Monday, August 30, 2010

Reading the Classics with Paul- Inferno- Part III

This is the first book in this series where I've had no problem keeping up with the reading, but great difficulty writing about it.  There are a few reasons for that.  The practical one is full-time employment, which is a great blessing.  The other is the material.  It is an excellent piece of writing, but it's also difficult, problematic for me, and has inspired probably the most leveled reaction in me of any book so far in this series.  I imagine the major life upheavals of the past month probably has more than a little to do with that.

So, I am thinking this week, sitting here at 1:45 am on Sunday, I may limit myself to a few comments and save my more in depth reaction for next week's conclusion.

We start this week in the Hell pouches of Level 8.  Virgil makes an admonishment.  His admonishment is against the compassion that Dante is expressing toward the damned as it is God's justice and it is complete.   I've been gnawing on that passage all week trying to come to some conclusion on it.  I think what I've come up with is that even if what Virgil said was true, it would not apply to Dante as Dante was still alive and the living are called to compassion toward the suffering of others.  It's been established thus far in the text that what is natural for the Infernal populace is not natural for the living.  Dante the writer's feeling on the matter is obscured by Virgil's comments, but that's the conclusion I find myself coming to.

So, it seems that the employment of a specific descriptive scatological term in this translation was not an isolated incident.  I imagine it's a fairly universal source of revulsion for humans and not difficult to associate with Hell.  There is also the legs sticking out of the fire pits, including a pope.  There are the people with backwards faces including the detail of their tears rolling down between their buttocks.  Of course, all of these have something to do with the specific key sin of the Damned. 

The convoy of demons reminded me of some half-remembered scene from Tolkien (indeed, Tolkien was most likely well acquainted with the piece.)  In fact, I almost started to expect something comical (especially with their absurd names) until they proceeded to behave genuinely horribly.  I would point out that this is another "foot" of the poem, much like the bit with the centaurs, in which the narrative departs from the strict structure of "going to a level of Hell, seeing how the people are suffering, talking politics with the Damned."   

Also, I would note that we're not seeing the mythological figures from the ancient Greek in these lower levels (except for the bit at the end of this week's reading with our old friend Ulysses who didn't fare so well in the afterlife.)  We see Caiphas.  We see the worms that do not die: snakes in fact.

Next week (which is now this week.  I apologize, but I have a new schedule and, in my defense, was called into work on my day off) we will finish Inferno

Monday, August 23, 2010

Time Enough At Last

If you are a reader, you've no doubt heard a reaction from someone in idle conversation which I would like to discuss.  It's one that I have heard dozens of times from various people.  It's a phrase you've no doubt encountered so let's say it together: "I don't have time to read."

Of course you want to read, you want to fill your head with greatness, you know what my Auntie Mame used to say, "Life is a banquet, and most poor suckers are starving to death."  You don't want to be a poor sucker and sometimes, in the grip of a fever or midway through a fitful night's sleep, the stark terror catches up with you that you may leave this mortal coil without having read Don Quixote.  But what do you do?  You have three full time jobs and eighteen kids?  Why are you even in bed in the first place?

Worse, you are acutely aware of the kind of crap your head is filling with against your will.  You haven't read Shakespeare since high school, but you somehow know you've probably heard I Want To Know What Love Is by Foreigner about 7,000 times in your life and you hate that song!  You are right to hate that song.  You want to fill your brain with greatness in hopes that greatness is what will come back out, but you are constantly assaulted with the din of Sturgeon's Law.

I am here to help.

I thought it might be fun and helpful to compile a short list of a few simple ways one could move toward cultivating a lifestyle of reading and bettering one's self in this hectic modern world.  Off we go:

1. Become the Captain of Your Own Consciousness:  We see or hear, on average, upwards of 3,000 advertisements per day.  This is what is collecting in our unconscious.  This is the modern urban dilemma.  In fact, it's not even a particularly novel observation on my part.
 "I hate television. I hate it as much as peanuts. But I can't stop eating peanuts." -Orson Welles
I'm not going to tell people to kill their televisions (although I would strongly advise it.  The danged thing is used by broadcasters as nothing more than a vehicle for advertisements.  And don't tell me you don't get commercials because you watch cable shows!  Don Draper drives a what?  What kind of a laptop does Carrie have?)  Personally, I don't watch television, but I probably spend way too much time on the internet.  It's a bad habit that I am working on amending.  Much as a personal trainer would tell you for different ends, those are "sometimes foods."  Books are your "5 a day."  Engage with the world and gather ye rosebuds while ye may.  I know from personal experience that things have a way of creeping up on one and sometimes one doesn't even notice why one's time disappears so quickly unless one starts looking for the culprit.  Very often, it's 30 minutes here and there parking oneself in front of a lighted screen projecting things that one isn't even particularly enjoying.  What we do each day is what our lives become.  Identify and exterminate the Time Bandits.  Hand in hand with this:

2.  Alternative Book Sources Are Entirely Valid:  Don't let anyone tell you otherwise.  I've just had a epiphany about my new commute which adds up to nearly an hour a day.  This is entirely redeemable time which I could fill with audio books and lectures of which there are vast resources of free material online.  Books are a human way of communicating with one another and a good deal of human writing (stories, poetry, certainly plays) were composed for the tongue and are meant to be heard!  I kept telling Gina when she was struggling with reading Hamlet for a class last year, "Go rent a film version.  It's a play.  You're supposed to see it!"  Here's a good place to start poking around for audio books.  I even have some pieces available of me reading aloud that you can download.  I'll have more soon.

