Posts Tagged ‘Dante’

Robert Harrison in NZZ on quarantines, language, literature: “The social conversations of educated, successful people in Silicon Valley are of a poverty that frightens me again and again.”

Monday, April 13th, 2020
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The brigata gather to hear the tales of “The Decameron” (Painting by John William Waterhouse)

René Scheu, editor of the eminent Neue Zürcher Zeitung, recently  interviewed Stanford’s Robert Pogue Harrison for Switzerland’s eminent German-language daily. Read it in German here. An excerpt in English below:

Mr. Harrison, we are having this conversation via Skype. This is due to the situation we both currently live in. I see you are sitting in your study in your wonderful house on the Stanford campus, which I know is surrounded by nature and trees. Your books can be seen in the background of the room. . .

… yes, my private library, my books! They are my friends, in times of crisis and in normal times.

So, to be perfectly honest, how is your life in quarantine?

My life in quarantine is undoubtedly less dramatic than that of my relatives and friends in Italy. They are no longer allowed to leave the house, and the state intervenes drastically in their private lives–this put pressure not only on liberal minds. In California, we are required to stay indoors whenever possible, but we are not legally required to do so. So I feel restricted, but I don’t feel like a prisoner in my own house.

It sounds almost like you save yourself for your new position as a dedicated observer. Is that impression right – or are you constantly rubbing your eyes hoping to wake up from this surreal nightmare at some point?

Harrison on language: “we use it to shape ourselves.”

I feel–as others do these days–a constant mental and emotional tension that is paralyzing in the long run. It stems from a basic mood of angst–and I think we should use the German word in an existentialist sense here. On the one hand, we feel angst very concretely, so to speak in every waking second of this crazy time, and at the same time it remains–in contrast to angst–very diffuse. What are we afraid of? Well, in fear we get the world as such, the being as a whole, is lost. Martin Heidegger says that the big picture is slipping away from us.

***

In order not to go crazy, you held a semi-public seminar about Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron, the quarantine book par excellence, above all.

I agree . . .

Briefly, pro memoria: It is about the Black Plague in 1348, which wiped out half of the European population. Seven women and three men retire to an estate and tell 100 stories to celebrate human life. They all survive.

No question: Boccaccio’s masterpiece is the book of the hour. And although some now quote it, it’s not only literary, but also its practical relevance is wide and still underestimated. It doesn’t celebrate escapism or pleasure in the face of catastrophe, no, it celebrates prudence in life, which is prudent for survival.

Boccaccio is relentless in his introduction, in which he describes the raging plague in Florence with unprecedented levels of detail. He differentiates between those who isolate themselves and renounce all social contact, those who live as if there is no tomorrow, and those who take flight. But nobody escapes the plague, it affects everyone.

Yes, the great Boccaccio provides a clinical sketch of life in the sign of black death. Those who only fight for survival will not survive. That is one of his cruel points.

When medicine and faith fail, only storytelling helps, according to Boccaccio.

Ten young people withdraw to the country, organize their lives, make every day precise, eat, drink, dance in a perfectly designed setting and tell ten stories in ten days, each in this environment. This storytelling is the human immune response to a physiological as well as a sociological crisis. Boccaccio focuses on this second meaning, and today, under the sign of the coronavirus, we think about it far too little.

***

In a comprehensive sense, the ten young people are rebuilding a world in their minds that is a substitute for the world they had previously lost through the plague.

Interlocutor René Scheu, editor-in-chief  of NZZ

I think now you’ve touch the heart of it. Institutions cannot revitalize them–but they regulate their days, make agreements, and adhere to them. And in their minds they create a new world into which they literally merge. It is a world with new, funny, and tragic protagonists with whom they can identify to a certain extent–because the center of every good story is always the same: being human. Sharing a common world helps them achieve mental stability and health. And this in turn ensures their survival. Narrative as a strong immune response: that’s what is at stake here.

The first tale is about a cheater and a sinner. Ser Ciappelletto lies so consistently and convincingly, even in the last hours of his life as he confesses, that he ends up going down in history as a saint. This novella is a story about the art of novellare itself, and it is as if Boccaccio told us that a good story need not necessarily be true. Or is it about a different, as it were poetic, truth?

The story of Ser Ciappelletto is about falsehood and lies, of course. But this mafioso was a first-rate cheater, and in the end, in the face of death, he was even able to convince the priest of his goodness. Ser Ciappelletto was a fantastic narrator before the Lord. As soon as the story about him goes viral and people continue to talk about what a pious and godly person this man was, it has an all-round positive effect: the listeners want to emulate Ser Ciappelletto’s example. They also want to become such a charitable and godly person, as he was supposed to be. It is here that history has proven itself on a higher level. To put it in a nutshell: only a really good story is true in the sense that it has a productive effect and that it helps people to advance in their own lives. It becomes true by making it true.

So Boccaccio was an incorrigible optimist because he shows how the worst person can make a story that inspires other contemporaries.

