The man in the photograph above is Alexander Woollcott. People who know me know that he is the author with which I most identify and who chiefly formed my character. When Laurie and I watch The Man Who Came To Dinner each holiday season, she invariably says, “He’s like a mean version of you!” I take that as the highest of compliments. I would hazard a guess that I have one of the largest collections of his works in the world. (For reasons I never could fathom, Woollcott has not remained a very popular figure.)
The main focus of Woollcott’s output was championing other works that he considered great. He was a theater critic, a social critic, and more than a bit of a literary critic. He was a critic in the purest sense, and by that I mean that he cared for the arts so deeply that he sought to raise the great to the highest possible visibility and would not suffer the inadequate to live. He was also a rabid logophile, renowned for his wit and verbosity. He also lived his life in such a way that the peers who teased him while he was growing up would all wish they could be him
On January 23rd, 1943, Woollcott appeared on a CBS radio show called The People’s Platform. He was involved with Writers’ War Board (which was headed by Rex Stout). This was a panel discussion on the topic of Germany. Marcia Davenport was also on the program, she of the famous Mozart biography and the possibly even more famous ongoing public feud with Alexander Woollcott.
It had been ten years since Hitler’s rise to power. Woollcott was an early, outspoken anti-fascist long before the rest of the country turned sour towards the Third Reich. He had spoken out against Hitler for years and, in fact, would end up speaking out against Hitler with his final words.
At one point Woollcott quipped, “The German people are as guilty of Hitler as the people of Chicago are of the Chicago Tribune,” adding more seriously, “Germany was the cause of Hitler.” After this he fell silent and scribbled on a piece of paper, “I’m sick.” Noël Coward later joked that a less sick Woollcott would surely have written “I am ill” instead.
The paramedics were dispatched. The massive heart attack that Woollcott had suffered lead to a cerebral hemorrhage. People listening at home, aside from possibly noticing Woollcott’s uncharacteristic silence for the remainder of that broadcast, were unaware that anything had happened.
There is a side note his friends recalled at his funeral. A story that Woollcott loved to tell was of the near riotous outrage which followed a high stakes boxing match in the early 1900s. The champion was “knocked out,” but after falling and laying on his back, he pulled his derby hat over his eyes to shield them from the sun. When the paramedics carried Woollcott on a stretcher to the ambulance that night, it is said that when they exited the building he pulled his hat over his eyes.
The fight was rigged.
I think about Woollcott often, but especially every January 23rd. He wrote these beautiful little vignettes which are collected in various anthologies. He had about a half-dozen anthologies that he compiled, works by great authors that he felt everyone should read. There were many compilations of his journalism, some of his work for Stars and Stripes in WWI, some of his theater writings, one charming one about his poodle. His collection of letters are an absolute delight.
But more to the point, when I think about him around this time of year, I think of the multifarious and celebrated quotes by him, many of which have survived in our cultural consciousness, even if his works have fallen out of publication. They often sweep over me, like a parent in the wings, urging their child on:
“There is no such thing in anyone’s life as an unimportant day.”
“It comes from the likes of you! Take what you can get! Grab the chances as they come along! Act in hallways! Sing in doorways! Dance in cellars!”
Days after he began, after a whirlwind acclimation to a variety of elevations, and hundreds of pages after most carnal contemporary readers will have dropped out, we begin to see the point of it all. By that I don’t simply mean that we begin to see the point of Dante’s Divine Comedy, although that is certainly part of it, but rather that we begin to see the point of everything. The Arts speak to the higher aspirations of humankind and I am hard pressed to think of examples in art that aspire higher than Dante’s Divine Comedy. Even more astonishing, in light of the bar being set in astronomical spheres, might be that it is an entirely successful and satisfying work.