3. Take a Book With You Everywhere: Seriously, this is key.  When people ask me how I find time to read, this is the answer.  It doesn't really take much more than this.  I am rarely without a book.  If they made an action figure of me, it would have a book (possibly not detachable from the figure's hand.)  I actually have a practical lesson in reference to this point which happened to me this past Friday.  On Friday, Laurie and I had to drop by the post office and then pick up a pair of pants we had ordered at Gates Resale (yes, folks, that's Gates Resale, for all of your heavy duty clothing needs!)  I figured we'd be back in 20 and I would be chattering away with Laurie the whole time as I am wont to do.  It was a rare moment when I left the house without a book.  So, we got the post office and the line was all the way into the next building.  I suggested to Laurie that she go pick up the pants while I waited in order to save time.  Then I waited in line alone, staring at the back of the person's head in front of me, for about half an hour.  Do you realize how much reading I can get done in half an hour?!!?  And it really adds up.  You may take a whole trip away from your house without cracking the book once, but don't worry about that.  Five minutes in the car while your spouse goes in to refill her soda, 20 minutes at the DMV, your lunch break at work, and suddenly you'll find yourself with a different title to report for each week's #fridayreads.  Charles Eliot, when he first talked about the concept of the Harvard Classics Library Five Foot Shelf of Books, claimed that one could gain a Harvard level education in the time it takes to gain an actual Harvard education simply by reading from that collection for 15 minutes each day.  An ocean is made up of many single drops.

4. Caffeinate:  There is a reason books and readers are associated with coffee and tea.  I had this exact experience this afternoon.  When at leisure to sit with a good book, one seeks out a comfortable place.  Oftentimes it's a very comfortable chair or bed.  This oftentimes leads to waking up an hour later with your book on your chest.

5. Know Thyself:  First and foremost, read what you like.  It will likely open doors to more interests and more authors to seek out.  I do encourage everyone to read the classics.  There are good reasons why they endure as classics and I assure you that they are quite good.  Much like how a wise person tries to seek out the company of people wiser than themselves, it's always good to be seeking to better yourself.  Ad astra per aspera.  Books can change your life and help you to become a better person.  In the past two months, I've read the Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin and The Journal of John Woolman, both of which I can tell you already have aided me in striving to become a better man and will most likely end up being two of the more important books I've ever read.

However, if the book you are reading is torture or boring, I hereby write you a permission slip to stop reading it and go find something you like instead.  Maybe you'll find yourself coming back to it and enjoying it in a decade or so.  Or maybe you've discovered that, in spite of what you've heard, you really don't ever need to get all the way through Finnegan's Wake or Infinite Jest or Heidegger. 

So, there you go.  Hopefully this wasn't too pompous of a post and perhaps this may actually be helpful to someone out there somewhere.


Saturday, August 21, 2010

Reading the Classics with Paul- Inferno part II

My new schedule has me driving home in the wee hours of the morning, usually hitting Chico, in what locals refer to as the "Collegetown" section, at about 3:20-3:40 am (which, if you can do it, is a fine way to beat traffic on your commute.)  If you're struggling with the math, let me help you: bars close at 2 am, it is college town, last night was Friday.  As I drove through the throngs of way too many young people who forgot to not be drunken out on the streets at that hour of the morning, it struck me how so often I've found that people who think they are having a great time look so miserable and act so cold.  There it was laid out before me like Hell in its early years (due to the sparse population which I'm sure has long since exploded): there is gluttony and intemperance walking next to lust, on their way to lower levels which very well may include treachery.  It's a bit more like C.S. Lewis' version of the lugubrious regions in his amazing book The Great Divorce, which is filled with a very human unpleasantness and a very human unwillingness to even brush up against anything good or healthy.

This has more than a little to do with my recent obsession with virtue. It's been observed for literal millennia by men much wiser than I that having an entire world of people looking at said world through glasses forged from their own self-gratification 1) makes every individual miserable and cold and 2) is an entirely unsustainable world.  I know I'm waxing moralistic here, but I really do think that people ought to share, help one another, act out of compassion and, as I highlighted in my previous post, in the "public interest."  Also, as I've highlighted before, it is my belief that humans could, COULD decide to do all of that and create a Utopia.  It is entirely within our power.  But we don't and we won't.  Which brings us back to the theological implications of this piece.

Now, I will be the first to admit that what I've just written is decidedly me interacting with the work from my position in space-time.  I don't think there is anything wrong with that at all.  I think that we ought to interact with the things we read.  Surprisingly, this has been a very illuminating, challenging, and, in some ways, helpful book to be reading in the course of about a month when I've observed more suffering and experienced more uncertainty than I've ever experienced in my life.
I've been struck, in reading this, how much of Dante (and Milton, et al.  Which is why everyone everywhere should read the Bible, Milton and Dante) has seeped into the Christian religion.  I have encountered a lot of people in my life who I am fairly certain are not aware how much of their view of the afterlife actually comes from Dante.  I've been further struck, in reading this, that I have grave doubts as to how literally Dante meant for us to take the work.  It seems fairly overt in my reading that this (as well as The Great Divorce for that matter) is mainly social commentary and reflections and observations on existence from a particular point of view.  I don't think Dante (or Lewis) sat down and said to themselves, "Self, I will now write exactly what the afterlife is like with maps included."  I'm not sure I could appreciate it if that were the case.  I have nothing but distrust for anyone who claims to know doodley-squat about what the afterlife is really like.  I would also point out that if we are confining our conversation to Christian theology, the most (and only, I think,) references to what Hell will be like for specific individuals is for those who didn't think they were going there, those who cried out "Lord! Lord!"  The religious hypocrites.  I should probably add that I also have nothing but distrust for anyone who claims to be comfortable with a belief in Hell.  No one should be comfortable with that.

Through my reflections on this material, I've come to two conclusions which I think Dante would probably give a hearty "benissimo" to, both of which I think apply more toward life on Earth, although with eyes toward the condition of our immortal souls.  One is the hellish conditions we create in behaving entirely self-focused (which I think you will find is the distilled essence of each sin described by Dante.)  The other is that things also just suck sometimes.  Bad things happen to "good" people.  The latter would be recognized by Dante and other Christian theologians as a condition of The Fall.  The former would as well, being our natural sinful inclination.  In short, things do often suck on their own, and we spend a lot of effort inflaming that condition whether or not we mean to.  I would add that in my experience this is not esoteric theology, but the highly observable state of human existence.

