In a famous verse from Virgil’s grand epic poem he has the poem’s protagonist say to his close friend, “There are tears of things, and things of death touch the mind” (1.462). Perhaps it is the most famous line in the Aeneid, though there are a lot of quotable lines from that poem.That anguish, Virgil is saying in this most quotable line comes from “things of death.” The word in Latin is mortalia, which is often rendered “mortal things.” But that word “mortal” too often simply is misunderstood as meaning “human, not divine.” But the word mortalia does not mean that: it means things pertaining to death, as in the word mortuary, mortician or the all-too-aptly-named Voldemort. This is what touches our mind: death. The ancient poet Horace, too, admonishes his reader to live mindful of how short life is (Serm. 2.6.97). The reader who takes Horace seriously will ever carry at heart the tears of which Virgil speaks.
If you’ve encountered death close at hand lately, you will know that that is easier said than done. It’s a mere platitude to be able to say, “Well, you know, keep in mind we’re all mortal.” There’s that word again: mortal. The person who has experienced grief firsthand knows that such bromides don’t get you very far in the real world when you really confront the death of a loved one. And the person who has confronted that pain knows that mortal doesn’t just mean human: it means closely connected with death. It means aware of the pain and sting of death; and that person feels that they must now and forever be sad because of that pain.
But somewhere else hope is inscribed on a page, hope that complements the rich realism of Virgil and counters the glib advice of Horace or at least of the many sympathy cards that try but fail to comfort adequately. The poet of the forty-second Psalm writes,
My tears have been my food
day and night,
while people say to me all day long,
“Where is your God?” Ps. 42:3 (NIV)
This is a brutally honest description—tears as our food—followed by an equally brutally honest question, both recorded right next to each other smack in the center of the Bible: “Where is your God?” How dare people of faith mention God at a time like this, when it feels so hopeless? And yet, the psalmist knows instinctively that the only real solace not just for death but for life is that our paltry lives have meaning, real meaning. In such a circumstance the vanity of pleasure or glory have no power: they avail for naught in the face of death. Rather, only God, the One who counts up our wanderings and gathers every one of our tears into a bottle, even recording them in a book (Psalm 56:8; John 11:35), can give real comfort. He can comfort because only He can give real meaning to all our suffering, our pain, our lives and the lives of those whom we have lost.
There really are tears of things, and mortal things really do touch our minds. We can cry—it’s okay to do so; we don’t always have to “be strong.” We can be weak, too. Perhaps it is really in our weakness where we shall find more strength than we could ever have imagined. May your tears be few in this new year. But if you have them, may they have meaning, that of rich memory, real comfort and, most importantly, true significance.
When commenting on a phrase in the 683rd line of the first book of Virgil’s Aeneid, the famous (but perhaps not well known to everyone) Virgilian commentator Servius once wrote “the poetic art is not to say all things.” While I can’t speak for everyone, it seems to me that this is pretty good advice for living in general. The phrase might be stated, “the art of living is not to say all things.”
How, when we can communicate so easily today by telephone, email, texting, Instagram, Snapchat, IChat, or Twitter or the like, can I possibly say that the art of living is not to say everything? I think my thinking is borne out of a very old-fashioned idea that gestures can speak louder than words. I don’t mean by this hand gestures, though hand gestures, as the Italians have proven, are really a marvelous way of enhancing or even replacing words with non-verbal cues. For example, the gesture offered below means “I am hungry.”
This one means, you’re the source of my problem—and may you be warded off:
And this one means, I find what he is saying (or what someone is proposing) not to my taste (indigestible):
But delightful as all of these hand signals are, they are, of course, not what I mean exactly by “gestures.” Rather, what I am getting at is that the art of living well must allow for, even require, some purposeful lack of clarity, some “coded” behavior, certain suggestive non-verbal cues that make the words that you do actually say have greater meaning. And such gesture s could be something as simple as opening a door for someone, refilling a wine glass before someone can ask, offering an appropriate hug. Such a gesture could even be as subtle as a (literal) pat on the back, a bonding wink, a warm and accepting smile.
And that is all I want to say today, because truly the poetic art is not to say everything or (in the case of this blog) even to say too much.
Traveling abroad this week, I saw somewhere—I think it was Heathrow—a sign that vaunted, perhaps as a bit of advertising, something along the lines of your past having nothing to do with your present. It might have been the very “maxim” pictured below, or something very similar to it. I thought about it in passing at the time—how untrue, I mused to myself—not thinking that I would be writing about that untrue saying in just a few days’ time.
And yet here I am, writing about precisely that. And I am doing so for two reasons. One is to call attention to the fact that our life choices—now, caveat lector, it is most certainly true that we and all people have choices—constantly inform who we are becoming. Let me go back, for a moment to the caveat that I have mentioned here between m-dashes. Too often I hear in dinner-party conversation among the intellectual in-crowd how great it is that we have so many choices today, in this modern world, for in the ancient world so few people had any choices at all. Such a sentiment I would here significantly qualify: most of the so-called modern world to which that person is referring so cavalierly, has about as much choice as the ancients had, for most of this modern world lives in what first-world folks would qualify as poverty. What that cocktail-party person means to say is, “In my very limited view of the world, there seem to be so many choices nowadays!” But, if they could actually think for a moment to see that that is what they do mean, they might not say so anyway, as such accuracy doesn’t fly well at such highbrow get-togethers. Thus, they speak more generally, like a little child or some of the leading politicians of our times, sounding about as well-informed as each.