On the one hand, Boccaccio shows us how a bad cheater makes other people stronger in their belief–and on the other hand, he lifts the veil and lets us see how we indulge in fictions. But we need these fictions to outgrow ourselves in life. So for Boccaccio there are only stories that help us live better and stories that help us live worse. That is its form of radicalism.

Storytelling is a pretty dangerous thing.

Storytelling is not the pleasure of a few privileged people who escape the plague, no, storytelling is at the heart of our social life. Every institution, every religion, every civilization is based on a good story. Let us  think of our founding stories – those of Western Christian culture, our state, our age. All of these stories – which are somehow true, but never quite and literally – all of these stories strengthen our identity, and nothing man-made could exist without them. But as powerful as stories are, fake news can also be dangerous. They are highly contagious, infect our minds, and make us sick.

The good news is that really good stories go more viral than fake ones. They help to increase mental fitness. Boccaccio provides a lot of such stories in his Decameron. In this respect, he actually left us a kind of survival guide that we can use at any time.

Good stories strengthen the immune defense of the symbolic being that we humans are. Bare life is not a purpose in life, even if the plague or the corona virus is raging, although the latter is rather mild in comparison.

Pampinea speaks of the ben viver d’ogni mortale, of the good life worth living of every mortal.

The story of Ciappelletto (Vatican Library)

If you ignore the shape and the culture, you may survive biologically, but not as a person. We becomes an animals – Boccaccio compares uomini with capre in his description of the raven in Florence, he speaks of bestialità. Anyone who behaves like an animal will eventually become an animal.

So is Boccaccio the discoverer of what psychologists today call self-efficacy?

In a way, yes. Depending on how I present myself, I can influence the behavior of others–and these others in turn affect me. So in the end, whatever you say, think or do, it affects your fellow human beings and yourself. On the sixth day in the Decameron, there are some stories that deal with that. Male protagonists behave in rough and vulgar ways towards women. But women react with elegance, and men are ashamed of themselves and change their behavior by showing themselves at their best. It’s as if  women increase men’s self-esteem. So I think you are absolutely right with your inspiration: Boccaccio is a real humanist in that he constantly wonders how we can do it.

Boccaccio sees man as a being that forms itself. Almost 150 years later, Pico della Mirandola will deliver the programmatic text for this new, modern anthropology with his Speech on Human Dignity: God has created an unfinished creature that is not fixed and therefore called to form itself.

Boccaccio’s heroes are never passive victims of circumstances or fate, but are always creative actors. They take the initiative and show imagination, sensitivity, or quick comprehension to achieve their goals, be they noble, or profane, or sexual in nature. So you can say: the protagonists always make the best of themselves and the situation they are in, they learn and improve constantly. Their behavior is not set in stone, but adapts to the circumstances–and that is what makes Boccaccio so fascinating for us modern people.

***

Our whole social life is inconceivable without using our language. Through it, we become the beings that we are. We use it to shape ourselves every day. Depending on how we speak of ourselves, we act accordingly. In this respect, the language has a domesticating and ennobling function. We must never forget that!

Are the tech geniuses populating Silicon Valley aware of this?

I’m less optimistic on this front. The Valley is full of extremely intelligent people who articulate themselves artfully, but in a very prosaic, technical way. They are only interested in an understanding of problems and content, not the form, the beauty, the punchline. Let’s take the handwriting. When I attended school, the essay was graded according to two criteria: content and form, because both together make up the beauty of the story. And take a look at the handwriting of our tech geniuses today, if they even pick up a pen–they remind you of children’s handwriting.

Now you sound like a harsh cultural critic. Most people use a keyboard anyway or speak to their smartphone–this is easier and more efficient.

Yes, of course. But if you can no longer write, you may not be able to speak well. The social conversations of educated, successful people in Silicon Valley are of a poverty that frightens me again and again. Of course, when it comes to closing a deal, no novellare is required, although it certainly has a positive effect on sales. But the same poor language that applies in business has long shaped everyday social life. And this makes us poorer. When I go out to eat with a tech entrepreneur and we talk about where we’re from and what we’re doing here, I want to hear a story from him. What fascinates us about people is not the facts of their life, it is the stories they tell about themselves!

And the stories are dying out?

No. It’s just that they have been outsourced to only some of us. They watch fantastic Netflix series because they satisfy this basic human need. These are professionals at work, no question, and they know how to tell a good story well. The art of novellare has not changed since Boccaccio. So now people sit in front of the screen and consume stories, but they no longer work on their stories themselves. And that’s guaranteed to make your own life poorer.

If we look at the same Netflix series, we can at least talk about it and form a community.

Naturally. But we also have to do this with eloquence and elegance–we ourselves have to become storytellers, no one can do this work for us. But it is the most beautiful job I know.

We learn to tell stories when we read stories.

Read! Read! Read! Read Boccaccio. It will change your life. For Boccaccio, generosity and gratitude are the two greatest virtues: be grateful for what you have received. And pass it on with the same generosity. And that’s exactly how it is: literature is a gift that never ceases to give itself. Why shouldn’t we, now in quarantine, be so wise to accept this gift and become a giver ourselves?

