Today’s post is by Andrew Stirling MacDonald.
Andrew Stirling MacDonald is a composer, writer, video producer, and actor, living in Allentown, Pennsylvania. He can often be found writing unpublished novels, monopolizing pianos, extolling philosophies he understand little and valiantly attempting to raise his three adorable children. He wears kilts and a giant bushy beard.
“Taliessin on the Death of Virgil” is a meta-exploration of one possible answer to an ancient and controversial question. Like “Mount Badon” before it, we are given an extremely meta structure here: In this case, a poet (Williams) writing about a poet (Taliessin) writing about a poet (Virgil). In “Mount Badon,” Taliessin was simply musing to himself on the universal value of uncovering the perfect missing piece – a word for Virgil, a time and place to strike for Taliessin – but in this piece, Taliessin has actually written a piece of poetry about Virgil, as part of a presentation he is making to a group of student poets.
Williams’ take on the death (and more importantly the salvation) of Virgil gives us a very unique and thought-provoking answer to a philosophical question that has always been relevant, and is likely to become even more so in the not-very-distant future. The question, of course, is the usual one that is the centerpiece of any discussion of Virgil in general and of the Aeneid in particular – to whom does art truly belong? This question has been explored by many philosophers and historians, and clearly Williams did not feel a strong need to rehash any of the arguments made on the various sides of the debate. Instead, by skipping us ahead of all of the known material and plunging us directly into Virgil’s nightmarish entrance into the afterlife, he offers us an utterly unique perspective and possible answer that could well have the power to shape the discussion for years to come (if from more of an abstract perspective than one that can have practical application).
Certainly, Augustus is seen as the villain through Virgil’s eyes, looming and betraying, even his “gruesome great buttocks” making a shocking appearance as he takes a giant metaphorical shit all over the unfinished work by ignoring his friend’s final wishes–to burn his work, including the Aeneid. From the perspective of Taliessin, seeing Augustus’ actions as treacherous makes sense as well. The Aeneid is clearly a distant relative of Taliessin’s own “Vision of the Empire,” and the correlation of the positions he and Arthur occupy to those of Virgil and Augustus are certainly not lost on him. Doubtless, had his wishes concerning his own work been so abused by his king, he would feel just as betrayed.
However, for all of the derision heaped on Augustus, it is this same betrayal that ultimately saves Virgil’s soul. Without Augustus’ commands to publish Virgil’s unfinished manuscript, the legions of those who called him priest, friend, lover, and lord would never have known his name. They never would have had the opportunity to reach back through time and intercede on his behalf.
It is not immediately clear from this piece what the sins are from which Virgil must be redeemed, but it is certainly possible that the thing that damned him in the first place is his selfish and destructive command against the Aeneid itself. Certainly, society has demonized celebrated artists who have chosen to withdraw and stop sharing their work with the world. Bill Watterson, the creator of the beloved comic strip Calvin & Hobbes, received death threats after he withdrew from the public eye. Publishers waited until Harper Lee was in an altered state of mind to coerce her into signing documents allowing them to publish Go Set a Watchman. George Lucas is still mocked and scorned for his attempts to make revisions to his original Star Wars trilogy, as well as the revisions he made to that universe in general in the prequel films he later made.
As entertainment continues to expand into the social and fraternal void left by the current climate of ever-shrinking organized religious influence, these discussions about the ownership of art will resonate more deeply than ever. Let us look at the example of Star Wars, which is already shaping the lenses through which the next generations of western civilization view the world. These influences are likely to continue growing and becoming more powerful as future generations pass on the philosophies and canon media of Star Wars to their children. The role of creators like George Lucas have not yet been defined. Will he be seen as a visionary, a prophet, a brilliant philosopher? Currently, Lucas is most often treated as a fraud, a man who accidentally stumbled upon something much bigger than himself, bungled the treatment of it, and had to be removed from his own creation lest he spoil it too much, his sacred works placed in hands deemed more competent than his own. But most religious figures are not respected in their lifetime. It is not unreasonable to think that perhaps, decades from now, Lucas will go through a similar transformation as the Virgil of Taliessin’s poem.
As a final note- it is ironic for Williams to have had such a firm grasp of these insights considering the way his own legacy has played out. In an earlier post on this very blog, Williams scholar Sørina Higgins discussed how his work has become increasingly obscure even as Lewis and Tolkien works enjoy increases in popularity.