But I leave that aside to return to the fact that the sign that I saw, whatever precisely it said, similar to the maxim pictured above, could not possibly be more inaccurate. It is inaccurate just as much for those of us who live in the prosperous regions of the earth as for those of us who do not, whether our choices are the comfortable type (“Let me see, which of these expensive colleges shall I choose to attend?”) or of the less affluent variety (“Shall I steal that piece of fruit from the fruit stand?”). And it is so precisely because we have, in either case, choices to make, choices in our soon-be-to past that will inform our soon-to-become present.
But why, in a blog about Wolfenbüttel, Germany, do I start with a disquisition about how it untrue it is that our past does not inform our present? Precisely because Wolfenbüttel embodies very well the veracity of my proclamation.
You may not know that Wolfenbüttel, founded in perhaps the tenth century and located just eight miles east of Brunswick on the map above, is but one of over eight score towns in Germany with a the nominal suffix –büttel, indicating a hamlet or settlement of some kind. Yet Wolfenbüttel stands out among the other “büttels” for its tranquility and striking beauty. Undamaged during the bombing raids of the Second World War—raids that devastatingly wreaked destruction upon nearby and nevertheless still very quaint Braunschweig—Wolfenbüttel is a city that by its very look and feel preserves a rich cultural heritage.
One way that it does so is obvious to even the casual visitor, who admires its buildings that feature prominently delightful and typically German half-timber design.
Yet another way, though is less obvious. It is the fact that one of its buildings, the Herzog August Bibliotek, houses one of the finest manuscript collections in all of Europe. Visitors come from around the world to see some of these books when they are on display. Yesterday I had the privilege of studying one of these, a very old manuscript (ninth-century) of Virgil. This book was written about when Charlemagne was Holy Roman Emperor, before Wolfenbüttel itself was even one of the “-büttels.” It was a different world then, though a world nonetheless filled with non-first-world choices. It was a world when books were extremely precious objects, a world in which learning was starting to bloom again, thanks to the intellectual vision and appreciation for learning that the aforementioned emperor embodied. He himself would seem to have come to appreciate learning a bit later than most young men, and even studied Latin when he was emperor, relying not merely on knowledge acquired as a youngster.
However that may be, let me return to how Wolfenbüttel is the answer, if not the antidote, to the false dictum with which this blog opened. Merely entering the Herzog August Bibliotek, one senses that one is stepping into the past. Then, hunching over an ancient manuscript one realizes this even more robustly. The scribe who painstakingly made this apograph (i.e. a direct copy) of the Palatinus manuscript (some five hundred years older than this one) was himself connecting with a past more distant than the Palatinus manuscript from which he was working. He was, in fact connecting with the author of the body of work that contained the poem at which I was looking, Virgil’s eighth Aeneid. That portion of the larger work (the twelve book version of the Aeneid) was written probably between 25 and 20 BC, a quarter of a century or so before Christ was born.
In the manuscript I was studying there are occasional mistakes, misspellings. The scribe, perhaps because he was tired or had had too much to drink, occasionally switches the letter -i- for the letter -y-, writing, for example, “Thibrym” for “Thybrim” (the name of Rome’s most prominent river). It is not a moral error, by any stretch; yet it is, in fact, an error, one recorded for posterity to see, or at least for me to notice when I am reading the manuscript. That mistake is, thankfully, one that has little impact on the Virgilian tradition; but it is, nonetheless, a part of the history of that tradition.
So, when one sees a sign or advertisement or whatever it was that I saw in Heathrow—if it was Heathrow, or was it Hamburg?—vaunting that one’s past ought have nothing to do with one’s present, one must stop and think about Wolfenbüttel’s Herzog August Bibliotek. One must think of Gottfried Lessing (in the 18th century) or, before him, Gottfried Leibniz (in the 17th century), each of whom served as its head librarian. One must think of them meticulously safeguarding that manuscript, one that I held in my hand yesterday, a document that contains a poem from the past, a past that is not lost, but informs our present in more ways than we know. The Aeneid, and other works like it (e.g. Livy’s Histories), influenced not only modern writers and artists but also political theorists, some of whom have shaped modern foreign and domestic policies. The great institution of democracy itself, even if in the next American national election it should produce a less-than-desirable leader, is obviously owed to ancient models.
So I leave you, dear reader, with this thought. Our past does, in fact, inform our present and our future. Our choices, particularly the universal moral choices that transcend the normally starkly demarcated boundaries of first, second and third worlds, are like that manuscript. They will be, whether of good moments of neat penmanship or weaker moments rife with error, with us in this life for the long term. My hope for myself is that from here on out I choose wisely, I act thoughtfully, and I remember my past, lest the mistakes I have made before be repeated; let whatever parallel in my own life there may be for the river “Thibrym” not be repeated that way. Let me live delicately, thoughtfully, and let me make choices that inform my present in a positive way. And based on my experience of this delightful town known as Wolfenbüttel, I extend that very hope to you.
P.S. To all my readers, because I am traveling, next week’s blog will not post until Sunday.