Brief note on the new name of this blog

In the autumn of 2017 I wrote the critical portion of my MFA thesis on the Australian author Gerald Murnane. I cannot remember the last time I discovered an author as stimulating as Murnane. I read a great deal of stylistically or structurally adventurous prose. I like and study other kinds of writing, too, obviously. But I have become increasingly invested in what I think of as more innovative kinds of prose fiction. Well, I can’t remember the last time I discovered an author as fresh and brilliant as Murnane. He’s not everyone’s cup of tea, however, I realize that. I would like someday to publish — in a respectable venue, not among these scattered thoughts — an essay explaining what I think are Murnane’s unique achievements and contributions to the art of prose fiction. But here, for now, I’m just going to offer a couple of big quotations, in the second of which you will see the source of the new name of this blog.

I have always been interested in what is usually called the world but only insofar as it provides me with evidence for the existence of another world. I have never written any piece of fiction with the simple purpose of understanding what I might call the real world. I have always written fiction in order to suggest to myself that another world exists. And whenever I have read a piece of fiction that seemed to me worthy to be read, whether the author of that fiction was myself or another person, I have always read with the purpose of suggesting to myself that a world might exist beyond the world suggested by the fiction, even if that further world was suggested only by such passages in the fiction as a report of the narrator’s reading a text the he could not understand or of a character’s dreaming a dream that was not reported in the text. (Stream System: the collected short fiction of Gerald Murnane, p.466)

That’s from Murnane’s story, “The Interior of Gaaldine.” Next is a passage from near the end of his novel, Barley Patch. But first I will tell you that the subtitle of the story just mentioned reads, “A true account of certain events recalled on the evening when I decided to write no more fiction.” Murnane did in fact stop writing fiction for a long time, about fifteen years. Or at least he stopped publishing it during that time. Barley Patch comes from his later golden period, after that hiatus, a burst of productivity that has only just concluded with the publication of Border Districts, which the author has announced will be his final work of fiction. Here is the passage from Barley Patch, which was first published in Australia in 2009. I quote from the American edition (Dalkey Archive) of 2011:

Now, I was free to suppose what I had often suspected: many a so-called fictional character was not a native of some or another fictional text but of a further region never yet written about. Such a character looked often from the region of the text towards that further region or dreamed about it. Such a character, perhaps, remembered often some or another personage who had never left that further region but remained safely there, never mentioned or referred to in any passage of fiction. Now, I might try to glimpse in my own mind some of what might be glimpsed in the mind or remembered or dreamed of but never written about. Now, I was justified in believing in the existence of places beyond the places that I had read about or had written about: of a country on the far side of fiction. (p.247)

Love in Hell

At long last, here’s a little bit on the Inferno, after which it will be time, as Monty Python liked to say, for something completely different…

I believe the emotional core of Dante’s poem about Hell is pity. I mean emotion in terms of what any of us are likely ever to feel, rather than the ecstasy of the Beatific Vision with which the poem ends (or more accurately, the point at which, in Dante’s own language, it fails). And perhaps rather than emotion I should use a phrase like inward disposition. But that’s too bloodless. Let’s just say the core of the poem — and in fact all three cantiche, not just the Inferno — is pity.  We don’t like pity these days. In fact I would say that usually we despise pity. We have to some extent replaced pity’s position among the virtues with what we call empathy. I will think momentarily about whether it’s a fair swap. First, I want to begin with two quotations, neither of them from the Inferno.

For the love of God, you ought to take pity on yourself.

That’s Bob Dylan, last line of the song “Thunder on the Mountain.” If pity in itself is bad, what do we think of self-pity? And here is a young lady named Canacee, from The Canterbury Tales:

What is the cause, if it be for to telle,

That ye be in this furial pyne of helle?

Quod Canacee unto this hauk above.

Is this for sorwe of deeth or los of love?

For, as I trowe, this ben causes two

That causen most a gentil herte wo;

Of other harm it nedeth nat to speke.

For ye yourself upon yourself yow wreke,

Which proveth wel, that either love or drede

Most been encheson of your cruel dede,

Sin that I see non other wight yow chace.

For love of God, as dooth yourselven grace

Or what may ben your help; for west nor eest

Ne sey I never er now no brid ne beest

That ferde with himself so pitously.

Ye slee me with your sorwe , verraily;

I have of yow so gret compassioun.

For Goddes love, com from the tree adoun;

And, as I am a kinges doghter trewe,

If that I verraily the cause knewe

Of your disese, if it lay in my might,

I wolde amend it…

I don’t want to get into the story Chaucer (or the Squire, rather) is telling here, but I have to mention that one thing I love about this soulful expression of pity is that Canacee is in this moment looking up into a tree. She’s actually spread her skirts out to catch the bird she is talking to in case she (the bird) falls, because the bird has been tearing at herself and beating herself and looks like she may perish. This directionality, I think, says so much about why we despise pity: we think of pity only as looking down. In fact we live with far more egalitarian values than Dante knew, and so we are far less comfortable looking down or up. Our ideal is that each individual or group should meet the other on equal terms. To look up or down is to judge and to be in a position of relative power or subservience. To take pity on someone is a version of having power over them, and to sue for pity is to admit some sort of inferiority in relation to the object of your pleas. We speak of empathy these days rather than pity, I think, because we imagine that particular psychological act to operate on a level. And yet it would be hard to imagine an age in which more people were concerned (or so it seems, especially in public discourse and in social media) constantly to establish themselves on what we call the moral high ground. But I think that is a slightly different matter, for the person on the moral high ground does not pity the barbarous other below him, so much as he has contempt for that other. Dante the narrator exhibits contempt in Hell, also, but it is distinct from pity, and the two responses on Dante’s part do not usually overlap. Ours is an age of widespread contempt, but also, in my experience, more empathy than in our bleaker moments we are inclined to allow; but one thing I don’t see much of is true pity. 

