"Love follows knowledge."
"Beauty above all beauty!"
– St. Catherine of Siena

Friday, February 23, 2018

Faith Filled Friday: Dr. Jérôme Lejeune

With the horror of aborting those innocent little ones simply because they have Downs Syndrome, I offer this quote I came by Magnificat (Feb 2018) by the discoverer of the chromosome abnormality that causes it, Dr. Jérôme Lejeune.  I take the quote from Anthony Esloen’s article there titled, “The Least of These.”

For millennia, medicine has striven to fight for life and health and disease and death.  Any reversal of the order of these terms of reference would entirely change medicine itself. 
         ~ Jérôme Lejeune

Without question his discovery of the Trisomy 21 abnormality should have warranted a Nobel Prize in Medicine.  But when he spoke out against the horrific practice of using his detection method for identifying and then aborting Downs Syndrome children, he went on to say to his wife, “Today I lost the Nobel Prize.”  And that is exactly what happened.

Dr. Lejeune was a French Catholic, most definitely pro-life, and has been recognized as a Servant of God by the Church.

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Dante's Inferno, Cantos XVIII thru XXIII

Continuing on with the summary of Dante's Inferno.  First installment was here. Second installment here. Third installment here.  

Having landed in Malebolge, Dante describes its structure as having ten concentric ditches or pockets, each for a different sin type of fraud.  Horned demons, stationed at each ditch, prevent the souls from escaping through harsh weapons and violence.  The ditches are connected by a series of bridges running toward the center.  The first ditch belongs to the pimps and seducers, where the sinners are whipped and where the pilgrims meet a Bolognese man who pimped sister and Jason the Argonaut, who in his adventures had seduced several women.  In the second ditch, the residence for flatterers, submerged in human excrement, the pilgrims meet a man from Lucca and Thais from classical literature.  (Canto XVIII)

The pilgrims come to the third ditch, where those who have sinned of simony.  Here the sinners are placed upside down in a hole that resembles a baptismal font, where only their legs stick up outside and the bottoms of their feet are flicked with flame.  This piques Dante's curiosity from above on the bridge and Virgil offers to take him down.  On the ground Dante stops to talk to one sinner, who submerged can't see who Dante is but confuses him with Pope Boniface VIII, who is expected to replace him by pushing him further down into the ground.  The sinner turns out to be a previous Pope, Nicholas III, who speaks of his sin.  Dante then rants against him telling him how all such Popes have made the world worse by their greed.  (Canto XIX)

They come to the fourth ditch, for sinners who have tried to divine the future.  Here the souls are twisted so that their heads face their back, forced ironically to walk with their heads backwards, and tears flow from their eyes and drip into their buttocks.  Virgil points out a number of sinners, but elaborates on a woman named Manto, a soothsayer, who was the legendary founder of Virgil's home city of Mantua.  In describing how Manto founded the city, Virgil gives a loving description of the natural milieu, suggestive of the poet's lyric poetry and offers a contrast to the hideous and repulsive nature of hell.  More sinners are identified and the pilgrims move on.  (Canto XX)

The pilgrims enter the fifth ditch, where those who committed barratry and other grafters reside.  The ditch is filled with boiling tar in which the sinners submerged.  A squad of demons with grappling hooks jab and carve the sinners if they try to rise up.  One demon has just arrived with a new resident, carrying him on his shoulder like a side of meat.  Virgil has Dante hide while he engages the demon, and tells him when demon is about to hook him that he's is there by the will of God.  The demon relents, Virgil has Dante come out, and the squad gathers threateningly around them.  They will let them go, but the demon tells them the next bridge is down and they will have to take a circuitous route onward.  They move on but Dante is afraid as the demons follow behind.  The squad gathers before their leader for a salute, and the leader acknowledges with a fart for a trumpet sound.  (Canto XXI)

Still in the fifth ditch the pilgrims look down into the pitch and see the sinners' nostril's as if they were frogs beneath the surface of a pond.  They scatter when the demons pass by except for one, and one of the demons grab him by the head and lift him out.  The pilgrims wish to talk to him and find out he's from Navarre, someone who had worked for the king and took bribes.  The demons slash at his being, ripping flesh off him.  He tells the pilgrims about others that reside there, and he plays a trick on the demons by leaping off to escape them.  Two of them chase him, argue and brawl, and fall themselves into the boiling tar.  While the other demons try to pull them out, the pilgrims run ahead.  (Canto XXII)

The pilgrims make an escape from the Malebranche by climbing and sliding down the back that separates the ditches, with Virgil holding Dante in his arms.  They make it over to the sixth ditch just in time as the squad of demons reach the edge of their ditch and can go no further.  The sixth ditch is where the hypocrites reside, painted souls who wear glittery vestments but filled with lead inside so that it wears them down.  They meet a pair of friars who walk and talk with them, reaching a soul staked in a crucified position on the ground.  We learn he is Caiaphus, the Jewish high priest who contrived to have Jesus crucified.  The pilgrims ask for directions to move to the next ditch and find out the Malebranche lied about the bridge being out.  (Canto XXIII)

Sunday, February 18, 2018

An Interview with Rod Dreher on Dante’s Divine Comedy

I was thrilled to find that at Discerning Hearts website, Kris McGregor in a podcast interviewed Rod Dreher on his book, How Dante Can Save Your Life:The Life-Changing Wisdom of History's Greatest Poem which is a personal memoir on how Rod found himself in a similar dark place that Dante finds himself, and how reading Dante’s great work pulled him out of his dark place to find God’s grace.  It’s a wonderful interview.