Man on the move … Dante, Robert Harrison, and The Divine Comedy in the NYRB

Saturday, October 5th, 2013
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Dante_Giotto

Da Man.

Links to Robert Pogue Harrison’s essay in the current New York Review of Books are everywhere – why should we be an exception?  All the more so, since we wrote about him a few days ago here, celebrating his most recent honor and title, Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres de la République Française, which has a rather pleasant ring to it. His latest review, “Dante: The Most Vivid Version,” considers Mary Jo Bang‘s translation of the Inferno and Clive James‘s translation of The Divine Comedy, as well as Dan Brown‘s Inferno.

I had the privilege of attending Robert’s class on Dante’s masterpiece a year or so ago, and so it’s no surprise to me that his essay focuses on … motion:

… the big difference between the sinners in Dante’s Hell and the penitents in his Purgatory is that the former are going nowhere, while the latter are moving toward a goal, namely the purgation of their sins and their eventual assumption into Paradise. In Purgatory time matters, and motion has a purpose. In Hell, by contrast, no matter how much the souls may be buffeted by storms, or run on burning sands, or carry heavy burdens, motion leads nowhere. In Dante’s vision Hell is a never-ending waste of time.

The great metaphysical doctrine underlying The Divine Comedy is that time is engendered by motion. Like the medieval scholastic tradition in which he was steeped, Dante subscribed to Plato’s notion that time, in its cosmological determinations, is “a moving image of eternity.” He subscribed furthermore to the Platonic and Aristotelian notion that the truest image of eternity in the material world is the circular motions of the heavens. Thus in Dante’s Paradiso, the heavenly spheres revolve in perfect circles around the “unmoved Mover,” namely God.

In the final analysis there are two kinds of motion in the world for Dante: the predetermined orderly motion of the cosmos, which revolves around the Godhead, and the undetermined motion of the human will, which is free to choose where to direct its desire—either toward the self or toward God. Yet be it self-love or love of God (love of neighbor is a declension of the latter), what moves the heavens is the same force that moves both sinners and saints alike, namely amor.

infernoRobert’s familiar music made for wonderful reading last night, but here’s the surprise.  He rather likes Bang’s translation.  If one one is going to take liberties with the translation – and she does– there should be a payoff, and “the payoff is a highly dynamic phrasing, with imagery and rhythms that intensify the sense of entrapment and disorientation,” he writes. I haven’t followed the reviews for Bang’s translation, let alone read the book, but most of the early critical bouquets were thrown by jazzed-up media types who like their Dante to sound like an addled meth addict.  Robert’s reading is more nuanced and intelligent than those hasty reactions … we have waited over a year for it.

Clive James does ring Robert’s bell on occasion – he singles out this passage towards the end of the essay, from the end of the Paradiso:

…but now, just like a wheel
That spins so evenly it measures time
By space, the deepest wish that I could feel
And all my will, were turning with the love
That moves the sun and all the stars above.

 

Who knew that Stalin was a lit critic?

Monday, June 25th, 2012
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Everything you wanted to know and lots, lots more. (1902 photo)

Just can’t get enough of Jozef Stalin?  Yale University Press is putting lots more online.  Two decades ago, who would have thought that visitors to a public library could  pore over Stalin’s marginalia and notes? Thanks to an effort by the press and the Russian State Archive for Social and Political History,  Stalin’s personal archive has been digitized, including of thousands of documents, letters, and books. You can read about it here.

According to Vadim Staklo, who heads the project, the Stalin archives are the latest in a research and publishing program that has its roots in the Annals of Communism series that Yale started in the early ’90s, which has already unearthed rich material from the Communist Party archives. Said Staklo:

“The popular perception of Soviet leaders mainly comes from the movies – you know, sclerotic stodgy men with thick eyebrows and golden stars on the lapel,” says Staklo. “In real life however many early Bolshevik leaders were very active, lively unorthodox people from very different walks of life. Some were refined intellectuals, others came from humbler origins, some were good writers… and some knew how to draw. These are the images people drew in the margins during the long hours of party meetings. There are caricatures, and also satirical depictions of current events and issues. They went unseen for decades as most of the artists fell victim to repression. They’re not just pictures however – they tell a story about early Soviet politics and personal relations on the Bolshevik Olympus, and the problems they had to deal with on the daily basis.”

There was, for example, the man Lenin called “The Golden Boy of the Revolution” – Nikolai Bukharin.  We wrote about him here. He probably had lots of marginalia, too.  That might be why Stalin had him executed in 1938.

“The common perception is that Stalin was brutal, paranoiac and senseless. But if you read the notes he was making you can see that, yes he may have been brutal and paranoiac – but he was not stupid. For example, he was very keen on the arts as the most important vehicle for propaganda and he read every important play or screenplay offered by a theater or screenwriter. He read them carefully, and wrote long letters to the authors or producers with his comments. He also personally supervised and heavily revised the Short Course In The History of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. This was one of the most important books in the USSR, and you can see that it went through many drafts and that Stalin essentially rewrote the entire volume completely.”

