Monday, March 30, 2009

The Divine Comedy: The Only Good Thing to Come Out of Italy in the Last 700 Years. Just Kidding. Sort of.

This is on my other blog as well.

My English professor this semester concludes his syllabus with a potentially scandalous proposal: "I am suggesting that there exists no adequate reading of literature that is not also a reading of life, of your life and of our common lives as human beings." So yeah, this class started well, or appeared to have the potential to do so. We began by working on the Divine Comedy - this is dangerous at a school like UD, where the "reading" of one's own life in Dante might be little more than a moral education. One could easily walk away from the Comedy with a list of "do's" and "do not's," while Dante's education to love, community, and powerlessness - the heart of his education the Mystery - remains background noise. Luckily, such has not been the case, at least not for myself.

I realize Dante has pretty much been done to death in CL what with the whole Italian connection and whatnot - I really don't care. It is my favorite book in the UD core curriculum thus far and I want to write about it. This is not a detraction from the Iliad, the Odyssey, the Aeneid, Sir Gawain, or Beowulf, which we did last semester (although the Aeneid was, in my estimation, a bit of a snooze-fest): the Divine Comedy is just really, really good. Bear in mind that this is not a scholastic analysis of the text - I will be speaking in general terms. If you want to affirm or refute what I am saying, read the book yourself.

It is hard to know where to begin with a book like the Comedia. As I've said, the danger is to read it as a moral education - this is exceptionally true for the Inferno, whose entire focus seems, at face value, to be about the punishment of sinners. What we discover instead in the Comedia is a struggle to understand and to follow. For Dante this begins with simply surviving - he is lost and confronted with "beasts" - companionship, rescue, arrives in Virgil. The beasts being metaphors for various vices (lion = pride, leopard = lust, etc.), the conclusion can become "our companionship saves us from immorality." But we also see that Dante agrees to the education of traveling through the world beyond upon learning that Beatrice's soul impelled Virgil to Dante's aid. To summarize the overarching theme of each canticle: The Inferno is an education to divine justice, the Purgatorio, an education that seeks to better understand divine love and justice, and Paradiso, though muddled with Dante's backwards understanding of physics and astronomy, is an education to love. Inferno he learns that to pity the sinners in hell is to question God's justice, and by Paradiso he understands that God is love, the master of reality.

This all makes for a very boring, sterile encyclical on why God is loving and just: these are things that everyone and their mother knows, recognizes, and tries to attain because "it's the right thing." They might go so deep as to say "evil is the absence of God" or "sin is contrary to human nature" - truisms that with time and repetition become tepid platitudes. This is not where Dante concludes. His education and ours would be a waste of time were it not for the fact that inherent in this discovery of the Mystery is an awakening of man's longing and need - that this education is the most thrilling adventure there is. That Virgil comes to Dante's rescue is a testament to the grace of Another in a reality that appears to foster little more than loneliness, solitude, and alienation.

I need to modify a previous statement - the Divine Comedy does in fact encompass a moral eduaction. But inherent in that moral education is an poignant education to the heart's desire for the Infinite. The sinners in hell did, at the end of the day, sin without repentance - for this they are punished.

Dante's poetry, however, allows for the sin to be conceptualized and thus generalized. Dante characterizes all human action as guided by "love", both good love and bad love. Bad love is, again, not a question of virtues or ethics, but one rather of worthiness. One guilty of bad love directs his or her affection, hope, and expectation - the totality of their desire -toward something unworthy, something that cannot fulfill them. That desire is misdirected such that it destroys that which would educate to the beauty of the Mystery - community - and as Dante enters deeper and deeper into Hell, the sin fosters greater delusion for each sinner. Judas is deepest in Hell - he directly betrayed the fulfillment of man's heart Incarnate, and rather than repent and begin again (as Peter) he despairs and destroys himself, as though the hope Jesus of Nazareth brought meant nothing.

The question of worthiness is intensely provoking. We live for things unworthy of our affection, yet humanity is a creature entirely unworthy of God's love. His mercy resonates through reality, through the encounter with Him in reality - this is not mercy limited to "Oh, alright one more shot, but if you screw up this one...". The fact that it enters human reality through things that touch us and move us - most exceptionally and gratuitously in the presence of His community - makes the work of beginning again an occasion for joy. To begin again is not a moment where God accepts our "yes" resignedly, but an event where, attracted by that which moves us (especially the gratuitous love met in the community), Christ begs for our hearts, begs for us to join him. That this undeserved mercy is won for us by the willing but undeserved crucifixion and death of Jesus of Nazareth is flooring.