I've already gone on a bit longer than usual, so I have just a few points on the text I feel I must touch upon.  First of all, Virgil gets a little snippy with Dante over points of ethics.  Which I thought was cute in a way.  Here they are in Hell and that's what he feels compelled to get snippy over.  I think it reveals something of the character of both characters.  Don't mess with ethics.  By the way, I do have the non-fictional Virgil's work slated for sometime next year, so stay tuned for that.

Another thing possibly worth noting, although Dante was decidedly Christian in his theology, includes so many nods to the ancients.  People used to soak in the ancients, seeking out their wisdom to build upon.  So, here we find centaurs, harpies, and minotaurs roaming about Hell.  This is because of Dante's education and interests.  If he'd come about 400+ years later, his Hell might have Falstaff and Macbeth walking around with Ariel.

In the Carson text, he uses a contemporary scatological term at one point in this week's reading ("male bovine defecation.")  I assume from what I've read of and by Carson that he is earnestly trying to stay true to the spirit of the original.  It at once indicates that it the best possible, in its accessibility, version to be taught in a public high school while simultaneously assures that it never will be.  The problem is systemic.

I think the tree people will undoubtedly be one of the scenes that I will forever remember from this book.  Virgil eggs Dante into breaking off one of the branches and hearing the screams of pain and seeing the blood pour from the tree.  It's Minos' garden of suicide.  There's your name for your death-rock band.  You're welcome.  There were a lot of striking images this week.  Sodomites with fire eternally raining down on them like, you know, Sodom. Geryon.  Etc.

Okay, we ran a little long this week.  Next week, we shall read through Canto 26 (XVI.)

Friday, August 20, 2010

Angel is a Centerfold: An Infernal Walkthrough

 The famous scene when Dante loses his compassion for the Damned and starts pummeling them.

So, I'm doing our reading group on Dante's Inferno and, as usual, for the sake of a visual element when I write about the week's reading, I seek out images to go with my posts.  I usually try to go with public domain images which, as most of you know, usually fall in line with my sensibilities anyway as "public domain" in this case usually means visual art excellent enough to have endured the passage of time.  In the searches for this text, however, I grow increasingly depressed to find that at present about 95% of images associated with Dante's Inferno have to do with a video game.  And not just any video game.

I looked up information on the game (so you don't have to.)  The Dante's Inferno video game reminds me very much of an experimental music project I once did of "covering" songs I'd never heard before and had only had described to me in the vaguest of terms.  The cream was a "cover" of One Tin Soldier, my version mainly being about a tin soldier walking into a time vortex controlled by actor Red Buttons while desperately trying to ride off into the sun which was a giant glowing face of Jonathan Winters.  The main difference being, now that I've heard it, I still think mine was better than the original One Tin Soldier.

The video game does seem to have a main character named Dante travelling through Hell, a character named Virgil, a character named Beatrice, and a few other similarities like Cerberus and some of the other important figures in the Infernal regions.  The similarities to the original seem to end there.  It's a game about a guy who died in the Crusades of all things, who goes through Hell fighting Hell-Critters to try to get his love Beatrice away from Satan or some such nonsense.  It does get much worse.  The behavior of the creators of the game in interviews and at Conventions suggest they are very likely better acquainted with gross out films and cartoons about children who swear than they are with classical literature.

In the interest of full disclosure, I have not played the game and have no intention of ever seeking it out.  As I mentioned, I gained the information I require to judge the merits of the game through word of mouth by those who have played it, but also through the self-damning words of the game's creators. Loath as I am to give more of a platform to this sort of thing, it occurs to me that some readers may think I am overstating or succumbing to some Puritanical/Classicist squeamishness.  I am not.  I almost linked to a rather graphic (as it were) example from the video game, but decided against it.  If anyone is adamant that I produce the corpse, I will, but otherwise please, for the sake of maintaining some decorum, believe me when I say that the creators of the game have taken great pains to disrespect the piece.

Trying to fit the theme into the box of a "fighting things" video game yields a legion of websites discussing the video game and, to the great revulsion to classicists everywhere, seriously bandying around phrases like this one in discussing how one might best play the game:
"Following the Holy path is the way to create a character who is far more defensible and able to survive. He attains two spells that will aid him on this route: Divine Armor and Martyrdom."
The game is to the actual Inferno by Dante Alighieri what toga parties are to ancient Roman civilization.  It is like going to the National Treasure movies for American History.  Part of what's so unfortunate about it is that the idea of a visualization of the source material could very well sound like a good idea if it were, you know, a skillful and accurate representation of the source material.  

Now, I do want to make myself clear.  I am not making some turgid "purity in art" argument (at least, not at the moment.)  I think that video games could probably be high art (I wouldn't know.  More on that in a moment.)  Nor am I saying that great art can't be made of other things.  Great art can be made out of pre-existing art or entertainment which far surpasses the source material in aspiration and quality.  Just yesterday, I stumbled upon this wonderful, beautiful ambient piece created simply by slowing a Justin Bieber song down to 8 times slower than its original speed.  And, of course, I'm not making an argument that we can't make great new art out of other great art and I'm certainly not saying we shouldn't communicate with the arts we experience.  There are many many examples of great art being created out of existing, well known art.  A few examples: O Brother, Where Art Thou, jazz, almost every play by Shakespeare, a great deal of opera, John Gardner's Grendel, the sort of thing Neil Gaiman writes, the bulk of Warhol's work, and the list goes on and on.  The Dante's Inferno video game has nothing to do with any of this.

