Two questions posed by Borges

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Two questions posed by Borges

At the annual chess match between England and Holland in 1971, I first became aware of the works of Jorge Luis Borges, the Argentinian writer, when I saw the Dutch Grandmaster Hans Ree absorbed in The Book of Imaginary Beings. Adorned with a jacket cover inspired by Hieronymus Bosch, this slim volume became my introduction to an author whose passions included the power of memory, fascination with the infinite and the game of chess.

Concerning chess, Borges wrote: “Chess is one of the means we have to save culture, such as Latin, the study of the humanities, the reading of classics, the laws of versification and ethics. Chess is now replaced by football, boxing or tennis, which are games of fools, not of intellectuals.”

Borges formed a chess-loving triumvirate with two other serially notorious non-winners of the Nobel Prize for Literature, Vladimir Nabokov and Stefan Zweig. Elias Canetti was more fortunate in taking the Swedish shilling, having featured chess prominently in the person of the chess playing dwarf Fischerle in Die Blendung (Auto da Fe) while Yasunari Kawabata also found his pot of gold at the end of the Swedish Rainbow by writing about the Japanese equivalents, Go and Shogi.

In 1978 I had the pleasure of meeting Borges in person in his flat in Maipu Street, Buenos Aires, when I presented him with my book on the recently concluded World Chess Championship between the Soviet World Champion Anatoly Karpov and the Russian dissident, Victor Korchnoi. I had acted in that contest as Korchnoi’s Chief Second and Head of Delegation, so my book had a considerable number of insights to offer. Borges suffered from hereditary blindness, but assured me that friends often came round to read to him, much in the way that Milton had friends who came and took dictation. Just imagine dropping over to see the Miltons for tea and being asked instead to jot down several hundred lines, something like: “Of man’s first disobedience and the fruit…”!

It was Borges who introduced me to those two burning literary questions which must assuredly keep the scholarly guardians of western culture continuously awake at night, tormented by insomnia, desperately seeking for the answers. Both concern Virgil (or as he was known in ancient Rome: Publius Vergilius Maro), the first querying the hero’s flight from Hades in The Aeneid; the second focusing on the apparent prediction of the nativity of Christ in the fourth Eclogue, an earlier work from the same hand.

Referring to the two Virgil problems, Borges had this to say on the matter in his book Seven Nights: “what occurs is quite curious and has never been well explained…” As I pointed out in an earlier column “Chess: Breaking the Code”, chess grandmasters are ineluctably drawn towards puzzles and acrostics, so I was immediately enlisted in the quest for solutions. It was, by the way, clear, that Borges was posing questions, but had no intention of proffering any answers. So, the challenge was on.

Augustus, formerly Octavian, was the first Roman emperor and he was determined to commission a national epic for Rome that would rival Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey for Greece. For this purpose he turned to the poet Virgil, whose task was to glorify Caesar’s heir, celebrate his recently established empire, demonstrate the origins of this empire in established myth and history, whilst also retrospectively prophesying the future glory of the new Augustan world order. This programme was deliberately articulated in The Aeneid. Virgil might also be seen as the herald of a further empire, the spiritual empire of the Christian faith. However, this was unintentional. It arose by accident in a quite different literary endeavour.

Virgil is to Rome and Latin what Homer is to Ancient Greece, Dante and Petrarch to Renaissance Italy, and Shakespeare to England, not simply a poet, but a unifying cultural force, helping to create and cement a national identity. Two interludes in particular of Virgil’s work do, however, remain problematic: the manner whereby Aeneas, the eponymous hero of The Aeneid, departs from his descent to the Underworld in Book 6, and the prophecies contained in Virgil’s so called “Messianic” 4th Eclogue.

 Given that Virgil was entrusted by Augustus with the creation of a national epic, the close of Book 6 of The Aeneid, where Aeneas leaves Hades through the wrong gate offers up a unique problem which has not only frustrated scholars but simultaneously thrown doubt on Virgil’s allegiance to the newly created Augustan Empire.

Meanwhile, what are we to make of the seemingly proto-Christian paean at the heart of Book 4 of The Eclogues, which did so much to convince influential early Christians, such as Eusebius, the so-called Father of Church History, that Virgil foresaw the coming of Christ? Can Virgil be considered the prophet of the Roman Empire, as founded by Augustus, and yet also be regarded as the prophet of the birth of the Christian Messiah? 

Book 6 of The Aeneid, where Aeneas descends to Hades to witness a pageant depicting Rome’s future glory, makes it abundantly clear that this is a poem of empire, and in particular of the Augustan empire. Aeneas is a man of destiny, a message reinforced and repeated throughout the epic, and that destiny is to ignite the process of empire which Augustus was to perfect. As Anchises, the (already dead) father of Aeneas, says in Book 6, “Tu regere imperio populos Romane”, “your task, Roman, will be to govern the peoples of the world.”

