Posts Tagged ‘Dante Alighieri’

Christopher Lydon, Robert Pogue Harrison discuss our “worldwide theater of imitated desire”

Thursday, July 2nd, 2020
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“HISTORY IS A TEST FOR MANKIND, BUT WE KNOW VERY WELL THAT MANKIND IS FAILING THAT TEST.” – RENÉ GIRARD

Is Geryon an image of our time?

The tables are turned on Entitled Opinions’ Robert Pogue Harrison: public radio show host Christopher Lydon recently interviewed the interviewer for Open Source in Boston. The wide-ranging conversation considered the French theorist René Girard’s mimetic theory, the nature of warfare, the dangers of biotechnology, and the social media.

A recording of the conversation is available at the Los Angeles Review of Books’ Entitled Opinion channel here.

Mankind is an imitative species “with a terrible envy built into it, a competitive desire to be like some ideal of the other person,” Harrison said, citing the work of Girard. Facebook is the “perfect mechanical vehicle” of such envy. Facebook services mimetic needs with “a prosthetic self and a prosthetic social life and prosthetic friends.”

“We have this illusion that there’s nothing more proper to my inner self than my own desires,” said Harrison – but Girard challenges that assumption, showing that our desires are the result of imitation. No coincidence, then, that Facebook was “a worldwide theater of imitated desire on people’s personal computers,” he said. Certainly his former Stanford pupil Peter Thiel, an early investor in Facebook, understood the importance of Girard’s legacy when he said: “I suspect that when the history of the 20th century is written circa 2100, he will be seen as truly one of the great intellectuals, but it may still be a long time till it’s fully understood.”

Radio host Lydon

Imitation leads to violence, and Harrison noted that Girard is “more compelling in his diagnosis of the problem of violence rather than what he offers as an alternative.” Girard’s solution? “The refusal to retaliate he believed was the only sane recommendation in the face of this vortex that international violence could create,” said Harrison.

Harrison also took on the gene-editing boom: “In the name of doing good, you can license a lot of harm,” he said. “Mengele in Auschwitz will eventually be recognized as a visionary of the 20th century, although his methods will be condemned and his Nazi affiliations never endorsed.”

Radio host Harrison

Harrison, a Dante scholar, pointed out that the Inferno’s portrayal of sea-faring Ulysses was the “archetype of scientific discovery,” always heading to new frontiers of exploration and knowledge, which ultimately led to his death. “The line that’s being crossed today is taking the role of creation into our own hands and presuming to know better than nature.” He asked what the motivations behind biotechnology are. Dante’s Geryon, the furry monster who represents fraud in the Inferno, “has the face of a gentle, kind, smiling man, and the tail of a scorpion,” he said. “I want to know where the scorpion tail is hiding in this new explosion of biotech.”

Listen to the whole thing at The Los Angeles Review of Books here.

“THE ONE WHO BELIEVES HE CAN CONTROL VIOLENCE BY SETTING UP DEFENSES IS IN FACT CONTROLLED BY VIOLENCE.” – ROBERT HARRISON

“Eliot did not merely reflect his times, but showed a way out of them.”

Wednesday, June 10th, 2020
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A lot depends on “Four Quartets”

Does T.S. Eliot still matter, and matter in a big way? Novelist Douglas Murraargues just thats: “He is the modern poet whose lines come to mind most often. The one we reach for when we wish to find sense in things. And certainly the first non-scriptural place we call when we consider the purpose or end of life.”

It’s a bold claim, but I prefer bold claims to timid ones. I would take strong exception to some of his assertions, like this one: “W.H. Auden has perhaps three-quarters of his reputation still.” Also take issue (minorly) with his point that if English-speakers know Dante today, it’s probably because of Eliot. That certainly wasn’t the case for me. Dante is rather, well, basic.

But his central contention is interesting: “The more letters emerge, the clearer we see how Eliot did more than stare into, or balance over the abyss. The extremity of his knowledge of personal and cultural breakdown meant that he learned not just how a person or culture can be shattered, but how also they might be put back together.”

It may be why he wanted, as he wrote to his brother in 1930, he wanted “to leave as little biography as possible.” A fascinating excerpt the dense crowding of references that are an Eliot trademark:

Still fundamental…

In early Eliot this already seems to be more than a quirk, or mere attempt to jolt the reader. Already it seems something that is possible, though with no attempt to explain how that might be so. A reader might take this as simply one more demonstration of the breakdown of everything, so that characters even wander in and out of time, so much have things fallen apart. It is only once Eliot meditates on the nature of time in Four Quartets that he fully finds, and expands, a Christian metaphysics that justifies this early intuition of his about the potential recoverability of time: that all time might be eternally present, and redeemable.