Personally, I cherish modern egalitarian values: I hold them to be the best hope for cultivating that most precious and mysterious thing, which we call individual human consciousness; as well as for fostering the most necessary and equally precious thing, the staple of consciousness and source of its ability to connect to the world and each other, which we call love. The reality of love, which I take to be a revelation though someone else might prefer to call it self-evident, guarantees the validity of our most idealistic egalitarianism. Paradoxically, however, I also recognize that our egalitarian values are frequently inadequate because fundamentally inaccurate or incomplete in their suppositions about how the world really is, how human beings actually work. Love, as Dante’s Comedy so amply affirms, is indeed the great leveler, indeed to a degree we can no longer really imagine. To put it in Dante’s Christian terms, i.e. the terms of the Comedy, it is love that brings the divine to the human level (in Christian tradition the Incarnation is, significantly, described as God condescending to become human), for the purpose of elevating the human to the level of the divine. But such motion is of course only conceivable in a cosmos in which it is possible in some metaphysical sense to move upwards or downwards, to occupy different ranks and stations in a divinely ordered creation. It is from properly cleaving to or embodying its particular rank and station that each being draws its dignity and, in the eternal world — the world of the Comedy — its blessing or its damnation. This was Dante’s understanding, fundamentally onto-hierarchical, and it is the only understanding of the world in which pity, properly understood, makes sense as a concept. To be clear: the hierarchy in question is both moral and metaphysical, and most importantly it is moral because it is metaphysical. How does that compare to our moral world, which seems to be hierarchical as well (or is it still?) but without any sponsoring metaphysical hierarchy? It’s a serious question. 

Empathy means imagining how it is for another. From this it is often supposed to follow, as the French proverb has it, that tout comprendre c’est tout pardonner — to understand all is to forgive all. There is actually quite a lot of ancient and theological wisdom in that proverb and I wouldn’t dream of throwing it out. But what I wondered while I was reading the Inferno was whether empathy and pity are compatible as values. I believe that they are, but only if one is able to live in a world of paradox, because they are superficially contradictory. Herein lies the contradiction: pity is a matter of judgment, while empathy is meant to train one away from judgment or at least from voicing and applying judgment. We are, as ever, caught between the worlds of mercy and of justice, or truth — as General Loewenhielm might say (that would be in Karen Blixen’s masterpiece Babette’s Feast). But as the good General also says: Mercy and truth have met together and righteousness and bliss have kissed one another!

We are inclined to think that judgment, when put into practice, always results in punitive action or some sort of prudish and puritanical scorn. This is, presumably, why no one likes to be considered “judgmental.” But of course judgment also means simply discerning a subject’s proper station (or you could say, purpose) in existence and then that subject’s actual position relative to that station, and this sort of judgment is necessary for any action or responsiveness to the reality we meet. One hopes to become more discerning and prudent as one grows older, not less, and it is precisely through such maturation that one becomes more tolerant and open-minded. Or so I was taught, when I was young, by my mentors — who, let it be known, were humanist and secular to a one. The fact is that empathy by itself generates no imperative. Reimagine Bob Dylan’s line quoted above as, For the love of God, you ought to be empathetic with yourself. It’s ridiculous. The most sense such a statement could make would be paraphrasable as: be conscious, be mindful. Okay, that’s fine, one strives to be conscious or mindful, aware, sensitive even to one’s own inner life. That, too, is an aspect of maturation. But I think you would not exhort someone to be self-conscious with a phrase like For the love of God. What I am getting at is this: empathy is gentle and it is necessary, but pity is potent. Perhaps this is because empathy is the imaginative appropriation of another’s state, but pity is your own state. 


The adjective corresponding to empathy is or ought to be pathetic, while the adjective corresponding to pity is piteous or pitiable. The word pathetic is no longer used in English in this more basic, literal way, meaning full of feeling or something that ought to incite feeling. But that is what the root of the word empathy means, simply feeling. Interestingly, we use pathetic to describe something we scorn because we consider it (or him or her) failed or debased in some way, something that has fallen far short of what it ought to be — in other words, something that is pitiable. And those adjectival forms of pity, piteous and pitiable, we don’t really use anymore, because we don’t really think of pity as a basic, even unavoidable, part of life, let alone a kind of virtue, even perhaps an expression of charity, of love. So it seems that there has been a sort of semantic drift, as the linguists say, which would seem to correspond with a general moral drift in the culture. Or you could say that empathy and pity are meant to work together. We have become conscious of and articulate about empathy in ways our forbears in the West were not, outside of certain religious contexts (I have in mind chiefly the late medieval fixation on the passion of Christ). I would say that that is to our credit. But I think that we have at the same time lost sight of the necessity and the roots of the distinct emotional response to the facts of the flawed world and of human being that is properly called pity. 

This has been a more abstract and speculative train of thought than I’d intended. Rather than derail further, I’ll try to bring the main point home (assuming I have a main point) by looking again at Chaucer’s Canacee, for here we see both empathy, as we should now call it, and pity. And we see how closely these two states coexist. 

It’s interesting to note that when Canacee says, “For love of God, as dooth yourselven grace, / Or what may ben your help,” she is saying exactly the same thing as that last line of the Dylan song. To paraphrase in a more modern idiom: “For the love of God, at least take pity on yourself if no one else will.” The point is that Canacee is urging action. She is definitely not urging the hawk to be in some way more mindful. The hawk is plenty mindful enough already, as Canacee easily discerns. There are only two experiences, she surmises, that can reduce a person (even if that person is, or is temporarily, a hawk) to such a state of rending themselves in grief: either they have lost someone they loved (death, or what is called drede in one line) and so been reminded of their own mortality; or else they have lost love or been unable to obtain love itself. Love and death, that’s it, your only two excuses for mutilating yourself, according to Canacee. Whe she rehearses this rationale to the poor hawk, she is in effect sympathizing, or as we might now say, exercising empathy. One word she actually uses is compassion, which is the Latinate equivalent of the word sympathy. The bird is filling her with compassion, in other words the bird is pathetic, clearly, but more than that she (the bird) is, as Canacee says, piteous. If the bird were only pathetic to Canacee, she would not be able to do much beyond sympathize, show her compassion. But because the bird is piteous, or pitiable (in the slightly more recent idiom), Canacee can actually do something, she can mobilize her own agency rather than just sort of stand there and realize that this here is a truly miserable lady hawk — which is as far as empathy, taken on its own, can go. When Canacee offers to cure the hawk of her malady, be it in her power, then she is not empathizing but taking pity. So the movement, I think, is clear in Canacee, from empathy to pity. And just to be clear, the bird is pitiable because either cause of its condition — the brutal confrontation with mortality or the agonizing loss or refusal of love — is, in the medieval mind, an instance of injustice. Pity is concerned with justice, with how things ought to be, not with how this or that subject happens to be feeling. Life and love are meant to succeed, not to be thwarted. 

