The purpose of this paper is to use Hermann Broch’s great twentieth-century novel, The Death of Virgil (Steiner, 149; Lützeler, 1) in interpreting the Aeneid. Classicists are aware of the novel more through compendia of tradition or reception than for understanding Virgil’s work. Broch worked during upheavals on an imperial scale, as did Virgil. Broch’s Virgil questions his life’s work on both artistic and historical grounds. The novel’s difficult style creates perpetual suspension and contradiction, as does the epic. My experience of the novel has enhanced my reading of the Aeneid (Pogorzelski, 17).
Some people saw millennial significance in the early 1900’s, the turning of a new age (Heizmann, 188). Coincident with this period were the 2000-year anniversaries, in 1930 and 1937, of the births of Virgil and Augustus, poet and founder of the Roman Empire, also perceived in its time as a turning point (Farrell and Nelis, 4-5). For many, ancient Rome was inspiration, model, and justification. Others saw the moment and parallels more with apprehension than enthusiasm. Virgil was a touchstone for both perspectives (Cox, 327).
A novelist, theorist and activist, Broch inscribed Virgil’s place in this historical dynamic of fraught imperial vision. Begun in 1938 when Broch, age 52, was imprisoned by the Nazis during the Anschluss into Vienna, and published in 1945 when Broch was a refugee, the novel, in about 500 pages of hyper-Joycian prose, tracks Virgil’s last day of life. It begins as Virgil and Augustus arrive in Brindisi; in fevered hallucinations, Virgil agonizes on his life’s work, perhaps to destroy the Aeneid. The novel has been said to anticipate major strands of Virgil criticism, emphasizing the epic’s multiple voices, its moral ambiguities, and the poet’s artistic doubts (Thomas, 261; Cox, 335).
Broch, like Virgil, experienced war and the will to empire first-hand. The Roman Republic died and something new was born, for better or worse (Alston, 1). The Hapsburgs fell, and Hitler and Mussolini rose, questionably in the beginning for better or worse (Origo, 61-63). In those two historic collapses, traditional moorings collapsed as well, including confidence in what had seemed fixed truths—Roman republican values and methods; Enlightenment liberalism (Johnson 1976, 136; Schorski 141, 303). In their place were not only personal hardship or danger but also societal depravity in deed and word (Alston, 135-147). An artist’s choices about what to say or whether even to speak were viscerally pertinent, when others’ words were weapons with existential consequences.
Broch’s novel activates Virgil’s and his own historical and artistic crises with an immediacy surely driven by Broch’s own experience 2,000 years after Virgil. Broch’s non-classically Latinate prose has engaged me experientially with Virgil and his epic, the anguish of a serious soul questioning his work beyond the talent that the world adored and would use for its own purposes—for better or worse: “Nothing availed the poet, he could right no wrongs; he is needed only if he extols the world, never if he portrays it as it is. Only falsehood wins renown, not understanding! And could one assume that the Aeneid would be vouchsafed another or better influence? Oh yes, people would praise it because only the agreeable things would be abstracted from it, . . .there was neither danger nor hope that the exhortations would be heeded. . .” (Death of Virgil, 11-12, 15).
Broch took the novel form to its limits as Vergil did Homeric epic. How to represent a world upside down other than by upending language and form (Gruen, 395; Crawford , 138-153)? This novel barely tells a story; this poem so radically imitates its model as to enshrine and obliterate it in simultaneous contradiction (Johnson 1981, 52, 53; Lützeler 9). Artistic strangeness and the simultaneity of contrary views on reality and truth mark both times and both works (Thomas, 15). Broch’s novel has strengthened my reading of the Aeneid’s historical immediacy and artistic radicalism.