Monthly Archives: March 2011

Canto 14: Our Narrow-Gauge Souls

O humankind, why do you set your hearts

On what it is forbidden you to share?

Well, I know the answer to that one. Because we want it. And we don’t want anyone else to have it. Or if they have it, we want it, too, so our displeasure in anyone else’s having will be at least balanced by our own pleasure in having.

Competition, baby. It’s built in. Hard-wired. Inescapable. Even in those of us who disdain competitiveness, it’s bred in the very strings and pith of what we are, and there’s no escaping it.

Capitalism is the codification, systematization, and sanctification of envy. Many excuses are made for it, and in fact religion makes very uneasy playpals with capitalism, since the latter is based on notions of success and failure, and therefore victory and defeat. We are told “that’s how we survive,” and this survival system is elevated to such a height that it stands without effective question or effective alternative. It gets to this extreme — that what we forbid in life, we allow in the marketplace, that for some unexplained, undefended reason, morality stops at the door of the bank and the shop. We don’t compete to be equal; we compete to get ahead. Losers be damned.

That’s how deeply envy is woven into our socioeconomic structure: it is  our socioeconomic structure. 

Most religions advise against envy, because envy is destructive. It’s a great incentive to destroy, steal, and murder. There’s a spiritual dimension, too: envy destroys the envier, distorts what he or she really is. We revert when we envy; our less spiritual side takes over. Concupiscence, greed, gluttony – that side.

Envy is so potent that it inevitably becomes comic. We become a travesty of ourselves, as we envy, and try to hide envy, and act out of envy, and possess out of envy.

Envy also is a toggle switch. Once we envy, the world is simplified. Black and white. Two-dimensional. Somebody’s got what I want, and I hate that and hate them and want it twice as bad.

In Purgatorio, Dante reminds us that sinfulness lies not only in what we do when goaded by envy – but also in merely feeling it, indulging it. It rapes sense. Guido lands in Purgatorio because he envied all his life, and now he “reaps sad straw” in this between-state, denied companionship with God until such time as time itself has sourly scoured the dregs of envy out of him. Envy oozes out of his very salutation to Dante, since it’s clear he envies the living man the privilege of being in the flesh and being able to leave – neither of which is something Guido has. I really like the poison energy of his denunciation of Tuscany and all the realms along the course of the Arno. He also gives it to poor, wordless Rinier, whose decayed house really takes some insults right on the bean. Guido is simply obsessed with the decay of great houses, of great cities and realms; his is a decayed imagination. Guido’s got has a long way to go, I figure, before he’s released from Purgatorio. He hasn’t had the envy wrung out of him yet.

But the true glory of this Canto is when the actual Rein of Envy tugs on us – in the form of the voices of Cain (a brother who sinned out of envy of a brother and Aglauros (a sister who sinned out of envy of a sister). Their voices come from Inferno. “Whoever finds me shall slay me,” comes the hair-raising voice of Cain, condemned to wander the world fruitlessly. And “I am Aglauros, who became a stone!” – the deforming power of envy.

Dante is all flesh, shot through with all the failings of flesh still. So he cowers behind Virgil. I admire what Virgil tells him, that we’re always taking the Opponent’s bait. We don’t even know it, we’re so weak. Those limits, hemming us in, ensure that we improve only with incredible effort (hello, Lent!), so that “it isn’t worth much either to curb you or to call you” (poco val freno o richiamo).  Dante cowers because he doesn’t know enough not to be afraid; he doesn’t realize nothing can hurt him if he stands up in the spirit of God. He can’t have faith that strong (obvious though Dante-the-poet makes it that such faith is always warranted, is the faith we should have).

And then Virgil says something daunting, something I heeded more, along with everyone else: the capacity to see the universe around us for what it is, for all that it is. Our directional attention, our constricted peripheral vision, our self-narrowed souls, mean we keep forgetting just where we are and what we, and God, are doing: “The heavens call you and wheel round about you, showing you their eternal beauties, and still your eye stays fixed on the ground.” We’re always looking in the wrong place, making the wrong list of priorities, assuming too much about our interests and forgetting the innately magnificent cosmos within and around us.

