Author Archives: pkooistra

Canto 34: Forget Mortal Sins? Recall Moral Successes as We Enter Heaven?

Much to say, but since so many of us are writing, I’ll limit myself to these two questions, then a few follow-up comments about Dante’s choices regarding bathing in Lethe and sipping from Eunoe.

Is it good to wash away the ability to recollect one’s mortal sins? I can understand needing to diminish such memories; but needing to eliminate them altogether? Doesn’t one need to know how and when s/he has erred in order to avoid repeating the same errors? Don’t such memories have huge power for remediating one’s negative inclinations?

Why sip from Eunoe right before entering Heaven? How is it useful to be most mindful of one’s good deeds when heading to the place of ultimate peace and reward?

Does Dante’s Purgatory purge too much?

This is perhaps where I have to acknowledge that nothing in my life has made me believe in an afterlife.

When we say the Lord’s Prayer, we express among our wishes the hope that divine “will be done on Earth as it is in Heaven.” Heaven is the great repository of divine aspirations, divine ideals, the source of models, of inspiration. Wouldn’t Eunoe then be the thing to drink now, in the midst of life, along with the bread and wine, to remember the scale of courage and self-sacrifice necessary to help us engender a world in which “Thy will be done”?

Pier Kooistra


So Much Depends upon “The Red Wheel Barrow”

Purgatorio, Canto XXII

 “So Much Depends upon ‘The Red Wheel Barrow’”

 so much depends

upon

 a red wheel

barrow

 glazed with rain

water

 beside the white

chickens.                             –William Carlos Williams

 So much depends not just upon the wheel barrow itself (or did in an age when agriculture was different) but upon the poem about the wheel barrow, the little, modest text dedicated to reminding us that little, modest things matter.

 This canto is about a number of things. For example:

 “Often, indeed, appearances give rise

                to groundless doubts in us, and false conclusions,

                the true cause being hidden from our eyes.” (ll. 28-30)

But the canto is also about the role poets and poetry can play in pulling the wool from our eyes.

 Of course, pulling the wool isn’t easy. As David Brooks wrote in one of my all-time-favorite columns: “The human mind is continually TRYING to perceive things that aren’t there, and NOT perceiving them takes enormous effort” (The New York Times, October 28, 2008; caps mine).

 Take a look at one of America’s favorite poems:

 Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,

And sorry I could not travel both

And be one traveler, long I stood

And looked down one as far as I could

To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,

And having perhaps the better claim,

Because it was grassy and wanted wear;

Though as for that the passing there

Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay

In leaves no step had trodden black.

Oh, I kept the first for another day!

Yet knowing how way leads on to way,

I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh

Somewhere ages and ages hence:

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood, and I—

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.    –Robert Frost

 We love this thing. We trot it out at one graduation after another. But I’d argue that we don’t pay enough attention to some of its little details.  A la Brooks’s comment, we TRY to perceive in Frost’s poem a message about the importance of “taking the road less traveled by.” But take (to follow the poem’s actual title) the road (too often) not taken. Take a look a stanza 2: The roads are “really about the same.” And take a look at stanza 4: What exactly is the purpose of the colon there? What is it setting up? All I’ll say is that it seems clear to me that Frost knew a lot about human psychology, in this case showing his grasp of how we pull the wool over our own eyes, both in interpreting our own past behavior and in interpreting what we read.

 Anyway, I love that Canto XXII is so much about the power of poets and poetry to inform our lives. And not just to inform but to re-form. Statius says so glowingly to Virgil:

 “Had I not turned from prodigality

                in pondering those lines in which you cry,

                as if you raged against humanity:

’To what do you not drive man’s appetite

                O cursed gold-lust!’—I should now be straining

                in the grim jousts of the Infernal night.” (ll. 37-42)

 I’m with Statius. Quite a roster of poets, and of poems, has followed me around, offering guidance in aptly timed whispers, sometimes shouts, from the memory.

 Of course, in order to be informed by a text, we must not deform it.

 And so, we read on. Into Canto XXIII, where we shall read about glutton.

 …and perhaps meditate on the dangers of putting on our plates too much of what we like, too much of what we choose for ourselves out of appetite, instead of taking in those things that we need. Raw vegetables, for example. And raw textual details.

 Better that the barrow—not our eyes—be glazed.

 Pier Kooistra


Canto XVI: The Breath–not the Wrath–of God

I’m not sure I read Canto XVI. Ciardi’s intro to the canto pushed all kinds of buttons in me, and those, I’m pretty sure, read it for me—or, more properly, read into it from me. Anyway, for what it’s worth, my reaction:

“The Poets,” says our translator and editor, “enter the acrid and blinding smoke in which THE WRATHFUL suffer their purification. As Wrath is a corrosive state of the spirit, so the smoke stings and smarts. As Wrath obscures the true light of God, so the smoke plunges all into darkness” (p. 419).

The wrathful suffering in darkness, their spirit(s) corroded, with the True Light obscured. As I read these things, all I could think of was 9/11. 9/11. 9/11. And I don’t just mean the heinous crimes of the day itself but our in many ways dark, wrathful response.

On the day before Thanksgiving of 2002, The New York Times published an op-ed piece by Dennis Smith, a former New York City firefighter. Smith expressed frustration with the then-recently-selected final proposals for the World Trade Center site’s 9/11 memorial, none of which planned specifically to remember the heroism of the emergency-services personnel who rushed to Ground Zero. I remember sharing Smith’s concern, but what struck me most about his piece was the broader concern of his closing line: “It is time to think more deeply about how we want to remember September 11, 2001.” Amen.

