In today’s anti-immigrant rhetoric, echoes of Virgil’s ‘Aeneid’

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Federico Barocci’s 1598 painting ‘Aeneas’ Flight from Troy.‘
Wikimedia Commons

Peter E. Knox, Case Western Reserve University

Boatloads of refugees put ashore in Italy after a wearying journey at sea; the city they adored, Troy, now a smoking ruin after 10 years of a desperate war; many loved ones dead from the conflict, with others lost along the way, victims of violence, storms or age. The Conversation

Put this way, the story of the “Aeneid,” Virgil’s epic masterpiece, has an inescapably contemporary ring. Today, in the wake of Middle Eastern wars, millions have fled the region, desperate for a new place to call home. Meanwhile, anti-immigrant politicians – Marine Le Pen, Geert Wilders and Donald Trump, to name a few – have jumped on the confusion and chaos, only to see their own fortunes rise.

In some ways, it’s not possible to read the same great poem twice. Time and circumstance will always reconfigure its meaning. As the United States bars its gates to newcomers, the “Aeneid” – usually thought of as a tale of epic heroism – reads now as a parable of exile, immigration and the self-defeating disaster of irrational prejudice.

‘All we ask is a modest resting place’

Virgil’s epic poem, written between 29 and 19 B.C., is the story of a band of men, women and children who survived the Greek siege of Troy (in modern-day Turkey) – when “Fate compelled the worlds of Europe and Asia to clash in war.” Aeneas, a man “made a refugee by fate,” leads them on their journey to Italy, where they’ve been promised a home.

The first half of the poem describes the group’s wanderings across the Mediterranean, the losses they suffered along the way and the weariness that, at times, leads some of them – Aeneas included – to think of abandoning the journey.

“How many reefs, how many sea-miles more must we cross! Heart-weary as we are,” cry the Trojan women in a moment of despair. But Aeneas and the Trojans do eventually reach Italy: They land at the mouth of the Tiber River, immigrants looking to join the people of this foreign land.

Latinus, the king of this country, has been given a sign by the gods to welcome the newcomers:

      Strangers will come, and come to be your sons 
      and their lifeblood will lift our name to the stars.

In other words, the gods proclaim that the arrival of new blood will be a good thing for society – a view held by many today.

After the Trojans arrive, they appeal to Latinus, describing their harrowing journey:

                        Escaping that flood
    and sailing here over many barren seas, 
    now all we ask is a modest resting place 
    for our fathers’ gods, safe haven on your shores, 
    water and fresh air that’s free for all to breathe   

Latinus recognizes that these are the newcomers foretold by the god and welcomes Aeneas “as ours.”

But Latinus’ open-door immigration policy soon meets resistance – a resistance that Virgil portrays as madness. Latinus pays a political price when his people, the Latins, turn against the immigrants, a development seen in many nations today, perhaps most notably in Angela Merkel’s Germany.

The thrall of racial hatred

How does an ancient poet depict the onset of madness?

In the “Aeneid,” the agent is Juno, queen of the Olympian gods. She has always hated the Trojans as much as she cherishes the Latins. Juno means to stir up war between them, so she sends one of the Furies, the goddesses of vengeance, to fill the mind of Latinus’ wife with thoughts of ethnic purity and sexual propriety.

These thoughts have consequences, because Latinus is now planning to marry their daughter to Aeneas – “a lying pirate,” as the queen starts to call him. Furthermore, she was supposed to marry a local prince named Turnus – his “blood kin,” as the queen reminds Latinus.

Turnus, too, succumbs to racial hatred. At first he’s entirely nonchalant about the arrival of Aeneas and the Trojans. But driven mad by Juno’s accomplice, he turns to violence to drive them out and keep the king’s daughter out of the hands of “that Phrygian eunuch” (a castrated man).

A pointless war ensues between the Trojan refugees and the Latins who had initially welcomed them into their land.

In one scene, Aeneas’ son accidentally kills a pet deer, and the locals, assuming malicious intent, form a vigilante group to exact revenge. What motivates this assumption is the more deeply rooted fear of the Latin population: Acceptance of these immigrants will result in the loss of their native Latin identity.

The tensions at play – sexual fears, fear of violence, hateful rhetoric – are unfortunately being repeated today, whether it’s fear of immigrants’ rapes in Sweden or the growth of anti-Muslim organizations in the United States.

In Virgil’s telling, this fear can only be resolved by the act of a god. In the end, it is Jupiter, the king of the gods, who gives his divine guarantee that the Trojans will be assimilated:

    Mingling in stock alone, the Trojans will subside. 
    And I will add the rites and the forms of worship, 
    And make them Latins all, who speak one Latin tongue.  

But it’s easier for a god to imagine resolution than it is for mortals, and for Aeneas, resolution comes at a price. He kills Turnus at the end of the poem. But he loses something of his humanity in the process.

