The Blessed and the Doomed

There are two kinds of people in this world: the blessed and the doomed. The blessed are those before whom hardships retreat like cowardly enemies, whose path through the world is lit by the light of goodness and is easy on the feet; the lot of the doomed, on the other hand, is always to suffer, to fail, to be excluded, to be crushed by hardship. The individuals within each kind are marked as such from birth: the doomed always know they are doomed, the blessed that they are blessed. The blessed may fall from their blessedness—spontaneously, undeliberately, by no fault of their own—and join the doomed, though this is uncommon. The doomed, however, are always doomed.

Most of the doomed learn to make decisions based on the knowledge of their doom. They do not dream, or hope, or strive for something beyond doom, or feel jealous of the blessed: they keep their eyes fixed on their feet, so to speak, and live one arduous day to the next while weathering the pain that comes with being one of the doomed. Virtue for the doomed means learning to suffer as painlessly as possible, to avoid thinking of a better, more blessed life, or of any end to their doom aside from their inevitable death. But some of the doomed—because they are either too stupid or too cowardly to face certain undeniable facts of their existence—spend their lives fruitlessly wishing to transcend the kind to which they belong, that of the doomed: they hope to become one of the blessed, to spend their days in the sunshine of goodness and to walk with the lightness and ease of those who live on the other side of the veil. These hopes become a source of immense sorrow for these poor dreamers of the doomed because they are implacable: the doomed are always doomed.

The blessed, on their part, are of two minds about the doomed. Some of them believe the best course of action is to be honest, to remind the doomed that they are doomed and that things will never be easy or good for them. Though some of them use this as an opportunity for cruelty, many of the blessed believe this honesty to be an act of mercy for the doomed, so that they will not forget that they are doomed and begin to dream of someday becoming blessed. Others of the blessed, however, believe it is unkind to remind the doomed that they are doomed, and think that however untrue it may be it is best to tell beautiful stories that give the doomed hope for a better life. Some of them even believe the blessed should convince the doomed that they are not in fact doomed, but are actually blessed, only they do not know it yet. All of them, however, know deep down that the doomed cannot ever become one of the blessed: the doomed are always doomed.

For the most part, the blessed and the doomed live out their lives parallel to, but largely separate from one another. The blessed who fall into doom may continue to live among the blessed, but the advent of their newfound doom will often make this difficult for them: they will watch with confusion while the rest of their former fellows walking with lightness and ease, and dream of someday returning to blessedness. This will not happen because they are doomed, and their wishing will cause them pain and sorrow. So too do the dreamers of the doomed occasionally enter into the halls of the blessed, lured by their beautiful stories about the possibility of entering into blessedness. However, no matter how long they spend among the blessed, their paths will never be lit by the light of goodness, and walking will never be easy on the feet. They will wonder why the world never seems to be quite like the beautiful stories they have heard from the blessed. And the blessed will continue to tell their tales, and the dreamers of the doomed will continue to believe them—but they will never become blessed, no matter how long they walk the halls and live the life and repeat the stories of the blessed. This is because they are doomed, and the doomed are always doomed.

Crisis and Opportunity

John Lukacs, At the End of an Age, 2002:

We have arrived at a stage of history when we must begin thinking about thinking itself. This is something as different from philosophy as it is from psychoanalysis. At the end of an age we must engage in a radical rethinking of “Progress,” of history, of “Science,” of the limitations of our knowledge, of our place in the universe.

Hannah Arendt, “What is Authority?”, 1954:

With the loss of tradition we have lost the thread which safely guided us through the vast realms of the past, but this thread was also the chain fettering each successive generation to a predetermined aspect of the past. It could be that only now will the past open up to us with unexpected freshness and tell us things no one has yet had ears to hear.

D. S. Carne-Ross, “The Center of Resistance,” 1979:

[T]he loss or radical fracture of tradition need not mean that the past has been lost. Rather, it has been dislocated. Where there was once an orderly territory there is now a kind of chaos. A fertile chaos, if we choose to make it so, for if whole regions have become almost inaccessible, others may lie invitingly open. With the collapse of so much that stood massively but obstructively in the foreground, we can now see beyond the ruins to the more distant past which paradoxically has come to seem closer to us.

Arendt again, immediately following the previous passage:

But it cannot be denied that without a securely anchored traditionand the loss of this security occurred several hundred years agothe whole dimension of the past has also been endangered. We are in danger of forgetting, and such an oblivion quite apart from the contents themselves that could be lostwould mean that, humanly speaking, we would deprive ourselves of one dimension, the dimension of depth in human existence. For memory and depth are the same, or rather, depth cannot be reached by man except through remembrance.

Guy Davenport, “The Symbol of the Archaic,” 1974:

All of this is part of what [Charles] Olson meant by saying that we are alienated from all that was most familiar. Basically he meant that we no longer milk the cow, or shoot the game for our dinner, or make our clothes or houses or anything at all. Secondly, he meant that we have drained our symbols of meaning. We hang religious pictures in museums, honoring a residual meaning in them, at least. We have divorced poetry from music, language from concrete particulars. We have abandoned the rites de passage to casual neglect where once we marked them with trial and ceremony. Thirdly, he meant that modernity is a kind of stupidity, as it has no critical tools for analyzing reality such as the ancient cultures kept bright and sharp.


Vision, memory, attention: these are other words for “world.” Crisis breaks the patterns of things, offering both the opportunity of a world and the danger of retreat. God grant us the wisdom to choose rightlyand the courage to follow through.

