Is That Original?

In my last couple of posts I’ve been talking about allusions, their virtues and vices, and I thought I would continue that discussion for another post or two. Allusions are only part of the story, however. They are part of a field of related literary phenomena, including also direct references, imitation, influence, and outright plagiarism. All these are related to what some post-modernists call intertextuality, though different theorists have different accounts of what intertextuality means. For now I’m interested in deliberate echoes and allusions and imitations, how they work and what they can mean.

In my previous post I suggested that allusions can select or exclude readers. That’s kind of a negative view of allusions, and it certainly doesn’t tell the whole story. A writer may well live in a fairly homogenous literary culture, in which almost everyone has read certain canonical works. Vergil, for instance, could confidently assume that the readers of the Aeneid would have read Homer’s epics, so when he imitates Homer he’s not marking off a special group of people in the know. He certainly wasn’t trying to pull the wool over anyone’s eyes. The effects he wanted work best if the reader does know the allusions.

Here’s an example, one of many. In Book Eleven of the Odyssey, Odysseus takes a trip to the Land of the Dead. Various things happen there; I will look at three incidents from the episode. When Odysseus arrives in the land of the dead, he meets the soul of his mother Antikleia, who tells him about his wife Penelope, his son Telemachus, and his father Laertes. Three times Odysseus tries to embrace his mother and three times his arms slip through her, because she is now only a shade (Od.11.150–225). While he is talking to her, he sees a pageant of heroines, a parade of the souls of the wives and mothers of some of the great heroes of myth, including Tyro, Antiope, Alkmene, Epikaste, Chloris, Leda, Iphimedeia, Phaidra, Prokris, and so on. (Some of these are not so well known now, but all of them would have been known to the original audience of the poem.) The whole passage takes about a hundred lines (Od.11.225–327). One of functions of this passage, I would suggest, is to place Odysseus in the heroic tradition. It’s a kind of allusion in itself, but an allusion to a tradition rather than to a single work. He meets a number of other souls, including the soul of Agamemnon, the soul of Achilles, and the soul of Aias (Ajax). After the death of Achilles, the Greeks held a contest to determine who should get Achilles’ arms; Aias lost to Odysseus and killed himself from shame. Aias now holds back and refuses to meet Odysseus. “Aias,” Odysseus says, “son of stately Telemon, could you then / never even in death forget your anger against me, because of / that accursed armor?” Aias turns without a word and walks away. (Od.11.541–565).

Vergil recomposes each of these three incidents in Book Six of the Aeneid, when Aeneas also makes a trip to the Land of the Dead; each recomposition is significantly different from its original. One of the first people Aeneas meets in the Land of the Dead is Dido, the Queen of Carthage, his lover, whom he had deserted to continue his fateful quest for a new home. At the end of Book Four she kills herself in despair. Aeneas appeals to her soul for understanding and forgiveness, but she turns away from him without speaking. (Aen.6.450–475). This moment is clearly based on the meeting of Odysseus with the shade of Aias. We can note several differences. Aias is a man; Dido is a woman. Aias hates Odysseus because his pride as a solider has been wounded; Dido hates Aeneas because her love for him has been scorned. The conflict between Aias and Odysseus has no real consequences beyond the death of Aias; the conflict between Dido and Aeneas is (in Vergil’s imagination) one of the sources of the great conflict between Carthage and Rome. (As a footnote, before the introduction of Dido at line 450, Aeneas sees a few heroines from myth; this passage refers to the pageant of the heroines in the Odyssey, but it’s just five or six lines, and I would argue that there’s a more significant recomposition of the pageant later on, which I will discuss in a moment.)

A little later, Aeneas meets the soul of his father Anchises—not his mother, the immortal goddess Venus, who hardly could be in the land of the dead. Three times Aeneas tries to embrace his father, and three times his arms slip through his father’s shade (Aen.6.699–701). Again we notice the change in gender: Odysseus meets his mother, Aeneas meets his father.

Aeneas has a long conversation with Anchises about various subjects, including the metaphysics of the Land of the Dead and reincarnation. Then Anchises shows his son a group of souls waiting to be reincarnated. This long passage (Aen.6.755–890), I believe, is the real counterpart to the pageant of heroines in the Odyssey. But the pageant in the Odyssey is a parade of heroines of the mythic past, whereas this pageant is a parade of heroes of the historical future. Once again there is a shift in gender. The list is a little jumbled, but it covers the kings of Italian and Roman history, from Aeneas’ own son Silvius (line 762) and the kings following him; then Romulus (line 777); then, a little out of order, Julius Caesar and Augustus (lines 789–807); then back to some of the kings; then the first Brutus, who expelled the last king, Tarquin the Proud, and established the Republic (lines 818–823); and so on, down to a last sad figure, who turns out to be Marcellus, the nephew and intended heir of Augustus, who died at the age of 19 in 23 BC, not long before Vergil finished writing the poem (lines 863–886). There’s a story that when Livinia, Augustus’ wife, heard these lines she burst into tears.

Each passage, each allusion, has to be interpreted in more than one way. It has to be interpreted on its own, and it also has to be interpreted as part of a pattern of allusions throughout the Aeneid. The meaning of any particular allusion in a way sits in between the two passages involved, the original passage and the allusive passage. A new meaning is created by the interaction of the two passages. The meeting of Dido and Aeneas takes part of its meaning from the contrast between the two situations. If the Odyssey had been lost and we had no knowledge of the meeting of Odysseus and Aias, the meeting of Dido and Aeneas in the Aeneid would still have meaning; but because we know about meeting of Odysseus and Aias, it has a different meaning. And in a funny way, the allusion in the Aeneid changes our understanding of the meeting in the Odyssey. We have to be careful here—we don’t want to lose our sense of what Homer was up to originally, but we can perhaps retain the original meaning and the meaning as it is modified by later literary history.

 But there’s not just one allusion to Homer in the Aeneid, or two or three; there are hundreds of them. Vergil, I would say, is making a claim about how literature works, or at least how his epic works. This poem is not a stand-alone work of art; it exists and takes its existence from its relationship to prior works of art, in particular the Homeric epics.

We can contrast two different aesthetic attitudes, which for convenience we can call the Romantic and the Classic. The Romantic attitude, which is the usual modern view of art, takes each work as individual and original. We say that something is original if it’s not a copy of something else. We praise a work of art for its originality. The Classical attitude, on the other hand, assumes that every work of art derives from earlier works of art and makes its meaning in relation to these earlier works. The technical term for this kind of derivation is aemulatio or emulation. The goal of emulation is not just to copy the original, but in some way to surpass it. The web of allusions in the Aeneid manifests the Classical theory of aesthetics, emulation, and we can be sure that Vergil was trying to outdo Homer. I suspect that working artists, even the most Romantic, have always known that they were building with traditional materials.

I will close this post with a little bibliography, three books which have influenced my own thinking about allusions and imitations. The first is Creative Imitation and Latin Literature, by D. West and T. Woodman (Cambridge, 1979); the second is The Rhetoric of Imitation, by J. B. Conte (Cornell, 1986); and the third is The Light in Troy: Imitation and Discovery in Renaissance Poetry, by Thomas M. Greene (Yale, 1982).

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s