By John Timpane
Going too far.
Canto XXVI literally is about that. Its “star” is a character far-famed for going too far, literally, traveling the known world, trespassing in the realms of the gods, pushing his luck time and again. He should be destroyed, time and again, but time and again he gets out of it with some trick or other. There’s a tragic side to him, of course, engraved in his name, Odysseus (“one who suffers, one who is a grief to many,” etc.): he suffers a long war, he wanders the world, he longs for home (never extremely hard). But there’s an affirmative, comic side, too. Odysseus/Ulysses is the polutropon of line 1 of The Odyssey, “the one of many twists and turns,” “the man of many tricks.” Ingenuity, resourcefulness, wordsmithing (Odysseus is very persuasive), technology (he’s a great sailor of ships) — Odysseus is an avatar of Everyperson. He’s the grandson of a thief (Autolykos, “he who fools people by with his self”) and the great-grandson of the god of thieves, Hermes. Ya gotta love him. He lies when he wants to, resorts to trickery and thievery when it’s expedient, and has the integrity of a man who’s never too punctilious in observing the rules of others, whether gods or men.
Ulysees is more like us than us.
He’s the guy who toys with Kirke, who has his men bind him to the mast so he can hear the Sirens, who puts the Kyklops’ eye out and then toys with him, calling himself Nobody. He toys with destruction and pollution and always seems to pull it out.
Lent is, among many other things, a time of restraint. We are called on to adopt moderation, to rein in on our usual pleasures and habits, to curb ourselves. Each time we feel the impulse to indulge (we hope), we’ll remember, remember what was done in our name, what was sacrificed, what suffered.
So it’s a time of wanting things, forgetting we are supposed to be giving up. Lent thus brings us face to face with our excesses, with all the places we cross the line, trespass, go where we shouldn’t.
The Ulysees we see in this Canto is the tragic side of the trickster. Dante imagines his story past the end of the Odyssey. Much as with Tennyson 550-plus years later, Dante just can’t imagine this wild, strong man could even stop moving, stay in one place, get old and indolent, domesticated, pudgy. Tennsyon sees some of the tragic aspect, but for him Ulysees is far and away a noble, grand myth of the man of indomitable resolve, who wants to keep going ever on, “to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”
But that’s simply a measure of the difference between Tennyson and Dante.
Dante sees Ulysees as a great and noble human specimen, all right, one of the greats of the past. So great, in fact, that only another great such as Virgil, whose poetry matched that of the story of Ulysees, can speak to him, not a guy who speaks plain old Tuscan.
But this Ulysees is all, all utterly tragic. He is another image of Icarus, of Prometheus, of Adam, of all the figures who, through the overgreatness of the human mind and will, go too far and are destroyed, staying noble and great throughout, the best fallen man can be, even as he descends to his inevitable punishment in perpetuity.
And so Ulysees has become only one horn in a two-horned flame, punished for the atrocities made possible by his trick of the Trojan Horse, punished for sailing past the Gates of Hercules in search of the ends of the earth. He finds them, all right, and descends into his permanent fire.
So much here. Once again, as in the episode of Paolo and Francesca, we see a poet warning against the blandishments of poetry, using the pleasures of poetry to warn against the pleasures of poetry. If we get the message, it means we’ve given in and haven’t gotten it. But the only way to learn, in the way only poetry can teach us, IS to give in. It’s the inescapable irony of poetry: to win is to lose. Here, we see Ulysees exhorting his men, in beautiful rhetoric, to follow him into the punishment of a God he does not know. Once again, at his tiptop bravest and best, he has counseled wrong.
Technology is also involved. Ulysees is a maker and a technician, a sailor and general and king. He has the singularly human gift of turning what’s around him into tools and tricks and expedients. We’re looking, on Dante’s terms, at a metaphor for knowledge, for science, for what’s implicit in any striking-forth of the mind.
At our very, very best, at the apex, the limit of what’s imaginable . . . well . . . SEE WHAT HAPPENS? It’s in our nature to quest, to push, to transgress. To be human is to go too far. Each of us is our own built-in Ulysees. The tragedy of sin is how intimate it is, how close to the core, how bound up in self-deception, self-assertion. We may think we’re doing our best, our utmost, when we are really eating the wrong dang fruit. And really loving it.
Lent: being mindful. Taking it down to the elements and being *with* them. Being open to what we find. Working hard to edit out the noise. Hoping we can be both like Ulysees in his energy and resolve and unlike him, getting to the Spring and avoiding the sea closing permnently over out heads.