There was a time when the entirety of this work would be familiar to any educated person. As I’ve said before, I think it is a mark of the age in which we live that this is only true of Inferno now. In spite of how unfortunate I find that, I have to confess that it seems fitting in its way. It’s not a terribly original observation, but today it seems like every Bertha and Martin you meet in the public forum (internet, grocery stores, etc.) are ever-so-slightly veiled sadists who are willingly wallowing in their own filth. At the very least, every Christian should read this. While one hesitates to align one’s self with such glib terminology in such weighty matters, there have been scholars who have called this work “The Fifth Gospel.” That is because the work is an exercise in apokatastasis. Dante is leading us through the infernal to the divine where he, eventually, leaves us. This work has, over the centuries, become part of the DNA code of Christianity. I also feel that it should be a part of a general education because of its pointed demand of acknowledging something greater than one’s self. The universe of Dante is vast, highly populated, and full of variety.
“The glory of him who moves everything
Penetrates the universe and shines
In one part more and, in another, less.”
So begins our journey into caelestis. These lines sum up what we’ve just experienced (again, both in Dante and in our experience in existing) and sets us up for what’s to come. I should remark, here at the beginning, that Paradiso is where Dante’s poetic deftness shines at its brightest. What’s past is prologue and, indeed, we have an inkling that what we have seen thus far are, as the apostle put it, as through a glass darkly, which is to say those parts of the universe where the glory shines less. We are now entering the “best for last.”
Three motifs in Paradiso are the prevalence of discussion of the music of the spheres (astronomy/-ology), the talk of mathematical precision (specifically in architectural terminology and the recurrence of right angles. “Angles we have heard on high”), and the tendency towards abstraction. Dante spends a lot of the piece charmingly frustrated over the inadequacy of mortal words to contain what he has seen.
Another, possibly less overt, motif is the interconnectedness of the universe. Dante says, “Everything that is created is part of a mutual order, and that is the shape which makes the universe resemble God.” I have heard modern physicists make similar remarks. This interconnectedness reminds us of the damned and the purging, that the purpose of all of creation is the glory of God, a purpose which will not be foiled even where it’s only expression is in justice.
Also, the frequency in which Christ and Mary are mentioned by name increase exponentially as we ascend (I would hazard a guess that this is the case throughout the entire work. I noted before that Christ in never mentioned by name in Hell).
Dante’s first encounter with celestial citizens are, naturally, those in the bottom-most sphere of Heaven. Dante asks them if they wish that they were higher in Heaven. The spirits do not. They, as we see in all of Heaven, are perfectly content in spite of their slightly humiliated state. Their own will is silent in contentment over the prevailing of the divine will. There is no want in a state of perfection.
Dante’s vision gets squirrelly in Heaven. At one point he likens it to someone who stares directly at a solar eclipse, losing their vision in their desire to see it.
In the lower realms, we follow more of the pattern set by the earlier pieces. Dante is traveling through the realm, telling us what he sees, recording who is where and what they said to him. As we ascend, the abstractions increase as does the tendency towards talking about ideas rather than giving a travelogue. In Purgatorio, we are struck by Beatrice’s verbosity and her desire to discuss great concepts. This love for wisdom is the mark of the heavenly. We see that now as everyone in Heaven talks like Beatrice.
Just as Dante sinned in Hell and is purged in Purgatory, he goes through a redemption process in Heaven. He goes through a sort of protracted catechism through several cantos in which he is questioned by several lofty figures (including The Fisherman who holds the keys to the penthouse VIP lounge). But I contend that his true moment of redemption in Heaven is a moment in which he acknowledges us, the readers. When Cacciaguida commissions Dante to write The Comedy, Dante says:
“And if I am a timid friend to truth,
I fear to lose the life I may have among those
who will call the present time, ancient times.”
It struck me like lightning as I sat on the park bench by Little Chico Creek reading that line, that “those” is me.
There is also, in Heaven, a heaping helping of criticism towards the state of the church (naturally). The progenitors of monastic orders are disgusted by the fat pastors and sermons full of flip jokes. Theological showboating is condemned in the harshest of terms.
“Christ did not say to his first companions:
‘Go and preach rubbish to the world.'”
The good popes are well aware of the bad popes running around down there. But all of this, at this point, is punctuated by faith made manifest. No one is outraged in Heaven. Heaven is the death of outrage.
I cannot end without telling you that Canto XXXIII, the completion of the journey, especially in light of the entire journey we have just taken in, is one of the finest pieces of writing in existence. There is no better piece of poetry and very few equals.
