Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 994
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 protective façade. When Augustus questions Virgil’s fidelity toward him, his longtime patron and now leader of the Roman world, Virgil realizes that the ultimate sacrifice would be not to destroy his work but to give it to Augustus. Virgil’s act, one of love, proclaims a new, Christian era.
In Broch’s novel, an essential element of Virgil’s dissatisfaction with the Aeneid is that it glorifies a worldly age that he senses is passing. Although he had been raised in the Jewish faith, Broch, like so many of his generation, had converted to Christianity as an adult. The “Christian Virgil” is an essential element of Broch’s image of Virgil. In the novel, the Roman poet has a vision adumbrating the coming of Christ. Indeed, for Broch, Virgil is the ideal figure symbolizing the passing of one age to another.
In the early part of the twentieth century, it was commonly thought that many parallels existed between those times and the Roman age. Thinkers such as the German historian Oswald Spengler and the British historian Arnold Toynbee used Rome—particularly Rome’s disintegration—as a model with which to analyze twentieth century culture. This attitude generally prevailed when the Virgil bimillennial celebration took place in 1930, and it was reflected in Theodor Haecker’s 1931 book Virgil, Father of the West. Broch read the book and especially liked Haecker’s interpretation of Virgil as proto-Christian. In 1936, Broch wrote a first, much shorter version of his Virgil story for a radio broadcast in March, 1937. Eventually, there were five versions, each successively building into the final, grand, lyrical narrative.
Broch had no formal training in classics, and he gleaned almost everything he knew about Virgil’s life from Haecker’s book. In the first versions of Broch’s novel, he focused on the death of the poet and his crisis of art. Only later did he introduce what became the central theme of the book: the destruction of the Aeneid. He learned about the legend through a friend’s translation of the preface to an old edition of Virgil. From early versions of his novel, it is clear that Broch knew Virgil’s Eclogues (43-37 b.c.e.), but reference to the Aeneid is curiously absent. Since the Eclogues provide the main focus of Christian attention to the Roman poet, this is another indication that Broch’s interest in the Roman poet was driven by the image of the Christian Virgil.
Although The Death of Virgil is usually referred to as a novel, Broch tried to avoid any particular genre. He himself referred to the work as a poem extending over more than five hundred pages. The German language lends itself to long, convoluted constructions, but Broch pushed even German conventions to the limit, with some sentences going on for page after page. The book is separated into four sections—Water, the Arrival; Fire, the Descent; Earth, the Expectation; and Ether, the Homecoming—which Broch conceived of in musical terms. (The American conductor Leonard Bernstein once made plans to write a symphony based on Broch’s novel, envisioning four movements to correspond to the four sections, and the French composer Jean Barraqué actually did base parts of a symphony on the work.) Much of the novel is cast in a stream-of-consciousness style, which represents Virgil’s inner universe. This gives way in part three to the external world of conversation. Here, the utterances, as in the dialogue between Virgil and Augustus, resemble the brief thrusts and parries of a fencing duel.
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