On Saturday I am making a very brief visit to New York City and I thought that the best way to prepare was to pick up a copy of poet, artist and activist Kenneth Goldsmith’s immense new book Capital: New York Capital of the 20th Century (Verso 2015).
On opening the pages of this gilded tome, I was first presented by the following description of what riches lie ahead:
Here is a kaleidoscopic assemblage and poetic history of New York: an unparalleled and original homage to the city, composed entirely of quotations. Drawn from a huge array of sources—histories, memoirs, newspaper articles, novels, government documents, emails—and organized into interpretive categories that reveal the philosophical architecture of the city, Capital is the ne plus ultra of books on the ultimate megalopolis.
It is also a book of experimental literature that transposes Walter Benjamin’s unfinished magnum opus of literary montage on the modern city, The Arcades Project, from 19th-century Paris to 20th-century New York, bringing the streets to life in categories such as “Sex,” “Commodity,” “Downtown,” “Subway,” and “Mapplethorpe.”
Capital is a book designed to fascinate and to fail—for can a megalopolis truly be written? Can a history, no matter how extensive, ever be comprehensive? Each reading of this book, and of New York, is a unique and impossible passage.
But even before getting immersed in the book as megalopolis and its labyrinthine assemblage of themes and quotations, I was confronted by the following ominous quotation from Virgil’s Aeneid – in Latin:
Facilis descensus Averno;
Noctes atque dies patet atri ianua Ditis;
Sed revocare gradum superasque evadere ad auras,
Hoc opus, hic labor est.
Left untranslated as the epigraph to the work, here you have it in John Dryden’s translation:
The gates of hell are open night and day;
Smooth the descent, and easy is the way:
But to return, and view the cheerful skies,
In this the task and mighty labor lies.
Now, before venturing further into Goldsmith’s book, I wanted to muse on the nuanced significance of this Virgilian epigraph for Capital. At its most basic, the words of the Sibyl to the Trojan hero Aeneas about his journey to the Underworld (Aeneid 6. 126-129), offer a basic parallel between the city of New York and the ancient Underworld. Actually – getting ahead of myself – when flicking through the book, I happened to land on page 32, as part of section C – Antiquity – Roman – reading the following illuminating quotation:
In 1905, the story went around of two strangers meeting in the city: “What do you know of New York?” said one wanderer to another. “Only what I have read in Dante,” was the bleak reply. (Sharpe, p. 201)
Now I’m sure that the New York as hell idea appears again and again throughout the pages of Capital and without an index, it will be up to me, the reader, to do the hard work of finding all these supporting references However, sticking for now to the Virgil quotation itself, I did think of another way of understanding what work this epigraph is doing for this contemporary poet’s monumental project, relying on tracking back a few steps through the Roman poet’s work.
Part of the phrase to describe the difficult return journey from the Underworld – hoc opus, hic labor est – recalls a moment earlier in the sixth book of Virgil’s Aeneid, when the poet is describing a series of pictures engraved on the doors of the temple of Apollo that Aeneas encounters on his arrival in Italy (Virgil Aeneid 6. 14-33):
Daedalus, ut fama est, fugiens Minoia regna
praepetibus pennis ausus se credere caelo 15
insuetum per iter gelidas enauit ad Arctos,
Chalcidicaque leuis tandem super astitit arce.
redditus his primum terris tibi, Phoebe, sacrauit
remigium alarum posuitque immania templa.
in foribus letum Androgeo; tum pendere poenas 20
Cecropidae iussi (miserum!) septena quotannis
corpora natorum; stat ductis sortibus urna.
contra elata mari respondet Cnosia tellus:
hic crudelis amor tauri suppostaque furto
Pasiphae mixtumque genus prolesque biformis 25
Minotaurus inest, Veneris monimenta nefandae,
hic labor ille domus et inextricabilis error;
magnum reginae sed enim miseratus amorem
Daedalus ipse dolos tecti ambagesque resoluit,
caeca regens filo uestigia. tu quoque magnam 30
partem opere in tanto, sineret dolor, Icare, haberes.
bis conatus erat casus effingere in auro,
bis patriae cecidere manus.
Here is a rather clunky prose translation of the passage:
Daedalus, it is said, when fleeing from Minos’ realm, dared on swift wings to trust himself to the sky; on his unwonted way he floated forth towards the cold North, and at last stood lightly poised above the Chalcidian hill. Here first restored to earth, he dedicated to thee, Phoebus, the orange of his wings and built a vast temple. On the doors is the death of Androgeos; then the children of Cecrops, bidden, alas, to pay as yearly tribute seven living sons; there stands the urn, the lots now drawn. Opposite, rising from the sea, the Cretan land faces this; here is the cruel love of the bull, Pasiphaë craftily mated, and the mongrel breed of the Minotaur, a hybrid offspring, record of a monstrous love; there that house of toil, a maze inextricable; but Daedalus pitying the princess’s great love, himself unwound the deceptive tangle of the palace, guiding blind feet with the thread. You, too, Icarus, would have large share in such a work, did grief permit: twice had he essayed to fashion your fall in gold; twice sank the father’s hands.
With this passage in mind, the labor of the return journey from the Underworld is transposed onto the myths of Crete and Midas’ ‘house of toil’, as the site of the death of sacrificed youths to the monstrous Minotaur, eventually defeated by the hero Theseus. Yet the most interesting aspect of this poetic description of Daedelus’ art work (this ekphrasis), is how the reference to the ‘inextricable maze’ (inextricabilis error) made by Daedalus finds its way into the present work made by Daedalus (the doors of Apollo’s temple). What this means for the phrase hoc opus, hic labor est, that appears a few lines later in Virgil’s poem, is that, thanks to Daedalus’ dual-work – the labyrinth and the doors – the reader is primed for an association between the ‘work’ of the Underworld ascent and the ‘work’ of art of Virgil’s poem.
To trace our steps from here back to Goldsmith’s Capital, the way in which the preface concludes seems to be aware of this confluence of ideas of work – as action and as creation – , but enacted in terms of the reader’s journey:
Each reading of this book, and of New York, is a unique and impossible passage.
Could Goldsmith have Virgil’s Daedalean inextricabilis error in mind here for the phrasing ‘impossible passage’? Or could the Virgilian tale of Daedalus have brought to mind another Latin epigraph, somewhat closer to home to Goldsmith’s work? Could Goldsmith be creating his own version of Joyce’s epigraph to Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man, which took Ovid’s description of the artist Daedalus as his epigraph to his tale of Stephen Daedalus?
Et ignotas animum dimittit in artes
(‘He turned his mind to unknown arts’, Ovid Metamorphoses, 8. 18)
Obviously, the only way to explore Goldsmith’s Virgilian and Joycean readings is for me to get started and read Capital, to immerse myself in this golden book and the city it maps through a massive mosaic of citations. Nonetheless, like the much-debated use of Virgil for the National September 11 Memorial Museum, the very act of using Virgil’s poetry as epigraph to this project gives is a great starting point for further investigation into how contemporary creative readings engage our own continually creative discipline.