Daily Archives: March 6, 2010

canto 10: Coffers of Stone

Pier Kooistra

Canto X—“Here Epicurus lies / With all his followers” (ll. 11-12).

As in Canto IX, Dante is in the sixth circle of hell, but now with an emphasis on the fact that in this place Epicurean heretics—those who in life declared disbelief in an afterlife, asserting that the soul dies with the body—“are shut / Ensepulchered within…coffers of stone / Making…sounds of anguish from inside” (ll. 111-3, Canto IX). According to Dante’s cosmography, clearly, there IS an afterlife, and for these souls—surprise!—their earlier wayward belief has resulted in a present lot that is especially—vengefully—cruel and grim.

I’m going to bypass most of the details from Dante’s exchanges with Farinata and Cavalcante—about Guido, about the war between the Ghibelines and Guelphs—to join Gordon in addressing heresy.

In the circle of the world that our little crew of bloggers inhabits, the word heresy doesn’t get used much. It’s essentially a shibboleth that, when uttered seriously, signals an incursion by an outsider, someone who hasn’t learned, or hasn’t accepted, that when we (hmmm, how to categorize us?) New York Times readers / NPR listeners hear the word heresy, we pretty much automatically think, “Oh oh, here’s a moron of the burning-infidels-at-the-stake type.” So I very much appreciate Gordon’s post on Canto IX, not only for its willingness to take on heretical stupidities (such as the idea of natural disasters being wrathful acts of God) but also for Gordon’s insistence that we consider heresy, nonetheless, as a real danger for all of us—in other words, not just as the muck of gross oversimplification in which the patently ridiculous Pat Robertsons get stuck. Who would challenge Gordon’s assertion that “wrong or distorted beliefs can and do still lead to various kinds of human wreckage”? Who would dismiss his contention that “right belief and the actions that follow from it can mean the difference for us between (spiritual) life and death”?

I make innumerable mistakes every day, often resulting in regrettable costs. I would like to avoid such mistakes.

I have no interest in, nor cause for, arguing against Gordon. What I’d like to do, instead, is argue WITH his commentary on heresy—in a both/and, rather than either/or, way. I see the tremendous importance of laboring to avoid heresy, if what we mean by the term, as Gordon proposes, is “wrong or distorted beliefs.” But I also believe fervently in the necessity of practicing heresy, on purpose, in order to overturn harmful orthodoxy.

Last week, in response to Canto IV, I quoted Martin King’s famous line about how injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. One might say, similarly, that misunderstanding anywhere is a threat to everyone’s capacity to live lives built on truth.

In Canto X, as Dante makes his way among the heretics imprisoned in infernal sarcophagi, the doomed Cavalcante says to him at one point, “’Preserve in memory what you have heard / Against yourself…And I pray / You, listen’” (ll. 119-21). Remember what you have heard against yourself. And listen! What a striking command. It’s not easy to hold onto critical feedback, especially if it doesn’t square with the narratives and conceptions that we receive and construct about ourselves. The same is true, of course, regarding the narratives and conceptions we receive and construct about the cosmos in and from which we draw life. We’re not free perceivers and thinkers. At least, it’s not easy for us to be. We have predilections of personality and ideology that that thwart and pervert our autonomy, that predispose us to certain perceptions and ideas. I find (as indeed I’m inclined to do, in that I’m working now in a certain mindframe) this basic fact of human behavior exemplified in what Dante says to Virgil at the very beginning of this canto: “Speak to me with the answers that I crave” (l. 5). Dante doesn’t say just, Give me the answers. He says, in effect, Tell me what I want to hear. (At least, that’s one way of reading the line.)

Cavalcante’s injunction—again, “’Preserve in memory what you have heard / Against yourself…And I pray / You, listen’” (ll. 119-21)—is an important antidote to the strong human inclination to believe what we want to believe and to avoid what we don’t want to know. Clearly, ‘tis nobler in (and for) the mind (and, moreover, the whole self and, by extension, the whole society, the whole body politic) to suffer the slings and arrows of unwelcome revelation than to take arms (and at their ends the hands with which we can block our ears) against a sea (or hearing) of troubling discoveries and by ignoring end them. When such revelations pertain to the larger world of which we’re a part, when they are unwelcome but true, or at least not yet proved untrue, we must publish them in order to consider them. Thus, we must practice heresy. When such revelations pertain to us, when they challenge our ways of (mis)understanding ourselves, again, we must consider them. We must be willing to engage in apostasy—must be willing to walk away from prior belief systems in order to construct new ones that better equip us for living as rightly as possible instead of ensepulchering ourselves in bad ideas or habits.

And I say that as a certain stripe of Epicurean heretic. One might say a Feuerbachean heretic, too. Nothing in my experience, my heart, my spirit or conscience has suggested the existence of life after death. I’m one of those people for whom praying that God’s “will be done on Earth as it is in Heaven” means that we must do all in our power to realize in the material world what with our spirits we perceive as the way things should be. That means doing all we can to emancipate ourselves from coffers of stone, both physical and metaphysical.