One rather wishes, in fact, that he had been less attentive.  His interest in Osip Mandelstam and his poems – in particular, some verse ridiculing the Soviet chieftain – proved fatal.   (Mandelstam wrote that the words and influence of this “Kremlin crag-dweller” and “peasant-slayer” on literature were “leaden,” his “fat fingers … greasy as maggots.”)  Mandelstam died in a transit camp in the same momentous year that killed Bukharin – 1938.

In a recent interview with Chris Wiman, who recently published some “versions” of Mandelstam’s poems, the editor of Poetry Magazine was asked: “Was there a sense in which the horrors of the Stalinist era ‘made’ Mandelstam as a poet?”  Wiman replied:

Honestly, I don’t think so, though they certainly made that one poem. The horrors have made the legend of Mandelstam and are inevitably the lens through which we read his work and life. But if there had been no Stalin and no purge, Mandelstam still would have been a poet of severe emotional and existential extremity.

"The Sun!"

Then there’s this: Mandelstam was an artistic genius, the sort that any century produces only a handful of. If he hadn’t been driven mad and killed by Stalin, he might have managed to write something of Dantean proportions, that sort of huge unity and music. Dante, after all, was one of his literary gods: one of Mandelstam’s best pieces of prose is also one of the best essays on Dante ever written.

Joseph Brodsky would have agreed: ‘It’s an abominable fallacy that suffering makes for greater art. Suffering blinds, deafens, ruins, and often kills.  Osip Mandelstam was a great poet before the revolution. So was Anna Akhmatova, so was Marina Tsvetaeva. They would have become what they became even if none of the historical events that befell Russia in this century had taken place: because they were gifted.  Basically, talent doesn’t need history.”

In any case, Mandelstam had the last word after all.  Poets always do.

The ranks of human heads dwindle: they’re far away.
I vanish there, one more forgotten one.
But in loving words, in childrens’ play,
I shall rise again, to say – the Sun!

Dante, Grotowski, and the eloquent body

Thursday, February 23rd, 2012
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Mario Biagini remembers visiting Florence’s cathedral as a child, and seeing, on the left side of the cathedral as he entered, the famous fresco of Dante, standing beside Mount Purgatory.  It made an impression, but it wasn’t an isolated one.  Beginning as a teenager in school, he remembers reading the Divine Comedy “beginning to end, so many times.”  Well, he was a Florentine, like Dante.

“I read it often for myself,” he said.  And yesterday, I became a beneficiary of all these years of exposure.

I spent a blissful hour in the morning listening to Mario – who is the associate director of Workcenter, a theatrical endeavor based on the principles of 20th-century theater pioneer Jerzy Grotowski – as he read the Inferno, Cantos V and XXII, to a Stanford humanities class. Being a Florentine helps, he admitted – Dante’s 14th-century Tuscan dialect is “what I grew up with – what I talked. This language didn’t change much.”

He doesn’t approve of the way so many people today read the lines, emphasizing the stresses – “as if it’s a quite stupid children’s game,” he said, noting instead that the verse “is rooted in living speech.”

Biagini is currently editing Grotowski’s collected works, which are planned for publication beginning this fall in Polish, Italian, French, and (we hope) eventually in English.  Biagini trained with Grotowski every day for more than a dozen years – Grotowski, who died in 1999, was the greatest adventure of Mario’s life.

At a drama class the day before, he had recalled working with Grotowski, a man with “an absolute rigor towards himself” and a “strong natural authority” – so much so that the action at a café or bistro would halt when he entered it, just like in the movies.

National prophet

The theater legend was a member of Poland’s communist party, and dressed the part, like an apparatchik – part of a “precise strategy,” said Biagini, because “his work was exactly the opposite.” He created not his own texts as much as bringing to life the great works from Poland’s Romantic period – the works of  Adam Mickiewicz, for example, who is almost Poland’s national prophet (though he, like Czeslaw Milosz, was Lithuanian-born).

At some point, the aging maestro concluded, “Theater is an abandoned house. There’s no life in it.” He  began to ask “what theater can exist without,” stripping theater down to its barest essentials.  He also focused on direct, one-on-one connections and interactions.

I’m grateful for a few things Mario said:  One of my pet peeves when I go to the theater is having some production that wants to “do” the audience.  I don’t want to “participate” – that’s why I’m in a theater rather than an encounter group.  And I certainly don’t want to be manipulated. Grotowski, he said, was suspicious of the performers putting themselves in positions of power that way.

I also resent theatrical experiments that do a lot more for the performers than they do for an audience. Mario recalled sitting through a deadly, mind-numbing three-hour performance. Afterwards, the performers told him they had never had so much fun making a production. He urged directors and actors to have compassion on audiences – it’s supposed to mean something for them.

Preparing for death?