That’s all very well,  but what about the Inferno? Well, one of the interesting things about the poem is that Dante places in Hell his personal enemies or people for whom he felt nothing but contempt and loathing and rage, as well as some people that he loved and even revered. For this latter group Dante only evinces pity: pre-Christian heroes, and Christian figures who gave in to certain sins (adultery, sodomy) that, according to Dante’s rigidly moral worldview could only place them in Hell. And yet, these people (pagan philosophers, Vergil himself, Paolo and Francesca, even some of his own mentors and esteemed poetic peers) were, despite their sins, also heroic and impressive in some way. Those for whom Dante shows contempt, on the other hand, don’t tend to be victims of their own historical placement, like the pagans, nor to have given into sins born of desire; rather they are the people guilty of being false, thieves and traitors of all kinds, a group that includes most of the politicians in Dante’s vision of Hell. 

But even towards some of the more heinous sinners Dante demonstrates pity. Not nearly so much as he does toward his friends and mentors up top, but he will ask, even below, the question that seems to relieve some of the suffering of these souls: to wit, he asks them to say who they are and to tell their stories. In this way, their names will be known in the world of the living, and their own side of their tragic stories may even to some extent be heard. I take this as an act of pity, even if it is sometimes brought about not by Dante’s sorrow and remorse — his compassion — at seeing these damned souls, but his curiosity. Dante will even express horror at some of the punishments he sees, despite knowing them to be merited, according to his view of life and of God — for which sorrow he will be upbraided by Vergil, since it is almost a form of blasphemy, questioning God’s judgment. But this is what pity must do. Because pity is an expression of love, and love is the desire that someone or something should be most and best, should be what he or she or it ought to be. The damned, then, more than anyone else, may incite pity. 

But all that, actually, is not what I want to finish by talking about. You can read the Inferno for yourself and turn down the corner of every page on which Dante expresses some kind of sorrow, horror, or melancholy wonder at the fate of the damned. You will have a very dog-eared volume when you are done. There is one passage that puts pity in a different light than any of those others, and it is here that I will finally quote from the poem. This extended passage is from the second canto. Here the mechanism of the entire Comedy is revealed. Vergil is explaining to Dante. I quote from Singleton’s prose translation (emphasis mine):

…I will tell you why I came and what it was I heard when I first felt pity for you. I was among those who are suspended [i.e. in Limbo, the least bad part of Hell], and a lady called to me, so blessed and so fair that I prayed her to command me. Her eyes were more resplendent than the stars, and she began to say to me, sweetly and softly, in an angelic voice, ‘O courteous Mantuan spirit… my friend — and not the friend of Fortune — finds his way so impeded on the desert slope that he has turned back in fright; and, from what I heave heard of him in Heaven, I fear he may already have gone so astray that I am late in arising to help him. Go now, and with your fair speech and with whatever is needful for his deliverance, assist him so that it may console me. I am Beatrice who send you. I come from a place to which I long to return. Love moved me and makes me speak. When I am before my Lord I will often praise you to Him.’

Vergil then asks Beatrice how exactly she came to be standing there in Hell commanding him to go help Dante. She obliges and explains that,

In Heaven there is a gracious lady who has such pity of this impediment to which I send you that stern judgment is broken thereabove. She called Lucy, in her request, and said, ‘Your faithful one has need of you now, and I commend him to you.’ Lucy, foe of every cruelty, arose and, coming to where I sat with ancient Rachel, said, ‘Beatrice, true praise of God, why do you not succor him who bore you such love that for you he left the vulgar throng? Do you not hear his pitiful lament? Do you not see the death that assails him on that flood over which the sea has no vaunt?’

Thus guilted, as we would now say, into feeling and expressing compassion (the ‘succor’), Beatrice makes quick to find Vergil. (She would help Dante herself if he weren’t already so far ‘astray.’ Dante is in a low place in the beginning of the Comedy, and he has to hit rock bottom, the pit of Hell, before he begin to rise and eventually surpass the low level from which he starts at the poem’s beginning. So a blessed person like Beatrice is not a fit intermediary between the eternal and the divine and the floundering exiled poet of thirty-five years. Beatrice won’t take over from Vergil until Dante makes it up to the top of Purgatory, after which point it is Vergil who is no longer a fit guide.) If you were to state Beatrice’s explanation to Vergil it in terms of plot, it would describe a downward motion: The Blessed Virgin intervenes with Saint Lucia, who intervenes with Beatrice, who intervenes with Vergil, who intervenes with Dante; i.e. from the Queen of Heaven to a saint to a blessed denizen of Heaven to a denizen of Hell and then at last to one who is still among the living in the chiaro mondo, the bright world, but who will shortly have to descend to the absolute lowest level of reality. Why this precipitous downward sweep at the beginning of the Comedy? Because from the divine point of view, the whole cosmos is pitiable. If it weren’t, then of course there would be no hope of redemption.

