Tag Archives: Peter De Vries

The Virgilian Lots

My wife asked what I was doing with the dice.  “Divination,” I said.

On the train coming home from San Francisco yesterday I read the portion of Rabelais’ third book in which Panurge begins to wonder if he should marry.  Pantagruel suggests he test his fortune by the Virgilian Lots.  “Bring me the works of Virgil,” he says. “If you open it three times at random, and on the page that your finger strikes read the lines whose number we have agreed on, then we can explore your future as a husband.”

Having already given my soul to the devil by playing with a Ouija board (age eight) and chanting “I believe in Bloody Mary” before a mirror in a dark room (age nine), I thought I might as well try the Virgilian Lots.  I had no specific question to pose.  It’s been eleven years since the wedding bells rang for me, so Panurge’s problem isn’t mine.  But I thought I might simply present myself, in the form of a question mark, for the general sentence of the oracle.

Following the example of Pantagruel and Panurge, I took my copy of the Aeneid from the shelf, the Robert Fitzgerald translation.  I ransacked the game closet and found some dice.  I saw there were about thirty lines on each page of my copy of the Aeneid, so I rolled five times and added up the results: 14.  In order to avoid garbled prophecies, I decided that if the fourteenth line on the page weren’t a complete sentence I would instead take the whole sentence of which it was a part for my answer.

I opened the book at random.  My first trial landed me on the following lines from Book IV:

Why will he not allow my prayers to fall
On his unpitying ears?

I’m not sure what to do with this.  The words are Dido’s.  Should I put myself in her place?  Am I the one whose prayers go unanswered?  Or am I playing Aeneas to someone else’s Dido and being pitiless and unsympathetic?  Maybe, I thought, my second trial will help clarify things.  I found myself, then, in Book X, with these lines:

Either you stay here for the carrion birds
Or the sea takes you under, hungry fishes
Nibble your wounds.

A dilemma.  I think that, given the choice, I would rather be nibbled by fishes.  Prometheus is famously pecked at by birds, but I imagine he’s bad company.  Under the waves I could hobnob with Milton’s school pal, Edward ‘Lycidas’ King.  He’s sure to have some dish on the old poet.  How any of this relates to falling prayers and unpitying ears, I don’t know. But my last trial brought me the following lines from Book II:

………………And out we go in joy
To see the Dorian campsites, all deserted,
The beach they left behind.

This sounds more encouraging.  My enemies have decamped.  I am alive, though Troy is fallen.  Were my prayers finally answered?  Will I pass unscathed through the jaws of Dilemma like Odysseus through the monstery Strait of Messina?  Encouraging, maybe, but still unsatisfying.

As a child I knew people who used the Bible for divination.  Peter De Vries describes the phenomenon in The Blood of the Lamb.  You start by holding the book up with its spine resting on the table.  Then you quickly remove your hands and let it fall open and with eyes closed point a finger randomly at the page.  Whatever question you had put to God, the answer was in that verse.  (“Moab is my washpot” was the omniscient reply in the De Vries book.)  I wonder how long people have been using books this way, whether the Bible or Virgil or the I Ching, or whatever?

So much for my experiment with the Virgilian Lots.  As one comes to expect with oracles, the answers I was given were as doubtful as the question I had posed, which was myself.  Perhaps I’ll try it again in the future with something other than the Aeneid, something more playful.  Maybe Breakfast of Champions or Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

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Marginalia, no.100

Who can say?  Who of us so complexly entangled in our common human blah blah blah can plumb the innermost recesses of another’s and so forth and so on?

~ Peter De Vries, Slouching Towards Kalamazoo

What a strange relief it was the first time I read that sentence.  My God, I thought, I’m free.  George Santayana had claimed that ‘between the laughing and the weeping philosopher there is no opposition,’ but De Vries proves it in a sentence.

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Marginalia, no.95

…One of those grotesque ironies that are too strong for the delicate stomach of Art but in which reality abounds, as though life itself enjoys laughing down the aesthetic proprieties.

~ Peter De Vries, The Blood of the Lamb

Cf. ‘truth is stranger than fiction’ – the same sentiment, with a change of inflection.  The would-be Realist pinches his nose at the merest fleeting odor of unlikelihood, as if art were subject to a law of averages.  But every hour contains its exceptional minute, and perfect plausibility is perfectly implausible.  Chance, dreams and (if all else fails) the cosmic fact of something rather than nothing render the most mundane existence a catalog of marvels.

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Suffer the Little Children

What people believe is a measure of what they suffer.

It’s been a couple weeks now since I finished Peter De Vries’ book and I still can’t bring myself to begin another novel.  I pick here and there at Chekhov stories, at Montaigne and Emerson and DeQuincey.  I read magazines.  But in between and throughout the day I return again and again in my mind to The Blood of the Lamb.

My father used to say so, and having been a father myself now for six years, I suspect it’s true: Until you have children of your own it’s impossible to understand the burden of heartache that comes with parenthood.  It weights your steps like leaden boots.  It bounds your vision in every direction.  It colors every thought.  It groans perpetually in the nerves and in the marrow of your bones, sharp, but vaguely sweet.

That people are ever able to survive the suffering and death of their children is incomprehensible to me.  I think about the quote above and I think about De Vries’ own loss.  The Blood of the Lamb is more than a tragicomic (and more tragic for all its comedy) fictional re-creation of his own daughter’s death by leukemia.  It’s also very much about faith, and the death of faith.

I wonder why he didn’t write ‘love’ instead of ‘believe.’  In its power to evoke it, love seems almost a form of suffering in its own right, and it’s not hard to imagine that the more objects you give your heart to in a world of universal transience, the more you open yourself to pain at their inevitable loss.  But he didn’t write ‘love.’

Perhaps he meant that the more we suffer, the less we are likely to believe; or, conversely, that the more things we believe, the more we are bound to suffer over them.  Or perhaps he meant that the particular things we believe (religiously, personally) grow naturally out of our individual fears, as a way of counteracting those fears and pushing them – and the psychological suffering they entail – farther away.  But I don’t think so. 

I wonder, instead, if De Vries was simply saying that we suffer according to the terms of our personal creeds.  The believer in Self, then, suffers specifically in terms of the self; the believer in Nothing in terms of the void; the believer in a personal God in terms of close acquaintance with unobliging omnipotence.

What does it mean for a believer in Love (as every parent must be) to suffer in terms of love?  Maybe The Blood of the Lamb is De Vries’ answer to that question.

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Marginalia, no.82

Perhaps T.B. had been a mistake.

~ Peter De Vries, The Blood of the Lamb

Contracting TB got Don Wanderhope out of one fix while putting him into another.  That’s typical of tuberculosis.  Its near-eradication in the twentieth century was a disaster for literature.  Among the more richly allusive ways to snuff it, TB had ranked up there with drowning at sea: Keats and Lycidas arm in arm.  Swine flu doesn’t have the same cachet.  One can only hope these new drug-resistant TB strains will re-light the chandeliers in the grand alpine sanitariums someday.

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