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Flectere si nequeo superos, Acheronta movebo — Virgil and being a creative

Be like Juno and choose what you love

The future is uncertain, but if history’s myths are a guide then we artists, authors, and musicians must push new creativity into the world, increasing our ideas and their diversity. Virgil’s epic poetry has a lot to say about how if you are a maker, building art or other creativity, then you must choose and even fight for what you love. To do otherwise is to invite inaction and inability. My favorite phrase from his writing is:

Flectere si nequeo superos, Acheronta movebo.
– Virgil’s Aeneid, book VII.312

For quite some time now I’ve used this phrase as my signature line in emails from the college where I teach as a professor. What does it mean?

Translated it means “If I cannot deflect the will of superior powers, then I shall move the River Acheron.” A less literal and much more common translation is “If I cannot deflect the will of heaven, then I shall move hell.” G. K. Rickard’s translation of the Aeneid reads “Hell will I raise, if Heaven my suit denies.” Another common translation, from John Dryden, is “If Jove and Heav’n my just desires deny, Hell shall the pow’r of Heav’n and Jove supply.”

Cold stream in the Berkshires, or, the River Acheron (photo by G. Scheckler, 2012)

Freud used the phrase in the beginning of his The Interpretation of Dreams. He suggested an interpretation of ancient Greek myth, that the underworld’s river of Hell like his idea of the unconscious mind might well up from beneath and flood our dreams.

This reverses the Christian idea of eternal punishment in Hell. It casts the underworld anew as a place of profound creativity from whence dreams arise. Freud followed the Latin with one of his own most famous lines: “The interpretation of dreams is the royal road to a knowledge of the unconscious activities of the mind” That understanding of ancient ideas and myths as possible wellsprings of creativity is part of why I like to sign off with flectere si nequeo superos…, as a recognition of how something strange, messy, and profound is going on with artistic creativity, a force of nature.

The mind and our creativity wasn’t what Freud thought it was. Dreams are not necessarily meaningful. It stands to reason that they are not more meaningful than other types of thought, and any truth claims made in a dream can be investigated just like any other. Freud’s ideas and explanations influenced artists and scientists but did not pan out as good explanations. Freud didn’t have access to the tools of contemporary neuroscience. What Freud lent us was the important notion that sometimes with the mind there may be more going on than readily apparent. And there is, and it’s far more complex than anyone of his time could’ve known. Today we know there’s multiple processes of mind moving together at once, dynamic, revising each other, woven through hosts of feedback loops: multiple networks at a profound, tiny, biochemical level. In this more modern sense, of all the modules of the mind working at once, the mind is in a way like the pantheons of deities found in so many ancient cultures’ stories. But that’s a too-loose analogy; the biochemical interactions are far more delicate.

Another element missing in translations and interpretations of a single quotation is the context within which Virgil’s characters say this phrase. In the Aeneid the goddess Juno, enraged and defiant and defeated, says it: Acheronta movebo. And when she says it, she is defending her right to do as she pleases and love humanity in her own way whether any of the other deities approve. If they will not approve, then she will ignore them and move the ancient river in her favor. Her words are moments of great rebellion. She will not sit idly by while others do nothing. At this point in the story, she also admits she believes she cannot win. And yet she takes action anyway. (She is like the artist who earned a rejection, and then submits her art to another venue, and another, and another until someday success is found… or like the leader who maintains the battle… nevertheless, she persisted!)

Therein is one of the older parts of the Greek Myth: the idle merely sit at the banks of Acheron and never take the boat across the river into the afterlife. They just sit there. They do not live. They do not take sides. They do not pick their battles. They do not steer the boat across the river. They do not create new paths. That is the more important meaning for me, a reminder to be active, to get wet, to stay focused on what’s important even against adversity, to do the creative work regardless of whether any superiors approve.

We do not need permission to be artists or authors. And often, to non-artists, it is we artists, writers, and inventors who muck-up the status quo. Forging anew, we like Juno appear to be meddlesome non-conformists, doing as we please. But our task carries much more responsibility than such false appraisals of our work, just as Juno’s task required honesty about her love of humanity.