There is a thread that connects the warriors and navigators of ancient mythology with the ancient hall of the Military School in Paris where we talked with the classical philologist and writer Andrea Marcolongo (Milan, 36 years old). The thread is war and all the epic that sometimes surrounds it. And it is also Marcolongo herself, a member of the Escritores de la Marina, a select club to which she belongs, along with others such as Arturo Pérez-Reverte, and which is based in this complex of buildings in front of the Eiffel Tower built in the 19th century. XVIII under Louis XV. These writers hold the title of frigate captain.
In books like the language of the gods either the art of resisting. What the Aeneid teaches us about how to overcome a crisis, which Taurus has just published in Spanish translated by Juan Rabasseda Gascón and Teófilo de Lozoya, Captain Marcolongo displays a rare mixture of erudition and passion for Antiquity (and humor). And she projects it into the present and into the future. Her books are an international phenomenon. She feels at home both in ancient Greece and Rome, as well as in France, where she lives, and Spain, which she knows well. Here is a European intellectual.
Listening to it at the Military School in Paris, one thing becomes clear: these languages —Greek and Latin— are very much alive. And those myths help us to live. To resist.
ASK. “The ancient gaze guides my life and my decisions”, you have written. Does the world look different from that position?
ANSWER. I don’t know, because for me it’s normal. The ancients —the Greeks— were the first to investigate the inner world: what we feel, how much we suffer, how we are. From the year 2500 BC to today, everything has changed: technology, religion, the climate. But human nature, no. I don’t think what we feel is so different from what the Greeks felt.
Q. Without this look, would you not be who you are or see the world like this?
R. That’s how it is. It’s not like I consult Homer before making every decision. But always, when I live intense moments, not necessarily negative, I mean the old ones. What would Plato have done?
Q. Do they give you answers?
R. Sometimes it works, and very well. The answer is in the books: just open them. For me, the ancient world is like artificial intelligence, but without being artificial.
Q.In what sense?
R.I don’t really know how artificial intelligence works, but we go to the internet, ask a question and there is an algorithm that answers us. When I have an uncertainty, it is enough to open the classic texts: everything we are living, what we are going to live and what we have lived is already written and has already been lived. This is reassuring: knowing that I am not the first or the last. Someone has already lived, someone has already tasted life.
Q.What did the Ancients have to have been able to say everything?
R.This is the question I asked myself when I was 15 years old and decided to study Greek and Latin. We are talking about a very limited place: some islands near Athens. And in a very limited time space: the classical period lasts no more than a century. Were they aliens? I think there was a very human vision of the world. A political system in which the democratic man was at the center. A philosophical system: the question was not only whether there is a god or not, or what will happen after death, but: ‘Let’s start living here, to give meaning to this life.’ It was a non-dogmatic world: there were several answers to the same question, not absolute truths. And there was a language, ancient Greek, grammatically made for thinking and of little use for doing business. Greek has many abstract nouns and gives the possibility of forming new words to express new ideas. Also, there was much less fear of death.
Q.What is heroism today?
R.For me today, heroism is taking the risk of choosing one’s own life. In ancient Greece there was no such obsession with success. Heroism did not mean coming first, nor did it mean winning. It was not important to be king or the last of the sailors. The important thing was to be true to himself.
Q.There are different types of heroes.
R.If we think of Homer’s heroes—Hector, Achilles—they are very hungry for life. Total, irrepressible heroes, with absolute energy, to the point that they don’t care if they live or die. What counts is the glory, the story that we will leave in this world. We think they are very violent, but Homer’s heroes do only two things: either fight or cry. They cry a lot. They cry rivers and rivers of tears. To them, it was a sign of heroism.
Q.In the art of resistinghis last book published in Spanish and dedicated to the Latin epic poem Aeneidby Virgil, speaks of a very different type of hero.
R.Yes. Aeneas is so different that I wondered: is he a real hero? I don’t know anyone who has said: “he is my favorite hero”. Or: “I want to be like him.” We have the impression that he is a little less of a hero. He seems more balanced, measured. It is different because it is not his fate that is at stake, but his, his father’s, his son’s, his community’s. He is a social hero. The crisis he is going through is not his personal crisis, but that of an entire people. He is the hero of responsibility. He says it from the beginning: “I really liked my life, my house, my wife, but I have to go and rebuild a country for myself and the others.” And he does.
Q.Virgil’s poem serves us in times of crisis.
R.When everything goes well collectively, it is normal and healthy to choose who to be in Homer’s catalogue: if one wants passion, Achilles, and if one wants adventure travel, Ulysses. But when everything starts to go wrong, the Aeneid it becomes the necessary, urgent poem: a manual for staying on your feet in the midst of a storm, how to get to that historic moment —the pandemic, the war— in which the world of yesterday no longer exists and the world of tomorrow has not. arrived. He explains to us how to follow and give meaning to this time in between. And the answer is to resist.
Q.Resist against what?
R.Against the temptation to say: I can’t take it anymore. And, paradoxically, Aeneas is the only one of the heroes who does not resist life, his bad moments. He accepts them or at least he knows that it is useless to fight against a destiny bigger than us.
Q.It’s an example?
R.Sometimes I use the following metaphor. We take the plane to go on vacation to Malaga, for example, we don’t know how to fly it and we talk calmly with our partner about the restaurant where we want to have dinner. Everything is going well. But when there’s turbulence or worse, then all we need is for the driver to be serious. The rest does not matter completely to us: that he is handsome, nice, great. We just need him to be serious. Let him know what to do. That’s it. Aeneas is an example of serious heroism.
Q.The word destination is key. What does it mean in the Aeneid?
R.In the Aeneid, destiny is simply the rules of the game, as if it were a football game: before we start we know how many players there will be, we know that there will be only one ball. In our existence, it is the acceptance of the rules of the game, which are, to begin with, two: we are born and we die, and there is only one life. It seems like a banality, but I repeat it to myself almost every morning. In the Aeneid You already know what is going to happen, as in life. What interests in Aeneid and in life is how we are going to play this game, be it crossing the Mediterranean to found Rome or a lifetime.
Q.Another key word: mercy.
R.Not that Aeneas is particularly religious, but he believes. He believes in something. I think this is beautiful: a large part of his strength comes from his ability to believe. We have lost the feeling of the sacred. We don’t believe in anything at all. On one side there is an overabundance of data, artificial intelligence, algorithms, and on the other we do not believe in anything or conspiracy theories are developed. I am not talking about mystical things, but about recognizing that there is a meaning.
Q.What do you believe?
R.I believe a lot in life. You have to celebrate it, as Aeneas does, that he is on a very difficult journey and does not know where to go, how to start, but he continues. In all battles you have to believe in something, at least in the battle itself. You don’t go anywhere without believing in something.
Q.Are there heroes today like those of Antiquity? Who would they be?
R.It’s hard to say. But I’m sure there are invisible heroes. I think of those who help migrants. I think of the teachers. I am thinking, in general, of any person who decides to truly live his own life, to be faithful to what he wants to be.