I have not read Rod’s book, but I’m getting it.  Right now it's only 99 cents on Kindle, so it's a great bargain.  You can find it on Amazon here. 

Here is the inteview.  It won't embed, so you'll have to go here.  

Rod leaves the interview with a really great quote, worthy of a Notable Quote entry. 

“If you surrender yourself to Dante, he will show you to the Lord.”

Discerning Hearts is such a great web site.  If you’re Catholic it should be a go to place for great podcasts, prayers, and meditations.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Comments, Inferno, Cantos XII thru XVII

I wanted to do a close reading of Canto XV, the one with Brunetto.  There are certain Cantos that Dante himself seems to highlight as important, and when a single character dominates a particular Canto as in XV, then surely this is an important one.  Brunetto Latini was a poet, scholar, and politician in Florence, and was part of the poet movement called the Dolce Stil Novo, which means in the new sweet style.  Dante was a member as was the Guido Cavalcanti, whose father we met in Canto X.  Brunetto appears to be a good generation older than the other poets in the movement, and so is a father figure for Dante.  One wonders what Dante's relationship with his father was since he is never mentioned in his work, but there are numerous father figures right here in the Comedia.  Virgil is one, and there is an interesting disconnect between Latini and Virgil in this canto, which I'll get to.

Latini, though, was more than a father figure; he was Dante's official guardian when Dante's father died when Dante was eighteen years old.  Dante's mother died when he was nine, and it just now occurs to me that those were the same two years Dante claimed to have met Beatrice, when he was nine and when he was eighteen.  Dante was also married at eighteen (to Gemma Donati), but apparently that marriage had been arranged when Dante was twelve.  It seems that Latini was around for some of Dante's key moments in his life.  Brunetto was also a Guelph, a polished orator, and a notary, which gives him the title of "ser."  He was certainly respected and honored.  He died in 1294 when Dante was roughly 29.  His tomb is still at the Santa Maria Maggiore Church in Florence.

That Dante honors Brunetto in Canto XV is without doubt.  But Dante places Brunetto, (a) in hell, and (b) in the circle for homosexuals or sodomites.  Hollander points out that there is some dispute as to what the sin is here in Cantos XV and XVI, but he is sure that it is sexual in nature (the punishment requires constant moving, which happens with the other sexual sins) and involves some perversion that would offend God.  What is interesting is that there is no mention or suggestion in the history of Latini being homosexual, so unless it failed to make the history somehow, this is strictly based on Dante's personal knowledge.  Latini was married and had children.  

So let's take a closer look at the text.  Before actually meeting Brunetto, the pilgrims see a group of souls walking toward them.  The fact that the souls are in a group also suggests some sort of sexual sin.  Most of the souls in Inferno are isolated, but Francesca and Paolo (Canto V) were together.  The fact that they are together and unable to ever consummate their sexual desires is apparently part of the punishment.  The souls observe the pilgrims, and Dante gives one of his great similes, actually a double simile:

Here we met a troop of souls
coming up along the bank, and each one
gazed at us as men at dusk will sometimes do,

eyeing one another under the new moon.
They peered at us with knitted brows
like an old tailor at his needle's eye. (XV. l. 16-21)

Such a beautiful nuanced description, trying to distinguish someone as one does at night in the dark.  Hollander thinks that use of eyeing at night under the moon is an allusion to homosexual "cruising." I find that a little farfetched, but Hollander knows the medieval, Florentine culture better than I would.  I find the second simile more interesting, squinting as a tailor threading a needle.  That to me suggests the parable about it being harder to get to heaven than a camel passing through the eye of a needle (Matt 19:23-26).  And how appropriate that is for Brunetto!

The next thing that catches my attention is the relative position of the Dante and Brunetto throughout the Canto.  Dante and Virgil are walking on an elevated bank to avoid stepping onto the burning sand; Brunetto on the sand, lower in height.  It is not noted what the difference is in elevation but we see Brunetto grasp the hem of Dante's garment and Dante reaches down to touch Brunetto's face.  This suggests either or both that Brunneto is fallen or that Dante has become the greater artist.  That moment of recognition is one of the great moments of Inferno, and should be quoted:

Thus scrutinized by such a company,
I was known to one of them who caught me
by the hem and then cried out, 'What a wonder!'

