Author Archives: jtimpane

About jtimpane

Media Editor/Writer at The Philadelphia Inquirer.

Canto 32: We Can’t Get There Without Grace

So . . . who’s in Heaven? And how close do they sit to God? And who’s next to them? Is everyone equal? Or are there degrees, and ranks, and grades? Do we have all ages? All genders? Young and old? Is Heaven a diverse place? And the question all of us really want to know: Is there room in it for me?
“From petal to petal, down through the rose”: we learn who sits where, what the seating chart is for Heaven.
The entire Commedia has been one voice explaining how it works (whether the it in question is Inferno, Purgatorio, or Paradiso) to another voice. Most commonly, it’s an old hand around here, such as Vergil in Inferno, or Bernard of Clairvaux here in the Tenth Heaven. The single most voluble, detailed, and patient explainer is Beatrice herself. The power of her intellect is a lifeline to the Divine, the Intellect instilling, literally, intelligence and information into the cosmos.
And the student, always, has been the pilgrim, Dante, amazed, confused, afraid, doubtful, curious, on fire to understand.
In Paradiso, we’ve been traveling throughout Paradise, always ascending toward the One, the Center, the Love informing all, and now that the lesson is about to end – or, more accurately in the poem’s terms, now that vision is about to become one with Vision – the questing, questioning pilgrim beholds, truly, a Rose that is a City that is a Theater that is a Garden: the holy greats of human history, named and nameless, arrayed in orders around the central Love that makes the wildly complex, inflorescent Rose cohere.

Plenty of paradoxes. In a Heaven without place and time, there are places and orders; there appears to be separateness. Individuals such as Mary, Peter, Anna, St. Francis, and others are identified by name, so they must maintain an individual integrity of some sort. But, as we see, they also, mysteriously, all are one, all focused, all gazing lovingly on the Vision that is one with vision. These are individual souls unified into one Flower, one Garden, one City, one Theater, organized around a Center that gives them being and the power to understand and praise.
Repeat: the Vision that is one with vision. To understand is to be at one with the Understood, in a way in which we can’t do it on Earth (although we get intimations of it). Heaven is where perception subsumes us into the object of perception. Observer ceases to be separate from Observed, who is expressed, in the first place, in the observer.

This Lent, we often meditate on the frustrations of being an individual dissoluble from others. We cannot stay fully consistent. Integrity eludes us. Mindfulness stutters or flags. Our attention may be like a searchlight sometimes, but at others it’s more like a flashlight.

But in these last Cantos, Dante suggests that the human self is the deepest of all errors. Not that it does not exist; it is the ultimate gift of the Giver. Only that we mistake it for what it is not. We think our intellect belongs to us, when it really is on a permanent continuum with the divine Intellect. We may be in time and space, but we are never separate from the power-station of Mind.

Consider the saying of Heraclitus, that “the Logos pervades everything, yet every man thinks he has his very own wisdom.” All thinking, mentation, mind, wisdom, and reason, expresses and is pervaded by, partakes in and is not separable from, the Logos, the principle underlying existence and also the principle structuring the way we use our minds. We think we have private versions of the Logos, when our minds and bodies already are penetrated and pervaded by it, and express it in being. That expression, of the mystical Logos (which for Dante and the Christian, is Christ) in the act of understanding, brings the Divine together with the timebound, placebound flesh, in an ineffable mystery. The miracle of human thought is the site, again, of the Incarnation.

Which raises the hair. And makes the knees shake. Which is literally not possible to understand, precisely because nothing is more present to us moment to moment than the movement, origin, foundations, and color of our own thoughts. And since they arise from our minds and are first known to us, and are not accessible to others unless we tell them, we assume they belong to us, and that we have a privileged relation to them. Which we do, but only contingently. Our relation to Mind is fallen, expressed through the flesh. Here in Dante’s Flower/City/Theater/Garden, we maintain the integrity of Self while unified with the Supra-Self.

Logos is the rules, the way things are, so that not only thought but also the structure of mind, and the physical laws of the universe that give rise to body and mind, are continually expressed in the life of body and mind. The life of fallen, enfleshed, ensouled human beings is a fallen version of the Logos-saturated life in Paradise.

It’s beautiful that Beatrice has given way to Mary. Bernard’s love of her is truly moving, his rapt gaze at her (“absorbed in his delight,” both absolutely enthralled with it, and merging with it) throughout the three cantos in which he serves as Dante’s final guide, and his vastly loving prayer to her, are sublime depictions of total connection with loving intercession.

I love the catalogue of holy women first described. It reminds us how Dante has been concerned to include both women and men in the sweep of his poem, and also reminds us of how many holy women are named among the saints. With piercing irony, Eve sits at the seat of Mary:

The wound that Mary closed and healed with ointment
Had been opened and pierced through by the person
Who sits, so beautiful, there at her feet.

Slightly disconcertingly, another echo of the Fall and the Passion sounds, but this permanent reunion of Eve and Mary signals the ultimate reconciliation, when everything, all Christ and humankind went through for the sake of rescue, of salvation, has been made all right.

We see one place, all filled, for those who had faith “Christ would come,” who somehow believed in Him even before the fact of his Incarnation on Earth. Bernard doesn’t go into much detail about who they are or how they could believe in Christ and be rewarded as such. Instead, on the facing side, are “where you see semicircles / Gapped with empty spaces” where sit those “who turned their faces to Christ who had come.” There are a few empty seats, but not many. They await the faithful of this moment on Earth, and not many will qualify.

Then we get to the children sitting in the rose. Bernard senses a doubtful hesitation in the usually vocal pilgrim. These are those “spirits who were freed / Before they had the power of true choice.” The ranks just above them were people who had choice, who had reached the age of reason. But these never got there, through various circumstances. They died as children: “You can observe it clearly in their faces / And in their children’s voices, if you regard them / With care and listen.” There’s no question of judging such souls by their merits, and they are here through a divine mystery. Before Christ, children were saved by their sheer innocence; after Christ, they are saved by circumcision and baptism.

Bernard had begun this part of his tour by saying, “Now wonder at the depth of Providence,” and Dante-pilgrim certainly is, for he can’t understand how children, who died before their time, “hurried to true life” (God, what a great phrase) can be ranked before and behind one another.

Bernard in essence says, it’s how God rolls. There are good reasons, just as there are for the way the entire universe operates. We can’t always know those reasons. Perhaps we can’t ever really know them. Just as in Canto XXXI, Dante sounds the first theme of the limit of language, the limit of being able to express, here we come up against the limit of understanding:
The King, in whom this kingdom comes to rest
In so much love and delight
That no will would dare ask for more

Creating all minds in his joyous sight,
Endows each differently with grace, by
His own pleasure – and here let that suffice.
When I was a boy, it used to disturb me to think that some people were better than others, that some people were smarter, or better at singing, or baseball, or arithmetic. I envied those who excelled me, and I lorded it over those I excelled. And when I thought of Heaven, it seemed unfair that there could be any stratification of ecstasy. If we are One, how can we be arranged and ordered?

The answer is that God’s doing it for God’s own reasons. The fascinating discussion, led by Charles Martel, about why children of the same parents can have such different fates, came to the same ground. We can’t know why. It’s so, and in Heaven, everybody is where they wanted to be throughout life, so no one’s complaining if they’re lower than Mary. In earthbound life, of course, the question of differing fates has the same answer, much less satisfying. Yet, Bernard implies, that state of affairs suits. After we have seen Gabriel flying before Mary, we see what Bernard calls “the roots of the Rose”: Adam, Moses, Peter, John the Baptist. There are conjunctions of angel and human, man and woman, pagan and Christian.

Having beheld the entire, splendidly enfolding Rose, we have come to the moment, when the pilgrim can direct his gaze to God. It’s beautifully done: “Since the moments allotted to you are flying, here we make a period.” A full stop. Two references at once, to Dante-pilgrim’s still essentially timebound mode of understanding. It also reminds us of the timebound experience we have had of the Commedia itself, of all poetry, saturated in time (in rhythm and in length), and that that experience, too, alas, is running toward its period. We’re coming to a full stop, and the moments for this exquisite, immense poem are flying. “Toward the First Love we will direct our eyes,/ So that, looking upon Him, you may penetrate / As much as possible through his effulgence.”

But Dante-pilgrim can’t hope to do that without help. Here, as on Earth, if he needs an Intercessor between himself and God, he goes through the Intercessor of all Intercessors, Mary. “Remember, oh most gracious Virgin Mary, that never was it known, that anyone who fled to thy protection, implored thy help, or sought thy intercession, was left unaided.” That’s how the prayer goes. “Oh, Mother of the Word Incarnate.” Dante needs “grace from the one who can help you.” We simply can’t get there without grace.

Can there be a better Lenten thought? Maybe not. We simply can’t get there without grace. We need help. We can’t go it alone. It’s a long road, a demanding journey, asking not less than everything, as is fitting and right. So has the Commedia been, and in the next Canto, Dante-pilgrim will both see and fail to recall the full, luculent Lightfall of the Uncreated Word. Not only could he not get there without grace, but also he cannot say it, cannot recall it with justice. He will fail to tell us, and yet his failure tells us all we need to know.

Happy Easter, everyone.


Canto 31: City, Theater, Garden, Rose

Is Paradise a rose? Or a city? A theater? Or a garden?

All. Any. None. In Canto 31, this kaleidoscopic shimmer among images is the spectacle, and spectacular it is, of a poet, and a believer, employing poetry in all its magic to do what cannot be done in human language: give us the sense and sight of Heaven.

Poetry has is mystical to begin with. It seizes on our most human tool, language, that servant and master that issues from our lungs and our throats, teeth, nose, tongue, eyes, lips, fingers, and hands, our whole bodies, twisting and standing and knotting up, and somehow it speaks what’s in our minds. Or gets somewhere near. Or at least that’s the hope. Having seized it, poetry wrings yet more out of it, freighting each sound, rhythm, and shape with so much meaning we cannot catch up, meanings we can’t even be aware of, not as writers, not as readers, not as species.

So much about language escapes us, so much about even our own individual use of it. You’d think we’d have a feeling of ownership, and we do, yet, as even a moment’s reflection tells us, no, no one really owns this though all use it. And no one uses it, to the utter horizons of possibility and beyond, like the poet, and that brings a feeling of the unspeakable, what cannot be said, a feeling, also, of truth and truthfulness ordinary language cannot approach. Poetry, like all art, gestures, in its very existence and workings, toward Being, toward One, toward the Without-Time. I’m already verging on the poetic with those phrases, but they hardly go too far. No matter what else poetry is talking about (even when the poet speaks of God’s nonexistence, ironically enough), it is also always invoking the mystic.

That’s what’s crucial about the Commedia, and especially so in its last few, glorious, triumphant Cantos. I must say, few human achievements can be as wondrously assured and successful as this last stretch of the journey. We always have been moving forward, moving upward. Dante assiduously has been keeping track of time as long as time has lasted. Yet always he is maneuvering us toward a moment when we leave time and place, when our habit, indeed our error (itself redolent of the Fall) of distinguishing the then from the now, must fall away. Remember Canto XXIX, when Beatrice gets cross about the way we’re always going after appearances, and tells us we’re wrong, just wrong? We need appearances and can’t get along without them, but our reflexes of definition, analysis and synthesis, cubbyholing existence, the hot mind chugging away all it can, actually constitute a kind of lie. The bed is unmade, so we make the bed, but again the bed is unmade. We assume we are deathless and ever-right when we are blind and mortal. (“You say, ‘I am rich, and have put up great wealth, and am in need of nothing,’ and you do not know you are wretched, destitute, poor, blind, and naked.”) Dante reminds us, Beatrice and all the guides remind us, that what we’re trying to do we cannot actually do.

