Politics and Society

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

The Death of Virgil (1945), by Hermann Broch

A Philosophical Novel Of  First Principles 

             “ . . .yet the seconds following hard upon each other enriched
             in flashes the empty space between them with that inconceivable
             thing called life, and it almost seemed to him as if hope blinked up
             again in those flashes . . . if only in this instant . . .”
       (from Book II: Fire - The Descent, Pg. 96)

   Today (November 1st) is Hermann Broch’s birthday; born this day in 1886 (d. 1951), Broch is best remembered now as a contemporary of Joyce, Mann, Musil, and Freud, and perhaps less well known as the Austrian innovator of the stream-of-consciousness technique in fiction. The son of a prominent Jewish family of fin de siecle Vienna, Broch ran (for ten years) and then sold the family’s textile business, in 1928, to pursue studies in Mathematics and Philosophy (much like Musil), before turning away from Logical Positivism in dismay to seek a unifying “totality” of perception in literature.

  Broch wrote and published The Sleepwalkers (Die Schlafwandler, 1932), The Death of Virgil (Der Tod des Virgils, 1945) - for which he was nominated for a Nobel Prize - and The Guiltless (Die Schuldlosen, 1950), among other finished and unfinished works in just twenty years. Hermann Broch was a major German-language contributor to literary modernism! His work is considered by some to be the best development of Joyce’s revolutionary stream-of-consciousness technique *. After emigrating to America, where he finished his most ambitious novel, The Death of Virgil, in 1944 --which book is the best answer to the question: What can follow Joyce’s masterpiece, Ulysses? —Broch continued to write and study at Princeton, and later and until his death at Yale.
   Broch’s masterpiece, The Death of Virgil, is a modernist historical novel detailing the last anguished hours in the life of the most famous Roman poet, after his return from Athens, at the instigation and in the entourage of Caesar Augustus. It is a dense and intense and penetrating fictional account – even amounting to a philosophical-psychological analysis - of the decision and deathbed request by Virgil, that his own unfinished masterwork, the “Aeneid,” be burned upon his death. (This decision was overridden by Caesar Augustus; himself, a friend and patron of Virgil, as well as a main character in this story.) Virgil died in the year 19 B.C.
    What is most intriguing about this fact-based roman a clef – apart from the stylistic complexity and ingenuity of technique - is the reason, and the nature of the reason, that Broch offers for Virgil’s final, deathbed wish. It was not because the work was unfinished! But perhaps it was because reality was, as yet, incomplete! Here is the drama: The poet would reject his own Magnum Opus on the basis of an insight**  so mysterious and profound that he is ready to disgrace and disown his own poetry and start anew – as if that were possible - at the end of his life. What genius! to see in Virgil's plight and personality the metaphor for the situation of the modern artist at a philosophical turning-point in history!

   In The Death of Virgil we have the view of an artist in the throes of an agony; regarding his own work as hopelessly unfinished and irredeemable, because it is a sham-Art, reflecting only the symbols of a once ‘perceived’ reality. He despises his own work because it lacks the un-mediated perception of the “totality” – the divine order – which was once (but is no longer) taken as a given, and he can find no newer model, because, as an historical fact it, the truth, i.e. Christianity, is simply not yet available to him. Thus, we hear the ever repeated refrain “Not quite here, but yet at hand!” Broch, as much as his Virgil, was undergoing a “dark night of the soul” as a writer, and as a religious soul in the grip of conversion agony. (Some testify to his intent to regain his Jewish faith late in life, after having been converted to Catholicism as a child.)

