Category Archives: Purgatory

Canto 26: Add To Our Burning Our Shame

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Canto XXV: There Are No Stupid Questions in Purgatory

There will be time, there will be time
To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet;
There will be time to murder and create,
And time for all the works and days of hands
That lift and drop a question on your plate; 30
Time for you and time for me,
And time yet for a hundred indecisions,
And for a hundred visions and revisions,
Before the taking of a toast and tea. 

– T. S. Eliot, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock

Yes indeedy, there will be time for all that. Or so we imagine as we spend our time, whose preciousness perhaps our pilgrim truly apprehends as he and Statius and the V-man whip around this cornice (following on XXIV:93, “It was an hour to climb without delay…”). And at the end of time, which gives substance in the remaining three dimensions to this flesh and its actions, this is what we find: the face unmasked.

Seems to me, that’s what this Canto is about: unmasking. Unmasking what is, through that divine and providential process (for Dante, scientific in his day) by which we come to know and see ourselves in our true seeming, and by which our true will is shown for what it is.

But first, let’s deal with the first few delightful lines of this Canto. A dense piece of cheesecake, methinks! OK, we’ve been dealing with gluttony here, n’est pas? As we’ve seen in the previous couple of Cantos, gluttony has to do, in a certain sense, with what we do with our mouths. We can fill our pie-holes with stuff we hope (in vain) will satisfy us. Or we can use them for both sustenance (in the right proportion)…and praise. We can also use them to ask. To seek. To know. (See line 19)

Throughout these last few Cantos, indeed throughout the whole DC, there’s a dialectic (and one that’s big for Dante to be sure) around the desire to know; a particular kind of appetite. For Dante, such desire is in a way akin to the glutton’s desire for food, the lust-driven for sex. What knowledge will really satisfy us? What is the purpose not only of hunger, but of that hunger of the mind called curiosity? What good is it to “know”? And I do mean to convey the whole range of meanings for that word…as in to “know” someone in the biblical sense. Because, check it out, there it is in line 128 (“I Know Not a Man” – the Whip of Lust). In that very specific sense, “knowing” serves the very most intimate purpose – both intimate and dangerous at the same time. But alas, I digress.

Dante wants to ask a question, because he’s curious. That Dante checks his appetite to know (i.e. to ask) is both a mark of his moral progress, still like a baby stork, that medieval symbol of new life. But it’s also a sign, I think, of his attempt at “continence” in his intellectual hunger. And tellingly – and typical of how things work as we keep getting closer and closer to heaven – Virgil picks up on the need of his companion, and invites him to ask about what he’s obviously bursting with. And thus to satisfy that sort of hunger. Clever indeed.

Apparently, little did Dante-the-pilgrim know that he’d be getting a lecture on the pre-reneassaince understanding of the birds and the bees. The process by which babies are made. But just to break it down for our purposes: this is a meditation, on the lips of Virgil and Statius, on how things are created, and more importantly, how they become what the are. As I alluded to in my blog entry last week – if we can join in the scientific naivete of our ancient compatriot, we might just find some spiritual wisdom for our time. (Just as the alchemists practiced bad science but good wisdom). Because, wheareas for Dante this Canto is all about science (in his time, a discipline in no way separate from theology), for us it’s a beautiful meditation on this very spiritual issue: how do we know ourselves for who we truly are?

The bottom line for Dante: death is the great unmasker. In death, again through the providential love and justice of the creator, we become who we truly are. Or perhaps more accurately (and surprisingly) we become who we will ourselves to be. In death, unfettered by the limitations of our flesh, our souls are free to take the form that reflects our true will.

I think Dante means for this Canto also to reflect us back to the very first shades we met, those residents of Inferno, as our Virgil, Dr. Ciardi, so aptly notes. As we learned in the first Canticle, the shades in hell desire to be there: their surroundings and form – and ironically their contrapasso – simply depict the true seeming of the essences and desires that governed them while still enskinned. And – again, so like the shades in this part of Purgatory are eager to move ahead, but for a very different reason – the shades headed for hell are eager to get there.

But here in purgatory, as Statius explains, there’s a twist. The will takes the form of its true seeming not for the sake of punishment, but for the sake of purgation. The purpose of unmasking the true appearance of a soul is for diagnosis, not to consign for (willful) self-punishment. And in Purgatory, the shades burning off their sins desire both heaven (the true essence of their desire) even as they experience the provisional desire for pain – which is experienced in a sort of odd sense as joy, since it is preparing them for a different kind of “seeming”.

