under a monarchy or a republic.

He should be careful to position his soul in such a way that passing things and events can’t disturb him. Otherwise he’ll have to take an interest in others, in order to look out for himself.

It is, unsurprisingly, easier to get away with a deus ex machina plot device when you have literal gods at your disposal, but book two of Virgil’s Aeneid might appear to stretch even those more permissive limits. Two moments especially stand out: the sob story Sinon tells to get the horse into Troy, and the disappearance of Creüsa. I will focus on the former, but the latter will prove relevant.

At the start of book two, the Greeks appear to have retreated and the Trojans, overjoyed, leave their city and admire the massive horse the Greeks have left behind. They debate what to do about it, whether to bring it into their city or somehow to destroy it. Counseled wisely by Laocoön, they appear to be settling on the prudent course of destroying it when Sinon, a Greek prisoner, is left before them. They do not realize that he has deliberately let himself be captured in order to convince them to take the horse into Troy, even though Laocoön has just warned them to “fear the Greeks, even when they bring gifts” (2.61). And even though Laocoön has thrown his spear into the horse, causing it to emit a “cavernous moan” (2.65). To be duped by Sinon after this – well, it makes it hard to feel much sympathy for the fate of Troy.

And, to be fair, it is not simply Sinon who convinces them: there is also some literal divine intervention to reckon with. Nonetheless, they are taken in by Sinon’s tale. Why? I see two primary reasons. First, the story he tells is one that is readily believable to them, for he makes himself the victim of wily Ulysses:

‘But when through the malice of cunning Ulysses
(Everyone knows this) he passed from this world,
I was a ruined man and dragged on my life
In darkness and grief, eating my heart out
Over the fate of my innocent friend.’ (2.106-10)

It is a clever move, but not enough, I think. What fully converts them to his side is this:

‘And so I pray, by whatever powers above
Still witness Truth, and by any Faith we men
Still have uncorrupted, show mercy
To a suffering soul, guiltless and wronged.’

We spared him for his tears and pitied him
Of our own accord. (2.167-72)

It is those last three words of his speech that save him: he is guiltless, and yet wronged. But why should this sway them? In all honesty, it shouldn’t. Again, Laocoön has already revealed, more or less definitively, that the horse is a clever scheme and ought to be destroyed. What does this change, that they should suddenly desire to know Sinon’s account of the purpose of the horse and, further, should trust his story over the evidence of their own ears?

To understand it, we have to look outside the logic of the particular scene and consider instead the more general logic of the Aeneid as a whole. Most of the major characters in the story fall either into the category of exiles or of the “guiltless and wronged” (and, in many cases, both). Indeed, this combination is presented as central to the book right at the start:

Muse, tell me why the Queen of Heaven
Was so aggrieved, her godhead so offended,
That she forced a man of faultless devotion
To endure so much hardship. Can there be
Anger so great in the hearts of gods on high. (1.12-16)

Aeneas himself is the prototypical guiltless exile. And he is not alone. Dido, Aeneas’ second wife, is building a new city because she was exiled from her home by her treacherous brother. Creüsa, later in book two, disappears undeservedly, simply because the gods need her to be out of the way so that Aeneas can take a new wife in Italy. Palinurus, through no fault of his own (Virgil is quite explicit about this), is tossed from his ship because the gods (for no apparent reason) decided that someone had to die to ensure Aeneas’ smooth sailing. Even Turnus, Aeneas’ great opponent in the second half of the book, is hardly in the wrong for opposing the intruder who enters his land and steals his promised wife (this must be a thing with the Trojans), taking with her his future status as king. To be in exile, to be guiltless and yet inscrutably wronged, is the basic state of human beings in the Aeneid. Sinon, who pretends to be a guiltless exile, taps into a reservoir of sympathy appropriate in such a world.

So, yes, it is true that, considered purely locally, it is more than a little unbelievable that Sinon’s ploy should have worked. Nonetheless, it illustrates the larger logic of the work, the overflowing sympathy that it evinces for the exile and the guiltless. And it is fitting that the great quest of the guiltless exile should begin because a cunning Greek pretended to be… a guiltless exile.

