The Aeneid and Battlestar Galactica: Exploring Intertext
This article begins with a basic assumption: authorial intention is unimportant in revealing the meaning of a text. If for example the writer of Die Hard were to say he meant to write a movie about “sharing is caring,” that wouldn’t change Die Hard into a movie about sharing. But if authorial intention doesn’t matter, then does the original audience? Often, we privilege that audience because they were the people for whom a work was written, but if we don’t talk about the author, how can we say the work was written for anyone? That is, if authorial intention is irrelevant, so is the intended audience.
As a waring, the ideas expressed in this article are anything but conventional. In fact, what conclusions are reached here, no one should believe. Rather, this article is a thought experiment: What happens when we really discount the time in which a work was written? And beyond that: Where does a work get its meaning?
Reversing the Intertext
Intertext is the dialog between two works of literature to give meaning. A modern romantic comedy may reference Romeo and Juliet and so draw meaning from the Shakespearean classic. Or a new episode of Doctor Who may reference an old one. Or, to make an example of two well known films, the end of Shrek may (and does) reference Beauty and the Beast.
By having a similar curse and transformation scene, but a dissimilar result, Shrek deliberately attacks Disney for teaching people they need to be beautiful to be happy. The entirety of Beauty and the Beast is about loving someone for their inner beauty, but at the end of the movie, the Beast still becomes a handsome prince. It’s like Disney can’t imagine Belle happily marrying him when he’s a monster. Shrek says that if you truly love someone, they don’t need to be pretty for the movie to have a happy ending. One might extrapolate that Shrek further calls out society for not adequately teaching this lesson to children – a meaning that would be less obvious without the use of intertext.
But no one would say Beauty and the Beast has a dissimilar result to Shrek because it wants to teach people to… be good looking? No one would say Beauty and the Beast referenced Shrek. The reason is that Beauty and the Beast came first. But if one accepts that authorial intention is irrelevant, and if one therefore accepts that the intended context is irrelevant, and if one therefore accepts that the time in which a work was written is irrelevant, then who’s to say in an intertextual analysis which work references which? Or even to avoid the term “reference” but speak more broadly, can a later work change the meaning of an earlier work?
Yes. Actually, there is precedent that a later work can change the meaning of its predecessor. For instance, not even George Lucas knew that Darth Vader would be Luke’s father when the first Star Wars was being made, but the second Star Wars changed the interpretation of a lot of the earlier dialog about Luke’s (formerly literally dead) father. Similarly in Doctor Who, although the Doctor was probably originally understood to be telling the truth in “Hand of Fear” (by Bob Baker and Dave Martin), the later “Let’s Kill Hitler” (by Stephen Moffat) said he was lying the whole time. These, however, are within a single series and so blur the line between intertext and intratext (even when they may have different authors). No one is amazed when Chapter 3 of a novel causes them to rethink Chapter 1. More relevant is that the early Christians reinterpreted Vergil’s Eclogue 4 to be about Jesus. Here, they took something known to be outside the Eclogues and brought it into their analysis. One might even say Eclogue 4 referenced the stories about Jesus. (It should be noted, this way of reading Eclogue 4 is no longer acceptable among scholars.)
The implications of reverse-intertext are fascinating. Essentially, a work with one stable meaning can flip to have a different meaning altogether if a significant intertext is established. What “significant intertext” means exactly is anyone’s guess, but since this article is an experiment in literary analysis, please allow if only for the sake of argument that the works herein discussed are engaged in significant intertext.
Optimism vs. Pessimism: A Brief History of the Debate
Optimism and pessimism in the context of Classical studies (studies in Greek and Roman – in this case, Roman – literature and culture) isn’t exactly a half-full, half-empty kind of debate. It’s sort of more broadly been applied to mean pro-Augustan vs. anti-Augustan (for or against the emperor Augustus), but that’s not exactly right either, as a pessimist can believe the Aeneid (the work this article will discuss) is largely Augustan propaganda but maybe has more complicated undertones. It’s confusing.
For the sake of this article, suffice it to say an optimist believes Aeneas was totally morally right to kill Turnus (that will be explained in a second) and did it in good conscience, but a pessimist is someone who believes he was wrong – maybe he was wrong to kill Turnus, or maybe he just did the right thing for the wrong reason(s).
