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.)