Envy is a great narrower, winnowing all experience down to WHAT HE GOT and WHAT I GOT, driving us to keep score, forget and forgive nothing, take the success of others as a personal affront, and valuing the exact wrong things for the exact wrong reasons.

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Canto 13: I Liked Bob’s Post Better

…and Jake’s, and John’s and Gordon’s and Pier’s. They are such bloody good writers. And I…. You get the picture.

Envy. For Dante, the color is not green, it’s…well, I guess purple would be the closest to the word livido. Whatever is the color of a bruise. This is the color of the shades in this cornice of the Purg, and they are all wearing it this spring, along with the single mode of fashion, a hair cloak. The sin that is caused by making comparisons is healed by the thing that cannot bear comparison: mutual suffering. Those who were too busy comparing themselves to others to lean on them are healed of their woundedness by…leaning on each other.

I can hear music too…Bill Withers playing in the background.

“You just call on me brother…when you need a hand. We all need somebody to….” It’s the lesson the envious need to learn.

Dante is riffing on several levels here, as he continues some of the strands that he began in the previous cantos. First, there’s the riff on the senses: they can both cause our downfall, and effect our salvation, and in Purgatory the purification of the senses involves using one thing for the opposite (what’s seen is what’s heard; what’s heard is what’s seen). Here, it’s our sense of sight that is the culprit (literally): hence the color of bruising, as the envious eye wounds the soul of the envious by what it sees, by the mechanics of comparison. The cure? The envious have eyes sewn shut (as a falconer does to a falcon, to calm it down), in order to effect another, inner organ of sense: to cure the eyes requires the ear.

The “whip” here on Cornice Number Two does not consist of what’s seen, as in the previous canto (the bas relief that looked more real than reality). Here, the whip is what’s heard. (As Paul said, faith comes by hearing).

The healing of the soul requires the development of some other sense, that is in effect…beyond sense. That seems so clear in many of the references in the previous cantos: light too bright to perceive, images too real to understand. To “get” heaven, you have to develop a whole new set of senses, to be able to groc it.

I think somehow of Gloucester in King Lear, ambling along in mutual suffering with Lear along the fields of Dover. It’s only in losing his sight that Gloucester can actually see. “I see…feelingly.” Not to see enables these shades ultimately…to see clearly that sun that guides Dante and Virgil on their journey, whenever the “self-humbled” decide for themselves that they have had enough, and their will is pure enough to see what will allow them to continue.

And interesting isn’t it, the way Dante gives us an example we would not expect: instead of displaying someone who would typify the way we would obviously think of envy – desiring that of someone else’s we do not have – he gives us the negative space around which the vice subsists:  Shadenfreude. Leave it to the Germans to coin such a brilliant word to lay bare the darker but natural impulses of the heart: “harm-joy”. That Sapia rejoices at the downfall of Salvani shows the real trajectory of such a tendency: to abandon fear (and respect) for the ultimate power, that of God, which is indeed love; and to give ourselves over to love’s negative: desire for the other’s harm.

Vinum non habent. That’s for damn sure. But…it’s coming. It’s coming.


Canto 12. Perverted Love and Undeserved Help

 

Architecture of Purgatory from La Comedia Divina de Dante Aligheri, "Il Purgatorio"

The sins caused by ‘perverted love’ set the scene for the first three terraces of Purgatory.  As the Twelfth Canto opens, we find Dante contemplating the yoked sinners about him.

These are the sins of “love’s harm” done to others. As Jake has noted in his penetrating exploration of Canto XI, the first of these sins (in order and significance) is Pride.   On this terrace, where proud souls are purged of their sins, Dante and Virgil see beautiful sculptures. These carvings present the cardinal virtue of humility, pride’s natural opponent.    Humility can be seen as ‘not thinking less of yourself, but rather, as thinking of yourself less. It is a spirit of self-examination.

Jake pointed out that “the prideful must give back what they never had in the first place, and prayer is the vehicle for returning stolen goods.” And, to do this, they first must realize that they never had them.  Tis ‘a bit of a Conundrum for the children of Eve, to say the least.