“It’s not about how the actor feels,” he told a student.  Actors should avoid being sidetracked by their own emotions.  “Just do the job – like someone at a bank,” he said.  He impersonated a bank clerk weeping as he doles out the cash – distracting and unnecessary, he said.  Just count the cash.

“It’s not that subjectivity is not important,” he said. “But I can’t start from there. I’d just make something extremely self-indulgent.”

And here’s good advice for just about anything, though he was referring to acting: “Nothing ‘a little bit’ works. You have to pay for it. It’s very hard. 95 percent of the time what you try will not work out. 95 percent of the time you will not accept that it does not work.”

What do I remember the most?  The melodies that still come back to me today, after three hours of watching his workshops Tuesday evening.  The tunes are the result of Grotowski’s exhaustive investigation into the ritual songs from Haitian voodoo and the African diaspora; he sought relatively simple techniques that would be “objective,” having a predictable impact on the performers, regardless of their beliefs or culture of origin.

As I wrote almost a year ago when Mario visited with members of his Workcenter troupe:

Kolkata-born Sukanya Chakrabarti sings a line of an African-Caribbean slave song, and about 20 performers from around the world sing back a response. The ritual words repeat over and over again.

The musical line gathers meaning and depth each time it is expressed – it’s as if, for a mesmerizing moment, you could see the singer’s soul in a single line. …

“One of the participants asked him what their point was, and what they were trying to achieve,” Chakrabarti said. “Mario replied, ‘We are preparing for death! The life that we get attached to will wither away before we realize, and death is always impending!’

“I would say that maybe we were all trying to shed our own little personalities to merge with the collective, singing songs in a language unknown to most of us – they almost served as chants, and had a transformative, almost sacred, effect on me.”

This time, however, Mario was more active – leading the cycles of song, prodding and coaching the students, stripping to the waist and joining the slow, ritual dance, his body a keen actor’s tool, and one as eloquent as any of the Rodin bronzes on the Stanford campus.

Mario headed today for Paris, and then … Shanghai? Italy?  His story is amazing: “When I met Grotowski, I was a shepherd looking more for adventure, not a career. I got my adventures – and later a career.”

Choosing my neighbors in Paris

Sunday, February 5th, 2012
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It's the schnozz that counts...

The airplane left late thanks to last-minute reparations to accommodate Parisian snow, and so I arrived at the Charles de Gaulle late – the airport the chaotic free-for-all I was warned it would be.  I spent what was left of the very cold afternoon exploring the Latin Quarter and settling in – which I was able to do comfortably once I discovered the corner grocery that furnished me with good dark, dark coffee, French cheese, German bread, Belgian endive, almonds, and Pellegrino.

There are a few pleasant literary associations with my digs a block from the Eiffel Tower.  I am across the street … well, kitty-corner, really … from the stately townhouse where Edmond Rostand perished in the 1918 flu epidemic.

“The success of Cyrano de Bergerac was a turning-point in Rostand’s life,” writes Sue Lloyd in her 2003 biography of the writer. “His future was assured but he had to live up to the expectations of the French people… the fame he had set out to achieve from his very first book of poems turned into a crushing burden from which only death released him.”

Home sweet home

I was rather taken with Cyrano de Bergerac‘s overblown romanticism as a young ‘un … to see my schnozz might help you understand the sympatico.

My favorite quote in maturer years: ‎”To joke in the face of danger is the supreme politeness, a delicate refusal to cast oneself as a tragic hero.”

Or how about this one?  “It is at night that faith in light is admirable.” A little more commonplace, perhaps, but even the commonplace is worth remembering in troubled times.

We choose our neighbors, as we choose our ancestors. Can Dante not offer us as much guidance as any father?  As for neighbors, what company do we keep in an idle hour, and what reading is on our bedside table?

So, after scanty airplane fare (my vegetarian order was mishandled; perhaps it’s somewhere in the Atlantic), what could be more French than to be holed up in the busy little café where I had a late-lunch omelette aux champignons and strong coffee, finally getting to Book 2  Stendhal‘s The Red and the Black:

A few minutes later, Julien found himself alone in a magnificent library: it was an exquisite moment. So as not to be taken by surprise in his emotion, he went and hid himself in a little dark corner; from which he gazed with rapture at the glittering backs of the books. “I can read all of those,” he told himself. “And how should I fail to be happy here?”

Suitable words for my visit to the Bibliothèque Nationale de France tomorrow.  May I reprise the words of eminent Polish poet Julia Hartwig on getting a permanent seat at the BnF (courtesy Web of Stories)

Dante and crowds

Tuesday, January 24th, 2012
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Gustave Doré's version of Canto III: "...like a bird at its call."

Dante‘s Divine Comedy is brimming with crowd scenes.  Take this one, in Canto III of the Inferno, as Dante visits the damned souls who are waiting to be ferried to hell:

Come d’autunno si levan le foglie
l’una appresso de l’altra, fin che ‘l ramo
vede a la terra tutte le sue spoglie,
similemente il mal seme d’Adamo
gittansi di quel lito ad una ad una,
per cenni come augel per suo richiamo.

