Douthat in Hell

April 25, 2011

Oh Ross, you devil, you!

In today’s New York Times, Ross Douthat makes ‘a case for Hell.’  This is what we are offered as the intellectual ballast of the ‘conservative’ political movement today:  a shallow exercise in theology.

One sentence in his screed stood out for me, emphasis added:

As Anthony Esolen writes, in the introduction to his translation of Dante’s “Inferno,” the idea of hell is crucial to Western humanism. It’s a way of asserting that “things have meaning” — that earthly life is more than just a series of unimportant events, and that “the use of one man’s free will, at one moment, can mean life or death … salvation or damnation.”

Using GoogleBooks, I read through the introduction that Douthat cites:  some pages were left out.  Maybe they were the ones where Esolen makes this rather astounding argument about a poem that is often considered a literary summa of the medieval world-view, but I doubt it.  More likely, Douthat is not interested in what the terms Christian, Humanist, and Medieval actually mean, at least in literary terms.

The list of attributes he gives above are not normally associated with humanism, even in the simple version I recall from grade school textbooks, i.e:  man the measure of all things;  skepticism; finding truth with reason; lack of dogma; joy in daily experience, etc.  They are  associated with the medieval, Christian-allegorical way of seeing the world.  But for Ross, that is the only way, I suppose.

Douthat is the clever catechist:  He concludes by asking

Is Gandhi in hell? It’s a question that should puncture religious chauvinism and unsettle fundamentalists of every stripe. But there’s a question that should be asked in turn: Is Tony Soprano really in heaven?

If he had read The Inferno, he would know that Gandhi is certainly in hell, down on the First Circle, with all the righteous gentiles and unbaptized infants who died too soon.  They just sigh a lot – no torture – lamenting their missed chance at salvation.  All those intelligent B.C.E. philosphers are there too!  As for Tony Soprano, if there is no hell, there is no heaven.  I doubt any theologian really thinks what Douthat claims they think.

  

It would seem that the entire intellectual concept is rife with contradictions…

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Galileo Furioso

January 31, 2011

I am just beginning a new biography of Galileo by Heilbron, and what an unusual biography it is!  Rather than giving us a blow-by-blow of the life of the great man in embryo, we are almost immediately tossed into the chaos and ferment of late Renaissance Italian intellectual life.  Perhaps the details of Galileo’s early life are few and far between anyway.  But, more surprising, the attitude of the writer towards his famous, sainted subject is frequently one of ironic detachment and humor.  No hagiography here!  It’s an exhilarating and fresh approach to a man who is crucial in the history of modern science, but whose own accomplishments seem relatively slender compared to Newton and some others.

One of the most entertaining and unusual elements of the biography is its focus on Galileo as an aspiring literary lion of Florence.  He wrote criticism of poetry, fought in furious and futile intellectual battles over the relative merits of Tasso, Dante, and Ariosto, was instrumental in diagraming the true extent of the Inferno as described in The Divine Comedy, and was influenced by the ironic epic, Orlando Furioso, as much as he was by Aristotle.  Not exactly a typical resume for a giant of early modern science.  (Of course, we conveniently forget that Isaac Newton spent more time on numerology and alchemy than he did on physics.)

I have been hearing about Orlando for so many years now, it’s time to read it.


City of God, Cities of Hell, Cities of Self

September 16, 2010

Saint Augustine discusses the two cities, that of The World and that of God, but they occupy the same place, are co-extensive!  We choose our citizenship in one or the other, but we do not relocate.  And the City always is referring to Rome, the sack of which, was the initial impetus to the writing of Augustine’s massive work.  In Part II, Saint A. finally leaves off trashing the pagans and their stupid arguments for why the Fall of Rome is all the fault of the Christians, and gets down to business:

My task is to discuss, to the best of my power, the rise, the development, and the destined ends of the two cities, the earthly and the heavenly, the cities which we find, as I have said, interwoven, as it were, in this present transitory world, and mingled with one another.

City of God, Part II,  Book XI, Chapter I –  The subject of the second part: the origins and ends of the two cities.

In his Tragical History of Doctor Faustus, Christopher Marlowe has Mephistopholes advance a similar view of the geography of heaven and hell – they are the same place, but we don’t all occupy them together.  “I’m feeling good.  I’m in a good place today.”  “Oh yeah!  Well, I’m right next to you and I feel crappy!  Aren’t we in the same place?” 