I will skip ahead and summarize an important aspect of Paradiso. Those in Paradise rejoice at the entrance of new souls into heaven - the Infinite is not, appropriately, a limited resource. They rejoice at the joy of those who share in Him, because the basis for love of another person, for community - their desire for the Infinite- is present. It is a difficult thing to describe, but the fact that we receive a foretaste of that joy in the Church, in CL, on vacations, in singing together, at School of Community, in presentations, in dinners, in planning weekends - the fact that this actually happened - is astounding. The fact that it can happen again, that He can enter our lives every day, can only be described with an adjective that has not yet been invented in English.

Monday, March 16, 2009

If you're having difficulty creating a post...

Write an email to Francis at his or the blog's email address: asking him to make you an editor. Also- you may have to make a blogspot account. Until then, feel free to post comments, obviously.


Saturday, March 14, 2009

Turtles all the way down: Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

I just finished reading Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer, and it's my new favorite book. I don't even know what to say- any attempt would just be "a raid on the inarticulate/ With shabby equipment always deteriorating" (gracias Eliot).

I guess I'll try. Bare with me.

Things I loved about this book: the characters' honesty/openness/intimacy with the reader, Oskar's idiosyncrisies, his frankness, the grandparents' narrative, the fact that Oskar has so many questions about so many ridiculous things, his inventions, Oskar's business card, the fact that he writes to Stephen Hawking, the fact that Stephen Hawking writes back, the fact that so much of this book is about words and what they can do, or can't do, what they fill and can't fill, Mr. Black in 6A and Oskar's turning on his hearing aids for him, the sixth borough, the fact that it almost all takes place in NY and I know the places he talks about, that Oskar asks the pretty women he meets if he can kiss them, the expressions "heavy boots" and "Jose," the fact that he asks William Black if he forgives him for not picking up the phone, everything.

I think what I love about Oskar, and probably what other people love about him too, is that his voice is the adult child voice. Honestly, he's too smart for a real 8 or 9 year old, but that doesn't matter. He gives voice to the child in the adult and allows anyone reading it to be as simple and endearing and curious and confused and pained as Oskar- without any adult pretention or need to be grown-up. I mean he might be a real 8 year old too, but I definitely think he does the child-in-the-adult thing.

I don't know what to make of the fact that Thomas Schell is virtually a complete void, but also the center/addressee of each narrative. It's sort of like As I Lay Dying in some way (and even though I like that book a LOT, this one is way better). At least in As I Lay Dying, though, the dead body is actually IN the coffin- and we hear from her- even if only once. I guess taking Thomas out- or having his role in the narrators' lives essentially be empty- is because words are more important for the speakers than for who or what they're speaking about? I dunno, his parents are always talking to him- Oskar is always wondering about him and looking for him; we discover these characters in their speaking to/about Thomas. He's sort of the hole they dump their words into (and I guess this is literal, too, at the end) in their trying to figure things out, to put things in place.

I like that Foer juxtaposes the suffering caused by the bombing of Dresden and the 9/11 attacks. I wonder if the generation that went through WWII ever really recovered from it- or if anyone really ever recovers from any war, or attack. They wound so so deeply. I feel like the 20th century- and I guess even the 21st beginning with the bang of 9/11 - is just scar after scar after scar after scar, and each new wound makes the world look at all the other scars it has, which even though "healed" are still pink and ugly and gave the world extra skin-- like a sick joke of a souvenir gifted by history. Even our generation- even if we were young when it happened- we've got a pink blob of extra skin from 9/11 and we'll always see it when we take a shower or go to the beach- long after they build the freedom tower and set up memorial museums. I'm not really sure what to make of all that.

Obviously there's a lot more to say, and probably deeper things, but these are my initial impressions and thoughts.


Saturday, March 7, 2009

Do we have creative writers?

So, I don't know if any of you dabble in creative writing/poetry, but I think it would be awesome to compile our stuff. We could even include photography or paintings as well. What do you guys think? I had the idea because I recently submitted some stuff to my school's literary magazine and have been talking to these two profs who publish and edit their own literary journal ( if you're interested). We could be the new generation of IMAGE (except we'll be better lol). Respond here, or you can email me, too (


Strindberg, anyone?

