A few years ago a friend of mine was going to write an article on the literary character Dido. He began to do so, only a few days later to receive in the mail an off-print autographed by a then acquaintance of his with virtually the same title containing virtually the same analysis of that famous heroine. I say famous because, though Dido enjoys her greatest claim to fame in Virgil’s Aeneid which not everybody has read, she also finds her way into other works of literature, other genres and works of art. Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas gives Dido a voice you don’t just read but you can hear or see. While Purcell’s opera is well known, few likely know of Ovid’s famous letter (Epistula Heroidum VII) written “by Dido,” that is to say in Dido’s voice. It capitalizes, of course, on Virgil’s version, allowing Dido to explain her dilemma from her particular point of view.
That dilemma, in case you might have forgotten, is that she was madly in love with Aeneas and considered their relationship, which certainly did have a physical side, to be permanent. She interpreted the noises in the background that she heard when she and Aeneas were making love in a cave to be a blessing on their relationship—a blessing that made it enduring, that made it “marriage.” Aeneas, meanwhile, was so busily engaged in the act of lovemaking that he (presumably) didn’t hear or experience what Dido did. He perhaps saw their relationship as steamy, even meaningful, but not permanent and certainly not marriage. And thus they broke up when Aeneas went on to “law school” (i.e., to found the place that would become Rome). Dido meanwhile—what did she do? Well, you likely recall this point. She would elaborately construct a heap of wood and put on it everything Aeneas owned. She mounted the heap with Aeneas’ sword in hand plunged the sword through her bosom just as the heap was set afire. She died by her own hand and was burned, together with every memory of Aeneas, on a tragic pyre.
And that was the article—or something like that, something about Dido and how she dealt with her grief philosophically and spiritually—that my friend was about to write. But he never wrote it because he received in the mail a beautifully autographed off-print, an off-print that invited further discussion with its author and blossomed into an enduring friendship. He told me all this just yesterday when I read a very thoughtful piece written by a professor at Columbia University that had more or less the content of the blog I was thinking about writing. It was to be a blog about the disenfranchised. It was to be a blog that spoke to the depth of sadness of the human experience—the feeling of being left behind by society, the feeling that everyone else gets ahead except for you.
Maybe you were born into a home without a father. Maybe the poor mother who tried to raise you as best as she could had very little money, especially when you were a child. Maybe you were picked on at school. Maybe your mom smoked two packs of cigarettes a day and the person with whom she lived did, too, and maybe you kept getting pneumonia in part, though you never knew it, because you were around so much second-hand smoke. And the list could go on—the point is, maybe you just feel flat out sorry for yourself and you think, if only I hadn’t been born to such a disadvantaged situation, I could have done so much better. And then throw in the extras—the big negatives: maybe you are a woman, maybe you are a minority. You know there’s a glass ceiling for you. You can only ever achieve so much, and that’s it. And you might even feel that the world owes you an apology.
Not just the world—no, that’s too general. The person who owes you the apology is the person who has all those advantages that you know you did not have. That person is not a minority. That person is not a woman. That person did not grow up in poverty. That person has no pulmonary issues—never did. That person has had every advantage and never had the system rigged against him.
And all this makes perfect sense to you. That bastard owes you an apology. And he even owes you some of the money he has made and will make in the future. So you vote for politicians who promise you that they will tax him and give you better goods and services—that’s something the government owes all people. The problem is, of course, from that bastard’s point of view, he hasn’t been doing anything to hurt you at all. Maybe he even stood up to a bully once on behalf of someone he perceived to be weaker, maybe he gave his lunch to the kid without money, or loaned money to a poor kid at school and purposely never asked to be repaid. Maybe he went to the birthday party of the kid they always picked on at school. Maybe he walked you, yes you, home one day when you were cursing like a sailor over something a teacher had said or done. And maybe he didn’t judge you but just listened. Does he need to apologize for the fact that he happened to be born into what is clearly a more privileged situation?
And maybe even that privileged white kid has his own struggles, I mean bigger than just pimples or not getting the car he was expecting from his parents, or being turned down for the prom date he was really hoping for. Maybe his dad has just been diagnosed with something really bad like melanoma. Maybe the severity of his dad’s illness is owed in part to the family doctor who, at the dad’s last routine physical, didn’t see a change in a one of the dad’s moles. Maybe this privileged kid has his own problems—different than yours, yes, but just as real. And maybe there’s even blame that could be doled out, blame much more particularized than yours. Maybe he could really blame the doctor in the same way that Dido had a legitimate beef with Aeneas. It’s one thing for Dido to hate all men because one behaved badly. But it’s much more visceral when she hates one in particular—hates him so much that she would commit suicide over his leaving.
Good heavens, we’re getting rather far afield. Or are we? What I am trying to say is this. There isn’t anyone who doesn’t feel pain, real pain. Some do have a lot less of it—but I would argue that they may in that lessening also have lost something of the full dimensionality of life, even have a smaller soul than those who have suffered in some way. Even if I can’t prove that, I can say this: expecting someone to apologize for something they didn’t precisely do is, if not ridiculous, at least unproductive. And that is the blog that I was thinking to write. But Professor McWhorter wrote it for me. So I now feel like my friend whose article on Dido was never written—at least not by him. So I leave you with this thought, one I owe to Dr. McWhorter. At some point we, as human beings, have to look forward.
The kid in the broken, poor and very smoky home has to decide not to smoke, to stay married even at those difficult moments when divorce seems preferable, and to work hard and to take advantage of whatever she can. She may never go to an ivy-league school—at least not as an undergraduate—but she might just find her way to a college, and she might prosper there if she is smart enough and willing to work hard enough. It might be, because it is economical, a community college at first. Then it might be, with some scholarship aid and some loans, a state university to finish. Then, if she is smart enough, on to graduate school, whether law school, medical school or maybe even graduate school in music or art or literature. The last three of these can be fully funded for exceptional students like her. Will she make it? I don’t know. The odds are admittedly against her. Yet in America, however imperfect its system is—and it is imperfect—at least she has a fighting chance.