Author Archives: jtimpane

About jtimpane

Media Editor/Writer at The Philadelphia Inquirer.

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.