Virgilian Afterlives: The Classics in Question

Nandini Pandey on David Quint

David Quint. Virgil’s Double Cross: Design and Meaning in The Aeneid. Princeton University Press, 2018. pp. 248. $75 (hardback).

David Quint treats books as living organisms with kinship ties across ages and tongues.  Take, for example, the biological metaphors in his titles: “The Genealogy of the Novel from the Odyssey to Don Quijote” and “The Anatomy of Epic in Book 2 of The Faerie Queene.”  It’s a rare scholar who can analyze the books’ genes with scientific precision but also keep them whole on the vine, even find fresh fruit beneath the leaves. Quint’s new study of the Aeneid distills this almost vanished art, and, with any luck, will challenge new generations to learn the skill. After all, the most important of Quint’s titular “double crosses” is the one that goes unsaid: the double helix that connects great writers with their ancestors, and great scholars with future tenders of our texts.

Virgil’s epic centers, textually and metaphysically, on the intertwined problems of death and immortality. Its hero, Aeneas, would rather have fallen at Troy than take up the cross of Rome’s destiny. In a narrative lynchpin that joins past to future, the Cumaean Sibyl guides him through the underworld and reveals how dead souls are cleansed for rebirth into new bodies. Their successive erasure questions the desire for enduring glory and achievement that this trip is meant to kindle. By temperament, Aeneas would rather linger with the ghosts of his loved ones than return to the labor of founding Rome. As his dead father Anchises points out the future greats of Roman history, Aeneas wonders “why the wretches have such terrible desire for the light.”

Why struggle to achieve the ephemeral, to assert selves that will wash away in the river of time? It’s hard not to compare our task as scholars, whiling away our mayfly hours in converse with the ghosts of the past. But as one answer to the existential despair that wafts from Aeneid 6, Quint offers an episode from the previous book. There, boys from Aeneas’ refugee band mark the anniversary of Anchises’ death with the lusus Troiae: an equestrian ritual (revived by the Caesars) that marks the continuity and renewal of generations. Their serpentine exercise prefigures the labyrinth on the Sibyl’s door as both metaphor and means for cheating death.

It’s a minute but moving observation that crystallizes much I admire in Quint’s scholarship: its multidimensionality, its search for meaning in pattern, its humanity salted with cynicism, its gift for sparking unexpected conversation. I see the lusus Troiae, in turn, as an emblem for our own readings: the ritual returns that renew old patterns and themes for the young.

What a joy it is to journey back into the Aeneid with Quint as our Sibyl. The latter warns Aeneas that in Italy he will wage wars as cruel as Troy’s, again over a stolen bride, but with aid from a Greek city. She thus articulates from within the poem its famous division into two halves, the second a repetition and reversal of the Iliad. No less inspired, but far more meticulously detailed, is Quint’s structural pronouncement: that chiasmus shapes the Aeneid’s architecture on a fractal scale, from its microscopic details to the thousand-year sweep of its plot. Expanding on this figure’s normative definition as an A-B-B-A arrangement of words, Quint elucidates a range of intertextual symmetries and reversals by which, in his argument, Vergil “double-crosses” his own epic. This grand unified theory seeks to interlink and explain the poem’s meaning, structure, and notorious “ambivalence”: the self-questioning tendencies that have prevented easy interpretation, and divided the poem’s readers, since its publication.

The argument is beautifully conceived and often brilliant in execution. In my favorite sections, Quint resurrects long-buried textual ancestors to show in new detail how they haunt Virgilian passages. In this trans-temporal vision, Aeneas becomes a “dark double” of his own worst Greek enemies, from Homer’s Achilles to Virgil’s own Pyrrhus. Conversely, the Homeric hero Sarpedon lends his literary genes to multiple warring combatants in Aeneid 10, underlining the division against a common good that would ultimately ruin the Republic and result in Augustus’ rise. Through such subtexts, Quint contends, Vergil continually undercuts his apparent meaning and message, weaving multiple perspectives into the very fabric of his text.

It’s this quality that divides critics between “optimists,” who emphasize the Aeneid’s support for the new regime, and “pessimists” who point out its riptides of resistance. Quint makes no bones about where he stands, and in my case, he’s preaching to the choir. Whenever I teach the Aeneid, I find myself chalking criss-crossed lines on the blackboard. Over the x-axis of history, Troy’s fall becomes Rome’s rise from the ashes, with the fates of Greece and Carthage cresting like sine curves in between. But as the Trojans’ fortunes bend upward, they turn into their former enemies and turn on their future friends. As glimpses of Rome’s sometime greatness flicker against the death and destruction it entails, Aeneas ends the epic with a spectacular lapse of self-control. Given his chimerical likeness to both Achilles and Augustus, it’s a grim reminder of how easily peace reverts to war and we replicate the mistakes of the past.

