Virgil’s Vigil

IMG_2798I can never keep Virgil and Beatrice straight. I blame Dante. Allegories can be so tiring. So, sitting under a tree in Princeton, enjoying a root beer float prepared at The Bent Spoon, I ponder the empty bottle before me. Virgil’s root beer. So good, it states, that I’ll swear it was made in Heaven. It is good, I must say, but didn’t Virgil lead Dante through the other place? You see, I’ve just spent a pleasant morning at Grounds for Sculpture, the outdoor museum set up by Seward Johnson, a sculptor that some accuse of kitsch. Others come by the busload to see what it’s all about. Johnson’s cast sculptures of people are so lifelike that it isn’t unusual to find yourself staring at an actual person sitting on a bench, wondering if they’re real or not. I spend a lot of time pondering reality, and this place makes that question explicit.

Descartes said “I think therefore I am,” but what if I am really the thought of another? How would I ever know? As I wonder around among the sculptures, a different face of reality shows itself. Many of Johnson’s pieces are sculptures based on paintings. To get behind the surface you have to imagine what the unshown side must’ve looked like. That which the original artist left out. Any art is a matter of perspective. Unseen realities—isn’t there something Dantesque about all this? Is Virgil the guide through Heaven, or is that Beatrice?

These statues, in quotidian poses, are so real. If they’re cast from actual persons, maybe they are. After all, this camera I carry is capable of capturing souls. And if you don’t make it through the first time around, there’s always Purgatory as a safety net. This bottle in my hand causes me confusion. Is my tipple divine or diabolical? How much difference is there between them, really? Princeton is a place that needs no one, after all, except those who have already made a success out of life. A place with expensive root beer on offer. A vice for which I’m willing to pay. Maybe life is a divine comedy after all.

Baptizing Virgil

Dante Alighieri was curious as to Heaven and Hell. Like most mortals, he wasn’t sure of his way around and so he needed a guide. Descending to the nether regions, he enlisted the services of Virgil. Virgil is best know for his epic poem The Aeneid, the early Latin account of the Trojan War. I’ve often wondered why Dante chose this particular writer as the “good pagan” who might lead him through the inferno without becoming ensconced within it. Then I found out about Virgil’s Fourth Eclogue. In addition to The Aeneid, Virgil wrote The Eclogues, or idylls of rustic life. In the fourth of these he included what some early Christians considered to be a pagan prophecy of the birth of a special child, although Virgil was never a Christian and indeed overlapped with Jesus by a decade or two. He is the author of the Roman national epic, as Aeneas was believed to have escaped Troy and gone on to found Rome. Virgil tells the tale. What would he be doing, predicting Rome’s spiritual conqueror?

Virgil; photo credit, A. Hunter Wright, Wikicommons

Virgil; photo credit, A. Hunter Wright, Wikicommons

When Rome became Christian, under the knowing gaze of Constantine, the fourth Eclogue of Virgil was reinterpreted as a prophecy of Jesus’ birth. You see, the special child born ushers in a golden age, and what could be more golden than imperial Rome? Virgil’s foresight suggested him to Dante as a reliable guide through the infernal regions where, despite his suspect religion, he never falters. This whole episode once again highlights just how influential Christianity was to become even in the secular world. Prophecy can be read back into any significant passage, biblical or not, and new religions are founded all the time on such a basis. Such is the power of the written word. It is not just Mormons who baptize those who don’t believe.

Rationally we know that Virgil did not predict the coming of Jesus some three decades in advance. Yet, even such a brilliant scholar as Dante Alighieri was swept along by the tide of belief that had convinced the eternal city of its heavenly pedigree. All roads lead to Rome, and all prophecies point to Bethlehem. Beatrice was, however, a real woman, who, Dante believed, was tasked with revealing Heaven to him. He fell in love with her when he was but nine, and when he married it was to another woman, pre-arranged by his family. Beatrice was married to different man and yet she would succeed where Virgil had failed. Ever after it would be known as the Divine Comedy indeed.