There is a practical consequence of this view of time, and a practical utility which follows on from it that I have often seen in readers of Eliot. First-time readers, especially of his early work, often feel battered by the number of references packed into “The Waste Land” in particular. It is possible that—like the third movement of Luciano Berio’s Sinfonia—this could all be seen as a skilful waste-tip of a culture: what has been left over after everything has come apart. But Eliot does not just present the jumble, he causes the reader to dig and wish to know more. He invites—in fact shows—people how to take things from the ruins. …

While other artists showed how culture could be either shown off, strewn about or destroyed utterly, Eliot demonstrated how it could be reclaimed. He showed how the remnants could become seedlings and sprout again, in another time or place. While repeatedly proving that he had a great artist’s ability to innovate, he also performed that second function of the great artist and demonstrated how culture can be transmitted. He didn’t just show the fire; he showed his readers how things could be saved from it.

He concludes that “through the course of his poetic career Eliot did not merely reflect his times, but showed a way out of them. Indeed a way out of all time.”

Read the whole thing over at the U.K.’s Standpoint here.

Early sci-fi: how Dante warps time and space

Saturday, March 2nd, 2019
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Was Dante a precursor to modern notions in sci-fi? Perhaps so. I was recently reading Disorder and Order, the book that came out of Stanford’s remarkable 1981 conference of that name organized by René Girard and Jean-Pierre Dupuy. I had seen the volume before, but somehow overlooked the brilliant essay, with the unalluring title, “Cosmology and Rhetoric,” written by one of the world’s leading Dante scholars, Stanford’s own John Freccero. In it, he makes the case for the written language as a spatial representation of time. He begins the discussion this way:

He recaptured time too.

“…I would like to cite the representation of the solar disc and zodiac in the pavement of the baptistry in Florence. Surrounding the Romanesque wheel of the heavens is a nearly effaced inscription – En giro torte sol ciclos et rotor igne – which may be roughly translated, “Behold the sun in its cyclical gyres and the wheel of fire!” Its significance is not in what it says but rather how it says it. The phrase, in fact, is a palindrome which reads the same from left to right and from right to left. In a tradition that goes back at least to Plato‘s Timaeus, the two apparent motions of the sun diurnally moving from east to west and zodiacally from west to east were described as a motion to the right and to the left. …

Dante’s disciple, John Freccero

“Dante’s literary cosmology is infinitely more complex, although elements like this can be discerned here and there in his voyage through the heavenly spheres. The complexity arises from the fact that the tautological structure of his poem warps the categories of time and space so that his voyage ends where it begins and time is recaptured. The arrow of temporality is also reversed in the final part of Proust‘s work where Le Temps retrouvé marks the end and therefore, paradoxically, the beginning. But the space was Paris, or at least the corklined study. In Dante’s work, however, space is a figure for this temporality so that it too bends back upon itself, boundless and all-encompassing, yet encompassed by the time that it takes to traverse it. The space-time continuum was familiar to Dante through the metaphor of written language which is a spatial representation of time. We are made surprisingly aware of this each time we run across phrases such as ‘as we saw above’ or ‘as we shall see below.’ The surprise comes from our temporal representation of space which is, in fact, the act of reading, in which we lend to space our own temporality as does a machine to the film frame placed before it. In the case of a book, however, the claim to totality is implicitly made – bound up and bounded by its covers, encyclopedic in the etymological sense of the word. When such a claim is translated into temporal terms, then all of time must be contained within it. When Dante refers to the primum mobile with one of his most bizarre images, referring to the outermost heavenly sphere as the flowerp0t in which time has it roots, he is making a claim not only for his voyage but also for the poem, which is coextensive with it. Since his story is in part how this story is written, it is inevitable that the closing of the book be its ending in which all of time and space are contained.”

Dante’s greatest challenge: “This is something one cannot speak about. And he is going to speak about it.”

Saturday, October 20th, 2018
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.“This is something that one cannot speak about. And Dante is going to speak about it.” 

“All the people who end up loving The Paradiso understand the great daring poetic achievement of the poem,” says Dante scholar Rachel Jacoff of Wellesley. Entitled Opinions host Robert Harrison, a Dante scholar himself, joins his colleague and former mentor for a final discussion of The Divine Comedy — more specifically, of The Purgatorio and The Paradiso. It’s up at the Los Angeles Review of Books here.

Harrison notes that “Dante’s Paradiso is the last full-bodied vision of paradise in Western literature. It’s all been Hell or Paradise Lost since then.” They explore the role of the Roman poet Statius in Purgatory, the disappearance of Virgil, the “tough love” of Beatrice, the nature of time in heaven, and Dante’s elusive attempt to express the inexpressible.

