The Tragedy of Home in Vergil’s America

The Aeneid is very sad.

It requires some American naivety to really appreciate this. Europeans will always have a more native familiarity with classical culture, but oftentimes the outsider can see inner truths invisible to the beholder. If you remove the façade of high imperial literature, and read Aeneas’ personal narrative from a New World perspective, without the elevating bias of history, it seems like this hero has simply inherited all the curses of the old Homeric age. It is the grim account of a “refugee by fate” (Book 1, line 2), and can be stated in an unbearably bleak summary.

A man crashes at sea, and shouts out that he has no hope because the universe has forsaken him. While he fakes a pleasant smile for his comrades, his persistent wish is that he had died beneath the walls of the ruined city he fled. A people takes him in, and he tells them that he’s lost his home, his wife, and his entire way of life, and he keeps losing what little fortune has left him with every passing day as he wanders without purpose. Recently, he’s lost his father.

His adoring host shows him a tenderness he hasn’t known in almost a decade, and they experience an elusive moment of love. But it all ends just as quickly as it began. It was hope in a world of abuse. The universe won’t grant us love. It doesn’t reward devotion. It doesn’t offer any prospect of happiness, but bitter toil without understanding.

He keeps going, but he’s become an automaton going through the motions of something called fate, only motivated by airy, schizoid conceptions of historical greatness. He lives not of his own will. His return home is just another anonymous foreign arrival.  It won’t end until he loses an adopted son in another war. This is one outrage too many. He ceases to see himself as a victim, and instead becomes the victimizer. He plants his sword in this new home and finds a home in the tears of vengeance.

This is the psychic torture of an existentialist drama. It presents the desolate landscape of a fractured universe long before Kafka.  There is no real consolation for this bitter stream of sadness flowing from Vergil’s pen. Consolation is a concept too akin to Christian salvation. Rather, the Roman experience is this sadness.

But this tragic sadness is not merely a passive indulgence of pain. It is as if the consistency and persistence of this sadness is something to be earned, as if Vergil is presenting the poem as a conduit by which we can test our own durability. Can you lose everything? Can you see your life in the most dire possible terms and keep going? Can you summon such a sense of the tragic, by which you can transform your pain into a creative impulse capable of remaking the world? The Aeneid itself, born of decades of civil war, is a testament to the abiding spirit of human creativity which endures long after we have become numb to the wounds of fate.

Carrying the Greek culture over to Rome, Vergil carried the same tragic spirit as his Greek predecessors. His tragedy was perhaps even deeper, more self-conscious and more informed by the empirical experience of history. Consider the elusive phrase Vergil offers when Aeneas and Achates come upon the temple of Juno in Carthage. Aeneas sees the commemorations of the Trojan war on the temple’s engravings, and says,

sunt lacrimae rerum et mentem mortalia tangunt 

Book 1, line 462

A very literal translation reads, “There are tears of things, and human affairs occupy their minds”. I prefer something like, “The world’s tears flow, because they’ve kept their humanity”. Everything about Aeneas is utterly human. His pains are the abstracted pains common to us all across a lifetime, to both kings and vagrants. He knows both roles, and is the true everyman. We all lose our homes in one way or another. We all get bad guidance that leads nowhere. We all wake up one day feeling like the world we grew up in has entirely passed away. Tragedy cuts even deeper when it seems embedded in the basic current of time.

The overwhelming passage of time was also a theme of modernism; per Thomas Wolfe, you really can’t go home again. Like the writers of the early 20th century, Vergil found the human in a world that increasingly felt less and less like a world and more and more like a pitiless system.  We can keep our humanity in our tears. Tragedy offers an ethic of preservation and a dedication to the persistence of values amidst dispossession. Sadness binds together communities and gives them strength to persist amidst adversity. Sadness is the precondition of deep, enduring greatness. The Romans knew their state was founded not in majesty, but dispossession.

Aeneas, Anchises, and Ascanius
Aeneas, Anchises, and AscaniusGian Lorenzo Bernini (1617)

As if to compensate for the wanderings of homeless Aeneas, the Romans worshiped the goddess Vesta, the guardian of home and hearth. The cult of the Vestal Virgins indicates a particularly intense focus on this aspect of life. We Americans can likewise see this in our romance of the homestead, from Jefferson’s yeoman farms to the suburban utopia of Levittown. “The United States” always sounds somewhat abstract, but we will defend the “homeland”, a phrase which is an irony in historical terms, as we are the ultimate pioneer society.

Yet our deep reverence for home as a concept masks against the deeper social reality of America as a home. We buy, sell, and flip houses as if to prove they really don’t mean all that much, but ironically this has led to a generational resistance against the rapid transfer of property. I don’t think the Baby Boomers really want to relinquish their homes, and I don’t think Millennials, who watched their parents struggle during the mortgage crisis, want to buy new homes simply to buy them. There has to be something more there than just another stop, another place to temporarily chase the opportunities afforded by capital. 

