Canto 34 of Dante’s Paradiso?

There can be no doubt that if Dante had gone on to compose canto 34 of Paradiso (adjustment made to the numerical format of the Commedia, i.e. 34+33+33=100), that would have been the world’s greatest poem of silence.
One of the major topics in the Commedia are the limits of representation. Dante explores this time and again in all three canticles. In Paradiso 33 he reaches the outermost limit of poetic representation, the nec plus ultra of human art. Previously, he had compared himself, not without ambiguity, with Ulysees, had hoisted the sails of his ‘little boat’, and gone all around the orbs significandi, proving his skill and turning the sign into referent, the art into fact. At the very end of his journey, where the Celestial Rose and the three circles of light in the Empyrean preclude even the possibility of post-representation, the poet detonates his vision into silence. It does not represent the end of being, but the end of representation. Our tools can carry us only this far.
Botticelli understood this, and so did Wittgenstein, I think – in his own way. As is well-known, Botticelli illustrated his commentary of the Commedia with a series of drawings. Reaching the end of the Paradiso, he left the last drawing blank, except for the figures of Dante, St Bernard and the Virgin, all in the background. The rest of it, foregrounded, is silence(d):
Now imagine a slightly different end to Wittgenstein’s Tractatus (6.54-7):
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Dante and Milton

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For many, Dante’s Divina Commedia remains more a description of the three metaphysical realms than the author-protagonist’s journey understood as a phenomenological analysis of sin and redemption. It remains, in other words, a work of fantasy rather than an exploration of a personal drama. Everyone remembers the topography of Hell, the extravagance of sin and of those who are punished therein, but few would recall that this is a reality which presents itself to Dante-the-pilgrim, whose journey is the cause of the insight.
Today I told my students that Petronius’ Satyricon is similar to the Commedia (don’t gasp!) in the sense that they were both, generically, literary singularities, without direct models or subsequent imitators. One student disagreed, arguing that Paradise Lost may be seen as a progeny of the Commedia. That couldn’t be farther from the truth, in my opinion. Milton’s great epic dramatizes the Fall and its consequences, but the point of view is as though ‘from nowhere’. The Miltonian spectacle may be as poignant as Dante’s encounters in the Lower Hell, for instance, but it is mannerist by comparison. For me, the Commedia‘s nuclear reactor lies in its ability to convey the theatre of sin, purgation and exaltation through the eyes of a human agent, free, rational, pasional, incarnate. Rather than objectifying the human condition and its divine destiny, the Commedia puts us first, and orders everything around the discerning, ethical self, creating a narrative that straddles tragedy and comedy in a way that remains without equal to this day.

Vide cor tuum

A great thing happened today. My friend Jaff Seijas, a most talented and delicate artist, sent me one of his works all the way from Florida:


Gouache and inks on a medieval manuscript fragment. This is perhaps the best gift I got in many years. Now to find a fitting mount and frame for it.

Jaff said the interpretation of the artwork was up to me. Gazing at the collage, my mind is irresistibly drawn to a passage from Dante’s Vita Nuova, the opening dream-vision in which Beatrice makes her first appearance before becoming the poet’s existential fulcrum:
And betaking me to the loneliness of mine own room, I fell to thinking of this most courteous lady, thinking of whom I was overtaken by a pleasant slumber, wherein a marvellous vision was presented to me: for there appeared to be in my room a mist of the colour of fire, within the which I discerned the figure of a lord of terrible aspect to such as should gaze upon him, but who seemed therewithal to rejoice inwardly that it was a marvel to see. Speaking he said many things, among the which I could understand but few; and of these, this:
Ego dominus tuus.
In his arms it seemed to me that a person was sleeping, covered only with a blood-coloured cloth; upon whom looking very attentively, I knew that it was the lady of the salutation who had deigned the day before to salute me. And he who held her held also in his hand a thing that was burning in flames; and he said to me,
Vide cor tuum.
But when he had remained with me a little while, I thought that he set himself to awaken her that slept; after the which he made her to eat that thing which flamed in his hand; and she ate as one fearing. Then, having waited again a space, all his joy was turned into most bitter weeping; and as he wept he gathered the lady into his arms, and it seemed to me that he went with her up towards heaven: whereby such a great anguish came upon me that my light slumber could not endure through it, but was suddenly broken. And immediately having considered, I knew that the hour wherein this vision had been made manifest to me was the fourth hour (which is to say, the first of the nine last hours) of the night.