And while he held his arm outstretched to me,
I fixed my eyes on his scorched face
until beneath the charred disfigurement

I could discern the features that I knew
and, lowering my hand toward his face,
asked: 'Are You here, Ser Brunetto?' (XV. L. 22-30)

The fact that they touch is most noteworthy, especially since it's an affectionate touch.  I don't recall Dante touching any other sinner in hell, and the fact that Brunetto's expressive "What a wonder!" is also noteworthy.  Many sinners identify Dante as oddly alive in hell, but only Brunetto finds wonder in it.  The Italian is "maravilglia" or literally marvel.  To acknowledge wonder is first a sign of intellect but also a sign of a mind that accepts mystery, even the mystery of God.  No other sinner in hell I think comes this close to faith, which shows you the love Dante has for him, and perhaps the tragedy of his fate.  It should be noted that Dante the poet rhymes "Brunetto" two lines above with "ntellectto" or "intellect."  And that's not a coincidence.  But Dante the character gasps (that's the way I would read it) in shock "'Are You here, Ser Brunetto?"  Note the respectful title, even though the man was familiar and like a father to him.  

Note too how twice Brunetto calls Dante "son" and Dante the character refers to him as "paternal" (l. 83).  Given the disparity in elevation, as they walk Dante bows his head "like one who walks in reverence" (l. 45).  And they talk.  Brunetto tells Dante to "follow [his] star" and that Dante will be "glorious" with his work.  Now here I think we get the first sign of a sinful nature.  Even though Brunetto is now in hell, he doesn't talk about Dante saving his soul but about fame and glory, which I think shows a self-centered pride.  Certainly had he lived longer, he says, he would have helped Dante reach his fame.  And then he goes into a rant about how the crowd from the neighboring town of Fiesole will become Dante's enemy, and he roots the Fiesole enmity in history to Roman times.  I found that rather odd, I don't know what to make of it.  Brunetto also uses an agricultural metaphor: the Fiesolans are a bitter fruit ("sorbs") where Dante is a "sweet fig" (l. 65-66).  And he continues on with the metaphor:

'Let the Fiesolan beasts make forage
of themselves but spare the plant,
if on their dung-heap any still springs up,

'the plant in which lives on the holy seed
of those few Romans who remained
when it became the home of so much malice.' (XV. l. 73-78)

In today's parlance that is sort of racist language, but I'm not sure how to read it in the context of Dante's day.  The significance I think is that it's exclusionary rather than community building, and so shows a lack of charitable love.  But according to his Wikipedia entry, one of the things Latini had accomplished in his political life was a "temporary reconciliation between the Guelph and Ghibelline parties," which strains against how Dante portrays him.  Does Dante know him better than his public image?  Perhaps.

Dante laments when he recalls Brunetto's paternal image and that he "taught me how man makes himself immortal" (l. 85).  Now that should be taken as a line of irony, given that Brunetto is forever in hell.  Dante goes on to tell Brunetto of a lady that is linked to his destiny, never mentioning Beatrice's name, and that he is ready for his destiny.  And here Virgil, who does not say a single line in this canto, enigmatically says, "He listens well who takes in what he hears" (l. 99).  I'm not sure what Virgil is specifically referring to, but Hollander believes it's a caution for Dante.  But a caution for what?  Dante should be listening to the negative implications of Brunetto's words?  

But the two go on talking, and Dante asks who Brunetto's are companions, and Brunetto mentions they are all great and famous scholars but all "befouled/in the world above by a single sin" (l. 107-8).  He tells Dante "had [he]/a hankering for such filth" he might have joined the company.  So poor Ser Brunetto was done in for a single sin, "hankering" suggesting compulsion.  But that's in English but I can't speak to the suggestiveness of the Italian.  

The conversation concludes with Brunetto asking Dante to remember his work Tesoro (which means Treasure) and Dante noting it down in the Canto has immortalized it.  Finally we see Brunetto run off "like one/who races for the green cloth on the plain/beyond Verona" (l. 121-3).  That's apparently a reference to a race that was held in Verona where the runners ran naked over the course but the winner got to wear a green cloth while the losers were left to be embarrassed in their nudity.  But ironically Brunetto trails his companions, so he is more the loser.  What a wonderful and complicated character and scene.  


I promised Leslie I would explain why Virgil is the main guide for Dante.  And given that I just discussed Brunetto Latini, who under some circumstances might have made a sensible choice for a guide, I think this is a good place to explain it.  Leslie asked:

Why did Dante not choose a saint to greet him and instruct him? Why not an archangel? I think I'd like to see Saint Michael after so much garbage in my lifetime, but perhaps he must move up the ranks to merit even a saint's presence.

It's a very good question Leslie I think Virgil makes the most perfect choice when you consider all the themes that Dante is striving to express.  First, let me stipulate, Virgil is not the only guide throughout the Cantica.  He is the first guide, and we are told in the second Canto of Inferno that Beatrice selects Virgil to assist Dante because Virgil has "polished words (II. l. 67) and that she is "trusting to the noble speech that honors [him] and those who paid it heed" (l. 113-4).  So she trusts in Virgil's reputation as a great poet and speaker.  It's not clear exactly why she doesn't come down herself, but perhaps implied there is a suggestion that Dante, who reveres Virgil as the greatest poet, will listen to him.  

