Virgil, Dido, Restless Love

 

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The Death of Dido by German painter Heinrich Friedrich Füge

What can I say about Virgil’s The Aeneid, other than to express how insanely jealous I am of his sweeping, lyrical, beautiful sentences? I adored every moment; it held my attention all the way through, like a good song. My heart thump-thump-thumps at his rhythm, alliteration, and utterly unique descriptions. I have the biggest writer-crush on Virgil and the biggest translator-crush on Robert Fitzgerald.

I’ll just highlight a few of my favorite passages:

“The queen, for her part, all that evening ached/With longing that her heart’s blood fed/a wound/Or inward fire eating her away./The manhood of the man, his pride of birth/Came home to her time and again; his looks,/His words remained with her to haunt her mind,/And desire for him gave her no rest” (653).

Dido is obsessive and irrational, but this description of her inner turmoil is so pure! Love can be as restless and unpleasant as it is wonderful, and Virgil gets at the heart of that.

“On a white shining heifer, between the horns,/Or gravely in the shadow of the gods/opulent altars. Through the day/She brings new gifts/and when the breasts are opened/Pores over organs, living still, for signs./Alas, what darkened minds have soothsayers!/What good are shrines and vows to maddened lovers?/The inward fire eats the soft marrow away,/And the internal wound bleeds on in silence” (655).

I do not recall the last time I read a more beautiful passage. I have returned to this so many times. This captures how we look for signs, obsessively, unconsciously sometimes; but in the end, what good are shrines and vows to maddened lovers? In the end, it’s all us – but we seek divinity in everything, and I definitely see a commentary on this in Virgil’s writing.

Dawn came up meanwhile from the Ocean stream/And in the early sunshine from the gates/Picked huntsmen issues: wide-meshed nets and snares,/Broad spearheads for big game, Massylian horsemen/Trooping with hounds in packs keen on the scent” (657).

Lasty, I just love Virgil’s simple, descriptive, elegant scene-building; It reminds me a lot of Homer. I love the attention to nature and natural elements, and the way he gives an overview of the scene-at-large before zeroing in on a specific character. A classmate, Louise, describes this as a “zoom lens” technique. Insanely gorgeous.

I need to get my hands on the complete Aeneid and read it as soon as I possibly can.

 

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In Santa Croce with No Baedeker

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I didn’t know what a Baedeker was prior to reading E.M. Forster’s A Room with a View. A quick Wikipedia hunt filled me in. This travel guide, filled with maps and insights about routes, attractions, buildings, seems to have been almost as relied-upon by Forster’s uppity British tourists as today’s tourists rely on their smartphones:

     ” ‘I will take you by a dear dirty back way, Miss Honeychurch, and if you bring me luck, we shall have an adventure.’                                                                                                            Lucy said this was most kind, and at once opened the Baedeker, to see where Santa Croce was.                                                                                                                                                       ‘Tut, tut! Miss Lucy! I hope we shall soon emancipate you from Baedeker. He does but touch the surface of things. As to the true Italy – he does not even dream of it. The true Italy is only to be found by patient observation’ ” (19).

Here (and throughout most of the novel), Lucy is the embodiment of the worst kind of tourist; the kind that the Italians really must despise. She sets out to experience Italy in the most pre-formed, unoriginal fashion imaginable. In modern terms, she would be the type of tourist to Instagram and hashtag her way through Europe, taking in the Vatican and vineyards through a tiny lit camera screen. But who can blame her? She is under the influence of her fellow rich, British tourist peers, all of whom want to experience Italy as if from a room with a view, with zero immersion or contact with the locals. Her reliance on the Baedeker conveys all of this – and Miss Lavish, who wants to free Lucy from the Baedeker, conveys  a kind of counter-tourism: one that at least seeks the “true Italy,” or, one that favors adventure and mistakes and getting lost over being reliant on maps and guides.

I’m wondering about my own trip, my own travel-group: can we integrate some of Miss Lavish’s ideas about experiencing a foreign city – or can we at least find a balance? We will obviously be on a tight schedule, with many of our activities pre-thought out. But in our down time, can we bring ourselves to turn away from our screens, from the advice that anyone-and-everyone has given us about traveling abroad? Can we be okay making a few of our own mistakes and taking a few of our own detours? Is this really the way to experience the “true Italy?”

The Art of Travel; The Art of Travel-Thoughts

“projects (and even whole lives) might be influenced by the simplest and most unexamined images of happiness”
Of everything I’ve read thus far in preparation for studying abroad in Europe, nothing has struck me in quite such a particular, resonate way as Alain de Botton’s The Art of Travel. As I pass through desert-city after desert-city, dinky hotel after dinky hotel, and spend grueling days cramped in the car, I think often of De Botton’s insights on travel and how it gives way to such uninhibited thought:

“On a journey across flat country, I think with a rare lack of inhibition about the death of my father, about an essay I am writing on Stendhal and about a mistrust that has arisen between two friends. Every time my mind goes blank, having hit on a difficult idea, the flow of consciousness is assisted by the possibility of looking out the window, locking on to object and following it for a few seconds, until a new coil of thought is ready to form and can unravel without pressure” (56).

What is unspoken here is that in daily life our thoughts are constrained, coiled, and inhibited in such a habitual way that we don’t notice it. I’ve been on enough trips to recognize what de Botton is talking about, though it takes on a super specific pattern for me: I have to fight and fight and fight that feeling that I should be doing something else. That I should be at work, that I need to email someone, check my bank account, or hundreds of other mundane, adulty tasks. This lasts for a day or two and then my swirling, ungrounded thoughts manifest as anxieties (I have to find a health-food store, I can’t eat one more french fry, I’m not getting any exercise, what if this sunburn leads to skin cancer, I should be researching grad schools, what am I doing with my life…the usual). My real, valuable, unadulterated thoughts are still coiled – nowhere near ready to unravel like de Botton’s.