So what does that mean? Who’s Turnus? Who’s Aeneas for that matter? And what’s the Aeneid? Don’t worry! This won’t take long.
The Aeneid is the epic poem of Rome and was written during the time of Augustus by the poet Vergil. Think of it like Rome’s Iliad or Odyssey. Actually, think of it as Rome’s Iliad and Odyssey, but in reverse order. Aeneas (the hero and namesake of the Aeneid) is actually at Troy when it falls, but he escapes with some Trojans and leads them to search for a new home (the Odyssey part). Then they find their new home and try to settle there. Unfortunately, there’s a guy named Turnus, who is a jealous bully and who is angry because Aeneas is going to marry his crush, and he decides to have a war against the Trojans to try to win her back (the Iliad part) and Aeneas wins. Also, there’s a bit in the middle about Aeneas hooking up with the Carthaginian queen Dido and she’s crazy in-love with him. Her love throws off her ability to govern, and she ultimately kills herself when Aeneas leaves. In addition, a descendant of Aeneas will be the famous Romulus, which might explain to some people why this poem is important. Of course, Aeneas is important, but even those who haven’t heard of Aeneas usually know Romulus (even though he’s not really in the poem). Anyway, Aeneas winning and beating Turnus is the part that becomes confusing.
The problem is that Turnus is a whiny baby. So when he and Aeneas do this one-on-one duel to try to resolve the war, and when it’s obvious he’ll lose, he stirs up war again. And when they do the duel (same stakes) a second time, and when Aeneas could kill Turnus and end the war, Turnus begs for mercy. “Think of my father,” he says in a presumably really whiny voice. And Aeneas is thinking about it. But then he sees on Turnus this belt – this belt which Turnus took from the dead body of Aeneas’ friend Pallas. And Aeneas says, “This is for Pallas!” and slays Turnus.
So is Turnus still a danger? Have his crimes (and there are more crimes than just killing Pallas – if killing Pallas is even a crime) condemned him to this death? Is this relevant, or is rage the only thing on Aeneas’ mind? Is his rage the all-consuming, opinion-warping kind of rage or is it simply standard war rage? These sorts of questions fuel the debate, but the meaning of the original text is somewhat irrelevant to this article.
I mean, yes, ultimately this article is supposed to show how this experimental method of interpreting texts out of context can change a text’s meaning, and to do that it would be helpful to have a base meaning that can be changed. But the optimism vs. pessimism debate is complicated and it’s far easier to examine how two different intertextual readings with two different texts impose two different meanings on the Aeneid.
The first is historical: Vegio’s Supplementum – written in the 1400’s (long after the original poem) and printed for some time in copies of the Aeneid – adds another scene to the end of the work. In this scene, Aeneas gets the chance to make a speech justifying his actions, and so the Supplementum reimagines the end of the Aeneid to be definitively optimist. However, since this supplement poses itself as part of the Aeneid, it is closer to the Star Wars and Doctor Who examples listed above. It’s not canonically intratext, but if one reads it the way it asks to be read, it is close to intratext. Nevertheless, there is a basis for interpreting the Aeneid as an Optimist and there is also a basis for later texts changing the meaning of the Aeneid. Now forget the Supplementum – or at least think of it a separate and individual sequel for the next argument.
Battlestar Galactica and the Aeneid
These two works, for our intents and purposes, are engaged in a “significant intertext.” Although I am inclined to believe that many of the specific parallels pointed out by some commentators are silly and contrived, there is an overall similarity. Certainly, both stories are about a journey by an exiled people to a new home. The Captains (Aeneas and Adama) are required to make sacrifices, the crews are at times restless, and the dangers are ever-present, but they follow fate as their guide. Further, when they reach their intended destination, they need to make peace (with the Latins/Cylons). In these remarks, this article indebted (in part) to the analysis of other commentators.
The usual route would be to read Battlestar Galactica as a commentary on the text of the Aeneid. This article intends the opposite. The Aeneid, in this argument, makes references to Battlestar Galactica, but to what end? And with this in mind, one can say the Aeneid has changed meanings. There was a pre-Battlestar Aeneid and a post-Battlestar Aeneid, and the latter may be radically different from the former.
