The Death of Virgil
by Hermann Broch
1976; Pantheon Books
‘what goal is it that you seek?’
This is the question Caesar Augustus puts to his dying friend, the poet, Virgil. This goal— which is the justification for Virgil’s desire to burn his epic poem the Aeneid, an act which Augustus not only does not comprehend, but regards as criminal, is the focus of a confrontation between an emperor and a dying poet, and is the heart of Hermann Broch’s epic prose-poem, and masterwork, The Death of Virgil.
Concerned about a rumour that the dying Virgil desires to burn his poem, the Aeneid, Augustus pays him a visit during which he wishes to take possession of the poem, in the name of the Roman people, to preserve what is and has been. In addition, he wishes to understand why Virgil intends to burn his masterpiece. To understand the position of Virgil, to situate the goal of Virgil’s striving in relation to the civic duty to which Augustus relegates it one must adopt a conception of art that is opposed to truth, in such a way that art will always be insufficient when its goal is truth. In such a schema, one can imagine three classes of insufficiency, or failure, regarding a work of art:
i) successful failure describes the situation where the goal of a work of art is successfully attained, but the work that remains is insufficient to express this;
ii) common failure describes the situation where the goal of a work of art is not attained, and the work of art that remains is insufficient to express the unattainable goal;
iii) absolute failure is a form of technical success where the goal of a work of art is attained and the work of art that remains is sufficient to express this goal.
Successful failure and common failure are the domains of sincere artists, which is to say, they are largey uninhabited. Conversely, absolute failure is a comfortable and popular retreat; it is regarded as success, and often seems like a success as long as one does not regard such a work, which is wholly concerned with practical goals, in relation to a work that manifests successful failure. For those who cannot bear the unattainable, they will seek shelter with ‘the divinity of beauty, which is only a sham-beauty’. For Virgil, the predictable striving of the ‘death-herd of concurrent identities’ will never find themselves on the other side of a poem because they refuse to admit such a thing exists. The temptation to stop at what is attainable will forever separate the technician, the decorator, from the sincere artist. In answer to the question, ‘what goal is it that you seek?’, Virgil, pointing to the poem, his poem, which is the only goal Augustus can understand, proclaims, not that, ‘it is in my way’. And so, Virgil wishes to destroy his poem.
‘He who praised a verse as such, without troubling about the reality of its meaning, confused the thing created with the thing which creates, became consciously or unconsciously guilty of the perjury which denies or destroys reality’.
poem: n; 49. The poem, at its best, reveals to you how far you have fallen... how far you still must travel... for most, perhaps all, this is the most unbearable necessary knowledge. (A Personal Dictionary)
This is of course a vision of pure art, or pure poetry, and such a conception is almost always dismissed for its impracticability. But impracticability is no argument against its truth.
incoherency: n; It is in those moments when all becomes clear, when inexplicables converge into a seemingly common purpose, that a writer, a thinker, betrays the ability and the will to honestly and coherently engage the insoluble incoherencies of being alive. (A Personal Dictionary)
The status of a work of art is the subject of the argument between Augustus and Virgil. For Augustus, the resultant work is the goal, ‘one can judge [only] what remains’, all else is of no consequence, and to strive for such a thing is an abdication of one’s duty. And duty is precisely the limit of the Augustan approach to a work of art. He cannot and will not go further. However, as is often forgotten, as is often denied, "in the world one cannot create by obedience alone" (N. Berdyaev).
For Augustus, the artist brings form from formlessness, as exemplified in a sculpture. However, for Virgil, this ideal is precisely the problem. If the ideal of a sculpture is accepted, one would have to continue, via the so-called finished figure, sculpting it until nothing remains. In other words, the figure is a means to achieve this total sculpture, or nothingness. For Virgil, the works that remain, all the results of artistic production, ‘where the beautiful is substituted for truth’, are problematic. They obscure what is not evident; the finished veils the unfinished. Furthermore, in the universe of finished works (including works in progress) we become prejudiced in the midst of so much being and assume that there is nothing more. And so, bound to duties that grudgingly tolerate us, we habituate ourselves, ‘the speech-robbed non-solidarity of unrelated beings’, within an empire of cruel temporality dedicated to the unrelenting industrial glorifications of evil endlessness. For Augustus, such an empire can only be crowned with glory; for Virgil, ‘a world full of deeds yet empty of perception’, is one that must be traversed.
Virgil (or, Broch’s Virgil) is a committed adherent to the aforementioned successful failure. He experiences, and pursues, the ‘not quite here but yet at hand’. The poem can lead to truth, but it cannot arrive. His torment is the torment of all those who seek the moment when ‘the universe, [is] dissolved and acquitted in the word’.
insufficiency: n; 1. Even if a poem, or the compulsion towards poetry, is an intellectual apex, it nevertheless always reveals the insufficiency of our minds in the presence of those forces and experiences which provoked the poetic response. 2. The fact that most people are incapable of bearing true freedom and are so resolute in their ability to withstand the temptation of freedom does not mean they should be deprived of the opportunity experiencing their insufficiency. 3. All that we do, no matter how well, or how thoroughly, is insufficient. And so, we must go further.(A Personal Dictionary)
And so, to the question ‘what goal is it that you seek?’, Virgil does have an answer— one whose unacceptability to Augustus is a measure of its sincerity— ‘to understand death’. It is that second immensity, that truth that stands only on the far shore, which is his goal, and which is the proper goal of all art. And to reach this shore, to be able to perceive the truth that reigns there, the vessel can only be sacrifice. The poem can herald the truth, but it cannot survive it.
‘To include all life within yourself and to be excluded from all life’— such is the poet’s glory, and such is the extent of his sacrifice.
In the end, Augustus leaves in possession of the Aeneid. Successful in saving the manuscript from the flames, his victory was not a result of superior arguments, nor due to the weariness of a dying opponent. For Virgil, to consign his creation to the flames, or to deliver it to a people who will never understand the goal for which he was willing to perform such a sacrifice, is to consign it to equivalent obscurities. ‘Creation is more than form, creation is resolution’— and it is such a resolution which art attempts to communicate, and which, almost always and everywhere, it fails to do... almost.
incommunicability: n; The essential truth that every writer discovers is something that most writers refuse to accept. And of all writers it is only a poet who is most likely to grant this truth the respect it deserves, as it is also only a poet who will be able to live with and work with it. This truth, to those who do not wish to acknowledge it, or who wish to run away from it, is a threat— the most important aspect of a person, of a life, resides in its incommunicability. (A Personal Dictionary)