“Beyond Utility: Paradoxes of Knowledge Acquisition in the Aeneid

Rebecca Moorman (Providence College)

This paper examines three impoverished affects — anxiety, horror, and sovereignty, or Bataille’s notion of the momentary dissolution of knowledge into nothingness — to argue for a Roman model of knowledge acquisition paradoxically premised on “non-knowing,” or a state of cognitive lack. I develop this model using one representative passage, Aeneas’ violation of Polydorus’ grave (Aen. 3.13-68). In the passage, horror and anxiety grant Aeneas insight through opposite means of proximity and distance (Kristeva 1980; Ngai 2005), an impossible simultaneity of “towards” and “away from” that creates a moment of aporetic suspension. Aeneas’ cognitive capacity dissolves into nothingness, a “sudden opening beyond” knowledge and the work this entails (Bataille 1991). Momentarily delivered from his work of pietas, Aeneas enters a suspended state of “non-knowing” which eventually leads to the revelation of Polydorus (41-46). I conclude by considering how this model might inform readings of other passages of questionable knowledge-seeking in Latin literature.