Emotional Antiquity

At a dinner recently in London I was, again, the only English person present. What were the people there? They were Peruvian, African-Indian, Israeli, Romanian, American and Italian. At one stage the conversation was about “Englishness,” a subject that divides not just a cosmopolitan North London crowd, but English people from abutting post-codes in the capital, through the south, north, east and west of the country; by ethnic background, social class, profession, relationship to the monarchy, political party, wealth and…

…and then there are the myriad views of the ex-patriot exiled English overseas.

Englishness is up for grabs – again. The conclusion at the dinner was that “nobody really gets the English” and I wasn’t really any help for I recognised none of the descriptions offered. Then again three of the party were in global finance, a phrase just as elusive as Englishness. All of the party had children in private schools – whose classes are full of cosmopolitan betwixt-ness, such social mixtures as Argentine-American, Peruvian-Indian, Israeli-Romanian, Hungarian-French or Slovene-Belgian.

What will be the foundation myths of that generation? Will they will held together by ideas of Englishness? The children are English by education and social gravitational pull. Will the stories of England be in any sense useful, socially, financially or culturally, to them in adult life? And what, also, of Europe? Does that concept have sticky traction today when a London schoolgirl can just as easily support Barcelona as Manchester United at football? Or are we creating the conditions for the idea of community to be something quite different, independent of place? And not just where “Englishness” is concerned, but the idea of nationhood itself?

“Europa was the subject of one the most venerable legends of the classical world. Europa was the mother of Minos, Lord of Crete, and hence the progenitrix of the most ancient branch of Mediterranean civilization. She was mentioned in passing by Homer.”

Norman Davies, Europe.

The epic poetry of Virgil, born in Mantua seventy years before Christ, is often said to be a “foundation myth”. His most famous work, “The Aeneid”, to be the “story” that solidified the social foundations of Rome, and the Roman Empire. It was not the first epic: these are found also in many parts of the world, but it does encompass many of the themes of my investigation of Tom Coryat, his vision of Europe, and the tiny journey of new Europe I am making. The poem was not completed when Virgil died in 19BC: his greatest work was the product of the last decade of his life.

The Aeneid is a great story, a powerful myth, and a social tool. In my reading, most of all, the protagonist of the poem, Aeneas, is a classical “betwixt” figure. He “exists” for us, as for contemporary Romans, as a bridging device between the past that is ancient Troy and a future which will, after his death, become Rome and Empire; he also sits – as a classical hero – betwixt the gods and man. Is it such a shock that the Renaissance and what followed was consumed with such classic texts; such issues of before and after? After the Medieval hegemony of God, and before the rise of the Enlightenment Individual with his Rights of Man – for example.

If my thesis is right and we are now, once again, in a markedly betwixt – somewhat anxious – era of geographic, environmental and technological shift (I think now that all of history can, if reviewed with appropriate gaze, be seen as a ‘turning point’ or a moment betwixt) then what are the forms that bind us?

Tom occasionally mentions conversations on his travels, yet we know he spoke no French, German or Italian: it is Latin that is his lingua franca. So far on my journey two languages have dominated: English, and Microsoft Windows. Neither binds us, or forms a reason for community, but it does help us to connect. When I was a student backpacker in Europe in the 1970s I called the tentative conversations I often had “Pink Floyds”. For music – in English – was often a common chord, a way of finding commonality. Much later in Eastern Europe Radiohead played a similar function. But is OK Computer! or The Wall a binding contemporary “myth”? There’s little doubt that modern music concerts play a part in cosmopolitan community building in ways that little else can: football is still tribal, though it does bring nations together once every four years. But music is not a myth like Englishness, or “Latinate culture.” Perhaps it is all the better for that: before Homer “stories” were usually sung.

One of the first issues – I have – with The Aeneid, is that I read it in translation. It is my “Pink Floyd” conversation with the history of “Italy” (and “Europe”) as I make my hesitant way towards Venice. Today my Aeneid is a 1990s vernacular reading by the American, Stanley Lombardo. In this very choice I am distancing myself even further from Virgil, making the shift that in “Virgil’s Aeneid, a Reader’s Guide” David Ross describes simply: “Readers of the Aeneid tend to forget Virgil was a poet…his poetry depends so often on allusion, in often rather subtle ways, to his poetic inheritance. Without an acquaintance with the poets and contexts to which Virgil alludes, we will miss a great deal, inevitably…”

Sitting in a Mantuan café and reading the “poetry” as slowly as is possible through the twelve books of “The Aeneid” I am losing almost everything, but one thing is definitely not lost, even if the poetry is: the immense visual power of Virgil’s story. Ross describes it thus:

“It has been pointed out that Catullus’ scenes are static, as if he had in mind a painting, but Virgil often follows the development of a scene as if through the lens of a cinema camera. Our eye follows from one image to another and on to another.”