As Dante proceeds, he continues to note so many souls, all condemned by their own excessive, defiant pride – their hubris. He lists them all, from the great fallen angel, Lucifer, himself, to the magnificent wreckage of the city of Troy (‘sad, proud Ilium‘).    And, among those he noted was Nimrod and the ruins of his great tower.

 

Nimrod's Tower by Breugel The Elder

[Compare to images of Purgatory itself, above]

“I saw Nimrod in Shinar overseeing the proud builder

at the foot of his great tower.”

Dante is among the first to connect Nimrod and the Tower of Babel.

A product of his time, Dante viewed pride as inseparable from the human condition; from being virtually synonymous with the original transgression – the disobedience of Adam and Eve.   Dante is familiar with Aquinas’ great “Summa Theologiae”: “The mark of human sin is that it flows from pride.” (3a.1.5) Everything ill flows from pride.

Now Pride is normally considered a cardinal (mortal) sin, and we found it well represented among the damned of the “Inferno.”  So, why are these “overly proud souls “ here in Purgatory?  Shouldn’t they be in hell?  Ah, but these “proud souls” have repented sufficiently to have been given a second chance to save their souls.  And, hence, they carry their burdens up, around the spiral ramps of Purgatory.

Dante made progress, as well.  He ascended to the second cornice much faster than he had to the first. Why is this?   Virgil points out that the “Angel of Humility” has removed one of the peccatum from his forehead.   The angel had brushed Dante’s forehead with his wings, erasing one letter “P” (peccatum), the one representing pride.  It seems that its weight had been an extremely heavy one.

Humility's Angel (Blake)

And, the angel wondered:

Why do people so seldom respond to this invitation?

You are born to fly, so why fall down in a little wind?”

It is then that Dante notes the glorious sound of the singing of “Beati pauperes spiritu” (“Blessed are the poor in spirit,” –  Matthew 5:3.)

“We set out on the climb, and on the way

‘Beati paupers spiritu’ rang out,

more sweetly sung than any words could say. (109-111)

Dante is hearing a Beatitude being sung.

While The Ten Commandments dealt with human actions,” The Beatitudes” deal with attitudes that can lead to actions.

In essence, “Christian Law” is summarized in The Beatitudes, in Christ ‘s command to love God, and one’s neighbor as oneself  (see Matthew 5:3 – 12; Luke 6: 20-26).  Therefore, Dante is hearing Divine Law being sung – and, it is praising humility and the desperate.

In Matthew, the first and most important Beatitude is:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit:

for theirs is the kingdom of heaven”

And, so, in his awe, Dante’s spirit rose,

and he moved ahead and upward, lighter afoot,

with rather undeserved assistance.


Canto XI: A Notebook

By Jake Willard-Crist

…The poet loves that someone loves his shadow: this is the poet’s pride…

All this talk of pride and stone calls to mind an aphorism from Georg Christoph Lichtenberg’s Waste Books:

 Even if one cannot hew a house out of a granite cliff, one could perhaps hew the ruins of a house out of it at no very great expense, so that posterity would be forced to believe a palace had stood there.

The poet is a constructor of ruins (would Eliot like this formulation?).  He may wish to hew a house, to carve his grand project from the raw cliff of the tongue, but the expenses—solipsism, exhaustion, rejection, (madness perhaps)—are too great.  Time is well spent instead on the delicate crafting of shambles.  Let all who hear or read rebuild the world that was never there to begin with. 

As the poet himself implies: the glory goes to whoever can scrap together the best nest.  (XI:99)

Don’t be fooled by all the tiers, the terraces, the cornices.  This is no complete world.  Only a couple of poets climbing a pile of stones and prayers ringing in the air.

Prayer, in the marvelous phrase of the philosopher Jean-Louis Chrétien, is the wounded word.  It is an act that opens a gap, that tears the subject, by putting one in a place that is other than oneself, before God.  Chrétien (in The Ark of Speech) discusses the way in which the voice is the element, in all of speech, which does not belong to us.  It is always out before us, circulating in the world outside of us.  In prayer we offer what we do not possess.  Chrétien: ‘The human voice becomes a place in which the world can return to God.’ 

