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Madison Morrison's Web / Criticism
MM as the Vergil of the Classical Chinese Nachlass

MM as the Vergil of the Classical Chinese Nachlass

Richard Beck

 Vergil is quintessentially Roman and therefore Greek to the bone. His Aeneis is so imbued with Homer that he gives it an apparently Greek title, though one that uses an obscure Latin form for the name of his hero elsewhere called Aeneas. The epic’s Roman values and its celebration of Augustus are accomplished through the decadent assimilation of Hellenistic modes, as in Calimachus and Apollonius, two of Vergil’s post-Homeric models. For though every other line alludes to Homer’s texts, and every other book to the Iliad or the Odyssey, the mode whereby Vergil accomplishes this is Alexandrian, not pre-classical Greek.

 Likewise, his Georgics, though they seem to be Hesiodic, owe more to Aratus and to obscure early Roman treatises on agriculture than to the Works and Days. Even at his death Vergil was principally known. not for his Aeneid (which required more polishing and so had not been published when he died, except for the recitation of three of its books), but for his Eclogues, another poem in the decadent Hellenistic tradition, which owes much more to the urban, urbane Theocritus, than to any actual pastoral experience. Vergil was neither a shepherd, a farmer nor a general but a literary minion of Maecenas, who was titillated by his lofty languor.

 The rota (or cycle), Eclogues, Georgics and Aeneid, perpetuates not only (1) Alexandrian literary culture but also (2) Classical Greek culture (as in the Athenian drama of Aeschylus, Euripides and Sophocles, contemporary lyric expression, and even classical historiography), (3) later philosophical expression (as in Socrates, Plato and Aristotle) and (4) the literature written in Greek by Romans. The four phases of Greek culture embodied in Vergil are not in historical order: the late models for the Eclogues precede earlier models for the Georgics and the Aeneid, which nonetheless complicates matters by imitating the Attic drama as well.


 Thus Greek culture experienced a kind of diaspora, the whole civilized world being imbued, as Vergil had been, with its classics, which were widely imitated. Classical Chinese culture likewise spread from China, to Northeast Asia (Korea and Japan), to Southeast Asia, principally to Vietnam but also to capitals elsewhere with a strongly Sinitic population, which was educated in the Chinese classics. In his own work, notably in pamphlets about these countries, but also in critical essays and web presentations, MM echoes the traces of Chinese learning in Japan, Korea, Vietnam and Burma, but also in China itself.

 Modern Greece has often experienced an Hellenic revival, and so did China, most notably under the Neo-Confucianism of Zhu Xi, which, unlike modern revivals of Hellenic thought in Greece, became the basis of a new Sinitic culture, in Japan and Korea, Vietnam and Thailand, Mandalay and Jakarta (if not throughout Burma and Indonesia). Zhu Xi also created a post-classical Chinese culture in China itself, refining and abstracting the original principles of Confucian doctrine and making them the basis of the Chinese examination system. Vergil became a standard for education not only in Italy but throughout Europe.

 The imitation of Vergil, for example, was a familiar mode for Dante (who includes the poet in his poem) and of the Aeneid for Ariosto and Tasso in their epic-romances; for a neo-classical epic in France; and for Spenser and Milton in England. Vida wrote a Christian poem by overwriting the very words of Vergil, whose influence persisted at least through the end of the nineteenth century. The study of Vergil inspired a greater mastery of Roman culture, which led in turn to the revival of the Greek classics in the seventeenth century. In his own epic Morrison deliberately incorporates the three phases of the Vergilian rota.

He does so most obviously by quoting the Eclogues in Renewed, his book about Egypt, the Georgics, in Divine, his book about Northern Italy, and The Aeneid, in Second, his book about Turkey, Greece and Southern Italy (where Vergil, as in Dante, becomes a character). Morrison’s work follows Vergil’s use of the past but in a different way: he embeds analogous phases of Chinese culture too. MM's Greek phases, like Vergil’s, are out of historical order. Revolution, a play of ideas, belongs with the Platonic dialogues; Engendering's interweaving, with Hellenistic literature. Excelling is Homeric.

Exists, Regarding and All, with their distant "pre-texts," are like Augustan literature's distant imitations of Greek models. MM's criticism attempts, like Roman prose of the late period (by writers educated in the Hellenic tradition) to come to terms with Lao-zi’s Dao De Jing, with the Confucian Analects and with Buddhist doctrine. MM's China embeds a Chinese drama (in paraphrase) as the Aeneid embeds Medea and Jason in Vergil’s principal characters, Aeneas and Dido (Spenser will vary this practice by combining the two in his Britomart; Milton, by shadowing them in his Adam and Eve).

 Morrison, then, follows Vergil by imitating a foreign culture, by returning to its sources, by tracing its influence in other countries (Vergil likely traveled throughout the Mediterranean world), and by embedding through imitation and quotation its classic texts in his own works. Only in his criticism does he depart from Vergil, who seems not to have written in prose about Greece or explained his own procedures for handling its culture. Like Vergil, whose model so radically departs from Homer, Morrison’s epic resembles no epic that precedes Sentence of the Gods, despite its incorporation of other epics.


It remains to study his neo-Vergilian practice in much greater detail. How, exactly, are Confucius and Lao-zi embedded in Revolution and Engendering and to what effect? How does Buddhist doctrine figure in the earlier book, and how does its handling there differ from its handling in the criticism? Excelling is in the tradition of Chinese travel literature but is free of explicitly Confucian, Daoist or Buddhist discourse. MM’s China summarizes the process much as Bangalore Esightings brings to conclusion his incorporation of Indic tradition. I leave these matters for others to reconsider at length.