Good Friday blues or the things we didn’t know


We killed him on a Friday, when the birds had just begun to sing again. They will never forgive us. The trees won’t forgive us either. The leaves withered like a silly chicken embryo in a failed egg. The heavens were silent, but there was a murmur across the great plains. The prophet was right, after all. His words echoed from afar into the wilderness of the Valley of Ashes. They were as distressing as they were inescapable:

“But he had to die: he saw with eyes that saw everything; he saw man’s depths and ultimate grounds, all his concealed disgrace and ugliness. His pity knew no shame: he crawled into my dirtiest nooks. His most curious, overobtrusive, overpitying one had to die. He always saw me: on such a witness I wanted to have revenge or not live myself.  The god who saw everything, even man—this god had to die! Man cannot bear it that such a witness live.”

The eyes of Dr Eckleberg saw everything beneath the rusty frames. The stare was unbearable. Sartre was wrong. Staring into one another’s being doesn’t lead to a second life, but to a deeper death. Besides, we didn’t know that we didn’t stare, but that He stared at us. Like Dr Eckleberg’s eyes He stared at us, seeing down the abyss of despair that we are. A pile of corpses on the forest floor. Each staring into one another, but never beyond.

Death is contagious, silently killing everything in its path. We didn’t know that either:

“Altogether elsewhere, vast

Herds of reindeer move across

Miles and miles of golden moss

Silently and very fast”

God didn’t just die, we killed him. We killed him first thing in the morning, before anyone could see it. We didn’t kill Him in the night, so that we could have no excuse  for getting the wrong guy. We killed him, but that wasn’t enough. We hanged him, but we hung with him, that we didn’t know. We didn’t expect that. We didn’t expect to die with him. Killing Him, we killed ourselves, but we didn’t notice. The dagger went through, but we went about our business. They pointed it out, but we didn’t care. The dagger is still there, it has a golden hilt. Soon it will be dark again. The birds refuse to budge. The light is fading, but we don’t care, for we have torches. The same torches we used last night. They are still with us. We, on the other hand, are not.

We hoped to find ourselves, but we didn’t. We thought we would possess ourselves, at last, at will. We hoped that joy would follow the deed, but there was only mourning. So we mourned. But only for a little while. If only we’d known.

[review] Roger Scruton’s ‘On Human Nature’: What makes us who we are

Roger Scruton’s latest book ‘On Human Nature’ is a delightful book. It is pithy, incisive, and written in a clear, flowing style. Although the title makes one think of ancient philosophical treatises (such as Aristotle’s or Cicero’s), it resists objectifications of what makes us human. The starting as well as the end point are not so much ‘what makes us human’ (a topic on which books are being produced now more than ever before), but what our experience of our own humanity is.

Indeed, the personal pronoun, with its three persons, is the protagonist of this book. Scruton starts with the “I” of personal experience and ends with the “us” of morality, faith and social intercourse. Thus, this book is the antithesis of any objective, scientific account of human nature.
Moving through four short chapters (the book itself is only 140 pages long), Scruton takes the reader on a tour de force of the world of intersubjectivity as it opens to the reflective self. On at least one reading, this is a journey of discovery. Human individuals are not subjects, but selves, irreducible to the idiom of science. The embodied person is not merely a cocktail of biological ingredients, but a centre of “I”-thoughts which can only thrive in the encounter with the “Other”. Human relations reveal themselves in dialogue, understood not so much as discursive communication but as recognition of our shared likeness.

