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lavinia’s voice (or: the critique of rome)

August 1, 2009


Le Guin’s new book is a subtle work, low-key in many ways; presenting itself as a footnote to history, a gloss on another story.  It is a slight departure from familiar genres for Le Guin: instead of taking us off to one of her beautifully realised alternative worlds she pays a visit to one created by another storyteller.  The storyteller is Vergil, the story the Aeneid, and Le Guin’s story fixes on one of the marginal characters,  the all-too-convenient princess, ‘now ripe for a man, now of full marriagable age’, whom the hero marries in the end, but who never gets to say a word herself.  Le Guin’s project is to let her speak, to tell the story from her perspective: Vergil’s story still, but from another point of view. A humble work then, in some ways, a tribute by one writer to another, and a little academic – obscure even – for readers accustomed to her marvellous fantasies. But like its central figure,  Le Guin’s book is much more formidable than it seems: through the elusive voice that speaks here,  shifting and uncoiling like a thread of smoke in still air, Le Guin addresses a wide range of issues – the use of power, the differences (as always!) between men and women,   the meaning of war, cruelty and violence; and the nature of the creative and artistic process of storytelling and mythmaking itself.  Most of all, as my friend Colleen perceptively points out, it is a reflection on the prehistory of Empire, on how we might imagine a good society: it is an attempt to recover and remember what it is to be virtuous, pious, heroic,  a good citizen — not in Vergil’s world but in ours, our Rome, in the day of the current hyperpower.

Letting Lavinia speak is of course not a new thing to do.   Le Guin’s book is powerfully reminiscent of Christa Wolf’s devastating Medea,  in which the anti-heroine of the original Greek drama tells the story from her side, and reveals who really killed the children. Wolf’s book is a revisionist feminist re-telling of a radical kind: not only does it seek to vindicate Medea, it also seeks to reframe the story of Greece and the start of Western antiquity in the context of the death of the old goddess religions and the birth of the new patriarchal orders.   And Le Guin herself has done this before in the Earthsea stories:  the brilliance of Tehanu and The Other Wind, of course, lie precisely in their critique of the wizardry of Roke,  looking at that masculine world of power through female eyes.  Lavinia seems at first glance to be another project of this kind:  a rethinking of the ‘his’ in history, that kind of thing.

medeaA few chapters in, of course, you realise that this is not exactly what is happening. (‘I am not the feminine voice you may have expected’, she rather knowingly says early on.  ‘Resentment is not what drives me to write my story.’)  Lavinia is no Medea, nor does she speak with the radical female anger of an Antigone or a Cassandra.   She is a dutiful daughter, a good mother, a loving wife, proud of her son.  Her most radical act is not to choose freedom, not to leave the citadel of masculine power, but to enter it, to consent to being given away like a possession by her father to a man she does not know.  Most astonishing is the portrayal of Amata, Lavinia’s mother, as a manipulative witch; Amata’s subversive escapade, her attempt to use Dionysian tradition, the ‘women’s religion’, to thwart Latinus’s plans, is rendered as mad, hysterical, irrational, deranged.  This is not what you expect from a feminist re-telling: no wonder so many reviews of the book sound a little perplexed.

The second disorienting thing is the mode in which the story is told and the nature of its claims to truth.   Early on, Lavinia tells us she knows she is only a character in a story, and time and time again as the story progresses, she reminds us that all this is really happening in a poem.  Most interestingly of all, the crucial events in the story pivot on Lavinia’s meeting with Vergil, ‘her’ poet, the man who imagined her.  He appears to her in the forests of Albunea— or is it that she appears to him as he lies dying in his ship…?   It is all most disorienting, as if Genly Ai were to speak to Le Guin on the ansible, asking her for advice; or as if Frodo were to see Tolkien in Galadriel’s Mirror, writing away in his Oxford study.  What is going on?

The answer, of course, is that Lavinia is as much about the process of writing and imaginative creation as it is about Lavinia the woman.  In fact, as Le Guin points out, we are not sure whether Lavinia ever existed.  After all,  she is only a name handed down in myth: she exists only in a story.  Vergil invented her.  Or did he?  He sat down at a table, started to write, and she came to him of her own accord. This is one thing about which Le Guin has always been quite clear:  that imaginative storytelling when properly done is a process of exploration, of discovery; not of goal-directed making.    To find out who Ged was,  who Shevek was, who Tenar was, Le Guin  had to let them speak.  And if the writer be true to her art, what will emerge will always be something more than she could ever have intended.  Now I in you without a body move: through her something more than her will speak, the voice of Story as it comes into emergence. In this way, the true storyteller is not unlike the wizards of Roke, with their powers of naming and their fateful ability to summon the spirits of the dead.  Perhaps the most touching passages in the story are the long conversations between Vergil and Lavinia; where the poet at the end of his life is visited by his neglected creation, and says Speak to me!  Tell me who you are! But in truth it is Le Guin, not Vergil, who is the summoner here, and through her that Lavinia speaks.

