“The world has always been messy,” President Obama told America recently. Total media immersion has probably magnified our awareness of it all, but buck up! We’ll get through it; we have before.
He’s right about the mess. The Middle East is awash in frenzied blood-letting. Ebola, power grabs, planes flung out of the sky, land grabs, bombings, countless refugees, ISIS, beheadings in the desert, Syria, Gaza, Libya, police shootings, drug violence, Ukraine—wretchedness wherever you look. The world seems to have turned into a deranged, unspeakably violent video game. Seen up close and personal, ad nauseum, it’s beyond “messy”; it’s nasty and brutish. Seeing so much, so often, also makes the glut seem slightly banal. Still, the American view is that everything is fixable. A few bombs, additional troops, advisors, and presto! What used to be seen as the human condition is fixed; the world is a better place.
I knew nothing of such things as a 16-year-old, laboring over Virgil’s Aeneid. I was only concerned with getting my Virgil translation more or less right. Aeneas has fled a defeated, ruined Troy with a few survivors, headed for Italy when a storm tosses them toward Carthage. He reminds them of all they have already suffered, but assures them that one day, they may recall their miseries with nostalgia. Temple frescoes remind him of the grief and carnage of the Trojan defeat: A boy, dragged naked and defenseless behind his horse; distraught, wailing women, beating their breasts; Achilles, mercilessly dragging Hector’s body round and round Troy’s walls. And here, Virgil offers Aeneas a significant line that caused translators far more adept than me real trouble: “sunt lacrimae rerum et mentem mortalia tangunt.” Roughly, this means that there are tears at the heart of things, and mortal sufferings touch minds and hearts.
Had I been older, savvier, I might have thought more about the meaning of those lines rather than just translating the words. I knew a bit about the miseries that the Russian Revolution and two world wars had wrought in my family’s life. I knew just a little, but Virgil understood the devastation, the anguish and suffering that touch the heart and mind, the wretchedness of the human condition.
What’s missing in Obama’s “messy world” is Virgil’s resonant, magisterial, lacrimae rerum. Obama’s locution deprives us of the pity and sorrow that Virgil, even in an amateurish translation, enunciates. “Messy” reduces it all to the nasty and brutish, and makes it very hard to live with on a daily basis. In a world beyond our control, the daily brutalities need something weightier, grander, that transcends terrifying mortality. C’mon Obama! Your plate is more than full; we know that. But “messy” does not begin cover it; let’s have a little gravitas, please.
Sigrid MacRae is the author of A WORLD ELSEWHERE: An American Woman in Wartime Germany, published by Viking.