Reflections on Pestilence and Sacrifice


I’ve stopped counting the days. Early in the time of lockdown, I fancied that keeping tally of passing sunsets would allow for a purposeful task, however arbitrary, against the despair produced by feeling the world disintegrate. I hoped this would be something like a squirrel’s happy accumulation of acorns before a harsh winter; in reality, it felt more like scratching lines in the wall of a prison cell. So I gave it up.

But it’s been something like a fortnight, perhaps a month. The police have eliminated all public expressions of conviviality—parks, tennis courts, and lakefront beaches have been blocked off for weeks—and corporations have stepped in to deliver endless superficial mantras about solidarity and hope “in these challenging times.” I try to remind myself that it is temporary—maybe. In the warm, floral spring breeze one can catch the occasional scent of endlessness, the dismal sense that the lively public world is gone forever and fleshy human togetherness has been permanently replaced by stilted video-conferences and texting. The springtime has never felt emptier of hope.

Early on in the plague-time, I took a week off of work. During this period, and before the forced closure of the public world, I wrote about the loveliness of the lockdown: how the cessation of American normalcy had allowed us a glimpse of a way of living less predicated on restless money-making, more centered around delighting in leisure and the splendor of creation. (I still, from time to time, feel this.) But I was also scared. The virus was sweeping rapidly through the country while every authority in the country either actively downplayed the threat (“it’s contained,” “it’s just the flu,” “the bigger problem is racism”) or simply said nothing while making no apparent preparations. The delusional optimism of the former is inexcusable: prudent governance, as far as I can tell, operates on a heuristic of pessimism. But the latter, I think, were simply afraid, and they have my sympathy. Who wouldn’t be horrified into immobility by the idea having to make decisions for the sake of an entire city or state as a poorly-understood pandemic hurtles unstoppably toward you?

Since then, I’ve returned to work. The readjustment has been surreal: the bookstore, once a bustling hub of activity, has been closed to the public and converted into a shipping operation. The display tables—once so carefully tended to, garden-like—have become storage areas, covered in chaotic, unpoetical stacks of books. Masked coworkers bustle through the stacks, hunting for mailordered titles while carrying out an absurd, comical dance of attempting six feet of distance from one another. It’s great, of course, to have the certainty of income during a time when such a thing is increasingly scarce. But it’s also deeply weird to feel like my job—structurally an entry-level retail position, even if it feels more meaningful than that—is now on the “front line” of a global crisis.

Which is why I’ve found all of this forced optimistic sloganeering increasingly intolerable. The slogans serve an exclusively therapeutic function for those who face none of the danger. It means nothing to repeat “We’re all in this together!” as someone whose most pressing anxiety is whether you’ll get too annoyed at your spouse and kids while working from home at your reasonably-well-paying job with full benefitsand then to do nothing else. This recent article in the Atlantic says what’s been so desperately needed to be said for so long now: that “front line” workers—nurses, of course, but also grocery store clerks, Amazon delivery drivers, Target employees, and so forth—are not heroes, but victims. This is true—but there are victims, and there are victims. These people are not victims in the judicial sense, the harmed party of a crime for whom we demand justice. They are victims in the religious sense: they are the blessed ones whom we praise on their walk to the slaughter-bench, the offering we give to satiate the hungry gods of our economy. For victims of a crime, we demand recompense, that the world be set right on account of their undeserved suffering. The holy suffering of the sacrificial victim, however, is what sets the world right—and for this, we offer only praise and thanksgiving.

At the end of a revealing monologue in Camus’ “The Plague,” the ex-militant Tarrou declares: “All I maintain is that on this earth there are pestilences and there are victims, and it’s up to us, so far as possible, not to join forces with the pestilences.” To praise the sacrifice of others with no concern for how we might do them justice is to join forces with the plague. If we are going to emerge from this crisis with any shred of our dignity, we need to think hard about what we have to do to avoid crafting such a nefarious alliance.

Paradise, Indeed


The crowd around the campfire had dwindled from twenty or so to about six, but the darkness—and the weed—made it hard to count the faces. The guitar passed from hand to hand, each person taking a turn barking out some song in a voice equally off-key and earnest. (I probably played something by Neutral Milk Hotel.) It was 2005, and I was 17 years old: I had just graduated high school, my last year spent getting high, reading whatever of Daniel Quinn’s bibliography I could obtain from the public library, and going on multiple-hour-long walks to parts of Huntington, West Virginia I’d never seen. And in the summer after commencement (which, naturally, I did not attend) I had hopped in a van with two of my best friends and drove to the southern part of the state to learn how to become environmental activists.

My interest was sincere. I was baptised into political consciousness somewhere between the collapse of the World Trade Center and the invasion of Iraq, and after watching the night-vision footage of cruise missiles falling on Baghdad, I took to sewing homemade patches on my jackets displaying messages like “WAR IS NOT THE ANSWER,” “NO BLOOD FOR OIL,” and “MARXIST.” (I barely understood the Communist Manifesto, but I believed it was right.) A native West Virginian friend of mine (I’d been transplanted there after my freshman year) had introduced me to the horrors of strip mining, and we gradually transformed ourselves into anarcho-environmentalists by way of Crimethinc. literature, Earth First! documentaries, and—maybe most influentially—Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke. The suffocating drudgery of both the classroom and my home life had intensified my adolescent sense of urgency to do something, to march bravely out into the world and stop the evil that was so clearly winning in the cosmic struggle between light and dark. Like all young men, I wanted to be a hero.

