Thursday, May 28, 2015

Dante's birthday

Dante Alighieri's birthday is reckoned to be 29 May 1265. Making tomorrow the 750th anniversary of the great poet's birth. My becoming aware of this event, along with the publication of Rod Dreher's book, How Dante Can Save Your Life: The Life-Changing Wisdom of History's Greatest Poem, prompted me recently to re-read the Divine Comedy.

Last Thursday, Great Britain's Independent newspaper published on article on the Divine Comedy by Ian Thomson. In his piece, Thomson provides a compelling and comprehensive overview of the deep influence this epic has had on Western culture, at least up until about 45-50 years ago.

Dante's deathmask- how very Beckett-like

In my very first post on Dante (May has been very Dante-intensive, due to my reading), I mentioned how deeply Bl Pope Paul VI was influenced by the Divine Comedy (see "Dante Alighieri and 'esperienza'"). In his article, Thomson mentioned Dante's influence on Samuel Beckett, Russian poet Osip Mandelstam, T.S. Eliot (whose work, like Dante's, I did not engage until I was in my 40s), Pier Paolo Pasolini, and Primo Levi, among others.

Yes, Pope Francis, in his message to the President of the Pontifical Council for Culture, Cardinal Ravasi, which was read to Italian Senate, quoting from Bl Pope Paul VI's Apostolic Letter on Dante, Altissimi cantus, which he promulgated at the conclusion of the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, wrote- "Dante is ours! Ours, meaning of the Catholic faith." Thomson's article, in my view, helps us to see what we must always mean when we invoke the term "Catholic," which, despite the fervent efforts of many, can never be authentically understood in a narrow, sectarian way. It should be clear that to employ it narrowly is a contradiction, like "squared circle."

Given my deep engagement with and affinity for the work of Samuel Beckett, I can't help but note that, in his Introduction to the Divine Comedy, Robin Kirkpatrick noted that "Beckett died with a copy of the Commedia at his bedside. Throughout his writing career he had taken, as his own alter ego, the character of the indolent Belacqua who appears in Purgatorio [Canto] 4’ [lines 88-139]. Above all, Beckett’s concern with ‘waiting’ as a condition of human existence exactly mirrors a dominant theme of the early Purgatorio. Resisting the dualistic claims of Cartesian thought, Beckett looks, as Dante always does, at the incalculable shifts of word and physical movement that, in the experience of waiting, so vividly animate even the most indolent mind. Here, like Dante, he reclaims the body as a comic determinant of human identity."

Belacqua Shuah, of course, is the central figure in Beckett's More Pricks Than Kicks, his first published work of fiction. More Pricks Than Kicks consists of 10 linked stories. Just last year an eleventh story, originally rejected by the publisher for inclusion in the collection, "Echo's Bones," was published by Grove Press. This story should not be confused with either Beckett's poem or his collection of poetry also entitled "Echo's Bones." According to the publisher's webpage, while Beckett tried to have the story included, it "was politely rejected by his editor and excluded from the collection, as it was considered too imaginatively playful, too allusive, and too undisciplined; qualities that are now recognized as quintessentially Beckett." Earlier in the book, Belacqua dies and is brought back to life by the author for this story.

I said: ‘O my sweet sire, set your eyes on that one, who appears lazier than if Sloth were his sister.’ Then he turned to us, and listened, only lifting his face above his thigh, and said: ‘Now go on up, you who are so steadfast.’ Then I knew who he was, and that effort, which still constrained my breath a little, did not prevent me going up to him, and, when I had reached him, he hardly lifted his head, to say: ‘Have you truly understood why the sun drives his chariot to the left?’ His indolent actions and the brief words, moved me to smile a little: then I began: ‘Belacqua, I do not grieve for you now: but tell me why you are sitting here? Are you waiting for a guide, or have you merely resumed your former habit?’

And he: ‘Brother, what use is it to climb? God’s winged Angel, who sits at the gate, will not let me pass through to the torments. First the sky must revolve, round me, outside, for as long a time as it did in my life: because I delayed my sighs of healing repentance to the end: unless, before then, some prayer aids me, that might rise from a heart that lives in grace: what is the rest worth, that is not heard in Heaven?’ (Purgatorio, Canto IV, lines 109-135)
Indeed, the Divine Comedy says something to me about my life. I believe it has a lot to say to a lot of us, especially now, when the transcendent dimension of our humanity (i.e., what constitutes us as being human) is under such violent assault. As Thomson noted, "If Dante speaks to our present condition, it is because he wrote the epic of Everyman in search of salvation."

Therefore, our slightly day-early Friday traditio is Robin Kirkpatrick briefly reading and discussing the Divine Comedy:

As Pope Francis noted in the final paragraph his letter,
Dante is therefore a prophet of hope, a herald of humanity’s possible redemption and liberation, of profound change in every man and woman, of all of humanity. He invites us to regain the lost and obscured meaning of our human journey and to hope to see again the bright horizon which shines in the full dignity of the human person

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