The Death of Virgil
by Hermann Broch
“… for overstrong was the command to hold fast to each smallest particle of time, to the smallest particle of every circumstance, and to embody all of them in memory as if they could be preserved in memory through all deaths for all times.” ― Hermann Broch, The Death of Virgil
Hermann Broch was fifty-one years old in 1937 when he began to write The Death of Virgil. IN doing this he was adhering to certain principles that he had outlined in an essay, "Joyce and the Present Age", written in the previous year. In this essay he argued that "the work of art, the "universal work of art" becomes the mirror of the Zeitgeist"; that being the totality of the historic reality of the present age. This totality is reflected in great works of art like Faust and the late works of Beethoven. Reaching his fiftieth year was significant for Broch as a time that would allow him to achieve this sort of significance in his own writing. The work known as The Death of Virgil would be his "great work of art". And great it is indeed.
Drawing on the past he looks to Homer, Virgil, and Dante as seen in the three epigrams for the novel. These epigrams suggest themes that will be present in the story and, perhaps, dominate it at times. Foremost is the idea of fate or destiny that is complemented by the impossibility of recapturing the past as demonstrated in the second epigram by Aeneas' journey to Hades in Book Six of the Aeneid ((VI, 697-702). This visit which mirrors a similar visit by Odysseus in Homer's Odyssey is a downward passage to Hades of a son to see his father, Anchises. It is contrasted with the climb upward of Dante as guided by Virgil out of the Inferno in the final epigram from the Divine Comedy (XXXIV, 133-139).
As we proceed to the opening pages of the first chapter we immediately encounter the poet Virgil on a sickbed in a ship making its way into the port of Brundiisium. As he lay there he wondered at his fate being brought to this point. He asks himself, "why then had he yielded to the importunity of Augustus?" For Virgil had been in Athens planning to seek wisdom in the study of philosophy, but now, instead of "a life free alike of art and poetry, a life dedicated to meditation and study in the city of Plato," he would be tethered to the Emperor. Held there by "life forces, those irrefutable forces of fate which never vanished completely."
Virgil exhibits and even recognizes doubts about the direction of his life and the status of his lifework. He yearned for a simplicity that might only be accomplished with the simplicity of death. Even though as he thinks of his final work, The Aeneid, that "people would praise it because as yet everything he had written had been praised, because only the agreeable things would be abstracted from it," he sees the court surrounding Augustus as parasites who feed on the largess of the Emperor's majesty.
The author Broch presents this narrative in the third person but soon begins to present Virgil's thoughts in a way that is a variant of the "stream-of-consciousness" style that modern authors like Woolf, Joyce, and Faulkner all used in a more direct way. He combines this narrative approach with long sentences and paragraphs that mimic the flow of thought, time, and become his attempt to capture the totality of the world. Time is twisted and bent as pages are devoted to brief moments of thought in a way that sometimes surprises the attentive reader.
These notes represent a beginning of my attempt to discuss some of the important themes, motifs, and ideas that I encounter as I read this challenging novel over the next several weeks. Reading it will be a slow process, but it is already rewarding and even exciting in seeing the world of Virgil as he nears the end of his life.