I love this – abstract as it may be – for its “spiritual physics.” Dante, in the voice of Statius, speaks of God’s providential arrangement of the universe much like how physicists spoke of “ether” in the pre-relativity era: it’s the stuff in which stuff (matter, light, human souls) exist. God provides the substance that gives our souls (and more importantly, our wills) shape and form. It is the stuff onto which a “shade’s” form and sense is cast in the afterlife. And it’s there that, again, we are simply our essence.

Isn’t it interesting too, the specific example Dante is curious about: why are the gluttons…skinny…if in the afterlife “there is neither marriage or being given in marriage”; if in the afterlife, nobody needs to nourish the physical body? How interesting that just as those who struggle with anorexia perceive their true seeming as fat, those who are guilty of the sin of gluttony are seen in their true seeming: emaciated. Their sin springs from a (literal, in Dante’s case) self-image that is the opposite of the very-fleshy seeming in life: malnourished. Their downfall is the attempt to feed this need in the wrong way, to overcompensate for their lack.

What an irony: that in Dante’s version of the afterlife, we simply get what we want. And if we’re lucky, we have enough reason left – provided not by our own lights, but that great light that illumines the narrow path upward – we realize that the misguided desire that sidetracked us toward our truest destination is the very thing that wrecks us, and repairs us: all desires lead godward, ultimately.

And finally, how delicious that the only thing keeping someone in hell, or preventing them from getting to heaven, is our own desire; our own feeling of worthiness and freedom to deserve that destiny.

So, in that sense, maybe old T. S. had it right, and we can apply those words to purgatory too: it is the place and time to prepare a face for the faces that you’ll meet. Indeed.

[PS – I found a good website to use in reading the DC on the fly – much of the poetry preserved, but as prose… Check it out]


Gluttony Redux – Reflecting Through Pictures

GLUTTONS ARE US !

“Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be filled.”  (Matthew 5. 6)

Physical and spiritual appetites are normal to healthy human beings. Yet neither the body nor the soul is self-sustaining.

Both must be fed regularly

.

BUT !!

Of course,  in canto 24, on the Terrace of the Gluttons, we are faced with the theme of misguided  love once more.


Dante is reminded of this over & over  again.

GLUTTONY   

“Dante’s Theory of Everything”Dante’s view of what’s wrong with the world and how to fix it.

“Christians are not perfect,  just forgiven.”


The Beatitudes

The Beatitudes play an integral part in explaining these

wrongs, the many aspects of the seven deadly sins.

They are our sickness; the Beatitudes are its cure.

As Dante moves upward, the Angel of   Temperance,  removes his 5th P,

while singing a new version of the Fourth Beatitude:

“Beati qui esuriunt et sitiunt iustitiam ”  –

“Blessed are they whom grace

Enlightens so, the love of taste enkindles

No overindulgent longings in their breasts,

“Hungering always only after justice!”

But, THE DANCE GOES ON, and on, and on

 


“I am here to speak for all generations to come. I am here to speak on behalf of starving children around the world whose cries go unheard.

Even when we have more than enough, we are afraid to share. We are afraid to let go of some of our wealth. Two days ago here in Brazil, we were shocked when we spent some time with children living in the streets. This is what one child told us:

‘I wish I was rich. And if I were, I would give all the street children food, clothes, medicine, shelter, love and affection.’

If child on the streets who has nothing is willing to share – why are we, who have everything, still so greedy?

How much has been changed since Severn spoke that day?

As Gandhi said many years ago, ‘We must become the change we want to see.’ I know change is possible.”

Address to the Plenary Session, Earth Summit, Rio Centro, Brazil 1992″ by Severn Suzuki, age 12.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

And this second tree is only an offshoot of the true “Tree of Knowlege of Good and Evil!”
THINK ABOUT IT!!

And a small child shall lead them.



Canto XXIII: A Notebook

A tree-high thought tuned to light’s pitch (Celan).  The poet begins scanning the leafy branches, but there are no birds in Purgatory.  (Thank God, all we need is another bird poem).  What does the poet hunger for?  He wants to peer through to find out where the voices are coming from.  He is always reaching for the tree-high thought: he’s no ground-picker, no forager intent on filling his basket. 

What does it mean to be a poet in the land of the gluttons?  There’s a story here, in this canto, perhaps, about the poet in the age of information gluttony.  As information becomes less and less nutritious, and more and more conducive to an empty obesity of trivia, the poet must grapple for the tree-high thought, the scent of the apple and pure droplet of dew.  (He must be content with the wheel-barrow, and its redness, its glaze, and not clog it with dirt.)