And so is Dante. And in the final Canto, he’ll let us know he failed, that he has to fail, being human. Meantime, to write poetry is trasumanare, either really to transcend our humanness, or to feel as if we have. Even if that were all poetry did, it’d be pretty good. But Dante wants it to lead to real transcendence.
My bold, slashing suggestion for this, my final log-in after three years of Dante with my beloved brethren, is: Dante believed poetry could actually get us there, get us to a direct experience of the divine, maneuver our spirits to the intersection of flesh and spirit that is the Incarnation. He definitely believed it could help us transcend our limits. The entire Commedia is based on that faith, and I think you’d have to say, after almost 700 years, it is doing a very good job. But in doing that job, Dante’s after the biggest moving project of all: to move us, as readers, into mystical contact with God.

So maybe transcending the human is essentially mystical. And writing poetry that seeks that transcendence is a mystical act. I’m going to swim up that waterfall as we proceed.
Dante, for the previous few Cantos, has been battering us with metaphors for Heaven. He’s trying to shift us into a mode of consciousness such that all his metaphors – the Theater, in which all of Heaven is arrayed as a whole before us, as on a stage; the Garden, a joyous, fertile, light-saturated region of eternal growth, union, and color; the City, that is, the New Jerusalem, the society of saints, angels, and Trinity, ordered in Divine Reason, reflecting (but also embodying) the goodness of eternal community; and the divine Flower, the white rose spirits in constant, ecstatic, eternal praise, infloresced around the integral, radiating Center – are not different ways of saying the same thing, but are, mystically and mysteriously, one thing, as the Trinty are One and One is Three. All the metaphors call on us to take on a total mental view of the vast, cosmic tapestry of Paradise, to see it as a whole. And . . . then . . . to collapse our notions of part and whole, and realize that Part and Whole are One. Dante is not different from Paradise and Paradise not different from Creation. Dante’s imagination shifts among these registers not as alternatives or parts but as constant, equal, interequilibrating, total truths. And if you can let your mind do what he’s urging it to do, you feel an expansion of the fabric of thought, a rising, an intimation of an impossible state we glimpse and perhaps, for an eye-blink, see.

My God, is it beautiful.

In the form of a white-hot Rose
The holy host showed itself to me
Which Christ through his blood had made his bride.

So the milizia, the “host” or (in a metaphoric way, military) ranks of Heaven, the assembled orders in limitless, spaceless eternity, show themselves to Dante, and we’re told that this host was made a bride through Christ’s sacrifice. That’s the basic teaching of the Harrowing of Hell, that Christ as God suffered mortal pain and death, thereby freeing the billions from their intermediary state and into Heaven. We recall, too, that the Church is also called the Bride of Christ, and as we’re told on many Sunday’s, also betrothed through that blood sacrifice. The blizzard of various yet unitary metaphors rains down: the stupefying candor of the white rose, the military, the wedding, the blood sacrifice. All of this feeds into the machinery of theater/garden/city/flower, a continuum, not a chain of separable visions. We may find the addition of violence disconcerting, but it fits. There is blood, there is punishment – and there is victory. And here you see it, in its singleness, all around you.

And now, if we can even bear it, we read:

But the other host, that flying, sees and sings
The glory of Him who enamors it,
And the goodness of Him that created it so wondrous,
As a swarm of bees that inflowers itself
One second and another returns
There where its labor adds sweetness,
Sank into the Great flower that adorns itself
With so many leaves, then rose again
There, where its love always sojourns.
All of them had faces of living flame
And golden wings, and the rest such a white
That no snow ever attains to that extreme.
When they let down into the Flower, from bank to bank
They carried something of the peace and ardor
They gained by fanning their flanks.
Nor did the interposing between the Flower
And what hovered over it
Of such a flying multitude
Impede the view or the splendor:
For the divine Light penetrates
Throughout the universe according to its merits
Such that nothing can stand obstacle to it.

Ravishing, and (for me) seductive, but also, in its constant process of metaphorization, of bringing each new way-of-seeing-one-thing-as-another into the whole, further expanding the aperture. The heavenly hosts either celebrate the Rose or fly into and out of it. Yet they never obscure the view of it, for they are of it and are not separable from it. Heaven is where Praise is at one with the Praised. The Light pervades and runs through all things, according to the degree to which those things merit the Light. Nor is the Light to be thought of as something that can be considered separate from the universe or the things the universe contains. The Light is the condition of the universe’s being. As is Praise of the light. Pure verb.

In this overpowering vision, we almost forget there’s a speaker, or that there has been a series of guides, or Beatrice. But Dante is moving us gently to the moment when we must let go even of her. We might feel sad, since she has been such a central fulcrum of all that’s gone on since Inferno: Through her we’ve been led out of the savage Abyss, through the grey regions of the Great Waiting, and now into this, the Empyrean.

Beatrice is our way to God, but is not God. She is our Lady, but she is not Our Lady. And Dante has come to the point at which he must relinquish his dynamo, his mirror and conduit of love and divinity, the human love that drove his poetry and drove him to the Divine. Why? Because now she is with Divinity, and he can see but not go there. And, despite the powers of his unexampled (and it is) poetry, he will fail, in the end, to say what he saw, even though what he says may bring us to that What.

Wow. Wow:

I, that had come from the human to the divine,
From Time to the Eternal,
From Florence to a just and whole Community,
Into what a stupor must I have been thrown!
Truly, between this and the Joy
I was pleased not to hear and to stay mute. . .
Passenger through the living Light
I passed my eyes over all the variegations
Now up, now down, now circling round.
I saw faces of persuasive charity
Empowered by the Light and His Smile
In attitudes adorned by all graces.
My regard already had gathered in
The general sweep of Paradise
No aspect staying fixed or closed
And I turned around me with the renewed wish
To ask my lady of things
About which my mind was in suspense.

Can we stand it, I wonder? Who else could have the towering, powerful, triumphant gust to write, or to have a character claim that “My regard already had gathered in / the general sweep of Paradise?” No aspect stays fixed or closed: Heaven always moves, ever takes the shape of music and song and praise. No sense of separability, of Time, of change. It is not change as we know it but a necessary, joyous movement, growth, and fructification. And persuasion: Who can resist those “faces of persuasive charity”? How could you resist Charity, when Heaven shows what Charity does?

But then he looks for Beatrice, as he’s done throughout the poem. And she is no longer at his side. She is seated, her crown reflecting the One, at the Third Level, below Christ and the real Queen of Heaven, Mary. When Bernard of Clairvaux appears as Dante-pilgrim’s final guide, he directs him to see her, who is both infinitely far from him, and not separated at all:

No mortal eye is so far removed
From the region in which the on-high thunders
Or no matter how deep the sea sinking
As my view was from Beatrice,
But I was not dismayed, because her image
Did not reach down to me through any obscuring medium.

Dante joyfully acknowledges his far remove from Beatrice, but it is a remove of ontology, of intrinsic degree of relation to the Divine, not a remove of physical distance. No mediation in Heaven. Ranks and realms and differing relations, but nothing separate. There is no place. Beatrice is sharp and clear, and acknowledging the differing realms is but, once again, to Praise. In fact, all verbs in Heaven are one verb, Praise.
Dante utters an absolutely gorgeous poem of thanks to his Beatrice, and asks for her continued grace, and then Bernard directs him to see Mary. And, if Dante was amazed before, he is now stupefied by the sight on which all are focused.

I saw smile there . . .
A beauty, a gladness
Such as was in the eyes of all the other saints.
And if I had as much skill in speaking
As in imagining, I wouldn’t dare
To try the smallest part of it.

This announces that language, from here on in, fails. Once Beatrice leaves us, so does the power of language to explain, to present, to mediate. Dante-pilgrim lets us know that the Commedia has given us the sweep of Heaven, the one view of the One . . . and has moved us past words, time, place. We are at the end of the poem and the end of Time. What we see in the next Canto is the unity of all things.

The Commedia has been nothing but language. But language is never nothing but language. Language can move people, change them, bring them new places. Imagination is body as well as mind. Where language takes us, all of us go. Whether Dante wishes us to be absolutely literal-minded, or whether he is conjuring with the ineffable through utterance, courting an inevitably failed enterprise (as he himself just told us!), as of Canto 31, we’re transported into a realm of ecstasy, where all moves, and where movement makes a whole, a drama, a city, a host, a sacrifice, a garden (without walls!), a Flower. We move, but not from place to place. We move as praise and joy and justice move. That Holy Stasis invoked at the end of Paradiso is an ever-growing, ever-sweetening, ever-burgeoning realization of perfection, endless and endlessly unfolding. It is the reality beyond speech to which poetry, all art, all thought, all our ultimate best, ever gesture. As Dante-pilgrim tells us, we’re always there already. Our desire, and our wish to be good, to be with the good, to be of God and with God, happens all the time, continually furnishes us with intimations and glimpses of the Unity within and through all things, so finely pervaded throughout that, although we use terms such as “hidden” and “elusive,” perhaps we really should use terms such as “superpresent” and “superfamiliar” and “supraverbal.” The fire and the rose are one.

Ah, Lent, you are long. But it is spring, and it is a good thing to reflect on our distance yet to travel and how far we have come. Those of us (I’m one) who think we’re always already there don’t think that solves everything. When infinity separates, you can’t span the gulch — except by spanning it. The somber reality of Lent, that we are flesh and make mistakes and keep making them, that our physical destination is as humble and dirty as our origins, can merge with the joy that precedes Lent (that of Christmas) and the unworded ecstasy in which it ends, that of Easter. But we can’t get to Easter unless we minister to the Easter within, let it guide us to the Easter up, down, all round. It’s a journey outside of time and across much other than space. We cannot possibly traverse it, except by traversing it. Dante has shown us.

Thanks, Jeff, for letting me be part of this. And my other brothers and sisters in this beautiful task.


Canto 26: The Ecstatic Recitation of Love

This, to be sure, is the Canto That Has Everything. Vision, light, love, and Adam, Our Father. Dante is in rare, rarified, high companionship here, as he hangs out with Beatrice, St. John, and Adam.

You can feel  the end of Paradiso coming, and with it the end of the Commedia. The poetry and the ideas are exquisite, finely tuned, at once sublime and limpid, the trademark of this very learned poet who somehow turned out this lucid, inexhaustible epic of hope.

Since the last word was hope, maybe it’s not inappropriate to note that the end of the Commedia will be the beginning of everything, the One that gathers all the pages of the cosmos into a single, gold-diamond, singing book. Throughout the Paradiso, we have seen, again and again, the One as the basis and organizing principle, not just of life or the soul, but Paradise itself, light itself, the relations of all things in the universe. All of them are arranged as they are as a direct consequence of their roles played in relation to the One. (This is the to dunamon of Aristotle.) We human beings don’t understand this order and can’t attain to it – reminding us of Psalm 139, one of the best poems ever written on the nature of God: ”Such knowledge is too wonderful  and excellent for me; I cannot attain unto it” (Book of Common Prayer). Dante-as-Pilgrim keeps forgetting that the Love that binds all things orders all things. In this Canto, however, he remembers, in a very moving fashion.

Dazzled Dante is examined by the Evangelist about the love in the former’s heart. What elated precision in Dante’s answer! For once, he knows what to say: He knows why he loves, and he knows what has motivated this love. This is one of the most articulate moments, word for word, Dante-as-pilgrim has in the entire Commedia. Maybe, after his incredible journey through Despair and Waiting to Eternal Love, he finally realizes why he has come, why he was lost to begin with, and why, with dazzled eyes, he is so close now to the Ultimate. I think we’re meant to see this as divine inspiration, not just “the right answer” (although it is) – this is the same Dante who has made every mistake in the book, Mr. Misunderstanding, who’s has had to be schooled by Virgil, Beatrice, and everyone who knows anything. The Commedia’s been one long, running man-or-woman-on-the-road interview from level to level, insatiably, ardently trying to understand.  The entire Commedia, we realize, has been driven by this relentless thirst to know, to see, to understand, to transcend the human . . . ah, that verb, trasumanare. When it all gets down to it, now he can say it:

The good, to the extent it’s understood as such,

Ignites love, all the more as more goodness

Is comprehended in itself.

Toward the Essence, then (so exquisite

That all goods outside of it

Are but a light from its own rays) . . .

Moves any mind that discerns the truth,

Loving it more than anything else.