In Charles Singleton‘s translation: “As the leaves fall away in autumn, one after another, till the bough sees all its spoils upon the ground, so there the evil seed of Adam: one by one they cast themselves from that shore at signals, like a bird at its call.”

In a recent lecture, Robert Harrison pointed out the classical sources for the image of leaves: Aeneas sees the same infernal scene in his visit to the underworld in Book 6 of the Aeneid.  Since Virgil was by Dante’s side during his otherworldly excursion, the comparison would have been on his mind. Here’s Virgil’s version (in Robert Fitzgerald‘s translation)

..as many souls
As leaves that yield their hold on boughs and fall
Through forests in the early frost of autumn,
Or as migrating birds from the open sea
That darken heaven when the cold season comes…

Individual, particular names (Photo: Creative Commons)

But Robert noted that Dante put a new twist on Virgil’s old image, “It’s a traditional epic simile – but he singularizes it.”  Robert compared it to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, whose massive presence resolves, as you draw nearer, into thousands and thousands of individual, particular names.

So the Inferno is composed of carefully delineated individuals – the mass “that swirls unceasingly in that dark and timeless air, like sand when a whirlwind blows” never entirely fades into facelessness.

•••

In all the images of leaves, sand, and birds, this one could easily be overlooked:

E come li stornei ne portan l’ali
nel freddo tempo, a schiera larga e piena,
così quel fiato li spiriti mali
di qua, di là, di giù, di sù li mena;

“And as their wings bear the starlings along in the cold season, in wide, dense flocks, so does that blast the sinful spirits; hither, thither, downward, upward, it drives them.”

It certainly grabbed me: My daughter, Zoë Patrick, is a “birder,” and during a recent trip to Golden Gate Park, she pointed out the drab and speckled birds who could be identified (she said) because they look like “flying cigars.”

They are apparently not native here: a Bronx drug manufacturer, one Eugene Schieffelin, decided to import them, in an effort to have all the birds from William Shakespeare‘s works in the U.S.

Shakespeare, you see, chose to include the starling in Henry IV, when another soldier, the fiery Hotspur says, “The king forbade my tongue to speak of Mortimer. But I will find him when he is asleep, and in his ear I’ll holler ‘Mortimer!’ Nay I’ll have a starling shall be taught to speak nothing but Mortimer, and give it to him to keep his anger still in motion.”

That’s because starlings can be taught to talk – see the video below of a starling saying, “Give me a kiss, baby.” Or go here to see a video of an even more voluble starling besotted with its own name, “Damar.”

But why did Dante’s choose starlings for his metaphor of movement?  Christian Stanley Ciesielski let me know what a “murmuration” of starlings can do – see the first video below for that, too.

As Christian suggested, “Imagine a whole murmuration of ‘Give me a kiss, baby.'”   Another expression of “the Love that moves the sun and the other stars.”

Bodleian’s treasures on display: paradise as a library

Saturday, November 26th, 2011
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"Marco Polo's Travels," 14th century. Copyright Bodleian Libraries,University of Oxford

As you enter the darkened room,  a 1623 Shakespeare First Folio is to your right.  Enigmatic scraps of a poem by Sappho, circa 2nd century A.D., are to your left.  And all around you the wonders of the world: weighted with heavy seals, a 1217 “engrossment” of the Magna Carta is nearby (it was reissued under Henry III); so is a 1455 Gutenberg Bible.  In the corner of one glass case –  an exquisite 18th-century miniature scroll of the Bhagavad Gita, which shines like a cache of jewels, somehow pressed and rolled into paper.

William Shakespeare, First Folio,1632. Copyright Bodleian Libraries,University of Oxford

“I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library,” Jorge Luis Borges famously said. And here, in the Bodleian Library’s current exhibition, “Treasures of the Bodleian,” 30 Sept. – 23 Dec. 2011, everyone could see that, well, he had a point.  The exhibition anticipates a permanent gallery in the Weston Library in 2015.  The exhibition shows some of the Bodleian’s rarest, most important, and most evocative rarities.

To wit:  In a corner, a single page of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley‘s Frankenstein describes the ominous night of the creature’s creation. Her scrawled text is corrected and amended by her husband, the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley.  Other handwritten manuscripts are the work of Jane Austen, John Donne, and Gerard Manley Hopkins.  Others are the work of a brush rather than a nib: an exquisite 17th-century picture scroll of the sad Tale of Urashima, a classic Japanese fairy tale which I had read as a child.

For Sir Thomas Bodley, who basically created the museum that opened its doors in 1602, the Shakespeare first folio did not seem like the greatest find. According to the exhibition guide, he “would likely have dismissed this as one of the ‘idle books, and rife raffes’ that had not place among the Library’s predominantly theological collections.”

The volume left the library under mysterious conditions in 1674, and resurfaced only in 1905.  By that time, “the Bodleian was prepared to pay the unheard-of sum of £3,000 to buy back ‘its original long-lost copy of the First Folio of Shakespeare.'”

