The Aeneid

Virgil can supposedly tell you the future. You just open the poet’s works at random, point a finger, and voilà. There’s your fortune.

Several years ago, I attempted this method of divination—known as the Virgilian lottery or the Sortes Virgilianae if you want to get insufferable about it—and landed on one of the passages in The Aeneid about how the goddess Juno hates the guts of the poem’s hero, Aeneas.

I took this to mean that somebody up there must have it in for me. Which would explain a lot, let me tell you.

At least I have fared better than King Charles I of England. When he tried the Virgilian lottery in the 17th century, he pointed to the part in The Aeneid where Dido curses Aeneas for leaving her, saying that she hopes he never enjoys a day of peace and dies before his time.

And sure enough, Charles ended up getting his head chopped off.

So be careful before you consult Virgil for yourself, lest you discover you’re in for misfortunes such as civil war, as in Charles’s case, or frequent head colds and flight delays, as in mine.

On the other hand, I just opened The Aeneid (Robert Fagles’s 2006 translation) at random for a second attempt and got this from Book Seven:

For absent Aeneas, a chariot, twin chargers too,
sprung from immortal stock, their nostrils flaring fire . . .

And that sounds like I’m getting a pony. So the news isn’t all bad.

When I was a kid, the old book that was supposed to contain wisdom on every page was the Bible—an extraordinary claim, seeing as how large chunks of holy scripture are devoted to tedious genealogy begats and detailed rules about priestly vestments.

In fact, I let my copy of the King James Version fall open in my hands a moment ago, and the first verse my eye fell on was Leviticus 14:8:

And he that is to be cleansed [of leprosy—or Hansen’s disease, if you like] shall wash his clothes, and shave off all his hair, and wash himself in water, that he may be clean: and after that he shall come into the camp, and shall tarry abroad out of his tent seven days.

Does that enrich your soul? Is that even an effective treatment for Hansen’s disease?

I’d say you’re much more likely to encounter something meaningful by opening at random a copy of Finishing the Hat, the collected lyrics (1954–1981) of Stephen Sondheim. For instance, I just alighted on these lines cut from the 1973 musical A Little Night Music:

Sunlight trickling,
Daylight blackening,
Passions tickling,
Virtue slackening . . .
Not quite night out,
Put that light out.

That stanza doesn’t tell you the future, but it does suggest an admirable way to live: with horniness tempered by wit.

I’m not saying the Bible and The Aeneid don’t have good lines. But because those works weren’t written by Sondheim, you have to know where to look.

My favorite line in The Aeneid is the one that goes, “There are tears in things.” Sometimes the preposition is translated as “for” or “of,” but I prefer “in” because it makes the observation ring very true for me.

There are tears in things. Because they carry associations with the past, objects—doodads, mementos, sex toys—have inside them the power to evoke strong emotions.

And that’s true not only of obviously sentimental items such as letters, locks of hair, and, okay fine, Proust’s madeleines. It’s also true of everyday objects like the The Wizard of Oz coffee mug you carried from one soul-killing office job to another, the stuffed pink pig your dog chews on to produce a rhythmic squeaking, and the expensive jar of saffron threads that you have kept among the spices in your kitchen for five years because maybe you’ll try getting into cooking again some day.

There are tears in those things, too—the pangs of the quotidian when regarded in hindsight.

It’s likely that I’m misinterpreting Virgil’s meaning. But if you can get him to tell the future, why can’t I make him say what I want to say about the past?

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