|NUMBER 2||SPRING 1988|
Dante is, John Ruskin wrote 100 years ago, «the central man of all the world». T. S. Eliot agreed, and what makes Eliot himself not only the great poet but also the great critic of our era has a great deal to do with Dante, as Eliot himself said: «I have borrowed lines from him, in the attempt to reproduce, or rather to arouse in the reader's mind the memory, of some Dantesque scene, and thus establish a relationship between the medieval inferno and modern life». Eliot seemed sure there was such a relationship, that he was not merely inventing it; that in seeing, imagining, and depicting that relationship between the medieval inferno and modern life he was seeing something that was really there. And he was, as I hope to show, because we now have a vocabulary to talk in specific and rather objective ways about those features shared by Dante's inferno and modern life.
Eliot was not only a poet and a critic, he was a philosopher and what we nowadays call a sociologist, and a distinguished one. In an age of apparently increasing specialization and fragmentation __ what might be called centrifugal specialization, with ideas, values, beliefs, and traditions constantly being thrown off and growing more distant from any imaginable or conceivable center __ Eliot, like Aristotle, St. Thomas Aquinas, and Dante himself, had a concentric mind, a centripetal intelligence, an integrating and synthesizing imagination that worked constantly «to see life steadily and see life whole». Consider Eliot's comment on a writer at an infinite remove from Dante, James Joyce; defending Joyce's use of myth in Ulysses, Eliot said that «It is simply a way of controlling, of ordering, of giving a shape and a significance to the immense panorama of futility and anarchy which is contemporary history». This was written in 1923 and it echoes the assertion of one of Joyce's own characters that «history is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake».
Since the 1920s the «nightmare» has gotten worse __ especially in the light of the fatuous progressive expectations that preceded it. Our undeniable history is replete with infernal images and memories: Pearl Harbor and Katyn Forest, Auschwitz and Theresienstadt, the Gulag Archipelago, Hiroshima, Cambodia, Uganda, right down to today's headlines from Afghanistan, Angola, and Iran. The «immense panorama of futility and anarchy which is contemporary history» is an empirical reality, and «ordering ... giving ... shape and ... significance to it» is an agonizing and inescapable task, whether in the work of our greatest writers, such as Eliot, Kafka, and Solzhenitsyn, or in the mind and life of any person who wishes to make moral sense of being alive. (And, as Solzhenitsyn has unforgettably put it, from «morals ... everything else originates as well».) What spectacular images of evil we have! The incinerators of Auschwitz, the ice-fields of Siberia, the mushroom cloud of Hiroshima, the holes full of skulls in Cambodia! All these lay in the future when Eliot wrote his first great essay on Dante in the 1920s, yet such prophetic imaginative insight and intuition did he have that he foretold them in the language and imagery of «The Waste Land», a poem directly inspired by Dante's infernal vision.
Yet Eliot's profoundest Dantesque intuition was of the less spectacular but more primary modes of confusion, folly, evil, and despair that give rise to our modern nightmares __ the roots from which these flowers of evil bloom. And here the vocabulary of many sociologists and some philosophers is most relevant.
Eliot early on and deeply detected within the conditions and dynamics of modern life the agonizing meaninglessness of the genti dolorose, the sorrowful people, in Canto III of Dante's Inferno. These are conditions for which by now we have not only a ready recognition but a large vocabulary: alienation, nausea, absurdity, anomie, ennui (which Tolstoy brilliantly defined as 'the desire for desires'), anxiety, estrangement, weightlessness («everything that is solid melts into the air», as Marx put it), meaninglessness, purposelessness, and nihilism. In our time, the distinguished Dantista and critic Joseph A. Mazzeo has put it, «the idiosyncratic has triumphed over the normative». The heirs of Canto III are among us and within us too to some extent; we inevitably share in the ethos or sensibility of our age to some extent, however much we may hate and work against it. From Baudelaire and James Thomson to Kafka, Camus, Sartre, Beckett, Plath, and Pinter, we have a large and powerful body of imaginative literature attesting to and exposing the width and depth of the modern sense of absurdity. At the heart of Western life and individuality today, Andre Malraux has said, dominating our culture, «there lies an essential absurdity». The recent Nobel Prize-winning Polish-American poet Czeslaw Milosz, living and teaching for the last 25 years at Berkeley, a poet and a writer shaped and suffused by Christianity, wrote not long ago that «the intellectual baggage of artists today, regardless of nationality, is more or less the same everywhere. All are 'children of the age' and, consciously or unconsciously, all pay homage to the nihilistic canon of the day». This is true of the high-brow culture of Sylvia Plath and Samuel Beckett, of Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs, but also of the environing 'cultures' of rock and commerce, from Mick Jagger and Sid Vicious to Rambo, James Bond, and much of the world of glossy magazines and color television; cultures brazenly toxic and septic, and profitably so.
