For the past few months, off and on, I’ve been reading the Aeneid for the first time, in the translation by Allen Mandelbaum. It’s been slow going; I think there’s just something intimidating about reading THE AENEID, but whenever I make myself open the Kindle book, I find myself sucked in to Aeneas’ adventures. (My mental image of Aeneas, I confess, owes a lot to Viggo Mortensen’s appearance as Aragorn in Peter Jackon’s Lord of the Rings movies.)
The funny thing about the Aeneid is how familiar it is. You see, I discovered Dante as a teenager and have read about half a dozen translations to date, including Ciardi, Sayers, and Mandelbaum. (Having read Mandelbaum’s Dante, I felt confident I would enjoy his translation of Virgil.) You can’t read Dante without, as it were, meeting Virgil, both as a character within the poem and as a literary source referenced in the annotations. I knew how frequently Dante quotes Virgil, but until I actually read the Aeneid, I had no grasp of how completely the Italian poet is indebted to the Latin poet for the entire plan of his epic. From my perspective, the Comedy is basically Aeneid fanfic.
I have read and written fanfic and participated in online fannish culture since 1998. When I went to my first convention of slash fans, people who read and write homoerotic renderings of popular culture, I met women who’d been writing Starsky and Hutch as lovers since the 1970s and were afraid that if anyone in their workplace discovered their secret hobby, they’d be fired. Since then, fanfic has, if you’ll pardon the metaphor, come out of the closet. While many authors still strenuously oppose the writing of fanfic based on their work, I think most creators of novels, film, and television are finally coming to realize that fanfic is not a theft of their work, not an insult to their creativity, but ultimately a compliment. Even if you rewrite a whole episode (or a whole season!) of a television show because you think it went wrong somewhere, you’re going to do it because you love the characters and their world, not because you want to poke their creators in the eye.
More than that, however, I think that writing fanfic is a kind of apprenticeship. It takes just as many hours to write 10,000 words of fanfic as it does to write the same amount of “original” fic. It takes as many hours to write a 100,00-word novel in which Steve Rogers and Bucky Barnes are not superheroes but ordinary guys who meet in college and fall in love (and have way hot threesomes with Steve’s best friend Natasha Romanov) as it does to write a 100,000 word novel about two queer guys who meet in college and fall in love but have no resemblance to pre-existing characters (or none that the author will admit to). And more and more fanfic writers are moving into writing professional, original fiction, without having to disavow their fannish histories as they once did.
What fanfic really does is challenge the ideas of creativity and artistic inspiration that came out of the Romantic movement in Europe. The Romantic artist is the poet in the garret, the mad painter in his studio, possessed by the fire of genius and creating works that come purely from divine inspiration and owe nothing to any source. It’s a myth that ignores the books, teachers, paintings, sculptures the Romantic artist learned from, not to mention the women who cook his food, clean up his messes, warm his bed, bear his children, and offer financial support and creative inspiration. The Romantic artist is the glorious solitary male, drinking himself to death to bear the burden of his splendid isolation, the condition of his creative gifts. It’s a poisonous myth that Julia Cameron wrote a whole series of books to combat: The Artist’s Way.
The fanfic writer, or the fan artist, by contrast, is a girl, or a woman, surrounded by a community of other girls and women who are keenly interested in her output. She has co-writers for her stories. She has friends who hang out with her in Livestream and watch her draw. She has Tumblr buddies who give her prompts, chat partners to bounce ideas off of. It’s a tremendous challenge to the male ego embodied in the artist myth.
What reading the Aeneid after reading the Divine Comedy shows me is that the fannish model of creativity is the one that actually works. It’s true not only for erotic stories about Kirk and Spock or casefiles with romance about Mulder and Scully, it’s true for all of literature, all of art. Dante made Virgil his guide into Hell because Virgil had already been there. The crossing of Styx in the Aeneid and the Comedy are almost identical, down to the weight of the mortal man dragging on Charon’s boat. Virgil’s Elysian fields are Dante’s Limbo of the virtuous pagans; Dante, like Aeneas, hears great figures tell him how famous he’s going to be. Like Aeneas, Dante encounters an ancestor who prophesies his future, though it is political disgrace and exile rather than the greatness of Rome. I’ve encountered a ton of parallels between the two poems, and I’m not quite halfway through with Virgil.
Then there’s Ursula K. Le Guin’s Lavinia, which I think is the finest novel she’s ever written. Lavinia is the story of the Latin girl that Aeneas marries, before, during, and after her marriage to the wandering hero, told by Lavinia herself. In the novel, Virgil himself appears as a character, a dream-figure encountered by Lavinia in numinous moments. I fear Ms. Le Guin might be insulted by the designation, by what is Lavinia but Aeneid fanfic? She herself admits that she was motivated to write it by her love for the poet and his work, and the love for another creator’s work is the prime motivation of fanfic.
So I have discovered that Virgil is, in fact, my ancestor–my literary forebear, a spiritual and creative root. I cannot overstate how much Dante and Le Guin have influenced me as a reader and a writer. I would also have to mention T.S. Eliot, whose work was opaque to me despite literature courses until I had independently read Dante and Julian of Norwich. When I saw who his ancestors were, I understood him. When I read Charles Williams, I understood Dante better; when I read Dante, I understood Wiliams better. Reading Virgil now, knowing he stands behind all these writers I have loved, I acknowledge and honor him as my ancestor and understand better all the writers he has influenced.
I realize that the logical next step here is to read Homer. Well, he’s on my list. In the meantime, ave, Vergili pater mei!