So, with the message of empire and destiny clearly articulated, universal bafflement, alternating with some over elaborate pretexts, or just plain ignoring the issue, have been the most popular critical responses to the manner of Aeneas’s departure from Hades, a mode of departure which, prima facie, seems to undermine the entire imperial message.

There are two gates by which to depart from the classical Underworld, the Gate of Horn and the Gate of Ivory. The tradition of evaluating the veracity, or otherwise, of visions and dreams, by reference to either a gate of ivory or of horn, goes back at least to Homer’s Odyssey. In book 19, Penelope refers to the gates and specifically mentions that the gate of ivory signifies false dreams. Thus, Virgil deliberately and unequivocally places himself in the Homeric tradition when he writes of the way Aeneas departs from the kingdom of the shades, as masterfully composed into English by John Dryden in 1697:

Two gates the silent house of Sleep adorn;

Of polish’d ivory this, that of transparent horn:

True visions thro’ transparent horn arise;

Thro’ polish’d ivory pass deluding lies.

Of various things discoursing as he pass’d,

Anchises hither bends his steps at last.

Then, thro’ the gate of iv’ry, he dismiss’d

His valiant offspring and divining guest.”

And for those who prefer the Latin:

Sunt geminae Somni portae, quarum altera fertur 

cornea, qua veris facilis datur exitus umbris; 

altera candenti perfecta nitens elephanto, 

sed falsa ad caelum mittunt insomnia Manes. 

His ubi tum natum Anchises unaque Sibyllam 

prosequitur dictis, portaque emittit eburna, 

ille viam secat ad naves sociosque revisit

I think it important here to mention in passing the immense skill Dryden shows in his translation. The Aeneid was written in a metre, it had beat and rhythm, and flowed like modern poetry. No other translation comes close to capturing the poetical side of Virgil as well as Dryden’s version.

For a poem designed to celebrate the newly created grandeur of imperial Rome, commissioned by the first emperor in person, and, if accounts are to be believed, in parts read out to Augustus and his court by the poet himself, this shot aimed directly at the validity of the empire, seems to be running a certain degree of risk. For a crime involving a self confessed “poem and a mistake” — “carmen et error”, the poet Ovid was banished by Augustus to Tomi on the Black Sea.

Augustus evidently had a well-informed interest in the arts. Had he taken exception to seeing his glorious imperial creation mocked and dismissed as a pack of lies, there might well have been unpleasant consequences for the author of the offending lines. Yet no comment, hostile or otherwise, appears to have been made at the time, no later effort was made by imperial censors to remove these verses, (as Augustus certainly had the power to remove parts of The Aeneid which displeased him), while many subsequent critics have skated over what appears to be a huge contradiction in Virgil’s own imperial project, amounting to doubts about the nature and continuity of the Roman Empire.

My solution to this apparent conundrum is that there is no contradiction in the manner of Aeneas’ “re-appearance into the upper airs”, “superasque evadere ad auras” and the reason that no adverse comment was made at the time is because the departure was entirely consistent with Roman thinking and pious religious attitudes of the day.

When a Roman commander was outstandingly victorious, the Senate could vote to award him a triumph. The ‘triumphator’ rode in a special chariot, drawn by four horses. He wielded an ivory baton and sported a laurel wreath, while his toga was brilliant purple, embroidered in gold. In earlier periods, the general would himself be painted vermilion, using the mineral cinnabar, a sulphide of mercury, just as the statue of Capitoline Jupiter’s face was painted red on important state occasions. Yet most significantly, behind the general, a public slave, the whisperer at the triumph, held a golden crown of Etruscan design over the triumphator’s head, while repeating into the general’s ear, the phrase: “Respice post te, hominem memento te”, “Remember you are but a man and take heed of what is to come.”

The slave’s presence was apotropaic, a defence against hubris, warding off the envy of gods, perhaps furious that a mere mortal was being so acclaimed, while also supplying a vital sense of perspective to the man whose triumph was being celebrated. The Roman triumph, with its peculiar features of the whispering slave, not to mention the licence given to the common soldiers on that occasion to sing lewd songs about their own commander, can be seen as a metaphor. Both elements introduced a deflecting function, indicating that the Roman mind, even at its most celebratory and triumphal, was profoundly aware of the possibility of a severe downturn in fortune.