The dialogue between two first-person perspectives creates obligations that are essentially neither contractual nor functionalist. The parable of the Good Samaritan, Scruton argues, is not so much about openness and religious tolerance, but about the demands that fellow human beings make on us. The Samaritan helps the traveller not by virtue of any religious commandment, but because of the sacred obligation toward his neighbour. (pp. 106-7). The deep structure of our moral life depends on a kind of mirroring of our self in others. It is not a response to the environment, as evolutionary biology would have it, but to the imperatives of our human predicament: that I am aware of myself only insofar as I am aware of you.

The first chapter (“Human kind”) is both a direct attack on materialist and biologist reductionism and a compelling introduction to the peculiarity of personhood. Readers familiar with Scruton’s other works, particularly The Soul of the World and The Face of God will recognize many oft-visited themes. The author argues that the deep grammar of our first-person perspective on the world creates a vocabulary that only art and philosophy can render an account of. As rational agents, we do not simply think, but think about things. When we laugh, we laugh at something. This aboutness is, for Scruton, the key to the mystery of self-consciousness.

In Chapter 2 (“Human Relation”), the focus is on how our first-person point of view shapes our understanding of other people. Scruton is here as faithful to the work of the Jewish philosopher and theologian Martin Buber as ever. Human relationships emerge from the encounter between two first-person perspectives, the “I” and the “You”: “hence the word you does not, as a rule, describe the other person; it summons him or her into your presence, and this summons is paid for by a reciprocal response” (p. 69). All human experience is relational and no isolated selves exist apart from relationship to another. Pleasure and sexual desire are two examples which illustrate that relationships between individuals cannot be reduced to either a social function or an evolutionary imperative, but that they obey a higher logic. I enjoy your presence in the body only when I acknowledge you as an end, never as a means only.

Even more telling is the case of the moral codes and configurations that humans have developed over time. In Chapters 3 (“The Moral Life”) and 4 (“Sacred obligations”), Scruton looks at our deepest moral cravings. The author’s attack on materialist reductionism rages on. Morality does not emerge out of our response to the natural environment. It is rather because our encounter with others creates duties and deserts that hold us accountable to one another. Scruton rejects the view that our acts are morally right only if their consequences are right. Instead, he says, we derive our sense of right and wrong from a recognition of the other person’s freedom which reminds us, as it were, of our own. The sovereignty of the human person is the underlying principle of all morality.

Scruton is at his finest when he discusses sexual morality and the notions of defilement and contamination. Persons are embodied selves, not floating heads with hanging bodies, as Descartes thought. This fundamental truth explains why rape is experienced as desecration, and not merely as denial of consent: “forced against her will to experience her sex as a bodily function rather than as a gift of herself, she feels assaulted and polluted in her very being. And how the victim perceived the act is internally connected to what the act is” (p. 119). I do not have a body, I am my body.

Virtue, purity, piety (understood as “posture of submission and obedience toward authorities that you have never chosen” (p. 125)) are all categories of the sacred, which Scruton discusses in some detail in the last chapter. This is a polemical and I might say apologetical book, but it is not in the service of a specifically Christian understanding of humanity. Yet, there is nothing in it that wouldn’t provide substance for a discussion of our God-made nature.

Take forgiveness, for instance, which Scruton explains that “cannot be offered arbitrarily and to all comers – so offered it becomes a kind of indifference, a refusal to recognize the distinction between right and wrong. Forgiveness is only sincerely offered by a person who is aware of having been wronged, to another who is aware of having committed a wrong.” (p. 85). God’s forgiveness in Christ has been fully and freely given, but it nevertheless requires the sinner’s repentance in order to be enjoyed personally: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matt 3:2).

Roger Scruton has written a clear-eyed book on what makes us who we are. We may be thrown into the world, as Heidegger used to say, but we are thrown together, and we share the same experience of the downthrow. Materialists won’t enjoy the book for sure, but if you think, like Scruton, that the person emerges from the biological “in something like the way that the face emerges from the coloured patches on a canvas”, then you will appreciate it.