Like the Romans, Americans have a complicated relationship with the notion of home because it is the means by which we escape the extremely public expectations of the very civilization we have built. It was no different for Vergil. Aeneas and Dido try to flee into a forest, and escape into a cave to free themselves from the pressures and expectations of civilized progress. Today, both the radical ecologist and the homestead prepper indulge this impulse. Yet the locus amoenus, the “pleasant place” of natural escapequickly becomes a nightmare. It haunts us in small towns, abandoned urban residential lots, and industrial parks across the country. Today urban ruins have become a kind of attraction, offering a tragic comfort in their destruction. We wanted to believe in the permanence of a way of life even as that way of life was itself combustible and revolutionary.

The Aeneid should remind us that, for most of human history, the immigrant experience, the process of losing one’s home forever, has been regarded as a fate worse than death. Exile ranked right next to death as a punishment in Greece and Rome, and we are a nation of exiles, both literally and spiritually. I like to think of Aeneas as somebody who is undergoing an afterlife in classical terms. If he appears abstracted and paradigmatic, it’s because he is already a kind of wraith or apparition, a body without a society. This intuition is confirmed in Book 10, when Juno presents the lure of an “Aeneas ghost” to bait Turnus onto the safety of a docked ship. As the imaginary Aeneas disappears and the ship sails away, Turnus, a true Homeric warrior of blood and bone, becomes despondent at the prospect of facing general, timeless, and placeless man. Juno prevents him from committing suicide as he asks,

 Where am I being taken? From what am I fleeing? What kind of man can I still be after this escape brings me back? Will I ever again see my home?

Book 10, lines 670-1

In a moment of delirious frenzy, Turnus asks the exile’s most difficult questions. Vergil’s implicit answer is that he will become just like his opponent Aeneas, an Eastwood-like “Man With No Name”, capable of living only as a kind of tortured, homeless abstraction.

Such a nightmare of effaced identity always looms over our frontier society, and it requires a Vergilian moment of cultural imagination to confront it. We should eschew both the technocratic mainstream that encourages transience in the pursuit of career, as well as reactionary appeals to preserve an illusory permanence against the tragedy of time.  To be a frontier society means that our entire way of life dies and returns within every generation. The ancestors of the original European settlers still pay a karmic debt for the European conquest of the new world. We feel the tragedy of time more acutely than those already settled in ancestral homelands. American life began in brutalization and relocation, and a sense of homelessness hangs over even the most successful. We may be the ones gentrified at the next movement of the market. All this success can disappear so quickly.

Yet these moments of dispossession, moments where Aeneas would have likely cried out to the gods in despair, furnished the most truly novel and significant achievements in our history. One can easily imagine how the contours of our present suburban life were rebuilt from the tears of men and women who felt like they only just yesterday left the family farm to serve in Second World War. With a little more imagination, you can imagine the tears of the pre-revolutionary colonists, the rejects of Europe, wishing they had stayed across the Atlantic rather than die in this neglected outpost of an indifferent European empire. The world’s tears can themselves become a shelter, formed in the chaos of our historical experience, yet insulating us as we build something greater. This essentially American tragedy of home echoes the original dispossession of the Native Americans, and by recognizing it we may foster the empathy necessary to build a stronger, more inclusive society. 

Perhaps another Italian is our Vergil. Sergio Leone was an Amerophile, and his operatic cinematic depictions of the American West have simply never been equaled. In his masterpiece Once Upon A Time In The West, the entire density of the American tragedy is packed into just one beautifully Vergilian scene. Claudia Cardinale portrays Jill McBain, a former prostitute from New Orleans recently married to Brett McBain, a land speculator who foresaw the eventual development of the railroad through the area’s only water supply. Brett has been murdered by hitmen hired by the hostile railroad tycoon. When Cardinale disembarks from the train in Flagstone, nobody is waiting for her. She looks back, then forward at a clock on the station. As if to protect herself, she curls up and looks down at her watch, which delivers the final verdict. Nobody is coming. She came to make her home, and she is now more utterly alone and exposed than ever before.

Ennio Morricone’s powerful theme rises in an absolutely chilling operatic aria. The camera rises with it, capturing the vigorous toil of the city below. In Vergil’s words, “O you lucky ones, whose walls now rise!” (Book 1, line 437). Holding back tears, Jill hires a wagon, and joins the scene. There’s no other choice. You lose it all at once, and then join in the beautiful creative madness of the rush to build it back up again. This is the exile’s curse and the exile’s glory.

Their achievement sanctifies their pain, at least for now. The world’s tears flow, because they’ve kept their humanity.

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