A great sociological literature has given us an anatomy and provenance of this age and its momentum, from Weber, Durkheim, Simmel, and Tonnies, to Daniel Bell, Robert Nisbet, Peter Berger, and David Martin. But philosophers and historians of ideas have given a parallel analysis. Nihilism is the deepest drive of our age, Heidegger has written; and of course Nietzsche had argued the point 100 years ago when he wrote:
The end of the moral interpretation of the world, which no longer has any sanction ... leads to nihilism. «Everything lacks meaning». ... Since Copernicus man has been rolling from the center toward «x» ... What does nihilism mean? That the highest values devaluate themselves». The goal is lacking; the answer is lacking to our «Why?»
Listen to a passage of recent analysis from Gertrude Himmelfarb's brilliant essay «From Clapham to Bloomsbury: A Genealogy of Morals»:
«For the Englishman», Nietzsche wrote in 1889, «morality is not yet a problem». [Many of] the English thought that religion was no longer needed as a «guarantee of morality», that morality could be known «intuitively». But that illusion was itself a reflection of the persistent strength and depth among them of the Christian 'ascendancy'. Forgetting the religious origin of their morality, they also forgot the «highly conditional nature of its right to exist». If Christianity should ever lose that ascendancy, Nietzsche implied, morality would be deprived of even that tenuous hold on reality and would then truly become a «problem». A generation later morality was very much a problem, and for precisely the reasons Nietzsche foresaw.
Albert Camus later attributed the rise of Nazism to the moral chaos created by an 'awareness of the absurdity of life'. In his book The Decline of the Sacred in Industrial Society, the Italian sociologist Sabino Acquaviva recently wrote:
This influence of the religious component on human history must still be studied, and from this standpoint one might say that the history of the last 200 years should be rewritten. Phenomena such as the French Revolution and the Marxist Revolution may be grasped as something more profound than the products of political-philosophical ideologies, as being partially determined by the decay of the religious spirit __ a process which unleashes in the human psychology previously contained and restrained forces.
By now this sociological literature is very considerable both in volume and distinction; it is, I think, some of the great writing and thinking of our age. One of its most useful concepts is that of anomie, of normlessness, which Daniel Bell recently defined for a standard reference work as a «term, resurrected from the Greek (literally, without law) by ... Emile Durkheim, to denote that condition of society which results from the disintegration of a commonly accepted normative code ... [It is often used] as a concept akin to alienation, to describe a condition where an individual has lost his traditional moorings and [is] prone to disorientation or psychic disorder». The great contemporary sociologist Peter Berger has written in the same vein. But perhaps you may say to yourself, this is distant from the Dante who was writing almost 700 years ago. In some ways this is true __ the most notable being that in Dante's society there was still a firmer structure of meaning, belief, and coherence at least widely available. Yet Dante's age was riddled with follies, cruelties, and evils too and, brilliant and wise as he was, his epic starts out with him lost in a dark forest, where the true way was impossible to reach: «la diritta via era smarrita». A broken man in a broken land, a «paese guasto», a «waste land», the spirit become a waste of shame.