Is there such a thing as gluttonous poetry?  I’m drawn more and more these days to a more minimalist poetry, one that avoids volubility, that doesn’t brim the margins with chatter.  I want a poetry like the emaciated faces of the gluttons, the skin of feeling taut on the bone of language.  I want to the see the OMO (the homo, the person), the divinely carved glyph in every visage (31-33).

The poet changes register in this canto something like three times, I’ve read.  He begins with the more colloquial medium style (dominant in Purgatory), a language for establishing friendship and trust; Forese, the poet’s friend we encounter here, speaks in a more chummy low style to the pilgrim, using diminutives for his wife Nella and a lot of possessives; and lastly the poet employs his high ‘expressionistic’ style, harkening back to the inferno, as he describes the skeletal and scabrous gluttons.  Some of the best literature is the best literature because of its ability to employ a higher style while describing the most horrific or unusual things, and also the most common.  One goes to poetry because he or she is nauseous with sound bites and status updates. 

The poet does not fatten on bag-of-chips knowledge (though he really loves a bag of kettle-cooked mesquite).  He reaches for the scent of the apple and the spray of water.  Even if, no, because that food is unreachable.  The tree is not climbable.   The branches widen at the peak not the base. 

Today, with so much available at the fingertip, the poet goes thin for the tree-high thought.


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


How long, O Lord? Canto 21

According to Plato, we are erotic beings (from the Greek word eros, meaning desire). We are beings who are insufficient in and of ourselves. We are hungry for things outside of ourselves: the world, one another, beauty, God. We are open to and dependent upon these objects of desire for the the sustenance of our lives. We can understand much about our lives and what makes the world go around by thinking in terms of desire and the varied attempts to satisfy desire. For Plato and for the Bible, all of our desires are interrelated and they find their proper coordination when we are oriented toward the ultimate object of human desire: God. When our deepest desire is for God, all other desires fall into their proper place.

Things go badly awry, however, when our deepest desire is for something other than the Highest Good (Summum Bonum or God). Disordered desire is problematic, catastrophic even, in terms of the object of desire and the process of desire. When our deepest desire becomes some part of the created order, we inevitably fall headlong into chaos, brokenness, and despair. Looking for love in all the wrong places always has tragic consequences. Even the process of desire becomes distorted and diseased. Such is the fate of us all.

Canto 21 opens by invoking the story of Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well in the fourth chapter of John’s Gospel. The Samaritan woman provides an exemplar of disordered desire and its painful consequences as well as the healing and fulfillment of right desire. Having several husbands and living with a partner outside of the bounds of marriage is only a symptom of a much deeper erotic disease. Jesus, the master physician of the soul, begins with a discussion of the presenting symptoms. An avoidance or deflection move on the part of the woman points to the deeper cause of her disease. Her desire for God has been displaced…and she knows it when in the presence of Jesus. Rather than scolding her for her sexual morals, Jesus addresses the root cause of her deep spiritual disorder and offers a cure: making the Lord the object of her highest desire. This move transforms the woman and she runs to tell others and to invite them to come to the great Physician.

One wonders how long this woman lived in a state of internal disorder arising from diseased desire. Multiple marriages and a current relationship are mentioned. Fifteen, twenty, thirty years? It is not entirely clear, but it does seem like a big chunk of this woman’s life. St. Augustine in his spiritual autobiography, The Confessions, recounts decades of his life lived in the living hell of disordered desire. We can readily see examples of people we know who lived for years, decades, even a whole lifetime subject to the chaos and pain that comes with disordered desire. If we demythologize Dante’s Purgatorio a bit, it might be possible to imagine that Dante is asking a similar question. Statius, the great poet of Rome’s “silver age”, tells Dante and Virgil that he has been in this level of purgatory for 500 years. That is a very long time to suffer before something clicks and he is able to move forward and to ascend to blessedness. Many of us dwell in the living hell of disordered desire with all of its wretched consequences for what seems like centuries. At some point, though, many of us “come to ourselves” like the younger of the two prodigal sons (Luke 15) and reorient our desires toward the one thing that can truly satisfy our deepest desire as human beings: God.

During this Lenten season, Dante lifts up before us the woman at the well and Statius. He seems to ask us about our desires. He invites us to reflect deeply in order to determine that which is our highest desire. He invites us to repent and to make “the main thing” the main thing.

Gordon S. Mikoski

Princeton Theological Seminary

 


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 . . .