Erasing the ‘Aeneid’

Illo for Zeke Greenwald's essay.

I have done two things recently. The first is that I dropped out of college a second time, with a total of some twelve credits earned over both tries. The second is that I have finished for the first time a complete reading of the Aeneid in Latin. Perhaps I dropped out of school because I am a man who learns by mistakes. I learn by shame, observation, and a bit of idiot stubbornness. Yet I found college to be a mistake-less place, almost too safe a place to learn to read with resilience. There are experts there that might be too good at preserving students from confusion. Whereas I guess I prefer a series of confusions and resolutions that happen naturally for me as I persevere in a text with that idiot stubbornness. I stubbornly retrieved the beauty, the meaning. Thus with a growing exactness I struggled and read the Aeneid over some half a year.

First I started with a PDF file on my roommate’s Kindle, then I bought a used Oxford Classical text. The blue bound pages, I found, were marked, almost line by line, with a former student’s notes above Virgil’s verses. I read, and as I read I erased the English superscript. Luckily my slowly-expunged scholiast used pencil.

There were desperate moments in my reading, let me assure you! When I had fatigued myself thoroughly in my dictionary, when I couldn’t bear to look up one more line in the commentary, sometimes, I confess, sometimes I was so weak that I read the pencil-scratched vocabulary gloss, erased, yet despite my efforts engraved into the page. Let every reader learn humility when he uses any expedient means!

There were passages where beginnings were left uncomprehended until some revelation at the end of the passage remedied my ignorance. Oh dear, how many moments of poetic-turned ecstasies were gisted, and still remain pristine as if no one had ever seen them. Thus I still have so many vistas to explore upon rereading.

But readers, let’s learn another type of humility. That of reading foundational texts, yet not being at the earliest point of our education. It can seem like one big step into a studious childhood I never led. Imagine at least my frustration at becoming a retroactive thirteen-year-old, or less. And with my books I humiliate myself again. And yet I would encourage anyone to debase themselves if they are willing to debase themselves in this splendid way. For soon in drudging through my Aeneid I found myself in so many ways surpassing my graphite-forgettable Servius.

Above semper, Servius-Oblitus would always write: always. Above fidelis, he would pencil-gloss: loyal. Then knowing less Latin than any boneheaded Marine, he would mark Juno above Iuno. Just like a yad demonstrating the Torah, my pointed eraser-cap was dissolving so much English in revealing the Latin.

Now I am going to conclude with a reflection. I am a poet above most other things. And if an economist sees in everything the end of economics, or the classicist searches for classics in everything, I try to find the beauty. Yet in our time how infrequently does the poet engage in scholarship! Is not the beauty of book-struggle in many ways lost? If I mention my study of Latin, most of the time I am asked, why not Chinese? And the point is lost. But I just want to let those people know—and please admire the irony now—I’ve erased an entire translation of the Aeneid in the time I took to read it.

I have dropped out of college twice. I have read the Aeneid once. I am a poet, and I know the Virgilian desire to live one’s life stably when stability is lacking. Yet all the same, knowing that hardship, I would urge others to do as I have done, and to read as difficultly as I did. Now in a way my essay has contained advice. The advice is from somebody unlucky. So just as Aeneas says to Ascanius, now I’ll say to you: learn virtue and true labor from me, but fortune from others.
Zeke Greenwald’s work has been featured by Prelude, Columbia Journal, Yes, Poetry, The Opiate, and others, and it has been performed at such venues as Lincoln Center. He lives in Berlin.

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