Hermann Broch: Death of Vergil – An Allegory of our Modernity

AA-Vergil

…as many souls
As leaves that yield their hold on boughs and fall
Through forests in the early frost of autumn,
Or as migrating birds from the open sea
That darken heaven when the cold season comes
And drives them overseas to sunlit lands
There all stood begging to be first across
And reached out longing hands to the far shore.

– Aeneid, book 6, translated by Robert Fitzgerald

Broch’s echoing of Book Six of the Aeneid is worthy of that somber autumnal master who wrote of the souls standing on the edge of that ancient river the Styx awaiting their turn to enter that deathly haunt where we all must tend, reaching out their hands to that far country in a culmination of that decadent gesture in which the part becomes whole at the point of severance and longing; the mind in its stream of impressions, bewildered by its own nullity before things trembles within that self-divinizing finitude that gives birth to all being:

Publius Vergilius Maro had always been aware of this strange almost volcanic pulsation in his hands, always the intimation of the strange separate life of his hands had accompanied him, an intimation that once and for all had been forbidden to overstep the threshold into actual knowledge, as if an obscure danger lurked in such knowledge, and when now, as was his habit, he turned the seal ring, the one finely-wrought and even a little unmasculine in its delicate workmanship, which he wore on a finger of his right hand, it was as if by so doing he could avert that obscure danger, as if he could appease the hands’ longing, as if by this act he could bring them to a certain self-control, abating their fear, the longing fear of peasant hands that never again might grasp the plough or scatter the seed and therefore had learned to grasp the intangible, the foreboding fear of hands to whose will-to-form, robbed of the earth, nothing remained but a life of their own in the incomprehensible universe, threatened and threatening, reaching so deeply into nothingness and so gripped by its perils that the dread foreboding, lifted to a certain extent above itself, was transmuted into a mighty endeavor, an endeavor to hold fast to the unity of human existence, to preserve the integrity of human desire in a way that would protect it from disintegrating into manifold existences, full of small desires and small in desire; for insufficient was the desire of hands, insufficient the desire of eyes, insufficient the desire of hearing, sufficient alone was the desire of heart and mind communing together, the yearning completion of the infinity within and without, beholding, hearkening, comprehending, breathing in the unity of the doubled breath, the unity of the universe; for by unity alone might one overcome the lowering hopeless blindness of fearful isolation, in unity alone occurred the twofold development from the roots of understanding, and this he divined, this he had always divined—, oh the yearning of one who was and always must be only a lodger, oh yearning of man—, this had been his prescient-listening, his prescient-breathing, his prescient-thinking, drawn by reciprocal listening, breathing, thinking, into the flowing light of the universe, into the never-ending approach to the endlessness of the universe, unattainable the pearly shimmer of its abysmal depths, unattainable even its outermost edge, so that the longing desirous hand dares not even touch it.

– from Hermann Broch’s Death of Virgil

The greatest response to a poem is another poem, and Broch’s prose poem against the dying of the light, on Vergil’s life and times, his work and days becomes for our time a modernist awakening to the disastrous consequences of power and tyranny. Vergil that most Lucretian of poets, the poet of loss and death, of love and strife; an epicurean poet for whom death was but the bittersweet fruition of earthly life, no great matter. As Broch writing in the midst of WWII would retrieve the world’s of Joyce and Vergil in an enactment of prose and poetry to quay the terror of a crime-World that was inaugurated by Augustus and Hitler, a swaying of two worlds through the Lucretian lens of the crisis and death of two civilizations as they entered the twilight gestures of their final days in Empire and corruption is to have given us both a monument to our own inanity and nullity, as well as a tribute to our longing for a country elsewhere – a utopian gesture at best, yet one that we must make if we would not end our existence in such literal translations as fascism and communism. Utopias were never meant to be realized in time, but are timeless enactments of human desire of which this world is not as Plato imagined a copy, but rather the only realm in which desire can become real within the Real; not as fulfillment and end, but rather as movement and happening, evental…