So what does Lavinia have to tell us?  What stands out most of all is her voice, her tone.  Though the events she speaks about are often terrible, her tone is gentle, elegiac, discursive.  She dwells  sensually on the lived texture of everyday life;  recounts unflinchingly  the most brutal events;  reflects coolly on men’s  and women’s weakensses and flaws; remembers warmly and generously the people she loved.  As you listen to her, Lavinia emerges as a formidable woman,  fully inhabiting the place allotted to her in her society  —   fully inhabiting it and more.  For as the story makes clear, Lavinia is the shaper of events in this story, the one who changes the course of events.  It is she that causes the war, it is through her choices that Aeneas comes to settle in Latium, that a new city is founded, that a new dynasty comes into being; a dynasty that leads to nothing less than the founding of Rome, the creation of a new empire, the unfolding of events that lead to this civilisation, to us, reading and writing here, in the twenty-first century. Through her choices she becomes the pivot around which history turns; and this is so even though her choice, her act, is nothing more (and nothing less) than to accept her fate, to sink her teeth, like Annie Dillard’s weasel, into the throat of necessity as it seizes her in its talons.

Living like Weasels, by Annie Dillard.

This gentle voice, then, if you pay attention, is in truth a formidable one. Like Antigone, like Medea, she does not give way as to her desire; but her radical act is not to leave the city of the patriarchy, but to act within it, to speak (and to speak sincerely!) in the voice of duty, the voice of piety, to speak as the king’s daughter, the hero’s wife, the servant of the gods, the prince’s mother.   Following always the path she must go.  That is not lightly done, as Le Guin often reminds us: if you seek to follow the Way, you may not know where you will end up. There is a  darkness in this story, the source both of its elegiac tone and its moral force; for Lavinia’s voice is the voice of a woman who has accepted death, who accepts pain, who accepts even war and violence; accepts them as part of what the world is, part of what is given; and seeks not to avoid them, but to know how to act rightly within them.   Alongside Gifts, it is in some ways Le Guin’s darkest work, most concerned with violence, with unmaking, cruelty and death. Much of the sensual beauty of the story comes from this acceptance of fragility: we are always conscious, as we see the beautiful hillsides and the fertile groves of Lavinia’s Latium, that life exists in the presence of death; that lasting peace always comes after – and ends in—war;  that Latinus and Aenas’s kingdoms, reigns of peace and plenty, are doomed to fade; that on Aeneas’s shield Lavinia sees the dark cloud that will rise into the sky in the last war, when the world ends and the very earth burns.  An harsh vision indeed, harsh and austere, but it is the ground of Lavinia’s being, and of Aeneas’s too, it is what constitutes their piety, and ultimately, it is, I think, piety that this book is concerned with.

Piety?  Even the word seems odd today. “By that word,”  says Lavinia, “I meant responsible, faithful to duty, open to awe.’  But what can we moderns do with piety?  That is a good question, and it leads, I think, to a consideration of what Lavinia has to tell us who live today.   As I have mentioned, my friend Colleen has put her finger on the nub (as she so often does): in Lavinia, le Guin gives us a vision of Rome before it was an empire, and it is indeed significant that  she chooses Rome; for when ‘America’, the present hyperpower, the present Empire, chooses to recognise its own imperial nature, it is precisely in Rome that it sees its image. areweromeAnd no wonder: in its grandiosity, its military might, its traditions of masculine heroism and civic virtue, Rome is indeed a flattering mirror in which America can regard itself.  And this means that today – as the corrupt empire heaves and struggles in its troubled sleep, as it unleashes death and war across the world, as it erases freedoms in the name of liberty, and crushes livelihoods in the name of enterprise —  the critique of Rome might give us food for thought.

