As I mentioned in the previous post, I have been working on a book-length project. Its provisional title is Love and Duty: Letters to My Father.
The last time my father and I talked was the best conversation we had ever had. He died early the next day. The essays in my book — the Romans would call them epistulae, essays in the form of letters — are partly my way of continuing that conversation, partly an attempt to go back to a time before his death and try again.
My guide through those epistles is Virgil, the classical poet who has excellent credentials in this line of work, having steered Dante, author of the Divine Comedy, through hell and purgatory. More to the point, Virgil was himself the author of an epic poem in Latin called the Aeneid, whose dutiful and long-suffering hero I treat loosely as an alter ego for my father.
I remember the exact moment when the book began to take shape in my mind. It was four years after my father died in the town where both of us were born. I was at home in Atlanta, standing at a second-story window, outside which lay our leafy-green residential neighborhood. My mind, though, was far away. I was pondering the famous opening line of Virgil’s work, arma virumque cano, “I sing of arms and a man.” This is often taken to mean that the Aeneid is about a man’s heroic deeds in a time of war. But what if, I wondered, we take “arms” literally as weapons and armor: “I sing of arms and the man who wields them”?
How on earth this relates to my father, an attorney and old-fashioned town father in the rural South, and to the various topics in my essays — the nature and demands of duty, the tight grip that the past can have on the present, the mores of my father’s social class, justice in the segregated South, fear and its consequences in our lives, rivers and forests as metaphors for everything from poetry to depression, the difficulty of honest communication, and many others — does, I hope, become clear over the course of the book.
For the moment, let me say this much. Imagine yourself looking down from the wall of a besieged city at a dusty plain. In the distance lies a shimmering bay. Below, two solitary figures face each other. Their ruddy helmets gleam with a fiery light. The men brandish their spears. They peer at each other over their circular shields. Now look closer. Can you see that the two figures appear to be the same person? This one here wears the distinctive armor of godlike Achilles. That one there also wears the distinctive armor of godlike Achilles.
I am describing the climactic episode in Homer’s Iliad, of course, with which Western literature is said to begin. The Iliad and the Odyssey had an almost incalculably profound influence upon Virgil as he composed the Aeneid some seven centuries after Homer’s time. In this scene, how the Trojan champion Hector comes to be wearing armor that once belonged to his enemy Achilles is a story for another day. Suffice it to say that Homer created a masterpiece of psychological complexity. When Achilles kills Hector, he appears to be killing himself. Actually, in a real sense, he is bringing about his own death. For Achilles is the rare individual who knows his own destiny: if he wins immortal fame in war, he will have a short life. And this victory over man-slaying Hector is glorious indeed.
Staring out of the window, following the line of influence from Homer’s duel to Virgil’s “arms and a man,” my thoughts turned to my father (as they often have in the 18 years since his death), and I had an epiphany of sorts. He wore armor, too, it occurred to me. He put it on each morning before leaving the house. As in Hector’s case, my father’s armor — the persona, that is, of the civic-minded, dutiful town father — tended to mislead. It functioned in part as a disguise, enabling him to project confidence instead of insecurity, strength rather than fragility, courage in place of fear. Moreover, neither the Homeric warrior nor the small-town attorney could maintain their pretense indefinitely. In the Iliad, Achilles proves to be the greater warrior, no matter that in their duel, the arms wielded by Hector are no less formidable than Achilles’ newly forged arms. Likewise for my father, there came a day when he could no longer put off his reckoning with insecurity, fragility, and fear.
That, however, was not the full extent of my epiphany. Because I also sensed that wearing the mask of the resolute leader and trusted adviser for so many years exacted a particular kind of toll upon my father. After all, a mask is a curious thing. If you rarely remove it, the world may forget what you look like underneath. You yourself may forget. With the result that soon enough, you may find it virtually impossible to play any role except that of the dutiful hero.
Like, say, just being a dad.
The Aeneid, known to some in antiquity as Arms and a Man, is the story of a Trojan warrior who rescues his father and son during the sack of Troy, accepts his fated mission to lead a remnant of his people westward, loves and leaves Queen Dido of Carthage, visits his dead father in the underworld, fights a great war in Italy, and ultimately unites his homeless Trojans with the Latin people of central Italy, the remote ancestors of Romulus, founder of Rome, and of Augustus Caesar, founder of the Julio-Claudian dynasty of emperors and Virgil’s own literary patron. In relating this story, the Aeneid serves as a foundation myth for Roman patriarchy, which is another way of saying that if Virgil’s poem is about nothing else, it is about fathers and sons.
I have grouped my letters into twelve chapters, corresponding to the twelve books of the Aeneid. I began writing during Fall 2014, when my wife and I were living in Manhattan, and I completed the first draft of my manuscript in Atlanta the week of Father’s Day 2015.
What happens next I’m not sure. Revision and publication? Perhaps. What I do know is this: I already feel nostalgic for the experience of waking, grabbing a cup of coffee, and going straight to my computer each morning, eager to continue a conversation that I began with my father not much more than 24 hours before his death.