What Would Virgil Do? (Or Martha Stewart, or Tower of Power?)

The ancient Romans consulted Virgil for big decisions, by opening The Aeneid at random and interpreting the passage. If it worked for the Romans, it can work for a columnist eating sandwiches at her sister's apartment.

March 18, 2013

Hazlitt regular contributor Linda Besner's poetry and non-fiction have appeared in The Walrus, Maisonneuve, and The Malahat Review among other...

||Virgil reading the Aenied, by Jean-Baptiste Wicar

When cardinals have big decisions to make—say, picking the next man to help suppress gay rights—they don’t just rely on their own capacity for rational decision-making. They start by chanting Vei, Sancte Spiritus (“one of the most solemn of Catholic chants,” raved Time) to ask for divine guidance.

We could all use a little extra muscle behind our deliberations. In his new book Antifragile, Naseem Nicholas Taleb extols the virtues of randomness, and he recounts how ancient Romans used to make choices by uniting the authority of a semi-sacred text with chance: “One of the methods, called sortes virginilae (fate as decided by the epic poet Virgil), involved opening Virgil’s Aeneid at random and interpreting the line that presented itself as direction for the course of action.” Taleb recommends using this method anytime you need to decide what to do. Why not?

“No less than theirs from Jove my lineage came;/ My mother greater, my descent the same.”

It seems pretty clear that this means I should go to the café down the street and have a latte, so I do. I pass some distinguished-looking old men sitting in Tim Hortons talking gravely, and remind myself that no less than they am I Jove’s daughter.

“Then is your time for faction and debate,/ For partial favor, and permitted hate.”

I read the proofs for a magazine article I’ve written and identify 18 things I don’t like. I call the editor and list my demands, and we have a politely tense discussion about whether you could ever mistake “it’s” for “it was.”

“None of your sisters have we heard or seen,/ O virgin! or what other name you bear.”

I take this to mean that I should email my sister and ask what her Netflix password is so I can watch the episode of Glee where Rachel and Finn finally get it on.

“Thus while their straggling parties we defeat,/ Some to the shore and safer ships retreat.” Too slow, banh mi sandwich—neither shore nor ship can save you from me now.

“The pest comes whirling down: by far more slow/ Springs the swift arrow from the Parthian bow,”

Hmm, that was a lot more banh mi sandwich than I should have eaten. All my mental and physical resources are called in to re-establish equilibrium. Naptime.

“For what offense the Queen of Heav’n began/ To persecute so brave, so just a man;”

Great! Who should I persecute? The people upstairs have been a little noisy, so tit for tat, I call up Taylor Swift’s “Trouble” and sing along with no shame. I’m housesitting for my sister, anyway, so they’ll just think she’s the one who knew you were trouble when you walked ii-in.

“Fail not this day thy wonted force; but go,/ Sent by this hand, to pierce the Trojan foe!”

It seems inconsiderate to poke holes in all my sister’s condoms, so I decide instead that this is a sign: I should be introducing even more randomness into my day. I go to the bookshelf and pick three books that seem as vested with cultural weight as the Aeneid: John Leland’s Hip: The History; the Canadian criminal code 2009-10; and Martha Stewart’s Encyclopedia of Crafts.

“When you’re in high school, it’s like, ‘Hey, I’m being arrested by the Secret Service.’ ‘You are? Wow, that’s awesome.’”

I take this as license to commit acts of juvenile daring, so I go out on the balcony and graffiti my name onto the wooden railing. Bez4Life.

“63. [Routine non-intrusive or frisk searches] A staff member may conduct routine non-intrusive searches or routine frisk searches of other staff members, without individualized suspicion, in the prescribed circumstances, which circumstances must be limited to what is reasonably required for security purposes.”

This is the downside of working from home alone; no one brings in cookies, office parties are sparsely attended, and there’s no one hot to frisk.

“Wrap the beak in brown floral tape; trim. For eyes, press in map tacks.”

I make myself a swan out of newspaper to keep me company. I don’t have any map tacks, so I use sewing pins for the eyes, and wrap its beak in clear Scotch tape. In Martha’s honour, I name it Jailbird.

“On the question of what is post-hip, Tower of Power has kept a discreet silence.”

This is unsettling. I open up my suitcase and examine the clothes I’ve brought. Is it no longer cool to wear all black? Is Tower of Power silently dissing my fleece footie pyjamas, which are red with dancing monkeys? Are they the wrong kind of ironic?

“(3) [Use or retention] A private communication intercepted by a person referred to in paragraph (2)(e) can be used or retained only if a) it is essential to identify, isolate or prevent harm to the computer system; or b) it is to be disclosed in circumstances referred to in subsection 193(2).”

I try entering my sister’s birthday into the password box for the Netflix account. Then her cat’s name. Then her cat’s name with some random capitalization. Then some expressions of annoyance with random capitalization and random numbers—arRgH99.

“Powder glitter is sometimes used as a base coat on objects, with larger glitter—such as shard glitter—layered on top.”

I invade Carthage.

Hazlitt regular contributor Linda Besner's poetry and non-fiction have appeared in The Walrus, Maisonneuve, and The Malahat Review among other journals, and her radio work has aired on CBC’s Definitely Not the Opera, Outfront, and The Next Chapter. Her first book, The Id Kid, was published in 2011 by Véhicule Press, and was named as one of The National Post’s Best Poetry Books of the Year.