I have said that pity is a mode of love, and that love is the great leveler, it goes both upwards and downwards, as Beatrice says and as the poem as a whole portrays. But the Latin root of the word pity, pietas, has nothing to do with feeling or love — at least not overtly, according to our usual way of thinking these days. The Latin word pietas, and the adjective pies (this was the primary epithet that Vergil gave to Aeneas), basically means a kind of duty (or dutiful, in the adjectival form). It is heavy with the aura of imperative, with commandment. Note that Vergil’s reaction to Beatrice, so impressed is he, is to ask her to command him. And she does command him: “Go now…” This is — or so people thought for the longest time — the natural reaction of a person, whether virtuous or not but especially when he is virtuous, when he finds himself in the presence of his ontological superior. The higher is supposed to elevate the lower. It was once possible to imagine that authority — the only true, finally real authority — could be ontological rather than moral or legal. My kingdom is not of this world — this is an ontological statement, so to speak, not a political one. And when you believe in an onto-hierarchical reality, you actually want to see that just authority express itself. What marks authority as just? Consider that in Western civilization until very recently the proximity or even the conjunction of love and duty (the willing response to just authority) was not strange. In fact it was the most essential and familiar idea: 

Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength: this is the first commandment. And the second is like, namely this, Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. There is none other commandment greater than these.

Now, isn’t that awfully close to what Mr. Dylan said? For the love of God, you ought to take pity on yourself. The language of shalt and the language of ought are two very closely related languages, because they both deal not only with actuality, with what is already in this world — that is, the realm of factuality, of pathos and empathy — but with a different world, a world that fiction or fantasy exists to explore, the world of potentiality, of the unreal and the more than real. 

Oíche Shamhna shona daoibh!

That means Happy Halloween y’all — in Irish. Why Irish? I don’t know. Maybe because I’m listening to the great Irish composer John Field right now. And I was reading around in the Acallam na Senórach earlier this morning as part of my usual distraction from distraction (in this case, the essay on the Inferno — which I really am writing! I swear!).

Anyway, it is Halloween, so I guess it’s appropriate enough to mention that this morning I received in the mail this wonderful new volume.


I played D&D in the 90s — that would be the 2nd edition. For a good five years, I’d say from about the ages of eleven until maybe sixteen, I devoured novels set in the various TSR gaming modules: Dragonlance, Forgotten Realms, and so on. I was always conscious that those books were not of the same caliber — or perhaps I should say they served a different purpose — in comparison to the other epic fantasy I was reading that didn’t have anything to do with TSR (which, by the way, ceased to exist in the late 90s — the current publisher of D&D in all its trappings is Wizards of the Coast — but for those of us who grew up on this stuff in the 80s and 90s, the acronym TSR will always have a certain nostalgic connotation). But it was all of a piece, and it all hugely affected my later study of literature, and my later thinking about the supernatural, metaphysics, etc.

I’ve been thinking a lot about that formation, I guess you could call it, in fantasy writing and (to a lesser extent) gaming, and so I may post a bit about Art and Arcana as I go through it. I’ve also been thinking about D&D again for the first time in many years, as over the past two summers I’ve had the opportunity to do a few campaigns. There are undeniably decadent and kitschy aspects to the TSR fantasy series and to D&D. But that’s not necessarily bad, and it’s a big part of why I find it all so interesting. I would even go so far as to say that this kind of fantasy can be an excellent propaedeutic or heuristic for deeper reflection on fantasy, and on literary art generally and even — yes — visual art. That visual quality of fantasy is very important, something I want to think more about. The idea of something seen is in the very word fantasy, after all. Dante will prove illuminating here, because his Comedy — one of the most descriptive works of literature ever crafted — is essentially about what Dante can say that he saw, and so it ends just when the powers of speech and memory fail that high vision — alta fantasia.

quick note on fatherhood, writing

My second son was born on 10/16. The morning of the day my wife went into labor, I finished reading the Inferno. I really enjoyed re-reading the poem and I’m going to post an essay on it when I can. Whether I get to essays on the remainder of the Comedy remains to be seen. I’ve got two books to peddle now, and a third in the works. It seems to be the fate of this blog that it can only be sporadic. But I can’t quite bring myself to renounce it entirely.







Of black coffee and the Comedy

Since finishing the MFA I’ve lost the ability to stick to any sort of reading project. I want to read or re-read all sorts of things, but then when I try I immediately stop. I’ve also lost the ability to sleep much at all. There’s just too much going on in my life, I’m too anxious. Perhaps this also explains the reading distraction. At any rate, it’s not all so bad. I like being awake in the small hours, the quiet and dark, alone, listening as I have these past few nights to the rain. It doesn’t happen a lot for me: my house is full; any day it will be fuller with a new child. So I make coffee at three in the morning, four in the morning, I write — and just in these past few days, or nights (neither term seems quite right), I’ve been reading La Commedia. And for once it’s the right words at the right time.

I’m trying to read the Comedy only in Italian, so I’m going a little slower than I otherwise might. But I’m not going too slowly, because I’m not reading any notes or researching anything I find obscure. I’m not looking back into anything written about the Comedy, though I know some excellent paraphernalia — by T.S. Eliot, Auerbach, Mandelstam, and there’s Charles Williams’ book on Beatrice, some essays by Dorothy Sayers. This is how I first studied Italian, by reading the Comedy with the Singleton prose crib handy. I read it and then Petrarch’s Rime Sparse, his 366 poems for Laura, written one to two generations after the Comedy, again with a prose translation handy in case I got too lost. I did this in the autumn of 2002 and the winter of 2003, the only previous time in my life in which I was as anxious as I am now, my mind and heart (Dante would perhaps say my will) going off in as many different directions. I wish I could read the Comedy again in the place where I read it that first time, a dingy cafe on Calhoun Street, in Cincinnati, called Baba Budan’s. The cafe is ancient history now, and the whole neighborhood there, by the University, has changed so drastically in the last fifteen years that I can barely recognize it now when I go back. Of course I was never exiled from Cincinnati, like Dante from Florence, but time makes exiles of everyone eventually, as surely as do any rivalrous Guelphs and Ghibellines.