The canto begins in medias preces—in the thick of prayer.  The prideful, cowed under slabs of rock, offer their paternoster.  In this way they are each an Atlas, hoisting the world up to the sun.  Except it is their voices that bear the world, not their backs.  The prideful must give back what they never had in the first place, and prayer is the vehicle for returning stolen goods.  Another way of saying this—returning stolen goods—is giving thanks. 

It is here, in Canto XI, that I sense a crucial distinction between the poet and the pray-er. 

The poet offers up his carefully hewn ruins and requires posterity to contrive the palace.    The one who prays, at the very first Our Father, shoulders the entire world back to God.

The poet must bring his tiresome chisel to bear (terza, terza, terza) on the granite and wait for posterity to award its laurels; the pray-er heaves the whole slab of his voice in a direct line to the One who has hewn the world and causes all laurels to brown and grass to wither. 

Perhaps this is why the poet stoops down to the level of the prideful supplicant to ‘better know his state’: he wishes to return with a measure of that world-hefting humility.

I fear the poet can never pray and remain a poet.


Canto X

Canto X

“Wretched souls and small,
who by the dim lights of your twisted minds
believe you prosper even as you fall—“ (118-20)

That resonates. Misunderstanding is one of our great specialties.

But:

“What have your souls to boast of and be proud?
You are no more than insects, incomplete
as any grub until it burst the shroud.” (124-6)

Really?
This is one of those little passages in the text that make clear to me how I just can’t buy into the Dantean program.
“No more than insects”—fine. They too are marvels of Creation.
“Incomplete”—sure. We never quite put it all together.
But “incomplete / as any grub until it burst the shroud”?
Am I reading this right? To mean that we can be completed only by dying?
I feel compelled to refer once more to the first passage above.
To me that sounds like trying to “believe you prosper even as you fall.” Hmmmm.

Pier Kooistra


Canto 9: The Airborne Heaviness of Seeing Anew

                               

I give up with this Canto, I really do. So much goes on, you just sort of have to give up.

OK, I’ve stopped giving up now.

The first eight cantos reorient us, so to speak, to being in, or being about to be in, a place called Purgatory. It’s something of an overture. The Purgatorio itself doesn’t really get rolling until we leave Ante-Purgatory, go through the gates, and enter the terraced mountain proper.

And we need a running start, because it is here we begin to face what Purgatorio, the place, is really all about: repentance, penitence, metanoia (Greek for something like “getting a new mind”).

Our age, in which we set ourselves up so often as unimpeachable beings, does less well with notions of personal fault and repentance than, possibly, with any other issue. Death we can do. Sex we gladly do. Money saturates our worlds. Add to this that most of us live in democracies, whose citizens have the right to express themselves as they wish, without fear of being suppressed. We can live, largely, any way we want. Society, except in the case of crime, is forbidden from intervening and forcing us in any direction. Rule of law is supreme – but rule of self is utterly private. And since no one can tell me what to do (how often have we heard that somewhere around us, or perhaps from our own lips?) , the matter of being my best is a private matter, too. It’s up to me to know when I’ve messed up and take steps (if I want to) to clean up the mess, and get better, and get righter.

The entire Comedy is pervaded, from heights to depths, with an awareness of personal fault and human fault. Not a popular way to see things as of 2011.

But those three little steps across the threshold at the gate to purgatory – they remind us.

That eagle – like dreams generally in the Comedy, it has an explicit function, but, like the dreams of the Siren and of Leah and Rachel later, it’s ultimately unexplainable. It is an astonishing moment, an experience, numinous and resistant to interpretation. To be sure, it is the exhausted, fleshly Dante dreaming of being taken by a magnificent bird that carries him almost to the Sphere of Fire, which, burning Dante, wakes him up. We get overtones here of the Icarus myth, in which he flew too near the sun and perished, and although the dream here is obviously different, there is a sense of lack and failing in Dante, a sense of being unable to approach the Sphere of Fire, a sense of having to turn back.

The dream is parallel to what’s happening in the waking world of Purgatorio, that is, Lucia transporting him physically to the foot of the Gate. But the dream goes well beyond that role, fascinating as it is.

