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The Aeneid on Facebook

It’s unclear who transformed Virgil’s Aeneid into a facebook narrative, but to that anonymous soul toiling in, um, anonymity, I say kudos. The thing is incredibly funny, and even though it’s been a few years since I’ve read the epic in question, gags like “Aeneas changed his relationship status to It’s Complicated” after hooking up with Dido are, as far as I’m concerned, the cat’s meow in pajamas, LOLZ.

Anyway, I trust humor more than I trust anything else; where there’s smoke there’s fire, and laughter always indicates that some itch was there to have made it worth scratching. So let me scratch this a little deeper. Why pick the Aeneid for this gag? There are more obvious choices. The Odyssey would work as well, I bet, and is more widely known, while Brad Pitt’s turn in Troy might have made people more aware of the Illiad. In any cases, when a modern looks for a “dusty old epic” to spoof, it’s almost always not Virgil.

But here’s a guess as to why the Aeneid might have been the appropriate choice for this treatment, intentionally or no. Unlike Homer’s epics, The Aeneid is about foundation myths as myths, both the story of the mythical founding of Rome and, in a more general sense, about the ways that the acts of human beings here and now can actually be determinative of the course taken by their predecessors (by, say, creating a mythological story). There’s a nice fantasy of empire, right at the beating heart of the thing, that gets revealed as fantasy, the question of whether one can ever “found” anything and whether permanance can ever be created. It is, in other words, about the ways words become flesh, and about how flesh undoes words: Aeneis’ rage (in a revision of Homer’s Achilles) is the thing that founds Rome, but it’s also a peculiar kind of undoing of it, a vengeful act of founding that simultaneously sows the seeds of its own destruction.

But don’t take my word for it. As Sharon James tells us, “It is, in Jane Austen’s words, a truth universally acknowledged that the Aeneid is concerned with the founding of Rome, an event commonly described by the verb condere. This word is so crucial to the poem that it appears conspicuously at both beginning and end: dum conderet urbem (1.5) and ferrum adverso sub pectore condit (12.950). But these two acts are so different — the one a slow, constructive struggle to settle down and build a civilization, the other a swift, destructive act of enraged killing — that by placing them in such prominent symmetry and using the same word of them, Vergil calls attention to the relationship between them…In linking the slow founding of Rome to the swift stabbing of Turnus, Vergil suggests that the former rests on the latter. Thus he shows the violence and fury beneath the founding of Rome.”

As James notes, this is a linguistic innovation of Virgil’s; while the idiom “to bury a weapon in an opponent” is common both in English and in Latin after the Aeneid, it was Virgil’s use of the two terms in deadly symmetry in the Aeneid, linking the foundation of Rome with the murderous passion that undoes it, that gives it this connotation. All of which is, I suppose, just to make a fairly simple point: what better way to mock the pretensions of the imperial epic than this most transient of texts, the facebook page? What less imperial form of discourse could there possibly be?

 

Shell Games: Keziah Jones, and Things Fall Apart

Keziah Jones’ song “1973 (Joker’s Reparations)” begins with a weird left-turn from the recording of Major Nzeogwu announcing Nigeria’s first military coup in ’66, he suddenly shifts to singing about global currency politics, how (in 1973), the Naira was introduced (“to help the economy”) and noted that, because it was pegged to the dollar at the rate of six per (“the value’s kinda weak”), this “official calculation” would eventually lead to Nigeria’s impoverishment. Such globalization makes democracy a punchline, he sings, and now Nigerians must go begging to those who, with no apologies, devalue currencies and sends all the money to banks in Switzerland.

Right on; Fela for the 21st. But I was struck by these lines:

“Before inflation, we used cowries; we all knew what things were worth; But for mirrors and beads, they sold us a whole nation”

Ah, the cowrie shell! Global capitalism has never seemed more like a shell game than right now, of course, but it can be a dangerous fantasy to imagine a pre-capitalist time (or place) when stuff was actually worth exactly what it was worth, however common the Marxists (and others) have done so, using the figure of the primitive as the figure for pure use value economies. But it’s particularly dangerous to use cowrie shells as your example, should you elect to focus in on West Africa, as Keziah has.

Here’s why. If you’ve read Things Fall Apart – and if you haven’t, for shame! – you’ll recall that before the missionaries show up, Umuofia has a thriving economy based on the cowrie shell, an economy which gets radically shifted around after the white folks start dropping benjamins and palm oil kernal becomes a thing of great price, with tragic consequence. It’s a narrative about falling apart, as the title proclaims, so there’s an easy reading in which the difference between a local economy based on local indigenous production gets crushed and supplanted by outside economic forces. It’s this narrative, roughly, which Keziah Jones is appealing to.

The thing about cowrie shells, though, is that they are about as non-indigenous as they could possibly be: the shells used for money by isolated villages in the backcountry Niger delta, as it happens, came from the Maldives, twelve-hundred islands in the middle of the Indian ocean.

How, you ask, did they get there? Well, I’ll tell you. They were used as ballast by slave ships. If you care to know all about it, you can read Johnson and Hogendorn’s The Shell Money of the Slave Trade, or you can be satisfied with my brief sketch: since the cowrie shell happens to have all the qualities one needs of currency (accurately countable, incredibly durable, and with just the right balance between being cheap but not being of unlimited supply) it went from being a East Indian trade object in the pre-European hegemony era to being (around the turn of the 18th century) the primary merchandise used to trade for African slaves.

A “Dutch Gentleman,” for example, lamented that “Formerly twelve thousand weight of these cowries would purchase a cargo of five or six hundred negroes, but those lucrative times are now no more; and the negroes now set such a value on their countrymen that there is no such thing as having a cargo under twelve or fourteen tons of cowries.” As far back as the 14th century, Ibn Battuta visited the Maldives and described how: “They gather this animal in the sea and then put them in holes in the ground until the flesh rots, leaving the white shell…. They exchange [the shells] for rice with the people of Bengal, who also use them as currency. They also sell them to the people of Yemen, who ballast their ships with them instead of with sand. These cowries are also used in the lands of the blacks. I saw them being sold in Mali and Gawgaw at a rate of 1150 per dinar.”

Paul Lunde tells us that the exchange rate at that time was 400,000 cowries to the dinar (or more), which was 1/350 of the rate those currencies traded for in Mali, “a proportion that gives an idea of the profits possible in the cowry trade if the shells could be transported far enough from their place of origin. And they were transported great distances: After Yemeni ships, Portuguese, Dutch and English ships also carried them as ballast, and huge quantities were auctioned to slavers in Amsterdam and London in the 18th century.” And then, presumably, shipped onward to West Africa.

This is one of those facts that its good to have on hand when teaching Things Fall Apart; after all, treating the novel like a “first contact” story gets a little strained when you reflect that the “pre-colonial” money used by these isolated natives actually connects them to a global trading network that spans centuries. And I’m pretty sure that Chinua Achebe knew this – or if he didn’t I’m going to pretend – because it makes the story of Things Fall Apart a lot more intersting when you recognize Umuafia’s isolation as more apparent than real, a globalizing exclusion rather than a primitive insularity.

 

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