Thus I had no patience for the strategy of slow and measured engagement insisted upon by the nonprofits running the activist training camp. Somewhere between the “De-Escalation Workshop” and the lecture on “anti-oppression” my friends and I checked out, retreating to an abandoned print shop to smoke joints and shoot the shit. And, of course, to play guitar. I was inaugurated into the cult of “Wagon Wheel,” Old Crow Medicine Show’s recording of it having appeared one year prior. Someone played Phil Ochs’ “Love Me, I’m a Liberal.” But deep into the night—with the stars glittering overhead and the THC buzzing in our heads—someone started strumming a D-chord in the style of a waltz, and something in the air changed. A reverent hush settled over the circle. But after a few bars, a wiry voice broke through: “When I was a child, my family would travel…”

Some songs are good; some songs are great. And some—often by virtue of something beyond its composition or recording—arrive as revelations, striking the hearer like a lightning bolt and sinking irrevocably into the soul. To describe “Paradise” as “a song I love” comes nowhere near to grasping the dimensions of its importance: for several years of my early twenties spent hitchhiking and riding freight trains between anti-globalization protests and environmental campouts, “Paradise” served as an anthem, a rallying cry, a source of solace and peace. It was part of the air my friends and I breathed, something necessary for life. One of the most meaningful friendships of my life was solidified by singing it over and over during a 12-hour drive from Minnesota to West Virginia; it was on my lips during countless solitary walks down highways and stretches of train track. Though we never became the heroes we dreamed of, “Paradise” nonetheless served as our Iliad, standing as a constant, fixed source of our values, hopes, and longings. Like Homer with the Achaeans, John Prine spoke us into being.

I know how silly this all sounds. But when you’re a small-town teenager with a penchant for romance and a lousy education, your reference points are going to seem strange and perhaps arbitrary. Before I learned that John Prine was a living, contemporary country artist still touring and recording albums, I’d assumed him to be something like the Bard: a legendary old folk singer who walked the earth in a time when men were stronger and taller and the gods could still be heard singing from the mountaintops. But as the image of Prine the hero faded, my awe of his quite mortal capacities for perception and empathy increased. Across the 13 songs of his debut album—recorded when he was just 23 years old—Prine examines the souls of a heroin-addicted Vietnam veteran, a nostalgic middle-aged woman trapped in a loveless marriage, a retired factory worker gone autobiographical, of lonely young people longing to connect but falling repeatedly into solipsism. Each song is its own universe: Bob Dylan famously called the album “pure Proustian existentialism,” but Prine’s capacity for seeing from within the subjectivity of nearly a dozen fully-formed yet fully imagined figures has more in common with Fernando Pessoa.

And now he’s gone. (God willing, he is now resting in the true Paradise.) But with Prine’s passing, no era has come to a close, since Prine was never a representation of anything beyond himself. He commanded respect from high places, but not a single imitator: he was inimitable, with a keenness of vision surpassing that of most novelists wedded to a dark, but ultimately humane, comic sensibility. There will never be another like him. Maybe now we can recognize him as the legend I had once dreamed him to be.

Good Friday

Today all bread lies unrisen,
all form lies devoid of its shape;
beer is just water and barley,
wine remains locked in the grape—

today the sun is just fire,
a meaningless nexus of heat;
the foundations loosed from the waters,
the land overcome with the sea—

today the cosmos is static,
creation is ground to a halt;
but all in advance of the third day,
the triumph the heavens exalt.

The Loveliness of Lockdown

chicago bw

Update 3/30: I wrote this one day before Mayor Lori Lightfoot ordered the closure of the entire Chicago lakefront, due to what she saw as inadequate social distancing and a flouting of the city’s stay-at-home order. I recognize the wisdom in this decision, and the needhowever unfortunatefor making sacrifices like this in times like these. But I also stand by what I saw that day: hundreds of people embracing the warmth of the sun and the beauty of the world while keeping space between one another. And beyond this, a faint glimmer of a different—a better and less cruel—way of living.


It’s day five of shelter-in-place in Illinois. Signs hang in the windows of neighborhood hair salons, record stores, book shops: “CLOSED UNTIL FURTHER NOTICE.” Restaurants and cafes remain in a liminal state between open and closed: through the windows one can glimpse empty dining rooms and kitchen workers standing around in hair nets, waiting for the take-out orders they are still legally permitted to fulfill. But the decline in business has not brought a sense of emptiness. The noise of car traffic, now conspicuously absent from neighborhood streets, has been replaced by spring birdsong. Neighborhood parks are peppered with young people playing sports at a responsible distance—tennis, frisbee, kickball—while joggers pass the occasional bookworm enjoying the sunshine on a bench. Near the lake, couples with children play hide and seek amid the trees of Jackson Park and Promontory Point, while those assumedly childless walk their dogs nearby. Lockdown, it turns out, is lovely.

Reality is a kaleidoscope that lockdown has turned. The usual patterns of things have been gently disrupted—and we, in our adaptability and ingenuity, are already finding a footing in our new, unstable conditions. In this cessation of frantic economic activity that usually defines American public life, we catch a glimpse of another possible world: one where our activity is motivated not by blunt necessity or desperate moneymaking, but by relishing in the world and in our togetherness with those whose lives are entangled enough with ours to be part of our quarantine. However temporary it may turn out to be, the suspension of the brutal economization of life that constitutes American “normalcy” has made it possible to imagine a way of living centered on simple delight and human togetherness, and not only for the classes capable of paying for it.

I recognize the possible naivete of my optimism here, that I’m seeing the response of the materially comfortable to a challenge they can easily weather while the poor and precarious suffer all the more. I don’t doubt this is the case. I am surely blind to the real suffering this lockdown is causing just outside the periphery of my vision. Lord knows how many layoffs will result in evictions, themselves resulting in despair, hopelessness, and worse. But these are precisely the people who stand to benefit the most from the anaesthetization of harsh American materialism.