Dante writes the piece as if he is back on Earth recalling the journey. At one point, he is commissioned directly by an ancestor in Heaven to write this book. Dante’s desire to return is consoled in his assurance that he shall. I suppose it must needs also find consolation is having experienced first-hand God working all things out for good. I can think of no better reason for a human on Earth to attain heavenly peace.
Next up, a book that I feel certain that I would have died never having read if I hadn’t undertaken this reading project.
“To run on to better water now, the boat
Of my invention hoists its sails and leaves
Away to stern that cruel stretch of sea;
And I will sing of this second kingdom
In which the human spirit cures itself
And becomes fit to leap up into heaven.”
We begin with the return to hope, abandoned by all (except for Dante… and Christ I suppose) in the previous realm. Indeed, it is elegantly put at one point that by Christ’s sacrifice, the daggers of sin are removed from a soul, which leaves only for the wounds made by sin on that soul to be healed before they can attain the realm of perfection. Purgatory is not overtly mentioned in scripture, although there have been many over the course of history who have contended for its deductive presence based upon some passages. It certainly explains a few problems with Christian theology from the human perspective. If you’re a good, faithful, pious, earnest Christian, how does that look, from a human perspective of justice, placed next to rank sinners who convert on their deathbed, or the all too familiar Christians who behave extraordinarily badly in this life? As the angels say, marveling at our inability to grasp the purpose of all existence:
“O human race, born to fly upwards,
Why do you fall at such a little breeze?”
If you thought Limbo was a gutsy move on Dante’s part, you will most likely share with me astonishment at the audacity of putting Cato on the shores of Purgatory (not the mention that more astute readers will instantly catch that Cato died before Purgatory was, for lack of a better word, active. Perhaps he simply spent a lonely 150+ years on the shores of Purgatory before anyone showed up to explain). In Dante’s universe, Cato is too sublime even for Limbo and must, at the very least, wind up on the shores of Purgatory, closer to God than any of the other ancients (although barred from ever actually entering the gates of Purgatory). Again, I understand this impulse. It is, however, all too human.
One of the emerging, unspoken themes I am finding in The Divine Comedy is our human needs in the afterlife. Dante undertakes the startlingly brave task of putting his own sense of cosmic justice on the dock. He does this even while discussing our fallen sense of justice. It becomes one of the key conflicts of the piece, although never addressed directly. We see him place people in certain areas, essentially judging them, knowing full well that we do the same. Think of a person who you found utterly deplorable (for good reasons, of course) who died within your lifetime. Think of a dear friend of yours, a wonderful human being, who was not a baptized believer in the Christian faith. Now go and write your version of the afterlife through the Judeo-Christian lens and see if you don’t end up inserting similar prejudices.
The mountain of Purgatory lies on the other side of the planet from the known world of that time. In the famous fresco in the Florence Cathedral, one can see the mountain behind Dante:
It is an inversion of Hell, sort of like a molehill that was created when Lucifer fell like lightning feet first into the center of the Earth. The top of the molehill is the Garden of Eden, that place on Earth which is closest to Paradise. It is also an inversion in the circles of sinners. The base is a place marked by violence while the topmost region is for the promiscuous (and one remembers that the leopard at the beginning of Inferno was the beastie that particularly hounded Dante, suggesting that Dante’s own personal battles may have tended towards the libidinous).
A key difference between the previous realm and this is the attention to the marked changes in Dante himself. He encounters sweetness of existence that he states still sounds within him at the time of composing the cantos. He frequently falls into reveries, visions, and unbidden dreams as he grows ever closer to the divine. Dante seems to have a difficult time with maintaining conventional levels of consciousness while in Purgatory. In a passage that is close to the climax, the nettle of repentance stings Dante in Purgatory upon finally seeing Beatrice again, just as Dante sins in Hell (by being too interested in disputes). He is, in a manner of speaking, being infected by the nature of place. Doing as a Roman, as it were. In order to travel on, he must partake of the waters of forgetting sins and remembering good, those most potent of purgatives.