Once again we get a dawn scene here, not the first in Purgatorio. This is a place, unlike Hell, where you can have dawns. But light alternates with night here, reminding us that we’re not altogether out of the darkness, but that we are somewhat closer to the light. Which, in turn, reminds us that life on earth, subject to the laws of physics and the turnings of the universe, is maculate, imperfect, only fitfully in the light.

And add to this what Lucia is. Patron saint of the blind. Her very name derives from Latin lux or light. She tends to pop up when Dante needs transfer from a state of less wisdom toward a state of more. She is yet another of his escorts toward the light.

But the poetry and imagery are so vivid . . . this is another example of something that emerges out of a poem and just is itself. The power of the raptor, the helplessness of the taken. Some of what the dreaming Dante thinks and says within the dream don’t make especial sense. His comparison of himself top Ganymede is apposite enough . . . but what is this “Perhaps his habit is /to strike at this one spot; perhaps he scorns / to take his prey from any place but this.” Sure, many commentators have had a crack at this, but what is he talking about, and why does it matter? Has anyone ever heard of a free-wheeling eagle striking in only one place? The eagle has wings of gold, is “terrible as a lightning bolt” and snatches him “up high as the Sphere of Fire,” and all this time “It seemed that we were swept up ina great blaze/and the imaginary fire so scorched me/my sleep broke.” Whirling all about are images of dazzling luminescence, of fire, of light. So, in part we are allowed to imagine that the luster and luminosity of Lucia as she holds the slumbering Dante is somehow working into his dream. But the uncanny vividness and clarity of the dream are so striking that no one, I believe, will ever really understand why this dream, why now.

The three steps across the threshold are haunting: penitence, contrition, resolve.

As a Catholic, I was always taught to take Lent especially to heart, especially hard. And this year they really smeared the ashes all over my head, about a pound of scorched palm frond. Whether it’s habit or whether it’s personal tuning, I can’t resist doing my Lenten duties with an especially profound sense of limitation, fault, and grief. Like most people, I want to do better, I want to be better, and like all people, sometimes I improve in this or that instance, but mostly, I flail and welter. It’s not that I never improve; it’s that the struggle is never over.

Whatever else is true, it seems evident that penitence is more than being sorry. Sorrow would be understandable: it’s senseless to pretend this is all a party, or that there isn’t a dark side, a down side, to human life. But clearly, penitence is a state of clearsightedness, rejecting delusion, an ac ceptance of things as they really are, oneself as one really is.

I hereby submit an old poem of mine:

Maker of makers

I always was

In your hand

All that I have

All that I’ve had

All that’s worth having

You have given

Therefore I regret

That I have added

As much to your burden

As I have

For you work

And you work

And it is so far from me

And so deep within

That I hope it does not hurt

If all I can muster

Before this

The wild

The original

Are reverence

And awe

For your sake

I will try

To learn to

Love as

You love

Painfully

Powerfully, strewing

Errors like nebulas

Along the uncertain way.

It’s important to accept that we add to the burden, and if we accept that, we also accept the sadness of the terrific weight of which are a part.

And that entails getting a new mind, re-penting, rethinking, seeing anew. Renewal is not the flip side of being sorry – renewal is the main point, the main idea, personal resurrection as an image of what Christ has offered the world. And that can lead to all kinds of gratitude and even elation . . . but not so fast. The main point is that renewal is far from free. It’s hard. It can break you. (That’s why the keeper of the Gate asks them to identify themselves, because, if they aren’t meant to be here, they could get hurt. Once he learns Lucia brought Dante, he’s good with it.)

So there is a heaviness to Lent, and it’s a good thing, a building thing, a challenge, a chance to lose the delusion that we are fine, perfect, don’t need to work on anything. What will we see when we straighten up and, with unclouded, sober eye, see the world, and ourselves in it, as it really is? What will we do to get even closer to the light?


Purgatory Canto 8: A Paradise for Procrastinators

I’m an ENFP on the Myers Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI). Always have been (meaning: same result each of the dozen times I’ve taken the thing). Probably always will be.

When I first took the MBTI, I think about mid-way through seminary, the results came as both a revelation and an affirmation. One of the descriptors of my “type” read thus: “Works more by inspiration than perspiration.”