  Written in four Books, each named for one of the basic elements of antiquity, The Death of Virgil explores the mind, heart and soul of the artist during his last night and day on Earth. The opening, (Book I: Water – The Arrival), is impressionistic in its description of the journey through the crowded (“mobbed”) streets of Brundisium by sedan from the ships to the palace of Caesar Augustus, led by the mysterious boy, Lycanius. Book II: (Fire – The Descent), recounts in the tortured and tortuous prose of a feverish psyche the poet’s “long dark night of the soul” as he struggles to make sense of – to come to terms with - his ultimate position as a poet, a friend of Caesar, a peasant and a scholar, and as a man in the world among other men. There follow the lengthy, lucid and intricate dialogues - which occur on the day following his arrival - with friends, with a doctor, and with Caesar Augustus himself, in Book III: (Earth –The Expectation), wherein he confronts Caesar with his wish to have his opus burned upon his death. And, finally, in Book IV: (Air – The Homecoming), Virgil confronts the experience of death, as a leave-taking and a homecoming, in a lyrical and lucent epilogue.
   Though some parts are infinitely more difficult to grasp and to follow than others (Book II is the most trying), Broch has managed to create in language the very ordeal of agony, urgency and strain that Virgil might have experienced in his last 18-24 hours of life. There is lyrical beauty and clear-sighted description, and there is phantasmagoric and surreal self-indulgence, both graphic and linguistic. One needs to know quite a lot about Virgil, his works, and the classical model of the spheres of heaven to fully follow the arcane progression. But, there is a progression and an argument being made, and it is one that I found as exciting as it was exhausting. Virgil, according to Broch, lived at the end of an era; and he knew it (too late). His agony is real. 

   The key to Virgil’s ultimate disdain for the “Aeneid” lies with Broch and his own disillusionment with poetry and all modern Art as being, essentially, a perjury! As he explained and explored in his earlier novel of ideas, The Sleepwalkers (1932), Hermann Broch was convinced, like most of his peers, that Western Civilization was in decline. Moreover, he believed that the interval between one all-encompassing perception of cultural unification (“totality”) and the next was a period unsuited to great Art; indeed, suited only for sham-Art, or Kitsch. As Petri Liukkonen points out (on Books and Authors website, 2008), “According to Broch, ‘art which is not capable of reproducing the totality of the world is not art.’” And as Theodore Ziolkowski wrote in his 1985 essay, “In Search of the Absolute Novel,”
          The Sleepwalkers (1931-32) is a thesis novel with a vengeance. According
          to Broch, sleepwalkers are people living between vanishing and emerging
          ethical systems, just as the somnambulist exists in a state between sleeping
          and walking.

  Broch’s later novel, then, examines (his own and) Virgil’s philosophical conception of Art as a matter of ‘engagement’ --"an affiliation with the human community, which was the aim of real art in its aspiration toward humanity." (Book II – Fire). His investigation carries this concern to extremes of philosophical meditation and psychological projection, especially as concerns Art’s deepest relation to the artist’s own psyche, or soul. This necessarily involves him in so much more about Art and its relation to the world, and the artist in his relation to his fellow man. It raises questions, such as, What (inferior!) level of ‘being engaged’ in the world and in the human condition must the artist maintain in order to be an artist, in an era of shifting perceptions? What compromises - of knowledge, experience and transcendence - must he be willing to suffer or allow in order to do what he does? Are there no other options? And what are the moral costs to his own soul, as an artist and as a man?  
   Apparently, these were the issues that moved Broch, himself, when he began writing The Death of Virgil, while in a German concentration camp in 1938. (A coterie of supporters, including James Joyce, militated early and successfully for his freedom in 1939, at which time he emigrated, first to Scotland and then to America.) He was not alone. The concern among artists since Joyce, with the place of Art and the artist in society and in history was already a hot topic. Thomas Mann, as well as Thomas Bernhardt, had been exploring this conundrum contemporaneously. But while Joyce could say, “I go forth to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race”, Broch had already concluded, rather grimly, that he, and Virgil – like Orpheus before them
         “ was [merely] an artist, a poet, an enchanter of those who hearken, . . . he,
         like they, demonically caught in the spell of beauty, demonic in spite of his
         divine gifts, the enchanter, but not the savior of man.”(Pg 132) " . . . and he
         knew now more clearly what he had always known, that once and for all he
         was excluded from those to whom was pledged the help of the savior."  (Pg 138)