Peter E. Knox, Eric and Jane Nord Family Professor, Case Western Reserve University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Why you don’t need to write much to be the world’s bestselling author

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James O’Sullivan, University of Sheffield

When we speak of bestsellers, we’re often referring to books that have sold fewer copies than one might think. By the estimation of award-winning author Donal Ryan, there are times when 300 sales might be enough to make a chart topper – the bestseller mantle tends to have more promotional than monetary value. Of course there are the literary blockbusters — titles like Harry Potter and The Da Vinci Code — books that ship hundreds of millions of copies. But combine the sales of JK Rowling and Dan Brown, even throw in John Grisham, and you’re still lagging behind the sales figures of the world’s true bestselling author — James Patterson. The Conversation

According to his publisher, Patterson has written no fewer than 114 New York Times bestsellers. His total bibliography is upwards of 150. He is, without doubt, one of the most prodigious literary figures that the world has ever seen.

Patterson’s success is unusual, in that he isn’t quite a household name; rather, he is a master of the airport novel, an author whose success has largely been achieved as a writer of commuter fiction. Patterson divides opinion: Stephen King describes his work as “terrible”, reviewers have deemed it “subliterate”; yet in 2015 he received the National Book Foundation’s Literarian Award for his philanthropic efforts in encouraging Americans to read.

Patterson’s prodigious output is accomplished through the use of collaborators: co-authors offered a chance to make their name under the tutelage of the world’s most commercially successful author. He is engagingly transparent about his process: co-authors work from a narrative framework provided by Patterson, who either then re-writes what they come up with or provides notes on bi-weekly drafts. The narrative frameworks he provides emerge from his understanding of the literary market, informed by his years of experience as an advertising executive. He has been described as a co-publisher, more of a brand than a writer. This is a distinction worth exploring, because it is Patterson’s name that looms largest on his covers.

Digital detectives

Using digital methods, if sufficient samples are available, the extent to which someone actively contributes to the actual words of a text can be tested. The field is called stylometry, and it has been previously used in author attribution studies involving popular figures like Harper Lee and JK Rowling.

A colleague and I applied stylometric methods to the work of Patterson in order to form an impression of how much he contributes to the writing of his books in terms of the actual words used. The results of the study show that, in each of the collaborative novels (we checked all where there was a relevant sample to test against – where the co-author had written individual texts), the dominant style is that of Patterson’s co-authors. This is quantitative evidence that, when collaborating with a junior party, Patterson’s contributions to the literary process are more concerned with plot than style. This isn’t a “gotcha!” moment: Patterson has always given the impression that he’s more about the plot. But it is confirmation that the world’s bestselling author may not principally be a writer.

At a superficial level, this tells us something about Patterson’s practices, how it is that he has managed to sustain such prolific output. But it also challenges notions of authorship — what is the significance of Patterson’s name on a dust-jacket? Is it mainly an endorsement, a valuable moniker which generates sales? Or is he properly seen as an author, just one who is attracted to the possibilities of narrative structure over those of language?

Patterson’s work might contain little to provoke the consideration of literary critics, but his restoration of the novel’s popular traditions — his approach to literary capitalism as both author and corporation, creator and trademark – gives us cause to query our own hierarchies relating to story and expression. After all, the novel’s 18th century beginnings are embedded in commercialism. Critics tend to value style over structure, yet the public are clearly drawn towards the latter. Is plot what makes an author, and style an artist?

All about story

The intention here is not to revive the tired debate between “high” and “low” art. Structure is rich in creative potential, and plot was essential to the novel long before movements like high modernism sought to subvert the popular by privileging style. At the same time, the role of the critic, and indeed, the reader, is to appreciate, interpret, and communicate that which is hidden in the nuances of artistic expression. One is unlikely to find an abundance of such nuances in a text that is all plot.

One could point to the film and music industries, where collaboration is the norm, in defence of Patterson’s approach. Most creative practices, certainly those that have been commodified, involve interaction with some form of producer or director. In the literary world, publishers and editors guide a manuscript before turning it into something tangible for dissemination. Patterson might be seen as a literary director, or even a producer, emulating the practices of contemporary ghostwriters or predecessors like Dumas, though this is something of an unfair comparison, considering Patterson’s 19th-century French counterpart was widely suspected of outright plagiarism, described as “only a myth”.

Patterson is all about story. He has turned the instruments of late capitalism to the task of commodifying storytelling. He is far from the first author to attempt such a commodification: King, Rowling, Stephenie Meyer and many other popular writers have privileged story over style. But Patterson is a curious figure among his peers, and our research suggests that “author” in its widely accepted sense isn’t always the most appropriate term for his role within the writing process.

James O’Sullivan, Digital Humanities Research Associate, University of Sheffield

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.