Mary Beard, in her excellent book The Roman Triumph, points to the “ambivalence of triumphal glory” and it is in this context that we may now re-evaluate the departure of Aeneas through the deluding gate of ivory. Virgil appears here to be saying that Roman greatness is an established fact, that Augustus is the summit of Roman Imperium and that the immediate future holds nothing but golden prospects for the Roman state, guided by such an illustrious hand, and with every chance of similarly glorious successors. However, in the long term, sub specie aeternitatis in fact, Rome, in spite of its splendour, remains a mere blip in the endlessly stretching waves of future millennia.

As Dryden puts it, in his translation of The Aeneid:

“The Gods too high had raised the Roman state;

Were but their gifts as permanent as great”

(“Nimium vobis Romana propago visa potens,

Superi, propria haec si dona fuissent”.)

In this sense any dream of permanent domination of the world by Rome is nothing but a delusion. Apart from being quite literally true, this attitude would, in any case, always be a praiseworthy and pious one to adopt in the secure knowledge of the jealousy of the gods. Uttering this piece of prudent self-deprecation at the close of Book 6 can, therefore, be seen as a useful, indeed, commendable insurance policy against hubris, precisely along the lines of the memento mori message of the sibilant slave and its apotropaic function.

There is one further curious way in which the end of Book 6 references the imperial message, by departing through the illusory gate of “ivory” “ebur”. The name Caesar is, according to the 4th century AD writer Servius, in his commentaries on The Aeneid, taken from the Carthaginian word for elephant; “elephant” of course appears in Virgil’s text. Not only is the elephant a chess piece in many cultures, such as Russian, equivalent to our Bishop, the name is thought to have arisen because Caesar’s grandfather (also Gaius Julius Caesar) had killed a Carthaginian war elephant in battle. Caesar certainly used an elephant device on his coinage, so Caesar himself had deliberately associated himself with the elephant symbol. Hence Virgil forged a further link, with the Ivory Gate of Departure from Hades, to Julius Caesar himself and, therefore, also to Caesar‘s heir, Augustus.

Four centuries later however, the Roman Empire still flourished but there had been some major changes. Christianity was accepted as the state religion by Constantine the Great in the 4th century AD. The key date, of course, being the Council of Nicaea in 325AD, from which The Nicene Creed derives, and over which the emperor presided in person. As a kid I used to attend church on Sundays and whenever we had to recite the Nicene Creed, having no knowledge at the age of eight concerning Constantine or Nicaea, I reasoned that Nicene must be a Christian way of saying “ Nice.” As it says in 1 Corinthians 13:11 “ when I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child…”

The grand title Pontifex Maximus, or Chief Priest, was adopted both by the emperors and the early Popes, and is still in use. Interestingly, at Papal coronations, the ritual of thrice burning a piece of flax continues to mirror the warning of the triumphal slave. Virgil died in 19 BC, years before Christ’s mission came to Rome, so how are we to interpret the Messianic tone of the 4th Eclogue?

This is a poem which, with its mention of a Virgin, a new world order, an all-powerful father, a miraculous child, and the forgiveness of sins, not to mention universal peace, helped to convince early Christendom that Virgil must have had a hot line not just to Hell, as in The Aeneid, but also to Heaven:

Magnus ab integro saeclorum nascitur ordo: iam redit et Virgo, redeunt Saturnia regna”.

The early Christians were deeply impressed that Virgil had seemingly prophesied the nativity of Jesus Christ in language and tone remarkably similar to that of the Old Testament Books of the prophets, such as Isaiah, where it is written: “The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb and a little child shall lead them”.

As the Western Roman Empire declined and fell, so Virgil’s reputation as a poet began to fade, but his fame as a seer and magician correspondingly rose. He even appears as the wizard and concocter of potions Fferyll (a Celtic rendition of Virgil’s name) in the ancient Welsh national epic, The Mabinogion, and Virgil’s name still persists as the root of the Welsh word for a pharmacy, fferyllfa. The board game gwyddbwyll is mentioned frequently in The Mabinogion and was a favourite of the pages of King Arthur’s retinue and has come to mean chess in modern Welsh. It is more likely, though, that the actual game was probably closer to Fox and Geese.

Reverting to the reasons for Virgil’s mediaeval fame as a sorcerer, no less an authority than Boris Johnson took time off from the meteoric rise of his political career to write as follows of Eclogue 4 in the Chapter Augustus Caesar and Jesus Christ in his book The Dream of Rome:

Forty years before Jesus was born, and when Augustus was already consul, Virgil wrote a poem which has earned him the status of a kind of pagan saint. It is the 4th or so-called Messianic Eclogue, and when the early Christians looked back at it they could scarcely believe it. This greatest of the Roman poets appears to prophesy the coming of the Saviour — in language that is uncannily like that of the Old Testament Bible. There is going to be a new Golden Age, says Virgil, in the Messianic Eclogue. The creator of this age will be a wonder child. He will free mankind from sin and pacify and rule the world“.