I was struck, today, by another concordance between Laozi and Pessoa and, nestled within this concordance, another disagreement. Laozi first this time, again in the wonderful Addiss and Lombardo translation (easily superior, at least as English poetry, to the Hinton and Ivanhoe translations that I also own):

Thirty spokes join one hub.
The wheel’s use comes from emptiness.

Clay is fired to make a pot.
The pot’s use comes from emptiness.

Windows and doors are cut to make a room.
The room’s use comes from emptiness.

….Having leads to profit,
….Not having leads to use. (11)

This poem strikes me as (in part) an elaboration of an earlier bit of advice, from the eighth poem: “Keep your mind deep.” The eighth poem advocates non-contention, and suggests that keeping the mind deep is one of the things one must do to avoid contention. I understand the advice to keep the mind deep as counseling a kind of non-possession of, non-attachment to one’s thoughts. Let the mind be deep enough to house them so long as they linger, but not detain them. I will return to the way that the eleventh poem elaborates on this, but first Pessoa (I give selections of a substantially longer passage in The Book of Disquiet):

Art frees us, illusorily, from the squalor of being. […]

Love, sleep, drugs and intoxicants are elementary forms of art, or rather, of producing the same effect as art. But love, sleep and drugs all have their dissolution. […] But in art there is no disillusion, since illusion is accepted from the start. […]

Since the pleasure we get from art is in a sense not our own, we don’t have to pay for it or regret it later.

By art I mean everything that delights us without being ours – the trail left by what has passed, a smile given to someone else, a sunset, a poem, the objective universe.

To possess is to lose. To feel without possessing is to preserve and keep, for it is to extract from things their essence. (§270)

Pessoa, like Laozi, appears to praise a kind of non-possession of one’s one feelings and sensations. Here, art is recommended as a way to have sensations that one knows are illusory from the start, that one never expects to possess and so never must relinquish. Pessoa, in his own way, advocates keeping the mind deep. (Many other passages in The Book of Disquiet bear this out; §270 simply happens to be the one I read today.)

The difference between Pessoa and Laozi lies in the relation they see between keeping the mind deep and activity. Pessoa is the patron saint of inactivity, which in prominence is perhaps second only to disquiet itself in The Book of Disquiet. He puts it succinctly: “To see clearly is to not act” (§275). (I cannot resist inserting a third voice into the mix, that of Emerson, from his essay “Experience”: “There are objections to every course of life and action, and the practical wisdom infers an indifferency, from the omnipresence of objection. The whole frame of things preaches indifferency.”)

Keeping the mind deep by turning to art, where art is understood as Pessoa understands it, is to avoid possessing one’s sensations by ensuring that those sensations are produced in response, not to the world itself, but to something at one remove from the world. Art does not call for action. To seek one’s sensations in art, knowing that art is illusory, is to keep those sensations sequestered from action, from interaction with the world.

This is where Laozi, as I read him, disagrees. I take the eleventh poem of the Daodejing as suggesting that non-possession of one’s thoughts, sensations, etc. is precisely the way in which to make the mind useful. And it’s easy for me to see why this should be, especially in these troubled times. The near-constant fretting over the state of my country that has of late beset renders me little better than worthless, a quivering mass. To achieve some kind of distance from these agitations, to let them pass through me without wholly owning them, I suspect will help me to act. It is too early to say: I have only just begun to make the effort.

At the same time, I know only too well, from past experience, that attempts to attain such non-possession can easily turn into an entirely inward focus on my own peace of mind, never bringing the promised usefulness. Relatedly, my wife (who is Chinese) made a very interesting comment today when I was discussing this with her. She said that Chinese people have looked more to Confucius in good times, more to Laozi in bad times. These turns to Confucius were connected to an eagerness to contribute. The turns to Laozi, conversely, were connected to a turning away from engagement. This, if true, corroborates on a large scale my private experience. As a certain friend of mine very often insists, the gap between abstruse philosophy and practical action is wide indeed.