I am not a huge fan of any of the verse translations of the Comedy. I’ve looked into many over the years. Perhaps I am too picky. If you can tolerate a somewhat dated and British style, Dorothy Sayers’ verse translation is technically admirable, at least much of the time, and it can be read smoothly as a whole — which is important. Even if I’m not reading them now, I certainly recommend Sayers’ essays ancillary to Dante’s art, of which there are quite a few. But for what it’s worth as an aside, the way I would suggest reading the Comedy today, if you have no Italian or not very much and especially if it’s your first time through, is by means of Charles Singleton’s en face prose translation. Read it first without bothering to look up references. Pause only sporadically, at most two or three times per section — ideally I would say only at the end of each of the three sections — to read through the commentary that Singleton provides. I would also read the commentary that Anthony Esolen provides to each canto. Together, these are the best notes. Sayers’ notes are also decent, but her translation is out of print and harder to find. Esolen’s is the best modern verse translation, and it is in American idiom. This would be the most affordable option. Singleton is in print but expensive. Nevertheless, I really think that versification hinders most people from reading something like the Comedy (this is simply a factor of how we read narrative and discursive material today and no comment on anyone’s literary acumen) and so my first recommendation, if you want to tackle what is arguably the first novel (sorry, Cervantes) in the Western tradition, is to pick up Singleton’s prose and notes.

You will never hear me call it the “Divine Comedy.” That’s Boccaccio’s handle; I’ve always thought it was stupid. The whole point of the Comedy is to collapse the distinctions we concoct (so as to hide behind them and live an unreflective life) between nature and supernature. To call the poem “divine” comedy is to let anyone not interested in “divine” things off the hook for reading it. And most of us, in fact, are not interested in “divine” things, because when things are classified as divine in contradistinction to earthly (I guess?) they tend to be very boring, because very abstract. The Comedy is indeed philosophical and theological; you could even say its intellectual content is more important than the intellectual content of any other hallowed work of literature in the Western tradition. And it can be fun to learn all that stuff. But why would someone sit up in the small hours reading the Comedy today? Perhaps the better question is: How can a postmodern like me read the Comedy? I think we can read it as what we now call fiction and as what we now call fantasy. Our use of the word fantasy in its literary connotation is directly related to Dante’s use of the same word in the Comedy… I’ll talk about that when my reading gets to those instances, which are — significantly, I think — in the Purgtorio and the Paradiso. I’m going to try to think a little about the Comedy in the next few posts, maybe one for each of its three parts. Here at the outset I want to propose a very basic, simple, schematic idea: If you read the Comedy with an eye to structure, its cosmic geography and imagery and the arrangement of mythical, legendary, and historical figures, monsters, wonders and so forth, then you have a masterpiece of fantasy; and if you read it with an eye to Dante the the poet-within-the-poem — the Narrator, I’ll simply call him — then you have an instance of what we usually mean by the term fiction, something utterly realistic, and it is realistic because it is interested primarily in Dante’s psychology or inner state (only occasionally and secondarily in the inner state of the people he meets). In other words, the Comedy is a prototype of the narrator-driven fiction that is, many people in addition to myself believe, the best and most interesting fiction (you can simply say prose) being written today.

Perhaps I’ve started reading the Comedy in these dark hours because I was craving both these kinds of writing, the fantasy and the fiction, and I wanted them seamlessly blended. And I think, also, that I wanted to read something that was a great love story and not also a tragedy. Just before I started the Comedy, I was going back over Chaucer’s masterpiece, which is not as many people have been told the Canterbury Tales, but Troilus and Criseyde — which is a tragic love story. I also recently read Rachel Cusk’s Faye Trilogy. I thought this was one of the most beautifully written and brilliant and important literary works I’ve encountered in a very long time. But it is also, at least as I read it, a eulogy for European civilization and for the relation between the sexes that has, for all its often horrible flaws, until now sustained and guided that civilization. I hope to weave in a few remarks about the Faye Trilogy as I write about the Comedy. In any case, I know the Comedy is the comedy of love. The mode of love that we see in the Inferno is pity. That will be the subject of the next post.





The long… delay

Apologies for yet another lengthy hiatus. Since graduating from my MFA program in the middle of July my life has been busy: chiefly I’ve been occupied in finishing and polishing the novel I wrote for the MFA, and in getting our household ready for our second child, due in about a month. And I’ve been reading a lot. I am going to try to begin posting my thoughts on my reading again. I have a few things to say about a new-to-me writer, Amy Fusselman, three of whose books (there’s these two together, and this one, the newest) I’ve just read and found to be incredibly interesting and beautiful. I’ve also recently re-read Christos Yannaras’ Variations on the Song of Songs, and I would love tot talk about that, possibly in conversation with the Fusselman books, and certainly with Rachel Cusk’s Faye Trilogy (that would be OutlineTransit, and Kudos), which I also finished recently and thought the whole was extremely good and important. I will be re-reading some medieval German literature soon, in combination with a couple of books by Roger Scruton on Wagner’s work: Death-Devoted Heart: Sex and the Sacred in Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde and The Ring of Truth: the Wisdom of Wagner’s Ring of the NibelungI wonder if Scruton is planning a third book on Wagner, which would naturally look at Parsifal. Anyway, it seems silly to read those books without thinking about Wagner’s last music drama and reading Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parzival, as I was planning to do at the beginning of the summer. It so happens I’ve been peaking back into Wolfram’s Willehalm lately as well, and I think someone needs to write a wee post or two about Wolfram’s twinned masterpieces. And then of course I have to finish the final, 1200-page volume of Knausgaard’s roman-fleuve. We’ll see how far I get in all this. Kid No.2 is fast approaching, and I have a few other things to do, like query fifty thousand people for the novel, polish up the fantasy novel and query a different fifty thousand people for that one, look for work, and maybe at some point sleep a little.