Laurie and I were talking about rhetoric this afternoon and how it was viewed as a bad thing by Plato.  Now we know it is a useful tool and, indeed, something every writer (or even every communicator, which is just about everyone) needs to employ.  Of course, we can find many examples of rhetoric being used to wicked purposes or toward disingenuous ends.  Rhetoric in and of itself is neutral.  I believe that most formats and/or tools are.  I don't think the tools are wicked, but so often we find that those who wield them are.  I would refer you to Newton Minnow's wonderful "Television is a Vast Wasteland" Speech, delivered to the National Association of Broadcasters in 1961, and a speech which had a tremendous influence on me.  If you've never heard it before, you should.

I remember when Twitter first began, so often I would hear people talk about how Twitter was so vapid.  Soon after getting my own Twitter account, my mother went into the emergency room (and was, in fact, instructed at one point to say her goodbyes.)  I was able to keep everyone I knew updated instantly (as well as giving me something positive to do and tethering me to a large world outside of an ER and then ICU waiting room.)  I realized that Twitter is not vapid in and of itself.  Certainly there are some (occasionally me I'm sure) who use the tool to vapid ends, but the form is innocent of bad qualities.  I would suspect that the same is true of video games. 

I say all of this to say that I know very little about video games and I know that snobbish types like me tend to save up their most powerful snorts for the subject of video games.  I do not have that strong of an opinion on the medium itself.  As I mentioned above, this is not a direct critique of the video game itself, this is merely the thoughts of a Classicist on the existence of the Dante's Inferno video game as it exists.  I have never owned an entertainment gaming system (my folks did provide us with educational ones when we were children.  I can't tell you how many times in my life I've watched a pixelated covered wagon fail to successfully ford a river) and I currently have no video games installed on my computer.  It's not a qualitative judgment on my part.  It's just not a habit I've ever cultivated and I should infinitely prefer a book.  I do see examples of stunningly beautiful games (I'll even go so far as to say the Dante's Inferno game screen caps I've uncovered are striking, but I'm probably not the best judge.  Having no coding skill and little experience with high end video game graphics, I'm easily impressed.)  I also know the arguments that video games boost dexterity, strategy, and brain function.  They engage the player in their free time much more than, say, television does, by having them interact with their entertainment.  In doing so, they may even be one of the more creative entertainment outlets.

I'm not here to sing the praises of or deliver indictments towards video games.  I think taking the hard line on either of those points of view fails to fully grasp the many aspects of the issue.  I think what I really come down to is that a video game of Dante's Inferno could have been a really great work if it had been properly executed. 

Why are we making this?  Dante Alighieri wrote his Divine Comedy to explore theological concepts, make social and political commentary, to talk about existence and, yes, on one level to offer some comfort over morality (which becomes evident in the final installment of the Divine Comedy.)  Sometimes a person creates a work because they have something to say, sometimes because they just want to tell a story or evoke an emotion or make the world a more beautiful place (or, on the opposite side, to illustrate some of the uglier sides of existence.)  The creators of this video game, somewhat by their own admission and somewhat by way of accusations leveled by people who understand video games far better than I do, made the game: 1) to make some really gross images, 2) shock people with the use of a great work of art in this manner, and 3) apparently try to cash in on the raging success of a similar video game called God of War (which everyone I've read who is in the know in the video game world seems to instantly recognize this.  I assume the similarities are fairly obvious and crass.)  Those last two are key.  It would seem that there was a much more popular game based on Greek mythology and with such a brazen and over-hyped adaptation of Inferno they may have succeeded in cashing in on some of the success of that other game.  And they would have gotten away with it if it weren't for you pesky kids.

So, in short, I am saying the issue is a two-pronged pitchfork.  Put simply, the game creators exhibit almost no respect for the original material and, even worse, they fail to make something beautiful/amazing/important on its own.  And then they hype it and slap a $40 price tag on it.

It is my belief that just because humans can do something doesn't necessarily mean that we should.  But ultimately, this brings me back to a point I often find myself faced with.  At every step, we have choice as individuals and, collectively, as a society.  We could seek to do good, work together, treat one another as equals, make sure no one lacks anything, love one another, eradicate loneliness, end war forever, as Newton Minnow says, work toward the "public interest," and so forth.  But we don't.  Faced with cotton candy or a nourishing meal, we take the cotton candy.  Although I do find hope in the financial failure of the Dante's Inferno video game.  I guess I've not abandoned all hope after all. 

We can also take a stand with our economic vote and simply not buy crap which sends a message that vendors would do well to not offer crap if they want to keep making money.

I think that, in spite of the title of this game, an actual video game version of Dante's Divine Comedy has yet to be made.  It is my earnest hope that no one ever takes steps of remedy that void.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Rob's Memorial Service

So, as you have probably already gathered, Laurie and I went down to Huntington Beach this past weekend for the memorial service for my friend Rob. It was a long and exhausting trip both physically and emotionally.  It was an extremely difficult weekend for me.  Here are a few photos from the event.

As per his wishes, they had a Dixieland funeral procession starting at the park and down the street to his parent's house.  The large group in attendance represented a good portion of my young life in some way or another, some of whom are still dear friends, many of whom I hadn't seen in about 15 years, and all of whom I have deeply rooted love for.

No, I'm not alright.  I am not handling it well.  But I'm not entirely sure I should be at this point.  He was one of the major figures in my life and now he is gone.  In a life where friends are at a high premium, any loss is tremendous.  The loss of Rob from my life was devastating beyond words.

