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Uttering the Unutterable

The Death of Virgil

by Hermann Broch, translated by Jean Starr Untermeyer
Grosset & Dunlap, 493 pp., $2.95

Hermann Broch’s enormous trilogy, The Sleepwalkers (1932), begins with old Herr von Pasenow, an excellent short sketch of character both physical and moral. It ends with a long and rebarbatively abstract epilogue, the tenth installment of a sequence of similar disquisitions on the “Disintegration of Values” which sadly weaken the impact and hardly clarify the significance of the third part of the trilogy. The Death of Virgil (1945) constitutes a marked advance, or prolongation, in the direction indicated by the philosophizing parts of the earlier work, though with this difference: that the reflections of the dying Virgil, while equally abstract, are largely unargued, they proceed less by logic than by what alas is called “poetry,” sometimes reminding us of Thus Spake Zarathustra, but rarefied, diluted, and inflated, lacking in pointedness and in Nietzsche’s dubious yet undoubted excitement.

Formally The Death of Virgil has been described more or less aptly by a number of admirers. Thus Hannah Arendt calls it an “uninterrupted flow of lyrical speculation leading through the last twenty-four hours of the dying poet.” (H. M. Waidson estimates it at eighteen hours: to me both estimates seem highly conservative.) And George Steiner has said that the book “represents the only genuine technical advance that fiction has made since Ulysses.” But few critics, so far as I know, have attempted to ascertain the success, as distinct from the intention, of the novel, and the usefulness, rather than the nature, of the technique. Two questions are provoked by the descriptions I have just quoted. Could it be that what a flow of lyrical speculation needs is precisely to be interrupted from time to time by the unlyrical and the known? And can a technical advance be “genuinely” an advance if its prime effect is to produce unreadability? But then, the argument of The Death of Virgil is so abstract, assertive yet evasive, so highflown and yet so narrow in compass, that one hardly feels inclined to study it with the closeness that a critical appraisal would require. It is safer to exclaim, “A great European novel!” and leave it at that. Which, fair enough, will serve to warn off the great majority of potential readers.

In form The Death of Virgil consists of almost continuous interior monologue, in sentences so long that their beginnings are forgotten before their ends are known. The monologue is interrupted by a conversation between Virgil and Augustus of a length and earnestness which no sick man could possibly sustain, and a scene with Virgil’s friends which, modest as it is, seems to me much nearer the sublime than anything else in the work. The book’s speculative profundity can be indicated by a few quotations. “What we seek is submerged and we should not seek it as it mocks us by its very undiscoverability.” Or “Only he who is able to perceive death is also able to perceive life.” Broch’s prose poetry is rather similar to Rilke’s poetry deprived of most of what makes it poetry, or occasionally reminiscent of the more sanctimonious or portentous lines of Four Quartets.”…The evil of man’s imprisoned soul, the soul for which every liberation turns into a new imprisonment, again and again.” The style is heavily paradoxical. “Shadowily projecting the formless into form, and floating between non-being and being…” “…this always known yet never known goal.” It is the old Germanic taste for picturing the unpictureable, defining the indefinable, uttering the unutterable…For one who aims at “the word beyond speech,” Broch displays a most remarkable fluency in the written word.

Even the highest and most subtle speculation must have something to speculate about. The main subject for speculation here, the meatiest bone in a voluminous soup of words, is art, beauty, or poetry—and those grave doubts about the propriety of art which loom large in German writing, from Goethe and before to Thomas Mann and after. Striving “to build up the imperishable from things that perish,” art is “pitiless toward human sorrow.” Beauty is cruelty, “the growing cruelty of the unbridled game…the voluptuous, knowledge-disdaining pleasure of an earthly sham-infinity…” The poet is “unwilling to help,” unable to help; “shy of communion and locked in the prison of art,” he depicts kings, heroes and fable-shepherds: but real human people, the men and women in the street whose curses Virgil hears from his sick-bed—these mean nothing to him. The poet therefore is a “perjurer,” he perjures reality. In itself the idea is certainly worthy of attention, but the argument spins in claustrophobic circles, for the most part swathed in language which you cannot get your fingers round, so that before long it comes to seem hardly more meaningful than (say) the assertion that coffee-drinking is a cause of cancer. Is poetry really that bad? How bad is that bad? Are poets worse than mass-murderers? What poetry? Which poets? “The concern of art was how to maintain equilibrium, the great equilibrium’ at the transported periphery, and its unspeakably floating and fugitive symbol, which never reflected the isolated content of things but only their interconnections, this being the only way in which the symbol fulfilled its function, since it was only through this interconnection that the contradictions of existence fell into a balance, in which alone the various contradictory trends of the human instincts were comprehended…”

It might seem high irony indeed to read immediately thereafter that “the gracebearing savior was one who has cast off from himself the language of beauty…he has pushed on to simple words…the simple language of spontaneous kindness, the language of spontaneous human virtue, the language of awakening.” This, perhaps, is Virgil’s prefiguration of the language of Christ. The habitual language of The Death of Virgil—with all due respect to the author, who wrote the book while a refugee from Nazi Germany—is undeniably one of those Germanic languages which Günter Grass assaults in Dog Years: it is a way of almost not saying anything. Broch is obviously a conscious victim of this un-Christlike verbalism, and not a linguistic miscreant. His very diagnosis is symptomatic. Remembering Erich Heller’s comment that Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus is “its own critique, and that in the most thorough-going manner imaginable,” we might cleverly propose that The Death of Virgil too is a thoroughgoing critique of itself. But then it will surely have to be admitted that the discrepancy between the vastness of the critique (nearly 500 pages in this re-issue) and the slightness of what is being criticized is disconcertingly pronounced.

Peasants are the real people,” says Virgil in one of his few undecorated statements. Poets aren’t people at all: by striving to rise above, they fall below. And so Virgil desires to burn his Aeneid. Virgil is made to regret his poetry—and made to regret it in Broch’s ineffable poetic prose…Happily Caesar, to whom the work is dedicated, does not wait for the things that are his to be rendered unto him: he takes them. Augustus orders the manuscript to be carted off in a chest. What Broch thinks of this behavior—collusion between art and the State?—it is impossible to say. And Virgil has no choice but to make his will and die.

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