Friday 7 August 2009

Fiction of 2000 Years Ago: 3/3

This week, we’ve been interviewing classics scholar Alexandra Garcia-Mata about psychology and fiction in Roman literature. On Monday and Wednesday, she talked about Virgil’s Georgics; today, we hear about explorations of psychology in the Aeneid. (Spoiler warning: this interview will give away crucial information about the plot of the Aeneid - but it also makes a great case for joining a two thousand year old tradition of reading it, so go ahead!)

V: So tell us about psychology and fiction.

A: There was a recent Times editorial by someone who said, just for the hell of it, he was going to read the whole Aeneid; he saw great value in seeing the perspective of people 2000 years ago, and having just read the Aeneid in the original myself, I agree. The psychology of the whole culture is so different in some ways, and that’s what makes ancient literature so interesting – reading in any foreign language, I suppose – there’s just a whole different way of looking at things.

And in the Aeneid, they don’t look at psychology as such; it comes out in motivation, the reason people do things, more than anything else. And, of course, the big deal with Aeneas is his attempt to do what he feels is his duty, what he is told by the gods he must do. And out of his sense of piety – it’s known as pietas, which is more than just piety; it’s a very broad term which generally meant fidelity to duty and being responsible and being respectful of one’s elders, it was all that wrapped into it. He was torn, most famously, between his affair with Dido and his knowledge that his destiny – and they believed in destiny, the fates – was to continue on, and found Rome, a new homeland that was ultimately going to result in the Roman empire.

There’s character and emotion and depth in the Aeneidnot in the Georgics. Certainly the suffering of Dido is very real and psychologically true. I was really struck by the kind of self-delusion she went through trying to persuade herself that this was something other than it was. She had her vision of what she wanted their relationship to be, so she interpreted it based on that, and Aeneas is interpreting the relationship based on his destiny, so it’s something entirely different. It’s a typical thing that happens in god knows how many relationships between men and women; they discover they’re in completely different places!

There’s this famous scene in the Aeneid where they go out hunting and there’s a sudden storm and the party has to take shelter, and they’re separated from the rest of the group. And they’re in love and so what happens in the cave, naturally, is that they have sex. And the way it’s told is that you don’t know if she thinks this is something the gods have arranged, to create a marriage. And did the gods really do this – because the gods are real in the Aeneid – or is this just the way she’s justifying it to herself? And they spent the winter together, and for her, it was a real kind of marriage, and he was going to be her consort in Carthage happily ever after. But for him, it’s just a stopover, and eventually Jupiter has to send his messenger Mercury to Aeneas and say, it’s time to move along and get going. And he kind of wakes up from his dream, this little winter affair. For him, it’s just kind of time to move on, but for her, she's devastated. So I think those kinds of psychological interactions are very real.

R: And do the two discuss the others’ reactions?
A: Yes! It’s more like, 'how could you do this to me?!' And he says, 'well, I’m sorry, but it has to be like this.' And then she commits suicide… It’s very dramatic, for sure – but for her, she just despairs. She realizes that this great future she thought would make so much sense is not going to work for reasons she hasn't understood.

R: So what would you say to someone that maybe this is just kind of melodramatic and not a real human response?
A: Well there are people who do this; maybe it’s extreme. But the story has persisted for two thousand years; I assume it wouldn’t have persisted if it didn't still have applicability. The theme may not be universal, but it’s close to it.

V: I think it’s interesting how this represents a kind of theory of mind moment, where Aeneas and Dido realize that their representations of the future had been different, and that they've been operating on false or misunderstood premises based on extrapolations from the same situation.
A: Dido didn’t realize the more specific requirements that the gods had laid on Aeneas, and that it had to be Italy. This was written for Romans, all about the way that their nation had become great. This was all written with an eye toward buttering people up.
R: So do you think the lesson was about relationships, or politics?
A: I think it was both.
V: And aren’t those the same?
A: I think underlying it all is a slightly different psychology from our own, involving the understanding that there really is destiny, there really is fate, and things have been decided.

V: Some people argue that motive and emotion are represented in an only two dimensional way in this very old literature, and that the gods function kind of as a way to outsource emotion, because they weren't representing people experiencing emotions. And for all we know, people themselves may have thought about the gods as the experience of emotion; it might not only have been a literary metaphor.

A: I think for sophisticated writers like Virgil, that was just a way of expressing it. Did people really lay on the gods emotions they were experiencing? I’ve read things that suggest that people did, and that people weren’t aware, because they fully believed in the gods, that they were projecting on the gods. So in some ways, this might be right. How else could these religions have persisted?

And even though it took a dream, Mercury appearing in a dream and saying to Aeneas, 'hey, it’s time to move on,' we all have dreams, bringing to our attention things to which we have not been attending. We don’t have dreams about Mercury bringing messages from Jupiter, but nonetheless we do have dreams about things that have been on our minds that we don’t want to think about, and bring our attention to them.

R: Did Virgil talk about what these people were thinking and feeling?
A: You have to know by their actions. Sometimes there are dreams. The second half of the Aeneid is all about the battle when the Trojans have arrived and they have to fight to establish their right to be there. And Aeneas is engaged to a princess who was unfortunately engaged to someone else who takes this amiss, understandably. There is a time where he appears to be kind of scared, and he runs away, and it’s not clear whether he runs away because he's afraid or for some other reason -- and he has a sister who tries to protect him and tries to lead him away from the battle and she talks about how she can’t bear to have him killed in battle. And he feels he’s been too cowardly, and allowed her to let him indulge his fear -- so this is definitely talking about his emotions. (Even emotions about emotions.)

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