Irene Vallejo – The Era of Anger, at the sources of the ‘Aeneid’
A 1750 painting describing
‘Aeneas fleeing from Troy’,
by Pompeo Batoni (1708–1787)
at the Galleria Sabauda in Torino, Italy.
Source: Wikimedia commons.
Today’s sharing from the Blue House of Via-HYGEIA, is the English translation of an article Zaragozanian writer Irene Vallejo wrote for issue 4 of Les Belles Lettres’s magazine published in November 2023, rendered in French by Camille Pech de Laclause from her original Spanish. It strongly echoes Simone Weil’s emulating and far-reaching philosophical anti-war pamphlet, ‘L’Illiade ou le poème de la force‘ (Les Cahiers du Sud, 1940). We offer you, as a present of hope, to hear this beautiful voice, humane to the core, heard singing in the midst of the tragic and dark times we (recurrently) live in.
Western literature was born with a bitter rage to the lips. The very first word of the ‘Iliad‘ is no other than ‘anger’ and before the Gods and human beings, the poet invoques anger, the offense that hurts and burns. In its world rules, undisputed, the appetite for brawls, the struggle between eternal rivals, the gluttony for glory. The voices of the warriors harangue, yell and roar. In fact, the expression ‘to have a Stentor voice’ is inspired by the character, Stentor, who, according to Homer, was yelling with the noise and fury of fifty men. (1)
In every corners of the better places of our planet, we are inclined to think that peace is an usual occurrence, a natural state of our lives. But, history proves us the opposite. In 1968, Will and Ariel Durand have calculated that among the 3500 early years of civilisation, only 250 were deprived of any belligerent conflicts. (2) The fight on the battle field represents such a daily experience in the antique civilisations that the philosopher Heraclitus considers it as one of the dynamics of reality. He writes, for instance, that war is the cosmic origin of everything: of the universe, but implies also of ideas, inventions, insti-tutions and states. The Greek thinker asserts also that everything is defined by its opposition to everything else. This conception of existence appears in a society where war decides the fate of each individual: Life or death, slavery or freedom, wealth or poverty. Peace is therefore a very unstable balance, it is a interval of passing calm in a landscape of greed, pride and acrimony.
Aeneas, Peaceful Hero
In this context of warring exaltation, it seems surprising that the great epic poem of the Romans, the ‘Aeneid’ stages a deserter. Now, here is an audacious paradox: Aeneas is always shown unwilling to fight. In fact, in the climatic scene of his itinerary in the Latium, at the opposite to Achilles’ fury against Hector’s remains, Aeneas hesitates, holds back his right hand, feels a sudden discouragement in front of the necessity to kill, in a hand to hand combat, his adversary, Turnus. He therefore demonstrates that he is an ‘anormal’ hero, a loser that is fleeing Troy when the city falls into the enemy’s hands. A man eager to limit the occurring damage in saving his entourage from certain slaughter, and chooses to flee from the city in ruins carrying his father on his shoulders and grasping his son’s hand, hence becoming a refugee, an up-rooted person drifting-the most ancient image of the migrant in search of a new home, always near sinking. A hero that cries and curses the devastation caused by violence when he recalls to Queen Dido the fall of Troy, comparing it to the strikes of an axe, making the sturdy elm fall from its heights. (4) Virgil, witness of the roman civil war, decided to embody the imperial Roman epic, not with an invincible soldier, but rather with an exiled bruised by loss and fear. The poet, who contemplated the end of the Republic, writes upon the smoky remnants of what is nothing more than a dream: ‘Here good and evil are confused; so many wars around the world; so many faces of evil.’ (5) Regarding to this beautiful quote from the ‘Georgics’, i would like to tell a striking anecdote, recalled for me by Bernard Knox (1914-2010), a pro-eminent American humanist of English roots, whose youth has been branded with a hot iron by war. After some classical literature studies in Cambridge, he joined the armed struggle against Franco in Spain, then enlisted in the U.S. Army, where he is noticed several times for his bravery. In 1944, while gone support the Italian resistance against Mussolini, he took refuge in the ruins of a house where he finds, miraculously intact, a copy of the ‘Georgics’. Not without emotion, he opens Virgil’s work and while browsing through the pages read this phrase, which he confessed many years later, expresses for him: ‘more directly and more passionately than any other modern discourse that i knew, the reality of the world i which i was living: the fields plagued with mines, devastated cities and hunger-stricken people of this Italy that Virgil cherished so much, the misery of a whole world at war.’ Progressing through the rubbles. the young Bernard told himself: ‘If i make it out of here, i must go back to the Classics and i must study them in depth.’