For the most part, our memories of that day are grim. We recall the violence: Jetliners bearing down, fires raging, great towers hurtling toward Earth. The brutality of these images seared them into our minds’ eyes. And we recall the fear: The sickening realization that the growing disaster wasn’t accidental but the product of malevolence. Once we understood that in the course of one morning a deadly conspiracy had reached all the way from Boston to New York and Washington, and then into the Pennsylvania countryside, we knew that the next horrible blow could fall anywhere, and we all felt threatened. So it’s hardly surprising that, when the day comes to mind, our first reflex is to call up ghastly pictures and for our guts to churn with dread.

But we need to remember more. What happened started with crashes and conflagrations, but in the midst of—and beyond—all that destruction born of hatred, there was compassion. At first it was institutionalized, arriving in the form of police officers, firefighters and paramedics who had been summoned to their professional duties by radio calls and alarms. Yet almost immediately the response became broader, medical students and store clerks rushing into the chaos, summoned in an instant by conscience and heart.

Hundreds of millions of human lives have ended since 9/11, many in hideous ways—
that few of us saw (or that, in some cases, we saw but failed adequately to feel). But on that brilliant September day, people all over our planet, from the Jersey suburbs to Rio and Bombay, saw fellow human beings clinging to their lives when it was clear that they were in grave danger. We saw faces piled on top of one another in the narrow windows of the Twin Towers, struggling for air. We saw men and women desperate for aid waving towels to attract rescuers. And then, only after long minutes lived with them, spent second by second growing to comprehend their plight—only after we had imagined ourselves in one of those windows, or imagined ourselves attached to someone who was—did we see hope yield to hopelessness and bodies plunge through the sky. Only after our minds had raced in search of happy endings did we see those skyscrapers shudder and roar to the ground. The impact of 9/11 has been so enduring because we didn’t hear the news of the tragedy afterward, spoken, for just a few seconds, by a calm baritone next to a still picture; we experienced the day’s events as they unfolded. We really felt what happened, the agony of thousands becoming the anguish of millions riding the Earth somewhere else but made present through live TV.

And so, for an extraordinary moment, witnesses to the same shocking events, participants in the same grieving, huge numbers of us all over the U.S. and around the planet felt a deep sense of belonging with one another in a wider human family. Iron workers from the Midwest trekked, unbidden, across the country on the hunch that their skills could help with the rescue and clean-up efforts in lower Manhattan. A staggering sixty per cent of American households donated to 9/11 relief funds. For once, something terrible had happened but not disappeared into the spaces between us. Something terrible had happened and, in fact, built bridges bringing us together. Jean-Marie Colombani, the editor of Le Monde, declared, “Nous sommes tous Americains—we are all Americans.” What he really meant, of course, was something like this: Though across the ocean, we here in France are also with you. We, too, have seen these mothers and husbands clinging to life, and, knowing love, we have yearned to reach out and help. We have seen the bereft crying over their losses. Your pain isn’t yours alone. It is in all of us.

Alas, time not only “heals all wounds” but “wounds all heals.” And in this case its passage quickly eroded the bonds forged during those hours of shared pain. Once our TV’s were off and no longer drawing us into the same experience, we wound up pretty much back where we had started, in Jersey or India or France. Only warier and angrier. Thus dis/engaged, our minds and hearts ceased to be the primary seats of our remembering. In fact, to a large extent, we stopped re-membering – that is, re-flecting, re-examining, re-considering. After a little while, instead of reaching back into 9/11 to sort out its meaning, most of us moved on, leaving the day to reach back into us – through our guts, as shadows promoting fear and anger. Wrath!

As the terrors of September 11 reminded us, there is, of course, much for us to fear beyond fear itself. But if we’re going to confront the dark forces taking aim at human wellbeing, fear and wrath are not enough. Since the events of 9/11 continue nearly a decade later so powerfully to inform—and deform—our attitudes about the world in which we live, and since fear and anger are so overwhelmingly what that fateful day calls up in us, if we want to do more with the future than lash out at shadows or curl up in our shells, then Dennis Smith is right: We need to think more deeply about how we want to remember September 11.

Clearly, we need, still, to mourn those we lost. We need to celebrate their lives and to express our outrage at the cruelty that took them from us. But we must quickly put outrage aside—must move out of rage—so that we can consecrate ourselves to carrying forward this world that the lost loved.

How? Mostly, of course, we have to be present for the people around us, and the problems that beckon to our particular talents, one at a time. But there is something extraordinary about the commitment made by those firefighters, police officers and paramedics who rushed to Ground Zero that, I think, if we were to grasp it more fully, might help us. Those first responders hurried to the rescue of people they had never met, to a place where they didn’t really know what was going on. All they knew for sure was that someone had recognized trouble and summoned them to help. And, in anticipation of such moments, they had trained to be useful, and then committed themselves to appearing whenever such a summons might be made.

How might those of us who aren’t part of a fire department or an ambulance crew live so that we could do more to respond to pressing needs without waiting for an emotional cataclysm to launch us into action? Especially when we consider that too often a reflexive reaction can be one of darkness. One of wrath.

