Vergil’s Leaves of Longing and our Age

syrian-refugee

In Vergil’s epic in Book VI, lines 303–314, always admired by readers through the generations I recite:

Here a whole crowd came streaming to the banks,
Mothers and men, the forms of life all spent
Of heroes great in valor, boys and girls
Unmarried, and young sons laid on the pyre
Before their parents’ eyes—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.

In a time of grief and pain, of death and darkness what can one do? What response to the unknown around us? As I reread Vergil’s dark epic of struggle – as I have over the years, repeatedly, I kept thinking of all those who have sought to evade death and corruption, to seek out better worlds of life and light; of those who have always out of suffering, pain, and war sought to discover a place in the sun where darkness falters and death no longer holds its sting.

Meditating on the people of the Middle-East and Europe – both refugees and sequestered, native and foreign who are both going through such troubling times as these; of my own back yard where people from the Latin worlds of our southern borders have come to us for refuge and safety from drug lords and enslavement; of the pain of terror and the dread of the unknown that seems to pervade both worlds I’ve oscillated between silence and anger, despair and dark wisdom. Thinking on our leaderless nations who seem to forever think that retribution and war are the only path to glory and safety. As well as on those extreme groups such as ISIS who believe in their deadly mission to destroy their own world and the worlds of others with their misguided vision of an extreme Islamic jihad. ISIS like many utopianists seek to annihilate one world and create another. Like all idealists they know only the law of their Idea, and will live and die by its false premises, propositions, and systems of belief and subterfuge. Seeking what they perceive is the only way, they would kill and slaughter all who stand against them; or who believe differently than they do. If the Prophet were here today what would he say and do? I do not presume to know, but I do not think he would condone such acts as are leading our world toward another atrocity, rather he would seek out wisdom and the path of conciliation that comes from a deep knowledge of our lives on this earth. Maybe at this time in our lives we need to return to the roots of our visions, seek out the visions of those ancients that once strove to know life as it is and can be, rather than giving way to fear and violence, retribution and swift (un)justice. We need another way, another path.

We have lost that true ability to communicate, to speak to each other without our ideological blinkers. Instead we forcibly stand against reality with our illusory politics, left or right. We withdraw into our ideological shells like ministers of hate rather than caretakers of life. We no longer know how to lay down our words and pick up our lives together. We have lost the art of knowing. We live in the ignorance of media fictions that twist and shape our desires to the momentary alters of our vanity. We believe we have thrown off our ancient histories and their dark wisdom as if our modernity is free of some terrible stain, when in fact we are bound to the drives we once named, gods. We are driven by forces we no longer control toward futures we have no ability to know or supervene in. Ours is the age of loss, the time of forgetting when humans gave up their truth for lies. Our intellectuals have failed us. Our leaders have failed us. Will we fail ourselves, too? Is there not another way, another path toward peace in our time; or, shall we forever darken our world with pain and suffering, with defeat.

There is an ethics of life in which two humans begin to listen rather than speak past each other. A communication that does not repeat itself, but speaks from within us, that gathers us together in something else – something new where we begin to overhear ourselves in the midst of our changing, our transformation. Love is not an enfolding, but rather a separation that holds us together in communication; it does not horde or accumulate, but rather exposes itself to waste and wastage, to excess – to expenditure. It allows us to reach through the illusions and inhabit the appearances as they appear immanently in that space where knowledge becomes love. One does not transcend, one provides that distance that lifts up and knows truth.

Virgil was an Epicurean both by temperament and by spiritual and philosophical conviction. Epicurus and his Roman disciple, the poet Lucretius, saw the human being as too flawed to will either personal happiness or a just political order. The Epicurean-Lucretian elitism preaches release from ignorance as the only salvation for a rational few; empire cannot save anyone, for it is founded upon the illusion of civic virtue. Going within the self is the Epicurean path to the only truth that matters: personal, individual, disillusioned, denying transcendence. Virgil has no hope, and his only belief is the faithless faith of the Epicureans, who accepted human suffering as inevitable, except for that rational remnant that could abandon all illusion. 1

Can we abandon our illusions? Can we accept that no one nation or peoples owns the truth? That our lives like the leaves of Vergil are spellbound on the dark shores of life forever longing for the farther shore? No matter how beautiful an image, it is a false transcendence toward another world, an elsewhere; a utopian longing for a better world. Rather than a seeking after such false worlds beyond we should begin living in ours; to live without those ideological blinkers that keep us struggling against each other. Maybe if we could take off our political and religious, philosophical and cultural illusions we could meet each other as naked humans in a universe of impersonal relations that could care less about our squabbles amongst ourselves. Maybe then we could sit down and reason together, communicate; and begin something new, something unwarranted; something unheard of before – maybe we could touch base with what is and remains oldest in us, the truth within us that is our life immanent and without appeal.


 

  1. Harold Bloom. The Epic. (2005 by Chelsea House Publisher)

 

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