But it was a privilege to know Rob.  I'm richer for having had him as part of my life, and much poorer in his absence.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Reading the Classics with Paul- Inferno Part 1

When approaching Dante's Divine Comedy, we do tend to think of the theology first (at least, once we get past the grotesque and, as it were, inflammatory imagery.)  On one level it is a tour of the highly-structured, what we would now refer to as Catholic, afterlife.  On another level, however (and I venutre a guess all who read along have caught this by this point), it is a highly personal and political work.  One could evaluate it as social commentary or possibly even personal vendetta at some points.  If I'd had my wits more about me last week, I would have stressed to everyone to be sure to get a copy with good and plenty notes.  There is a lot of material which time has obscured immediate understanding, although I contend that one can still gain quite a bit from the work without a working knowledge of 13th Century Italian politics.

I have a modest example from the 3rd Canto which I've been discussing with Laurie all afternoon.  I went and picked up the Princeton University Press 700 page commentary on Inferno in The Divine Comedy series by Charles S. Singleton (highly recommended and can be found a bit cheaper through online used book sources.)  Lines 58-60 read:
"Faces I knew among that company;
especially that one whose coward conscience
led him to refuse his sacred duty;"
Were I reading without the benefit of the commentary, I would probably simply have contented myself that Dante knew someone, or of someone at least, who, in an act of cowardice, didn't do something he was supposed to in something probably regarding religion.  It seems like kind of a throw-away line especially as Hell seems to be heavily populated even in those days.

Oh, but the actual story is quite remarkable.  For those of you who don't remember your papal history, Celestine V was a monastic and a bit of a hermit who founded the monastic order called The Celestines, which was a rather ascetic branch of monastics, often noted for a great deal of fasting.  Celestine was a very old man and, by most accounts, a very pious one.  Enter Benedetto Caetani of Anagni.  Caetani wanted to be pope.  He went to Pope Celestine and convinced him to decree that a pope may renounce the papacy if he felt it necessary "for the welfare of his soul."  Caetani mentioned Clement who, in Catholic history, refused the apostolic succession from St. Peter himself "for the welfare of his own soul."

Here's where it gets interesting.  Dante, as well as others, believed there was a secret side to the rest of the story, possibly through gossip or smear campaigns or eyewitness accounts.  Dante was one who believed that Caetani then bribed the attendants surrounding Pope Celestine.  He snuck into the Pope's bedroom and hid under his bed with a tube to amplify his voice.  When the Pope came in to sleep for three nights in a row, Caetani said "I am the angel sent to speak with you, and I command you, in the name of glorious God, to renounce the papacy immediately, and return to being a hermit."  Which Celestine did and Caetani was elected Pope.  He took the name of Boniface VIII and then promptly ordered Celestine confined to a monastic cell for the remainder of his life.  About 20 years later, the Church canonized Celestine as St. Peter Celestine.  But, get this, Dante's indictment in that quote is against Celestine for abdicating (although Boniface VIII also appears later.  While Boniface VIII is still remembered as one of the "bad Popes", current history tends to be much kinder to Celestine V than Dante was.)  Also, don't miss this, all of that story is unpacking three lines of the 250 page poem.

So there are definitely a few ways one could choose to read Inferno.  There is A LOT to unpack in this piece and I imagine we will shave enough ice off the tip of the iceberg for a snow cone in this series (or, perhaps more accurately, we have a snowball's chance in Hell to fully explore this piece in the course of four short blog entries.)  There is the highly topical way (I'm surprised none of our contemporary political commentators have picked up this format.  It seems right up their alley to me), the highly theological way, and also the way of the rip-roaring good story (although with the latter I'm not sure what you would do with all of the topical material aside from disregarding it outright.)   I don't intend to neglect the former completely, but I shall do my best to limit my "geeking out" on Dante for the sake of not aliening my audience.

We begin straddling the line between realism and metaphor, in that marvelous Medieval style, as Dante experiences one of the most dramatic mid-life crises in recorded history.  Skirting beasties, he runs into Virgil, the long dead Roman poet (whose works I think I'm scheduled to hit on this blog sometime early next year.)  Virgil agrees to act as Dante's guide up the hill by way of Hell and Purgatory.  Virgil sets up the love story relating how Beatrice came to Virgil and told him to keep an eye on Dante.

Both times I've read this piece I've thought that Limbo didn't actually sound all that bad, at least if you were one of the virtuous pagans.  It's kind of like sleeping in a park in a crummy part of town for eternity.  On top of that, the great classical poets (all of whom Dante just happens to be a rabid fan of) reside in this area.  The message is fairly clear: even Dante has a hard time with the concept of the pagans he really likes personally actually being tormented for all eternity.  Also here are unbaptized babies.  Also, this is where the Fathers of the Faith hung out until Jesus came to get them.  That would have been when Virgil was less than 100 years dead and, at the point of the story, almost 1300 years ago. 

We then pass a lot of souls in eternal torment and reach our first of Hell's residents/employees (as opposed to Hell's clients) who is Charon the boatman (or one of them anyway.)  Charon says "Hey, we don't serve your kind in here!"  Virgil talks Charon down, but also nudges Dante on the boat ride and says "That's good news for you!  He was reluctant because he usually only ferries damned souls!"  Dante chooses to curb his excitement over this news for the present given the circumstances.

Second Circle: we meet Minos who also needs to have Dante's presence explained to him.  We see the Lustful in a rather graphic description of their area of torment (really, the descriptive qualities and the bold imagination in the narrative are peerless in works of this period.  This truly is a masterpiece in the history of literature.)  Dante meets a girl who got a little carried away reading about Sir Lancelot with her brother-in-law and ended up transgressing her way into that circle.

Third Circle: the Gluttonous and Cerberus.  Virgil throws mud in the dog's mouth which it is content to eat and let them pass (That works on my dog, Schubert, as well.)  We meet another of Dante's contemporaries who sits up in a rather grotesque field of prone gluttons to speak with them.  Dante rather oddly asks the damned soul for political analysis.