Another key difference is that we spend less time consumed with meeting people and more time discussing the nature of good and evil, the music of the spheres, or, to put it more succinctly, the big ideas. Love and mercy purge envy. Goodness, divided among many, has the peculiar quality of making those many all the richer regardless of how much further it spreads. Light plays an enormous role in this portion (and, one imagines, even more so in the final third) of this piece. Human Free Will is sort of presented as if you were to give a bleeding person a bottle of rubbing alcohol and then watch in horror as they open it and chug it. There are examples of specific torments germane to the specific errors (people laying prone with their backs towards heaven, people in extreme thirst, people whose faces say “OMO”, etc.) and there are specific historical personages who make appearances. However, the poem as a vehicle to discuss higher ideas becomes more apparent in these latter portions.
It also seems as though Dante is going to bear a huge weight after this experience, even more so than witnessing the tortures (albeit just ones) of Hell. Early on I noticed the most frequent request made by those who dwell in Purgatory. It is some variation on: “Pray for me.” One of the key differences between the sufferings of those in Hell and the sufferings of those in Purgatory is that, in the latter, there is something you can do about it. I imagine that to one who contained within them the heart of a true Christian who actually believed in such a place, it would cause tremendous guilt whenever they did anything but pray and work for the springing of souls from perdition.
One of the first people Dante encounters is the slothful to repent (i.e. those who converted on their deathbed). In spite of the eventual hope in this place, I found it heartbreaking to find, even here, the character of humans so petulantly engrained that they encourage passersby to tarry. “What’s the rush? We’ll all make it up there eventually anyway! Sit a spell.”
However, we also notice a difference in the denizens of Purgatory from those in Hell in that they are drawn to the novelty of a living man in their midst (to the point of celebrity even). He is a bit like a doctor in a leper colony or, indeed, Christ in a crowd of diseased people, crowded at points with mendicant souls desperate for the prayers of the living. This did not happen in Hell. In Hell, everyone was so wrapped up with their own drama and emotions that Dante essentially had to grab people by their collars before he would gain an interview with them. Again, I find myself haunted by the mirror this holds up to the character of the nation and time in which I live.
There is a lot more that I will leave unsaid as we melt into heavy allegory at the end of the piece. I have reason to believe that we will have occasion to discuss the character of Beatrice better in the realm in which she resides. As for the rest of the specifics, you really should read it for yourself if you haven’t. I have to say that I have suddenly become an avid devotee of Dante.
The lesson behind our time in Purgatory is placed, rather offhandedly I would say, in the middle of the piece, but it is one that we would all do well to carry with us throughout our daily lives, one that we ought to always have in front of us as we travel through this life making choices:
“Reflect that this day will not dawn again.”
Another way in which Dante struggles with the concept of the afterlife is what to do with his guide. His high reverence for Virgil and certain other non-Christian ancients precludes his ability to depict them as justly suffering eternal torment in Hell, although that is a teaching of his religion. Dante’s Limbo seems a bit like Huckleberry Finn’s Hell. As a Classicist, I struggle with the inclination, upon reading this, to want to spend eternity rubbing elbows with Aristotle, Socrates, and countless other great brains of antiquity. I have strong suspicions that Dante may have been struggling with a similar inclination. The conflict inherent in this message is made clear later when it is said,
“Here pity is alive when it is dead:
Who is more criminal than he who suffers
Because he does not like the divine judgement?”
(By the way, before my American friends correct me, this is the Oxford Classics edition, which accounts for the British spelling of “judgement”).
The conventional length of a blog that can retain the attention of the general reader now dictates that we whirlwind through the rest of Hell like a bunch of unbaptized infants. Ready?
* The name of Christ is never mentioned in Hell, although the effects of His three day stay are still, nearly 1300 years later, abundantly evident on every level. Indeed, even in their roles and torturers and in their rebellion, the demons are restrained to follow the Divine Will. This is evident in their desire to give Dante just a little bit of a whipping and their subsequent failure to do so. It is evident when the demons are shown to have specific jurisdictions which they cannot exit (although they are still demons and will try to misdirect you). It is evident when the Boss at the beginning of each level allows passage to Dante and Virgil. It is evident when Lucifer, even in his own torment, is employed in effecting the affliction of the three greatest of sinners in history (in Dante’s eyes anyway). As a side note, the picture above is taken from the mosaic in the cupola of the baptistry in Florence. Dante would have been familiar with this image and scholars suppose that the image informed his depiction of Satan.