We are in the presence of powerful philosophy as well as lovely poetry, to which Dante-as-pilgrim adds references to Aristotle, and to the beginning of John’s Gospel, “which more than any other reports show earth the mysteries here.”

And St. John says, beautifully: “The utmost of your loves looks on God” (“d’i tuoi amori a Dio guarda il sovrano“). He asks Dante to go on, and in a blaze of dazzled inspiration, he says:

The being of the world and my own being,

The death He suffered so I could live,

And that which all the faithful (like me) hope for

Along with the aforesaid lively consciousness 

Have hauled me out of the sea of love gone wrong

And set me on the shore of the straightmost way.

Dante is here, and Dante is in love, thanks to the moment-to-moment fact of the Incarnation and Death of Christ, and he’s here because the cosmos exists as it does, an ongoing unfolding of the Essence. All this has ransomed him. We began Inferno in the middle of a dark road in a savage wood, direction lost. Now we know ourselves, and the Love that has brought us, and it is our living consciousness of that Love that has hauled us out of that marvelously phrased “sea of love gone wrong.”

Love is here. Love is Here. And the moment we are conscious of it, conscious in a vibrant, living consciousness, our way is made straight. The Incarnation happens. This may remind us of a moment in the “Dry Salvages” section of T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets:

The hint half guessed, the gift half understood, is Incarnation.
Here the impossible union
Of spheres of existence is actual,
Here the past and future
Are conquered, and reconciled

Eliot knew he was shadowing Dante, or Dante him. The “impossible union/Of spheres of existence is actual”: We come into contact with Love, with the Essence. Most of us get only “hints,” Eliot says:  “For most of us,” he writes, “this is the aim/Never here to be realized” but glimpsed and guessed.

But in Paradise, Dante-as-pilgrim sees it clear enough, because it is all around him, and his living awareness is all-pervading.

As soon as Dante concludes his ecstatic account of Love-Known-As-Love, Paradise rings with “Holy, Holy, Holy!” and Beatrice wipes away the dazzle from his eyes. He has spoken the Truth that moves all Heaven, and the joy pulses throughout Paradise.

I’m not going to say much about Adam’s fascinating appearance. Dante’s search for knowledge continues, the running interview, the “What Do You Know?” asked of all the greats of Creation. We have to know; we want to know.  It is piercingly sad how short a time (a few hours) Adam spent in Eden, compared to those 4,302 years in Limbo. Adam says interesting things about the changing Name of God (“I” and then “El”). His presence here, as is everything else, is a direct reflection of the suffering and death of Christ, without which those who died without Christ had to wait in the anteroom of Paradise. Not that Adam is complaining.

Above all, I’m struck with the electric certainty of Dante’s proclamation: He knows Love now and knows why he loves. He knows the source and the motive. And he realizes it’s his own intellect that must stay wide open to Intellect/Love/the One, to see the goodness within It, and to discern the works of goodness radiating out from It.

It’s spring, with two and half weeks left before the end of Lent. I’m willing to say (it’s true, after all) I believe, but not to tell someone else what to think. Like the author of The Cloud of Unknowing, I realize I have built-in limitations common to my species. I want to know, but some walls I can’t break through. I’m fallen, fallen for sure. So I’m wary of defining the One, of saying that somehow I understand It and can “tell you what God is.”

But like Eliot, I think I get glimpses. Like Dante, I hope for moments of white heat of soul, full head of sail, where I am surfing on the breakers of sunlit benediction, humble, aware, and open. Easter.


Paradiso Canto 8: We’re Mixed Up, and That’s Good

Dante’s questions continue as he ascends the spheres of heaven. Again and again, his questions are absolutely understandable – but again and again, the answers suggest that he has momentarily forgotten the pervasive role of the Creator in directing all things. He is learning, brick by brick, that things have to be the way they are, and that’s good, because it embodies the cohering light of Intelligence, flowing through all, characterizing all, ensouling all.

There’s an undertone, perhaps unconscious, to Dante’s questions: Why are things the way they are? Why do they work this way and not another? Constantly, we feel the ramping, vibrant human mind kicking at its stall, wanting to blow down its limits, wanting to know, to know. Dante’s interrogation isn’t profane or irreligious, but its energy is nevertheless questing and profound. And being in heaven doesn’t quench the thirst of the search.

The sphere of Venus, eh? We’d expect a look at sexual desire and love, but no. (Maybe because, in the end, the belief in Venus and the star was a pagan holdover?) Instead, we find ourselves in a discussion with Charles Martel about a topic that has puzzled and horrified many parents: why do children turn out so differently? Why are people so diverse? What is the origin of that diversity, which admittedly makes human society so rich, and so is inarguably necessary to human life (as Aristotle pointed out), but also leads to such trouble? “How is it,” asks Dante, “sweet seed can bear bitter fruit?”

That question bespeaks human insecurity and frustration at unpredictability – in the world in general, but especially in human affairs. We can’t tell how people will turn out, and we can’t control the ways their differences will combine. We can’t foresee or catch up all the consequences. All parents know this tremulous, balked feeling in regard to their children. We just can’t see the future. Charles, now in heaven, is worried about the choices of his brother Robert. (Although I must say, he needn’t have worried: Robert turned out to be a good king, a peacemaker and defender of the Italian peninsula against foreign invaders.)

Charles, evidently for a while an admired acquaintance of Dante’s, is a good authority, because (as Dante sees it) he was very different from his brother, who may be on a perilous path. Charles says that had he not died so young, things might have been different. As in both Inferno and Purgatorio, the affairs of the world, and the worries of the world, go on, and those in these various postlife realms are aware of them and share them — even those, like Charles Martel, who are in perpetual bliss.

Dante had begun by calling the belief in Venus a relic of pagan times – but Martel’s explanation of human diversity is a mixture of the pagan (astrology) and the Christian (the informing divine Intelligence). The stars exert different influences on us as each of us are born; this astral individuation takes place within the plan of Providence. Martel reminds Dante of “The Good, which turns and gladdens the entire Kingdom you’re climbing,” and which “makes Providence a power” in the stars. “And in Mind, which is itself perfect, there is provision” for both the natures of men and for their well-being.

Dante and Martel agree that nature can never “tire of doing what is necessary,” because that’s what nature is. And, following Aristotle, Dante also agrees we’re a naturally gregarious, social animal, and that it would be awful if we were all the same. We need to live in society, and we need to be different and diverse and divergent. God has done a good thing in making it so.

But how, then, does human diversity lead to so much trouble? As usual, it’s us and our fallenness. We mess up the plan of Providence. Human beings misinterpret the plan, or they try to force others or themselves into talents, lives, or positions for which they aren’t cut out. People don’t pay attention to the groundwork laid by Nature, and humankind gets off on to the wrong road.

Suppose we substituted the term genetic material for the term stars. We’d have a rather moving notion. Thanks to sexual recombination of genes, it’s exceedingly, vastly unlikely that any two people are identical. In human terms, it’s all but impossible. Our genes are what recombine, take different mixes and forms, at our formation. What results is my and your and his and her unrepeatable identity.

Can we see genetics, that outplaying braid of human diversity, as nestling within the plan of Providence?


Paradiso Canto 2: Reason Has Short Wings

How can you ask a question in Paradise?

Quite a question in and of itself. You’d have thought Paradise was where all questions have been answered. Was itself the answer to all questions. The garden in which all questions come to rest, without need for more.

Um, no. Not Dante’s Paradise.

More than once I’ve heard people say something to the effect of, “If I ever get to heaven, I’m going to have a few questions for the Almighty.” Understandable. Let’s say you find yourself in the Promised Beyond. All is One. All is revealed. All is known. A lot of us might well be like the Dante of the Paradiso. We might start asking, “OK, this is great. So how does it all work? And why does it work this way?”

In that (celestial?) light, it makes sense that so much of Paradiso is a question-and-answer session between Dante and his beloved pipeline to the Divine, Beatrice. Dante’s a lover, a poet, a scholar, a sinner, and in each of these roles he is amped, hyper-pumped, and supercharged with desire to know. As in know everything. Now’s his chance, and he’s going to make the most of it. He writes of the “longing” that is “enflamed” to “see” how it all works, our “inborn, perpetual thirst” that compels us forward and upward. And that has been the spur to the creation of this vast epic journey in the first place.

To begin, he reminds us no other poet has written a poem like his: “The waterway I take never was coursed before.” I love the opening lines, with Dante sailing in his boat, and warning other writers, in effect, not to try this at home. You might get lost!

Heaven, we soon see, is a hierarchical place. You can be closer or farther away from God, according to the virtue shown in your life. Like many of us, Dante is bothered by this, and he wants to know more. In Canto II, he is in the lowest sphere of heaven, that of the Moon. He writes, beautifully, “Beatrice looked upward, and I on her” (Beatrice in suso, e io in lei guardava). As a character in his own poem, Dante has always relied on someone, but really, his real guide has always been Beatrice, what she represents, the love of his life, and the Love toward which he and all things progress. His dependence on her is really, in the end, his dependence, the dependence of all existence, on God. He keeps forgetting that, and she keeps having to remind him.

So the question is: Why do we on Earth see black marks on the moon? If the moon is part of Heaven, why wouldn’t everything be perfect? Constant? As we learn, we are now in the lowest sphere of Heaven, that of the Moon, and this sphere, although still celestial, is characterized by inconstancy. With its changing phases, the moon was a symbol of the inconstant, the changeable, and Dante finds it a little unsettling to discover what appears to be inconsistency in the celestial realm.
Now, Dante had no telescope. But his question is one we still ask. We see the physical cosmos all around us, and we’re amazed by its vastness and beauty. But we also see signs of randomness, chaos, destruction. How, we ask, does this reflect the caress of the creating Hand? Dante’s question has resonance for 2012, no doubt about it.

Dante has some theories about varying densities of matter, and he runs them by Beatrice. It’s already pretty clear he’s wrong. Beatrice smiles indulgently “for a moment,” then remarks that Dante, knowing that human reason makes a lot of mistakes, and also knowing that “even when supported by the senses, reason has short wings.”

Wow. Dante and Beatrice take for granted the very truth our own age finds so repugnant, and which many people argue against with all their might: reason, even when the senses give reason evidence, has “corti l’ali,” short wings, a circumscribed ambit. To understand Paradise, to understand matters spiritual and divine, you have to think with more than reason. You have to augment reason with ways of knowing that connect with divinity, with hope, with virtue. To echo George Michael, to whom I never thought I’d be referring in any context whatsoever, “You Gotta Have Faith.”

It’s important for those of us with faith to acknowledge that those who reject faith do so for good reasons. Our reason and our senses are all we’ve got, or it can seem like that. These amazing tools help us solve our problems every moment of every day. When we’re asked to leave them, or to augment them, or to modify them — or when we’re told, as Beatrice tells Dante here, that they are inadequate — it seems an outrage, an affront. Little wonder when faith makes people feel disoriented or insecure.

But let’s be serious here. We employ faith all the time. “Object permanence,” the stage of infant thinking in which we asumme that objects that disappear momentarily from view still exist (as in a blanket withdraw from view momentarily), begins our long, innate, and necessary dependence on faith of all sorts. We can’t think or reason, ironically enough, without various levels of faith. That doesn’t invalidate the insistence that we honor reason, the senses, and the rules of evidence and argument. But it does make it seem silly to insist that we hold ourselves to only those things.

Beatrice, for one, is a big fan of reason and evidence. She even, in a wonderful, premodern moment, recommends that Dante conduct experiments to test his theories: “You can be set free from this quandary through experiment — if you ever want to try it — which is the font of the river of your arts” (“Da questa instanza puo deliberarti/Esperienza, se gia mai la provi,/Ch’esser suol fonte ai rivi di vostri’arti“). And by “arts” she means the arts and what we’d call the sciences. So both she and Dante are enthusiastic fans of science and reason.

But both insist that reason has those short wings. And this canto demonstrates it. She answers Dante’s question about the spots on the moon, but neither the substance of his question, nor, really, her answer, is the canto’s real point.

