Befriending Dante: A Reflection on Readership

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Although I have always been bookish in about every sense of the word, I went through a “rebellious” phase in high school when my AP Literature class was required to read Dante’s Inferno. I was adamantly against it and now, as I reread it for the fourth or fifth time, I can explain away this opposition as perhaps being the fault of a poor translation. Possibly, it also had something to do with the fact that it Inferno not meant to be read in isolation; that popular engagement with Dante’s Divine Comedy begins and ends with hell may be telling of some morbid modern imagination or revealing of a concerning preference for darkness rather than light. Whatever the case, though, I scoffed at Dante without giving him a fair chance and declared that the whole of Inferno was not much more than a fanfiction in which he cast himself as the star. 

Although more nuanced now—having had the privilege of reading the Commedia under the Virgil-like guidance of a world-leading Dante scholar—my basic impression of Dante remains about the same. Laughing into my well-marked copy, I recall my first encounter with Inferno. Such an adorable young hypocrite I was! I belittled this great father of poets and—to think!—without Dante, my beloved Eliot would not have written!

As I mocked Dante for putting himself in a poem peopled with his favorite fictional and real-life heroes and villains, I was at the same time doing the same thing on a much humbler scale. You see, my first real attempt at a novel centers around a girl who is suspiciously similar to myself and who engages vividly in conversation with her favorite book characters: Scarlett O’Hara and Sherlock Holmes being among their eclectic ranks. As I wrote this long-since abandoned draft, I had to address the question which I now realize also occupied Dante: Why am I so compelled to document my own development in the context of people I know not only in life but through literature? 

Reading Dante’s Divine Comedy again, I’ve come up with a few hypotheses as to why this may be: First of all, loneliness. It’s no secret that we introverts often prefer the company of a good book and likely Dante was similar. He was, however, also an exile, reading and writing apart from the home he loved. His Commedia was not only a product of his imagination but of his isolation. In reading and writing, we enter a community no longer bound by time and space. Just as Virgil is able to leap from history to lead Dante on a narrative journey, people from history, myth, and fantasy hasten to meet us in the pages of books. If we are willing, we can still talk to them as though they are flesh and blood, though we must summon them with paper and ink.

Our loneliness finds relief in the company of books, even those of our own making. By engaging imaginatively with the characters I loved most, my novel draft allowed me to get to know them more intimately and to incorporate them into my own little imaginative circle. Through reading and writing, my sense of community expanded vertically throughout time and horizontally across cultures, worlds, and even dimensions. Similarly, Dante incorporates a diverse cast of characters to regain community, to situate himself solidly within his own Italian cultural and historical context, as well as to establish himself in the continuation of a poetic-philosophical tradition.

My second hypothesis is a continuation of this idea. As relational creatures, we come to know ourselves through our knowledge of and interaction with others. A prominent theological emphasis of Dante’s Commedia is that the truest self-knowledge is attained not through stubborn individuality, but in the mutual humility of community and faith. Through his conversations with various people along his journey, Dante becomes more self-aware, ultimately coming to perceive the Triune God as the divine epitome of self-love and self-knowledge. In growing in relation to others and maturing in his consideration of God, Dante himself is remade.

Similarly, readers often piece themselves together through books, stitching words and stories into patchwork personalities. My outlook on life is lovelier thanks to Anne Shirley, my wit sharper thanks to Elizabeth Bennet, and I like to think I’ve gained some gumption from Scarlett. Reading is an act of self-reflection, considering ourselves in comparison to the characters and writers we most admire. Best of all, the books—and, of course, the Book—which disclose something of our own Author lead us to a greater knowledge of our identity as human beings made in the Image of God.

Finally, it seems that reading (and in turn writing about what we read) serves as moral formation, shaping our desires and decisions. Dante encounters many sinners in hell who, through their own devices, get exactly what they wanted. They loved stories that reflected their own flawed desires and pursued these to the bitter end, continuing to desire those same lowly things in death so that these desires fittingly become their chosen punishments. This is a negative example of bad readership. Using books to reinforce or justify vice is a discredit to discernment, that incredible gift of intelligence.