* Hell has a specific order. We’re all familiar with the levels. It is also worth noting that the great Julius Caesar resides in the highest realm of Limbo, which would be elevated from the furthest possible point in Hell from his murderers.
* One project I wish I had the foresight to have undertaken with this reading (and am putting in my cap for my next time through) is the manifestations of Hellishness, specifically how they mirror every unpleasant sensation known to humankind on Earth. I should like to have listed them. I deduce from the order of the piece that I can expect the converse to be the case in the higher realms (i.e. Paradise will be marked by pleasant sensations known to humans). This first occurred to me in the realm where there is naught but icy rain falling on the exposed souls. In other places, there is boiling, fire, hot sands, feces, mud, attacking dogs, being shot with arrows, the customary pitch-forks, being ground between teeth, being frozen in an icy lake, fevers, darkness and confusion, sadness, looking to the past, disfigurement, being chased, fisticuffs, and probably dozens more manifestations of Hellishness that I’m not immediately remembering. There is also the contributions of the damned in anger, pride, and so forth. The integrity of the damned leaves them in their state and, as we’re all too familiar with, people are capable of creating Hell with their own attitudes without any help.
* I found the part of Hell where the angry reside striking in light of a comment from the Introduction in which David H. Higgins makes the (I think correct) assertion that the sins of the damned are behaviors that would be proscribed by any rational society. Again, it occurs to me how many of these sins have been transformed into virtues in my own society. Anger becomes righteous outrage. Greed becomes the self-interest that promotes a stable economy for all. Lust becomes a natural expression of our inescapable procreational impulses given to us by the evolutionary process. Usury and covetousness are the two forces that drive our economy. Gluttony manifests both in the traditional sense and in the over-focused health consciousness (which comes with the built in finger-wagging sin of Pride at no extra charge). At one point, Virgil rebukes Dante for delighting in listening to the disputes of two of the wretched damned. Delighting in listening to disputes is the foremost characteristic of contemporary American entertainment and news. It is a little unnerving to see someone lay out the marks of an irrational and doomed social order and in it immediately identify the society in which you live. The damned in Hell rage against God. And so do we.
“O you whose intellects are sane and well,
Look at the teaching which is here concealed
Under the unfamiliar veil of verses.”
* “There is the one who infects the whole world.” Sin is like a virus and, like a virus, infects the host unseen and without the conscious will of the host body. The disease is always fatal and would be the end of everyone save for the opportunity for transference in the Great Physician.
* The tormented are desperate for any consolation. This sometimes manifests in unexpected ways. They seek to learn about the current condition of their homelands and families. They also seek to have Dante mention them so that their names will be remembered on Earth. Although some, in the lower reaches, seek the consolation of anonymity. In an affecting scene near the end, a soul refuses to reveal its identity to Dante when he demands it, exerting the last vestige of power available. In that soul’s triumph, we, the readers, share in the sense of transgression. We are left unsatisfied in the successful attempt at maintaining anonymity and, for a moment, taste the universal need for justice.
* In the final moment, the light of the stars, as Dante and Virgil emerge to the surface of the Earth, bring such a sense of relief. It is the sort of relief one has in a moment of pleasure after any time of suffering. We are primed to move towards the light.
There is a major misconception about Dante’s Inferno that is even perpetuated by some who have read it. As I’ve said before, it is more commonly read than the other two sections of the Divine Comedy. The major misconception is that it is a tour, a sort of travelogue, of Hell. It certainly takes place in Hell and there is a great deal of explanation and interaction between the protagonists and the denizens of the lugubrious regions. Inferno is, rather, the first of three pieces in which the character of Dante is ascending into Heaven. Bearing this in mind is the only way of getting a proper reading of the piece.
But, of course, you can’t really distill it down to a pat theme. It is about bringing one through the infernal to the celestial as a didactic spiritual lesson. It is also a theological discourse in a more systematic sense. It is a political diatribe. It is one of the grandest love poems ever written. It’s a bit of a scientific and philosophical treatise as well. In short, the book is like looking at the great chain of diamonds that holds reality together. If you didn’t have such a good guide it would be easy to get lost in it.