The real point is that Dante, in asking the question as he did, fails to understand. He fails because Heaven cannot be understood. Not, at least, without understanding the limits of understanding.

The last seven stanzas, among the most beautiful in the whole Paradiso, depict a cosmos deriving from the Intelligence behind it, which distributes intelligence throughout the universe as befits the bodies and levels of being in the cosmos:

Thus Intelligence multiplies its goodnesses
Among the scattered stars
Revolving itself upon its own unity.

Varying power makes diverse connections
With the precious matter it enlivens, in which –
As it does with life in you – it binds.

Thanks to glad nature from which it derives,
This mingled power shines throughout the body
Like gladness through the living pupil [of the eye].

It’s both not much of an answer (God mingles with everything, and everything shines according to God’s best plan), and a great answer, since it brings all questions back to the Light, to the Intelligence, in which human reason participates but from which it remains far distant, and of which it is but a circumscribed version. Dante, once again, has forgotten the dependence of all creation on the Light. That led him to ask the question. (Thus Beatrice’s smile!) Our one way even to approach the truth of the Truth is to have faith, and to see through faith — indeed, as the glad light of Intelligence shines through the living pupil.


Canto 32: Sleeper, Awake!

It’s just my luck to draw this Canto. Action-packed, ain’t it? You got the Eagle, The Griffin, the Giant and the Whore. You have Beatrice, seated on the ground near the Apple Tree. Most of all, most active of all, most turbulent of all, is the speaker’s mind, going in and out of consciousness, in and out of full and half-awareness, now focused like a laser to only one thing, now overloaded.

Even more than most is what lies just beyond all this . . . Paradise. Purgatorio is a strange, frustrating poem, written to be frustrating, to feel awkward and balked, thwarted, thirsty, wondering, agonizing. It’s the last assertion of the clog of the flesh, the asymmetrical axis of spirit and body, the sense of the human soul, caught in time, gravity, infirmity, and sin, not really fitting in anywhere, ever caught, ever in a state of painful between-ness.

As Purgatorio is! The ultimateTweenLand!

It’s hard to describe, after the hard descent of Inferno and the hard ascent up the terraced mountain of Purgatorio, how moving, how sad, how Lenten, the sight of the Tree is when we first see it. I realize that allegorically this Tree symbolizes the Earthly authority of the Church – but even here we have echoes of the Edenic tragedy. And later, when we see the allegory of the corruption of the Church by greed and political intrigue, we see the expression of original fallenness even in the institution (the Church) that should be teaching us the way.

The Tree has been here all along. Everything we are must pass this way. We can be good, we can be wonderful, but everything we do must pass through our original fallenness. The Tree need not be a bar, need not be impassable, but it can be. That’s what it was in Inferno, where reside those who in their personal lives replicated the angelic fall from grace that created Inferno. The Tree was there, too, all along. It’s one of two Trees essential to Christian iconography – the other being the Tree on which Christ was grafted in exquisite, ecstatic agony. That second Tree lies in the shadow cast by the first; the first made the second necessary.

And how consistent Dante has been in stressing, and lashing, the corruptions of wealth and power. We saw it at all levels of Inferno, and we’ve been seeing it at all Terraces of Purgatorio. It’s pervasive, it’s everywhere, it ruinedFlorence, it ruinedRome, and if we’re not careful it will ruin us and the Church. Dante looks around at the evils of what was, for him, modern Europe, and he depicts a battle of mythic beings, the long, tortured history of the Church, from the Rome of Constantine toAvignon.

I admire how bumbling Dante is throughout this canto – and yet, how full of pathos and dramatic irony his situation is. He sees Beatrice full in the face, and stares too long, and (once again) is yelled at. Of course, we’d all do the same. This guy has made a confession, been admonished for wasting his gifts, been criticized for weeping over the loss of Virgil . . . he can’t do anything right.

Except follow Beatrice. He knows she can show him the way, show him the Divine as the Divine really is. Even if Dante messes up a lot – and he does, in ways he can’t anticipate – he doesn’t know the rules – I mean, who does? – he is saved by his belief he can be saved. Beatrice is the mystery of Divine Guidance, revelation, the hints, clues, and teachings in earthly life that lead to God. Seeing Beatrice in the face prefigures the moment, at the end of Paradiso, when Dante beholds all the leaves of the universe bound into a transcendent book.

It’s also a comment on human love, as Dante says it came into his heart, and how, through the image of the Divine in the beloved, led him to the Divine. Neoplatonism was more than an intellectual game to Dante – it was an attempt to connect the transcendent, life-changing power of human love with the Love that moves the universe, literally linking the two. In a poem such as “Amor che ne la mente mi ragiona,” which we saw performed earlier in Purgatorio, Dante magnificently and repeatedly lets us know that My Lady is more than My Lady. She’s herself, of course, and I love her for herself, but she is also Light. She is also a portal of Love. She “strengthens our faith, / for such was ordained from eternity.” She, if we stay awake and alive and alert to it – she – whoever She is for us – is how we learn in this life, and this body, and this intellect, of the Love that is God.

Dante has said throughout his poem that the good person pays attention, and commits to memory (and to heart!) the lessons strewn, like bread on a forest road, throughout our existence. It’s both a medieval alertness for reality as a series of signs and a timeless awareness that God has structured existence to speak continually of the Divine, if one is a good enough person to recognize that, read it, and follow it.

It makes me wonder how many of us are that alert, that aware, that mindful. Poetry, music, and scholarship – and my job as a journalist – all of these rely heavily on notions of being aware, being in the midst of the world, cultivating a nuanced, omnidirectional alertness. Engaged and informed. Alert and aware. That’s what being alive is – and it obligates us to lead moral, humble lives, because without those, we’ll have no hope of seeing clearly.

And when Matilda calls on a dozing Dante to “Arise!” we definitely remember Lazarus. We remember the Transfiguration. We remember Easter. We remember Ephesians, with “Sleeper, awake!” It is a rising from the dead, a small version, a personal Resurrection.

And you know? I find his little personal awakening far more haunting, far more moving, far more Lenten, than the massive smash-up with Eagle, Chariot, and so on. The fate and history of the Church seems less moving than the spiritual fate of Dante. If such a bumbler, such a time-waster, such a political failure, such a trembling, flailing mess can see Beatrice and be blessed and be taken to Paradiso, anyone can.

That’s not true, of course. Not anyone. Inferno showed us those who can’t. But what counts here is that sense of hope, for the little person in the midst of a vast universe in which sin and goodness battle moment to moment. If Dante, then why not me? Maybe I will have my own Beatrice. Maybe — if I but saw it rightly — I already do.

That hope, that hopefulness, is extended to all by Dante though Dante, that feeling that we can achieve the sight of the Divine, if we stay open, work to be alert, follow the signs . . . and keep climbing.


Canto 26: Add To Our Burning Our Shame

There are many arresting things about Dante’s Purgatorio. You can no longer sin – unlike in Inferno, where everything you do is sin, to compound and perpetuate the sin for which you have been damned. But in Purgatorio, you can sin no longer, only do things that expiate sin, a hopeful, gratifying sign that in Purgatorio, you are within the skirts of grace. You can and do suffer, however, both externally (as in corporeal agony and the physical work of climbing up the winding terraces of the mountain) (which, beautifully enough, gets easier and lighter as you climb, signifying an increase of grace and a nearness to Paradise) and internally – through shame. And as we see throughout this astonishing, strange, twilit poem, shame agonizes as bad as fire. The denizens “add to their burning with their shame,” hastening their self-purification toward Paradise.

In Inferno, Dante sees many burning in endless torment for lust, and for unnatural or excessive brands of sex. Paolo and Francesca, two of the most admired characters in the entire Commedia, are in hell. So why are they in hell, but Sodomites and Hermaphrodites and poets of desire here in Purgatorio?

Because in hell you can’t feel shame. Paolo and Francesca capitulated to the kind of desire in which you cease to care. They abandoned station, compassion, and conscience; they literally let their passion (stoked, remember, by love poetry!) burn them up until there was nothing left. They ceased to feel the shame that is the voice of conscience calling. And in Inferno they feel no shame, either. Shame is, of course, pointless once you’re in hell. You can feel regret, bitterness, and fury – and since these will be directed at God, they, too, will be sins. Paolo and Francesca didn’t care and still don’t. They are beautiful in a way, because of the totality of their passion, and also because of its source. But shame implies you care, and they didn’t then, and they don’t now that they’re in Inferno.

So it’s not sex, or the kind of sex, or the mere fact of sex, that damns. It’s a particular, familiar kind of crime, an immersion past conscience in the luxurious blandishments of physical pleasure. We recall that the  Latin verb pervertere, from which we get “perversion,” really means “a turning away,” possibly a relic of a time in which face-to-face sex was the only kind thought to be allowed, and so any turning away from the partner was a perversion – but much more probably an acknowledgment that any kind of perversion, as when we pervert parenthood, or fiscal probity, or social responsibility, or trust, or love, or food, involves a turning away from God.

So those who are here at the Seventh Cornice, those so close to the top, to the embrace of the Lord, they are those who fell through lust, but retained a conscience throughout. From here (2011), it may seem a small thing, but it’s dispositive, the utter difference. The Lust we encounter in Purgatorio is not mortal, not the soul-destroying, God-alienating evil lust (or any sinful behavior) can be.

Think of Dr. Faustus in Christopher Marlowe’s play. When he gets close to hell, Faustus prays to feel remorse – and he can’t. Prayer is futile. Efforts at reform, repentance, metanoia, useless. It’s gone. When Claudius, Hamlet’s uncle, kneels to pray, he does so knowing his repentance is incomplete. He feels some sorrow that he killed his brother . . . but he still wants the things he got via the murder – his brother’s kingdom and his brother’s wife. Wanting these, he knows, means he doesn’t want to pray, doesn’t want to get any better. The intention isn’t there, so you might as well get up, Claudius, and go your way, because you’re cooked. Conscience is gone. “Words without thoughts, never to heaven go.” God won’t hear them because what you’re saying aren’t words – they’re noises without meaning or sense.”

By contrast, the way the Sodomites and Hermaphrodites and poets of desire – all the while burning in the terrible fire to Dante’s left – mingle praise (of Mary, of chaste Diana, etc.) and shout out their crimes in shame demonstrate how far we’ve come from hell. That’s how the Whip of Shame works, the Whip of Lust. Passing in different directions, exchanging kisses of greeting with one another, the homosexuals cry out “Sodom and Gomorrha!” and the straights repeat the tale of Pasiphaë. Shame, the capacity to feel shame, shows conscience is still alive; once shame dies, your soul dies, too. So, as Dante and Virgil wind their way along the Seventh Cornice, they hear the alternating shouts of physical agony and cries of personal grief at transgression, which amounts, in an uncanny, surreal way, to an ecstasy, a possession by the spirit of grace.

I don’t think Dante is saying you can screw around and still be all right. He’s saying, reasonably enough, that sin and intention and conscience lie across a certain range, for almost all sins. Yes, for some sins, to commit, even to consider, is to self-condemn. But the great mass of human failings stretch across a spectrum, and that includes lust.

Jimmy Carter will join me in the part of Purgatorio (I hope) dedicated to those who have lusted in their hearts.

That this state involves agony is inescapable. When the souls in the wall of flame realize Dante is mortal, they want to know why and how he’s here, and one cries out to him: “Answer me, who burns in thirst and fire.” Burning, surely, is apposite for the crime of lust. And in the next Canto, Dante himself will, after hesitating cowardly, plunge face-first into fire that will make him write, “I would have cast myself into molten glass to refresh myself, so measureless was the burning there.” This is serious fire, people, and even Dante, to get to Beatrice, to Paradise, to God, must go through the same fire as all mortals, suffer what all Purgatorio’s denizens suffer.

As a matter of fact, actual representations of lust and perversion are somewhat light in this Canto. We see Pasiphaë, who had intercourse with a bull, but this is a type, and besides, anyone who knew the myth knew she did it because she was driven mad in a curse from Poseidon, so that rather dilutes the intentionality implicit in excessive lust. (I mean, if bulls are your fancy, fine.) There’s also passing reference to Caesar’s homosexual dalliance with Nicomedes, King of Bithynia. But, especially compared to parallel depictions in Inferno, it goes light.