And so afterward, I to myself: that explains why I was never able to start the paper three weeks in advance, read two books and three magazine articles, keep the notes neatly organized on notecards, and finish the first draft the week before. That explains why I’m up all night in a flurry of excited creativity, photocopies strewn about and highlighter stains on my fingers, until the thoughts flow like water through a dry irrigation channel. Inspiration. Not perspiration. I’m an ENFP, by God! It’s who I am!

Right.

I think this section of Purgatorio (meaning, Cantos 2-6; meaning Ante-purgatory) is ideal for ENFP’s. Meaning…procrastinators. And oh, I am not implying that we’ll all end up here – but there’s perhaps a better chance than most that this is our crib, initially, in heaven.

Dante’s playing around here, it seems to me, with this question: how do we get there? Is it by perspiration? Or by inspiration? Before I too hastily say that we ENFP’s have the right answer (inspiration), let me say that I’m sure Dante (being the extremes-avoiding, died-in-the-wool Aristotelian that he is…especially in this Canto) would say it’s got to be both.

But before we go there, first of all, let’s consider this: where is the “there” we’re trying to get to? It’s clear that what Dante’s after is the ultimate there: symbolically, it’s the thing that is represented by an entire 1/3 of the poem: Paradiso. It is the thing most to be desired, the ultimate joy and fulfillment of the human soul. It is that the place governed by that love that scratches our ultimate itch: a love that is love-in-loving. Whether we realize it or not, this is the ultimate thing that ought to capture our attention and desire, and it’s what we human beings are built for. Hell is where it gets totally screwed up beyond repair, and we forget the assignment itself; and purgatory’s where we work it out. We get the ultimate extension: all the time you need.

This whole section of Purgatorio is about those who, for one reason or another, were too preoccupied until the very end to apply their attention to what matters most: the disciplined practice of love that gets you there. The steady work that puts you there in your present, in-spired (that is, breath-ful) life, because you’ve gotten a taste of it, and it’s sweet.

Here, we see the shades of those who put it off to the end for seemingly good reason: the rulers mentioned here are “types” for all who neglected their own soul to be in service to others, through their exercise of worldly duties. I’m sure there are a lot of dutiful moms, magistrats…minsters here too? Their reward is a resting place of technicolor beauty (reminded me of that psychedelic Pink Floyd poster I stared at so many hours under a blacklight when I was a kid). One wonders, though – and this is a total riff – if God isn’t giving them a foretaste of the truest distraction that should have preoccupied them: might the beautiful colors represent that vivid brightness that should serve as the ultimate attention grabber. These are the colors of heaven, the brightness of the divine.

Which brings me back to the main point. How do you get there?  The sun, in Dante’s cosmos, plays a very clear and specific role: it is the inspiration part. It is the divine illumination without which one cannot make any progress toward the top of the mountain, toward that-which-matters-most.

This is the law of the mountain: ain’t goin nowhere at night. Not that someone’s blocking you (they’re not). It’s just that, to paraphrase John’s gospel, “cut off from me, you can do nothing.”

This seems particularly resonant right now, and not necessarily in a good way. There are so many I know who are feeling like they are in the dark. Completely unable to lift a toe upward, completely unable to make any progress forward; and it is no fun, let me tell you. And I know, because I’ve been there myself. Dark night of the soul. Theology seems like nursery rhyme. Life makes no sense. It’s night.

We’ll just have to rest the night, and wait until morning. I can testify to the notion that the color is indeed brightest when you’ve fully explored the darkness of night. That’s how it works. And – again having been there myself – I can tell you that morning does come. After night.

How do you get up the mountain? Is it inspiration? Is it perspiration? Presbyterians (so firmly on the inspiration side of the equation) do well to note: it’s got to be both. A holy and wise understanding of both in their place.

Evidence of Dante’s astute Aristotelian mean-ing: just take a gander at Henry III, practically the last visage we see in this Canto. The guy is there for the opposite reason: neglecting his worldly duties for an obsessive preoccupation with piety. Too fascinated by the notes and the drafts to ever actually produce anything at all.

How do you get up the mountain? Here’s an even better answer, and another reason we’re not in hell: It’s not just inspiration. Nor perspiration.

It’s with others. The help of the other, others; the Other.