William Shakespeare,First Folio,1632. Copyright Bodleian Libraries,University of Oxford

I visited the exhibition in the company of my friend, Oxford’s Eliza Tudor, and we gravitated towards our favorites.  Hers seemed to be J.R.R. Tolkien‘s brilliant golden watercolor of Bilbo Baggins, rendered invisible by a magic ring, as he converses with a dragon.  She also took a liking to the Selden map of China, from the Ming era – the earliest Chinese map to show not only shipping routes, but also to depict China as part of a greater East and Southeast Asia. And for me … well, what a choice!  Perhaps I’ll plump for one of the earliest editions of Dante‘s Divine Comedy, fully illustrated, made within decades of his death (see video below).

But there are littler treasures, too – Mohandas Gandhi wrote to his friend, the Anglican missionary Charles Andrews, in a 1932 prison letter exhibited in the collection: “I can therefore never say beforehand what will occupy my attention exclusively or for the most part at a given moment and since a civil resister bargains for the punishment he receives for his resistance, he must not fret over it. Therefore and to that extent I am content with my lot.”

Letter from an Egyptian boy to his father, 2nd or 3rd century A.D. Copyright Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford

Eliza arrived with her young son Fabian, who was mildly ill and did not attend school that day. His own choice was no surprise.  The exhibit that intrigued him the most was one of the earliest – about the same era, perhaps a little later, as the Sappho fragments: on a sheet of papyrus, an Egyptian schoolboy Theon complains to his father:

Theon to his father Theon, greetings. A nice thing to do, not taking me with you to the city. If you refuse to take me with you to Alexandria, I shall not write you a letter or speak to you or wish you good health. So: if you go to Alexandria I shall not take your hand or greet you ever again. If you refuse to take me, this is what happens. And my mother said to Archelaos, “He’s upsetting me, take him away!” A nice thing to do, sending me these grand presents, a hill of beans. They put us off the track that day, the 12th, when you sailed. Well then, send for me, I beg you. If you don’t send for me, I shan’t eat, I shan’t drink. There! I pray for your health.

George Orwell: Love, sex, religion, and ghosts

Monday, June 13th, 2011
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Aaaaa–choo!

I have to confess that I’d never had a thought, one way or ‘tother, about George Orwells views on anything supernatural. Frankly, I didn’t know that he had any – that is, until Dave Lull sent me a link for the following piece, Robert Gray‘s “Orwell vs. God,” from the most recent edition of The Spectator.

It probably won’t strike many as too much of a surprise that Orwell (a.k.a. Eric Blair) had a nearly allergic reaction to religion.  But that’s far too simple a characterization of a complex, intellectually tortured, relationship.

Yet as Orwell approached death, his intolerance of religion seemed to relax. In his last year he was delighted to receive a letter from Jacintha Buddicom, whom he had met at the age of 11, and who had become, during his teenage years, the first girl seriously to attract him — though his urgent desire was never returned. In her memoir, Eric and Us (1974), Jacintha Buddicom recalled how the young Eric Blair had loved ghost and horror stories, and how — jokingly, of course — he had given her a crucifix to keep away the vampires. Half the people walking the streets, he had speculated, were ghosts.

As long as his appetite for horror had been confined to imaginary worlds, he had been able to retain a capacity for joy in the real one. Jacintha Buddicom remembered him as a notably happy boy, and her memoir shows him full of kindness and fun, vastly different from the image he later purveyed of the miserable schoolboy at St. Cyprians, and still further removed from the misanthropic cynic who emerged at Eton.

But then in his first year at Eton Orwell had suffered a severe trauma. Infuriated by the bullying of an elder boy called Philip Yorke, brother of the novelist Henry Green, Blair and his friend Steven Runciman had constructed a wax model of their persecutor, and torn off one of the legs. Shortly afterwards Yorke broke his leg; a few months later he died of leukaemia. Sheer coincidence, no doubt, but deeply disquieting for the boys who had created the model. Runciman remained all his life an enthusiast for the occult; Eric Blair, perhaps more profoundly shocked, thenceforward shied away from any suggestion of the supernatural. Evil was clearly rampant, whereas ‘the good and the possible never seem to coincide’. It was at about 14, he later confessed, that he had abandoned his belief in God.

But that’s not all.  Gray continues:

Thanks to Animal Farm...

Yet seven months before Orwell died, he wrote to Buddicom, insisting that there must be some sort of afterlife. The letter, unfortunately, is lost, but Buddicom remembered that he had seemed to be referring not so much to Christian ideas of heaven and hell, but rather to a firm belief that ‘nothing ever dies’, that we must go on somewhere. This conviction seems to have stayed with him to the end: even if he did not believe in hell, he chose in his last weeks to read Dante’s Divine Comedy. [I wonder which translation – ED.]

In his will Orwell had left directions that he should be buried according to the rites of the Church of England. Of course no one was better qualified to appreciate the beauty of the Book of Common Prayer; nevertheless the request surprised some of his admirers. A funeral was duly held at Christ Church in Albany Street; and David Astor, responsible for the arrangements, asked if his friend’s body might be interred in a country churchyard, at Sutton Courtenay, in Berkshire.