I think it is here that Lavinia’s subtle subversion really lies.   At a time when the religious right has hijacked the language of morality, of family, of piety and masculine virtue, Le Guin’s act is not to leave the city, not to walk away – this time – from Omelas, but to speak within it: to ask what piety, what virtue, and what heroism in war could mean.  She shows us Rome before it was a empire, and what those values were before they were corrupted. And what we see is  not the utopia of Anarres, or the wise and patient Taoism of the Ekumen, but a society much like our own: in which violence and cruelty and war exist;  one deeply shaped by class and gender hierarchies; a world of kings and slaves and masters.  But it is a world in which piety is possible: in which the young woman can speak to her father, and he will listen; in which slave and master are bound not just by coercion but also sentiment and common humanity; in which the armies, in the middle of the fighting, come together in ritual sacrifice; in which farmers are warriors, and warriors farmers; in which humans seek not to conquer the world, but to live within it, part of a larger order, a larger story, in which they are merely a thread.

So. The summoner calls forth the spirits of the dead.   Through her, the Empire dreams; the Empire of which she herself, dutiful daughter, is also a part.   Like any dream it is brief, evanescent, many-layered, dark, evocative.   Like any dream remembered, it will go its own way now, speak in its own voice those who listen.  What does it say?  I think it says that we are lost.  That in seeking to master our fate, in seeking to tell our story as if we ourselves are it sole author, we have lost the way.  That we should do what is right to do, not because we will be rewarded, because what follows will be what should follow.  That your beloved will be taken from you, but that you must love him nonetheless.  That peace is precious; that war always comes. That life is cruel; that life is sweet. That we should offer praise, and ask for blessing, and seek to know our fate.  That empires die.   A gentle voice,  implacable:  a voice for today.

8 Comments leave one →
  1. colleen crawford cousins permalink
    August 1, 2009 2:13 pm

    Well done Andries. Yes, that’s it. “Through her choices she becomes the pivot around which history turns; and this is so even though her choice, her act, is nothing more (and nothing less) than to accept her fate, to sink her teeth, like Annie Dillard’s weasel, into the throat of necessity as it seizes her in its talons”.

    There’s nothing passive about the formidable Lavinia. She acts decisively, again and again. What does it mean “to accept one’s fate”? She’s clear about what can’t be altered – for example, Aeneas’s death, his history, the future foretold.

    I am interested in the old idea of Mars put forth here, as a threshold god, a sacrificial god, a kind of necessity whom it is better to worship, celebrate (and placate?) than deny or rationalise. A form or element of human nature? Dillard’s weasel IS his nature. Why are we not, or at least not as much? Or are we a different part of nature?

  2. Donald Parish permalink
    August 19, 2009 5:13 am

    FYI, Laurie Anderson used the eagle and the weasel in her song Speechless in the album Bright Red: “And me I was just hanging on. Like in that Annie Dillard book Where she sees that eagle With the skull of a weasel Hanging from its neck And here’s how it happened, listen. Eagle bites the weasel. Weasel bites back They fly up to nowhere. Weasel keeps hangin’ on. Together forever.”

    Nice review. You’ve obviously a reviewer who has read the important Le Guin books.

    • andries du toit permalink*
      August 19, 2009 7:34 am

      Thanks Donald! Yes, I know and love that song. Though if you go and read the Annie Dillard essay, she attaches a very different significance to the image than Laurie Anderson does…

  3. Una permalink
    August 22, 2009 11:30 am

    Gorgeous review, thank you very much.

  4. Simon permalink
    August 25, 2009 7:55 pm

    You rock Dries!
    Lucidty, insight, depth…

  5. Ha CN Do permalink
    September 27, 2009 4:24 pm

    I want to thank you. Your review has moved me to reconsider the depth and beauty in Le Guin’s Lavinia. But I am the ignorant romantic, who read Pride and Prejudiced and judged it to be great love story. Can you help me understand? To me Lavinia is a tragedy of ‘Shakespearean’ measure. “When in eternall lines to time thou grow’st, So long as men can breath or eyes can see, So long lives this, and this gives life to thee”, W Shakespeare. It seems Lavinia ends as her poetic character of The Aeneid to not be allowed to let go, and find reprieve from her eternal biddance to, “Go on, go.” Whose voice does she really hear in those silences where her woman’s soul reawakens, Aeneas’ or Virgil’s? In these moment’s of silence where she hears the voice it suggests that she connects again to her beloved, is it as the woman? Is this the only solace Le Guin can give Lavinia because Virgil could not complete her? Such wretched moving haunting eloquent sadness…

  6. Daniel Kirk-Davidoff permalink
    November 17, 2009 7:25 pm

    What a lovely review! I loved this book, but can’t praise it as eloquently as you. Thanks!

  7. David Craig permalink
    January 25, 2010 2:44 am


    Thank you for your many nice reviews. I had an interesting experience *listening* to the novel while driving cross-country in the USA (the unabridged version).
    It is an amazing piece of storytelling when heard rather than read, as well.

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