As Virgil wrote: “pacatumque regit patriis virtutibus orbem”, (“armed with his father’s powers he will rule a world at peace”).

While Boris was editor of The Spectator he once invited contributions in Latin, to be rewarded with a crown of laurels, or something suitably redolent of classical recognition. Accordingly, I wrote my chess column that week in Latin, describing a bold knight attack with the words: “Quadripedante putrem sonitu quatit ungula campum.” (“The sound of galloping hooves shook the crumbling plain”). As with my article “In which I am accidentally declared a physics genius”, I seem to have scored nul points or less, since after many years I am still awaiting my Corona Literaria.

The Messianic Eclogue established Virgil’s prophetic credentials so powerfully that even Dante, in the greatest Christian epic ever written, The Divine Comedy, dating from over a thousand years later, still employed the character of Virgil as guide for his passage through the Inferno and the Purgatorio.

However, no modern scholar seriously believes that Virgil predicted the birth of Christ. After Boris Johnson rejected that seductive notion, he argues forcefully that the wonder child has to be Octavian himself. However, the dates rather seem to undermine the thesis of our current Prime Minister. Virgil is more likely to be addressing an unborn child, and Octavian was a young man of twenty-three, whose wife had a child (Julia) on the way, when the poem was written. The date can be confirmed because of the reference to the Consul Gaius Asinius Pollio, who held office in 40/39 BC, when Octavian’s wife was pregnant.

Coincidentally, Octavia, the sister of Augustus, married at the time to Mark Antony, was also pregnant with a baby girl, Antonia. Both mothers gave birth almost at the same time. Since the Triumvirs, Octavian and Mark Antony, were the two most powerful men in the Roman world at that time, it is difficult to be clear as to whether the child mentioned in The Eclogue was intended to be the offspring of Octavian’s sister and Mark Antony or of Octavian himself and his wife Scribonia.

On balance, Julia just has to be the prime candidate, since Octavian was located at the epicentre of Roman power, the eponymous capital itself, while Mark Antony was sojourning in more distant Athens.

The Eclogue is a poem about promise, not achievement, and that promise was dashed when, in 39 BC, both children were born and turned out to be girls, hence incapable of any sort of succession. This hymn of praise to the imaginary glorious future ruler then became redundant, only to be unearthed by early Christian writers and erudite political and military leaders, such as the late 3rd century usurper and proto-Brexiteer, Carausius. Claiming to be emperor and basing this claim on a Britain divorced from Europe, he used inscriptions from The 4th Eclogue on his coinage, in order to herald a golden age, ushered in by his own rule and taking the initial letters from the lines:

“…redeunt saturnia regna iam nova progenies caelo demittitur alto” (“… and also the reign of Saturn, while a new generation is sent down from heaven on high”).

The upbeat manifesto of Carausius reminds me of that Doctor Who episode, “The Pirate Planet”, where a suitably Buccaneering Blackbeardish figure is constantly proclaiming a new Golden Age. Cue another chess link, K9, The Doctor’s robotic doggy friend, always defeated Tom Baker (my favourite Doctor) whenever they played chess.

As for the prediction of the birth of Christ in Eclogue 4, this can now be identified as mis-directed praise for a future Roman emperor who was not to be, neither a son of Octavian, nor indeed of Mark Antony, but a daughter, ineligible to reign, according to the customs of the time.

The great irony is that early Church Fathers, such as the influential Eusebius, who collected what he believed to be pagan writings supporting the future nativity of Christ, and who was a close adviser to Constantine, evidently mistook Virgil’s words for a genuinely Messianic prediction.

Virgil, therefore, may have done just as much, if not more, to assist the official birth of the fledgling Christian Church under Constantine the Great, than he did for the original Empire of the Caesars, the distant ancestors of the Czars and Kaisers to come. Even Queen Victoria finally got in on the act, to some extent avenging the memory of Julia and Antonia who could never accede to imperium. In India, the likely birthplace of chess, Victoria was not a queen but Kaisar-i-hind, The Caesar of India.

Although he did not answer the two questions, I am grateful to Borges, lover of both chess and Latin, for providing a rich seam of mental stimulation during the forty-two years since I had the privilege of meeting and conversing with him.

This week’s game is a fabulous loss by the reigning king of chess, Magnus Carlsen, who succumbs to a spectacular queen sacrifice from a relatively obscure opponent.

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