Fourth Circle: Plutus spouts gibberish (apparently the Bosses are at the beginning of each level in this game.  BTW, I'm sure you'll get to see me spit and sputter over the travesty that is the recent Dante's Inferno video game sometime in the near future.  Stay tuned for that.)  Dante witnesses a rather stinging indictment against the greedy in a form of damnation that I cannot be alone in thinking resembled the floor of the New York Stock Exchange.  For our "Nothing New Under The Sun" file, most of these are clergy although we don't get a good look at their faces.  They are "given over" and, in this case, the sin itself is pretty much the punishment.  Virgil gives a rather hopeless economic theory and we forge ahead.

Cue "Come Sail Away" because we're at the River Styx. This is where the angry hang out and mosh eternally (which sounds like Hell to me!)  Phlegyas takes our heroes across in his boat.  Dante has words with a damned soul he knew.  Virgil has words with demons and they refuse to cooperate with their mission from God (or, at least, Beatrice.)  Virgil is a little crestfallen, but knows that they have to relent sooner or later.

And this is where we find ourselves at the end of this week's reading.  The tour isn't going well at the moment.  I think this next week we will read through Canto XVII.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Weary of Time

Like a metaphor from a short story taught in high school literature class, sunflowers are growing in our basil patch that we don't really remember having planted.  Our unexpected sunflowers are beautiful.  The one above is at its peak and bees find it highly attractive.  We think maybe we planted them when Tony brought home the plants from his Ag class, which means they were dormant for over a year.  When they fade, we plan on harvesting the seeds and planting as many as we can around the perimeter of our property.

One of the big pieces of news in my life is that my 400 day weekend is drawing to a close.  Next week I begin work again.

Gina got a chihuahua.  She's named him Lil' Chompy which, I am told, is short for his full name: Gnome Chompsky (which is doubly funny because Gina is a Linguistics major.)  Last night they brought him over to meet us.

That's about all I have to report for now or, at least, all I want to report.  It's been a very rough week for me, but there are certainly some bright patches.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Plato's Apology

Plato's Apology is a short piece which is Plato's account of Socrates' defense during his trial and execution.  As is so often the case with Plato, Socrates is the narrator and Plato doesn't appear much, except that since we have no writings of Socrates himself, we don't really know how much is Socrates and how much is Plato.  As you can well imagine, scholars have frittered countless hours of their precious lives speculating on the matter.  I prefer to take the non-conspiracy, Occam's Razor route and say that it is probably Plato's retelling of the words of Socrates to the best of his ability and attempting the greatest accuracy.

I was working through Plato's Apology, Phædo and Crito, but, as you know, I will be taking a break from the Ancient Greeks to spend some time with a Medieval Italian in much warmer climes.  But I finished the Apology  yesterday and wanted to put down a few thoughts before I forgot them.

Socrates was put on trial for "impiety" and corrupting some young people (He said things like "I tell you that virtue is not given by money, but that from virtue comes money and every other good of man, public as well as private." Money doesn't like that kind of talk.)  The charge of impiety was a little obscure to me, mainly because I don't really understand their theological system.  His accusers claimed that Socrates denied the gods that the city affirmed and created gods of his own (which I guess he wasn't licensed to do.)  Of course, we have great sympathy for Socrates, especially those of us in a society that enjoys freedom of speech and intellectual thought.  Surely, in our enlightened age, we never put someone to death for believing the wrong thing (what's that punctuation mark that indicates bitter sarcasm?  Why doesn't my keyboard have that?)

It becomes increasingly evident that he is being put to death because some powerful people don't like him.  Which is terrible, although Socrates doesn't back down.  If he did, we probably wouldn't be reading about him.  Instead, he even seems to add fuel to the fire at times:
"And now, Athenians, I am not going to argue for my own sake, as you may think, but for yours, that you may not sin against the God by condemning me, who am his gift to you."
Socrates works his questioning magic (possibly another link in the chain of things that got people so upset about himI ) on Meletus, his accuser.  He stumbles Meletus into admitting that he is accusing Socrates of both atheism and believing in false gods.  In spite of knowing how the story ends (somewhere at the bottom of a cup of hemlock), I was rooting for Socrates and, as I read, I actually thought he was winning.  This should raise a lot of questions about mob mentalities, majority rule, justice, and establishing fences to make sure popular opinion doesn't lead to gross injustices (oh, say, some kind of a Constitution.  As an interesting side note, some have actually called the piece "anti-democratic" because of the outcome.  I wouldn't say that myself, but I certainly think it is a real life cautionary tale.)  

While cross-examining Meletus, Socrates questions him on specifics of what beliefs and teachings of Socrates he finds objectionable.  Meletus expresses a few points which Socrates reveals are not teachings of his, but rather teachings of Anaxagoras.  Why the confusion?  Well, turns out a popular playwright named Aristophanes wrote a play called The Clouds in which Socrates, or rather a monsterous misrepresentation of him, is a character.  For the sake of the play (and, most likely, the agenda the play was pushing), the fictitious Socrates spouts a lot of teachings which Aristophanes lifted from Anaxagoras.  So, we see that Socrates has been mischaracterized and demonized by the mainstream media and people have run with that mischaracterization instead of finding out the truth for themselves to the point where they are willing to (and indeed do) kill a man.

Socrates calls their bluff.  In fact, most historians seem to agree that Socrates could very easily have escaped the punishment if he had backed down and agreed to shut up, amend his ways to please the nobility.  Nothing doing.
"A man who is good for anything ought not to calculate the chance of living or dying; he ought only to consider whether in doing anything he is doing right or wrong- acting the part of a good man or of a bad."
He goes on to wax philosophic on the subject of death, perhaps as he is becoming increasingly aware of where the trial is going (he was no dummy.  Just ask the Oracle at Delphi.)  He offers some hope in the face of death for those of us who have chosen a wrestling match over the traditional chess game with that grim spectre:
"For the fear of death is indeed the pretence of wisdom, and not real wisdom, being a pretence of knowing the unknown; and no on knows whether death, which men in their fear apprehend to be the greatest evil, may not be the greatest good."
This was a very intense 20 pages of writing and I'm sure I will be turning it over and over in my head for a long time to come.  We'll return to Socrates soon.  But for now, I understand the importance of the work as far as philosophy and dialogues in civilization is concerned and I do not with to take away from the value of that one jot.  But I find myself more consumed with reflections of man's inhumanity to man and that most discouraging of realizations "twas ever thus."