Illustration, illumination, and ‘precious knowledge’

Boys in the street
Beginning to play
Girls like birds
Flying away
I’m carrying the roses
That were given to me
And I’m thinking about paradise
Wondering what it might be

— Bob Dylan, “Marchin’ to the City”


Oh, would that I were in England right now… Several friends have brought to my attention a current exhibition at the Bodleian Library in Oxford of Tolkien’s artwork — “illustration” it is usually called — including several pieces never before exhibited to the public. This information, which I initially brushed off as a petty torment — since there is no chance I will go to England before the end of October when the exhibit closes — has over the past few days succeeded in distracting me on numerous occasions, and has at last combined with other ideas I have lately been considering in connection with the novel I am finishing for the MFA. For example, I have been thinking a lot about the man who painted this image:


This image is nothing like the sort of images that Tolkien produced in connection with his mythopoeia and legendarium. Rather, it is a realist image of a game of fantasy, or in other words the sort of scene that plays out among children who hold in their minds the sort of images that Tolkien made in connection with his literary work; or, more precisely: who hold in their minds images altogether their own, which they got from reading or listening to Tolkien’s literary work and not from looking at actual images of Tolkien’s or anyone else’s making. I remember enjoying the images on the covers of fantasy novels when I was a child. I did not think of those covers as illustrations of the contents of the books; but what I got from them was the same thing I got from those contents, which was the suggestion of a world extending endlessly from the edges of the images on the covers (or the words on the pages). If the world of fantasy or of fiction — I’ll call it Faerie here — did not extend endlessly from the images and words, then as a child I could never have played, as I constantly did, in the way that the children in this painting are playing.

But I also remember being thankful that the books I read were not illustrated in any way beyond those covers. I preferred the images supplied by my own mind while reading the story, particularly the landscapes, which were transfigurations of the landscapes that I knew in the Ohio Valley. (I have always been slightly disappointed with any fantasy that has not involved a great continental river at some point, however incidentally, and I am quite certain that I will never write a book of any kind that does not involve such a river.) So far as I could tell, my mind was the sole means of accessing Faerie and any art which attempted to assume my mind’s role or which failed to provide indefinite extension beyond the limits of its imagery in which my mind might do its work, I would reject. I had no access to Tolkien’s visual art; but if I had seen it, I’m not sure I would have cared much for the privilege. That is not to say I think it bad work: only that I would have been unable to refrain from applying that work to the world Tolkien’s writing had discovered in my mind, and this would have been frustrating, for the peculiar virtue of books is not that they convey images but that they conjure or reveal them. (When I wrote just now of art providing indefinite extension of imagery, I meant the word provide very concretely in its primitive etymological sense of foreseeing or knowing something must be there without having yet seen it, as in ‘providence.’) I rely very heavily indeed on the mental imagery which books conjure in my mind. I therefore have a problem with what is commonly called illustration. This kind of image seems to me to sap both visual and verbal art of its vitality — its proper discoveries of the indefinite intension of Faerie — without offering anything by way of replacement.

Art that points ever beyond itself to further provinces in mind, is also able to image forth the maximum emotional depth of human interiority. Both qualities (which we might relabel transcendence and immanence) are emotional, and they seem to be dependent on the other. For example, James Tissot was also able to paint this image, which has become one of the most treasured images in my mind:


This is an image of Adam and Eve being expelled from Paradise; it is also one of many images made by James Tissot of the love of his life, Kathleen Newton, in this case some time after she had died at the age of twenty-eight from tuberculosis. The upper right-hand corner of the painting, above Adam and Eve, suggests in the unfolding distance what I think of as the endless landscape of Faerie, as I have glimpsed it from within many works of fiction. That perception is the minimum requisite to draw my interest and convince me that I am seeing an authentic figuration of truth, which is a quality that exists only in mind. But what really makes this painting moving for me is Eve’s expression and gesture. I have seen blonde Eves and brunette Eves, but I have never elsewhere seen a crimson-haired Eve: if this is not Kathleen Newton as only James Tissot knew her then there never was such a woman. But somehow she is also eminently familiar to me, utterly modern without being the least bit anachronistic. No, I am not saying she resembles my wife or a past lover, it is nothing that evident and visible: and yet, surely I myself have stood like this Adam with a woman like this Eve; it seems only the other day, and it seems years ago — leaving some ill-fated party together in the small hours, or always… All of these factors come together mysteriously. I have looked on many depictions of the Fall and the expulsion from Paradise, and I have always found the myth, so to call it, moving, it kindles in me a primordial excitement; but no depiction has moved me like this one.

I probably best know the Fall and the expulsion from reading Paradise Lost, and the first words that might occur to me if I tried to think of words in connection with this painting would be the last lines of that poem:

The World was all before them, where to choose
Thir place of rest, and Providence thir guide:
They hand in hand with wandring steps and slow,
Through Eden took thir solitarie way.

Of course Milton does not give his Eve crimson hair. But if I had to illustrate the closing lines of that poem, Tissot’s painting is the image I would pick. However, because I feel the way I do about Tissot’s depiction of the expulsion from Paradise, I do not want to think of this painting as an illustration of anything, not even of Genesis or as great a work of literary art as Paradise Lost. For me, Tissot’s painting has its own light: it is not an illustration so much as it is luminous, or illuminated.

And in point of fact, Tissot’s painting illustrates no text known to me. It is certainly not an illustration of the Genesis material, nor of Milton’s imagination of the event. And it does not even correspond to the visions of the Westphalian nun Anne Catherine Emmerich, which visions were popularly read in Tissot’s day and supposed to have inspired the enormous number of depictions of biblical scenes that Tissot painted in the latter phase of his career, having suffered the loss of Kathleen Newton and undergone a religious vision himself that reverted him to his childhood faith — even if it could not remove him completely from his fin de siècle decadence.

I became interested in Tissot (I’d never hard of him previously) when I acquired a copy of Angelico Press’ edition of the visions of Anne Catherine Emmerich (illustrated with many of Tissot’s works), as recorded in prose by Clemens Brentano. The situation here is extremely complex: Anne Catherine was a stigmatic recluse. She experienced the visions while she was bedridden over many years. We have a record or version of her visions only because Clemens Brentano, a poet living a bohemian lifestyle similar to Tissot’s two generations later, was mysteriously attracted by rumors of the visionary nun, to the point where he gave up his bohemian life and moved house so that he could sit by her side every day and write down what she told him she had seen. What she saw, if we believe Brentano, exceeds the realistic detail of even the most sprawling and meticulous novel or travelogue. Anne Catherine witnessed the creation of the world, the fall of the angels and then of mankind, and all of sacred history subsequent, through the events reported in the New Testament. The detail and character-descriptions and, often, the hour-by-hour account of biblical narratives reads like the frenzied (but eloquent and precise) notes of an impassioned novelist. The Emmerich-Brentano combination is one of the most fascinating literary and narrative documents I’ve ever encountered, whatever one makes of its visionary capacity. It is the perfect recension of the biblical material for a century immersed in the mundane and the sensuous (by the way, that’s some more Milton — he coined “sensuous”) — and, indeed, the century of the classic novel.