On Human Nature by Roger Scruton is published by Princeton University Press (2017).

This review first appeared at Theos on 30 March 2017. 

‘Damnatio memoriae’ or the ghost in the historical record?

Nobody likes King John of England. Apart from a handful of English protestants and  some London scholars, everybody thinks he was, to quote one illustrious historian, ‘shit’. And yet, would this quasi-unanimous assessment justify that John should be excised from history? Nobody thinks that nowadays, when even detritus has value, if you’re in Pompei. But back in the fourteenth century, things may have been a bit different.

As far as I know, King John never generated enough anger as to raise the question of whether he should be banned from the historical record. He was part of a dark chapter of English history, but no  more than that. Yet, a fourteenth century commentator of Dante’s Commedia may offer a different perspective. Benvenuto da Imola, one of the best earlier commentators of the Commedia notes that King Henry III of England was King Richard’s son when we know of course that Henry was John’s son.

Vedete il re. Hic Sordellus nominat alium spiritum illustrem Henricum regem Angliae. Iste fuit filius Richardi valentissimi, qui mirabilia fecit strenue contra Saladinum; qui Henricus fuit vir bonus, et bonae fidei possessor, sed habuit heredem meliorem se per contrarium Petri et Caroli, scilicet Adoardum virum valentissimum. Dicit ergo: il re de la semplice vita, fuit simplex et purus, sed non strenuus, sicut pater et filius, scilicet, Arrigo d’Inghilterra seder là solo; ponit ipsum solum, quia solus fuit simplex in numero regum Angliae, qui fuerunt communiter astuti valde; vel quia solitarius non gaudebat conversatione hominum, vel quia anglicus: Anglia enim angulus terrae est reposita in Oceano occidentali. Unde Virgilius: Et penitus toto divisos orbe britannos. Questi, scilicet, rex Henricus, ha ne’ rami suoi, scilicet, Anglia, Scotia et aliis insulis, miglior uscita, idest, meliorem filium, scilicet Adoardum, qui tunc vivebat.

Benvenuto da Imola (1375-80), Purgatorio 7.130-132

So what are we to make of this? It seems to me that either Benvenuto’s source was faulty (and I am not aware of any textual tradition whereby Henry’s uncle becomes his daddy), or John was the victim of a conspiracy to cut him off from history.

Reviewing the review – “Benjamin Bergen, What the F: What Swearing Reveals About Our Language, Our Brains, and Ourselves”

I’ve just read this review of Benjamin Bergen’s recent book “What the F: What Swearing Reveals About Our Language, Our Brains, and Ourselves” in the New York Review of Books. An exciting read, but with some qualification.

The review is enough to convince me to buy the book. It is also a reminder that we cannot escape ideology, however positivistically we frame our language. Take this example from the latter part of the review.

I applaud his [Bergen’s] sentiment [to liberate dirty words from censorship]. But he should not have tried to make this controversy [about racial slurs] parallel to quarrels over obscenity. Calling someone a fuck face is not nice, but it is meant to insult only one person. By contrast, a white person calling a black person nigger, the word the slave owners used, is insulting 13 percent of the population of the United States and reinvoking, in a perversely casual tone—as if everything were okay now—the worst crime our country ever committed, one whose consequences we are still living with, every day. (By the end of his discussion of slurs, Bergen seems to agree. I think his editor may have asked him to tone it down.)

Liberation? I don’t think so. It is merely a reshuffling of taboos, a realignment with mainstream ideology. “Oh my fucking God” is value-neutral, the reviewer might say, but racial profanity is not. I disagree. Calling a black person nigger is certainly an insult to that person, but it is no more insulting to 13 percent of the US population than religious profanity is to people of faith. Our culture of offensibility is still at work amid heroic attempts to move away from it. It is what it is, but at least we shouldn’t delude ourselves about it, and about ourselves.

The NYRB article may be read here.