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Reading Group Reminder- Dante's Inferno

I have lined up in front of me on the computer desk three different versions of Dante's Inferno.  It's a drop in the ocean of Inferno translations.  There are many translations of Dante's Inferno.  The first of the three is the copy I own and read a couple of years ago.  It's the Allen Mandelbaum translation which was a thick slog of a read for me.  I understand that it's a fairly faithful translation, but it doesn't sing or jump or bounce.  I would hazard a guess that poetry is sacrificed for accuracy.  Especially after peeking into other versions, I doubt I could make my way through the Mandelbaum version again.

Next is the recent translation by Michael Palma.  It boasts a faithful translation with an ear inclined toward contemporary American English.  I think it largely succeeds and I am very close to going with this translation in my reading.  It is quite good and, I think, quite readable.  But I also picked up Ciaran Carson's recent translation and I find it very engaging.  Carson is a poet whereas the others are scholars.  As far as translations go, it's probably more akin to Seamus Heaney's Beowulf.  Snobby purists may whine, but it's a translation for the people (which am us.)  I may end up reading the Carson or I may change my mind and go with the Palma.

Either way, this isn't all that important to you except that I may quote passages that read differently in your version.  Choose whatever version you like.  I think the Penguin Classics version is a completely different translation.  It shouldn't effect our reading group that much if we all read different versions.  If you can or if you're feeling ambitious, go ahead and read it in the original Italian!

So, welcome, everyone!  This post is to announce the beginning of our reading group's reading of Dante's Inferno.  As usual, everyone is welcome to join.  All you have to do is read along with the group.  Next week I will have our first check-in post.  You can leave your comments there if you'd like, or you can just read along and enjoy. 

If we take it at 8 Cantos per week, we can finish in about a month.  So, we will read through Canto VIII this next week which... well, if I go with the Carson it takes me up to page 56.

Now here's a video to go with our reading.  This was the best quality of this video I could find online (you might even say I had a devil of a time finding it.  Oh, I should probably also mention that it is my intention to make every Inferno joke I can possibly imagine in the course of our reading.)  I apologize if the video is bursting with ads.  I think we'll find that Crass Capitalists are somewhere around the 7th Ring as we read.

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Reading the Classics with Paul- Oedipus Rex

I was surprised a the quality of dramatic tension in this play.  My memory recalled the play as a few spurts of melodrama in-between sprawling, dull chorus speeches.  I found it to be anything but.  I found it to be a startlingly good read.  I have a likely explanation for my memory of the play.  I read it earlier in life through the filter of a public high school English teacher, a job which seems to be to take a great work of literature, pull out its teeth, declaw it, chain it to a pole and let pit bulls attack it.  Or, in other words, a job meant to discourage readers.  I can give (and am giving) a personal testimony that so often I've found in re-reading the classics assigned in high school English, now being about double the age I was then, I find them to be surprisingly wonderful. 

But I was talking about Sophocles' gift for dramatic tension.  Certainly the argument with Creon, the scene with Teiresias, and certainly the ending are ripe with dramatic tension, but so is the beginning with the townsfolk and the bit with the shepherd in the middle.  In short, I thought it was a great story.  I was glued to the book right up to the end.  

Of course, we know the story.  That was part of the point of the Penguin Essential Classics in the first place: to verse one's self in the source material from which our culture draws so much of its narrative.  The great man needs to atone for a curse by catching the previous king's murderer.  He pronounces a grizzly curse on the murderer.  Turns out he was the murderer and also that the king was his father and that he not only married his mother but begot children through her.

If you've found my blog post to lift some egghead ideas for your World Literature paper, note the blind soothsayer and Oedipus' eventual state (also the comeuppance to Oedipus who abuses just about everyone he shares the stage with), the dramatic tension of Oedipus trying to latch on to a detail (the "many killers" theory) which would prove it wasn't really him when really he's beginning to suspect the truth.

You might write about human flaws, how everyone has them, and how they lead to our downfalls.  People like to read about other people's flaws.  It gives the illusion of distance and it is a clever backdoor way to stroke your teacher's ego.  So that's an easy A.

Sophocles isn't very forthcoming about solutions to human flaws.  Which people also like.

You might choose a topic like humankind's inability to avoid their own destiny, how we are fate's poppets tragically dancing at the end of strings until we are suddenly tossed aside like a misfit toy without warning.

But, if you are here to mine school paper material, also know that the sins of a plagiarist are far worse than the sins of Oedipus.  Stick around for our next book.  I'm pretty sure plagiarists end up in the 9th Ring.  

As if that weren't enough, I managed to completely gross Laurie out over dinner the other night when I described how Oedipus actually went about blinding himself.  It's yet another scene in classical theater where directors don't need any prodding to get as gruesome as they can with the gorier scenes.  I myself imagine going to a technical director and asking him to recreate blood mixed with vitreous humor and maybe devising a way to employ a retractable brooch pin.  If you have a gouging or a hanging or someone being chased by a bear in the script, you darn well make sure it happens onstage.  A quick Google image search of Oedipus will reveal that I am not abnormal.  At least not in this.

So, I hope all of you enjoyed the play as much as I did.  Just as with our next piece, there is more.  This is the first in a trilogy.  If you're curious, do be sure to check out Oedipus at Colonus and Antigone.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Now Cracks A Noble Heart.