In 2001 I worked in New York. I worked with high-school students from all around the US and the world who had ventured to the Big Apple to study the city. One weekend in early December of that year, I took downtown with me all of the students with whom I had shared that tumultuous autumn. It was a beautiful Saturday afternoon, and we took advantage of its unseasonable warmth to sail back and forth across New York Harbor on the Staten Island Ferry. On the return trip to Manhattan, about two dozen of us were standing in the bow. Our eyes were fixed on the scene in front of us (and our imaginations on those two colossal absentees). As we looked, and our hearts struggled, we became aware of a sound, a voice and then many voices, reaching to us from the center of the boat. It was a choir, and as its members moved toward us to form ranks in the doorways opening onto the bow, their voices became hymns. Shortly into the choir’s second offering, three women next to me, clearly in the city for a pre-Christmas shopping jaunt, joined in. I wish I could remember the tune and the words. What I do remember is the spirit then among us—a group of students, three women trailing huge Burberry’s bags and decked out to take on 57th Street, and (as it turned out) a modest Mennonite choir from Ohio, who said that they had come to offer New York a gift of encouragement and healing.

Ciardi’s intro to Canto XVI says, “Within [the darkness], Dante hears souls singing THE LITANY OF THE LAMB OF GOD. The Lamb, of course, is the symbol of the MEEKNESS of Divine Love. As such, it is the opposite of Wrath. A further purification is implicit in the fact that the souls all sing as if with one voice, for Wrath is the sin that soonest breeds division among men, and only Spiritual Concord can reunite them” (p. 419).

What healing there was in those loving voices on the Staten Island Ferry! What purification! After months of raw nerves and grieving, suddenly those of us in that little gathering on the deck weren’t adrift in a world of sorrows. We were gliding along accompanied by our better angels, especially Goodwill and Hope, warmed by the pink and gold of the lowering sun, and heading back to a city, and a future, that many of us now felt much readier to rebuild.

This is the spirit that re-membering 9/11 should promote. This—not something stupidly called the “Freedom Tower”—is what rebuilding should be about. For years, the Statue of Liberty has welcomed the world to our shores and promised sanctuary and freedom. Having gathered into ourselves the strength and wisdom of those drawn by Liberty’s light, and having been reminded again by the horrors of 9/11 that each life must be protected – each mother kept safe for her children, each restless young man kept from losing his soul in hatred – my hope is that we will build something that can move us Americans to sail back out of our harbors on missions of goodwill, something that can signal to our global neighbors that the new beacon lighting our way is lit not by fear but by compassion. By, as Dante and now Ciardi propose, a commitment to Spiritual Concord. Not to being warriors but to being firemen and paramedics rushing to protect life.

Down with acrid and blinding smoke. Down with corrosion of the spirit. Purgatorio must be a process, not a quagmire. It must be purgative, purifying, not just a limbo. We must respond to darkness with reflection, not just reflex. Build memorials to keep our dead, rather than death, present. So that we may be not only susceptible to difficult memories but engaged in active remembrance. So that as we re-member, venturing back into that brilliant late-summer day to recollect how it touched us and prompted so much of humanity to reach out, we will make sure that whatever monuments we construct near lower Manhattan’s hallowed ground can help us to reach past nationalism into the true meaning of America’s vision of “Liberty and Justice – for All.”

Pier Kooistra


Canto X

Canto X

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

That resonates. Misunderstanding is one of our great specialties.

But:

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

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

Pier Kooistra


Canto 4

“The Ledge of the Indolent.”

That’s basically where I lived during the first two years of high school. Accomplishments of substance took so much effort, such sustained focus, to both of which I felt profoundly allergic.

Not unlike, say, American society in 2011 with regard to our strong disinclination to get moving on the de-carbonization front. Our guts and minds keep telling us we have important work to do, but our feet stay still—right on top of our gas pedals.

No surprise, of course. Newton codified indolence so neatly: A body (politic) at rest tends to stay at rest.

And, to a considerable degree, for good reason. Try to do something big, especially in a collective sense, and you get not just opposite reactions but oppositional reactionaries.

So, moving past (through?) indolence is not for the faint of heart. It requires some kind of catalyst. But of what kind?

The catalyst that propelled me out of my high-school indolence was spiritual, visceral. Literally. In the middle of sophomore year, I was hanging at a pizza joint on a wintry Friday night when, suddenly, I got a jolt in the gut that told me I was, as the saying goes, “going nowhere, fast.” Everything in my being told me I needed to get moving.

Luckily, I also got a jolt telling me how: “Boarding school.” Barely knew what one was, but again my gut offered illumination: “Immersion. Total commitment. Living at school. If you are already in it, surrounded by it, you’ll have a better chance of getting into it.” By September, just turned 16, I was a junior in boarding school. I was moving. (I wasn’t just in a different place. I was working REALLY hard.)

Now, change had come, progress away from The Ledge of the Indolent, not just because I had been moved, not just because of that jolt in my gut. On many levels what was stirring wasn’t about me. It was about me—beyond me. So many other, outer forces were reaching me, helping me, serving me.

Dante talks about those who need help entering Purgatory. “Prayer could help…if a heart God’s love / has filled with Grace should offer it” (Ciardi, Canto IV, 133-4). So many grace-filled hearts offered help. My parents, who didn’t really have the money for such a school, allowed me to apply anyway. People wrote letters of recommendation. Kind admissions personnel interviewed me, despite my applying well beyond the formal deadlines.

Boarding school redeemed my life. At least, it started to. It gave me a fresh chance to grow. It gave me purpose. It gave me my work. Now I’m a teacher, propelled by a calling. To help others grow.

We all need help. We all need to help. To listen for prayers. Then to offer them—in action.

Purgatory is a challenge and, potentially, a blessing, a chance. If we can get—and help others— past the Ledge of the Indolent.