Now of course, that's just the narrative rational, but why does Dante the author select Virgil.  He could have created a similar rationale for another guide.  For those that may not know, Virgil is the guide throughout the Inferno and through the first twenty-nine of the thirty-three cantos in Purgatorio.  So it's almost two thirds of the entire Divine Comedy.  At the thirtieth Canto of Purgatorio, Beatrice takes over as guide because Virgil as pagan, cannot enter heaven.  Beatrice guides Dante through most of heaven except at the very core where the Blessed Mother and the Trinity reside.  From there Bernard of Clairvaux takes over as guide for the final few Cantos of Paradisio.  I can't recall the rationale for why Beatrice has to give over to St. Bernard (I'm admittingly weak on the Paradisio) but we'll explore it when we get to it.  But for structural purposes you can see Dante the author creating another triplet analogue.

So why Virgil?  Remember the three main themes of the Comedia: the conforming to God's will, the creation of a proper civic polity, and the creation of a poetic style that is reflects God's beauty.  

I think the theme on poetic style is the most obvious link to Virgil.  He was the greatest known poet in the Latin speaking world.  Dante had no firsthand knowledge of Homer.  We'll see that later in Inferno where we will come across the Homeric character of Ulysses (the Latin name for Odysseus) placed in hell.  Dante seems to get parts of the Ulysses story incorrect.  Of the Latin poets, Virgil makes the most sense for a number of reasons.  In his Aeneid, the central character Aeneas also travels down to hell and encounters a justice based system of punishments and deceased souls.  So Dante is clearly drawing from Virgil anyway.  Dante honors a number of poets throughout the work, especially in Purgatorio where he honors a number of Italian poets, but Virgil is clearly the most the model Dante believes offers an aesthetic link to his work.
Virgil is also the perfect poet to accentuate the theme of creating a proper civic polity.  The central theme of Virgil's Aeneid is the struggle and values needed to create the Roman people, which led to the formation of the Roman Empire, to Dante the greatest governing body ever, and a justification and model for the Holy Roman Empire and how it should be run.  Aeneas, as Virgil constructs the narrative, is known as the forefather of Romulus and Remus, the mythical founders of Rome.  In contrast to Rome Dante provides so many characters and scenes of people from the Florentine polity and government.  At this point in Inferno (midway) other than the mention to King Frederick II, we haven't gotten many allusions to the Holy Roman Empire, but more will follow.  There will also be more allusions to ancient Roman Empire.

Finally you would think Virgil wouldn't fit the religious theme of conforming to God's will, but here too Virgil turns out to be the perfect selection.  Aeneas, the central character of the Aeneid, is also a devout believer and practitioner of his faith in the Roman gods.  He is known as pius Aeneas, where piety is of the foremost importance to his character.  Self-sacrifice is what he must repeatedly do in the Aeneid to accomplish the will of the gods to found Rome.  He saves his father from death when the Greeks sack Troy, carrying him on his shoulders as the city burns and later gives up his fleshly love for Dido to go on to reach the Latin people.  Of all the characters to come out of classical literature, he is the most devout.  In addition, Virgil in the medieval world was known as a precursor to Christianity.  His other works show a love for a life of simplicity and faith.  In one of his poems (Eclogues IV) he describes the birth of a boy child who will bring glory.  People in the middle ages associated the child with Christ.

There are probably a few other reasons on why Virgil.  He spans back to the ancient world, and dante wants to show a continuum with the classical.  Virgil is a Latin poet, and so the forerunner of Italian, and Dante's choice to pick the vernacular Italian contrasts with Virgil's Latin.  There are probably more reasons but I think those are enough. 

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Dante's Inferno, Cantos XII thru XVII

Continuing on with the summary of Dante's Inferno.  First installment was here. Second installment here.  

The pilgrims enter the seventh circle, where the souls are punished for their acts of violence.  The Minotaur guards the entrance, and after a stern rebuke from Virgil, lets them in.  The seventh circle is divided into three circlets, each for a different form of violence.  The first is for those who committed violence against others, and it’s protected by the Centaurs.  The circlet is mostly made up of the river Phlegeton, a boiling stream colored red by the blood of the sinners forever feeding the stream.  After some discussion, the Centaurs agree to carry Dante and Virgil across.  (Canto XII)

Across the river, the pilgrims are dropped into the second circlet, a dark forest where the suicides reside, those who did violence on themselves.  The souls of the suicides have here been transformed into trees and shrubbery, forever to be broken and munched on by the Harpies.  Virgil tells Dante to break a twig off a tree, and so they encounter a soul who is never named but can be identified as Pier della Vigna, a fellow poet and a minister to the Emperor Frederick II.  Further the pilgrims meet two other souls who in life did not commit suicide but destroyed their material possessions.  These two souls are being chased by dogs who shred them with their teeth.  (Canto XIII)

The pilgrims reach the final circlet, a barren field of burning sand where flames fall down from the sky like snowflakes.  Here is the third section of the circle of violence, those who did violence against God.  The pilgrims only walk on the safe edge of the burning sand since the sand would destroy Dante’s feet.  The barren field is also divided into sections for different types of sinners against God, and here first is that of the blasphemers.  They meet the ancient Theban King who in his victory boasted he was greater than Jupiter himself.  Finally the pilgrims come to a waterfall where they stop and Virgil explains the geography of the rivers in hell and how their source is up above on earth.  (Canto XIV)

