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Thursday, January 12, 2012

Dante and My Nemesis, Nietzsche, Come Face to Face

A friend e-mailed last week to congratulate me on reading Dante's Inferno, a classic of the Western canon, and then went on to excoriate the poet and his work!, confessing her “long hatred” of both, “most of all, the savage imagination that reveled in that so political and score-settling Hell.” There is no denying the joy the poet takes in giving “savage” punishments to those of his own time and country in the other political camp. Take that out of the work, and not much would remain. So I thought of my friend's reaction as I continued my reading.

It isn’t as if I hadn’t already had my doubts about Dante. The whole Beatrice thing—somewhere I heard or read that he practically stalked the poor girl--and he did have a wife and children, after all, none of whom are mentioned at all, let alone glorified (beatified!) in his poetry! My friend who hates Dante refers to her feminst outrage over his use of the term mulierculae, “little women,” “womanlets,” or “mere women,” indicating the lowbrow audience he hoped to reach, “while of course knowing,” she adds, “ that his writing occupied a very high plane.”

But I need to shift gears for a moment now and introduce a phrase much bandied about in academic philosophy: the principle of charity, which has to do with the way a philosopher is supposed to interpret the work of another. If, for example, I am reading something in Kant that initially makes no sense to me, I am to remind myself that Kant was no fool but a highly intelligent man, and that it is therefore unlikely that what he wrote was nonsense. I then look for an interpretation in which it would make sense. Okay, that’s the principle. Got it?

In practice, the principle is applied very selectively. My use of Kant as an example is a case in point. Kant's status is legendary! He could not be talking through his hat! And who am I to criticize one of his stature? In similar fashion, as I have written elsewhere, we are urged by his defenders to stretch our powers of understanding when dealing with the writings of Nietzsche. Hence my observation:
If a writer is (a) famous and (b) dead, the principle of charity is almost always invoked.
Philosophers tend to be much less charitable when criticizing their contemporaries, and any undergraduate knows that a professor rarely appeals to the principle of charity when reading a student paper. Yes, students are quite often guilty of sloppy thinking, hasty generalization and a host of informal errors, but occasionally, I feel certain, there is a kernel of thought not yet fully blossomed, a seed that could use nourishing, something “vague and inarticulate” (in the words of the immortal William James, a philosopher who had unusual sympathy for the vagueness of ordinary human thought) that simply has not yet found its most felicitous expression. And didn’t the immortal Henri Bergson (can you tell that these are two of my favorite philosophers?) write somewhere that every philosopher really only says one thing—or, rather, spends his life trying to say it, in the best cases circling ever nearer and nearer the elusive goal?

So now, having appealed to James and Bergson, allow me to bring in Aristotle, my “main man” among the ancients, for the purpose of asking the following question: If charity in interpretation is the virtuous mean, what are the corresponding vices of deficiency and excess? Deficiency would obviously be a lack of charity, i.e., assuming the writer or to be a fool scribbling nonsense, but what would an excess of charity be? Perhaps putting the writer on a pedestal? Treating his work as equivalent to the Ten Commandments, not to be questioned or criticized at all but only revered? Reverence?

This, it seems to me, is too often the fate of any work designated as a classic: When a work enters the canon, its author is canonized. Now the writer is beyond criticism, above reproach, and the work can have no faults. At this juncture, let’s hear from my critical friend again:
Each time I've read it I've been more appalled, until I no longer care how beautiful it is.  "Wild notions" [here she is quoting my earlier blog post] are a gentle way to see some of these descriptions of physical pain.  I've become a complete literalist about it.  I've come to think it isn't enough to read The Inferno in a critic's ‘enlightened’ way, passing quickly to the beautiful language after a chuckle at the man's (absolutely serious) convictions.  What a cruel long life they've had in our history....
When I re-read that she thinks “it isn’t enough to read The Inferno in a critic’s ‘enlightened’ way,” I am reminded forcibly of my anguished struggle with Nietzsche, Part II of which I have yet to write up for “Books in Northport.” There seemed no rush, as philosophy more often drives away readers rather than drawing them in, and Part I was a case in point, but Part II, if I ever write it, will tell in detail just how hard I tried to read Nietzsche in the enlightened manner, “bracketing” (i.e., setting aside) his most appalling passages and focusing narrowly on questions that seemed amenable to less repulsive conclusions. My conclusion--in a nutshell, unadorned--was that the task could not be accomplished. With the least offensive passages, on the most innocuous of subjects, the same monsters still reared their heads. The poison penetrated every corner.

So I know what my friend means when she tells me she hates Dante, and perhaps for each of us there is one nemesis, and Nietzsche is mine, Dante hers. I fear that philosophers' ideas are more easily adopted and adapted by ideologues, but perhaps literature has a different but equal power to effect thought. Actually—this occurs to me only now, slogging through my vague, subterranean responses to both—there is something peculiar shared by both these canonized giants. --I need a new paragraph here. I want this point to stand out.