Eliot argued 40 years ago that Dante,
because he could do everything else, is for that reason the greatest 'religious' poet, though to call him [merely] a 'religious poet' would be to abate his universality. The Divine Comedy expresses everything in the way of emotion, between depravity's despair and the beatific vision, that man is capable of experiencing.
This is high praise. It may be doubted. For local cases and illustrations, look at some passages from Canto III. First, from the beginning (vv. 1-9):
Then, a bit further on, Virgil's lines to the terrified Dante:
«We are come to the place where I told thee thou shouldst see the woeful people who have lost the good of the intellect». And when he had laid his hand on mine with cheerful looks that gave me comfort he led me in to the things that are hidden there. There sighs, lamentations and loud wailings resounded through the starless air, so that at first it made me weep; strange tongues, horrible language, words of pain, tones of anger, voices loud and hoarse, and with these the sound of hands, made a tumult which is whirling always through that air forever dark, as sand eddies in a whirlwind (vv. 16-30).
Finally Dante sees the neutrals in all their anomie and ennui, horribly afflicted with a purposeless but fanatical restlessness:
And I looked and saw a whirling banner which ran so fast that it seemed as if it could never make a stand, and behind it came so long a train of people that I should never have believed death had undone so many (vv. 55-57).
Put these beside some passages from a poem of 1874 that was inspired by this Canto and foreshadows Eliot's «Waste Land», James Thomson's «City of Dreadful Night»:
Then toward the end of the poem we are given a picture of a woman in the morally 'unreal' modern city __ commercial, technological, 'functionally rational', 'beyond freedom and dignity', and after the 'death of God':
Thomson's narrator even says that he would gladly enter hell,
But Dante understands this! He has seen and experienced this already. He has seen it long before Camus's Meursault, Sartre's nausea and «visage angoissé» and «l'enfer, c'est les autres»; long before Durkheim's anomie, Tonnies's gesellschaft, and Marx's 'reification'; long before Kafka or Beckett; long before Eliot's lovers in «The Waste Land», tormenting each other with anxiety and neurosis in a kind of gruesome parody of the romantic hopes of «Dover Beach», «pressing lidless eyes and waiting for a knock upon the door» (v. 138). Long before any of them Dante knew that, in Eliot's words, «no human relations are adequate to human desires» («Baudelaire»).
Dorothy Sayers translates lines 43-57 of Inferno III:
Or, to repeat Sinclair's plain prose, «And I looked and saw a whirling banner which ran so fast that it seemed as if it never could make a stand, and behind it came so long a train of people that I should never have believed death had undone so many».
This last line brings us across 600 years to T. S. Eliot's «Waste Land», where it is quoted and prominently, poignantly deployed in «The Burial of the Dead» as the image of our confused age and its demoralization (in both Senses).
What bad news all of this is! __ or, as a student of mine put it, 'it's all very depressing'. Well, Eliot and Dante both apparently believed that «if a way to the better there be, it exacts a full look at the worst». The worst is real, in many ways more oppressively real than in Dante's age, perhaps terminally real. But how has it come about? These sad beings __ these hollow men __ have lost the proper functioning of the mind __ «il ben dell'intelletto». The proper object of the mind or rational soul is truth. Aristotle told St. Thomas and he or St. Thomas told Dante, that «truth is the good of the intellect». And the Gospels insist on truth: «the truth shall make you free»; «I am the way, the truth, and the life» (particularly beautiful, by the way, in Latin and Italian: «Io sono la via, la verità, e la vita»). And lest we too quickly dismiss these ancient sources, listen to more recent words, these from the current Wykeham Professor of Logic at Oxford: «There is no satisfactory account of truth or ethics without Theism». Which is to say, in rational terms nothing can be asserted to be coherently or comprehensively true or good if there is not an external, objective center of validity, value, and obligation. The great contemporary Polish émigré philosopher __ and ex-Marxist __ Leszek Kolakowski puts it even more dramatically: «either God or a cognitive nihilism ... there is no alternative».
