Even the Queen of Carthage can have a rough day…
This piece was also run by The Houston Chronicle on 17 December 2014 in the Gray Matters section:
I have a friend who went to my high school. He was a few years ahead of me, and let me summarize: Girls Really Like Him.
We were at dinner the other night, and he showed me the most astonishing thing on his cell phone: a list of names with “DNR” next to them.
At first I didn’t get it. I said, “Do Not Resuscitate?” (Just so you know, I am against this. I believe in being a burden to society, coming back from that coma, and starring in a documentary on medical miracles. No need to make any hasty decisions.)
My friend just looked at me, as if wondering if he needed to speak slowly and enunciate technological terms that occur in the 21st century. Then he said, “No. It means ‘Do Not Respond’.” Oh, okay.
I am not sure if this is just a reminder to himself not to respond to these particular individuals, or if he actually has his phone wired so that he cannot send them responses (a level of self-possession that raises restraint to an art form), but it sounded pretty definitive to me.
I am guessing these names were of women who are beautiful, successful, and smart. (He tends to gravitate to the beautiful, successful and smart, heaven only knows why). I didn’t ask. This is a friend; I didn’t want to pry. But anyone with a pulse could intuit that there was probably enough drama behind these decisions to make several Lifetime movies. Since my friend was not forthcoming, my imagination went into overdrive, and I went from thinking that maybe these females were stalkers who had ceased to be interesting, but no, true loves that went awry, but wait–maybe not any of those things. Then I was rethinking that they might be the nicest girls in Texas, who, in the grip of Pinot Grigio, just texted one too many times, unwittingly consigning themselves to, uh, The Past. Sometimes it is a tightrope out there.
These DNRs could all revolve around what I will now call “The Dido Syndrome.” Call my friend “Aeneas.”
When I teach Virgil’s The Aeneid, I can hardly wait to get to Book IV, “The Passion of the Queen.” Aeneas is in the middle of his journey back from the Trojan War, all ready to found the Roman empire, but he hits a glitch when he meets Dido, the Elizabeth Taylor-y Queen of Carthage. She is from Tyre, but relocated to exotic North Africa, which is always already interesting. Before Book IV, Aeneas has already told her thrilling tales of adventure, because Dido has basically made him tell her his whole life story. Plus, she had been making invocations to Bacchus, “tilting libations,” and “drew out the night with talk of various matters, while she drank long draughts of love.” In other words, Chatty Cathy makes Aeneas talk, and succumbs to the perfect storm of Brad Pitt in a uniform, exciting stories of travel and martial accomplishment, and Merlot.
No wonder she fell in love with him–even if the goddesses were ultimately against her. But I digress.
Book IV, which is never boring in the way that Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction is never boring–no matter how many times you watch it–allows you to witness the scorned woman unravel before your eyes. But while Glenn Close only needs a cooked rabbit and one line (“I Will Not Be Ignored!!!!”) to convey her wrath, Dido needs almost 1,000 lines for Aeneas to get how he will so miss her once she is gone. As an English professor, I can appreciate wanting to use that kind of vocabulary before it is all over.
But no matter how good her points, how intense her rage, Dido had already received a DNR status on her cell phone from Aeneas.
She just does not entirely believe it.
She really was sick with passion for Aeneas even after a few stories. She really could not eat, breathe, sleep. She really was in the thick of every great Kelly Clarkson song that you have ever heard. (Except for the one about what does not kill you makes you stronger. Ahem.) Plus, Dido had that dippy sister Anna who led her to believe that there was ACTUAL hope for marrying Aeneas, when of course the stars and gods had an altogether different alignment in store for him.
Dido visits all the shrines she can think of, bestows every gift to the gods she hopes might seal the deal, goes mad with her obsession with him. There really should be a movie of this. She gives Aeneas the grand tour of Carthage–the equivalent of showing him her resume. She knows he will surely see how worthy she is, but he cannot help it, he is a guy, he has a mission, he is thinking about what it will be like at sea if he can only get back to that ship. She hangs on every word he says, lets Carthage turn into Detroit, ruins her chances for global promotion–all over this guy that is not that into her. This is The Dido Syndrome.