When teaching the poem in translation, I sometimes struggle to complicate students’ self-fulfilling expectations of “propaganda.” But the general patterns I’ve outlined above, now fleshed out in gorgeous detail by Double Cross, are familiar to most anyone who’s read and reread the Latin with an ear to its internal and intertextual echoes. As I read Quint’s latest work, I realize how much my chalk’s been guided all along by his Epic and Empire: Politics and Generic Form from Virgil to Milton (Princeton, 1993). This opus, a staple of many Classics Ph.D reading lists, argues that Aeneas’ circular, erroneous wanderings in the first half of the Aeneid mark the defeated Trojans’ position on the losing side of history. By the second half, as the Trojans gain a hand over history, their adventures assume an upward linear shape (though, in Vergil’s master stroke, they finally cut to black as Aeneas dispatches a suppliant enemy). This narrative bifurcation, Quint argues, shapes the anatomies and politics of epic plotlines from the Pharsalia to Paradise Lost.

Where Epic and Empire went wide, Double Cross goes deep, adding flesh, blood, even chromosomal analysis to the skeleton. At times I almost wished it included the transparent overlay sheets of an anatomical atlas, so richly layered and detailed are the intertexts it unfolds. I wonder how many readers over history had the random access memory, or access to books, to travel the more recondite of these interpretive routes. But Quint is more concerned for the patterns themselves, whose self-cancelling “crosses” he considers integral to Virgil’s artistic intentions. My one qualm on this marvelous journey is that it’s difficult to distinguish, textually or morally, between a poet who reflexively bites his own outward words and the one who lacks courage or conviction. Would Dante place Quint’s equivocal Virgil on the shores of Acheron, among the coward angels who refused to take sides? These double-crosses can’t ultimately bring Virgil’s soul back into the light. But they’ve left me profoundly appreciative of the poet’s artistry and Quint’s own intellectual aristeia on these pages.

Quint’s latest work, like rereading the epic itself, helps me measure how far I’ve grown since I first read an Aeneid already invisibly reshaped by him, in a life-changing undergraduate seminar taught by Gil Rose the semester before 9/11. You can imagine my terror when, years later as a young assistant professor, I was asked to join Quint in “co-leading” a Neubauer colloquium on epic at the University of Chicago. My palms were sweating as I went to meet him, only to be charmed and disarmed over what I remember as tea and madeleines.Though I had overprepared to speak and have never been known for my reticence, I leaned back for most of the workshop, blissfully content to watch a master at work. (“Thank you,” whispered a friend.)

I’ve been thinking since then about Classics’ value and future – a future that, if my own past is any indication, needs to cultivate comparative perspectives like Quint’s.

What captured my imagination when I first read Epic and Empire in the early 2000s was its range. Quint, who trained and teaches in Yale’s Comparative Literature department, shows how Virgilian genes express themselves and mutate over a long literary lineage. It’s this very lineage – the desire to better understand authors from Shakespeare to Joyce – that first made me enroll in Classics, almost on a whim, as a freshman at Swarthmore College. Little did I know I’d fall in love with Latin for its own sake, and find infinite space for adventure in the miniature garden of the Loeb Classical Library. So it felt like an intellectual homecoming when I got fellowships for a second BA in Classics and English at Oxford, and then a Renaissance English M.Phil at Cambridge. As my world and reading lists widened, I loved the modules that spanned the ages  – tracing pastoral, for instance, from Theocritus through Mantuan, Tasso, and Milton. While older friends staked out doctoral topics and started to dig, I gained an aerial view; like an aviatrix over the Serengeti, I could see the great migration of ideas on a grand scale. I noticed, too, that the tutors who switched most easily from zoom to panorama were the ones who learned longest ago. It didn’t matter if they taught Greek or Italian, if “Professor” or “Mr” prepended the name on their door: they knew Thackeray as well as Thucydides, and Vergil by heart. This, I thought, was what it meant to be educated.

This is what I missed when I migrated from my supernumerary degrees among the dreaming spires to a Classics Ph.D program beneath the redwoods. Any doctoral system entails a narrowing of worlds, and almost axiomatically rewards those who are best at putting on blinkers, setting plow to earth that nobody else has tried to cultivate. In seminars, we debated textual problems; at the Bear’s Lair, we worried about exams. In this hothouse, scholarship like Quint’s breathed a largior aether. It married diamond-sharp verbal analyses, of the sort I was learning to equate with classical scholarship, with a depth of conviction and historical scope that I found nowhere else on our list. Above all, it proved that scholarship was still allowed to matter: to keep in perspective the wide world beyond our Oxford Classical Texts, the grand sweep of history that’s all too easily buried amidst the footnotes.