   These concerns are consonant with what we do know of Virgil – his reputed diffidence, and self doubt, his perfectionist bent, and his philosophical and social orthodoxy. What is thrilling is Broch’s usage of the technique (stream-of-consciousness) to exhibit these qualities and in a new light: in the light of a philosophical revelation and revolution. What makes the novel live and breathe its own air is what Broch does with this view of the poet. Virgil, in all his timidity, awakens – before all others – to a new vision of philosophical priority. From his nighttime meditation there emerges, from out of the void, a perception of a voice, which admonishes him to “Open your eyes to Love.” (Pg 221) Broch writes: “. . . he heard, no he did not hear, he saw the voice which brought this to pass.” (Pg 220)
   Not only does Broch here, in this novel, advance the use of a literary technique, he seems also to channel the contemporaneous ambition of the French (former Lithuanian) philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, who – studying and writing under Husserl and Heidegger at Freiburg – sought to displace Metaphysics as first philosophy, in favor of Ethics. Writing at roughly the same time, Levinas argued that moral responsibility was the definitive stance, or perspective, for yet another new vision of philosophy, now to be understood as “the wisdom of Love”. This is the revelation which made Virgil  re-evaluate (de-value) the entire corpus of his (poetical) work. And so also did Broch devalue the abstracted perspective of modern Art! While the theoretical work was being done elsewhere, and  at the same time, Broch was instantiating this vision in the fictive mind of the classical poet. My point, of course, is not to express faith in a mystical connection, but to present Broch's novel and thesis as part and parcel of a philosophical trend toward re-evaluation that goes back to Hegel, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Bergson and others, up to and including Heidegger and Levinas. This is not anachronism, but quite the opposite!

   There is, then, more than one sense in which we can say that Broch’s The Death of Virgil was an answer to James Joyce’s Ulysses. In it he not only improved on one of Joyce's techniques (I think Joyce’s use in the Molly Bloom reverie was far less descriptive of the consciousness of an individual personality, and far more an attempt to render ‘femininity’ as such!), he also responded to the implied ‘objectivist’ pretension of Joyce's multiplicity of styles approach with a rival theory of Art and the artist’s place in the world.
  The Death of Virgil was published simultaneously, in English and German in 1945, and it is said, that Broch worked very closely with Jean Starr Untermeyer on the English translation. Whether it is the translation or the original text, there are portions of this text so dense as to be literally inscrutable.  The result is not always pretty. That said, the majority of prose in this novel is coherent, though dense; it is fairly rigorous in its structure, if not its logic, though it is often convoluted in its syntax. Whatever fails, we assume, sometimes does so by design; the story involves sequences of feverish anxiety, dream-like phantasmagoria and out-right terror before the unknown. But, there are times when even these devices won’t excuse the extravagant liberties taken. It is not a perfect work; but it is  a major work, both of substance and style.

   Now, I remember well – or better, at least – why I put this book aside over five years ago, while I was deeply involved in the details of the final months of the life of an old friend. The Death of Virgil is not a book for the faint-hearted. It is a difficult text, even – but not especially*** – in translation. It demands a good deal of knowledge of the world view of the ancients to avoid mis-readings, as well as a stoical tolerance for the frightening mystery of death and the final reconciliation with life’s failures. Regarding the former, I consider it lucky that I had only recently re-read Virgil’s “Aeneid” in the Fagles translation, and even more recently C.S. Lewis’s classic synopsis of the classical tradition’s cosmography in The Discarded Image, before taking up this book again. But perhaps only life and death experience can prepare a reader for the intensity of Broch’s treatment of his latter theme.

*“[S]tream of consciousness is a special style of interior monologue: while an interior monologue always presents a character's thoughts ‘directly’, . . . it does not necessarily mingle them with impressions and perceptions, nor does it necessarily violate the norms of grammar, syntax, and logic; but the stream-of-consciousness technique also does one or both of these things.”
        ---Wikipedia, Stream of consciousness (narrative mode)
**Partially as a result of his so-called "Messianic" Fourth Eclogue, widely interpreted during the Middle Ages to have predicted the birth of Jesus Christ, Virgil was, in later antiquity, reputed to have the magical abilities of a prophet or seer; his appearance as a guide in Dante’s “Divine Comedy” is an overt testament to this reputation.
***Broch not only spoke English fluently (He had done German-English translation), but he worked very closely together with the translater - Untermeyer - on the English version, which was published simultaneously with the German version in 1945.

1 comment:

  1. Couragous act, writing on DOV within the structural limits of a blog. Let me give my interpretation about 20 years old by now. It is less of a reading than an analysis.
    I would not know where to start with a reading, perhaps with the "night of the sick man" in the first part. Or the mystical fountain in the last part. I know what it is like to have put the book aside for years, but it is always back there somewhere. cheers, batke_p@hotmail.com