Pier Kooistra, March 2011


Canto 34: Judecca – A Few Musings

By Pier Kooistra

Until now, Dante’s Hell has been a kinetic place, erupting, seething, its denizens trapped but moving (albeit mostly while making futile efforts to limit their suffering or, like the Malebranche, while multiplying the misery of their fellow hellions). How strange, then, to encounter, at long last, the King of Hell and to find him largely inert, frozen in place. Satan here bears little resemblance to Satan as we’ve seen or imagined (at least, as I’ve seen or imagined) him outside this realm constructed by Dante. Sure, some of the basic components of his situation are the same. For example, as usual he’s been expelled from Heaven for having dared to challenge the primacy of God. But this Satan has been not only cast out but cast down. In fact, to a striking degree he’s been casted—surrounded, incapacitated—in addition to having been hurled from his previously dizzying height to a nearly annihilating depth. This is not a Darth Vader/Emperor character, a dark lord capable of projecting power to any corner of the universe. This is not a Bond-film villain, skilled to the Nth degree in a million forms of malefaction, elegant in his brutality, as polished as his deadly hidden weapons. This guy isn’t really the King of Hell; he’s a mock-king. He’s huge but ungainly, not a wicked Zeus but a bumbling grotesque, a Cyclops, stuck—and, worse, attacked, humiliated—in his own cave. He bosses no henchmen. He convenes no cabals. One can’t call where he is a dominion, as he rules over nothing. And, therefore, one can’t really call this figure Satan or Lucifer, in the sense that those names usually connote. More properly, this is Dis. Or, rather, Dissed. And his Hell has nothing to do with Pandemonium, that sprawling, autonomous hideaway of all the devils in the cosmos, a place that, generally, I’ve envisioned as every bit as rowdy and humming with action as the greenwood of Robin and his merry men, if taken up with the hatching, rather than the foiling, of nefarious plots. There is nothing majestic about this figure we see in Canto 34. He makes no choices of his own. To be sure, he is heinous, chewing ad infinitum on the head of Judas and the legs of Brutus and Cassius. But there is no malevolence here, no whiff of the evil genius licking his lips with relish, the torchlit hallways of his lair echoing with cackles of excitement about the loosing of his next horrible scheme. Once the arch-machinator, this guy has been reduced to a machine, an instrument of someone else’s justice. Having dared to prosecute the ultimate act of insubordination, he has been, as recompense, completely subordinated, stripped of all initiative, all volition, hurled to the absolute bottom of a territory that functions as a wholly owned subsidiary of Heaven.  Huge and hideous but defanged, Dissed has been put on display in a sort of Underworld’s Fair, the chief exhibit in the No-No Pavilion. For Heaven’s sake (literally), the erstwhile master of malignancy has been so utterly tamed, in fact rendered so impotent, that a couple of lilliputian (if literarily gigantic) poets can clamber right past his midsection and not be totally fucked. There is no wrath, no vengeful fury for them to contend with. Virgil and Dante can gawk instructively, seriously up close and personal, at the tethered former fiend, and, so long as they’re willing to put in a good walk, just saunter home. This is a devil that is decidedly separate from God—and not equal. That’s the first thing about this canto that strikes me.

The second is who else, along with Satan, has been consigned to this infernal stratum reserved for the lowest of the low. I can see, of course, how the most notorious acts of Judas, on the one hand, and Brutus and Cassius, on the other (turning Jesus over to the authorities, assassinating Caesar) constitute more than peccadilloes. But if Judas’s crime was instrumental to the redemption-through-Crucifixion project, and if Brutus and Cassius were motivated even just in part by an impulse to curb tyranny, it’s hard for me to see these characters as the lowest of the low. My twenty-first-century-liberal mind, if charged with assembling a list of malignancies meriting cutting-away from human society and searing in retributive flames, would gravitate toward the murderous-despot crowd, the fomentors of genocide, such as Leopold of Belgium, Hitler and Pol Pot, not to mention thugs like Milosevic and Karadzic and the demon-leaders of Akazu. Nicole Pinsky says in her notes that those cast into “the final division of Cocytus and the innermost part of Hell” are “those who betrayed their benefactors.” How about those who have betrayed their putative beneficiaries—who, in fact, have turned on their own peoples, such as Stalin and Mao and other wielders of homicidal state power like Ceausescu and Pahlavi, al-Bashir and Amin, Mugabe and Pinochet? Surely there must be a roster of Herods from the ancient world with whom to fill the Wholly Unholies.

If, by some unlikely chain of circumstances, these underconsidered jottings of mine were to be canonized (rather than cannonized) and scrutinized by some poor soul seven centuries hence, I’ve got to believe that such a far-off reader would notice in my brief catalog of especially hellacious human beings a dearth of North Americans. We all have our biases. Mine notwithstanding—in fact, likely as a result of mine—I am struck by the possibility that what to Dante are crimes explicitly constituting the betrayal of benefactors (for, surely, Jesus did minister lovingly, generously unto Judas, and Caesar did in significant ways champion Brutus and make him a protégé, and these actions in both cases appear to merit a high degree of loyalty and special consideration) may also amount to violations of the expected social order. Dante inhabited a world of clearer and more keenly delineated castes and classes. He lived under podestas e principi (and under their edicts and bans). His, far more than ours, was a world of clergy and laypeople, masters and apprentices, superiors and servants. Perhaps that heavily hierarchical social context helps to explain why his Cassius and Brutus are highlighted as the most abject of lowlifes and why his Judas, the unfaithful, if unintentionally helpful, disciple qualifies for such flagrant opprobrium. In other words, is it possible that B, C and J come in for such stark punishment as much for having done offenses to factors (big movers and shakers) as for having violated benefactors (doers of good)? They are, after all, thrown in with (in fact, into) the ultimate upstart, Satan. For what it’s worth, if consigned to Hell myself, while I wouldn’t be psyched about serving as a stick of the arch-fiend’s eternal chewing gum, I’d rather cast my lot with the denizens of Judecca than with the terrors of the modern world whom I’ve named above.