There was, however, a hitch. One of the churchwardens at Sutton Courtenay, a farmer, seemed doubtful that permission should be given. Had this fellow Orwell, or Blair, or whatever, really been a sound Christian? Fortunately the vicar had the inspired idea of showing the agricultural churchwarden a copy of Animal Farm. It was a title which instantly removed all scruples.

And that’s where he remains.

There’s lots more to the story – check out The Spectator article.

By the way, Jacintha Buddicom was the recipient of more than distant yearnings – John G. Rodwan’s  fascinating, and very well-informed, discussion of hot, steamy sex … well, the desire for hot, steamy, sex, anyway… under the stuffy title, “George & Jacintha: On the Limits of Literary Biography,” is here.

Postscript on 6/14:  Dave Lull wrote to add a note on a parallel theme, a review of David Lebedoff’s The Same Man: George Orwell & Evelyn Waugh in Love and War – it’s reviewed briefly in “A Study of Two Masters of English Prose,” by John P. Rossi.  The thought extends a passage from The Spectator article:  “Perhaps Evelyn Waugh divined something of Orwell’s buried spirituality when he wrote to congratulate him on Nineteen-Eighty-Four, and subsequently visited him in the nursing home at Cranham in Gloucestershire. On the other side, one of Orwell’s last attempts at writing was to draw up notes for an essay on Waugh, who, he considered, ‘is abt as good a novelist as one can be (i.e. as novelists go today) while holding unacceptable opinions’.”

Peter Dale Scott’s “J’aime mais j’accuse”

Wednesday, February 23rd, 2011
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Poetry reviews are hard to come by in our increasingly distracted world, so Peter Dale Scott wrote me yesterday to say that he is understandably chuffed with John Peck‘s hefty, megawatt review for his  Mosaic Orpheus in the current Notre Dame Review. (If you scroll way down to the bottom of the screen here, you can download the 15-page pdf, which is certainly a clumsy way for NDR to do things.)

Peter, a former Canadian diplomat, is one of the few to tackle political poetry in a way that is gritty and specific, rather than the more commonplace attempt to commandeer politics to give oneself unearned gravitas via airy and politically correct generalities.  Robert Hass called Peter’s 1988 Coming to Jakarta: A Poem About Terror “the most important political poem to appear in the English language in a very long time.”

Peck’s discussion opens with the 1988 “contemplative epic”: 

“Coming to Jakarta, his attempt to contain distress over the blocked publication of his investigative research findings comes up against ‘mosaic darkness’—not familiarly seamless obscurity, but kaleidoscopic stuff—while in the poem’s later books Dante’s civic grief and wrath, with his loyal love for a dead woman, make him an Orphic brother-father to Scott, in that Alighieri’s existential defeat folds out into contrary visionary assurance. Such is not regulation Orphism, particularly as invoked collegially against American amnesiac indifference toward a largely occulted, webby congress of state terrorism, proxy mass slaughters, off-the-books funnelings of the sluice from international drug cartels to black ops, economic decline and the management of fear by debt, false-flag events, assassinations, and greasy resource wars.”

Shovel ready

Peck’s writing style is dense, but often rewarding.  And while I hadn’t been terribly looking forward to a long gaze at the nastiest sides of American policy — other than that proffered by the daily news — I must say that Peck’s review has heightened my interest.  Of Scott, Peck writes:

“He must be the only poet now writing who can say that Czesław Miłosz, peace-studies scholar Ola Tunander, various prominent vipassana teachers, and certain unnamed informants in government service deceased in mysterious circumstances, equally have nourished his effort. This span, together with an iron stomach for the forensics and catharsis of difficult findings, spell his personal equation. His poetics therefore will likely be neither a standard Orphic affair nor a canonical Buddhist one, although the poetry plainly arises in order to square those canons, and that personal equation, with a civics obdurately impersonal and malign.”

Peter, one of Miłosz’s earliest translators, describes his up-and-down relationship with the Nobel laureate — the two parted over politics, but reconciled much later — in my  An Invisible Rope: Portraits of Czesław Miłosz.

Peck concludes:

“The spirit of research in this our dump needs every acolyte who carries a shovel. My Ketman-meter, its needle pushing into the red zone, tells me that our bitched order forces doubleness into both zones, out behind the vast oligarchic scrim and down into the crannies of palimpsested authority.  Scott has done us the honor of adopting this country as his own. Shall we read his voluminous J’aime mais j’accuse with due attention? His vade mecum, Mosaic Orpheus, reminds us that this labor has been one of hopeless, yet justified, love.”

By the way, Clive Wilmer called Peck, a Pittsburgh-born psychotherapist, “the outstanding American poet of his generation–as well as one of the most difficult.” As a young man he studied under Yvor Winters, and earned his Stanford PhD with doctoral thesis on Ezra Pound, supervised by Donald Davie.  Some of Peck’s poems are at the Poetry Foundation here.