I am writing a paper on Strindberg right now and just wondered if anyone has looked at his work and what your thoughts are on it. Particularly, "The Stronger," "Miss Julie," "The Ghost Sonata," and "The Road to Damascus." It's interesting because he has a heavy Biblical overtone to his writing, but a lot of the philosophy seems rather Buddhist. Also, his plays can be taken and performed with a strong Feminist bent, and my prof said Strindberg himself would have been horrified at this interpretation.

Friday, March 6, 2009

The Death of Illusion in Antonioni’s "The Passenger"

The first twelve minutes of Antonioni’s 1975 film The Passenger may strike viewers as boring, mysterious, and unnecessary. The opening scenes take place in and around an isolated African desert village, in a landscape filled with heat and blowing pink sand, baking under a relentless sun. Though at first these scenes may seem completely gratuitous when considered in the context of the entire film, they lead the viewer to identify with the protagonist, who we later learn is named Locke, and then to witness his professional and existential crisis, and finally the death of his illusions about himself. The rest of the film explores what happens when he begins searching, leaving behind his dream self with his picture on Robinson’s passport. It is crucial, then, for the death of his dream self at the beginning to be effective in order to facilitate the remainder of the film.

As the credits begin, the camera pans left to the jeep coming out of an alley into our field of vision; the man gets out and we faintly hear him asking directions in English and French. He is clearly searching. We learn later that he is a reporter, and his behavior throughout the opening scenes describes his egotistical devotion to his profession. He follows every possible lead, through all his confusion, only to end up beside his jeep in the middle of the desert, stuck and impotent in the face of the elements. He follows each of his guides to the end of the road, and is left seeing only his inadequacy, not the things he imagines and sees in his mind.

A boy, the first guide, runs along beside the jeep, leading the man to a small interior, the cool darkness contrasting with the bright light outside, still visible through the open door. Several natives leave when the man comes in, but one stays seated in front of him and motions for a cigarette. After the man lights it, they move outside, watched by a second native. We first see the jeep traveling, then it parks in a small clearing; the man gets out and walks across to a seated African, the same in the shop.

The man wears sunglasses the whole time, has his shirt open and tied at the waist, with the exposed skin tanned and sunburned, in contrast to the cool darkness of the natives’ skin, with their flowing, easy clothes. Throughout these sequences the man is sweaty and uncomfortable, stumbling as he climbs rocks and swearing when he loses his third guide. The bumping jeep also presents contrasting motion as it roars along behind the native woman swaying coolly and calmly as she walks.

The interaction of the man with the boy in the striped shirt is entirely one-sided. He says, “Do you speak English? Vous parlons Francais?” Then a moment later, “Which way?” and when the boy gestures, says, “Left, left.” The boy communicates only with hand signals until a certain point when they are driving through the desert; then he leans forward, and finally speaks, saying quickly and quietly “Stop, stop!” The man is trying to engage the boy on his own terms, is frustrated by his lack of success, and the boy finally speaks only to leave him. The boy mutters something inaudible as he moves away, and the man remonstrates, “Hey, where you going?” but the boy leaves anyway.

Wind blows throughout these scenes, and provides a backdrop for the strictly diegetic sound used throughout. The indistinct voices of adults, cries of children, and animal noises predominate in sequences within the village. A rooster crows at intervals. The jeep is another main source of noise: it hums or roars, depending on the scene, and rattles constantly. Several times we hear the door slam and the engine start at the various stops the man makes.

The man finally breaks down while digging his jeep out of loose sand. He first tries digging at a couple of the wheels, then bangs his shovel against the side of the jeep in frustration. He swears under his breath, “Son of a bitch,” and finally calls out, “Alright! I don’t care!” He begins to weeping, and falls back against the jeep, exhausted. The camera then moves away from the man for a long pan across the desert, slowly covering pinkish dunes, blue sky, and a few rocks.

Throughout these sequences nothing much happens, but our curiosity is aroused by the actions of the natives and the man’s determined efforts to get somewhere. Ultimately, Antonioni’s technique keeps these scenes from becoming boring, even if his style is grating for some. The scenes are permeated throughout with a “documentary” feel that both makes us feel uncomfortably close to the subject, as if we were walking around with a video camera, and also distanced from a narrative perspective, since the action is not being narrated by a voice-over or other technique through a series of unexplained events (as we normally would be in a documentary) but leaves us on our own to piece things together.