He’s gone at the end.

Jacoff compared Dante’s dilemma to Fra Angelico’s painting of “The Blessed Entering Paradise.” The souls dancing in a circle seem to represent paradise, but at the upper left is a white gate with light shining through it. “That’s the real thing out there, and he can’t paint it.”

When Harrison asked the Jewish Dante scholar whether the Christian theology of Dante’s masterwork created a barrier for her love of the poem, Jacoff replied:

Many great readers of Dante are not Christians. I think everyone has to answer this question for himself or herself. I find that it is one of the great works of art that I return to and it’s helped me understand all kinds of things. Clearly, much in it is alien to me, and always will be — but no more than Handel’s “Messiah” or Bach’s “Mass in B Minor.” These are foundational in my aesthetic experience — and it can’t only be just aesthetic. There has to be some way the spirituality of these works can be available to anyone.

This is the final interview of the three-part series with Rachel Jacoff on Dante. Parts 1 and 2 are here and here.¨

“Virgil is the tragedy within the comedy. Virgil’s fate is the thing that haunts the comedy.” 

“People who end up loving The Paradiso understand the great daring achievement of the poem… It’s the greatest challenge that the poet takes on.” 

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More potent quotes:

“It’s always magical to me: we have known since the beginning of the Inferno that Virgil is not going the whole journey. … yet at the moment Virgil actually disappears, it’s always a shock. It takes one’s breath away.

“Paradox is so built into everything in the Paradiso, because it’s so central to Christian theology.”

“I think the difficulty people have with the Paradiso isn’t the theology – there is much more made of it than is really there. The theology is not overwhelming – however, the continual carrying on about how terrible things are on earth might be the thing that overwhelms people. Sometimes it overwhelms me.”

“I think the Paradiso is informed by a profound historical pessimism. Dante was living in a great crisis of authority.”

“The only time I ever quote Heidegger is with that great line, ‘Only a god can save us.’ I think that’s where Dante is at the end, in terms of history. There’s nothing that he imagines that we can do. If it’s going to happen, it’s going to happen by divine intervention.”

“When I get a new book, I open and smell it”: An Albanian Kadare fan remembers when books could be dangerous.

Friday, March 2nd, 2018
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“When I get a new book, I open and smell it.”

There have been some interesting after-shocks from my New York Times Book Review piece last weekend: First, I made the headlines in Tirana. My contention that Ismail Kadare should have received a Nobel long ago is apparently controversial. Second, I got retweeted by Kadare’s daughter, Besjana Kadare, the Albanian Ambassador of Albania to the UN.  And finally, I received the email below, from Albanian-born Kadri Brogi, a tech manager at Hunter College in New York City. He is obviously a Kadare fan of, and gives some insight into the devotion Albanians have for the language’s first international writer (and I include his second letter below):

Thank you for writing that piece about Ismail Kadare. Your analyses is spot on.

I am originally from Albania and grew up reading his books. It was one of very few things we could look forward to there.  The rest of the literature was just “socialist realism.” He had some of that as well, but he has explained why. As you correctly noted, he has been very much inspired by the ancient Greek literature. Most of his work reflects that.

Protection? Forget it.

I think one of the main reasons why he has not been considered for the Nobel prize has to do with the perception that he has been too close to the communist nomenclature.  He was from the same town as Enver Hoxha, and many think that served as protection. I don’t believe that, because Enver Hoxha did not offer protection to anyone. He murdered is brother-in-law (his sister’s husband) who had paid for Hoxha’s education in France before the war.

About fifteen years ago, Kadare was invited to the Columbia University Rotunda. I was there. He was bombarded with questions about his past, mostly from Albanian immigrants, and he explained everything very well.  He said that he had never pretended to be a dissident. He said he made a compromise in order to survive.

Modeled himself on Dante.

He said that, like Dante Alighieri (his words), he has to build his environment and surrender himself from that reality in order to produce what he did. He was referring to Dante’s status when he had criticized the Pope and was treated very unfavorably. That was the reason (according to Kadare) that Dante created his own isolated reality where he produced great works like The Divine Comedy. Kadare said that he had two options: compromise and continue to write books that we can read or end up with a bullet in back of his head and be a hero.

His writings were very ambiguous in many cases. I read every single book he published before 1990 and went back and read few of them again after 1990. It was then I was able to read between the lines.

I think he will eventually be nominated for the Nobel.

Thank you again for your piece and I look forward to getting your new book.

Kadri gives some insight into Albanian life under the Hoxha regime in a follow-up email:

There were two things you could do in Albania when we were growing up, sports and reading. I wasn’t good at sports so I picked reading.