I’m not too young to remember that big-picture, humanistic, comparative studies were once the gold standard of literary scholarship, and backed the value of Classics. On winter evenings back in the Radcliffe Camera, I used to devour them like Emma Bovary read novels: Anger’s Privilege, by Gordon Braden; Epic Romance, by Colin Burrow; The Light in Troy, by Quint’s own teacher Tom Greene. I learned as much from these books, and more that I still remember, than I did from many classical monographs that unpicked tinier textual clocks without ever knowing the time.

For better or worse, “education” isn’t what it used to be. It’s perfectly possible to graduate from high school, college, even Classics Ph.D programs without ever having read Dante or Milton. In graduate schools, scholarly journals, and job searches, the pressure toward specialization is mounting. My own department has ceded most of the so-called “classical tradition” to modern language departments. Many courses omit two thousand years of transmission and reception, cutting straight from antiquity to Game of Thrones. Like a Dublin pub after the smoking ban, “Western Civ” surveys now exude the stale aroma of content that kills. We worry our students can’t handle the reading load, the vast historical scope, the narrative and referential density. But the truth is that often, neither can we.

I don’t want to falsely nostalgize the “good old days” (often bad for everyone but those in charge) or underplay the pragmatic, often just reasons for changes to the course of study.  There are good reasons why “Great Books” courses have fallen out of fashion. Too often they favor white male authors, marginalize underrepresented perspectives, and imply that Western literature is inherently superior to all others. Old-fashioned concepts of “education,” with their connotations of “bettering” one’s self and learning from the past, sit uneasily with an age rightly wary of hierarchy and its abuses. We’ve all seen the ugly power dynamics behind the academy: the way it mistakes privilege for merit, excludes the voices it most needs to hear, congratulates itself on its liberalism as it continues to operate as an engine of racism and colonialism. Classics remains part of the problem, with its high barrier to entry for students of color, not to mention all lacking particular types of parental support and educational advantage. Our field’s historic complicity with racism and sexism refuses to remain in the past – as we saw recently with two well-publicized incidents at our flagship national conference.

But challenges to the “western canon” sometimes underestimate the profound dialogism, multiculturalism, and questioning of authority of writers like Virgil – qualities that we can best appreciate when we view them, as Quint insists, within their multigenerational families. As we narrow our lenses and our curricula, retreating into our own particular intellectual comfort zones, departmental cultures, or identity groups, we risk a great loss to our perception of continuity amid change; the shape of ideas as they weave through languages, cultures, and times; the threads that lead us out of the labyrinth.

Double Cross emerges from this gloom like Rilke’s archaic torso, telling us that we must change our lives. In the often insular world of Classics, Quint is a rare disciplinary “outsider” who not only matters to the field – he beats us at our own game. He also shows us how to keep on mattering: by preserving our attention to detail, our love of word, source, and form, but by asking questions that matter over the longue durée and beyond our office walls. The threads that connect us to other times, cultures, and disciplines are the same lifelines that bring new voices in.

Those of us working to double-cross Classics’ exclusionary and elitist legacy will find another reason for optimism in Quint’s work, a torch to bear onward as he prepares to retire from his long and distinguished career at Yale. In his analysis, Dido’s fatal hospitality toward Aeneas becomes a back-story for the reluctance to share power that rendered Carthage reliant on mercenaries. The Romans’ relative inclusiveness toward subjects and allies, by contrast, gave it an edge over rivals like Carthage and underpinned its “empire without end.” Juno’s persecution of the Trojans, Quint also observes, yields the compromise that would ironically result in Rome’s success. Her insistence that the victorious Trojans adopt the language and customs of those they conquered enshrines cultural openness at the very heart of Roman identity.

I hope against hope that the same may be true for Classics: that our discipline’s longstanding associations with colonialism and Eurocentrism may force tough conversations that ultimately result in greater inclusivity and justice. As a child of Indian immigrants, I came to Classics as a refugee: when I felt alien among my peers, when my own family seemed foreign, old books offered me a homeland and asylum. I hope they’ll do the same for many generations to come. But we can’t simply wait for students to wash up on our shores. We need to welcome them, guide through the labyrinth, help them see and map the grand designs that survive us all. In the latter regard especially, Quint’s book raises the bar and a beacon. I hope it will light our way, our lusus Troiae, as we bring our books back to a wider world. How else will they, and we, live on?

Nandini Pandey, Associate Professor of Classics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, is grateful for fellowship support from the American Council of Learned Societies for a new book project on diversity in Roman thought and practice. Her first, The Poetics of Power in Augustan Rome (Cambridge 2018), explores how poets from Virgil to Ovid shaped and critiqued the emperor’s public image. She writes regular think-pieces for Eidolon in addition to journal articles and conference papers and spends her spare time traveling, scuba diving, and mixing cocktails.