The last time I put Laozi and Pessoa in conversation, I declared Pessoa the winner of the debate, though I cautioned against taking this too far. This time, again, past experience forces me to declare Pessoa the winner. But, again, this judgment comes with a caveat: time may yet prove Laozi right, at least in my own case.

Aeneas’ first appearance in Virgil’s Aeneid is hardly flattering:

Aeneas’ limbs suddenly went numb with cold.
He groaned and, lifting both palms to heaven, said:

“Three times, four times luckier were those
Who died before their parents’ eyes
Under Troy’s high walls! O Diomedes,
Bravest of the Greeks, if only I had been killed
By your right hand on Ilium’s plain,
Where Hector went down under Achilles’ spear,
Where huge Sarpedon lies, where the Simois rolls
So many shields and helmets caught in its current
And the bodies of so many brave heroes!”

(Aeneid bk. 1, lines 110-20, trans. Lombardo)

Aeneas is weary, miserable, on the verge of giving up, wishing for death—and this is the great hero who, we have just been told, is fated to found a new home in Italy, what will one day give rise to Rome and all its empire.

To be sure, Aeneas is in fairly dire straits when we meet him. He is sailing from Sicily to Italy with twenty ships when Juno persuades Aeolus to unleash the winds. It is because of these winds that “everywhere men saw the presence of death” (1.109). Still, is this Aeneas’ response to misfortune? Does he really despair so readily? We will later learn that this is far from his first misfortune, that it is only the latest in a long string—but, as I said, we only learn this later.

Why should Virgil introduce his hero in such a state? I think there is something quite appropriate about it, but to see why requires a rather large step backwards, to get a view of the Aeneid as a whole.

The Aeneid is sometimes described as half Odyssey (the first half), half Iliad (the second half). This isn’t wrong, but it overlooks the crucial difference between the Aeneid and the Odyssey. In the Odyssey, Odysseus is making a return journey. He is going back to an established home. To be sure, there is uncertainty, for that home is under threat from rapacious suitors, and Odysseus does not know whether Penelope has remained faithful to him during his extended absence. And yet there is not so much uncertainty and urgency that he cannot forget, for an entire year, where he is headed.

The Aeneid tells a very different story. Troy, Aeneas’ home, has been destroyed. No life remains for him there. His only option is to make a new home. And while he at least has the advantage of a divine mother who tells him his fate, still the goal is uncertain, a land he has never seen, full of people he has never met—a land whose only significance lies in its future promise, not in past experience. This story, the quest to make a new home in unknown territory, strikes me as better capturing the generic predicament of human life—or at least the very specific predicament of my life. (I am a Russian Jew whose ties to Russia were effaced before my birth by generations of my family living in the United States, and whose ties to Judaism were effaced by utter unbelief and a lack of stomach for cultural “Judaism.” Might I at least have an American identity? I spent my childhood in a southern state but was raised to be deliberately non-southern. That avenue, then, is also closed. Whatever home I find, it will be one of my own making.)

With such an exhausting, bewildering quest before him, it is only right that Aeneas should be glimpsed first in a moment of weariness, for it is out of precisely this weariness that he must emerge if he is to found his new home.

Miscellaneous notes on Aeneid book 1

[1] Dido’s “living passion”

Aeneas, in his quest to found a new home in Latium, is caught between his memory of his first home and visions of his second. There is a tension between these two: his memory can get in the way of his forward movement. One of the greatest qualities of the Aeneid is the way Virgil captures the way the same themes that characterize Aeneas’ journey play out in the lives of those characters who interact with his destiny without sharing it. One such is Dido. She, too, is an exile. Though her city was not destroyed, her home was: her brother Pygmalion murdered her husband Sychaeus. When Aeneas meets her, she is building her new city in Libya. In this case, her memory of Sychaeus is a strength: it keeps her from the distraction of a new lover, allowing her to focus all her efforts on Carthage. But Aeneas’ mother, Venus, schemes to ensure Aeneas’ safety, and sends Cupid (disguised as Aeneas’ son Iülus) to make Dido fall in love with him:

The boy, when he had hung on Aeneas’ neck
And satisfied the deluded father’s love,
Went to the Queen. And she clung to him
With all her heart, her eyes were riveted on him,
And she cuddled him on her lap. Poor Dido.
She had no idea how great a god had settled there.
Mindful of his Acidalian mother,
Little by little he began to blot out Sychaeus
And tried to captivate with a living passion
Her slumbering soul and her heart long unused. (1.875-84)

I think Virgil means for this passage to be ambiguous about the rightness of Cupid’s action. On the one hand, it is terrible: Dido’s resolve never to remarry, never even to love again, is being wrenched away from her against her will. And, later, we will see that this leads to her destruction, through no fault of her own. And yet Virgil also wants us to see that she has found her strength in a kind of death. Her love of Sychaeus is the love of a memory. It is a dead passion. She has made a new home, but there is something not quite wholly alive in her new “life.”

Ultimately, I think we must see Dido as one of the many more or less blameless victims of Aeneas’ destiny. She keeps company with the likes of Creüsa, Palinurus, and Turnus. And yet, what Virgil suggests about memory, and the tension between memory and forward movement in life, is profound.

[2] Juno the contract-breaker

We first meet Aeneas beset by a weariness he must overcome. We first meet Juno, by contrast, taking the action that will typify her throughout the epic: violating some contract or another to frustrate Aeneas. In this book, the contract she violates is the “chartered agreement” that lets Aeolus, king of the winds, know “when to restrain and when to unleash them” (1.79-80). But later we will see her violate a contract between Aeneas and Latinus in order to start the war between Trojans and Latins, and then again a contract between Aeneas and Turnus, in order to prolong that war. Even if events must proceed onward toward their destined end no matter what, they are hastened there by agreements between men and gods, and Juno is the great violator of such contracts.

For as much as I claim to agree with Emerson that self-reliance is the basis of all virtue, I often feel as if I have no self, no natural state of thought and feeling that is distinctly mine, and on which I can stubbornly rely. Rather, I find within myself many competing voices, all engaged in a continual struggle for power. And I find, further, that what I choose to read plays a substantial role in this power struggle.

I first noticed this when reading Cioran. His dour pessimism seemed to enliven the more melancholy voices within me, to give them an advantage over those that opposed them. And I am noticing the same thing with Pessoa. His praise of a certain form of lethargy rouses what in me inclines to torpor, and I become more torpid. Why, then, read Pessoa? What in his work provides value that overcomes this negative effect?

I had this thought after reading the following passage from The Book of Disquiet:

Whether I like it or not, everything that isn’t my soul is no more for me than scenery and decoration. Through rational thought I can recognize that a man is a living being just like me, but for my true, involuntary self he has always had less importance than a tree, if the tree is more beautiful. That’s why I’ve always seen human events – the great collective tragedies of history or of what we make of history – as colourful friezes, with no soul in the figures that appear there. I’ve never thought twice about anything tragic that has happened in China. It’s just scenery in the distance, even if painted with blood and disease. (§165)

This is a thought that I do not, on balance, endorse. If needed, I could argue with this passage, point out the one subtle flaw that unravels it. But that is not the point. There is a part of me that thinks this way, and when I read this passage that part is emboldened, for it has been externally validated. No amount of arguing rids me of it, nor particularly do I want to be rid of it. At most I want to control it, to allow it to contribute to the richness of my experience without destroying me.

The main value in reading Pessoa is that he has taken this voice, which is not unique to me, and fleshed it out into an entire person, one who is, if not fully consistent, at least more persistently under the thumb of this mood and feeling than I am. Bernardo Soares, the invented author of The Book of Disquiet, is a magnification of this element of myself. In reading this book, I am thus able to study this element writ large without fully giving myself over to it. It is a highly useful means of self-scrutiny.