(This article contains spoilers about Battlestar Galactica and specifically the last episode of that series.)
One of the key differences between Battlestar Galactica and the Aeneid is the view of emotions. In the Aeneid, emotions are seen as potentially dangerous. Dido and Turnus are both characters who are governed by passion more than reason, and Dido’s passion causes her to rule badly and kill herself, while Turnus’ leads him into a hopeless war. Similarly, Juno, because of her anger, fights fate. Meanwhile, Aeneas is the opposite – not letting his desire to be with Dido trump his duty to his people. Aeneas dutifully accepts his fate and progresses toward his destiny.
One doesn’t have to look far in Battlestar Galactica to see a difference. The good Cylons constantly try to defend themselves as having real feelings, and in the first season, Cylon Sharon is redeemed in the eyes of audience when she rebels against the other Cylons to save the man she loves. Shortly before Sharon’s decision, a Cylon says about her, “She acts like one of of them. Thinks like them” (“Flesh and Bone”). Or consider “The Captain’s Head,” in which Dr. Baltar argues (though he doesn’t believe) that the humans are different from the Cylons in that the Cylons have no freedom because they operate like machines. In Lee’s words from the final episode, “If there’s one thing that we should have learned, it’s that – you know – our brains have always outraced our hearts, our science charges ahead, our souls lag behind.”
There are reasons for these differences that are cultural. Seneca contrasts human reason to the illogic of animals (see De Clementia 1.25.1, for example), and the way Aeneas often keeps his cool could be seen as similarly Stoic. On the other hand, modern sci-fis aren’t always so concerned about separating us from animals as they are about separating us from computers. However, in a typical intertextual reading, someone might argue that Battlestar Galactica is commenting on the Aeneid’s lack of freedom and over-restraint. Perhaps, for example, the forbidden Sharon-Helo romance has something to say about the similarly forbidden Aeneas-Dido relationship. (That is not to say Sharon is Dido.)
This analysis will look at the last scene of the Aeneid as something poignant with emotions. Aeneas in a fit of furor (anger) kills his enemy when he’s reminded of Pallas’ death. First off, if one reads the Aeneid as primarily a condemnation of the emotions in Battlestar Galactica, rather than primarily a work about the virtues of pietas (roughly translated “piety”) as one might read it without the intertext, the final scene with Turnus has a different focus. The word furor is so much more vital. Further, this scene seems remarkably similar to the first scene of the final episode (Part 3, not Part 1) of Battlestar Galactica. The Chief, seeing how his friend was killed, in a fit of rage kills Tory. Far from being the right course of action, this hasty murder nearly ruins the treaty. However, the show goes on and ends on a note of renewal and forgiveness.
By ending with the death of Turnus, the Aeneid shows the consequence of letting your heart outrace your brain (to flip Lee’s words). It highlights what is already present in Battlestar Galactica – what emotions really do. Emotions do not allow for renewal; they cause conflict. The Aeneid ends starkly to show where the morals of Battlestar Galactic really lead.
Reading the Aeneid ahistorically as a commentary on Battlestar Galactica can therefore cause it to flip on what is one of the most hotly contested issues in literary analysis. If a work exists completely devoid of authorial intent or intended audience, then it’s meaning can actually change over time. That is, we are reading a post-Battlestar Aeneid, but the pre–Battlestar Aeneid would say something entirely different.
Obviously we do this on a small scale everyday. We do it inevitably and we will never stop. Our lives will always inform how we view texts. But for some reason, no one takes this idea to the extreme. By no means should we – the absurdity of this analysis being a primary reason not to – but why don’t we? Certainly there are obvious objections to “significant intertext,” but this article has shown that there is precedent to retroactively changing a work’s meaning on account of some newer text (even if this process is not taken seriously today outside of television shows), and some of the logic that leads to its absurd conclusions does hold true. Can we discount authorial intention without discounting intended audience? If we can’t, and if we don’t want to discount intended audience, then what do we believe about meaning? If not from the author but not without the author, where does a work get its meaning?
What do you think? Leave a comment.