Tissot’s painting of the expulsion is certainly sensuous. But what it is not is a third- or fourth-order imitation or illustration, because as I say he did not depict what Brentano reports Emmerich reporting to him. I certainly think Tissot was inspired by reading Emmerich-Brentano, but the painting is his own vision. This essay, I have a feeling, is going to go off in a couple of different directions momentarily, but first a brief aside on — what else? — etymology, i.e. these words illustration and illumination.

The connotative difference between these terms is that between the application of light (illustration) and the emanation of it (illumination). A text that has been illustrated has had light, color, form applied to it, presumably in order to clarify or make it more vivid in the imagination of the reader, who is also thus a viewer. A text that has been illuminated, on the other hand, has been made luminous, it has been made to shine forth (remember the etymology of “fantasy” here and the notion contained therein of shining). Someone might illuminate a problem for you — they might even illuminate it by illustrating it with a concrete instance. That is, as near as I can discern, how we use the terms differently. I do not enjoy visual art, no matter how good, which I can understand only as an attempt to illustrate a text or story. The visual art that I enjoy has to be luminous in its own right, even if it is also an illustration. Probably we would all agree (accepting my distinction for the sake of argument) that the best art undertaken as illustration succeeds because it is also more than illustration, it is itself luminous, accomplishes its own imagination or figuration.

These days, we think of illustrated light as inferior to the light of luminous things. But it used to be that “to illustrate” could be applied to persons, so to illustrate someone was to make them famous, tout their virtues, and cause them to be praised. (As an example of that lapsed usage, there is the important tract of Renaissance poetics by Joachim du Bellay called Defense and Illustration of the French Language — which contained no pictures.) But things that have luster, we are now more apt to think, are only shiny, they are not supposed to have an intrinsic light; likewise to call someone or some institution illustrious is not necessarily to praise that person or institution, but only to objectively describe the fact (without committing one’s own opinion) that he or she or it enjoys a certain reputation or acclaim. Whereas the terms enlightened or illumined  — though we may use these terms ironically, of course — are more unambiguously value-positive in their basic connotations.

Well, fine then. But what about the etymology? That’s the curious thing. Illumination is not weird, it very clearly contains the Latin for “light” — lumen. Technically, illuminate is supposed to mean the same thing, physically, as illustrate, it is supposed to mean the literally superficial throwing of light on something. The word “luminous” is made of the Latin for “light” plus the suffix -osus, which means “full of,” so a luminous thing doesn’t have light thrown on it so much as it contains and overflows with its own light. But from luminous I tend to think of illuminate as the making of something luminous, I suppose because of medieval illuminated manuscripts, which at least cannot be said to be ‘illustrated.’ But about that word illustration: here we cannot escape the notion of application as distinct from emanation or emission, though it takes on an unexpected sense. The Latin root of illustrate is lustrum, lustri, etc which was a purificatory sacrifice performed at regular intervals. And then, to go back even further, linguists suppose that the PIE (Proto-Indo-European) root of lustrum is a word for light, which is very close to the reconstructed PIE words for “to wash clean” and “to expiate.” Somewhere very deep in the Indo-European mind the notions of light and of purification are linked.

This reverie maybe gets illustration back around to something like what I approve of in illumination. Perhaps we could think of the best illustration as a purification of a text in the sense of getting to its essence, rather than usurping the mind of the reader or viewer with imported imagery derived only from the text’s accidents or details. Surely when authors illustrate their own texts, their own accounts of Faerie, this is what they mean to do — because the artist is at all points concerned to communicate that essence by whatever means possible, regardless of whether a picture or a story (or for that matter a sound) occurs to him first. So true illustration, in this etymological sense, must be an extension of Faerie, or another version of it, but not a reduplication. Tissot’s painting of the expulsion from Paradise captures some trace of the essence of what is itself the essential story, or the first part of it, as it exists in my mind and heart. His painting shows me something promised and something lost forever –respectively the endless unfolding landscape of Faerie, and Eve’s stance and countenance. In a way, every work of art in any medium is only an attempt to illustrate — to capture the tiniest trace of the essence that the artist has seen. But it is a strange kind of seeing. I am reminded of Thomas Aquinas, who is supposed to have said toward the end of his life: omnia quae scripsi videntur mihi paleae respectu eorum quae vidi et revelata sunt mihi — All that I have written seems to me straw in comparison to what I have seen and what has been revealed to me. Of course, Aquinas was (usually) not writing poetry. But there is also the famous and very similar statement by Percy Bysshe Shelley:

The mind in creation is as a fading coal, which some invisible influence, like an inconstant wind, awakens to transitory brightness; this power arises from within… but when composition begins, inspiration is already on the decline; and the most glorious poetry that has been communicated to the world is probably a feeble shadow of the original conceptions of the poet.

A favorite writer of mine, the Englishman J A Baker, once wrote, “The hardest thing of all to see, is what is really there.” Of even greater difficulty is the subsequent saying or depicting, of what is really there. And of even greater difficulty than that, is saying or depicting what is no longer, or what could be there, or what you know is there but have not seen.

Still thinking of Tissot’s depiction of Adam and eve expelled from Paradise — in particular of my response to the human figures and the glimpse I catch, in the corner, of the endlessly unfolding Faerie –I want to share one of the many passages that comes to my mind from the work of Gerald Murnane, the Australian author on whom I wrote the critical portion of my master’s thesis. I have been so attracted to and immersed in the work of Gerald Murnane because he, too, seems to be attentive to the person in the place and the edge of the place and what lies beyond that edge that the person may be looking towards. Here he is in the story “Emerald Blue” describing an unnamed main character who is more or less a stand-in for himself, as his many unnamed main characters or narrators usually are:

There was much that he wanted to learn, but he could not believe that he would learn it as other people learned what they learned. He believed in something that he called to himself precious knowledge. As a child, he had hoped to find some of that knowledge in some discarded or forgotten book. Later, he came to understand that such knowledge as he was looking for was not readily passed from one person to another. Sometimes he thought of precious knowledge as lying on the other side of the pages of one or another book whose title and author he had yet to hear of. In order to obtain the precious knowledge, he would have had to get inside the book itself and to live in the places where the characters lived. Looking out from those places, he would see such things (knowledge being to him always something visible) as only the characters of the book were privileged to see, whereas readers and even the author of the book could only speculate about them.