Except for one thing: Judecca—that name troubles me. I know it’s supposed to denote the particularly ruinous, ruined condition to which Judas has been condemned for betraying the Christian savior. But does it also suggest a more general collecting place for traitors to the body politic and/or mainstream culture—or “Jews” in the slipperiest, most denigrating sense (denigrating, that is, to labeler and labeled alike? Nicole Pinsky says in her notes on Canto 34, regarding Brutus and Cassius, “Their crime was seen in the Middle Ages as an offense not only to the murderers’ great benefactor, but to the progress and history of the Roman Empire and the Church.” Is Dante suggesting that Brutus and Cassius are not only Judases but “Judahs,” followers of a corrupt agenda, flouters of Roman Christendom’s hegemonic march? Maybe I, the loving husband of a Jewish wife, the adoring father of Jewish sons, am prone to suspecting anti-Semitic ugliness where it isn’t. But as Virgil and Dante emerge from Hell to see the stars, I can’t help but wonder how their transit through the infernal depths may influence the way in which they interpret the signs above them—may prompt them to assemble constellations of thought predisposing us to steer a troubled course. The journey began “In dark woods, the right road lost” (Canto I, l. 2). To what degree have climbing over the devils’ crotch, hiking through the runnel-tunnel and emerging from that “round aperture” (Canto XXXIV, l. 138) set our guides, and ourselves, on a trajectory uncomplicated by mis- (or mal-) perception?

Your thoughts, companions?


Canto 28: Giving Up Giving Up

Pier Kooistra

Those who suffer in the ninth circle of Hell are the most repugnant scum. They are sowers of discord, souls who in life turned people against one another, by design. Having fomented division, having incited social cleavages, they themselves have been cleft, their outsides split open from guggle to zatch, their skins forever suppurating and enflamed, their bowels exposed. As they move around the ninth circle these agents of cruelty are subjected, as retribution, to something even worse than the entropy and agony they have engendered; they are forced after the flaying of their skins to experience a degree of healing (a healing that is slow and improper, of course, but that approaches closure)…so that their hideous, dagger-rent, scar-strewn hides can be torn open again to maximize torment. No doubt, Quentin Tarrantino would love conjure this infernal scene on film, raping our ears with a chorus of wails, forcing us to luxuriate in stench and despair.

I’m not Tarrantino. I don’t want to linger in this place. But I have to admit that when I first read about the ninth circle, my mind called up—instantly!—people who I thought should be consigned there. In other words, this canto rent my skin and revealed my stinking viscera and their ugly gut instincts. “I know sowers of discord,” thought I. “And I know exactly where they belong.” The first to come to mind was John McCain, he who claimed this week, shortly after the healthcare bill passed over his party’s wishes, that there would be no more cooperation this year from the GOP—with the president and his agenda. (Had there ever been any?)

In Newtonian terms, my inclination to recriminate would be described as “an equal and opposite reaction.” But the reality is worse. My reaction isn’t opposite at all; it’s equally stupid…and in the same horrible direction, sinking further into a cycle of antagonism. I may be justified in pointing a condemning finger at Senator McCain for his destructive childishness, but I’m unjust unless I point the same finger at myself. I may not, strictly speaking, be a sower of discord in calling out such idiocy, but I’m certainly a stoker, an amplifier, if all I do is cluck and wag. Well then, how to heal so that my ugly viscera are tucked away again, facilitating the emergence of the better angels of my nature?

Such better angels were, of course, invoked by Abraham Lincoln as he attempted, in his first inaugural address, to forestall the sowers of discord, the fomentors of civil war. His purpose was to preserve and promote Union. Well, it was more complicated than that, of course, but this is a blog posting, and I’m shooting for at least some degree of brevity. The essential point here is this: In speaking to his antagonists, Lincoln said quite deliberately, “We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection.” He asserted the same imperative of interconnectedness, of mutual belonging, that Bellamy, Upham et al would enshrine in America’s most widely declared pledge: “I pledge allegiance…to the republic for which [the flag] stands, one nation…indivisible.”

Well, if we are to be a nation indivisible, if we are to be friends rather than enemies, then we must—not just during Lent but always—give up giving up on one another. I think it’s fair sometimes to get after one another, to get on one another. The John McCain of 2010 is, after all, a sorry reduction of the courageous, national-consensus-seeking presidential candidate of 2000. He is now—alas!—“Palin comparison” to his prior iteration as a would-be American chief. Anyway, John McCain’s not really being John McCain anymore serves my purposes perfectly, since this paragraph isn’t really about John McCain. It’s about sowers of discord. The senator who suggested last week that he would do nothing to propel his party into productive engagement with the Dem in the White House and the Dems across the Senate aisle showed a dismaying lack of commitment to collective enterprise, at least for the moment. But if, as a result of doltish obstructionism, I—and others—decide to do nothing with him but to make him an object of scorn, then we condemn ourselves to being stoking and amplifying discord. Others may attack us. If so, we may defend ourselves, but defense isn’t tantamount to attacking in turn. “We must not be enemies.” There are cheeks—not to mention wheels of the mind, dynamics, paradigms—to turn.


Canto 22: Mala-Coda

Pier Kooistra

Dante at this point is not just writing about blasts (such as the ass-trumpeting through which at the end of Canto XXI Malacoda mock-heralds the action to come). Clearly, at this point, he’s having one himself. He can’t contain the fun he’s having conjuring Hell.