The pilgrims continue on a road within the barren field and come across a group of souls forever forced to run on the field.  Here the sin of sodomy is punished, and to Dante’s shock he comes across his beloved teacher and model for one who combines the poetic life with the life of political leadership, Ser Brunetto Latini.  Dante and Brunetto have perhaps the most gentile and affectionate conversation of any Dante has in hell, which shows just how much Dante loved him.  They discuss the wickedness of Florentine politics and Dante’s career as a man of letters.  Dante asks who else is there with Brunetto, and he says mostly other clerics and poets.  (Canto XV)

The pilgrims continue on on the field and come across another group of sodomites, these being famous Florentine politicians and soldiers.  All three he meets were former Guelphs and Dante feels a connection so strong with this group he nearly jumps in with them.  But the pilgrims move on and they come to a waterfalls that drops down deep into the pit.  Virgil has Dante unstrap his vestment cord, hand it to Virgil, and Virgil flings it into the stream.  Rising from the stream as if it were the cord transformed was a serpentine monster.  (Canto XVI)

The beast turns out to be the three parted creature from Greek mythology, Geryon, a monster that was part man, part serpent, and part bird.  While Virgil tries to command Geryon for their use, Dante goes to examine the last type of sinners in the section of those who did violence to God, this being the usurers.  While the sodomites were destined to be in forever motion, the usurers are destined to be forever sedentary.  When Dante returns to Virgil, he finds his guide on Geryon’s back, and Dante hops on.  They will use Geryon to descend down to the eighth circle, which is now too steep to descend on foot.  (Canto XVII)

Sunday, February 11, 2018

My 2018 Plans

Given I can no longer plan with any certainty what I plan to read, I don’t know if outlining my plans make sense.  Maybe I should post separate this into two halves, the half I know what I will read and the half I would like to get to read if I may.  The problem is I don’t know how many I can list with any confidence that I know I will read.  Of course this all has to do with me taking on the role of moderator at the Goodreads Catholic Thought Book Club.  Books are nominated and put to a vote and chosen by the entire club.  But let’s try it. 

Books I know I am pretty sure I will read.

(1) From Islam to Christ: One Woman’s Path through the Riddles of God by Derya Little.  I know for sure this book will be read because I have already read it!  It’s a wonderful coming of age memoir about a Turkish girl who grew up Muslim, became an atheist, had a conversion experience to Christianity, and then through her research and learning found the fullnesst of Christianity in the Roman Catholic faith.  It’s a great story and I will certainly post something on it shortly.  In the meantime, I highly recommend it. 

(2) Dante Alighieri’s The Divine Comedy, but this is going to count as six books since I will be reading all three parts, Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradisio, and I am reading two different translations, the Robert and Jean Hollander translation and the Anthony Esolen translation.  Again I’m pretty certain to to complete these.  It’s been picked for the book club and we’re doing Inferno now as you can see by my recent posts.  We will break after Inferno for other Catholic reads, return to Purgatorio I estimate around May or June, break again, and return for Paradisio by around September or October.  If you want to join in, either read along and comment on my blog, or join the book club.  It’s free.

(3) I’m going to squeeze in the next volume of Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables, which will be the fourth volume, which is called, “The Idyll in the Rue Plumet and the Epic in the Rue St. Denis.” 

(4) I’ll try to complete some of the ones I didn’t complete last year.  The Virgin and the Gipsy, a short novel by D. H. Lawrence should be a fast read once I get a week to concentrate on it.

(5) Another started last year but not finished was Hildegard of Bingen: Selected Writings, a collection of the saint’s writings translated and edited by Mark Atherton.

(6) I’ve started a gorgeous book on the life and art of the early Renaissance painter, Fra Angelico, simply titled Fra Angelico by Laurence Cantor and  Pia Palladino.  I will post on some of the paintings as well.

(7) I just purchased and have read more than a third of a short devotional, The Way of the Cross by Caryll Houselander.  It’s one of my reads for Lent.  I’ll have to see what the book club chooses. 

(8) My poetry read this year will be The Annotated Waste Land with Eliot’s Contemporary Prose: Second Edition by T. S. Eliot and edited by Lawrence Rainey.  I will post my thoughts on all five sections of the great poem.

(9) Biblical reads will Isaiah in Old Testament, and the Letter to the Hebrews, and the Letters of James, First and Second Peter, and if I have time the three letters of John and the Book of Revelations.  This year I will read all Biblical texts in both KJV and Ignatius translations.

(10) Of course the short stories, which will get picked mostly on impulse.  I only did eighteen last year but I will strive for my usual two per month.

(11) I’m reading The Chronicles of Narnia books with Matthew and so I hope to include one or two in this year’s read.  I’m actually well into the first of the series, The Magician's Nephew.  I’ve never read them, and what a joy it is so far.