In elementary school I would read all kind of books. I took some piano lessons then but other kids made fun of me saying that piano is just for girls so I quit. By today’s definition, that would have classified as bullying but not then and there .  One teacher came to my father and expressed concern that I read too much and it might be unhealthy. To this day I read at least 15-20 books a year.

I live in NJ but commute to NYC every day. My phone is filled with audiobooks that I listen while staying on traffic.

Reading was something that helped me grow and develop. I learned English by myself with some old English books called Essentials.

At that time Russian was dominant in schools even though we had broken away from the Eastern bloc a long time ago. We could manage to get some prohibited books at that time (they were called yellow books) that if caught it meant jail.

I remember when I read the first American book in 1982. The Genius from Theodore Dreiser. I was mesmerized.

I read pretty much everything, but mostly historical books, memoirs, biographies and military because I served for many years. I was an Early Warning RADAR Engineer.

I teach computer science but try to encourage students to read as much as I can. I feel like many now consider reading as an archaic thing.

My daughters make fun of me because whenever I get a new book, I open and smell it.

Meanwhile, Humble Moi has become famous in Albania. Witness the headlines:

Want some “alone” time? Try the Inferno, says Rachel Jacoff.

Sunday, February 18th, 2018
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Are other people hell? Artist Antonio Maria Cotti seemed to think so.

“FOR DANTE, SIN IS A VIOLATION OF COMMUNITY. THERE ARE NO SINS THAT DO NOT HAVE SOCIAL CONSEQUENCES.” – RACHEL JACOFF

Rachel Jacoff is one of the leading lights in the small, close-knit world of Dante scholarship. In this Entitled Opinions episode on The Divine Comedy, she continues her conversation on The Inferno with her former student, our Entitled Opinions host Robert Harrison, himself a major Dante scholar. (Go to the podcast at the Los Angeles Review of Books here.)

Harrison begins by quoting Homer’s Iliad:

As the generation of leaves, so is that of humanity.
The wind scatters the leaves on the ground, but the live timber
burgeons with leaves again in the season of spring returning.
So one generation of men will grow while another dies.

Virgil and Dante … together at last.

Virgil picks up this evocative metaphor in The Aeneid, but its tone is more ominous and rueful among the dead of the underworld. No surprise, then, that Dante continues the figure of speech in Canto 3, as a nod to Virgil — but with an important difference. Dante emphasizes the singularity of each of the sinners, rather than their anonymity. Each resident of Dante’s infernal world chooses, rather than simply suffers, his or her individual fate. The damned not only make choices, but they reenact those choices and their rationalizations in their soliloquies. And Dante the Pilgrim is drawn into each of their vices as he speaks to them.

Eventually, Dante and Virgil hit bottom: “You think that the climax of The Inferno is going to be encounter with Satan – especially if you come to Dante from Milton,” says Harrison. “But Dante’s Satan is really a very uninteresting encounter. There’s no dialogue. Satan is just this horrible, slobbering, three-mouthed figure. So the real terror does not come from this canto, but from the canto before, where Dante meets the figure of Ugolino.”

Jacoff and Harrison discuss how the sins of the Inferno have social consequences, and are a violation of community – hence, hell is a lonely place, even when the characters are paired. Other people are part of their torture.

This is the second of three Entitled Opinions episodes on Jacoff and Dante. (Part 1 is here. Podcast for this episode is here. And yes, you really can watch them out of sequence. It’s okay. It works.)

“AN EYE FOR AN EYE IS ONE THING, BUT AN EYE FOR AN EYE FOR ETERNITY BECOMES REALLY PROBLEMATIC. … WE WANT A WORLD OF MERCY, WE WANT A WORLD OF GRACE.”  – ROBERT HARRISON

Here are some more quotes from the episode:

“For most of the characters in the Inferno, their sins are dispositions that inform every stance they take – the way they relate to Dante, the way they relate to other sinners in their group.” – Rachel Jacoff

“Part of the reason that The Inferno is full of solitaries is that sinners have cut themselves off.” – Rachel Jacoff

“In a horrible way, people are grouped together, but they’re so alone. The presence of other people is part of the torture.” – Rachel Jacoff

“In Dante, Ulysses does not go home at all. He’s the figure of the explorer, the man who lives for knowledge. He’s a forerunner of the figure of the great age of discovery in the Renaissance, the discovery of the New World, the scientific spirit. Everything that Dante called male curiosità, bad curiosity, within a century would be exalted as one of the premiere virtues of the humanism of the Renaissance.” – Robert Harrison

“Each canticle ends on the stars. They come out of The Inferno seeing the stars again, and they come out of Purgatory ready to go to the stars. And then … The Paradiso.” – Robert Harrison