Hell hath no limits, nor is circumscribed
In one self place, but where we are is Hell,
And where Hell is, there shall we ever be.
And to be short, when all the world dissolves,
And every creature shall be purified,
All places shall be Hell that is not Heaven

Italo Calvino wrote a book called Invisible Cities, and one of them was the City of the Inferno.  It too occupied the same place as all the other cities, which is to say, the world.  Inferno makes us think of Dante, but his hell was in a specific location and was well mapped.

The inferno of the living is not something that will be; if there is one, it is what is already here, the inferno where we live every day, that we form by being together.  There are two ways to escape suffering it.  The first is easy for many:  accept the inferno and become such a part of it that you can no longer see it.  The second is risky and demands constant vigilance and apprehension:  seek and learn to recognize who and what, in the midst of the inferno, are not inferno, then make them endure, give them space.

Italo Calvino – Invisible Cities

I tend to think that Bob Dylan’s Desolation Row is yet another one of these cities, maybe a city of the self, certainly of the world, and it is everywhere.  Desolation Row is not just the Bowery, it is, as they say, a state of mind.  Is it someplace you want to get out of or escape to?  Not clear, maybe both.

Now at midnight all the agents
And the superhuman crew
Come out and round up everyone
That knows more than they do
Then they bring them to the factory
Where the heart-attack machine
Is strapped across their shoulders
And then the kerosene
Is brought down from the castles
By insurance men who go
Check to see that nobody is escaping
To Desolation Row

To Desolation Row – B. Dylan

Finally, we have the City of the Self, the city within.  We all live in our own city, of one.  Is this city heavenly or hellish?  Seems it can be either one.  We make the city we live in the city of our self.  For some people, living anonymously in the midst of stone and asphalt can be the most beautiful and relaxing state of being; the country subjects us to the hell of other people.

I am going to seek solitude and rustic peace in the one place in France where they exist, in a fourth-floor apartment overlooking the Champs-Elysees.

Stendahl – The Red and the Black

Others, who won’t join the City of God, live in the city of the self that is obsessed with the world.  Ahab, the bad king of the Old Testament was one.  His modern incarnation sought the world out of obsession with whiteness, and wasn’t he really just self-obsessed?  He tries to bribe his crew into joining his metropolis of insanity.

Whosoever of ye raises me a white-headed whale with a wrinkled brow and a crooked jaw; whosoever of ye raises me that white-headed whale, with three holes punctured in his starboard fluke — look ye, whosoever of ye raises me that same white whale, he shall have this gold ounce, my boys!  Melville – Moby Dick

But for some, like Starbuck, even as they live their lives in the mini-city of the Pequod, the unfortunate New England whaler, and certainly no microcosm of a City of God, the city of self shows unexpected depths of peace.

And thus, though surrounded by circle upon circle of consternations and affrights, did these inscrutable creatures at the centre freely and fearlessly indulge in all peaceful concernments; yes, serenely revelled in dalliance and delight. But even so, amid the tornadoed Atlantic of my being, do I myself still for ever centrally disport in mute calm; and while ponderous planets of unwaning woe revolve round me, deep down and deep inland there I still bathe me in eternal mildness of joy.  Melville – Moby Dick

More at the True Binnacle:

Amid the tornadoed Atlantic of my being… you can see all the way down to the calm center, where there is no city at all.

                


I can’t hear you…

September 23, 2009

Final_1 Final_2

Lots of commentaries on Fellini’s 1960 film, La Dolce Vita, make much of the fact that it contains many allusions to Dante.  Is this surprising, that an Italian artist should do this?  No more than that an English speaking writer would quote Shakespeare or the King James Bible.

A long film, a rich film, a simple story.  A man searching for…a way out of the shallowness, ennui, and spiritual desolation of his life.  A beautiful woman loves him, but maybe she’s the wrong one for him.  She would need a little more sophistication to wrestle him to the ground, so he grinds her up and spits her out.  He is disgusted by his “friends,” but who else does he have?  The man he seems to admire commits a grisly suicide.  His father?  He hardly knows him, and genuine article that he is, he has a few of his own illusions to deal with.  Maybe Marcello is just too handsome for his own good.

At the end, he encounters again the beautiful young girl from a little cafe he met earlier.  A profile like an angel.  She beckons to him, but he can’t hear her across the waves.  He goes back to his degenerate orgiasts who are leaving the beach where they were gawking at an enormous “sea monster” the fishermen brought in.  Might there be a shred of hope left for him?

The most famous sequence features Anita Ekberg and the Trevi Fountain in Rome.  Another beckoning blonde, but this is no angel from an Umbrian frescoe.  It’s a Swedish-American pagan goddess offering erotic transcendence.  At least until the municipal authorities turn off the fountain’s water supply…

Sylvia in the Trevi trevi3 ecstasy