Antonioni uses one shot sequence in particular that emphasizes this disorientation aimed at the viewer. The sequence begins when the boy in the yellow shirt, his first guide, leads him to the interior of what seems a kind of shop. We see him in the shop, the native asks for a cigarette, Locke gives him one and lights it, then the native leaves and subtly gestures Locke to follow him. The next shot we see is of the jeep, bumbling through the village under the merciless sun, and it stops in front of a native man seated cross legged by a wall. Locke gets out of the jeep and goes over to him, and though he looks similar, we assume this is a different man, who also asks for a cigarette, but then does nothing. Locke looks back toward the jeep (outside our field of vision) and seems surprised. Then the camera moves back to show a native boy seated in the passenger side of the jeep, staring straight ahead. Locke walks back to the truck, and we are confused along with him, since the man seated with the cigarette is now forgotten.

Throughout the opening it’s hard to tell what’s going on, who is supposed to be important and who is not, who is threatening and who is not; finally, when he breaks down at the end of the initial twelve minutes, it is the landscape itself that is threatening. The opening sequences are more like scenes depicted that just happened; the meaning or “moral” is initially quite opaque. If Antonioni wanted to show a day in the life a reporter in the desert, and set up a mystery in reverse, he did an excellent job. We are drawn in, we want some kind of control over the events, and are frustrated or intrigued by this introduction into wanting to get some kind of tradition narrative, some story of good or bad. In the end, though we hate being imposed with “morals,” at their lack we crave some kind of tidy conclusion and labels for the characters. We want them all to fit nicely into easily recognized prototypes.

The architecture student, though she comes in later in the film, is an example of this. She is a steadying influence on Locke, challenging him to face his life, when one might assume a student to be, on the contrary, a distracting element from the real problems of everyday life. The way she does it, too, is disturbing. She advocates Locke’s exploration of his problems, sticking with the schedule he inherited along with his new identity, as the “right” thing to do, not necessarily morally but experientially. She is proposing something new to Locke, that he not go through life on what he can get away with but on what he is given, exploring and pursuing that to the full. “Okay,” we could imagine her saying, “You’ve gotten away with it. So now do it as far as it goes. If you ditch it now, nothing will happen. You’ll just have the same thing to face later in a different form.”

The film, through the setup of the initial twelve minutes, leads us through the adventure and struggle of man to assert his own authority over his life, and his own identity. Locke, in his desire to act with protagonism, falls short when he follows his illusions, which are what he wants to see of reality rather than all there is actually present. Later sequences in the film, flashbacks to events occurring prior to the opening, can be helpful in illuminating its apparent mysteriousness. For example, in the sequence when the witch doctor turns the camera around to face Locke, telling him that only a dialogue, not an interrogative monologue, is authentic documentary. What Locke has hitherto been pursuing is only his own idea of documentation, his own illusions about his profession.

The predominance of heat and light contrasts with the cool dark interiors and shadows in the village. The ability to exist and function effectively and comfortably is part of acceptance and coherence with your environment. In these sequences we see clearly that the natives can and he can’t. He is exiled, alienated from his environment. Even his plaid shirt symbolizes this – all the natives wear solids, the women colors, the men mostly white, and the children t-shirts and pants. He is wearing all the right clothes, from an illusory perspective, the perspective of what one would think about a documentary photographer in the middle of a desert: khaki pants with pockets, explorer hat; but they are the Western stereotypical gear and won’t help him in the midst of a foreign environment. Locke tries to bribe (with cigarettes) and talk his way through, struggling by sheer physical effort to make his illusions fact; but in the end all his efforts are fruitless – even his shovel is ineffective. The environment imposes itself inexorably on man, with the natives as a part of the environment. Everything – the heat, the natives, the difficult landscape, the buzzing insects, but mainly the heat – everything is conspiring to stop him from his struggle to reach his objective. All these things comprise what is “other,” apart from Locke’s illusions. When he gives up, he is giving up on the documentary, finding information, and his profession as a reporter – all the things that comprise his ideas, his own construct of reality.