Dante opens Canto XXII with a sort of epic grandeur:

I have seen horsemen moving camp before,

And when they muster, and when an assault begins,

And beating a retreat when they retire;

I have seen coursers, too, O Aretines,

Over your lands, and raiders setting out,

And openings of jousts and tourneys (ll. 1-6)—

…only to upend such pomp and circumstance with something more George Carlin than Sir Edward Elgar. For, whereas the canto has opened with the aforequoted martial tableau, continuing with the evocation of “bell and trumpet and drum, and signals set / On castles by native and foreign signalry” (ll. 7-8), in line 9 Dante shifts—to the but(t):

But I never saw so strange a flageolet

Send foot or horsemen forth, nor ship at sea

Guided by land or star! (ll. 9-11)

Hold it. What is a flageolet?  Furthermore, what is this “member of the fipple flute family” doing here in Canto XXII? Aha! It is the trumpet Malacoda made of his ass at the close of the last canto, for, “We journeyed now / With the ten demons” (ll. 11-2). In other words, there’s not just something comparative going on here; there’s something causal: The lesser Malebranche have received a signal to get moving.

As I said, Dante is having fun. Earlier I thought nothing more of the name Malacoda than “Evil Tail.” But now the name suggests both “Bad Ass” (as in big, bad leader) and “Foul End” or “Smelly Butt.” Moreover, the name seems to encode what happens here at the beginning of Canto XXII: We have a mal(odorous) coda, in  a musical sense, that reprises what happened at the end of Canto XXI. (And it seems likely to me that Mr. Pinsky may be in on the fun, too. Sure, flageolet provides a rhyme with “signals set” that fulfills the terms of the rhyme scheme articulated by Mr. Pinsky in his “Translator’s Note” at the beginning of our text. But trumpet, at least in a slant-rhyme-y way, would do the same thing…but without the intimation/slant-echoing of flatulate.)

So much of what happens here in Canto XXII, while Dante and Virgil encounter frauds (the barrator of “good King Thibaut’s household,” p. 179; Fra Gomita, p. 181, who as chancellor in the court of Nino Visconti of Gallura appeared to serve his lord faithfully while, in fact, taking bribes whose payment resulted in the clandestine freeing of some of Nino’s prisoners) constitutes a sort of “mala-coda.”

On the canto’s opening page Dante identifies the sinners who suffer in this “pouch” of Malebolge with dolphins…only to specify that, in fact, the likeness here is perverted. Whereas in rising to the ocean’s surface and arching their backs dolphins do themselves no automatic harm in signaling to sailors to save their vessels, here in Malebolge the sinners who rise to the surface do, of course, signal to Dante not to make the same terrible errors that they have—but at the cost of hideous suffering.

Whereas frogs in nature save themselves by disappearing from a pond’s surface to take refuge in the depths below, the sinners who, frog-like, disappear into the liquid misery of Malebolge do avoid , at least for a moment, one kind of agony (attack by the Malebranche)…but only to experience the equally miserable torment of boiling.

Again and again, in this canto that focuses on the torment of frauds, the details operate as frauds do: They appear at first in one light, only to reveal, later on, other intentions, other outcomes. They present themselves initially with one face, only to turn somewhat later and conclude with a “foul end” or “evil tail.”

And so: A canto that began with mock seriousness, that then horsed (and “Wild Hog”ged and “Nasty Dragon”ned) around quite playfully for a good long while, turns into a cruel fight at the end. In a way, this is gladiatorial entertainment that amounts to comic relief; things continue to be fun. But in a way—a very real way—the fun is a fraud—a foul ending, a mala-coda.


Suite 16

Pier Kooistra

Canto XVI isn’t the place to go for action. There are fireworks—alas!—but not in the big-scene, heavy-drama sense. The fireworks in this section of the seventh circle are grotesquely ho-hum. They are emblematic of the oh-by-the-way, this-is-just-what-we-do-here ruthlessness with which Hell tortures its inmates, with which it visits miseries innumerable and unrelenting on the pitiable—but determinedly unpitied—souls condemned there.  And that, at least to me, is why and how the canto matters. It’s not a thriller. It doesn’t make the trailer when Inferno: The Movie gets a Hollywood marketing push. Canto xvi (“Suite 16,” as I’ve come to think of it) is one of those interstitial spaces in which, for just a second or two, when the cars have stopped squealing and the guns have quieted, one gets to think a little bit about what’s happened so far, and what it means.

What’s happened here, though modest, has significant implications.

WHAT HAS happened here? First, Dante has shared an encounter with Guidoguerra, Tegghiaio Aldobrandi and Jacopo Rusticucci, all stars in the political-social firmament of thirteenth-century Florence.  Then, afterward, Dante gives up to his “master” the cord securing his clothes and watches as Virgil drops it “into the depth of the abyss” (l. 98).

So?

Though GG, TA and JR have been sentenced for heinous crimes to one of the grimmest precincts of Hell, Dante responds to them with an interesting combination of deference, sympathy and patriotic fellow-feeling. Dante et al talk about how they love Florence but wish their dear city hadn’t been degraded by such degenerate interlopers as Guglielmo Borsiere, who, ostensibly, has coarsened the culture of the place with an undue emphasis on money.

But, of course, Dante’s interlocutors are not blameless. They are in the seventh circle for “sodomy,” for various perversions of humane living. Guidoguerra and Tegghiaio, for example, have put tremendous energy into fomenting among their Guelph partisans a war against their Ghibeline fellow Florentines.