We get to see and hear much more of the poets of passion. We are not told why these poets are here, specifically . . . there seems to be an implication that, having written of lust, they must burn a little for lust. Guinizelli does speak for the “hermaphrodites” (which apparently means the heterosexuals who indulged too much), that they are here because “we did not serve human law, following appetite like beasts,” but adding that they had “repented before the final hour,” showing conscience and presumably landing their souls here. Strangely, though, I must say (and maybe because he’s a poet), Dante’s evident reverence for Guinizelli and Arnaut Daniel seems, tonally, to balance out our consciousness of their punishment.

Now it’s time to talk about poets. The entire Commedia is a job application, in a way. Dante is well aware that he’s a well-known, much-praised poet, and he’s working, quite self-consciously, in a groundbreaking fashion, writing epic poetry in the vulgar tongue, not Latin. He’s using a language, if you will, that still isn’t used to being poetry, a language still controversial, still a challenge to taste and propriety. And he, Dante, is bent on showing how this language can rank with the great literary tongues of all time, that is, with Latin and Greek. Dante takes up the Commedia, in part, to show that what became “Italian” was a suitable language to sustain the greatest themes, the most profound investigations. Much like the Virgil who leads him through Inferno and Purgatorio, Dante is an urban, self-conscious “modern” (he even calls his style of poetry “l’uso moderno,” “the modern fashion,” to distinguish it from the classical writers), who shoulders the vast tasks of ancient poetry (tales of God, man, sin, good, evil, and redemption) both to echo the ancients and to make something new. He thinks of what he’s doing as modern, as being of his moment. And he knows he’s putting himself forward as a poet without precedent. Thus he rubs shoulders with Statius, Virgil,

We get to meet a forerunner in writing verse in Italian, Guinizelli. I’m always amazed by just how good these writers were: Guinizelli, Cavalcanti, Dante . . . incredibly complex stanza forms, complex ideas, wit, and music. Dante calls Guinizelli “father of me and of others better than me.” Really the founder of the “sweet new style.” Dante had already written love poetry in La Vita Nuova and Il Convivio , poetry good enough to establish a reputation, and here, he continues, professionally, aggressively, expansively, to go for the very top.

These things mean a lot to him. We get a little literary-critical argument about poets with undeserved reputations, such as Guittone, or Girault de Bornelh. I don’t know Guittone much, but I’ve translated a bit of Girault, and I think he’s pretty good. But Dante clearly reverences Arnaut Daniel more. John Ciardi seems to sniff at this taste, but others don’t. Ezra Pound called him one of the greatest poets of all time, and T.S. Eliot loved him, too. So do I, for a lot of reasons. You’ll note that Arnaut speaks to Dante in Provencal, and although Ciardi might be right, that Dante would have heard this as antique and old-timey, I rather think he also thought of it as “great” poetry, and the moment his beloved Arnaut addresses him, in the revered language of his poetry, is a moment at which Dante pretty much crowns himself an equal of the greats.

And that’s where we end. We still have a ways to go in the Seventh Cornice, including a cannonball into the Wall of Flame itself. But we have to go there. Dante has to suffer it to get to Beatrice (Virgil even incentivizes him with “I can almost see her eyes now!”). It’s a minor personal Purgatory within the greater scheme of Purgatorio – almost as if the poet knew that he, along with the passionate poets he reveres, will pay a price for their art beyond their earthly lives. Yet they are also “souls sure of having, whenever it may be, a state of peace.”


Canto XX: What Would Hugh Capet Say?

            This is the perfect Canto to read at this particular political moment, when (we are being told) the most important thing our country can do is to decrease our deficit, cut social programs, and keep taxes low at the same time.

        We’re on the fifth level or niche of Purgatorio. It’s a hard Canto to read if you’re not up on medieval history. And even if you are. Which I’m supposed to be, so I guess I am.

        But what’s a real shock is the Canto’s spokesperson, Hugh Capet, founder of a line of kings that, by Dante’s time, was almost 500 years old. Capet was a Frankish king who ruled unsteadily over a chaotic region of many languages, laws, and economic systems. Despite an often tenuous hold on power, and despite most of the land more or less ignoring he was king, Capet managed to establish Paris as the center of power, get his son Robert crowned, and thus start an authoritative line of succession, and other steps that began modern France. As kings go, he was wealthy but not conspicuously so.

        And yet Capet is the one who looks back on history and tells us it’s driven by avarice. His descendant Philip IV suppressed the Knights Templar, all so he could dissolve a debt hanging over his kingdom. Popes are kidnapped and go mad; kings sell their daughters for money. It’s all driven by greed.

        Capet, portrayed as a good man, sorrowfully surveys what he started, what has been going for half a millennium, and like Koheleth of the Old Testament, he sees it is emptiness, empty striving, sinful striving, whose effects must be “wrung out” in Purgatory or punished forever in Inferno.

        History is driven by avarice.

        As are we all.

        Avarice runs rampant in these fields. Hundreds of millions of us want to hold on to every last cent that comes our way, pay out nothing to anyone else . . . and yet have a golden, socially secure retirement.

        Honestly – our entire culture has been industrialized, mercantilized, and commercialized. You can walk away from it – you easily can – but if you want to be part of it, in even a small way, you find yourself awash instantly, and instantly compromised – I almost wrote contaminated. Popular culture projects all our choices and values as financial, indeed commercial. This begins with the cliché of the “American dream,” which is, sadly, to own our own homes, to be wealthy.

Don’t worry – I’m as greedy as the next person. I want lots more money than I have. I’m right there, with every greedy beat of my miserly heart. But surely few other countries are as emptily, confidently built on the assumption that riches are what count.

Is anyone else tired of the feathery, sweet word wealth, lisped in our ear, ad after ad? Is anyone else afraid of how much our news – what we say matters in the world

 We’re told we must be rich before we die. A thousand retirement commercials seek to strike the fear of indigence into us – but really, even more than that, sinfully more, what they’re saying is: “You don’t want to be old and not be rich! Not be comfortable! Not ‘do the things you’ve always dreamed of doing!’ ”

I particularly love the ones that suggest “starting a small business” as a nice occupation for your elder years. A lot of us would rather be kicked in the front porch by a mule. Hey, yeah – when I turn 80, I want to dive back into the nasty, scrabbling world of having and getting.

Now, if you feel different and like that idea, great. And if you feel you want to be comfortable and wealthy when you get old – well, so would I. But I don’t think about it very much, and I don’t see it as a right. And I wouldn’t see it as a terrible tragedy if, when I retired, I wasn’t really rich.

 Money is important; it helps set up things that really count. The mistake is to think it’s money itself that counts. The mistake is to forget what avarice takes away – humanity, human relationships, love. The tragic error is to deny what avarice can destroy – our closeness to God.

When we balk at taxes, well, it could be avarice speaking. When we balk at having to pay more so we have better health care, or Social Security, or a better environment, it could be avarice speaking. When we fight tooth and nail so that we keep government trapped and cornered, so we can do what we want, oh, I dunno, there’s an ennsy-weensy sliver of a fading light of possibility avarice is involved. When we fight our guts out to make sure billionaires have tax holidays, not only our avarice but also that of the financial idols we adore, oh, I dunno, something vaguely resembling a second cousin, or, say, third cousin to avarice could possibly be involved. What we are told are our rights may be nothing more than the ghosts of avarice. All these threats of big government, taxation, social programs – maybe such demagoguery is avarice in new clothes. I’m not confirming this. I am saying maybe. Possibly.

Hugh Capet says history is driven by avarice. And we’re history. So . . . what would Hugh Capet say?

I’m trying to think of a way to give up avarice for Lent. Actually, given my life and the culture in which I’m sunk, maybe there isn’t a way. Or maybe I’m making an excuse. I’ll think about it later. Have to go pay my taxes. Looking for loopholes . . .


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.


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?


Purgatorio, Canto 2: This Isn’t Kansas, Dante

This is a very beautiful Canto, and unless we have just come from reading Inferno, we might miss a lot of what’s different, instantly, between the world of perpetual punishment and the betweenworld of Purgatorio.

Throughout Inferno, the landscape is tortured and malevolent. Even distance itself is sick, occluded, interrupted, shadowy, riddled with reminders of the utter fallenness of all about us. But in Purgatorio . . . beginning, I believe, with the quality of the verse itself . . . we have a different feeling, a sense of an availing vista, a promise of progression.

Whereas Inferno was a terrible pit, Purgatorio is the reverse, a terraced, graduated mountain. Things shine into, project into, or fly through the air. The first words of Canto II are Giá era il sole, “Already was the sun,” so we begin with light, which is immediately, already, right on top of us, and the Aurora of the dawn, and then the distant light Dante sees approaching, which launches him into an ecstatic simile, again of dawn. As the Angel approaches, the impression is of un non sapeva che bianco, “an I-didn’t-know-what of white.” The energy – already – is different from anything experienced in Inferno.

When the Angel gets closer, and its magnificence begins to burn, indeed very sunlike, Virgil cries, “From now on you shall see / many such ministers in the high kingdoms.” We have come to the realm in which there may be angels, not punishing angels, but angels as harbingers and workers of divine mercy. The new arrivals to Purgatory, the recently dead, are singing “When Israel came out of Egypt,” a Psalm of rescue and ransom, just as they are being rescued from anguished perpetuity by God’s mercy. The sun is “on every hand . . . shooting forth the day.” So, although we may be in a strange and disturbing place, there are plenty of signs of divine love, mercy, and redemption all around us, even if Dante doesn’t recognize them.

As a musician, I’m especially excited to note that the Canto rests on two songs. The already-mentioned Psalm 114 would have been very familiar to Dante’s readers. It sets a tone we see here, also, in Canto II, and with it a theme: God’s rescue renovates all creation. Mercy changes everything. Here’s the rest of that Psalm:

The sea looked an fled; the Jordan turned back.

The mountains skipped like rams, the hills like lambs.

Why, sea, did you flee? Why turn back, O Jordan?

Why, mountains, skip like rams? Why, hills, like lambs?

Tremble, Earth, at the presence of the Lord, at the presence of the God of Jacob

Who turned the rock into a pool, the hard rock into springs.

God can do anything, make the least availing circumstance – rock – into the most – water. At God’s presence, creation rejoices.

I’m not saying Purgatorio is a place of rejoicing. But in Canto II, with little daubs here and there, Dante lets us know everything is different here, and prefigures the issues of Divine Mercy and rejoicing to come.

The second song, performed by Dante’s just-dead friend Casella, is “Amor che ne la mente mi ragiona,” “Love, which in my mind reasons with me,” the second canzone from Dante’s Convivia. I don’t think this poem, although possibly well known, would have been as readily familiar as Psalm 114. It, too, locks into the work of establishing what Purgatorio is and prefiguring what’s at stake and what’s to come. The canzone – an incredible piece of poetic structure, with an intricate rhyme and verse scheme – praises a beloved lady, explores her perfections, and declares her goodness is beyond the intellect. As always, when Dante is discussing the lady love, and how mind contends with her beauties, he’s always also invoking the same set of propositions between us and the Divine – God is worthy of praise, excels all others, is the soul and type of goodness and love themselves, and exceeds the intellect’s power to grasp. She is a portal of divinity that implies a pathway to God: “In her aspect appear things/ that show the pleasure of Paradise . . . They overcome our intellect just as a sunray beggars the vision.” That’s what love is, and love is beyond the intellect, just as, in this Canto, as the angel “closed the distance between us, he grew brighter and yet brighter / until I could no longer bear the radiance, / and bowed my head.” Virgil, and now the very brightness of the approaching Angel, compel Dante to bow, to show he is not worthy, not adequate.

Casella sings Dante’s song, and “My Guide and I and all those souls of bliss / stood tranced in song” – a little piece of self-advertisement, but also a reminder of how overcoming and ecstatifying music (and love) can be.

