What Has Math to Do With Poetry? Maybe a Lot!

Some day before I die, I hope to publish my notes about Virgil’s Aeneid. I’m pretty sure that I have uncovered the map to a “subterranean allegory” that runs against the grain of the epic’s superficial, dully propagandistic objectives (the pursuit of which was the basis of the poet’s being commissioned to write the work, in the first place). I am even more sure, however, that the academic establishment will never accept my ideas and that no university press would ever publish them. In academe, “scholars” in the humanities prop each other up endlessly, without much regard for the unconditioned truth (whose very existence most deny in any form). All I have going for me is that my interpretations actually explain dark tinges in the Aeneid that otherwise make no sense, or that must be ascribed to authorial incompetence. The “scholars” will allow Virgil to say nothing that one of his contemporaries would not have said or that one of his predecessors had not already said. They’ve built their entire method on history—and no outsider would be as steeped as they in the historical minutiae of ancient literature, so the game is essentially “members only”. In contrast, my method is to found interpretation upon intratextual coherence. If a symbol with a certain twist gives greater meaning to the entire narrative when traced from start to finish, then the high probability is that the author intended it to have that meaning. A monkey might type “The Old Man and the Sea” once in a blue moon; but a rational person will have to admit that a perspective repeatedly successful at resolving controversial points in a literary text is probably the author’s intended perspective for his or her deepest readers.

“Scholars”, however, are rational only in the space left over after the performance of their tribal duties. The important thing for literary scholars is to insulate their practice from profane intrusion and, indeed, to make that practice so arcane that only the elite can publish and advance their careers. Devotion to the literary art lies cut and bleeding in the ruins of professional egotism.

Here’s an example of a passage in the Aeneid that struck me just last night as readily clarified by the analysis of recurrent, coherent motifs. Aeneas receives a prophecy from the virtuous Arcadians in Book 8 that promises more fighting and bloodshed. All around him are dismayed at the prospect, and he himself is briefly bemused; but then a trumpet-like thunder sounds that all interpret as a propitious omen. In fact, Aeneas recognizes in the supernatural heavenly peal a confirmation from his ever-protective mother Venus: a very odd reading on his part, since the thunderbolt belongs to Zeus throughout Homer. Yet Virgil’s Jupiter is a far cry from the supreme god who manages mortal destinies. His Olympian father seems, rather, an abstracted bungler who amuses himself with grandiose schemes but never bothers about the details. When Venus protests to him at the epic’s opening that his vengeful spouse Juno has almost sunk the Trojan fleet (and would have done, but for the intercession of Neptune, himself roused only because his wet turf has been invaded), Jupiter responds with promises and more promises about a gilded future—about an “empire without end”. Venus knows just what to make of that: she immediately hastens to Carthage in order to weave her own impromptu safety net for Aeneas (which involves, unfortunately, the sacrifice of the unhappy Dido).

At the epic’s end, Jupiter goes so far as to give away most of the transplanted Trojans’ culture—their gods, their language, the preservation of their race from inter-marriage—by conceding one point after another to the ever implacable Juno. His initial forecasts and solemn promises to the wandering tribe lie in smithereens.

Hence the confirming thunderclap in Book 8 that reassures Aeneas, having issued from Venus’s rather than Jupiter’s hand, is correctly read by the hero as a guarantee that he will survive the impending war and overcome the aggressors; yet it is no more than a short-term assurance, not a road to heaven paved in Jovian fool’s gold. Jupiter, who should have been the author of the thundering (as the astute in Virgil’s audience would realize), doesn’t mingle his feckless guarantees in this scene. Instead, he is invoked by old Evander in the ensuing one. About to send his beloved only son away to fight alongside the prophetically celebrated stranger, the trembling king beseeches Jupiter either that young Pallas may return safely or that he himself may die before hearing of his boy’s loss. Neither of these humble requests is granted. Jupiter isn’t grudging or invidious: here, as throughout the Aeneid, he just isn’t taking calls. He’s busy playing in the blueprints with which he strews his Olympian tables.

There is a kind of mathematical precision involved in interpreting texts by indexing their motions to hidden clues within their own narration. Like an equation, the correctly interpreted story balances itself out using values that can be derived from the initially given quantities. Is it pure accident that our collective ability to handle literature with taste and subtlety has declined hand in hand with our mathematical skills? Whether the stuffy classicist with his suffocating layers of history or the cutting-edge neo-feminist with her suffocating layers of ideology, the contemporary “scholar” of literature imports criteria from outside the created text and proceeds, like the mythic Procrustes, to make the prisoner fit the bed by hacking away long limbs or racking and stretching short ones. The art work must be made to validate the ideology, the party line: the latter never gives ground to the former. This is like the arithmetic of the barbarian who, when asked to divide plunder equally among an awkward number of fellow pirates, throws overboard the one who buggers up his counting every time. It’s not the way to balance a checking account… and it’s also not the way to handle a literary classic ingeniously composed under oppressive political conditions.


Author: nilnoviblog

I hold a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature (Latin/Greek) but have not navigated academe very successfully for the past thirty years. This is owed partly to my non-PC place of origin (Texas), but probably more to my conviction--along with the ancients--that human nature is immutable, and my further conviction--along with Stoics and true Christians-- that we have a natural calling to surmount our nature. Or maybe I just don't play office politics well. I'm much looking forward to impending retirement, when I can tend to my orchards and perhaps market the secrets of Dead Ball hitting that I've excavated. No, there's nothing new (nil novi) under the sun... but what a huge amount has been forgotten, in baseball and elsewhere!

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