Books I hope to get to:

(1) Three years ago I had started the tetralogy (a series of four) Parades End by Ford Madox Ford.  I had read the first two books in the series and I was supposed to read the third last year.  I did not get to it.  I really hope to get to it this year.  The third in the series is titled, A Man Could Stand Up —. 

(2) I really want to continue through a few books from French literature.  On my list for a very long time is Stendhal’s The Red and the Black.

(3) I want to read the recent Nobel Prize’s winner, Kazuo Ishiguro’s great novel, The Remains of the Day.”

(4) I really would like to read something by Alice McDermott and her most highly acclaimed work is Charming Billy. 

(5) I started Shakespeare’s trilogy of the Henry VI plays, so if I can I would like to read Part II and Part II.

(6) If I can persuade the book club to pick Pensées, by Blaise Pascal it would add to my French literature and to Catholic great works. 

Well, I know I’m not going to get to all that.  But one can only hope!

Monday, February 5, 2018

Comments, Inferno, Cantos VI Thru XI

The first six circles are all passed by the first eight Cantos, and so there are three remaining circles for the remaining 26 Cantos.  Those last three circles have many subdivisions, so there is a lot more to go.  But we have to understand malice.  I think violence, the middle category, is rather obvious.  The violent have consciously gone against the love of neighbor.  Heresy is a little harder to understand, and I’m not sure I get it a hundred percent.  It does seem like an act of will if you have been taught the divine revelation, and yet you reject it.  But what exactly is the malice?  Are you doing being malicious against God?  Perhaps.  Or are you leading your neighbor astray with your heresy?  Perhaps.  Perhaps both.

Fraud in the hierarchy is the most severe category of sin, and it makes sense when you realize that fraud is a direct violation of love.  It is certainly performed through an act of will.  Unlike heresy and violence, it actually uses love in a diabolical way.  And by love here I do not mean lust or anything sexual.  Fraud is a diabolical inversion of charity.  The best way to understand this is to see who Dante puts at the very heart of hell.  *Spoilers Ahead*   The most severe category of fraud are those that betray, because they have taken the love of a friend and performed malice with it.  Besides Lucifer, who is at the very heart of hell, at the center of the pit is Judas Iscariot, who betrayed Jesus Christ—God Himself—and betrayed Him with a kiss.  Fraud is the inverse of love, the opposite of God, God being Love.

Now Irene, considering the concept of social justice, I think sinners who consciously create an environment that violates human dignity naturally fall into fraud.  As you will see when we get to that circle and sections within the circle, fraud is very broadly defined.  There is a place for usury, which is part of what I think you’re bringing up, and there are places for thieves and counterfeiters.  If you think the sinners of avarice (Circle 4) should be down here, there is a distinction between those that take through volition and those that take through appetite. 


  I want to try to convey an appreciation for Dante’s poetic art, and let me use Canto VI to make my points. Canto VI happens to be the shortest of all 100 Cantos (actually tied with Inferno Canto XI, both having 115 lines) and I think it is particularly vivid and energetic so as to highlight the poetic skill. This is the Canto where the pilgrims (Dante and Virgil) are in the circle of gluttony and meet a Florentine, Ciacco, whose nickname means “hog.” The first thing I want to point out is the economy of words. 115 lines with about six words per line amounts to less than 700 words, which is less than a page worth of prose writing, and yet notice how much is in this short canto: he wakes up from his faint from the last canto, provides a description of the circle, a description of Cerberus and his actions, meeting up with Ciacco, their dialogue of Florentines, and Virgil discussion on the nature of the sinner’s lives in hell and their ultimate fate. How does Dante pack so much in a short canto? Compression and suggestion. Let’s take a look.

I am in the third circle, of eternal,
hateful rain, cold and leaden,
changeless in its monotony.

Heavy hailstones, filthy water, and snow
pour down through gloomy air.
The ground it falls on reeks. (VI. l. 7-12)

Thirty-four words to give you the sense of what it’s like to be there. Of course there are lots of nouns: rain, hailstones, water, snow, air, and ground. But notice the modifiers: “eternal, hateful rain,” “heavy hailstones,” “filthy water,” “gloomy air,” and ground that “reeks.” The adjectives either prod the senses to recreate the atmosphere or provide a point of view, “eternal, hateful rain,” which brings the reader in and suggests a context. Dante is a minimalist as a writer, using just enough and no more. If you compare him with the other great poets that are put in his great peers, Homer, Shakespeare, and Virgil, Dante is I would say by far the most laconic. Homer and Shakespeare are outright maximalists as I like to call them. They love to add words upon words to flesh out a scene. Virgil is closer to Dante, but even he is not as laconic. There is nothing wrong with being either a minimalist or a maximalist (I defend Shakespeare all the time on it) but a minimalist does require more skill. You have to be super sharp.

Let’s continue.

Cerberus, fierce and monstrous beast,
barks from three gullets like a dog
over the people underneath that muck.

His eyes are red, his beard a greasy black,
his belly swollen. With his taloned hands
he claws the spirits, flays and quarters them.