This isn’t Kansas – and it certainly isn’t Inferno, either. Purgatorio is a place of wrenching, rending frustration, of delay and regret, hazards and obstacles. Dante doesn’t step back from any of that, but in this Canto he’s trying to wake us up to how far everything has moved, and changed.


Canto 32: This Is How Low You Can Go

By John Timpane

So at the bottom of the bottom, “where all heaviness convenes,” all rocks press down together, what do we find? Whom does God punish most harshly? Among the damned, all of whom are hopeless, who have the most humiliating, most painful burden of hopelessness?

Dante is pretty specific. This final, lowest circle of hell, which will end in the buried body of Satan (the ultimate fraud, ultimate traitor, ultimate treacher) himself, is devoted to frauds. But not just any frauds. Fraud, after all, is involved in almost every permutation of perversion and sin seen in Inferno – pretending to be what one is not; ignoring the truth and acting as though it were not true; lying to oneself or others; doing to others as one should not do; trying, on all levels, in all ways, to get away with it.

These are those who work hard to impose their fraud on others. They betray. They get you to trust them – they even hold high office of trust for powerful regimes – and leverage that to terrible ends.

When trust is betrayed, most of the time, it’s all gone. We are taught to forgive, but a breach of trust is hard. Many people, for example, can’t find the strength it takes to forgive a wayward spouse, even though sexual infidelity (the kind of betrayal most often in question) doesn’t necessarily ruin the structure of the relationship. Spouses often forgive financial breaches, breaches of habit (I say I won’t gamble any more, and then I do), failures to live up to the implied equality of duties within a marriage (you never cook, or do the dishes, or care enough about the kids, or fix the house) – all of these, in practical terms, are potentially far more harmful than a breach of sexual trust.

But that breach stands for all others. Many feel that if that is breached, all others are threatened – perhaps destroyed.

In intimacy, we come to the trusted one literally without dressing, with all guard, all defenses, far away. Intimacy, the embrace of another person, whole-body, whole-self, is the very idea of trust. And when that is betrayed — when it is treated like garbage, or like just another option, nothing special, or when it is discounted or taken for granted — it stands for all betrayal. This has much to do with Christ, actually.

When writing this entry, I asked myself why, when betrayed, we feel such a rush of wounded, vicious fury. It’s obvious why: in extending trust to one we now see has betrayed us, we laid ourselves open, rendered ourselves vulnerable. We came to the other as children and were used.

The thought arises: surely God never did this. But then again: Christ. Who else is the very metaphor for vulnerability, the ultimate in laying oneself open, the great teacher of childlikeness, sacrificial love, turning the cheek 490 times, not worrying about what you shall eat or what you shall wear? In setting the all-time standard for taking on all pain, all human suffering, Christ was also the great teacher of the necessity of trust. Trust in God, and therefore trust in one another.

Once we realize our betrayal, often we see our former, trusting selves as naive, as childlike. “How *could* I have been such a fool?” is a common question. You get a lot of pop songs based on this idea . . . leading to the time-honored genre of “never again” songs, as in that old Bacharach/David chestnut, “I’ll Never Fall in Love Again.” Once trust has been abused, we’re wary of ever extending it again. Many of us learn, literally, to trust no one if we will survive.

Then again: Christ never did this. He is disappointed in people. He sees his betrayal coming, first Judas in major, then Peter in minor. But Christ never quite washes his hands, never refuses forgiveness, asks God to forgive human beings closed to their own sinfulness.

And this is the central point of Lent. This laying open of self to suffering, this spectacular, tragic embrace of sacrificial love in our names, each name and the name of all, comes to mind at each specious sacrifice we make during Lent. This is one of the trickiest things to explain to friends who do not observe Lent but want to know “why you give stuff up.” Sure, there’s an instrinsic value in changing habits, avoiding excess, disciplining body in the name of concentrating on our faults, finitude, fallibility. But the real reason we give things up during Lent is as a spur to remembrance.

We do without and we remember. We do something for someone else, and we remember what was done for us. The cosmic betrayals that summoned this sacrifice . . . Judas, yes, but also Cain, also Clay (Adam) and Breath (Eve), also the betrayal of Heaven by the Angels . . . these are images of our own continual, small, characteristic betrayals. Sadness is appropriate, is necessary. As the marvelous poet (and pal of Shakespeare) Ben Jonson once wrote of his relation to God, “A broken heart/Is my best part.” Our capacity to feel pain, sadness, suffering, in light of our betrayals, image of these terrific and terrifying betrayals of God, is one of the best, most glorious things about us.

In “To Heaven,” Jonson writes, “Good and great God, can I not think of thee / But it must straight my melancholy be?” Sometimes, yes, and as that poem makes so clear — it’s a very Lenten poem, actually, one of the best — when we think in clear-eyed honesty about ourselves and what we really are, about how our motives are often pretty corrupt, then a degree of melancholy is appropriate. We’re close, however, in Canto XXXII to the end of Inferno, literally the lowest of all low points, and, as I’m sure somebody will point out in Canto XXXIV, a turnaround is about to happen. Which, after all, is what we’re hoping for, with all this work, all this meditation, all this trust.

But in this canto, once again, Dante is definite. There’s an end. It’s not that the angry God of the Old Testament bursts into a rage and starts destroying His enemies. It’s simply that once time ends for us, if we have defrauded others, we risk sinking as low as you can go, freezing in the consequences, gnawing bone.

The conundrum is that we cannot survive without trust. We could not get through a single day if we did not assume that the people all around us would perform roles that allowed us a place in the world. Moment to moment, we present ourselves each to another. We cannot but do so. And that furnishes an opening to all who would betray, first and foremost the busiest and most vigilant of all Betrayers, he whose body is the axis between hemispheres.

Dante’s Inferno is a museum of betrayal, of fraud, descending, level by level, from terrible to even worse, to unimaginable. He settles old scores, smacks political rivals and enemies who threw him (through treachery, so he implies) out of his Florence, gives us a detailed taxonomy of transgression and punishment. Inferno is the creation of a God who cannot forget because God exists outside time, in an eternal Now in which all transgression happens in an instant alongside its consequences. No forgetting can exist in a timeless now, and thus . . . what of forgiveness?

We are taught that, when furious or hurt or disappointed in someone, we “give it time” before acting on our feelings. No time with God. No before, no after. It’s instantaneous. Sin, always, on some level, is fraud against the God Who cannot be fooled. All the other things sin is – self-delusion, self-betrayal, hubris, blindness, perversion – fan out from this root. Sin begins and ends in betrayal. Whether we’re stealing pies off the windowsill, boffing the wife next door, or selling U.S. nuclear secrets to Iran, we start by ignoring the trust we have created with others and asked from God. That first step seals it, and whether the betrayal is small, and therefore lands us, say, in Purgatorio, to suffer for centuries until we’re Elysium-ready, or in Inferno, another timeless Now, the first step carries the sinner beyond mercy and toward punishment.

. . . and because this is one of the most trenchant analyses of politics in all poetry, it’s important to stop and consider how we feel toward those who have betrayed our country. Since Watergate, and since new ethics laws were instituted, sneaky, sly politicians have found a way to use those higher standards to create a continual train of indictments of their enemies. The problem is that many of those whose careers were ruined richly deserved it, and a few of those whose careers were not (Bill Clinton, maybe?) also did. Public service is a promise, and a huge promise, since it is taken in the name of so many, who have little choice but to trust that the people who pass laws and spend funds in their names do so for the good of all. And when that doesn’t happen, again the furious resentment. Dante has made such fury a theme through this poem: the fall of Florence, the double-dealing that dealt him right out of his beloved city, the corruption of Lucca, the diseased fraud of Pisa. As a political man, Dante challenges us to see the rotten body politic for what it is, the way, he believes, God sees it.

Ugolino, icelocked (and this might be the most gelid of all poetic passages . . . I love that part in which Dante writes that shivers always come back on him “whenever I see icy ponds”), frozen to the body of Ruggieri, his co-betrayer, each gnawing the other’s skull . . . how much lower can you go? Not too much. Beyond this lie only Brutus, Judas, and Satan.

Since I am a male, I want to point out how intimate, how central the sense of fraud is to the male psyche, if any. It’s often said that men never grow into security . . . I tend to think no one does, actually. I know only that many men are raised to be insecure. You can’t ever be as big as Daddy, ever strong enough or smart enough or perfect enough. Maleness plunges us into a life in which maleness is constantly questioned and attacked. Even the best among us is constantly looking over his shoulder, constantly worried that some day, the veil will fall, and the world will discover what a fraud we really, truly are. I assume women have their own versions.

However fraud pervades our lives and characters, somehow we get where we get in spite of what we truly are. Some of that is grace, thank God. . . . in fact, all of it is. Grace is what gets us forward.

And that’s the only comforting thing. God, in Milton’s formulation, gave us enough grace to do the dang deal. We are “sufficient to have stood, though free to fall.” Yet there is not a one who does not fall somewhere, somehow. The key is not to fall this low, to let in the kind of fraud that undoes everything, even grace itself. This Lent, I’ve been praying hard that I never let my genius for fraud overtake absolutely everything else.

What is frightening is that each of us, man and woman, chooses repeatedly to play traitor, ignore the grace and trust we are shown, by all those around us, and by the source of grace and trust. We don’t really believe in the end of time, the end of life, the end of chances “to get out of it,” the end of mercy. Dante manifestly does, or manifestly hopes for it. He hopes for a place in which living souls will be locked in ice and gnaw each other for all time. Weeping and gnashing of teeth.


Canto 26: Sailing off the Edge

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.


Canto 20: Tear-Falling Pity Lives Not in This Eye

By John Timpane

Most of Inferno is inhuman and inhuman in some way. In this epic that suckles on the breast of revenge, Dante is withholding nothing. Evil, the evil he has suffered, the evil people he has known and suffered from, and the types of those people and their actions, absorb a storm of abuse, in horrible, ingenious images of torture and agony that present us with a tableau without equal this side of Hiernoymus Bosch, Dante’s painterly counterpart. In Bosch, too, there is a will to violence, an impulse to torture, a grasp at mercilessness. And in Bosch, too, in The Garden of Earthly Delights, there is tenderness, pity in the images of unlovely, vulnerable, naked human beings subjected to exquisite, bizarre tortures. Their defenseless, anonymous hopelessness grates against the vividness of their grief.

In Canto XX occurs the most heartless moment in the entire poem. It follows perhaps its most horrific single image. Dante is in XX, and he sees the damned who have used necromancy and magic to see into the future. They walk with their heads horribly twisted, to face backward. It’s not only a petrifying image of blindness and mutilation – this is the mutilation, enforced backwardness, perpetual perversion in the sense of “turning away,” guaranteed blindness, a negation of the forward-facing, clearsighted mind as a metaphor for the Creator. Dante says he is in “a deep canyon watered by tears of anguish.” And now he sees what tears they are, and he weeps for the weepers:

“Reader – God grant you benefit from your reading – now think for yourself how I could keep a dry face, when nearby I saw our image wrenched so, that the tears of their eyes bathed their hind parts at the cleft.”

These are bodies outraged, in a posture that’s all wrong. It’s the human body compelled to humiliate itself in the act of grief. But Dante’s tears only get Virgil mad:

“My guide said to me, “Are you like the other fools, too? Here, pity lives when it is good and dead. Who is more impious that those who feel compassion at the divine judgment?”

Virgil has no time for Dante’s foolish, misplaced humanity. God has shut His heart to these, and therefore it’s wrong to pity them. Pity would imply that God is unjust.

The rest of the Canto is fascinating, full of characters from history, and a very odd retelling of the history of the town Mantua, purported birthplace of Virgil himself. But I’ll skip all that and come back to the Boschian image and the forbidding of pity. It’s a central moment in the poem, and one of the most frightening in a poem that often frightens.