This death of illusion is a death of self, indicated as he exchanges identities with the dead man immediately after the twelve-minute opening scenes in the desert. He needs to be that dead man living because he killed his life, comprised of illusions, and gave it to the dead man when he placed Robinson’s photo on his own passport. When he places his photo on Robinson’s passport, he is embracing all that is “other.” Robinson, like the natives and the elements, is also “other” for Locke, because he doesn’t know who Robinson really is or what he does. This can only occur because he “died” back in the desert next to his jeep, he finally submitted himself to the elements, the otherness that confronted him. Subsequently, this death allows him to explore what is “other,” reality apart from his own illusions, during the rest of the film.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Solzhenitsyn On Art

Hi all. So I'm writing a paper for one of my history classes on Solzhenitsyn. I've been thinking a lot lately about what the role of the artist is in our society. We often tend to romanticize those authors who live in desperation, angrily highlighting the evils of society. While their insights are often correct, I find that they do not risk much in seeking only to condemn. When I read poetry for my classes, I always ask myself, "Where is the truth in this?" The following excerpt from Solzhenitsyn is, I think, something that we should all keep in mind when we consider the beauty of what we study.

"Archaeologists have not discovered stages of human existence so early that they were without art. Right back in the early morning twilights of mankind we received it from Hands which we were too slow to discern. And we were too slow to ask: FOR WHAT PURPOSE have we been given this gift? What are we to do with it?

And they were mistaken, and will always be mistaken, who prophesy that art will disintegrate, that it will outlive its forms and die. It is we who shall die - art will remain. And shall we comprehend, even on the day of our destruction, all its facets and all its possibilities?

Not everything assumes a name. Some things lead beyond words. Art inflames even a frozen, darkened soul to a high spiritual experience. Through art we are sometimes visited - dimly, briefly - by revelations such as cannot be produced by rational thinking.

Like that little looking-glass from the fairy-tales: look into it and you will see - not yourself - but for one second, the Inaccessible, whither no man can ride, no man fly. And only the soul gives a groan...

One day Dostoevsky threw out the enigmatic remark: "Beauty will save the world". What sort of a statement is that? For a long time I considered it mere words. How could that be possible? When in bloodthirsty history did beauty ever save anyone from anything? Ennobled, uplifted, yes - but whom has it saved?

There is, however, a certain peculiarity in the essence of beauty, a peculiarity in the status of art: namely, the convincingness of a true work of art is completely irrefutable and it forces even an opposing heart to surrender. It is possible to compose an outwardly smooth and elegant political speech, a headstrong article, a social program, or a philosophical system on the basis of both a mistake and a lie. What is hidden, what distorted, will not immediately become obvious.

Then a contradictory speech, article, program, a differently constructed philosophy rallies in opposition - and all just as elegant and smooth, and once again it works. Which is why such things are both trusted and mistrusted.

In vain to reiterate what does not reach the heart.

But a work of art bears within itself its own verification: conceptions which are devised or stretched do not stand being portrayed in images, they all come crashing down, appear sickly and pale, convince no one. But those works of art which have scooped up the truth and presented it to us as a living force - they take hold of us, compel us, and nobody ever, not even in ages to come, will appear to refute them.

So perhaps that ancient trinity of Truth, Goodness and Beauty is not simply an empty, faded formula as we thought in the days of our self-confident, materialistic youth? If the tops of these three trees converge, as the scholars maintained, but the too blatant, too direct stems of Truth and Goodness are crushed, cut down, not allowed through - then perhaps the fantastic, unpredictable, unexpected stems of Beauty will push through and soar TO THAT VERY SAME PLACE, and in so doing will fulfil the work of all three?

In that case Dostoevsky's remark, "Beauty will save the world", was not a careless phrase but a prophecy? After all HE was granted to see much, a man of fantastic illumination.

And in that case art, literature might really be able to help the world today?"

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

A note of encouragement...

Why do I lament that this process, that beginning again takes work? It’s a great work, as if you found a waterwheel abandoned long ago in an old millhouse – or perhaps it was never even set in motion. But all the parts are there, everything is sufficient in order to grind the wheat and make flour. Unfortunately, you find that over the years creepers have grown up to effectively prevent motion. So many theories clog the wheel- theories of love, religion, politics, philosophy, art… but they are no good without a life to back them up. Yet what is life? You can’t smoke it. So you begin to pull back the creepers, to push your fingers into the cracks and pull loose pebbles, blow away sand and grit; push the large rocks out of the way, and move loose boards that have fallen from the rafters. You see Ptolemy there, and catch a glance of Copernicus…Thomas and Augustine are still arguing, not so much on content as on policy…and are there four kinds of love? Push them away, push, push! Don’t stop until the boards emerge, red-brown and perfect under the dust of years. There is more work to be done still, please refrain from fooling. Polishing, greasing, honing – it is not light; it is a life’s work.