In Purgatory, however, tales and pictures of virtue are presented, spurring penitent souls to better love and pursue all that is good and true and beautiful. Many good books feature fallen characters; in fact, there would be no narrative conflict were all characters and situations wholly good and perfect. However, if we read like the redeemed souls Dante encounters, we will learn from the good and the bad in books. Through discerning readership, we can engage the whole breadth and depth of human experience without leaving our nooks, honing our ambitions and hopes without the inconvenience of real-life consequences. The more excellence we glean from books, the more attuned to truth and goodness our minds and hearts will become. 

Rereading Dante now is supremely fitting. I know that I am not alone in being perhaps more lonely, more confused, and more in need of direction than ever. Dante, rather than providing an escape, has become a way of engaging my own isolation, wandering, and hope in faith and relationship. He has become a very dear literary friend—albeit a chatty one who I often wish would stop talking politics.

When Dante is lost and fearful in the first canto of Inferno, his favorite poet-philosopher appears to restore him to community and truth, and, through these, to himself. In the same way, rereading our own beloved authors might restore us to ourselves, just as talking to a close friend might bring us back to our senses. Engaging authors and characters-turned-companions provides company in loneliness, conviction amidst chaos, and, ultimately, a reminder of not only who we are but—if the books are good and true enough—who we are meant to be. 

I return now to the notes I took only a few weeks ago when I once more met Dante at the gates of Hell: Through literature, we form productive relationships with those who thought and imagined before us, as well as those who continue to think and imagine beside us. If we, like Dante, engage in humble and eager readership, perhaps we will—unlike my AP reading list—transcend beyond the filthy babbling of Hell and look toward the radiance of Heaven. Dante may begin his epic in pride, placing himself alongside the best poets and thinkers of history, but, throughout the Divine Comedy, he allows their wise words—and, indeed, their failings—to instruct as well as inspire him, to help him develop not merely as a poet-turned-protagonist but as a human being on the journey of virtue and faith.

This, my dearest reader, is the essence of readership itself: to develop together as human beings toward the best and truest communication, community, and—when readership couples with faith—communion. 

“The Whole Earth is our Hospital”: Words when Words Fail

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For those of you who do not know, I am currently studying “Theology and the Arts” at the University of St. Andrew’s, Scotland. Most recently, my practical criticism class has been reading T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets. As we finished our session on “Little Gidding,” the fourth quartet, my professor sighed deeply. Suddenly emotional, she told us emphatically that above any academic gain, she hoped that we would internalize Eliot’s poetry so that we can recall it in times of need. She suggested memorizing full passages, not to show off in seminars, but to comfort ourselves in times when our own words fail.

Little did we realize, but that class session was to be our last. In the past few days, the pandemic situation has escalated far beyond what any of us could have imagined and, today, the University sent the devastating news that our courses will be completely online and urged us to return to our homes if possible.

In the days leading up to this announcement, I was numb: expecting the worst, but hoping it would not be so. Words, which come so easily for me even in times of stress, ceased. Even my thoughts were unclear and I felt ironically trapped at the thought of leaving. As I often do in times of distress, I sought movement and height, climbing the spiral stairs to the top of St. Rule’s tower at the Cathedral and thinking of nothing more than measuring my steps and minding my head. At the top, I removed my battered, much-annotated copy of Four Quartets and began to read my favorite, “East Coker,” over St. Andrew’s.

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Not only was I indeed standing on “Old stone to new building” as Eliot writes in the first movement, but I felt that at such a height and in such an ancient place, I truly was glimpsing the cycles of time that he describes. I felt that I was gaining perspective and could truly believe—as the cold wind whipped my hair across my eyes—that “there is a time for building / And a time for living and for generation / And a time for the wind to break the loosened pane.”

The most heartwrenching, yet comforting words came in the fourth movement of “East Coker,” however. Indeed, I believe the Word enters into this movement. I will include the first and third stanzas, but encourage you to read the full movement or poem here: https://genius.com/Ts-eliot-four-quartets-east-coker-annotated

“The wounded surgeon plies the steel
That questions the distempered part;
Beneath the bleeding hands we feel
The sharp compassion of the healer’s art
Resolving the enigma of the fever chart. . .

The whole earth is our hospital
Endowed by the ruined millionaire,
Wherein, if we do well, we shall
Die of the absolute paternal care
That will not leave us, but prevents us everywhere. . . “

The phrase “The whole earth is our hospital” is especially poignant. How true this has become. And yet, our “wounded surgeon”—paradox though He seems—will not abandon us. He knows suffering.

