Friday, 6 April 2012

Gods and War

For one who prides himself on having read the best books in every genre, it’s quite humbling to set your own words in motion on a piece of paper. It's difficult, to say the least. I wouldn't have put in half the effort if the process itself hadn't been so exhilarating. 

Standing on the shoulders of giants is all fine but who's going to get you up that high?

Virgil might just have felt the same. He is best known for his epic The Aeneid, which is a stunning account of the life of the hero and legendary progenitor of Rome, Aeneas (ee-nee-uhs). Our hero is a son of Venus and one of the very few Trojans to have survived the battle of Troy. The epic is the story of his journey of exile from his beloved motherland to the alien shores of Latinum (Italy).

'I myself, a stranger, in want, and driven
From Europe and Asia, now wander these Libyan shores'

While writing his magnum opus Virgil was working under a number of peculiar constraints. For one, he would have known that he was living under the shadow of the undisputed master of the epic form - Homer. The other was the more dicey aspect of narrating the story out to Augustus Caesar. One wrong word and you could land up in a pit full of lions. As a result, you see several gratuitous overtures being made to the regent which somehow only enhance the appeal of the final work. 

Virgil’s masterly understanding of the human psyche is marvellous. Aeneas is all that a hero can be, or has ever been. Driven into exile and almost shipwrecked he lands up in Libya only to fall in love with the queen of Carthage, Dido. Virgil seems to take his cue from the Antony-Cleopatra affair and predictably, Dido commits suicide when Aeneas must leave to fulfill his destiny.

Ah, pitiless Love, to what shifts dost thou drive men's hearts!

The second part of the story deals principally with a war that Aeneas is fated to fight to win the right to marry princess Lavinia and attain true legitimacy over the kingdom of Latinum (It was always about the girl, wasn't it?).

The gods feature prominently in the story and therein lies the irony of life. The victor and the vanquished pray alike. No person is actually evil; they are all working for what they believe is right. Virgil invites us to smile at the tragedy of life, the fragility of divine inspiration and the "tension between the public voice of celebration and the tragic private voice." Greatness is achieved but at the cost of deep personal sorrow.

Go read the book for its simply awesome war scenes. Virgil effectively paints a combination of Troy, Ben Hur and the Ten Commandments through the power of his words. I knew the entire story before beginning the book and despite that, I was hooked. It’s powerful stuff. Especially the insults.

'Broidered all over, your hearts are set upon sloth,
You love to join in the dance; your tunics have sleeves,
And your caps are fastened with ribbons. You Phrygian women-
No Phrygian men are you- begone to the heights
Of Dindymus, up there where the twofold mouths of the pipe
Utter music to those who love those familiar strains.
The tambourines and Cybele's boxwood flute,
The notes of the Mother of Ida are calling to you;
Leave fighting to men; abandon to others the sword.'

Before I wind this, I'd like to point out something interesting. People talk about an invisible wall between what is known as the rigid western philosophy and the softer, more diffused sense of eastern consciousness.

The following lines seem to suggest otherwise.

Don't read it. It's not necessary. 

‘Firstly, a spirit within them nourishes the sky and earth,
the watery plains, the shining orb of the moon,
and Titan’s star, and Mind, flowing through matter,
vivifies the whole mass, and mingles with its vast frame.
From it come the species of man and beast, and winged lives,
and the monsters the sea contains beneath its marbled waves.
The power of those seeds is fiery, and their origin divine,
so long as harmful matter doesn’t impede them
and terrestrial bodies and mortal limbs don’t dull them.
Through those they fear and desire, and grieve and joy,
and enclosed in night and a dark dungeon, can’t see the light.
Why, when life leaves them at the final hour,
still all of the evil, all the plagues of the flesh, alas,
have not completely vanished, and many things, long hardened
deep within, must of necessity be ingrained, in strange ways.
So they are scourged by torments, and pay the price
for former sins: some are hung, stretched out,
to the hollow winds, the taint of wickedness is cleansed
for others in vast gulfs, or burned away with fire:
each spirit suffers its own: then we are sent
through wide Elysium, and we few stay in the joyous fields,
for a length of days, till the cycle of time,
complete, removes the hardened stain, and leaves
pure ethereal thought, and the brightness of natural air.
All these others the god calls in a great crowd to the river Lethe,
after they have turned the wheel for a thousand years,
so that, truly forgetting, they can revisit the vault above,
and begin with a desire to return to the flesh.’

P.S.- In the last post I forgot to add that the Tech Quiz at Gnosiomania, MNNIT was the first quiz I won after joining IITR. Our team consisted of Moh, Battula and yours truly. One fifth year with two facchas. Take that.


  1. You are writing reviews now, are you?
    Just for the record, if you had to estimate the number of books you have read what would you say?

  2. It's like I'm trying to put in everything that influences me, hopefully on a weekly basis. I don't intend to make this a review blog but yeah, you'll see the odd one crop up.

    To your second question let's just say I've been trying to index all the books I've read for years in vain. The count gets dirty very soon.

    I've also completed High Fidelity by Nick Hornby. Not my kind of book and definitely not as relatable as Fever Pitch although you have to give credit to the author's dry sense of humour.