Pity dies at the gates of Inferno. Nor is this a failure of the Divine, a limit to the reach of God. This is the keeping of a promise, the fulfillment of damnation. Instead of LASCIATE OGNE SPERANZA, VOI CH’INTRATE, the lintel above the entrance could well read SEE WHAT HAPPENS? What happens is Judgment, and Judgment is equal to Justice. If you landed in Inferno, that’s because you should land there. And indeed, the legend above the gate to Inferno (Canto III) does say, “JUSTICE MOVED MY HIGH MAKER; I WAS SHAPED BY DIVINE POWER, THE SUMMIT OF WISDOM, AND PRIMAL LOVE.” Justice, Power, and Love. When Love is spurned, Justice creates Inferno via irresistible Power. SEE WHAT HAPPENS?

Evil happens. And so does death.

Problem.

We don’t believe in evil.

Evil in ourselves, that is. We don’t really believe, when you rip skin off flesh, that we ever could be authentically bad. Other people? Oh, yeah, that’s clear enough. Of course. Easy to see. All around us, every day. But we . . . somehow we’re exempt. We don’t do anything that’s really evil.

Our denial of evil in ourselves is on par with our denial of death. Other people? Yeah, they die. Poor saps. But we . . . somehow we’re exempt. We’ll get out of it somehow.

To read Canto XX, and to endure Virgil’s bracing, cold rebuke to Dante’s understandable tears, his angry prohibition of compassion, is to face what we try never to face: the fact that we are inherently, congenitally unable to accept evil in ourselves or death. We can totally accept them in other folks. We can look on with Dante and see the horror of the inhabitants of the Fourth Ditch of the Eighth Circle.

But when Dante does something humane – weeping out of sheer ruth, out of sheer, hopeless pain at seeing others suffer – he is rebuked by his guide. We feel the border, the cold frontier of judgment beyond the human. Dante, making an earthly assumption, default-thinks that if a person suffers, s/he deserves compassion. Compassion, however, “gives” the object of compassion “a pass,” as we say. It makes an exemption. It declares that “to understand all is to forgive all.” He did this, yes, but I understand why. He did this, yes, but in the circumstances, who wouldn’t? Compassion means forgiveness. And the poet has wrought this episode cunningly. The speaker feels compassion out of a Christian reflex, almost — and we follow him out of the same reflex. (I certainly do, every time I read this Canto, at the image of those poor, twisted figures.) But there has been a mistake. On his part and on ours. He has forgotten that past a certain point, no one is exempt from the absence of pity, as no one is exempt from death or personal evil.

Always we assume we’re exempt. We’ll get out of it. We understand ourselves and our motives and ends so well that we assume the world will, too. And beyond the world. When Virgil forbids tears for the damned, however, he’s telling us that, actually, no, you won’t be taken at your own estimate. You won’t be heard. There will be no tears except your own. The leaden certainty, the utter fall of judgment beyond recourse, beyond appeal, falls on the pilgrim and on us.

If we could accept (and I’m saying we can’t) such a finality, one that exists apart from us and our world of excuses, clarity would ensue. We’d be forced to take the most critical of stances with regard to ourselves. We could accept that we fall short, that we are sometimes blind, sometimes bad, and that sometimes it really is our fault and the finger does not point elsewhere. Such a moment of ecstatic despair would give ourselves no choice but to own what we are and what we do. That’d make a pretty good Lent.

So when Virgil prohibits pity, he forces on us all an existential moment, an episode determinante (if we choose to accept it). We are incapable, I fear, of ever really reconciling our sense of personal exemption with the fact of personal shortcoming and personal death. When Virgil says no to tears in hell, he’s letting us know: you won’t get out of it.


Canto 14: Money, Sex, Language, Oh My!

By John Timpane

Warning: The author of the following piece has a very dirty mouth and mind. He is perhaps the last person who should be writing such high-minded things.

Each of us and all of us are in a relation to God – whether we like it or not, whether we acknowledge it or not, whether we are attentive to it or not. Being itself is a relationship, and we who exist change our beings, and our relationship to God, by what we do. When we speak, we speak out of and within our relation to God. Same when we use money, when we invest it, when we hope our investments prosper. Same when we are physically close to our beloved, around and within our beloved, welcoming our beloved with all senses, literally with everything we’ve got. As the neoplatonists believed, that is when we are next to God.

In Canto XIV, Dante beholds one of the most horrible set-pieces yet, as he sets eyes on the Third Ring of the Seventh Circle. It’s a panorama of pain played out on an arid desert plain, with flames falling from on high on the suffering damned. Blasphemers lie supine (so they suffer on both sides at once), usurers sit on the sand, and sodomites wander ceaselessly. We are told this circle is reserved for those who have been violent toward God.

Medieval categories can strike us (as ours would strike them) as inconsistent and arbitrary. What do usurers share with sodomites? And what does either category of sinner have in common with blasphemers? How are these sins violence toward God?

Usury violence against God? Well, isn’t it? Ten percent of Americans, more or less, are unemployed at the moment and probably will be for an average time of six months. The percentage swells to 17 if we count the underemployed and those not even searching for work. And, as Dante would be the first to say, much of this is chickens come home to roost in our way of making money out of money. I won’t go into the relative moral standing of derivatives and hedge funds, even if I understood them, and I don’t – but I do know that our intention with money is deeply sick and deeply culpable. We act as if riches are what we’re here for. We regard as fools anyone who lives as if money isn’t the main or most important thing, and we celebrate as geniuses anyone who manages to compile the biggest pile.

It’s not wealth itself. You do have to make a living, and it is not always evil to have prospered. (Not always.) But in our unconscious celebration of the ways money pollutes, we are all usurers. Usurers place money between themselves and God. And that is violence supreme.

We perhaps will be most uncomfortable with the sodomites being in the Seventh Circle. Their restlessness lets us know that, in Dante’s world, sodomy was always wrong (and, by the way, the term had a very expansive meaning – it included homosexual and pederastic acts but could also include what used to be called “perversions” in general), that practitioners of these acts had lost their way and had forfeited spiritual rest.

I am profoundly uneasy with any viewpoint that condemns homosexuality per se as always, inevitably damnable. I speak only for myself (and that’s how everyone should speak of these things), but I cannot find the moral ground from which I could ever make a judgment like that. The point is not the gender you choose to be intimate with – it’s how you treat people within intimacy.

But Dante’s vision strikes home when we accept that each of us is a pervert, in the darkest sense. Perhaps we are largely conventional in our conduct in the realm of intimacy – yet what is more morally sensitive, what more challenging to our patience, our compassion, our ability to show love, than intimacy? Anyone who says, “I have never failed in my intimate life” is saying something not even they will believe. And intimacy is so momentous, so deific, and so damaging when it collapses, that when any of us fail, that’s a moment of perversion (“turning away”). In the sense that the loved one is our ultimate home, our mirror of God, our chance to be our best and do our best, when we turn away, lose patience, withhold gentleness, suppress compassion, when we do not see our beloved (as in the Na’vi sense of I see you), when we fail to be home for our beloved, to take him/her in, shelter him/her, lead our guests to the table of the Lord in our intimacy – then, truly, we have lost our home and wander an arid life ceaselessly. We have shown utmost violence against the God in our beloved, and the God in us.

During Lent, there might be nothing that haunts me so much as the many perversions littering my path.

Violence against God is easy to see with blasphemers, who employ language to abuse the deity. Our age does not take cursing or blasphemy seriously – in fact, our age, maybe because it is awash in words, saturated with an engulfing onrush of language, doesn’t take language seriously. Cursing is a way to be accepted, to show you’re modern, with it, to fit in with various crowds. It’s how men show other men they’re tough. It’s how teens show other teens they’re willful, rebellious, and cool.

Let’s take a mild case. That sucks, once a thing you’d never hear in public, is almost invisible today because it has become so common. It is, of course, entirely coarse and insulting; its broad acceptance as an expression of exasperation, judgment, or sympathy suggests to some people that we have become desensitized.

That sucks insults an intimate act. Behind the slang use of suck is the notion that certain sex acts are dirty, and those who perform them (women, mostly) are degraded thereby. Strangely, and ironically, many of us enjoy being sucked – yet much of our common language assumes that sucking is bad and suckers polluted and inferior. If a Martian came down from Mars and observed our swearing habits, they’d be perplexed.

Fuck you is a subjunctive or optative statement meaning May someone have sexual intercourse with you. “Oh, what a nice custom, to wish such a pleasant fate on somebody else,” say the Martians. They would not be able to hear the toxic overtones in the verb fuck, which (although often used as a catchall term for intercourse – and that’s toxic in itself) is freighted with overtones of degradation, submission, and even violence. May someone have sexual intercourse with you – and may it ruin you.

I remember the first Lent I ever tried to give up swearing. It was sixth grade, and I’d only gotten started. Hell and damn exclusively – I wonder if I even knew any others. I didn’t make it. What was hard about keeping the resolution was this: I did it without thinking. The horse was out of the barn, galloping over the hill, and eating daisies in the neighbor’s farm, way before I was aware. I even woke up one morning remembering a stray hell the day before.

I try to exercise all sorts of disciplines during Lent, and I do try to watch my mouth. To me, words and our use of words, our second-to-second choice of what to say and how to say it, is the closest, most continual gauge of the self who does the choosing. Word choice is moral choice. It has to be.

Now allow me to contradict myself. I want to make clear that at some level, a certain degree of freedom and coarseness with language is meant not to be taken seriously. And if we take it too seriously, we assume a moral position it’s impossible to maintain. If we have no sense of humor, well, for me, that’s acedia. If we allow no sense of play, even coarse play, with language, we set ourselves up as tiny gods.

What’s bad is when we use words as weapons, when we say Go to hell and mean it, Fuck you and mean it, whore or ho and mean it, when we imagine the person before us as shit, as garbage, as worthless. When we do such things, we do violence, literally, to the target person, and thus to God. And we do worst violence to ourselves, and thus to God.

As my sixth-grade experiment shows, we can’t actually watch every word we speak. Language is too liquid, too quick, too mercurial. And we shouldn’t be like the naïve sixth-grader me, worried he was polluted because he said hell yesterday.

What I need, this and every Lent, to think of is my general ways with language, the values that flow out of my mouth and pen and keyboard. Am I building up or tearing down? Am I having playful fun, toying with openness and abandon in creative ways, or am I just being a pottymouth and pottyhead? Do I ever, when I open my lips, sacred portals created by the deity, dirty those portals with words as weapons?

And if I deny this ever happens, aren’t I like Capaneus, the type of the toxically proud man? He declared he was so great he couldn’t be beaten – and then he got smoked by a higher authority. Our usury, our perversion, our violent words all speak loud and clear, all the way to Good Friday. Humility. Humility.


Canto 8: Of enemies and friends

By John Timpane

This Canto faces readers with an uncomfortable, inevitable irony: that many transcendent works of art are driven by murderous intentions.

Dante is world-famous for putting his enemies in perpetual hellfire. The Inferno is the perfect literary revenge tool, nothing but benefits, no downside. In this Canto, Dante encounters Filippo Argenti – hilariously, “Phil Silvers” – as he courses across the excremental mud of the Styx. Dante’s safe and dry in the boat; Phil is choking on mud and gets torn to pieces once Dante passes by, very much with the approval of Vergil, Dante’s guide.

Argenti (real name Filippo Cavicciuli degli Adimari) was a pretty famous guy, an enemy of Dante’s back in Florence. His nickname came from his love of silver, with which, according to lore, he shod his very horse. From a very powerful family and being a Black Guelph, he chose the winning side in the political cataclysm that expelled Dante from his beloved Florence. Basically, Filippo is the nasty foe who prospers. He apparently was famous for his violent temper: he appears in novella VIII of Boccaccio’s Decameron, screaming, cursing, and comically beating people up. So he sorts well with boatman Phlegyas, a figure from myth who ruins himself through wrath. (Interesting: I note that the phleg- in Phlegyas’ name is the Greek word for “flame” or “fire,” the burning intensity we see in the word phlegmatic, the fire of wrath.)

