Daily Archives: March 30, 2011

Canto XIX: “Adhesit Pavimento Anima Mea” (“My Soul Clings to the Dust”)

As we encounter Dante in the Nineteenth Canto, he is still on the Terrace of the Slothful – the Terrace of Apathy.

Dali - Dante's Dream, Canto XIX

Falling into the Siren’s dream, Dante finds he is unable to escape on his own. He needs the help of Reason (Virgil) to unmask the Siren, and to help him awaken.  He also needs Divine inspiration (Beatrice) to communicate hope to him.

Dante soon comes to realize that the evil desires inspired by the Siren, the sins of the flesh and the excessive love of material things, are the basis for the purging that will take place on the final three terraces.

As Dante and Virgil arise to a full day’s sun, the Angel of Zeal guides them to the cleft leading to the next level.   As the angel invites them to ascend, he fans them with his wings, and pronounces the beatitude, “Benedicti qui lugent” (Blessed are they that mourn) upon Dante.

In so doing he relieves Dante of another “P” from his forehead.

As Dante continues to contemplate all the evil the Siren has caused and can cause, Virgil urges him forward,

“Let it teach your heels to scorn the earth, your eyes

to turn to the high lure the Eternal King

spins with his mighty spheres across the skies”  (61-63)

They have arrived at the Terrace of Avarice and Prodigality, where those possessed of the opposite extremes of proprietary incontinence do penance.

“My soul cleaves to the dust,” I heard them cry

over and over as we stood among them;

and every word was swallowed by a sigh.”   (73-75)

For, indeed, the pair discover this next group of repentant souls are lying face down n the dirt, weeping and reciting the psalm, “Adhesit pavimento anima mea ” (“My soul clings to the dust; Revive me according to Your word,” Psalm 119:25-32).

It is a totally fitting penance for those who had always looked toward earthly objects for fulfillment. So too, must Dante trample upon earthly enticements and turn his eyes toward Heaven.

The first of these they encounter is the recently deceased Pope (“Successor of Peter”), Adrian V (d.1276), whose few worthy weeks in office were poor compensation for his years of avarice.  Adrian explains that because he had so loved earthly goods, rather than heeding God’s call, he and the other greedy souls about him were groveling face down in the dirt as penance.

And what does all this say to us, today?

Well, is there a Madison Avenue?  Are we a consumer society? Does conspicuous consumption run riot? Are we ‘born to shop?’

Indeed, Avarice is a sin that our culture not only encourages, but one which demands commitment.

Countless messages scream at us each day:

Get more! Buy more! Have more!

And where does this lead us?

Not only to waste, spoilage, and,  worse, to “False Gods.”

It leads us to solitude, loneliness and despair.

I feel the old Simon and Garfunkle song [“The Sound of Silence”] of 1964 is as sadly true now as it was then:  “Hello, Darkness my old Friend”…

And in the naked light I saw

Ten thousand people, maybe more

People talking without speaking

People hearing without listening

People writing songs that voices never share

And no one dared

Disturb the sound of silence

 

“Fools”, said I, “You do not know

Silence like a cancer grows

Hear my words that I might teach you

Take my arms that I might reach you”

But my words, like silent raindrops fell

And echoed

In the wells of silence

 

And the people bowed and prayed

To the neon god they made

And the sign flashed out its warning

In the words that it was forming

And the sign said, “The words of the prophets are written on the subway walls

And tenement halls”

And whispered in the sounds of silence

 

Allan Kaprow, "5 minutes de retard," 1993

As an anonymous blogger recently wrote:  The Sound of Silence is the contented quiet of the devil, upon receipt of all his souls.

Materialism alienates us from other people, and, especially from God.

What do I fear more than “The Sound of Silence?”

Hell isn’t brimstone; it isn’t People;

It IS the absence of God.

The absence, the silence that screams at me

– The Emptiness, the Agony,

– The very VOID itself awaits!

Adhesit pavimento anima mea.

Kyrie Eleison!!