Everything is topsy-turvy in plague time. And positioned as we are at the beginning of this chaotic and rapidly shifting development, we have no idea what shape the future may eventually take. The situation, then, is excellent. Nothing is going to change on its own accord: the plague does not determine a set of changes, but it does provide an opening. May we have the courage to seize this opportunity and to sow loveliness and delight where others would seek to reconstitute—or intensify—its barbarity.

On “Europeana”

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Patrik Ouředník’s “Europeana: A Brief History of the Twentieth Century” is the best novel about the Twentieth Century. Let me explain.

I qualify “about” because the best novel of the Twentieth Century is obviously Ulysses. (I haven’t read Ulysses, but enough people whose opinions I trust have told me that it is the best, so I take this to be true.) But Ulysses was written in the innocent adolescence of a new age—the one cracked open by machine manufacturing, the invention of the automobile and airplane, and the second founding of America with the settlement of the Civil War—when such a magisterial, imaginative, synthetic work full of style and possibility was still conceivable. After the two-phase internal collapse of Western civilization with the War to End All Wars followed by World War II, such an endeavor became self-evidently ridiculous: as the details of the otherworldly barbarity with which the German Sonderkommandos and the Red Army collaborated to turn Poland into a hellscape of human sacrifice slowly became available to the world’s reading public, it became immediately and undeniably incumbent upon any thinking person to stare the facts in the face and figure out what the hell happened. (Adorno’s famous remark about the impossibility of poetry after Auschwitz is silly if understood to be true for all time, but it was surely a sensible way to think in 1955.)

Ouředník’s book does precisely this. It is assembled entirely out of dry, factual statements about a wide variety of events and developments taking place between 1914 and 1999—the formation and beliefs of the Jehovah’s witnesses, the creation of barbie dolls and the dawn of the consumer society, the dawn of New Age spirituality and the sexual revolution, painstakingly accurate descriptions of most of the century’s philosophical and theoretical schools, and above all the twin horrors of German National Socialism and Soviet Communism in Russia—held in parataxis as skillful as Solomon’s. But unlike Solomon, Ouředník never declares all to be vanity, nor does he need to: he suspends judgment and lets the century speak for itself in all its insanity, terror, and, on occasion, genuine hilarity. And in contrast to the 800-some pages of Joyce’s tome, “Europeana” is a slim volume of scarcely 100 pages, containing what lesser historians would require a thousand to adequately cover.

Consider one representative passage:

In 1907 a Frenchman crossed the English Channel in a powered aircraft and in 1910 a Peruvian flew over the Italian Alps in a powered aircraft in and in 1911 the Italians used a powered aircraft in the war against Turkey and in 1914 aircraft designers figured out where to lace machine guns so that aircraft could fire at each other and in 1915 they figured out how to drop bombs from aircraft, and in 1945 the Americans invented the atom bomb and dropped it on a city called Hiroshima.

At no point does Ouředník break from this “objective” voice to say that such a development is bad. Instead, he simply reports the consequences of the nuclear blast: alongside the gruesome image of “the school children who survived the explosion picked maggots out of patients’ wounds with chopsticks,” he tells us that “[p]eople who survived the explosion and the atomic diseases scared other members of the population because they looked like lepers and behaved like madmen,” which in its naïve truthfulness contains a jet black humor. And then he lets us know about the thinking of the age, characterizing the disputes of anti-atomic idealists and pro-bomb realists:

Afterwards a lot of people thought it had been gratuitous brutality to drop an atom bomb at the very end of the war, but military strategists said that if the Americans had not dropped it, someone else would have, because it had to be tried out at least once in real conditions in order to create a balance of terror as a guarantee against the outbreak of a third world war.

For anyone with eyes to see, the judgment passes itself.

Of course, it is inaccurate to call Ouředník’s book a “novel.” There is nothing fictitious about it, and in a more serious age we would consider this a new genre of experimental historiography much more fertile and interesting than most of the options currently on the table. Only on precisely two occasions does Ouředník allow himself miniscule poetic flourishes, made all the more poignant by their rarity: “And young people looked toward the future and the wind ruffled the ears of corn and the sun rose on the horizon.” The author’s commitment to objectivity demonstrates how any optimism about “the arc of history” dissolves in the acid bath of brutal, overwhelming facticity that is the Twentieth Century. The constant deluge of insane details occasionally grants the reading a dreamlike quality, much akin to reading a science fiction novel, just before the reality of what he is reporting comes crashing down. “And the Jehovah’s Witnesses said that smoking and alcohol soil the blood,” he tells us, “and they refused to eat black pudding and blood sausage and refused blood transfusions because the mixing of blood contradicted divine ordinances, just like the consumption of blood sausage or alcohol or extramarital sex.” Silly enough, and yet another contribution to the laundry list of kooky new religions that emerged in the primordial soup of the late 19th century. But in the next sentence, the hammer falls: “And they refused to enlist in the army and said that they belonged to the Kingdom of God and worldly matters were no concern of theirs, and many of them died in the concentration camps in Germany and the Soviet Union because their attitude subverted the revolutionary ideal and propagated asocial and counterrevolutionary ideas in society.”

