In 1938, Hermann Broch had to flee his native Austria because he was Jewish. It was only through the intervention of sympathetic friends and acquaintances, among them James Joyce, that Broch succeeded in leaving Europe. Once in America, he set to work finishing the novel The Death of Virgil.
At the heart of this novel lies the question whether or not to destroy Virgil’s last great creation, the epic poem the Aeneid (29-19 b.c.e.). A dying artist contemplates the value of his art and confronts the hard reality of politics, trying to come to grips with the fact that his work, the Aeneid, celebrates the Roman state and its new ruler, Augustus Caesar (first Roman emperor, also called Octavian when younger, 27 b.c.e.-14 c.e.).
During approximately the first half of the book, Virgil contemplates the imperfection of the world and the resulting fallibility of art. He concludes that art, even his own art, is incapable of rectifying the state of imperfection and that the artist is doomed to failure. Thus the Aeneid becomes the ultimate symbol of all that is wrong with the world and of art’s inability to impose perfection.
Beauty has come to frighten Virgil. In a fever, he makes his way to the window to witness a vulgar, disgusting scene on the street between two men and a woman. As they teeter off, however, they blend into the night and become part of a greater beauty. He, the poet, who has dedicated his life to beauty, must face beauty’s indifferent incorporation of the vile. He wonders what his own responsibility is to the world around him, thus reflecting Broch’s thoughts at a time when most of Europe had succumbed to fascism.
Virgil arrives at his decision to burn his work through an inner monologue, in isolation. Once he discloses his intent to burn the Aeneid, those around him raise their voices in protest. It is, however, not until Augustus enters the room that the protests begin to carry weight for Virgil. In the long debate between the two, which consumes about one-fifth of the novel, Virgil manages to parry Augustus’s many attempts at persuasion. It is not Virgil’s debt to himself, to art, or to the Roman people that sways Virgil from his resolve to burn his epic poem. It is a flash of Augustus’s anger, which penetrates Virgil’s...
(The entire section is 994 words.)