Reading the moderns is to stay the hand of time against the ruins of civilization at the hands of tyrants, globalists, and profiteers. Ours is an age in crises in which the old paths and rituals of the foreworld no longer hold or give us that sustenance to mark our unthinking lives that have been stripped of human meaning. Against this degradation and the scholars of meaninglessness, those nihilists who have for two hundred years given us nothing but the gestures of violence and holocaust we must once again take up the ancient threads of humanity and reconstruct a vision of life rather than death, gain a foothold in the universe of meaning that we so willingly allowed to die at the hands of those weak philosophers of a dead thought. We’ve lived under a great lie for far too long and now we must regain insight into what it means to be human in a world where religion and myth have given way to science. Can we live in a universe that is indifferent to our human meanings? Can we discover once again the roots of being human not in speculation of philosophy but in those ancient roots of language, the poets? Poetry was once the song of meaning in the life of humans, it kept the stories of the tribes, the images of life that served our daily routines, guided our work and play, gave us the singular vision of who and what we are and our place in this strange realm we call the cosmos. The poets were the first cosmologists and the givers of meaning in a world that had no meaning. Can we once again create meaning in a world that is indifferent to our human condition?

What have our sciences given us but nullity? The sciences have one by one stripped us of our human illusions, bereft us of soul, mind, self, and now consciousness leaving us in a realm where the only thing left is a pyrrhic victory of an ultimate skepticism even in skepticism. The sciences will not lead us out of this quagmire but rather have given us the universe indifferent of our human wants and needs. Great! So what? So now we know the truth of this indifferent universe that doesn’t give an iota whether we live or die, what’s left? Should we just end it, be done with humanity? Are is it time we fight back against our own nullity, create out of this non-meaning a meaning, a human meaning. Even Nietzsche knew we could not stay in this emptiness of nullity and nihilism forever. No. He knew we would need to begin that long process of a transvaluation of all past value systems, religion and philosophy into something that aligned itself with this new found knowledge of an indifferent meaningless universe. One that would realize the universe cannot give us meaning, only we can do that; that’s our strange gift and curse, to give meaning where there is none.

But of course we can’t just willy-nilly give erroneous meanings to our lives, fall back into the old illusions that have led us to dead end, caused wars and strife between different civilizations. No. That would be to reenter the cave of our despair, to take a step back into those very illusions that modern man strove against to begin with and fought so hard to alleviate. No. We must rethink our place in the universe. Take stock of our ancient heritages and revalue these system based on our current knowledge of the cosmos.

Truth is that is what is happening already. The various wars of philosophy and sciences is just that: a strife between the old and new, the remaking of meaning in a meaningless universe. The reinvention of a cosmos, an ordering of the universe of things by the light of science, knowledge, and our ancient thought. I don’t think any one human has such answers. It is the struggle of our time. And, we have little time, either. With all the various aspects of our current malaise we are playing our in ignorance and end game against the clock of our planetary resources and a climatological clock that might spell the demise of the human experiment. This remains to be seen.

Broch would sum it up in an eloquent passage:

The rumbling continued and it was emitted from the mingling of the light with the darkness, both of them roused by the incipient tone which now actually began to sound, and that which sounded was more than song, more than the striking of the lyre, more than any tone, more than any voice, since it was all of these together and at once, bursting out of the nothing as well as out of the universe, breaking forth as a communication beyond every understanding, breaking forth as a significance above every comprehension, breaking forth as the pure word which it was, exalted above all understanding and significance whatsoever, consummating and initiating, mighty and commanding, fear-inspiring and protecting, gracious and thundering, the word of discrimination, the word of the pledge, the pure word; so it roared thither, roaring over and past him, swelling on and becoming stronger and stronger, becoming so overpowering that nothing could withstand it, the universe disappearing before the word, dissolved and acquitted in the word while still being contained and preserved in it, destroyed and recreated forever, because nothing had been lost, nothing could be lost, because end was joined to beginning, being born and giving birth again and again; the word hovered over the universe, over the nothing, floating beyond the expressible as well as the inexpressible, and he, caught under and amidst the roaring, he floated on with the word, although the more he was enveloped by it, the more he penetrated into the flooding sound and was penetrated by it, the more unattainable, the greater, the graver and more elusive became the word, a floating sea, a floating fire, sea-heavy, sea-light, notwithstanding it was still the word: he could not hold fast to it and he might not hold fast to it; incomprehensible and unutterable for him: it was the word beyond speech.

 ………– from Hermann Broch’s Death of Virgil

Maybe in the silence we can once again find the word within speech, the word within us and the earth that will sustain us against the ruins of time, give to us once again that voice of our longings for a human world, a human habitation, a human word that can convey and communicate to us that power and energy at the heart of things and being, of becoming and events to give us back to ourselves a future and a present worth living.

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