The Twentieth Century was an age of contradictions: it matched childish, naïve optimism about the possibility of human freedom—from God, from morality, from the Earth, from responsibility to one another, from all internal and external limitations placed on the human animal—with a rapid and gleeful development of techniques and technologies of barbarity that makes Caligula’s Rome look utopian by comparison. “Europeana” is a gift because it clarifies for us the fact that practically nothing from the period can be clarified, and reminds us that many of the learn’d experts who try to do so would have been (if they weren’t already, in reality) willing architects of the century’s most grotesque and dehumanizing innovations.

Theses on Seriousness


  1. Life is to be lived excellently.
  2. Excellent living may be reached without ethical speculation: an excellent life can be achieved without falling into, and pulling oneself out of, a philosophical quagmire.
  3. Those who do not achieve excellent living instinctively may do so after a process of ethical or moral reflection.
  4. All moral and ethical speculation is for the purpose of steering one’s life toward excellence.
  5. Whether achieved instinctively or through reflection, the possibility of an excellent life hinges upon a matter of attitude: of striving toward seriousness and avoiding frivolity. In the former case, a person instinctively recognizes the seriousness of action and decision-making; in the latter, seriousness makes the fruits of speculation worth heeding in action.
  6. Serious-minded people may be swayed by the soundness of an argument; the frivolous, on the other hand, are prepared to avoid responsibility by any means necessary, whether through cultivated indifference, sophistry, psychologism, etc.
  7. A proof from the other side: No action is meaningful when conducted frivolously, no coward is rewarded for completely accidental acts of heroism. But heroes—who are defined as such primarily for facing reality seriously—are praised even in their failure.
  8. Don DeLillo, Point Omega: “Why is it so hard to be serious, so easy to be too serious?” As with all virtues—and seriousness may be thought of in terms of virtue, as the ground in which all virtue must grow—seriousness is subject to excess. Becoming “too serious” is to pass beyond seriousness into ridiculousness and absurdity.
  9. As with all other virtues, an excess of seriousness is likely preferable to a deficiency. But absurd strictness detrimental to excellent living is as clownish as the worst frivolity.
  10. Seriousness is not Stoicism. A serious attitude toward the world does not imply immovability or a lack of emotion. On the contrary, for the serious person, the world and the things that populate it are constant sources of bewilderment, delight, frustration, amusement, dissatisfaction, elation, and anguish.
  11. “Although Goethe was intimately connected to the social and cultural life of his time, he also knew how to maintain his individuality. His principle was to take in only as much of the world as he could process. Whatever he could not respond to in a productive way he chose to disregard. In other words, he was an expert at ignoring things.”—Rüdiger Safranski, “Goethe: Life as a Work of Art.” The principal tool against the temptation to ridiculousness is the art of indifference: of ignoring those things that are not worthy of one’s attention. One’s attention should be directed only at those things worthy of serious consideration; the rest should be disregarded rather than scorned.
  12. Expressed as a tautology: to be serious is to regard as serious those things worth taking seriously.
  13. Therefore, seriousness is principally an art of attention, a way of seeing: a serious attitude toward the world demands a clear vision—or an aspiration thereto—of what is really happening, what is at stake, what possibilities for action are available.
  14. First and foremost, seriousness entails a visceral, tangible recognition of the most basic fact of living: that one will eventually die. In the light of one’s eventual death, the serious and frivolous things of the world are revealed for what they are.
  15. Seriousness, then, implies ethical immediacy: the things worth doing are worth doing now, and excuses motivated to delay right action are simply expressions of frivolity.


This essay was written for a preceptorial on Virgil in my third semester at the St. John’s College Graduate Institute and selected by the SJC Prize Committee as the best graduate essay of the year. It isn’t my favorite of the work I’ve done at St. John’s, but given that a group of smart people whom I respect decided that they liked it I am open to the possibility that there’s something worthwhile in it that Iin the position of authoram incapable of seeing. This in mind, I decided to share it here and open it to more general criticism.

At the beginning of Virgil’s Aeneid, we find the surviving remnants of Troy floating across the Mediterranean in a mere handful of galleys after suffering defeat at the hands of the allied Achaean army. Waves toss the Trojan ships like a petulant child having a temper tantrum. The goddess Juno, angry about a prophecy foretelling the destruction of her beloved city of Carthage at the hands of the Trojans, petitions Aeolus to loose violent winds upon the already-tattered fleet. He complies. Violent gusts batter the Trojan galleys, breaking several against rocks jutting up from the sea floor. The sea-god Neptune notices what is happening in his domain and rages at the other gods encroaching upon his sovereignty: he dispatches the winds back to their mountain home, rebuking Juno and Aeolus for their impetuousness. The winds calm, the seas still, and the Trojan exiles drift ashore near Carthage. They sprawl out in exhaustion on the beachhead, run an inventory of their remaining equipment and rations, and start fires for their first meal on land since being forced from their home. Aeneas goes on the hunt, killing seven huge bucks: one for each vessel destroyed in Aeolus’ storm. The Trojans—“a remnant left by Greeks, harassed by all disasters known on land and sea, in need of everything”[1]—sorrow at their condition.

However, there is hope. Aeneas, sensing the dejection gnawing at his men, makes a rousing speech: “You have neared the rage of Scylla,” he reminds them, “and her caves’ resounding rocks; and you have known the Cyclops’ crags; call back your courage, send away your grieving fear.”[2] Then he reveals a second prophecy concerning the future of the Trojan people: “Through many crises and calamities we make for Latium, where fates have promised a peaceful settlement. It is decreed that there the realm of Troy will rise again.”[3] Though driven from their homeland, the Trojans are fated for a new home.