I don’t know if I can communicate how much such a passage of prose fiction means to me. Murnane has been one of the great discoveries of my intellectual life, because it is a kind of solace to find someone putting into words what you have long felt and thought but have never been able to say. In any case, I consider Murnane, for such passages as this one, among the the most profound searchers in the extent and nature of Faerie. I call attention in the foregoing to the emphasis on visibility (though it is the inward visibility of imagination). But with Murnane there is always a dialectic between seen and unseen, finite and infinite. He continues a few pages later:

He had come to believe that he was made up mostly of images. He was aware only of images and feelings. The feelings connected him to the images and connected the images to one another. The connected images made up a vast network. He was never able to imagine this network as having a boundary in any direction. He called the network, for convenience, his mind.

People link Murnane to famously modern or postmodern writers like Beckett. But for me, Murnane’s work, though written in a precise and dry style, is highly emotional in the urgent way of meaningfulness, or perhaps what people mean by “beauty,” the suggestion of something there and something always beyond, something fleeting or something lost but remembered. I thought of this passage in connection with Tissot’s painting, thinking not only of the corner glimpse of Faerie but also of Eve. It’s in her face that I see the thought-feeling of something lost but remembered. But she knows, already she knows, memory is fickle: What really happened back there? Why is it so hard to see what was really there?

I am also now thinking of certain passages from Tolkien’s work. I am thinking about how the man published very little in his lifetime, and seems to have regarded his life’s work as something of a disappointment and, if not failure, then at best a frustration. Doesn’t Dostoevsky have someone say, “On earth everything has a beginning and nothing has an ending”? If he didn’t, Tolkien could have. He nearly does in this passage from his allegorical and autobiographical short story, “Leaf by Niggle.” As with the passage from Murnane’s story, Tolkien is writing in the third-person of a stand-in for himself, an unsuccessful painter. What happens with Niggle’s painting in this passage is what happens with any artist who looks to the corners of other paintings for glimpses of the endless unfolding of Faerie or who has a tendency to look backward like Eve:

There was one picture in particular which bothered him. It had begun with a leaf caught in the wind, and it became a tree; and the tree grew, sending out innumerable branches, and thrusting out the most fantastic roots. Strange birds came and settled on the twigs and had to be attended to. Then all around the Tree, and behind it, through the gaps in the leaves and boughs, a country began to open out; and there were glimpses of a forest marching over the land, and of mountains tipped with snow. Niggle lost interest in his other pictures; or else he took them and tacked them on to the edges of his great picture. Soon the canvas became so large that he had t get a ladder; and he ran up and down it, putting in a touch here, and rubbing out a patch there.

The emphasis is mine, because I believe this is what all the best fantasy is, an endless opening out of a country. As the allegory of “Leaf by Niggle” goes on, Niggle dies and goes through a kind of Purgatory, in the latter stages of which, something like the “terrestrial paradise” of Dante’s Purgatory, he is permitted to see his Tree in its fullness, and the country in which it stands; and then finally he moves beyond the terrestrial paradise of this purgatory into a yet further country, the heavenly paradise. But this latter part we don’t see: for Tolkien could not see it, he could only provide for it in his fiction.

For Murnane, that yet further, ever-unseen but foreseen country, a place of both sentiment and presentiment, is not fundamentally different from the country of fiction, what I am calling Faerie. Murnane is an adventurous and rigorous explorer of the metaphysical, and a great exponent of the infinity and interconnectedness of Faerie. But I am not sure that he believes what Eve is beginning to understand — about what is lost forever, and half-remembered now, and strangely promising foresight, all at once — in Tissot’s painting. It is, though, something Tolkien seems to have believed when he wrote to his son (letter 96 in Humphrey Carpenter’s edition) the following passages concerning the expulsion from Paradise:

…certainly there was an Eden on this very unhappy Earth. We all long for it, and we are constantly glimpsing it: our whole nature at its best and least corrupted, its gentlest and most humane, is still soaked with the sense of ‘exile.’… We shall never recover it, for that is not the way of repentance, which works spirally and not in a closed circle; we may recover something like it, but on a higher plane.

Whether Faerie, or Middle Earth, or the precious knowledge of fiction — call it what you like — is a vision of what has been lost or of what has been foreseen regained, I am not sure. If the two termini are implicated in each other, then I suppose it is a moot point. What I know is that there is much pathos in it, this business of catching and trying to then communicate the glimpses and what lies unspoken and invisible but hinted at beyond even the glimpses. Tolkien goes on in the letter to say to his son: “I think you are moved by Celebrimbor because it conveys a sudden sense of endless untold stories: mountains seen far away, never to be climbed, distant trees (like Niggle’s) never to be approached” (emphasis in original). The untold and unspeakable, the lost and the horizon — perhaps the artist experiences these things uniquely in the nature of the work of art, but they are the common experience, in innumerable contexts, of all people. Memory and fantasy are, I think, two faces of the same human fate.

Having brought all these thoughts and images together from an unlikely group of sources, including the final verses from of one of the great artistic visions of Paradise, I will conclude by quoting some more verses on the topic. These are some of the last lines Ezra Pound wrote:

M’amour, m’amour
what do I love and
where are you?

That I lost my centre
fighting the world.
The dreams clash
and are shattered —

and that I tried to make a paradiso

I have tried to write Paradise

Do not move
Let the wind speak
that is paradise.

Lets the Gods forgive what I
have made
Let those I love try to forgive
what I have made.