Without the summum bonum __ «lo sommo ben» __ the rational knowledge of God, and access to «la somma sapienza» __ heavenly wisdom __ there is no coherent, non-contradictory rationality; «the highest values devalue themselves». Life is absurd, and futilitarianism reigns. We have a poignant vocabulary for this __ we speak of the 'bondage of purposeless freedom' and of 'the void at the heart of things'. We get the time-killing triviality and gibberish of so much modem talk and culture, as well as the aimlessness that gives us so much drug abuse, despair, alcoholism, schizophrenia, divorce, suicide. In the vestibule of Hell which we see in Canto III, Dorothy Sayers says, «the futile run perpetually after a whirling standard». Here is the classic image of «the desire for desires», of neophilia, the mindless and ultimately desperate love of the new, the strange, the odd, the idiosyncratic; of «futilitarianism». A flag that constantly changes position and direction tantalizing in its appearances and empty of substance, sense, or stable value, its pursuers, like Milton's fallen angels, «in wand'ring mazes lost». There is a great school of modern Danteans, not only critical but imaginative writers __ G. K. Chesterton, T. S. Eliot, C. S. Lewis, Dorothy Sayers, and Charles Williams __ who have helped us recover not only Dante's vision of God, but this existential realism. «The Waste Land __ the paese guasto __ the broken-down land __ is the modem inferno. Chesterton wrote that «the modem world has had a mental breakdown, even more than a moral breakdown». C. S. Lewis has explained for us the dynamics of 'futilitarianism', and depicted them imaginatively in his trilogy of space novels. But of course this is what modern literature is so good at anyway.
But if we are heirs of the «la perduta gente» and «le genti dolorose» of Canto III __ «sì lunga tratta di gente» __ we are also heirs of Dante the pilgrim and Dante the artist. Like the greatest Christian writers __ like St. John, like Milton and Dostoevsky, like Eliot and Solzhenitsyn __ he was writing a Gospel. He first tells us bad, true news of misery, then he tells us good, true news of felicity; «if a way to the better there be, it-exacts a full look at the worst».
It can, I think, still be argued, as Ruskin did a hundred years ago, foreshadowing Eliot, that Dante is «the central man of all the world» of our literature. His vision is of a world that is, in some sense, always going to Hell __ all ages are equidistant from eternity __ but which always has in it the possibility for individuals to go the other way. We pursue folly in groups, we approach truth, goodness, and well-being one by one; this is a perennial view of the 'pilgrim's progress'. The «perennial philosophy» (philosophia perennis) is the idea that «the Good is indeed something objective, and that reason is the organ whereby it is apprehended», to use C. S. Lewis's words. In Purgatorio XXVII the infection and weakness of Dante's will are overcome, the Good of the intellect has become clear and available again. This philosophia perennis «has always existed and will always exist», as Frithjof Schuon puts it. «In fact everything [important] has been said already» in human history and culture, he says, «though it is far from being the case that everyone has always understood it». (Compare Goethe: «New discoveries ... can and will be made, but nothing new can be thought out which has reference to man as a moral being. Everything has already been thought and said; we can at best reproduce it in another form».) The reading, studying, and teaching of great literature are primary modes of access to the perennial philosophy, and primary modes of access to the transcendental experiences of beatitudine and benessere and of the numinous that are its aesthetic, emotional, and religious dimensions. In the midst of «the immense panorama of futility and anarchy which is contemporary history», whether in the wasteland of American trivial and commercial culture, with its mind-boggling miscellaneity; in the gray tyrannies and hells of totalitarianism or authoritarianism; or the starvation and disease of the third world, this vision of the Good and of God is not only desperately needed, but is found when it is sought. It provides the only water that can satisfy «la sete naturale» of which Dante so often speaks, the terrible thirst that Eliot depicts in his Waste Land
But let Dante have the last, Latin words of my overlong, English lecture; his poem was written, he says, «removere viventes in hac vita de statu miserie, et perducere ad statum felicitatis»: to remove those living in this life from a state of misery, and lead them into a state of happiness.*
*Lecture given at the University of Virginia on September 16, 1987.