Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Giving and taking: Heroides 7 (III)

Mortal action in the ancient epic world is shrouded in murk. Even chosen sons of goddesses like Aeneas have very little notion of what they are doing, or why.

After the Juno-sent rain that brought Aeneas and Dido into the cave, and into what Dido called "coniugium," Jupiter sends Mercury to prompt the Trojan, clarifying his task:
Not such the man
his beauteous mother promised; not for this
twice did she [Venus] shield him from the Greeks in arms:
but that he might rule Italy, a land
pregnant with thrones and echoing with war;
that he of Teucer's seed a race should sire,
and bring beneath its law the whole wide world.
If such a glory and event supreme
enkindle not his bosom; if such task
to his own honor speak not; can the sire
begrudge Ascanius the heritage
of the proud name of Rome?
Non illum nobis genetrix pulcherrima talem
promisit, Graiumque ideo bis vindicat armis;
sed fore, qui gravidam imperiis belloque frementem
Italiam regeret, genus alto a sanguine Teucri
proderet, ac totum sub leges mitteret orbem.
Si nulla accendit tantarum gloria rerum,
nec super ipse sua molitur laude laborem,
Ascanione pater Romanas invidet arces?
Mercury arrives, and:
                                   he saw
Aeneas building at a citadel,
and founding walls and towers; at his side
was girt a blade a-glitter with yellow jaspers

A decorative blade. Virgil's word, stellatus, suggests something studded or bejeweled, in which decor exceeds utility. Clearly not the warrior's. Neither Virgil nor Ovid depict the lovers' exchange of swords, but we need not look far in Heroides 7 for Aeneas's: his sword lies naked, as they say, in Dido's lap:
Adspicias utinamquae sit scribentis imago!     
Scribimuset gremio Troicus ensis adest 
O that you could represent me to yourself as writing this letter!
I write, and on my lap lies a drawn sword.
"How well" -- the irony is palpable -- "are your gifts fitted to my destiny!"
Quam bene conveniunt fato tua munera nostro!
The sword is indeed fitted to the destiny of a queen who, as powerful precursor of Aeneas, has accomplished that which he has yet to do. Bestowing her achievement and her pretty sword upon him, giving him Lordship of her world, un-Aeneases him.

When it becomes clear that Aeneas is leaving ("duty calls"), Dido turns his sword against herself. She takes his gift -- a symbol of his power and willingness to protect her -- and uses it not symbolically, but materially -- as a knife. If the symbolic aura of the gift doesn't apply, then its actual heft can, and will.

Readers of Ovid are familiar with this sort of metamorphosis: a symbolic gift suddenly loses its aura (exchange value, meaning) and "fits" (convenio) another use. The gift takes her life (use value, force), and that of their child. In this case, the sword un-Didos Dido when her Aeneas-annihilating gift is not accepted. There's no middle ground with double-edged gifts.

Of course Dido doesn't perish before leaving Aeneas a gift in turn -- a carmen. We'll turn to it in a coda to this overlong analysis.

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