Wednesday, May 14, 2014

"I wept over Dido..."

"You're running away--from me? Oh I pray you
by these tears, by the faith in your right hand--
what have I left myself in all my pain?--
by our wedding vows, the marriage we began,
if I deserve some decency from you now,
if anything mine has ever won your heart...
...If you'd only left a baby in my arms--our child--
before you deserted me!"

"What did you feel then, Dido, seeing this?
How deep were the groans you uttered, gazing now
from the city heights to watch the broad beaches, 
seething with action...
... Love, you tyrant!
To what extremes won't you compel our hearts
Again, she resorts to tears, driven to move the man,
or try, with prayers--a suppliant kneeling, humbling
her pride to passion. She if die she must,
she'll leave no way untried."

"... But Dido,
trembling, desperate now with the monstrous thing afoot--
her bloodshot eyes rolling, quivering cheeks blotched
and pale with imminent death--goes bursting through
the doors to the inner courtyard, clambers in frenzy
up the soaring pyre and unsheathes a sword, a Trojan sword
she once sought as a gift, but not for such an end." 

All at once, in the midst of her last words,
her women see her doubled over the sword, the blood
foaming over the blade, her hands splattered red.
A scream goes stabbing up to the high roofs,
Rumor raves like a Maenad through the shocked city--
sobs, and grief, and the wails of women ringing out..."
Virgil. Book 4, The Aeneid, translated by Robert Fagles (New York: Penguin 2006)/ Image: "The Death of Dido," Claude-Augustin Cayot (1711).

In two posts very long ago, I wrote about wanderers with causes: Aeneas, and then St. Augustine. When it came to the latter, I suggested that his tears at Dido's death, were, in fact, the greatest manifestation of the godly: empathy. I have been thinking about Augustine lately, and I ended up revisiting the Confessions, only to be struck by the fact that all of Augustine's tears are for Dido. They are not for the broken love of Dido and Aeneas, for the subsequent destruction of Carthage, or for a wandering Aeneas: "I wept over Dido," "...over the death of Dido dying for the love of Aeneas." Remarkable, then, is Augustine's affinity with the trials of the queen, the pain of a bereaved woman, a displaced feminine desire, and the anguish of the female heart. On the one hand, Dido is Odysseus's Circe, a designated moment in Aeneas' journey towards the founding of Rome. On the other hand, she is, as Augustine-- and in a brief respite-- Virgil, permit us to see her: "an early suppliant, kneeling." My previous post too dealt with the unnerving image of the lover as abject, in the posture of worship, acutely aware yet numb to the loss of the self. In a sharp contrast to the privacy and seclusion offered to this figure by Eliot, here we have gaze upon gaze heaped upon Dido: her own uncontrolled rage seems to shatter the meter; Virgil's own inquiry is directed upon her "feeling;" "her women" are witness to her suicide; Augustine, the empathetic reader, forces his own emergence/y through a particular reading of Dido.

Dido is older than most tragic heroines who have died for love, but there is a terrible anachronism around her figure: the absence of solitude. That is to say, Dido's abandonment, her subsequent grief, the markedness of her state, and her final act are made unforgivably public. Juliet drinks the poison alone, Isolde dies next to Tristan, Emma schedules her dose of arsenic--in the embracing, productive darkness of the private. Dido's terrible tragedy, then, is not just what she undergoes as a woman left childless and insignificant by her half-god husband, whom she ironically married in the deepest seclusion. Her tragedy is the strange condition of being alone amid so many, of being so very visible bearing a pain that cannot be touched or healed, of not having the privilege of solitude that will be accorded to several women in love after her. St. Augustine, then, in his consumption of her circumstances participates in the spectacle of the doomed, hysterical woman that Dido ostensibly seems to represent.

Before I end, I want to return to the image that I began this discussion with: Dido as suppliant, kneeling before Aeneas. In other words, she prays before Aeneas, she prays to Aeneas, whose godliness here, incidentally, seems so base. Once again, the private, unknowable act of prayer becomes known, marked, noted in the poet's language, later confirmed implicitly by Augustine in his recognition of Dido. In some ways, it seems to me that Dido anticipates the public world of the New Testament, the newly-acquired gaze that permits the Christian world to see and interpret. From other angles, she appears to have been deceived by the realm of the literary, and by the poet into a nakedness of not the body or the soul, but of the passions, the kind that can never quite be read for what it is.

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