A new home is a strange idea. For us modern, 21st-century Americans, “home” is often merely a euphemism for “where you happen to live”: it is not uncommon to see billboards along highways advertising “New Luxury Estate Homes,” “1 & 2 Bedroom Apartment Homes,” “New Homes For Sale.” But for most of human history, home has been something familiar, old, and beloved—it precedes us, produces us, and remains a permanent part of the background of our lives even if we leave it for somewhere new. “You can take a boy out of the country,” they say—you know the rest of the story. Like Ithaca for Odysseus, home awaits your return, because one belongs to one’s home as much as one’s home belongs to oneself. Which is to say, home is as much a place—a fixed, bounded geographical zone with specific, identifiable qualities and details—as the stories, feelings, things, and—perhaps most importantly—people associated with it. Home is the place where you exist as a midpoint between a succession of generations into the past and a procession of generations into the future. “There’s no place like home” may be a cliché, but the saying is common for good reason: home is a place and no two places are identical. No two homes are alike—maybe not even for the people who share them.

What happens, then, when one’s home disappears? Not mentally, mind you: not as if the place that was once considered “home” is no longer thought of in those terms. What happens when home is destroyed? Where do you go when homecoming is impossible? Unlike many peoples whose names have been wiped off of the map and out of the register of human memory for all time, the Trojans are not simply homeless: they have a great destiny, foretold in prophecy. The destruction of their city provides them an opportunity. They are bound for a new home—not for an already-established, foreign city into which they will assimilate, but for a new place entirely. They will make a new home: Rome, a city fated to blossom into an empire. Aeneas will “establish a way of life and walls for his own people,” Jupiter reveals to Venus. And as for the following generations of Romans, the father of the gods will “give them empire without end.”[4]

This essay will explore home: what it is, how one comes into being, and what happens when home and world become identical.

Troy and Beyond

Troy was one of the richest and most beautiful cities in the world. The beautiful face of Helen was not the only thing that brought the Greeks to Trojan shores: the possibilities of plunder to be won from Priam’s city and well-wrought armor to be stripped from the bodies of dead Trojan soldiers were not overlooked. Even before Helen’s name is mentioned in the Iliad, Apollo’s priest Chryses relays to Agamemnon and Menelaus that “the gods grant who have their homes on Olympos / Priam’s city to be plundered and a fair homecoming thereafter”[5]—treasure was always part of the deal. Aeneas and the Trojans, even, did their best to rescue as much wealth from their city as they can: after landing in Carthage they draw from this collection to thank Dido for her hospitality. All the more horrible, then, to see it burned and pillaged.

But along with some of the city’s riches, the surviving Trojans also escape with the city’s “household gods.” The night after leading the infamous wooden horse inside the city walls, Aeneas is approached in a dream by Hector: the dead warrior reveals the treachery of the Greeks to our sleeping hero, urging him to wake and flee the flames of his burning home and entrusting to him Troy’s “holy things and household gods.” “Take them away as comrades of your fortunes,” he urges, “seek out for them the great walls that at last, once you have crossed the sea, you will establish.”[6] Aeneas wakes, arms himself for battle, and charges into the streets to make vengeance. There he meets Panthus, son of Apollo’s priest, desperately leading his grandson to safety while “in his hand he carries the holy vessels and defeated gods.”[7] But the existence of these peculiar deities is also mentioned in the first stanza of the poem: once he founds Rome, Aeneas will have “carried in his gods to Latium.”[8] And after landing at Carthage, as if to clarify just what “carry” means in this context, Aeneas announces to his disguised mother Venus:

I am pious Aeneas, and I carry in my ships my household gods together with me, rescued from Argive enemies; my fame is known beyond the sky.[9]

 Unfortunately, the poem does not provide any direct description of what these “household gods” are. We learn about them only by way of what happens to them—in their being held, carried, transported across the ocean in the galleys of ships. We learn that Juno is horrified by their fated arrival in Italy. While leaving Troy, Aeneas—hands soiled with Grecian blood—begs his father to carry them. And much later, after landing on Italian shores, we see Aeneas make a tribute to the household gods of his friend and ally Evander.

Every home has its gods, it seems: homes are not just where you and your family live, but also where your gods reside. And unlike the gods of Olympus, the gods of one’s home are fragile, transportable, and require a great deal of care. It is unclear what kind of role they play in the lives of mortals: we do not see any children of household gods, they never take human form, they do not intervene in human affairs. Rather, they are quiet elements of city life that seem to grant a sense of the sacred to affairs both domestic (Panthus and Evander seem to have their own household gods) and political (Aeneas carries the gods of Troy).

When home is the home of your family and your gods, it could never just be a house—which is why none of the places the Trojans stop on their way to Italy could have been their new home. Many of the places are self-evidently unfit for consideration as the location of a new Troy: Thrace is a poisoned place, the site of an ancient crime; Buthrotum is a sad and hollow replica of the once-great Troy, now shot through with sorrow and anguish. Others, however, are less clear. When the Trojans found the city of Pergamum on the island of Crete, it seems a fitting enough locale for long-term habitation—that is, until a plague befalls the island. Aeneas, sleeping in bed one evening, has a vision of his household gods[10] standing over him: they speak to him, reminding him of the promise of Italy, Rome, and the eventual empire over which his descendants will rule. Clearly, the gods are not happy in Crete. Aeneas orders the ships loaded and the sails raised, though a small group of Trojans stay behind. By the time they arrive in the comparatively hospitable Actium, it seems they have internalized the lesson taught at Crete: the Trojans spend a year there without founding a city, experience no hardship beyond the coldness of winter, and raise their sails for Buthrotum.