Well, here, once again, I find myself with the daunting task of writing about one of the greatest things a human hand has created. It’s a corner that I seem to enjoy painting myself into. Fortunately, it’s a piece that I’ve written about in recent memory, so I feel like I can simply hit some of my key points from this reading here. I was relieved to find that I’d already done a series of “this happens in this Canto” posts.
The first moment that gave me pause was in the first three words of the work. Dante reveals that he is roughly my age when he lost his way into the great forest. He loses his way from the proper path and ends up Hellbound. Meanwhile, Celestial forces are contriving to bring him upward alive. This is a picture of the co-existence of free will and providence. He is 35, which is my age. It is an age in which one begins to feel competent and as though one has a modicum of wisdom. The Hindus call this stage of life “Grihastha” or the Householder Stage. When problems arise, one has some idea how to deal with them. One has (hopefully) acquired some skills of some sort. One is well on their way in life. One is also in the thick of it. One is probably fairly close to the career that will end up being what they did with their life, like it or not. One is also more keenly aware of the ticking clock as one’s back is not what it used to be; one’s eyesight and digestion begin to show signs of wear. Regardless of how far one has made it in life, invariably it is not exactly what one had in mind and therefore one feels a creeping desperation. One is toiling and laboring for happiness. In other words, it may well be one of the most easily distractable times in one’s life in regards to one’s “walk.” There is no easier time to get lost than when you have the false assurance that you’re not.
In the second canto (the one in which Virgil is pretty much just saying, “Beatrice sent me”) there were these lines:
“One has to fear only the things which have
The power of hurting others; for the rest,
They do not matter, they are not to be feared.
And I am made by God, I thank Him, so
That all your suffering has no effect on me,
Nor am I touched by all these burning flames.”
Which is also the Christian answer to earthly fears. Around this section the notes mentioned Dante’s later failure of eyesight, which reminded me of Milton, almost as if they had seen too much.
I was furthermore surprised this time through to gain a different reading of the inscription above the gates of Hell. Again, I cannot recommend the Sisson translation highly enough:
“Through me you go into the city of weeping;
Through me you go into eternal pain;
Through me you go among the lost people.
Justice is what moved my exalted Maker;
I was the invention of the power of God,
Of His wisdom, and of His primal love.
Before me there was nothing that was created
Except eternal things; I am eternal;
No room for hope, when you enter this place.”
A possibly more familiar translation of that last line is “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.” That last line is the source of so much focus which, as human nature would have it, reveals our self-focus. But notice that the inscription is the gate identifying itself as eternal, giving glory to its Creator, telling an abbreviated story of Lucifier’s Fall, and only then and in light of all of that does it give a realistic expectation of what’s be found inside. I especially like how, in Sisson’s translation, the inscription never directly addresses the reader. So, not only are you hopeless, you are also insignificant.
Just inside the gate, Virgil says something that I read aloud to Laurie when I came to it. He says,
“We have now come to the place where, I have told you,
You will find the people for whom there is only grief:
Those who have lost the benefit of the intellect.”
Laurie responded, “Just like The Great Divorce!” And I think she was quite correct. C.S. Lewis’ Hell differs in the dramatic external displays of torture, but preserves with stark and startling clarity the integrity of the damned. We as a civilization have lost our grasp on allegory and we are the poorer for it. One of the problem views of Dante (and, indeed, The Great Divorce) is to look at it as if the author is saying, “This is precisely how the afterlife is.” It should rather be, “This is how things are.” It is not a presentation of perceived facts, it is a presentation of perceived truths.
To this, Dante struggles with the realities of the afterlife in ways that we all struggle with the concepts. He weeps in despair over the fates of some of the damned, while others who he knew to be horrible human beings, he revels in (and occasionally joins in) their torment. This mirrors our own fallen sense of cosmic justice. We would like to see Adam Lanza eternally boiling in blood. We would not like to see Allen Ginsberg running with Brunetto Latini over the burning sands.
Gripped with the sudden realization of the length of this post thus far and the fact that we’ve only just now entered the gates of Hell, I feel compelled to break my thoughts into two bite-sized posts. More soon.