And to this we can add that Homer, the great poet before Virgil, author of The Iliad and the Odyssey, arrives and creates his epics at the summation of an even older oral, musical, tradition of stories told in song. Sound and Image: powerful myths of commonality, and as old as civilisation itself.

The modern myths created through popular music and cinema (perhaps television…computer games…virtual worlds), are all capable of bringing us together to enjoy (and interpret) stories. Yet, once again, we are now betwixt. The era when we all consumed the same things – the same music, the same films, books, the same television – is fading as we “personalize”. My generation’s new foundation myths crumble under the weight of YouTube, I-tunes, satellite television and Facebook; World of Warcraft, Second Life and the many varieties of “mash” culture. We look to younger people, ensconced in digital communities where friendships are made through cultural and social – sexual – preference, rather than, say, geography, as the building blocks of our unknown future. They feel very precarious; but are they any weaker than the foundations of national myth?

In a few weeks’ time I am going to encounter the Germanic myths, the Niebelung sagas, Rheingold, Wagner and who knows what else. These fill me with trepidation for I know what comes with these myths – a nationalistic, nation-state driven, motivation, and a terrible modern history. Virgil is different: though it is a story of war and death, it is also a story of reconciliation, of peoples “exiled by fate” who create a future. The Aeneid, despite its theatrical godly interventions, is supremely human in the end I feel as I read on. Human, because it describes hesitation and uncertainty and duty so well: heroically, I suppose.

But there is also a quite different reading of The Aeneid that comes through, one that is about the creation of a past that can echo with the utterances of Hitler about Germanic “past”, or Milosevic on his “Serbia.” It sounds with Putin’s statements about mirroring the Russia of Peter the Great, just as with English visions of Agincourt or the Second World War.

Here are a few “facts”. The Troy which Aeneas flees with the invasion of the Greeks is over 3000 years old. Troy “fell” in 1184BC. It would take five hundred years for the hero cults to Aeneas to be established; only by the third century BC Aeneas, the Trojan, was firmly located as a part of the pre-history of Rome.

The long blank canvas of Rome that existed in 200 BC, could easily form a metaphor for, say, pre-Mayflower America, or “dark-age” England. And into that blankness came stories: the myths of paternity for Aeneas, son of Venus, or Romulus, son of Mars. Of the “seven” kings between these two “founders” almost every fact is – ultimately – fiction. Looked at another way, as Ross writes:

“As soon as Rome began to play an important role in the Mediterranean, it needed to establish its past, and it was free to invent as much as it wanted. For the ancient Romans, Troy provided an emotional antiquity.”

Because Troy was not Greek. In making the father of Rome a Trojan the sense of inferiority to the previous “civilisation”, the Greeks, could be avoided. Suddenly, by adopting as history what were the legends and myths handed down by aristocratic families between the sack of Troy (home of Homer) and the “now” of “Caesar”, the Roman Empire found ballast, moral authority, and divine resource. A nation is born. What was England before Harold? After the Restoration of 1660? When it joined the “Common Market”; when it first built the “Special relationship” with America?

As David Ross asks of the Roman “story”, and we all must wonder: “Did any Roman actually believe in all this?” Similar questions could be asked of the story-tellings and tellers in any culture. As I read Tom’s grandiose asides about England and his King (and his Prince) in the “Crudities”, I often wonder: does he really think this, or is this part of the deal to be an insider at court, able to get a passport and travel when so few others could?

Or is Tom’s nomadism actually about his rejection of much of Jacobean England? That he continues to argue loudly – sometimes, by the time he is in Asia on his second and fatal journey, he sounds little more than a fundamentalist protestant bore – against other religions suggests either not, or that religious faith was the one thing that held fast Tom’s sanity as he ventured further and further from the safety of Odcombe.

These questions are one of the reasons for my journey: an impossible attempt at understanding another man, dead for almost 400 years, is really an attempt to see where I am, we are, in the story of Tom’s Europe, Europe itself, and the nature of modern myths and story-tellings. Already I’ve seen many kinds of myth: new and old, from the origins of literary Anglo-Saxon in Vercelli through to the role of Ferrari in film in Turin: each story fractures, sends us off somewhere else. Which is where the power (perhaps the myth) of the internet to restore connection, to reform story-telling, resolve narratives, is most worrying me. In one sense this is the “Casaubon complex” of wanting to know everything; in another the realization that we all live in so many parallel and complex stories today and though we’ve learnt the importance of jettisoning some in order to move forwards the reality is not so simple.

