The Construction of the Administrative State


Image by Michelle Jia

by William Flesch

In class today we were talking about the differences between Vergil and Homer. The difference between the deep administrative state that Vergil is describing, and the unchanging, contextualizing hierarchical background against which Homeric personal relations play out. Dr. Johnson (Rambler 121) sees the silence of Dido in Book VI of The Aeneid as one of the clearest ways in which Vergil ornaments his poem with sparkling Homeric lusters that he can’t resist, and complains that it is much less affecting than the silence of the painfully ineloquent Ajax in Book XI of The Odyssey. But he misses the lesson of one of his own points: Vergil unites the beauties of The Iliad and The Odyssey, as he says, but he reverses their order: the intense personal experience that burgeons more and more throughout The Iliad and culminates in The Odyssey is in Vergil a turn away from that intensifying depiction of private experience, and a turn to the always emerging possibilities of political violence that the administrative state develops from and resists. The end of the Vergilian Odyssey is in Book VI of The Aeneid, at which point Aeneas turns away from the Homeric characters in the underworld and leaves them behind forever. Dido’s silence is a recognition of this: she has fallen in love not with Hector but with a proto-Roman, which is why it adumbrates Lavinia’s equally conspicuous silence in the last six books. The story is not about her, and barely about Turnus or Pallas or even Lausus and Mezentius, the Vergilian equivalents of Hector and Priam. We get a similar reversal when Vergil gives us his version of Achilles’s point of view, remembering his own father when Priam supplicates him, as Aeneas thinks of his own son when he kills Lausus and sees Mezentius’s intense mourning and desire to die. Achilles threatens to kill Priam but takes pity on him and gives him safe-conduct back to Troy; Aeneas takes pity on Mezentius by killing him, so he needn’t outlive Lausus very long: a final farewell to the Homeric characters.

The deep state administers and monopolizes and so restricts the violence that threatens everywhere. That insight is what leads to the proto-Miltonic moments in Vergil, in particular when the Vergilian narrator speaks, for the only time, from the perspective of the first person plural: we Romans, in Vergil, “nostra vita” in Dante (who must be knowingly alluding ot this), we fallen humans (“all our woe”) in Milton.

We can measure the modernity of this moment by hearing its not too distant echo in Henry James, in The Golden Bowl. Vergil’s narrative innovation (I don’t think this is too strong a phrase) is to describe any intense incident, and more and more as The Aeneid progresses, from the perspective of those in distress or pain or despair. This is particularly true in the shifts in perspective in the last moment of The Aeneid, Vergil’s recapitulation of the death of Hector, when Turnus loses his single combat against Aeneas, and Aeneas kills the suppliant. We go from his despairing perspective to Aeneas’s when the latter sees Pallas’s belt and is filled with uncertainty and guilt and grief and resolves these passions by violence. And then the very last moment is the flight of Turnus’s indignant (indignata) soul down to the shades.

But even before that Turnus has the nightmarish experience of being unable or barely able to hold his own:

…velut in somnis, oculos ubi languida pressit

nocte quies, nequiquam auidos extendere cursus

velle videmur, et in mediis conatibus aegri

succidimus  (XII.908-911)

…as in dreams, when languid rest has pressed our eyes at night, we seem in vain to wish to stretch forth our eager running, and in the middle of our efforts we sink down exhausted.

As has been pointed out (e.g. by Christine G. Perkell in her helpful account of this scene), this is a Vergilian recasting of a description of the dream-frustration described, in the third-person, in The Iliad (22.199-200).

James’s omniscient (or near omniscient) narrator uses the first person fairly frequently (singular and plural, though the plurals are a bit more specific, designating narrator and readers, not all human beings), but not like this, except perhaps for this passage near the end of The Golden Bowl:

He was so near now that she could touch him, taste him, smell him, kiss him, hold him; he almost pressed upon her, and the warmth of his face — frowning, smiling, she mightn’t know which; only beautiful and strange — was bent upon her with the largeness with which objects loom in dreams.  (Chapter XLI)

“…pressed upon her”: is that a memory of Vergil’s “pressit”? For though the first person here is latent, it is all the more powerful for that: James knows, and we know, what our experience of dreaming is like. This is James’s version of the Proustian nous, as impersonal a first person plural as we ever find in Proust, since it applies to all of us in our lonely and isolated dreams: a universal loneliness, a universal separation. So too is Turnus all alone, as all are. For Vergil this is the birth of the administrative state, the real entity that has replaced Homeric human relation. Blanchot (commenting on Priam’s supplication of Achilles) says the choice in Homer is violence or speech. In Vergil, in the modern state, our choice is only violence or the silence, whether of Dido or Ajax, imposed upon us by our isolation within the emptiness of our dreams (Milton).

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About the Author:

William Flesch is the author, most recently, of Comeuppance: Costly Signaling, Altruistic Punishment, and Other Biological Components of Fiction (Harvard, 2008), and The Facts on File Companion to 19th Century British Literature.  He teaches the history of poetry as well as the theory of poetic and narrative form at Brandeis, and has been International Chair Professor at the National Taipei University of Technology (2012) and Old Dominion Fellow of the Humanities Council and Visiting Professor at Princeton (2014-15).