What ruled out Carthage, however, is initially much more opaque. Though initially met with resistance and suspicion, the Trojans are welcomed with open arms by Dido and the Tyrians. Their fame has been preserved in a series of murals—whether painted or etched is unclear—at a shrine to Juno in the heart of the city, depicting both the heroic deeds and the suffering of Trojan warriors in their battle against the Greek invaders. Carthage has build a monument to Trojan courage. And with the heroes themselves suddenly landed upon the shores of their domain, the Tyrians are happy to offer them a home. “[S]hould you want to settle in this kingdom on equal terms with me,” Dido promises them, “then all the city I am building now is yours. Draw up your ships. I shall allow no difference between the Tyrian and the Trojan.”[11] So why did this offer not last? The simplest answer is that the gods would not allow it. Indeed, when Hermes approaches Aeneas to remind him of the prophecy, “he sees Aeneas founding fortresses and fashioning new houses.”[12] Assimilation seems to be underway. It is only once the god reminds Aeneas of the promise made to his son that the Trojan leader’s mind changes. To remain in Carthage would mean to rob Ascanius of the glory for which he is fated. Carthage would provide a happy home for Aeneas and his people—but it could never allow for the glorification of Aeneas’ true heir.

People in a place with their gods and their families: this is the basic recipe for a home. But if a people cannot simply assimilate with another to have a home, how do they make a new one?

A New Troy

When Jupiter reveals the fate of Aeneas to his mother Venus, the first item in his list of events is that he “shall wage tremendous war in Italy and crush ferocious nations”—only after which he will “establish a way of life and walls for his own people.”[13] Rome will happen, but not without conflict. Prophecy does not imply simplicity or ease. But what is the function of war in the founding of a new home? Is it the whim of the gods? Or might conflict be a necessary part of founding a new home?

The Trojans do not simply invade Italy. When they land at Latium they are initially extended a warm welcome by King Latinus, who just recently received a prophecy that his daughter will be married off to foreigners. “For strangers come as sons-in-law,” the voice of his dead father tells him—and as if to assuage any doubt about who these strangers might be, he recites the fate of the Trojans: “their blood will raise our name above the stars; and their sons’ sons will see all things obedient at their feet, wherever the circling sun looks on both sides of Ocean.”[14] Rome, then, will begin with a wedding—but the wedding is the first source of conflict. Princess Lavinia has been all but promised to Turnus, the handsome and young king of the Rutulians, but Latinus’ prophecy inspires him to break off the engagement. Juno, furious at the prospect of a Trojan marrying into the Latin royal family, sics the Fury Allecto on the Latins: Lavinia’s mother Amata and Turnus are roiled into bloodlust. The Rutulian king begins to muster an army against the Trojans.

Allecto also helps sow the second seed of conflict, by leading Ascanius’ hunting dogs to the beloved stag of Tyrrhus and Sylvia. Ignorant of the stag’s privileged place among the Latins, Ascanius sends an arrow into his gut, killing him. It is a grievous betrayal of custom, but a custom that the Trojans could never have assumed—and which the Latins, being “a race of Saturn, needing no laws and no restraint for righteousness,”[15] would never have told them. Sylvia and Tyrrhus rouse the Latin farmers to battle: wielding whatever sharp implements they can find—“anger makes a weapon”[16]—they march against the Trojan encampments. First blood is drawn: Almo, son of Tyrrhus, is struck by an arrow from an unknown bow. Latinus rebukes Turnus and the Latin mobs and refuses to open the city’s Gates of War—but Juno does it for him, making the war official. War, however, requires alliances—and while the Trojan encampments are under siege, Aeneas sails down the Italian coast making pacts with friendly kings. The most notable of these is Evander, king of the Arcadians, who entrusts his son Pallas to Aeneas’ tutelage. By the time Aeneas returns to assist the Trojan ramparts, he has assembled thirty ships with ten generals from different regions of Italy. It is a motley crew, including gods and mermen, all willing to put their lives on the line for a Trojan victory.

Marriage, the breaking of custom, and alliances: these are the preconditions for the Trojan-Latin war. The marriage of Aeneas and Lavinia, if carried out, would result in the union of two peoples—but beneath the kingship of one: the Trojans. Aeneas and his people would inherit a city, a place to live while raising the walls of Rome, and the Latins will become collaborators in Rome’s greatness. And as Rome is destined to be an empire of law—one that is destined to “teach the ways of peace to those [they] conquer, to spare defeated peoples, [and] tame the proud”[17]—the flimsy, ambiguous rule of custom must be overcome. A civilized people must be able to articulate the rules, especially to guests—a tradition of inexpressible cultural habits is no way to teach the ways of peace to others. Furthermore, the alliances crafted in battle set the terms of who will possibly be victor and who the conquered: not only do the Trojans win if Aeneas leads his army to victory, but so too would (for example) the humble and rustic Arcadians. The winning party will determine the character of the peace that takes shape afterward. The conquered will be subject to the laws and customs of the conquerors.

Or so it seems, but the arrangement arrived at by Jupiter and Juno complicates this outcome. “For the Ausonians [Italians] will keep their homeland’s words and ways,” Jupiter promises his wife:

…their name will stay; the body of the Teucrians will merge with the Latins, and their name will fall away. But I will add their rituals and customs to the Ausonians’, and make them all—and with one language—Latins. You will see a race arise from this that, mingled with the blood of the Ausonians, will be past men, even past gods, in piety; no other nation will pay you such honor.[18]

Jupiter turns this expectation on its head: the conquerors will take the name and language of the conquered. In a set of circumstances unique to the Trojans and Latins—and brought about only through divine authorship—Trojan and Latin customs will exist peaceably alongside one another. Neither will dominate. But again, customs are not laws, and the Latins are a lawless people: one may assume that the laws established by Aeneas will be binding for this whole new race. Which is, of course, a curious and new term. From the union of these two peoples we will get one: no longer understood as members of family groups (Teucrians descended from Teucer, Dardaans descended from Dardanus, and so forth), the people will comprise a unity of plurality—a many that makes one. And this transformation of peoples into a race is a reflection of another transformation that Rome will effect: that of home into world.