The allegory on offer here addresses the wages of wrath. The wrathful get stuck in the mud, in the marshy, crappy filter of excrescence, to choke on the mire of their self-obsessed, self-blinded passions. “Who are you,” Dante asks Phil, “who have become so foul?” The wrathful tear themselves to pieces, or get torn, over and over, because for such people, anger never ceases but invades the heart in destructive, rending waves. “No goodness decks his memory, / So his shadow is what rages.”

But we can’t get away from the fact that Dante is having vengeance on a man who, as far as I can discover, triumphed over him in all ways in life, in power, politics, success, and in cutting a figure in Florence. And there’s an acid complacency in the way Vergil rubber-stamps Filippo’s fate: “In what you wish to see, you shall be satisfied,” he says to Dante, “for what you seek is just.”

Much of the best art is powered by our worst emotions. Even the God-obsessed, worshipful Psalms, even they bring us a world obsessed with the enemy, a world in which (beloved Psalm 23) the King prepares me a table in front of my enemies, nya-nya-nya! In which (Psalm 137) Babylon is told, “How happy the one who takes your little ones and dashes them against the stones,” perhaps the single most horrifyingly vindictive sentence in our sacred literature. It’s almost as if we cannot have the concept friend without first and foremost having a lively, choleric sense of the enemy. Thinkers like Jacques Derrida have wondered aloud whether the fearful, threatening, hated notion of enemy actually structures the notion of friend.

I want to believe we don’t need enemies to have friends, but sometimes, I, too, wonder. In the case of the Psalms, the friend is God. Do I really need the raging heathen, my triumphant enemies, to build my notion of God? Does Dante really need a Phil Silvers to build his notion of Beatrice?

During Lent, I think continually about my capacity for friendship. I wish it were greater. I wish I were a more attentive friend, more considerate. I hope my friends, if any, love me and forgive my slovenly maintenance of the bonds between us. I hope that I and my friends are engaged in the blessed work of cultivating one another’s characters, of reflecting to each other all that is the best in love and companionship.

OTOH, my capacity for animosity is a lot livelier. My enemies just seem more vital, more vivid, more concrete. The people one resents, envies, objects to, they tower in sharp, eye-popping HD, while your friends sort of linger in the lobby, nice and smiley, black-and-white TV. The imperative to do something, to feel something, to take steps, to remake the world so it is rid of the gall, the millstone, the headache of having these people and their provocations around, is simply more urgent, more compelling, with enemies than with friends.

And revenge. Is anything sweeter? No! Has anything less to do with justice? No! I used to teach revenge tragedy when I was a professor, and I’d say to the students, “OK, if somebody hits you on the arm, the thing you want to do is hit them exactly on the arm, the way they hit you, right?” and everybody would laugh and say, “Of course not! If somebody hits you, you want to annihilate them!” Just so: revenge seeks not justice (a balance that does not satisfy) but the absolute erasure and triumph over the opponent. You steal my Tootsie Roll? I set fire to your family.

Not to understress the suffering, humiliation, and spiritual pain of the Israelites during the Babylonian captivity. The Psalmist of 137 makes clear that it’s justice s/he wants to see, to see Babylon “served as you served us.” More than a few of Israel’s little ones were dashed against the stones. And let no one doubt Dante suffered terribly to be expelled from Florence, the determining episode that shades Inferno. Perhaps he was justified in punishing Phil, as the Psalmist feels she is in wanting God to rain punishment on the captors and enslavers of the Israelites in Babylon.

Feeling “justified,” however, strikes me as terribly dangerous. We could, for example, always be wrong. And how often do we leverage our justified feeling, or the sense that our anger is reasonable or understandable, as a pretext to revenge? If we do that, we were never justified, never just, in the first place.

So that’s a Lenten thought: let me be better at friendship. Let me make friend the major term, enemy the minor, and not the reverse. Let me shun revenge, ignore that feelng of being justified in anger, entitled to act out of ire. Let me seek humility and peace.

Dante certainly feels justified in Canto VIII, as he watches Vergil dicker with the fallen angels over admitting Dante to the City of Dis. The angels, after all, are most futilely, pointlessly envious beings we encounter in Canto VIII. They forfeited Heaven and can’t stand seeing a tourist come through who won’t be forced to stay and share their constantly renewed horror and pain. The angels have no chance for God – Dante, and all humanity, still do, and that fact just kills the fallen.

Justified wrath, however, is still wrath, and when such verbal and imaginative beauty arises from wrath, all I can say is, it gives pause. Perhaps what is beautiful about the Inferno, what teaches us about God and salvation and right dealing, can save us from what is troubling about it, the anger and envy motivating some of the portraits of the damned, the revenge taken through poetry. In that sense, that mix-up of good and evil, Inferno is a very human poem and teaches us much about ourselves. That, in itself, in ways Dante could not have intended, is also a saving grace.


Inferno Canto 2: “Love Moved Me”

By John Timpane

First thing: read the canto and then come back here. Ten minutes max. I’ll wait.

One of the many wondrous things about Canto II – and we haven’t even reached the Inferno yet! – is how almost everything and certainly everyone in Dante’s imagined world is more than themselves. The characters are themselves, but they also telescope out into other people who pre- and postfigure them.

Dante is Dante, the Florentine who suffered exile, who descends through the Inferno and ascends through Purgatory and Paradise to find blessing, meaning, and justification in God and Beatrice – but he’s also Aeneas, who descended into Hades. He’s also Paul, who spoke in Corinthians of ascending to the third heaven. Aeneas, a Trojan, founded Rome; Paul, a pagan, founded the future of Christianity. Each had to make an arduous, cleansing journey to another realm before they could remake history. And Dante – can he do it, too? No wonder he’s scared. Paul’s world replaced Aeneas’ as popes replaced caesars – how might one pilgrim’s renewal usher in a new order of the ages?

Canto II suggests an answer. Dante sees Aeneas as a prophet – as a man who spoke the future into being. Paul is the great Christian prophet. Could Dante, as a pilgrim, as a Christian searching for his way through life, as a poet working his way through his losses and griefs, reach a place where he can say the future, a new, better future? And if so, how the heck can he get there?

The second telescoping figure is Vergil. We already know from Canto I that Vergil encompasses many guides, all great poets, “the glory and light of the other poets.” He’s not only a great stylist, as Dante keeps saying – he’s also, for him, a Roman without Christ who nevertheless foresaw the coming of Christ. So Vergil, too, is a prophet.

And Beatrice – isn’t she great? I love how, in this Canto, Dante is rescued via a chain of women. We can work back up that chain all the way to Paradise. Remember our problem: Dante is scared, scared he’s not up to the journey, scared he has nothing to say, nothing to contribute, not as pilgrim, not as poet, not as a person. Who will help him?

His saving chain begins with the Intercessor of all Intercessors, Mary. “The Lady is gentle in heaven who feels such compassion / For this impediment where I send you / That hard judgment there [in heaven] is broken.” They’ll budge the rules up there for the sake of the Mother of God. She turns to Lucia, a patron saint of vision and light, among other things – the shortest day of the year is named St. Lucia because, once that day is done, the light does nothing but increase! And Lucia goes to Beatrice, who, stirred by Dante’s steadfast love for her, hurries down to him.

There’s the beautiful third telescope of this Canto: Mary-Lucy-Beatrice. Lucy calls Beatrice “the true loda of God” – and loda has all sorts of meanings, including “glory,” “treasure,” and “praise.” Remember that.

All this telescoping reminds us that (1) this is an amazing, multilayered poem by a writer in firm command, in clarion awareness, of history, literature, and theology. All the relations are present to him, clearly, in an instant, at once. But (2) this is also a way of thinking we see in the medieval Christian mind, of seeing one thing as the type of others, of human history as a constant mirroring, a constant teaching by the repetition of immemorial patterns established throughout history by an instructing, guiding God. We are not just like Adam; we are Adam. We are not just like Paul; we are, each of us, a Paul. It’s not simile, it’s not metaphor – it’s a mystical identity. That’s a good (3): this poem plays out the constant awareness of our unfurling mystical identities, back and forth, to heaven and back, resonating constantly.

It doesn’t take Beatrice long to buck Dante up. All she has to do is remind him of the women who support him in Paradise. Energized, he hits “lo cammino alto e silvestro” – the “deep and wooded [meaning wild] road.”

I could say a lot about the poetry. I am, as a person who reads and tries to write poetry, blown away by the verse in this Canto. Dante wields a poetic line both tight (it follows a strict rhythmic and stanzaic form) and fluid (it is seldom crabbed, often conversational, often simple and direct, often lyrical).

But I’m not supposed to do that. Instead, I want to think through Lent in terms of this Canto and vice versa.

Dante, we just saw, telescopes back and forth into all sorts of historical and theological figures. But there’s one I haven’t mentioned yet: the reader. Here’s a figure wracked with sin, terror, doubt, and suffering, in search of meaning and redemption. He can’t do it all by himself – he needs a guide, he needs champions in heaven (Mary/Lucia/Beatrice), and he needs God. He’s got what he needs to make the journey, but he seldom realizes it. Dante’s plight is mine, is yours, is ours. He telescopes into us, and we into him.

What a Lenten thought that is. I often find myself hesitant before ducking beneath the lintel of another Lent, another long, harsh passage, nothing but faith and an honest appraisal of oneself for company. I hope for healing. I hope for health. I always wonder whether I am up to it.

Two things Dante learns: (1) we bear a lively, constant connection to the divine, with lots of folks working hard on our behalf; and (2) what redeems us, what always redeems us, what brings us closer and closer to God, what is always our resource and our hope, is that we have loved. The universe does not forget that we have loved.

Lucia asks Beatrice: “How could you not help one who loved you so much / that he left, for your sake, the order of the common man?” Dante loves Beatrice so much, and so hard, and so faithfully, that Beatrice courses down through Limbo to speak to him on the path to the Inferno. Why do all this, if you’re Beatrice? She tells us, in one of the truly beautiful apercus in the poem: “amor mi mosse, che mi fa parlare,” something like “love moved me; it makes me speak.”

So we’re never alone, no matter how dark, how deep, how savage the road.

And if we love, we deal in salvation, of ourselves and others.

Which brings us to this: Dante can remake the future because he has loved. He can succeed Paul as Paul succeeded Aeneas, and by the same act: the rediscovery and renewal of love. Each of us can. Whenever a human being is saved by love, saved through God, the future is redeemed, for that person and for the cosmos.

Lent is supposed to be both personal and communal, but in practice, maybe I’m wrong, but it tends, relentlessly, unbearably, to focus on me, on making me better, on looking with clear eye on what needs to change, what needs healing and health. It can be a terribly lonesome time. There’s so much about Lent you can’t share. Sometimes it seems as if the Unblinking Gaze is Closed. For one thing, I don’t deserve it. For another, who am I that Thou shouldst be mindful of me?

Beatrice rushes down with the message of Mary, of  weeping Lucia (“her illumined eyes weeping”), the message that is God’s message: there is mercy, there is compassion, it is known that you suffer, it is known that you fear you are lost.

It is also known – here’s the main thing – that you love. Dante has loved, Lucia knows it, and Beatrice loves him for it. And when she says, “Love moved me,” she means more than just the personal experience of love. She means what that experience connects us to: capital-l Love. Fear had made Dante forget that, forget his power to love, forget God in love, and God’s love in his love for Beatrice.

We are not built to keep things in mind. That’s the burden of living in time: we have to go with the flow, pass from this to that. We forget what we possess, what we have been given. Lent could, at least potentially, be a time of great joy. Because, wouldn’t it be joyful, in the midst of a grey, hard Lent, all banged up, so far from the spring – to rediscover what we had all along, what will get us through: the ransoming power of our maculate love? Love as connection to God, a connection we re-enact each time we know love.

Maybe Dante just needs to see the love in her eyes, the love that sent her. “Why hesitate? Why hold back?” she asks Dante. Why, indeed? “Go now,” he tells Vergil. Dante is ready now. He’s ready to write the prophetic poem he hopes will remake the world (as it has), remake his life, remake his past . . . and he’s ready to undergo the work and suffering on the long, overgown, untamed road to understanding and blessing.