The rain makes them howl like dogs.
The unholy wretches often turn their bodies,
making of one side a shield for the other.

When Cerberus -- that huge worm -- noticed us,
he opened up his jaws and showed his fangs.
There was no part of him he held in check.

But then my leader spread his hands,
picked up some earth, and with full fists
tossed soil into the ravenous gullets. (VI. l. 13-27)

Can you get more vivid than that? The economic use of words—it’s actually even more economic in the Italian, I think—rolls with energy. Read it in the Italian if you can. The sound effects are a joy, and the terza rima rhyme scheme just accelerates the movement. Notice line 24, “There was no part of him he held in check.” What a succinct way to describe Cerberus’ abundance of action, and notice how such abundance accentuates the theme of this canto, gluttony. The three-headed dog is ravenous in both his appetite and his motion. Notice too how that last tercet is just 17 words to describe Virgil’s actions. Here again I have to praise the Hollander translation. It really captures the compression and rhythm of Dante’s phrasing.

As the dog that yelps with craving
grows quiet while it chews its food,
absorbed in trying to devour it,

the foul heads of that demon Cerberus were stilled,
who otherwise so thunders on the souls
they would as soon be deaf. (VI. l. 28-33)

Finally we come to one of Dante’s similes. Like Homer, Dante is famous for these too. Homer’s similes are also called Epic Similes, and they sometimes go on for lines at a time. Dante’s I think are much more nuanced, much more subtle, and I don’t recall them ever going on for more than two tercets. Just as a noisy, eager dog goes silent while focused on eating his food, so Cerberus goes silent. How subtle is that? It focuses on the silence, by contrasting it with a noisy pre-moment. It actually makes the silence vivid, which is no easy trick. If you have a dog, you know exactly the analogy. Let’s continue.

We were passing over shades sprawled
under heavy rain, setting our feet
upon their emptiness, which seems real bodies.

All of them were lying on the ground,
except for one who sat bolt upright
when he saw us pass before him.

'O you who come escorted through this Hell,'
he said, 'if you can, bring me back to mind.
You were made before I was undone.'

And I to him: 'The punishment you suffer
may be blotting you from memory:
it doesn't seem to me I've ever seen you.

'But tell me who you are to have been put
into this misery with such a penalty
that none, though harsher, is more loathsome.'

And he to me: 'Your city, so full of envy
that now the sack spills over,
held me in its confines in the sunlit life.

'You my townsmen called me Ciacco.
For the pernicious fault of gluttony,
as you can see, I'm prostrate in this rain.

'And in my misery I am not alone.
All those here share a single penalty
for the same fault.' He said no more. (VI. l. 34-57)

What’s interesting here is that Ciacco recognizes Dante the character, without Dante the poet explaining how and why. And we get almost nothing about Ciacco for us to know who he is. Dante never wastes words to fill the reader in, unlike Homer and Shakespeare. Would Dante’s readers know who Ciacco is? Though I could be wrong, he’s so obscure, unlike Farinata, who we’ll see further down, I would think not many, if any. I want to point out the metaphor that Ciacco uses (of course Dante wrote it) to describe Florence. 'Your city, so full of envy/that now the sack spills over,/ held me in its confines in the sunlit life’ (l. 49-51). Florence that once provided such an abundance for his life (“sunlit life”) is now like a “sack that spills over.” His reference is to the political strife that is going on at the moment in the city. The strife spills over like a bag full of food emptied. Now what a perfect metaphor for the canto of gluttons. And it provides a great pivot to go from the gluttony theme to the theme of Florence’s politics. Hollander in his notes says that no one has really stated a satisfying reason why politics and gluttony are merged together in this canto. I disagree. I think they are perfect matches. Just look at our politicians, and how the political wrangling is never enough, how politicians are always looking for the next angle to score political points, never satisfied with a political win, so that they are off onto to eating up the politics for the next political win. I think it’s brilliant, and all stemming from one unassuming metaphor.

Finally I want to discuss Dante’s rhythm, which comes in two forms, not including the meter itself, which I don’t think is worth pointing out unless someone wants me to. Notice how the sentences tend to stop at the end of a tercet, either with a full stop or with a coordinating conjunction, where then it stops at the next tercet. It’s not absolute, so it doesn’t feel mechanical, but regular enough to provide the reader a pause and breath at the end of the tercet.

The other rhythmic element is the shape of the Canto. The canto lengths range from 115 lines to 160 lines, which I think is Purgatorio XXXII. But most cantos run around 130 – 150 lines. That regular length—and again not mechanically fixed—paces the reader. But even more important I think is the construction of the cantos. It’s not obvious but if you haven’t picked up on it each canto roughly divides into thirds, call it an A, B, and C part. Here in Canto VI, the first thirty-three lines (the description of the circle and Cerberus) make up the first part. The second part is the dialogue with Ciacco, lines 34 through 93. The last twenty-two lines, Virgil’s explanation on the state of those in hell, make the last third. Each third varies in length, so again it’s not mechanical or obvious, and it may not be for every canto. But it is for almost all. Sometimes A part might be the lengthiest part, sometimes the C, sometimes B as in this case. That rhythm of threes builds in the reader’s reading rhythm.