Before meeting with the Latins after landing on the Italian peninsula, Aeneas visited the Sibyl. A deranged priestess of Apollo, the Sibyl was granted the ability to presage the future by writing the fates on a collection of leaves—which are then frequently scattered by the wind. But Aeneas is not here to hear the future from the Sibyl: rather, he requires her assistance in descending to Hades to visit the soul of his dead father, who will tell him the whole story of Rome. The Sibyl agrees, but Aeneas must first complete a few tasks: so Aeneas picks the golden bough, performs the required sacrifice for Persephone, and the two climb into the bowels of hell.

When they reach Anchises in the Fields of Gladness, he is positively glowing: he stands in the middle of a grassy meadow, telling the story of his bloodline to the souls of his descendants. Aeneas tries to embrace him, but his arms pass through his body like a beam of light through a window. They share tears. Anchises then takes Aeneas on a tour of the blessed part of the underworld, the place where great souls live out their afterlives in joy and gaiety while waiting for the moment of their resurrection—when, a thousand years after death, they will drink from the river of forgetting and return to a bodily form on earth. Then he reveals to him the destiny of Rome: the events that will shape its legacy, the greatness it will win, and the men who will lead it there. “Rome will make her boundaries as broad as earth itself,” Anchises says, “will make her spirit the equal of Olympus, and enclose her seven hills within a single wall, rejoicing in her race of men.”[19] Rome, it seems, will be founded as a great city by great men—but then will become something different. Rome will eventually become the whole world.

If what was said earlier about home has any validity—that home is a place—then this poses a strange problem. Just as home is a place, world is a space. Rather than being defined by boundaries, specificity, and uniqueness, the world is that space which transcends all places and inside of which all place loses its place-ness. A place is defined explicitly in opposition to the world: in full knowledge of the vastness of everything and the infinite array of possibilities, I settle myself in a small corner of existence whose contours become as familiar as the backs of my hands. I always live in a place, though I may have knowledge of the world: I can study astronomy, oceanography, and the histories of distant empires without ever leaving my home. Somehow, however, Rome will collapse these category distinctions: it will be an empire that spans the whole world, while remaining the home of a people in the form of a race. How does a transformation of this kind take place?

It seems to involve two factors: people and history. World-as-home-for-race carries with it a different set of categories than place-as-home-for-people: as seen before, the category “race” transcends of particular family groupings to constitute a higher-order unification of people. The Trojans and Latins will retain their separate customs and rituals, but will become one inasmuch as they are members of the same race—only this arrangement of people is capable of inhabiting a world-sized home. No longer will separate peoples inhabit far-flung cities ruled by hereditary kings: the boundaries of Rome and those of the world will become identical, uniting all people under one banner. The whole world will have an order, then—and he who rules Rome rules it all.

It is no accident that Anchises’ prophecy takes place over the course of many generations. The founding of Rome will not be like the creation of the heavens and earth (or even, perhaps, like the transformation of the Trojan and Latin peoples into a single race): it will not go from being a city to encompassing the entire earth in a single instant. Rather, though its destiny is already written, the transformation must play out in time. Successive generations will make their contributions to this transformation: specific human beings—people like Tullus, Numa, Romulus, Mummius, and Caesar—will be the agents of the change. Fate does not preclude active human participation in its execution. Gods may author what will happen, but humans must effect the execution. And inasmuch as human beings are beings in time, their actions are events in time—and the memory, or story, of these events constitutes history.

At the end of the Aeneid, however, we do not see the founding of Rome. The bleeding body of Turnus does not provide us with a vision of Roman greatness that we expect after reading numerous instances of prophecy: it is hard to see how the merciless, vengeful slaughter of the Rutulian king is a beginning-point for the eventual Roman mission of teaching peace to the conquered, sparing the defeated, and taming the proud. Perhaps the execution of prophecy often plays out like the opening of the poem, where a band of confused refugees float around the Mediterranean, unsure of where they may land. But though we all long for a home, perhaps only a few are called to inhabit their own—and even fewer to see theirs to greatness.


[1] Book I, lines 841-843. All citations refer to Allen Mandelbaum’s translation, published 1961 by Bantam Classics.

[2] I.279-282.

[3] I.284-286.

[4] I.369, 390.

[5] Homer, Iliad, trans. Richmond Lattimore, I.18-19.

[6] II.400-404.

[7] II.437-438.

[8] I.10.

[9] I.534-537.

[10] This is the only occasion in the Aeneid in which the household gods are personified and take on an active role.

[11] I.805-809. Emphasis mine.

[12] IV.347-348.

[13] I.363-369.

[14] VII.123-127. The ghost of Creüsa, Aeneas’ wife who died at Troy, had told him of this fate before he and the survivors had escaped the burning city: in Hesperia, “days of gladness lie in wait for you: a kingdom and a royal bride” (II.1056-1057).

[15] VII.268-269.

[16] VII.670.

[17] VI.1136-1137.

[18] XII.1107-1117.

[19] VI.1034-1038.