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Canto XVIII, Take II: Lookin’ For Love

[Editor’s note: Jeff and Bob decided to do a sort of tag team, and “bonus” entry for Canto 18 – so popular, they wished to do two “takes” on it. Bob will post later this evening on Canto 19]

As I read Jake’s reflection on Canto 17 (and by the way we’ve just crossed the imaginary line between these Cantos marking the very middle of the Canticle), I can’t but help to think of the medieval alchemists. In the smoke-fed shroud of scientific naivete, the imagination of the medieval mixologists flourished, the dream of gold impelling their crazed search. Such rich imagination made bad science, but excellent metaphor; excellent theology; excellent psychology (especially for all you Jungians out there). Even though they never produced gold, might they have seen the truth, beyond the shroud of naivete? Because of the shroud of naivete?

I remember a friend of mine who once recalled the memory of seeing an angel in the desert when she was young, naive, ignorant of all the hifalutin’ theology she now possesses to enrich her well educated brain. But she reported sadly that it’s unlikely she’ll see an angel again: she knows too much.

Perhaps an ironic beginning to a reflection on a Canto celebrating human reason. I mention it because I think Dante has an advantage we do not: to play in the naive smoke that Jake mentions, and to be able to see through the shroud (perhaps) some truth that we find hard to make stick onto our scientifically self-assured, and (naively?) rational modern sensibilities.

Try this on…what if we believed, as Dante did, as Aquinas did, as the medieval theologians did: the world, the universe is powered not by energy or light or nuclear fission; it’s powered by love. The whole universe is pulsing, throbbing with…love. It’s what directs everything. What makes the fire’s smoke rise? It’s love seeking that unseen thing up there with which it seeks to unite. What if that is the story, the essential narrative, that governs not just everything, but every human being? We have got an inborn, innate desire to unite with that thing that loved us into being.

We are indeed “restless until we rest in thee.”

Dante has been saying that it’s desire that makes us human. And not just any desire, not an instinctual, animal love, but a desire that can lead us to love that very one who implanted love in us in the first place. And (contrary to my previous remarks) the only chauffeur capable of getting us there: Human Reason. Even though, how it actually works, how it all isn’t just automatic (hey, why punish or reward people for what they are born do do anyway?), is still a mystery, only to be revealed in Canto 5 of Paradiso, courtesy of Madame Beatrice.

What if we were to think that the addiction of the alcoholic; the frustrated attempt to satisfy our deepest desires with “the perfect mate”; every love song ever written – what if we thought that all of it is engendered by this nuclear reaction within our souls that is seeking to unite with what is most desireable? To desire is to love. And so what if all of that is really a misguided attempt to love the ultimate; to love God.

But for Dante, it’s not automatic. Not everything desirable is worth loving. As in Canto 10 of Inferno, what is being refuted here is the heresy of Epicurianism. The Epicurians believed that everything pleasurable could not, by definition, be evil. For Dante, any object of desire is useful only insofar as it leads our soul upward toward that object that is ultimately desireable. If we love anything out of proportion or direction – in the wrong way, or not enough, or too much – we go off track.

What if we understood, for example, that, just as we look back at the medieval cathedrals as markers of this desire for heaven, so too in our era: what if people were to see that the mega-malls that mar our landscape are the (misguided) shrines to this very same innate desire within us? And our frustrated attempts to meet that desire?

Dante knew in his time what we know damn well too: that the pleasures of the Epicurians are eventually going to disappoint us. Any of us who have stepped back to take in the sickening sight of the orgiastic aftermath of a Christmas morning, and the heap of plastic and cardboard and detritus that result from it – can see how ultimately, such pleasures are empty and disappointing.

Love gives us the energy. Reason guides us in the right direction. Grace provides the means.

And so goes Virgil’s little lesson in love. And so goes the explanation of the very neat (and naive?) schema of this place, so closely matched with the hopeless sins of hell: to get there means working through those vices that have to do with misdirected desire (Pride, Envy, Anger), with not enough desire (Sloth), and with too much desire (Avarice, Gluttony and Lust).

Interesting that here, the shades of the slothful – those who were given to that vice that made them inattentive to the good that ought to have impelled their attention heavenward – are purged of the stain by superenergetic activity. And note that here, we see the desire is not just for themselves; but rather to “strive on that grace may bloom again above.” Here we have the reverse phenomenon to contrast with what we’ve witnessed previously: instead of the living praying for the dead, vice versa.

How do we get there, though? Back to that question. I guess I’m not alone in my ambivalence about human reason: at the end of this Canto, Dante too admits that his mind is “scrambled” essentially. The chauffeur is just a chauffeur. Reason can drive us only so far.