I once said that The Death of Virgil exists on its own plane of reality, and that is what makes the book worth reading. As a novel of ideas it is behind most of Thomas Mann’s work, and doesn’t even approach Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities. As a historical excursion into the classics, it’s detailed and panoramic, but that is hardly Broch’s main concern here. He uses Virgil and the Aeneid to give weight to his subjects. He views imperial Rome as a better testing ground for his thoughts than contemporary Europe, which Broch increasingly loathed and saw as decaying and diseased. But he mostly needs solitary territory, and in The Death of Virgil he finds it.
The most striking portrait of Broch was given by Elias Canetti in his memoirs, where he describes Broch as fiercely moral but unguarded and emotionally transparent. The contradiction plays itself out nobly in The Death of Virgil, as conservative political statements clash with modernist techniques on a huge swath of territory that is Broch’s alone.
The book is divided into four sections named after the four elements. In the short first section, the sick and dying Virgil arrives in Rome and is brought to rest. The blind Virgil is preternaturally aware of his surroundings and the section is oriented around pure sensory language as he slowly progresses from the ship to the palace. Rome is vibrant but immoral, and Virgil, in his sensory immersion, achieves a sort of inhuman alienation from the people and society around him, connected but only partly conscious.
It’s scant preparation for the second section, one hundred and fifty pages of tumbling, disorienting language dealing with half-formed abstractions and conjunctions of art, life, love, feeling, infinity, and more. What’s most remarkable is how Broch keeps it from coalescing. Any approaching “payoff” of a unified vision is discarded before it’s reached for a new set of jumbled conceptual atoms. A sample:
the poem though well able to duplicate the creation in words was never able to fuse the duplication into a unity, unable to do so because the seeming-reversion, the divination, the beauty, because all these things which determined, which became poetry, took place solely in the duplicated world; the world of speech and the world of matter remained apart, twofold the home of the word, twofold the home of the human being, twofold the abyss of the creaturely,but twofold also the purity of being, thus duplicated to unchastity which, like a resurrection without birth, penetrated all divination as well as all beauty, and carried the seed of world-destruction in itself, the basic unchastity of existence which came to be feared by the mother; unchaste the mantle of poetry, and nevermore would poetry come to be fundamental…
What impresses are not the ideas, which derive from Friedrich Schiller as well as Plato, but the writing that is constantly at war with them. This is the sort of stuff that you write when you must write, or even more, when you are driven to fill up the page out of agoraphobia or a fear of silence. Somewhere in the middle of it, Virgil decides to burn the Aeneid, lost as he is inside a transient but autonomous language that provides effect without impact, divorced from “the world” and focused on metaphysical existence. It is as pure as Rilke, and just as difficult.
The third section is just as much a shock: Virgil returns to reality, as it were, and there follows lengthy passages of dialogue between him and his friends Plotius and Lucius, and then then with Augustus, who all attempt to convince him not to burn the Aeneid. Augustus paints the poet’s relation to the state; Virgil tries to negate it. Augustus flatters Virgil; Virgil will have none of it. Torn between his unattainable obligations and aspirations, Virgil’s positions appear pompous next to Augustus’s rhetoric: they are having a dialogue, but it binds the section to the sort of discourse found in The Sleepwalkers and The Unknown Quantity, in which Broch attempts to raise the state of humanity first through Burkean criticism, then by sheer force of intellectual will.
I’ve never found either tactic wholly successful. Broch’s strength, at its peak in the other sections of The Death of Virgil, was the sort of comprehensive, complex emotional state of being of an artist; when he tries to rationalize its place in the world, either in Vienna in the 1930’s or in Augustan Rome, he can be callow and even petty. After the autonomy of the first two sections, his attempt at worldly engagement and debate in the third doesn’t–really, can’t–justify itself. Thomas Mann’s philosophical debates in The Magic Mountain may be caricatures (of people like Johann Nestroy), but they reflect a certain compromise with the terms of the world that Broch is not really capable of. In The Sleepwalkers there was a conservative nostalgia for the supposedly moral uprightness of past ages; in The Death of Virgil, Broch abandons even that.
This is if anything emphasized in the last, short section. Having divested himself of his possessions and freed his slaves, Virgil surrenders to the inhuman abyss and is thrown into the realm of the essential, a conflation of the cosmos, creation, and language. The placement of language there is a forthright statement of where Broch aims to be and what he sees as Virgil’s proper place.
I don’t know. The high-minded but pedestrian third section helps illustrate how extreme Broch’s position is. It is obviously very impractical, a book that nearly negates its own existence in the world. (Even if Broch does not side with Virgil in the third section, the rest of the book makes it clear that Broch is not hosting a debate.) But the same single-mindedness makes it the closest fictional analogue to Rilke I’ve read, and sui generis. The Death of Virgil is not something to engage and certainly not to argue with, but it has its effects, and they are unique.