Not interested in Paulo Coelho, Fifty Shades of Grey, or Jonathan Franzen, my summer reading has consisted of The Aeneid. I have never read anything by Coelho or Franzen. I haven’t read Fifty Shades, either, not being interested in airport novels with matted covers (“Mr. Grey will see you now”–seriously?).
Maybe that makes me a snob. I am certainly a snob when it comes to coffee and martinis. I don’t think I am a snob with reading, though, because I’ve never even had a summer reading list. When I go on vacation, I don’t take books. I know people like Bill Gates use the time to catch up on everything they missed in Harvard Business Review, but I prefer my vacations to be–what’s the word?–vacations.
The Aeneid is the story of Aeneas, who flees Troy with a band of followers as the Greeks ravage the city. He wanders across the Mediterranean looking for a new home and, after seven years of calamities and a storm at sea, is led to Carthage in Libya by his mother, the goddess Venus.
The Aeneid is Virgil’s ode to Augustus Caesar and the founding of Rome. It is a myth designed to legitimize the empire and Rome’s place as the divinely-appointed ruler of the world. Aeneas plays a key role in the myth, being half divine and directly related to Augustus, the man “who will again establish a golden age in Latium” (6, 791). His task is to establish the city according to the prophecies.
But then Aeneas takes his eye off the ball. He meets Dido, Queen of Carthage. She falls in love with him as a result of machinations by both Venus and Juno, who hates Aeneas because he is destined to destroy Carthage, the city she loves. The attraction between them is magnetic. Virgil even talks about that old flame welling up in Dido, veteris vestigia flammae (4, 23). Instead of sailing to Italy and founding Rome, Aeneas stays in Libya, romping around with Dido with flowers in his hair and helping her build Carthage, Rome’s nemesis.
For the gods, enough is enough. Jupiter sends Mercury down to rattle Aeneas’ cage, which he does. He asks Aeneas, “Quid struis,” or “What are you planning?” A more informal translation might be, “Why are you lounging around here when you’re supposed to be founding Rome?” The implication is that Aeneas has lost his mind. Yes, his ships have been blown off course but he should not be. A more direct way to put it might be, “Dude, WTF? Get your act together!” Virgil repeats the quid struis line at least twice, which should tell you something about its importance.
I’ve thought about my own life. How often have I been thrown off course not just from plans but from who and what I am? How many times have I ended up in situations with people I really had no business being with, flowers in my hair or not? I suppose it’s only natural to take your eye off the ball, but what saved Aeneas was the deus ex machina of Mercury coming down and slapping him up the side of the head.
So, where is Mercury in our lives? Who acts as our Mercury? And when he finally comes to rattle us, how do we react? Aeneas set sail the next day, not wasting any time. In fact, his departure was so sudden that, Dido, distraught, committed suicide with Aeneas’ sword, which he left behind. Is that the result of Aeneas’ lack of will power from the beginning? That is, had he not landed in Libya, would Dido have lived?
The Ancient Greeks and Romans operated out of a much different worldview from ours. They believed in destiny and that each human being had to live out their destiny to be happy. We, however, are concerned with free will and self-determination. The problem is that as life gets more complicated, deciding and acting upon those decisions become much harder. We need to be asked quid struis as a reality check from time to time. If not, we could go from one calamity to the next and find ourselves asking, “How in God’s name did I get here?”
So, where, o Mercury, art thou?
Stay tuned for Nine Lives and let me know if you’d like a review copy (“The main difference between a cat and a lie is that a cat only has nine lives,” Mark Twain). Bottom photo of Mercury Flickr.com (Justin Norris).