In a way, Dante’s reaching out to these Florentine shades is understandable, even commendable.  He isn’t above extending himself to these sorrowful souls. Then again, he IS NOT ABOVE extending himself in a way that constitutes chummy intercourse with hardened characters who look past their own scheming and murdering to lay blame for the compromised ethos of their society at others’ feet. The mental coordinates from which Dante talks with these figures suggest that his moral-ethical framework is too Earth-bound, too world-shaped—in fact, that he’s not working from a moral-ethical framework at all but from, fundamentally, a social-political one instead. (Just like me. Just like so many of us. Except that in my case the frame of the moment is more social-familial, as opposed to social-humanitarian. I’m in Vail, skiing. Great fun. But in a way I’m forced to reckon with what it means to indulge in “a vacation.” I’m hanging with my people. Making runs down the mountain. Sharing chats with Guidoguerra and Jacopo Rusticucci. I’m not in Haiti. I have left that possibility—that necessity—vacant.)

So, it’s a good thing that Virgil has dropped Dante’s cord into the abyss. Who will drop mine—and lay me (and my habits and priorities) bare? Time to go deeper. Onward. Further into Hell. My own Hell. And yours. In search of salvation.


canto 10: Coffers of Stone

Pier Kooistra

Canto X—“Here Epicurus lies / With all his followers” (ll. 11-12).

As in Canto IX, Dante is in the sixth circle of hell, but now with an emphasis on the fact that in this place Epicurean heretics—those who in life declared disbelief in an afterlife, asserting that the soul dies with the body—“are shut / Ensepulchered within…coffers of stone / Making…sounds of anguish from inside” (ll. 111-3, Canto IX). According to Dante’s cosmography, clearly, there IS an afterlife, and for these souls—surprise!—their earlier wayward belief has resulted in a present lot that is especially—vengefully—cruel and grim.

I’m going to bypass most of the details from Dante’s exchanges with Farinata and Cavalcante—about Guido, about the war between the Ghibelines and Guelphs—to join Gordon in addressing heresy.

In the circle of the world that our little crew of bloggers inhabits, the word heresy doesn’t get used much. It’s essentially a shibboleth that, when uttered seriously, signals an incursion by an outsider, someone who hasn’t learned, or hasn’t accepted, that when we (hmmm, how to categorize us?) New York Times readers / NPR listeners hear the word heresy, we pretty much automatically think, “Oh oh, here’s a moron of the burning-infidels-at-the-stake type.” So I very much appreciate Gordon’s post on Canto IX, not only for its willingness to take on heretical stupidities (such as the idea of natural disasters being wrathful acts of God) but also for Gordon’s insistence that we consider heresy, nonetheless, as a real danger for all of us—in other words, not just as the muck of gross oversimplification in which the patently ridiculous Pat Robertsons get stuck. Who would challenge Gordon’s assertion that “wrong or distorted beliefs can and do still lead to various kinds of human wreckage”? Who would dismiss his contention that “right belief and the actions that follow from it can mean the difference for us between (spiritual) life and death”?

I make innumerable mistakes every day, often resulting in regrettable costs. I would like to avoid such mistakes.

I have no interest in, nor cause for, arguing against Gordon. What I’d like to do, instead, is argue WITH his commentary on heresy—in a both/and, rather than either/or, way. I see the tremendous importance of laboring to avoid heresy, if what we mean by the term, as Gordon proposes, is “wrong or distorted beliefs.” But I also believe fervently in the necessity of practicing heresy, on purpose, in order to overturn harmful orthodoxy.

Last week, in response to Canto IV, I quoted Martin King’s famous line about how injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. One might say, similarly, that misunderstanding anywhere is a threat to everyone’s capacity to live lives built on truth.

In Canto X, as Dante makes his way among the heretics imprisoned in infernal sarcophagi, the doomed Cavalcante says to him at one point, “’Preserve in memory what you have heard / Against yourself…And I pray / You, listen’” (ll. 119-21). Remember what you have heard against yourself. And listen! What a striking command. It’s not easy to hold onto critical feedback, especially if it doesn’t square with the narratives and conceptions that we receive and construct about ourselves. The same is true, of course, regarding the narratives and conceptions we receive and construct about the cosmos in and from which we draw life. We’re not free perceivers and thinkers. At least, it’s not easy for us to be. We have predilections of personality and ideology that that thwart and pervert our autonomy, that predispose us to certain perceptions and ideas. I find (as indeed I’m inclined to do, in that I’m working now in a certain mindframe) this basic fact of human behavior exemplified in what Dante says to Virgil at the very beginning of this canto: “Speak to me with the answers that I crave” (l. 5). Dante doesn’t say just, Give me the answers. He says, in effect, Tell me what I want to hear. (At least, that’s one way of reading the line.)

Cavalcante’s injunction—again, “’Preserve in memory what you have heard / Against yourself…And I pray / You, listen’” (ll. 119-21)—is an important antidote to the strong human inclination to believe what we want to believe and to avoid what we don’t want to know. Clearly, ‘tis nobler in (and for) the mind (and, moreover, the whole self and, by extension, the whole society, the whole body politic) to suffer the slings and arrows of unwelcome revelation than to take arms (and at their ends the hands with which we can block our ears) against a sea (or hearing) of troubling discoveries and by ignoring end them. When such revelations pertain to the larger world of which we’re a part, when they are unwelcome but true, or at least not yet proved untrue, we must publish them in order to consider them. Thus, we must practice heresy. When such revelations pertain to us, when they challenge our ways of (mis)understanding ourselves, again, we must consider them. We must be willing to engage in apostasy—must be willing to walk away from prior belief systems in order to construct new ones that better equip us for living as rightly as possible instead of ensepulchering ourselves in bad ideas or habits.

