The Death of Virgil by Hermann Broch narrates the last 24 hours of the poet Virgil from his point of view. There is some action: he arrives by ship at Brindisi; is carried on a litter through crowded streets to a room in Augustus’ palace; he watches some low-life violence that goes on in the courtyard; he converses with real people, with his patron the emperor, and with some friends. But at all times he is slipping into and among levels of delirium. His delirious mind struggles to comprehend nothing less than the nature of things. The succession of images reminded me at times of Burroughs' fantastic nightmare-scapes. At times it is dark, horrifying, and despairing, but at other times, convivial, lyric, exalted. The images and delving-upclambering quality reminded me also the second part of Goethe’s Faust, where Goethe and his character are exploring the roots of being.
The text is heavy with compound words that embody paradoxes like ‘delving-upclambering’. I assume this reflects the German, with its readiness to compound words. In trying to write about it such words infect my prose.
We know surprisingly little about the life of Virgil, but one tale that comes down semi officially from antiquity is that before his death he wanted to burn his great and, at one time, immensely influential poem, The Aeneid, because he had not perfectly completed it. Lines do remain here and there in The Aeneid that seem to be unfinished. Broch renders the dying writer preoccupied with the decision to burn or not to burn, though the reason Broch’s character longs to destroy his work is that art is inadequate not so much to portray life, as to embody it, to be a satisfactory response to it.
The dreadfilled imagery, a sort of dark night of being, in The Death of Virgil tends to be associated with crowds and the madness of humankind en masse. Not surprising for a Jew who lived in Austria under the Nazis and began the work in a concentration camp.
But the real struggle for Broch/Virgil is to imagine the unity of not only being, but being with non-being, time with timelessness, mortality with immortality, etc. In that way it seems to me like a deliriously imaginative amplification of Plato’s dialogue The Parmenides, in which Parmenides methodically explores the consequences of assuming on the one hand the fundamental diversity of things and on the other hand their fundamental unity.
I should say that ‘being’ here is as philosophers have conceived it, as it can be investigated by reason and imagination. It is not the world of chemistry, quantum physics or quarks and strings, which is investigated with technological hardware and abstract math. The math usually seems to the uninitiated (such as me) barely intelligible. Being in Broch tends to present itself as a moiling, contrasting, coruscating proliferation and unification, of images and concepts that make for rewarding but slow reading. George Steiner suggested that the book should be read, like Ulysses, in the 24 hours of its own time, but that the reader would have to undergo training to perform that feat. It is daunting to consider what that training might be.
Nothing I have written makes me think I’ve told you why reading this book is so rewarding, why finishing it gives such a sense of accomplishment and completion. I don’t sing, but I imagine reading this book is like successfully singing a powerful but difficult choral work.