My friend Adam has hit upon a quite nice little idea in his translating of the Aeneid. The general idea is that Vergil is a cynic who ends all his most epic scenes by throwing shade on them. I’ll let Adam speak for himself on the details, but I was pleased to play a small auxiliary role in the hashing out of the idea.
Initially I resisted his take on the pictura inani, or empty picture, that Aeneas used to feed his soul. Why not instead stay local and contrast Aeneas feeding his soul (animus) with a soulless (inane) picture? But once we got talking, his cynical read started to grow really nicely.
While Adam ran off to do some real work (prep for a class), I played the role of research assistant gunning down every use of the adjective inanis in the Aeneid. Again, God bless the internet. And indeed, it is quite remarkable how often inanis shows up just in an amateur little word search, and what it ends up modifying (hope, rage, tears, etc.).
It was also fun because our discussion of Vergil’s agenda–pro Augustan or not?–sparked an idea about another field full of expert scholarship: the writings of St. Augustine.
One of Adam’s early take-aways was that Aeneas is a moron: he draws the wrong lesson from the picture of the fall of Troy in Juno’s temple. It’s not a sympathetic or tragic rendering: this is a victory parade for the mortal enemy of Troy and the founders of Rome.
So let’s make Aeneas a stand-in for Vergil’s Roman reader. His Augustan-era Romans are morons, celebrating tales and figures from their history and myths, drawing the wrong lessons from them. What exactly those lessons are and what Vergil’s “right idea” is–that’s Adam’s problem. But my mind jumped to St. Augustine, because this is almost exactly what the Doctor of Grace is doing in City of God.
I dip my toe in this water with trepidation, since the field of Augustine studies is enormous and filled with geniuses. Also, I don’t read in that field hardly at all. But this is my house and my rules, and shame never stopped one of my flights of fancy before.
St. Augustine’s charge against his Romans in Book I of City is that they err when they look to their history and founding myth. The lesson to draw is not that Rome must return to fidelity to the Roman gods–only an idiot would think that after an objective look at Roman history. And so St. Augustine reinterprets Roman history and myth to show the necessity of Christ.
I leap to this idea not entirely in vain, because St. Augustine is a big ol’ Vergil fanboy. Everyone knows that St. Augustine is massively influenced by his classical Roman education–no one is going to get famous saying that Vergil shows his fingerprints on the Doctor of Grace. But I begin to wonder if perhaps he is very specifically influenced by Vergil on this point: is he deliberately imitating Vergil’s cynical rework of Roman history?
Getting a little too meta at this point, even for a flight of fancy, but it would be a very neat way in which St. Augustine (yet again) baptized Roman art. He takes the Vergil Sarcasm Project and returns serve with a healthy dose of Gospel, all jacked up to eleven.
Coming in for a landing: I am especially entertained by this entire line of discussion today because of one of my favorite aphorisms. When confronted with any of the frustrating perplexities or ignorances of life at work, I intone such that Vergil and St. Augustine alike would perhaps approve:
Inanity of inanities, all is inanity.