To come back to the Classics, and-for instance-to discover, that against all odds Europe’s foundational epic harbors in its very heart a hero who is at the antipodes of the epic ideal is quite something! A tired veteran that prefers taking care of his loved ones rather than fighting the enemy. Aeneas ressembles more the migrants that perish while crossing the Mediterranean sea than to the mighty ones that close their harbor and doors to them. This is why Aeneas became all-along-history an embarrassing figure for the bellicose political leaders. Like Andrea Marcolongo tells in her essai, ‘The Share of the Hero’ (6), Italian fascism censured, for its official representations, the image of the Trojan carrying his father on his back, aligning his footsteps to those of his young son, because it contradicts the epic of the victorious and solitary military leader.
Keeping The Word Rightful
Aeneas, rather than immolating himself into the tragic night of Troy’s fall, prefers to escape in-search for a city where his son Ascanius will be able to grow-up in peace. The childhood and teen age of Virgil himself-throughout the tumultuous decades that followed the struggle between Marius and Sulla, or under the aegis of the Catiline’s conjuration, or under the yoke of crises and crimes-were to sharpen his sensitivity. The Lombard poet would have liked the 1952 movie, full of tact, by French Director René Clément, ‘Forbidden Games’, a chronicle of the irruption of the Second World War into the imaginary realm of French children. The cricket, the earth-worm, the mole, the robin, the beetle and their small fauna of the countryside companions serve to underline the violence which has become a habitual, ordinary, banal occurrence. The children, with a macabre innocence, kill the little animals that surround them and burry them, In their game, the presence of pre-meditated death becomes necessary; to die mutates into a habit; to provoke death, a daily act. This fatalist vision does not ever triumph in the ‘Aeneid’. To rebel against idealization or inertia appears like an audacity: in the midst of all this ferocity, Aeneas keeps pristine the consciousness of the horror and is moved in front of every spark of humanity.
In the blind fog of war, the sounding and unambiguous roars triumph upon the rightful word. Nowadays, the echoes of Heraclitus’ words, who considered conflict as the keystone of reality, still resonate: A political man is nobody without an adversary facing him. The philosopher built his theory around the term ‘Polemos‘ (struggle, or war), from which the word ‘polemic’ comes from. Hence, many ‘Stentorian’ leaders are defined more by their hate than by their ideas. Always at the breach of an attack, their confuse overcoming with vociferating and standing out from the crowd with hammering. The professionals of confrontation & insult are legion, armed with apocalyptical prophecies, convinced that the end justifies sowing fear along its trajectory.
The Italian poetess, Alda Merini, quite conscious that it is very easy to harm one’s kind wrote: ‘ I love those who choose carefully chose the word they don’t speak out.‘ Without this attention to someone else’s voice, without the effort of respect, it the the law of the strongest that overcomes. Aggressivity is a cheap commodity everyone can offer, as it only asks for rage and deep strikes. The real courage is to avoid it: The true victory can only happen when there is a peace without a defeated side.
(1) ‘Iliad’, Song V, verse 784 and following: ‘Hera, the Goddess with alabaster arms, stopped and shout. She had the likeliness of Stentor, whose strong heart and brazen voice knew how to shout like fifty men together.‘
(2)Will and Ariel Durant, ‘The Lessons of History’, 1968.
(3) Virgil, ‘Aeneid’ XII, verse 938 and following: ‘Stetit acer in armis/Aeneas volvens oculos dextramque repressit‘.
(4) Virgil, ‘Aeneid’ II, verse 624 and following: ‘Tum vero omne mihi visum considere in ignis/ Illium et ex imo verti Neptunia Troia/ ac veluti summis antiquam in montibus ornum/cum ferro occisam crebisque bipennibus instant/eruere agricolae certatim, illa usque minatur/ et tremefacta comam concusso vertice nutat/ vulneribus donec paulatim evicta supremum/ congemuit traxitque iugis ruinam.’
(5) Virgil, “Georgics’, verses 505-506: ‘Quippe ubi fas versum atque nefas; tot bella per orbem/tam multae scelerum facies.’
(6) Andrea Marcolongo, “La Misura Eroica, il mitodegli Argonauti e il coraggio che spinge gli uomini ad amare’. Mondatori Libri, 2018.
from the Spanish original
shared by the author on her social media