Neither was a giant in his own time—not rich, not powerful, not heralded throughout the world as a genius. When Nietzsche chose ressentiment as the ugliest of human motives, surely he knew firsthand whereof he spoke. How could he have failed to resent the honors granted to toadying academics, while he, the genius, was passed over? Dante’s gloating over his enemies’ suffering is but thinly veiled in the pity he claims to feel for them. Do we believe his pity is real? After all, it is he who invented the macabre punishments of his literary vision, so how sorry can he be for the sinners? And why is he so eager to publish their names among the living, if not to punish them himself?

My friend hates Dante. Maybe because philosophy rather than literature is my field, or maybe because the role of Nemesis in my life is already filled by Nietzsche—or maybe because I was not raised Catholic, which my friend seems to think is important to her response—but I cannot find it in me to hate Dante. The descriptions in bloody Canto XXVIII of bodies being torn and carved to pieces, bleeding, entrails exposed did not entertain me at all, as had some of the more fanciful punishments of earlier Circles; they are too easily imaginable, too realistic, too much what happens to human beings at war on earth. I would remind my friend, however, that neither the Bible nor the Catholic Church threatened believers (or unbelievers) with the dreadful fates Dante images. It all came out of his head! His head! Mandelbaum points out in a note that the punishment Dante imagined for Fra Alberigo did not conform to orthodox Christian doctrine, and the history Dante attributes to Ulysses is much different from what we get from Homer.

It is only in writing that Dante could get revenge, as only in writing could he be united with his love object, as only in writing could Nietzsche claim to be so far in advance of the rest of humanity in his thinking that no one born could yet understand him. Nietzsche died mute, insane, possibly as a result of syphilis. (No one knows for sure.) Dante, condemned to death in absentia, died in exile. Both lives came to unhappy ends. Little wonder they felt resentment, scorn, anger and hatred for so many of their contemporaries. Only in their imaginations and their brilliantly fevered writings could they dream of triumph. In real life, both were defeated, except that they "got their work done" (as a professor of mine noted) and left that work behind. 

Having only read The Inferno, I cannot yet address the place of Beatrice in Dante’s thought and writing. In defense of my earlier hypothesis that sins of language are punished most gravely in The Inferno, I note that the giant Nimrod in Canto XXXI is assigned to the Ninth Circle of Hell for having splintered humanity into a multitude of languages, and his punishment is that he is cursed with what we might call a “private language” (cf. Wittgenstein) that no one else can understand.

But the snow has arrived. Forecast for 10 a.m., it did not begin until almost 4 p.m., but now it falls, gently, thickly. Lentils simmer, David reads, Sarah works over a rawhide bone, and towels slosh in the washing machine. We are not in hell. Far from it.


dmarks said...

I thought I had left this in the comments in the other posting about Dante's "Inferno", the flatterers, and other subjects.

Here's a passage on the flatterers from the Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle version of "Inferno":

""Who's down there?" Billy asked.
"Flatterers," Benito said shortly, and turned toward the bridge.
We followed. "I don't get it," Corbett said.
"In every place of power, throughout all time, the rulers have been surrounded by flatterers. In
many places flattery has been the path to power and wealth. In others it is only a good living.
Yet everywhere the flatterers tend to push aside the men of real wisdom. Flattery is so much safer
than telling unpleasant truths."
"Not in America," said Corbett.
"This I doubt," said Benito. "But you should know best."
"Never buttered up the boss? I sure have," said Billy."

Gerry said...

I am, of course, going to talk through my hat -- but is it possible that Dante felt he was cursed with a private language himself? Eternally misunderstood, disregarded . . . and deeply resentful.

P. J. Grath said...

That bit of dialogue confuses me, dmarks. Benito says flattery is safer than telling the truth to men of power. Corbett disagrees, saying "Not in America." That sounds as if he's saying that telling the truth is safer than flattery, but then he says he's buttered up the boss himself. Huh?

Dante had enemies. The politics of Italy in his time were deeply and bitterly divided. I suppose by definition enemies feel that the other side does not understand or regard them with the respect they deserve. Also, the whole business of going into exile and being sentenced to death would be hard to shrug off with "Oh, well!" But I wonder--you may be onto something. Perhaps the reason Virgil is his guide is that, like Nietzsche, he felt that no one of his own time could understand him--other than the distant, dead Beatrice, of course, that perfect woman. Hmmm. said...

Sometimes, the emperor -- however powerful(!) -- really is naked....

P. J. Grath said...

Our group had a lively discussion last night (Wed., 1/18) on THE INFERNO. One member argued that Dante belonged in his own hell, down with the wrathful. At least one other member thought the poet's motives were pure. We all agreed to plunge forward with THE PURGATORIO and meet again at the end of February for that discussion. Stay tuned! More to come!

Anonymous said...

As the greatest dantiste ever, jorge luis borges, said, Nietzsche did not understand Dante. Dante put himself as a charachter in his poem cause he wants to show as his feelings are different from God's judgement that can't be understood by men. Secondly the punishments of the inferno are allegoricals, as the all comedy,Dante and also his sons claim it in letters that we've got to know. Sorry for my englis, i'm italian, by the way, i suggest you the reading of the comedy in italian, if you have enough time to learn it, it's a totally different thing