Resolutions are a good thing. It is good to seek to improve one’s self; the unexamined life is not worth living. Early today, Laurie and I had a long conversation about what we would like to achieve in the nascent year. I usually refrain from cross-posting personal journal stuff on this blog, but I felt that it might feel more real to go public with the fruits of that conversation. Here is my list of resolutions for 2013:
-Finish the Harvard Classics. I think I can do this before 2014. I think I only need 2 weeks per book and many of them end up taking significantly less time (while others take longer, but barring another Augustine, I should be fine).
-Write more poetry.
-Be softer, less judging, more compassionate. I realized how much the bullying I received in my childhood lead to me 1) tending towards reclusiveness, and 2) attempting to harden my heart. Neither of which is good or helpful. I feel like, at 35, my armor is my most major stumbling block.
-Imitate Christ and Socrates.
-Replace fear/anxiety/worry as my chief character traits with thankfulness/blessing/compassion. These two are prescriptive towards that 3rd resolution.
Audaces fortuna iuvat.
So, you’re reading Dante’s Inferno and you reach Canto XV. Dante and Virgil reach a vast expanse of hot sand in Hell. The sand is scorching on its own, but occasionally bursts into flames and fireballs rain down from above. The inhabitants of this region are men who are running around entirely exposed (nude). One of the damned recognizes Dante. It is Brunetto Latini who, it seems, was Dante’s teacher when he was a young man. Latini walks with them and talks because if anyone in this region pauses for a moment, they are subsequently forced to lay exposed on the sands for 100 years.
Latini asks Dante the name of his guide. Dante changes the subject. They chat. When it comes time for them to part, for Dante and Virgil to move on, Latini asks Dante to read his work The Treasure when he returns to the land of the living because he lives on in this work. As they part ways, Dante says of Latini as he is leaving:
“He seemed to be the one who wins the race, and not the one who loses.”
I came away from this passage a little surprised that Latini seems almost victorious in Hell, as if his sunny disposish has overcome the greatest of all adversities. He swaggers away triumphantly.
But then I turned to the endnotes. A very different story emerged.
First of all, the nature of these damned is not explicitly expressed in the text. In the endnotes, it is pointed out that the other men named in that portion of Hell are men who were convicted for homosexuality and, indeed, the fire raining from the sky suggests an allusion to Sodom. There is no record of Latini being a homosexual, but bear in mind that Dante knew him personally. Depending how carefully you were digging through what you are reading, you may have suspected this about that particular portion of Hell. But regardless of how much thought you were putting into it, there is information you could not have guessed, information which greatly illuminates the passage.
Latini’s book is one of the (if not the) only book titles mentioned in Inferno. The Treasure is a book by Latini about how one can achieve immortality through one’s glory or renown of, oh say, writing an immortal book. Latini’s bravado is not victorious, rather it is pathetic. Here he is in eternal torment in Hell and he is still putting forth his proto-humanist theories of “immortality.” Instead of what may have at first seemed to us an image of the triumph of the human spirit, what we are witnessing is the pinnacle of empty human vanity. In a way, isn’t that what’s behind every curtain of the triumph of the human spirit?
Of course, my interest piqued by the inclusion of a book title, I came to the internet to search for The Treasure. It does still exist. The cheapest copy I could find was $100. It is on a small and obscure press. Conceivably, you might be able to find a cheaper copy in the original Italian. You can find a free copy in English on Google Books although that seems to be the only eBook option (and nobody wants to read a whole book on their computer screen).
I was suddenly struck by the subtle tell of Dante’s compassion on the poor deluded soul. If you go on Amazon, you can get a copy of Virgil’s work for pennies, for free if you want it in an eBook. It is abundantly available. It is an immortal work. Dante did not introduce his guide because his guide was everything that Latini had aimed for… and missed.
As we step away from the work, we see Dante imitating the divinity towards which he is moving, dealing out with two perfect hands: one of mercy and one of justice. In his Divine Comedy, he has granted his former teacher the object of his desire. He has made him immortal in his work. He is, however, only immortal as a cautionary tale against seeking that sort of immortality.