I first met Rob in a high school production of The Wizard of Oz around 1992. We were in the chorus, and I think we wore shoes on our knees as Munchkins (this really happened). I don't think I've gone a full month since then without hearing from Rob. He remained my friend, always standing by me, always being there for me. In the past few years, he very much became my closest friend besides Laurie. He was the one person I could tell anything to. He really was like a brother to me. I doubt I will ever have a more dedicated friend.  Unfortunately, so often we only realize these things in retrospect.

But my friendship with Rob was not just personal. If I wrote anything serious, I would pass it by Rob for editorial assistance and he would often do likewise. Rob went a professional route I have always wished I would have gone. Rob went to Berkeley and got his Masters degree. Then he went to New York to teach creative writing and literature at City College of New York. When it came time for me to put out my volume of poetry, Rob edited it free of charge. After he first read it, he said to me, "You know, you are the only poet I know who I consider competition."

That was a high compliment. After 9/11, Rob wrote a long poem called Crossing the Staten Island Ferry (with a nod of thanks to Patchen) which was as excellent an American poem as I know. I remember him painstakingly putting together a volume of holiday themed poetry which absolutely blew me away. Rob (who wrote as Robert H. Morris) was, and I'm not exaggerating just because I also dearly loved the man, in my educated opinion one of the greatest living American poets.

He was also brimming with life. He always had music in the air, often dancing with whomever was within arm's reach. Today I opened one of my cd chests to see if I could find some Rob type music. I find that almost all of it is Rob type music. Rob got me into Phish. I think I got Rob into Tom Waits, although I'm sure he would have found Waits on his own without my help. I think of Rob when I listen to early Tom Waits. He thought of me when he listened to late period Tom Waits. 

He knew movies, art, history, and literature. Rob was the person to introduce me to the character of Falstaff for a scene in a high school theater class. Even though he was only four months my senior, we had sort of a Falstaff/Hal relationship (although Rob usually referred to me as his "spiritual advisor," which he seemed to take very seriously).

He loved food and wine and was a bottomless pit of knowledge about both. Laurie remembers when Rob and Jess came to visit us during the worst storm in the recorded history of Chico. The electricity was decidedly out for a long time to come and while we had a gas stove, she had no way to mash the potatoes.  Rob asked for a large fork and mashed them by hand smoother than we'd ever got them with an electric mixer.

There is too much to tell. Too many Rob stories which keep flashing in my mind: the reason he never forgot my birthday, the phone calls, Jerry Garcia's vigil in Griffith Park, my regrettable tattoo on Telegraph, the 24 hour Church of Elvis, the car crash when we got too excited while talking about Peter Lorre, the post-high school paper bonfire, the fruity drink party, the Love-In, Existential Rider, the bathrobe, the funky monkey, Sentimental Journey, and so much more.  A lifetime's worth.  Heck, four lifetime's worth.

I will miss him tremendously and even if I have yet to live more years than he ever lived, I doubt I will go a day without thinking of him. One of the main things I wanted to share with you was that this is not the first time I've had someone very close to me who "just didn't wake up one day."  I know I say this often, but I really want to go around grabbing people by the collar and telling them this while shaking: "You do not know when will be the last time you see someone! Treat everyone accordingly!"

In this case, Rob and I had a very pleasant conversation on Friday. He knew that I loved him and I knew that he loved me. At the end of it, I was looking forward to reading the paper he was working on. The worst thing in the world is having the last thing you said to someone along the lines of "I hate you and wish you were dead," especially if you then discover that you loved them and did not ever want to see them die. Second to that may very well be, "Gee, I'd been meaning to get in touch with him for the past few months, but never got around to it." Really, everyone, if there's one thing I could tell everyone in the world so that they'd believe it, it's that life is too short. Don't presume upon second chances. 

As a guy who gets dumped a lot, Rob was always there for me, continually a friend. I don't think we ever fought, that I can remember, although we did have very different opinions about some things (he and I spent many accumulated hours arguing if Kerouac was an important figure in American Literature. He was decidedly pro and I was decidedly con on that topic.) and we certainly didn't carry animosity for any period of time. He never divided from me. He was always my friend. I could tell him anything and he could tell me anything. Aside from Laurie, I don't have anyone else like that and have my doubts if I ever will see the like again.
I really just wrote this because I came upon a Ray Bradbury quote today:
"You fail only if you stop writing."
And my brain told me that I needed to write about Rob tonight. I spent half of Sunday and most of Monday staring out our front window, occasionally weeping openly.   It's time to get up and write something.

In spite of what they tell you, some wounds don't heal with time. You just learn to walk around with them.

Sunday, August 1, 2010


I may be uncharacteristically quiet online over the next few days.  Long time readers of this blog and everyone I know in person knows of New York Rob.  Rob passed away last night.

Rob was my oldest friend in continual contact and probably my best friend.  I don't think more than a month has passed in the past 17 years without me talking to Rob.  I don't think I ever thought about how we would be friends for the rest of his life and I certainly didn't know how brief a treasure that would be.  So much of my life has so much to do with Rob.  I have no words to express how much I will miss him.  I keep trying to think about all of the things I want to say, but I guess it's not time for that just yet.  I'm still staring blankly half of the time and weeping openly the other half.  So, I guess the only things for me say at this point are these:

*If you knew Rob and need or want anything, please do let me know.  I would be more than willing to help in any way that I can.

*If you didn't know Rob, or even if you did, I strongly, strongly urge you to call everyone you love and tell them that you love them.  Say everything you ever wanted to say to people and do not harbor animosity or broken relationships.  Life is too short for that.  I talked to Rob less than 24 hours before he passed away and he seemed absolutely fine.  I told him that I love him and he was excited to have me read a paper he'd been working on. He was only a few months older than me.  You do not know when will be the last time you see someone you love.  I strongly strongly urge you to behave accordingly, conscious of that fact at all times.

*I will be back online soon, but I imagine it will be a few days.