My Days of Bibliomancy with Virgil's 'Aeneid'

By Ken Baumann

I first read about sortes virgilianae in Nassim Nicholas Taleb's book, Antifragile. He described the heuristic technique and said it was a little trick he used when faced with a big business decision. The gist of it is this: Open Virgil's Aeneid, pick a random line, interpret, and act accordingly. When you let fate make your every decision, you can focus on being Peter Gibbons-relaxed about everything. This sounded excellent to me, and perfectly suited to an age where a cornucopia of paralyzing decisions must be made every day. (It also fit in nicely with my current free time, made possible by unemployment.)

I told VICE I'd use this nasty version of bibliomancy to make "every waking decision for a week." Unfortunately, I couldn’t last that long. Here's what happened and how I failed:

DAY 1

It's noon, and I'm farting off on my computer, dreading this. I open the book to a random page, blur my eyes, and point.

Book 8, line 521: Now for strength, you need it! Now for flying hands!

Of course this is the first one. Immediately my masochistic lizard brain shouts GET IN A FIGHT, but I decide that I won't let a poem provoke me into assault charges and/or a broken jaw. That reminds me of other decisions made with the consult of books. So I get off the computer, flail out as many push-ups as I can, then let my wife punch me repeatedly.

This works out fine for her. We had cabin fever from staying inside all day, so she was naturally bugged out by my endless poop humor, mouth noises, and recurring falsetto attempts at the chorus of Without You by Harry Nilsson. I stand before the woman with the gloves and raise my hands, and ow, ow, owww. Girl can punch. I begin to regret picking the Aeneid instead of a Shel Silverstein poem or something.

Book 4, line 354: to this plan, that plan—torn in two until,

I had planned to go help my friend move, but I had also planned to lie to him and say I was sick so I could stay home and watch documentaries about the impending collapse of Western civilization. So this one came at the right time. I do neither. I grab my keys and my guide and leave the house.

I drive to a neighborhood with a bunch of disparate shops. Remembering that the original use of this bibliomancy was to consult the poem when presented with an actual decision, I pick two shops and let the book guide me into one. On the north side of the street: a smoothie place. The south side: a tattoo parlor. I open the book, blur my eyes, and pick:

Book 4, line 182: while round the altars swirls a growing throng

OK. I go to close the book, but catch the next line:

183: of Cretans, Dryopians, Agathyrsians with tattoos,

Shit. Not that getting another tattoo would be much worse than getting a smoothie—Virgil does not care about your pathetic wallet—but I look at the lines again. The first line I can kind of suss to mean the yoga girls and burnouts that throng this organic smoothie place, and the line in reference is also above the tattoo line, and the juice bar is on the north side of the street. I get a goddamn smoothie. I'm already asking myself: did I cop out on this one?

Nightfall. I expand my divinatory style by presenting myself with a wider field of possibility. I also bring in my wife, who I've convinced to be my co-guinea pig for this experiment. We make a list of movies:

MOVIES WE BOTH WANT TO WATCH:

El Bulli: Cooking in Progress

Baraka

I WANT TO WATCH BUT WIFE MIGHT HATE:

Indie Game

WIFE WANTS TO WATCH BUT I MIGHT HATE:

Step Up Revolution

MOVIES WE WOULD PROBABLY HATE AND WANT TO PUNCH OURSELVES FOR WATCHING:

Atlas Shrugged (Part 1)

Maid in Manhattan

We divine.

Book 9, line 96: appealed to powerful Jove with pleading words

What does this MEAN?! I Google Jove—Jupiter, so it's God, basically. We're sort of honest, so we rule out Baraka (it's nonverbal) and El Bulli, because, well, it's cooking? I argue that Indie Game applies—developers desperately pleading to God for crucial debugging—but my wife shakes her head. We're torn. So we open the book again and point to:

Book 4, line 20: embracing another man in the bonds of marriage—

Fucking Maid in Manhattan. Weirdly, before we started the divination we knew it would be Maid in Manhattan.

The prophecy is rubbing off in all the wrong ways.

DAY 2

I wake up and turn to the Aeneid on my bedside table and ask: do I really want to get out of bed today?

Book 5, line 924: All as one they make sheets fast and let out canvas

Fine, Virgil, fine. The sun starts to set and I pick up the Aeneid, not knowing how else to waste my day. I'm looking for an invitation to work, travel, or play. Anything that can be interpreted to get me out of the house.

Book 5, line 521: dragging his wobbly knees, his head lolling side to side.

Fuck you, Virgil. Point taken.

Time to do chores and go to Walgreens. My wife and I get my health insurance shit straightened out at the pharmacy then open the book, hoping the poem will guide us into a terrible magazine in the trash mag/candy aisle. The Aeneid intones:

Book 2, line 797: Here I lie, here laid out for death. Come say

Whitney is there behind the book, her doe eyes a perfect cipher for angling into the hopeful, respectful-by-default dead. I read the section surrounding the fragment. It's terrible; it's all terrible. We drive on, saying out loud: We're sorry, Whitney.

Onward. The Whole Foods parking lot in Los Angeles is a sociological nightmare. I always park and just sit there a while. Once my wife calms me down and we walk inside, it is like touring the smarmy forgotten topmost level of Dante's Inferno. But there are yoga pants everywhere. I find consolation in book six, THE KINGDOM OF THE DEAD:

We make it through that land of oozing slime and livid sedge, and we are frothing with hunger, two jaws spread wide. I ignore bibliomancy because I’m spoiled and want barbecue, so we end up at a restaurant in our neighborhood that we've never tried or wanted to try. Let's be heroes, we say to ourselves, and go where no mortal has gone before: Kansas City BBQ. We order and wait for the ribs, slaw, fries. The smell from the kitchen doesn’t justify everyone’s festive mood. I realize my non-Aeneid decision will probably give my lovely wife and I diarrhea. I seek Virgil, apologetic, sweating below florescent lights and hoping for a gentle line, free of war or starvation or trolls or flaming eyebrows:

Book 11, line 344: what a whirlwind rides on that man's spear!

Diarrhea.

DAY 2 AND A HALF

It's 3 AM and I'm half-dreaming of Virgil and the Aeneid and VICE and firm bowel movements. I don't know anything about Virgil the human, but his work is a monument to the mythological, severe proportions of human decisions: fight wars, found cities, fuck gods, sail the seas. I'm considering VICE’s penchant for making sure people who live through crazy shit have a forum to speak about it. I'm laying in bed with the lights on, the A/C tuned to a steady warmth, and I'm thinking about comfort and what it does to people.

Book 8, line 705: held in ancestral awe by people far and wide

My waking decisions haven't been magnificent. I'm not a politician or a banker or a general. I piddle around the house and make art, and make food for myself and my friends, and keep looking to make art with groups of strangers and cameras and books.

Book 5, line 642: wheeling charge into countercharge, return and turn

I realize I’m both bored with divination and boring for the Aeneid, so I give up early. Living with my hands gently bound by bibliomancy made me remember why I love art so goddamn much: its failures are benign, and its successes can live thousands of years. They can even convince some kid to apologize to Whitney Houston and regret smoked meat. Thanks, Virgil.

@kenbaumann

Ken Baumann's first novel, Solip, will be released on May 14 from Tyrant Books. Pre-order it here.

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