It is not totally her fault: Juno and Venus have this back door deal in which Dido and Aeneas are thrown together into a cave when it starts raining, and then Dido thinks somehow they are in Vegas and have gotten married, but this mistake could happen to anyone. She lets rumors flow, she does not care about her reputation at home or abroad, she is hooked on the crack cocaine of men–noble Aeneas. Mercury has to stage a little intervention, get Aeneas back on track to get to Italy, ruin Dido’s dreams. It happens.
She does not take it lightly. She is “aflame with rage.” How could this happen? She screams. She reminds Aeneas that their love is really important, unique, blah blah blah, while his eyes are glazing over. He. Just. Wants. Out. The goddesses didn’t even have to intervene when it comes down to brass tacks. Dido was taking care of business with every “I told you so” coming out of her mouth.
She resorts to what kills everything, every time: She begs.
She even uses the ever popular “I am dying. You are killing me. You cannot abandon a dying woman, can you?”
Aeneas does not think she looks that sick, and leaves anyway. In my mind, Dido has basically picked up her cell phone and left one last 400 line hysterical voice mail. Or, she has left one more last embarrassing text: “I hate you! You love me, but just don’t realize it! I curse you, but take me back!” Something like that. Even queens can make terrible decisions when they are in the tornado, when they know it is over, and no snapping of fingers or shouting of orders can change a thing. Even Circe had her Odysseus. Aeneas, I think, sort of liked her, but it wasn’t enough to overcome his Fate.
Every week I look at my female college students, and I know the biggest dramas going on for them are not whatever I have asked them to read by Virgil for class that day. I want to tell them that things are so much better now. I want to tell them that if you meet Aeneas, and he puts you on his DNR list, it is not the end of the world. I want to tell them that you do not have to fall on a sword, you to not have to build your own funeral pyre, you do not have to enact revenge by erasing yourself. You do not have to be furious with Aeneas for being himself, and going his own way. You can write that novel, go to law school, help the poor, get your hair highlighted. Shallow or deep, you can let another kind of happiness be your next obsession.
Whether it is an American founding a corporate empire, or Aeneas founding the Roman empire, once a guy like that puts you on the DNR relationship list, it has to hurt.
But the good thing now is someone who was paying attention would raise Dido’s consciousness, say “Hey, you are the Queen of Carthage–start acting like it!” and prevent all those flames from engulfing her really cute outfit.
Dido made mistakes: she shouldn’t have pledged eternal allegiance to her dead husband when she didn’t really mean it. She shouldn’t have had so much chardonnay when Aeneas was telling her about his exploits, military or otherwise, because it made him sound better than he was, and, according to Virgil, he didn’t even have a very good vocabulary. She shouldn’t have kept saying they were married when he thought it was just a fraternity party that went really well for him. She should have known when to stop texting and calling and singing that Keith Urban song about how much he would miss her, because he was already gone. It’s hard to found a whole new civilization AND have a high maintenance girlfriend. Virgil tells us all about it.
I admit that the romantic in me, which can get all wistful about these things, might have preferred Aeneas to fall like a house of cards and spend the rest of his life adoring the Queen of Carthage, thus preventing her tragic death. But then he would be a completely different guy, and no epic poem would ever come out of that story. It’s just too boring and personal, of interest to the players, but not to many readers, and not in the service of a national literature. Dido, like the women on my friend’s DNR list, probably just really really liked him, and thought telling him one more time might be the beginning of something, rather than another tendency for things to end.
As Dido’s story never fails to point out, they are not the first women to spin in the hurricane of emotion, and they won’t be the last. But at least now, when the hurricane dies out, Dido can rebuild Carthage, and forget that stupid fire.