Goree teaches courses in Japanese culture at Wellesley College and is currently writing a scholarly monograph on the emergence of popular geography in 19th-century Japan.
Virgil's Aeneid, Latin, and the Impact of its Conclusion
The Tale of Genji: Not so Black and White
We at Lit Well are interested in expanding the conversation about literature to places outside of the classroom. This is why we use social media and have published our reflections online. We've also invited professionals to share in the conversation! For this, our first publication, Professors Robert Goree and Adriana Brook share their thoughts.
Not everybody is going to read the Aeneid in Latin, and that’s fair enough! But here’s the one thing about Virgil’s Latin text that I think everyone who reads the Aeneid ought to know: the verb used in the prologue to describe the act of founding the city of Lavinium (condere) is the same word used to describe Aeneas’ enraged act of plunging the sword into Turnus’ chest at the very end of Book 12. This is a profound statement about the Aeneid and, I think, reveals a lot about Virgil's own perspective on the events of the epic. Aeneas’ mission, his destiny, is to lead the Trojans away from their war-ravaged city in pursuit of a peaceful, prosperous new life. And yet, the Trojans leave Troy only to end up fighting a war that resembles the Trojan War in almost every respect. Writing in the aftermath of a vicious civil war that pitted Roman against Roman, Virgil seems unable to envisage a new beginning that doesn’t simply reiterate the violence of the past. Even though Aeneas’ act of violence removes the final obstacle preventing the Trojans from settling in Italy, I always feel that the hope Aeneas embodies throughout the epic is stolen away in this final moment.
Beware of anyone who tells you The Tale of Genji is just a story about a spoiled womanizer. Yes, the handsome prince Genji prowls around the ancient Japanese capital of Kyoto in endless pursuit of romantic conquests. He sneaks into bedrooms. He peeps where he shouldn’t. He makes a successful play for his stepmother, i.e., he cuckolds the emperor. He gets exiled from the capital when the political fallout from his philandering catches up with him. He’s a badly flawed man suffering from pathological dissatisfaction, a criminal for some. But the tale is bigger than him, much bigger. Murasaki Shikibu, the lady-in-waiting who wrote the story over one thousand years ago for her friends at court, is the reason why. It’s her penetrating perspective that turns Genji into one of world literature’s most complex characters. Hers is a story that slips in and out of a troubled consciousness with the greatest subtlety, leaving us with a remarkable study of desire run amok in the shadows of an elegant world. We’ve got a womanizer here, but he’s in the hands of a very smart woman who tells it like it is.
Brook is an assistant professor of Classics at Lawrence University in Appleton, Wisconsin. Her current research focuses on ritual elements in the plays of Sophocles and her broader research and teaching interests include all aspects of the literature and culture of fifth-century Athens.