But then there’s a moment when it happens – a moment when I’m looking out the window at vast acres of sage brush and tree-less hills, truck stops and cartoon clouds, unreal across the open sky-and I have to set pen to paper. I write for pages and pages and I know what de Botton means; the pressure is lifted. It’s juxtaposition; difference. It’s like trying to write to the same playlist and getting nowhere, and then listening to something you’ve never heard and feeling your fingertips buzzing suddenly with words. I will never not love my sappy, pine-tree laden, bookstore-and-coffee-shop-centric home, but there is something to be said for breaking the monotony and uncoiling those thoughts that get buried by routine and sameness.

“It is not necessarily at home that we best encounter our true selves” (56).

On Malory and Modes of Transport


While my brain is on Arthur and Lucius, London and Rome, and Thomas Malory, my body is firmly stationed in the middle row of my family’s Honda minivan. I am just about a week into a two-week Southwestern road trip – visiting family and hitting up all of the quintessential American attractions (Disneyland, Grand Canyon).  It has been a swell time, if claustrophobic – but I am practicing patience and the art of traveling with others; the art of centering the self within the group, of locating the self through travel and movement.

I can’t help but fast forward to a little over a month from now, when I will be embarking for Europe for the first time. As I skim through Malory’s Le Morte Darthur for maybe the fifth time, I think about travel and the self in relation to Arthur’s journey to re-claim Rome. I think about modes of transport and their narrative significance – how Arthur begins his journey at sea, moves to horseback, and then as he takes a detour to slay a giant in Genoa, it is said that he and his men “alit on foot.” 

Like any serious student of English lit, I tried pulling Arthur’s sword from the stone at Disneyland

This to me signifies a shift to a more intimate relationship with one’s surroundings. Arthur evolves from a king in a grandiose ship cabin, accompanied by horses and men, to a man who demounts and subsequently tells a villager “I am come from the conqueror Sir Arthur”…concealing his identity so that he may act from a place of unadulterated valor, and not draw attention to his status.

Indeed, there is something inconspicuous about traveling on foot. I think the juxtaposition between American travel – the “family drive experience,” where we drive hundreds of miles to look at a view – and the European experience of walking the bones of a city until you know what makes it tick – is fascinating. I think of myself perhaps demounting in Europe, like Arthur – not wanting to draw attention, never wanting to signal myself out as American, seeking camouflage and immersion. Modes of transport hold such personal significance, too – they shape in such profound ways the fibers of our travel-selves. Malory knew this.

But for now, I shall enjoy every minute of this all-American road trip, fueled by gasoline and trail mix and car playlists and lots of heart. 

An Introduction

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Dwelling in the space between introversion and extroversion — getting some reading done during down time at a concert.

 

“Wine and Wallflowers” was directly stolen from my friend Audrey, after a text conversation while I was at a poetry reading a few nights ago. I had gone to support a friend who was reading, and had assumed there would be others there I knew – but upon walking in I see no one familiar and immediately feel tense discomfort creeping from shoulders to chest, closing in. I slip into a seat in the back row and text Audrey – who wanted to attend but couldn’t – and say “There are zero familiar people here!”

Audrey texts me back immediately: “Be an observer. I find that when I feel odd in social spaces I like to become a wallflower…makes for interesting writing my little nonfictioner!” This is true and I know I will have much to observe in this crowd of  literary hipsters in their best summertime thrift store duds, but as I scan a sea of cat dresses and oversize glasses my eyes latch onto a bottle of wine on the counter behind me.

I text Audrey back and say “Haha so true! Also wine.” As in, wine will get me through this. I know I won’t have more than one plastic cup filled halfway, but just having something in my hand alleviates 80% of my awkwardness, and the buzz makes up the other 20%. I look down at my phone and see Audrey has texted, “Wine and wallflowers.”

After trying to brainstorm a title for my blog for a few days, this clicks instantly. I realize the risk of sounding like an alcoholic, when in reality I’m a miserable lightweight who pretty much only drinks wine socially. But I’m a sucker for alliteration, and besides that, it encompasses something at the heart of what I want to get out of my trip to London and Rome this September. Wine stands in for culture, for the way I’ll experience these locations via what I’m consuming, for something social, fun, free, if all a bit cliched and tourist-y. The wallflower experience is one of introspection, which I’ve decided is a pretty important component after reading Alain de Botton’s essay “The Art of Travel.” I want to dwell in the intersection between interior and exterior, between something social and something inward-facing. Seeing as I’ll be traveling with a group of people I love beyond words, I want to experience the locales as a unit – I want us to shape and inform one another’s experience because I know we’ll each bring something indispensable. At the same time, I want to get at what de Botton describes here – a beautiful depiction of the wallflower experience as one of growth, expansion, and existentialism:

     Every time my mind goes blank, having hit on a difficult idea, the flow of consciousness is assisted by the possibility of looking out the
window, locking on to object and following it for a few seconds, until a new coil of thought is ready to form and can unravel without pressure. 
     At the end of hours of train-dreaming, we may feel we have been returned to ourselves-that is, brought back into contact with emotions and ideas of importance to us. It is not necessarily at home that we best encounter our true selves.
Here’s to wine and wallflowers and the quest for balance between the two.