And I say that as a certain stripe of Epicurean heretic. One might say a Feuerbachean heretic, too. Nothing in my experience, my heart, my spirit or conscience has suggested the existence of life after death. I’m one of those people for whom praying that God’s “will be done on Earth as it is in Heaven” means that we must do all in our power to realize in the material world what with our spirits we perceive as the way things should be. That means doing all we can to emancipate ourselves from coffers of stone, both physical and metaphysical.


Inferno Canto 4: How Low Can Ya Go?

By Pier Kooistra

To this Dante neophyte,* Inferno’s Canto IV is both a lark and a nightmare.

On the lark side, what fun to imagine sidling up, at a sort of netherworld cocktail party, to some of the superpeople—actually former persons, now shades—whom Dante encounters in Limbo. So long as the down-under visitor were well versed in ancient languages (and these shades convivial), s/he should be able to conjure up rich conversation. Even if the netherworld sojourner could only manage a little medieval Arabic and some classic Greek, how fascinating to be able to launch into tete-a-tete’s with openers like these:

-“A pleasure to meet you, Saladin. I’m curious: Having ruled over both Egypt and Syria, you at all surprised at the old U.A.R.’s having come apart, or would you have expected it to fracture? Whose regime do you think is worse—Mubarak’s or Assad’s? What would be your road map to Middle-East peace?”

-“Ptolemy. THE Claudius Ptolemy? Wow! Bad enough that you were relegated to this place. Cruel, on top (bottom?) of that, that you’ve been consigned to the historical margin of science. Have you had a chance to read Copernicus and Galileo? Whaddayathink? Hey, wait a second while I pull up something cool on my iPhone. Check out these nebulae as photographed by Hubble.”

-“A great privilege to meet you, Hippocrates. I can’t resist asking: If forced to choose just one, which of these technologies would you prefer to have at your disposal for doctoring—the simple blood-pressure cuff or arthroscopy? Why?”

But, on the dark side, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” These, of course, are the words of Martin King, penned in the Birmingham city jail, in Alabama, in April of 1963. They’re King’s words, but the idea has a long history. Moreover, it has lived long outside history, in innumerable hearts and minds whose flickerings and broodings have never been recorded. The consignment to Limbo of such luminaries as Ptolemy and Hippocrates, not to mention Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, and Euclid (all of whom Dante encounters in this canto), was a searing moral problem for many Renaissance Christians; they couldn’t help but react to this situation as an acute injustice.

As he enters the first circle of Hell and discovers the presence there of so many heroic contributors to human civilization, Dante is deeply troubled, especially when his guide, Virgil, acknowledges that the inmates of Limbo “did not sin” (Canto IV, l. 25). Their status is not a result of their having done anything wrong. The issue, Virgil continues, is that their “merit…can’t suffice without / Baptism” (ll. 25-6) to secure their entry into Heaven. “Knowing how many souls endured / Suspension in that Limbo” (ll. 34-5), Dante asks Virgil whether any have been released, and Virgil explains that, yes, Christ, “A Mighty One who descended here, arrayed / With a crown of victory…re-called / Back from this place the shade of our first parent [Adam], / And his son Abel, and other shades who dwelled / In Limbo” (ll. 42-6). These Christian forebears—including also Noah, Moses, Abraham, King David, Israel/Jacob, Rachel—have been saved. Virgil says of Christ’s intervention in Hell, “His / Coming here made them blessed, and rescued them” (ll. 50-1).

But to what degree have the souls in Limbo, in general, been rescued? Virgil is still there. Inasmuch as Dante’s pilgrimage through Hell begins in the year 1300 (on the day before Good Friday), and Virgil died in 19 BCE, the poet of the Aeneid and the Eclogues, for all his contributions to humanity (not to mention his taking care of Dante in this harrowing place), has wallowed in Limbo for thirteen centuries, so far. The duration of his punishment is perhaps numerologically apt; he is profoundly unfortunate. But it seems far from right. Though Dante is quite particular about telling us that the denizens of Limbo express only “shadowy sadnesses, not agonies” (l. 22) and, moreover, that the virtuous but un-Christian heroes there speak in “courtly voices” (l. 99, suggesting a courtly atmosphere) and inhabit a stately “enameled green” (l. 102), nonetheless these good and generally socially constructive people are kept apart, denied the fullest salvation, only because they “lived before the Christian faith, so that / They did not worship God aright” (ll. 29-30). Here we are in only the first circle of Hell. If fundamentally good people are suspended in Limbo, then it seems clear that we need to ask a question that the term Limbo (in one of its other iterations) suggests: HOW LOW CAN YA GO? No doubt, far lower. This really is gonna be Hell.

*(Regarding my participation in this little Inferno blogging group, I can’t resist saying what delighted amusement I felt, while reading Canto IV, in coming across lines 86-7: “I made a sixth / Amid such store of wisdom.” I don’t compare to my co-bloggers nearly as favorably as Dante does to Virgil, Homer, Horace, Ovid and Lucan, the ancient literati in whose company he finds himself in Limbo. My companions in this e-space far surpass me in erudition, insight and prior experience of this text, which I’m diving into for the first time. I cast a smaller shadow—and also less light. But what fun. With the line, “How low can ya go?” echoing in my mind’s ear, I find myself thinking happily, “Deeper. Just give me time.” Till next Saturday, and Canto X. –Pier)