In Cremona twenty-something Italians, Donatella and Milena, iterate their belief in God, and an afterlife. In the internet cafés of Italy – the terror law of 2005 might suggest – resides a new Trojan horse, a narrative (or set) utterly contrapuntal to the myths of European “civilisation”, Edmund Burke’s doctrine that “No European can be a complete exile in any part of Europe.” And this horse, we read, is filled with terror; with nihilistic visions of a world without heathens, the Great Satan America. Robert Service, the Oxford academic and Russian expert, said recently that those educated but disenfranchised youths who 100 years ago looked to Marxism as a route to social nirvana might now be attracted to the ideas of radical Islam. We know that within the web there exist many stories, many tellings of our world now and its history that do not appear in Western text-books. Is this world Babel, or just another battle for narrative supremacy?

Norman Davies, in “Europe” asks the question that my journey makes manifest each time I hear a haunting, or slow because of the history of opera, or a Serbian woman’s story of “Raelian” intervention; each time I visit an internet café and “read” its inhabitants, wonder who they are phoning, what they are typing. He says: “The main problem nowadays is to decide whether the centrifugal forces of the twentieth century have reduced that heritage [Europe’s] to a meaningless jumble or not.”

Meaningless jumbles are easy to imagine when trying to contemplate Europe’s capacity for self-destruction and delusional stories, and not just in the century past. After Tom’s journey comes a 100 Years War in Europe; Tom’s heirs, the Grand Tourists, are the product not of 1620, but 1720, for instance. Perhaps this should wait for Germany. Or the new Dan Brown.

The key to reading The Aeneid, I suspect, is some understanding of Virgil’s time. He lived as the Roman republic collapsed, to be replaced by the autocracy of strong Emperors: individual leaders, not wise senators. By the time of Virgil’s adolescence Rome was an anarchic, gang-run city where factions were all; like New York in the 1890s, say, or Shakespeare’s Verona. When he was 21 Caesar began a civil war. In 42 BC, after the defeat of Caesar’s assassins, Brutus and Cassius, Virgil’s estate near Mantua was confiscated.

He is writing at a time of great social change, when there is a need for social continuity – conservatism, even. This is the poet who invents “Arcadia” in his Eclogues and Georgics, after all. But to leap forwards: why was an English film made about Emma Hamilton in 1941? Did the English not see Churchill as Nelson, Hitler as Napoleon? What was the relationship of Wagner’s the Ring to the Nazi vision of the Reich? Milosevic’s remembering of the fourteenth century battle of Kosovo in a speech in “Yugoslavia” in 1989? Culture binds, broadcasts allusions: breeds some form of community, through time and place, often one that is excluding. It provides, in David Ross’s words, “Emotional Antiquity”.

In Virgil’s “Aeneid and the Roman Self” Yasmin Syed writes of first century BC Rome….”the aristocracy of this period was intensely interested in positioning itself in a framework of historical and mythological descent, thereby articulating their own perception of their identities.” She quotes Cicero’s “Academica”, on Varro, a roman historian and genealogist:

“For we were strangers in our own city and wandering around like guests, and your books have brought us home, so to speak, so that we could at last understand who and where we are…”

Syed continues: “By articulating Roman identity both politically and culturally, the Romans in some sense invented the concept of nationhood. Greek identity was, after all, a cultural not a political, identity…”

It sounds very similar to the attempts made by the Gonzagas in the fifteenth century Mantua, doesn’t it? Or nineteenth century nation-states. Twentieth century dictatorships. The EU…

After Virgil’s death his poetry was taught throughout the Roman Empire as a mirror on the “right” way to live. Augustine wrote of Virgil: “As little boys they read Virgil so that, absorbed into their delicate minds, the great, most famous and best of all poets cannot easily be erased from memory by oblivion.”

But this was far more than worship of a great poet, Virgil’s heroic stories, Syed writes, were “seen as planting the seeds of morality in people’s minds at an early, impressionable age.” A morality, interestingly, that in one part reveals that to be a “Roman” was not so much about where you came from, as what your morality is.

As Virgil writes via Aeneas:

“I was surprised by the great number
Of new arrivals I found, women and men,
Youth gathered for exile, a wretched band
Of refugees who had poured in from all over,
Prepared to journey across the sea
To whatever lands I might lead them.”

“…men at arms,
What has forced you to travel routes unknown?
Where are you heading? What is your race,
Your home? Do you come in peace or war?”

Questions that can still be very hard to answer today if we think about them enough, particularly as we seem uniquely resourced to deconstruct any narrative.

I think, instead, of Ulrich, a German whose art eschews history, who sees art’s function as a mediation between material and space. Is that the answer to Norman Davies’ question have “the centrifugal forces of the twentieth century…reduced that heritage [Europe’s] to a meaningless jumble or not”?

I don’t know, though there are few examples of abstract minimalist sculpture leading to wars, I suspect. Mantua is proving as fertile as the lands in Virgil’s Eclogues; a staging post for the masked theatrics of Venice.

Tomorrow I’ll write about the first book I’ve read since this journey began: Oscar Wilde’s “The Picture of Dorian Gray”.

About robhunt510

Writer, artist
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