One of the great scenes of Inferno for me has to be that of Canto X, the scene with Farinata and Cavalcante de’ Cavalcanti.  It’s a scene just rich with irony.  The pilgrims are in the circle of the heretics, walking through the sepulchers of those who believe in only the material world and are forced  to lie in a bed of fire until the end of time.  While Dante and Virgil are talking and passing through, the spirit of Farinata, the great Ghibelline leader from Dante’s father’s generation rises out of the sepulcher on recognizing Dante’s Tuscan dialect.

Notice the irony.  As Hollander points out, Farinata is a man who in life rejected the notion of the Resurrection, and Dante the author has him rise up from the tomb.  Notice that he is pulled into Dante’s conversation when he hears Dante say “Good leader” (“Buon duca”), only Dante is addressing Virgil.  Ironically, Farinata’s ears are pricked with a title he wants to hear about himself.  Farinata’s mannerisms and speech exudes pride and superiority. 

Already I had fixed my gaze on his.
And he was rising, lifting chest and brow
as though he held all Hell in utter scorn. (X. l. 34-36)

His prominent features are his chest and brow, just like any politician, and his scorn of Hell is a reaction to his uppity nature and perhaps disagreement in how the place is run.  What we have is a person who is full of pride.  And the first thing he asks Dante was about Dante’s family lines, as if to place them into a political context.

When I stood at the foot of his tomb
he looked at me a moment. Then he asked,
almost in disdain: 'Who were your ancestors?'

And I, eager to obey, held nothing back,
but told him who they were,
at which he barely raised his eyebrows

and said: 'They were most bitter enemies
to me, my forebears, and my party --
not once, but twice, I had to drive them out.' (X. l. 40-48)

And there he shows his pride at having defeated Dante’s family, but Dante returns with his own bit of boast, replying that unlike Farinata’s family who have not come back after being exiled, his family came back each time.  Then comes the Cavalconte interlude, which I’ll get to, but let me jump to the conclusion of the Farinata conversation.  Farinata continues and regrets how his family have not been let back into Florence: “’That they have badly learned this skill/torments me more than does this bed’” (l. 77-8).  He’s in hell, burning in torment for eternity and still he’s thinking of the politics of Florence and his family’s political skill.  He goes on to predict that Dante too will “know how difficult a skill” it will be to return from exile.  Remember that the Comedia is set in the year 1300, though Dante the author is writing this eight or so years later, six years after he is exiled.  So Dante in the story has not been exiled yet, but Dante the author has been.

And here is more irony.  When Fainata goes on to ask Dante why his Dante’s kin have been “so pitiless” against his, Dante cites a battle of great slaughter “that dyed the Ariba [river] red caused them [his kin] to raise/such prayers in our temple.”  What a great metaphor to relate political arguing with prayers.  Politics for the Florentines amounted to a religion, which is not any different than our politics today.  And ironically the metaphor comes in the circle of heresy.

Farinata goes on to further boast when he alone saved Florence from the Ghibelline’s desire to destroy the city, which was actually a very noble action.  Dante the author treats Farinata most humanely, even though he is in hell, allowing him to shine in his historical moment of a profile in courage.  If I were to relate Farinata to one of our historical politicians, it might be Abraham Lincoln.  And here is the irony.  Even though Farinata was a great leader and of true consequence with his moment of courage, he is still in hell.  It’s as if you or I were walking through hell and stumbling on Abraham Lincoln, the most saintly of all our politicians.  Just because one is great and did noble things, does not mean one is saved.

Now let’s turn to Cavalcante.  He is the father of Guido Cavalcanti, a renown Florentine poet and at one time Dante’s best friend.  Both Cavalcantis were atheists and Guelphs.  The elder Cavalcanti starts in a diminutive position, with just his head popping up, but then he too rises up out of the grave.  Unlike Farinata he does not talk or even suggest politics, but the only thing he can inquire about is his son.  He does not see Guido along with Dante, and so jumps the the conclusion his son has died.  Now here’s the irony.  His son will die in August of 1300, three or four months after the poem’s setting but seven years before Dante the author is writing this.  So his son has died in real life but not yet in the story’s moment.  It is interesting to note, that Guido is married to Farinata’s daughter, so Cavalcante and Farinata are in-laws. 

So why does Dante place Farinata and Cavalcante side by side?  Surely he’s pushing us to compare and contrast.  As to similarities, both are concerned with their family, and both then must be seen as failed fathers.  Farinata’s family are exiled, and Cavalcante’s son will surely go to hell like his father for his atheism.  Though of opposite political parties who may at one time been at each other’s throats, both now share the same sepulcher on the same bed of fire.  It doesn’t matter what your political party was in hell.  As to contrast,  Farinata is overly dignified and Cavalcante is overly emotional; Farinata is a legend, Cavalcante is overshadowed by his more famous son.  Farinata was from before Dante was born, Cavalcante Dante knew personally.  Both find themselves in hell.

I find this one of the most fascinating of all the scenes in Inferno.