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We cannot naively ignore the state of the world as sick, spiritually and physically. People are suffering illness and death, as well as selfishness and resentment. Disappointment is rampant. Eliot’s poetry timelessly engages such atrocities yet points to a Saviour who did not simply remove our self-made trials but entered into them alongside us as living and dying flesh. Being able to recall Eliot’s words when my own failed has been an unmeasurable blessing and one which, ultimately, drew my heart back to the Word who is both my beginning and end.

Theme and Variations

Not long ago (though it seems a lifetime), I wrote about modulations. The idea that the dissonance of post-college life would eventually resolve into normalcy was comforting; considering the modulations in music were consoling to me as I felt keenly the sudden transitions I experienced after four years of relatively little change. 

Several months later, I find myself facing another transitional period as I recently moved to Scotland to pursue my master’s in “Theology and the Arts.” Despite my love for this country and its culture, I was nervous: where would I fit in? Back in the States, I had clear roles, routines, and relationships. A creature of habit, I was overwhelmed to find seemingly everything changing, from my time zone to breakfast foods.

Just as a musical metaphor was helpful in reframing how I approached this past summer, I found that the same to be true of settling into a new place and new chapter. In-between, the key is modulation. Now, though, it is theme and variations. Theme and variation is perhaps the simplest musical form to explain: pick a melody or some other musical statement and repeat in different ways until it wears out its welcome. This compositional structure provides the basis for both smaller, stand-alone pieces (such as Mozart’s classic 12 Variations in C Major, K. 265, which most will recognize as “Twinkle Twinkle”) and larger works (such as Edward Elgar’s Enigma Variations and Bach’s Goldberg Variations).

The trick to listening and learning such pieces is simply to memorize the key theme and then discover its subsequent incarnations. Indeed, this is the key to internalizing music of all sorts, for it is difficult to ever truly escape from themes and variations. For instance, during my sophomore year as a piano major, I was assigned a piece that was — so I thought — far, far beyond my capabilities. Near tears, I asked my teacher how on earth I was to conquer it. I could not imagine my hands becoming familiar with and even fond of this monstrous composition.

“Memorize it bit by bit,” was my teacher’s first bit of advice. “Start with the main themes and motifs and then find how they vary and develop.”

Learning this piece was a war won by small battles. Still, I came to know it better than any other, and, though it challenged me with every practice session, it became mine. The professor in the studio next door came to recognize that when he heard its opening theme, I must be at work. That daunting piece went on to earn me my first victory in the university’s piano competition and, more importantly, I found that I was able to play it with surprising joy.

Any modulation, be it a new piece or a new chapter in life, must be conquered the same way: Identify a theme, find its variation, and move on to the next. During my first weeks in St. Andrew’s, I have intentionally sought out the elements that I know to be essential themes in my life and, finding these (though in slightly different forms) I have felt more and more at home.

For example, throughout both high school and college, I was the on-call accompanist at my schools. This is a key theme that makes me feel as though I fit in, as though I have a clear role and am known for my skill set. So, as soon as I could, I introduced myself to the music directors at my new university and, within an hour, had several gigs lined up. As an organist and choral singer, I pursued and quickly found a church music ministry. My community of faith and worship during my undergraduate years was essential to my wellbeing and service. Fully aware of this and feeling keenly its absence, I immediately pursued a new position in the same vein, with similar yet diverse people.

Knowing the themes I relied on for normalcy back home, I ardently sought their Scottish variations, and with each new rendition of a continuing idea, I perceived the puzzle of my life falling more and more into alignment with what it ought to be. 

The same is true of smaller elements, of motifs. Themes, in music, are generally the larger building blocks of composition; they are the melodies that recur and are recognizable no matter their evolving ornamentation or transpositions. Motifs, however, are the smaller elements that, though often only a single chord or ornament, are sure to be felt if missing.

My motifs are running trails. Bookstores to sniff around. A coffee shop to frequent. Possibly a garden with a particular bench. Houseplants on my windowsill. Floral accents to everyday items. These seemingly unimportant things are the glue that hold the larger blocks — the themes — together in harmony. Again, similar to the piece I learned years ago, as soon as the small pieces are in place, the larger ones become more manageable. 

Motifs are often quicker to come than themes, making them the best place to start when feeling overwhelmed in a new place or new stage of life. It is so much easier to thrive in the grand scheme of things when the small details are tidy and familiar. Find them, these little things that bring you back to your senses. Love them and cultivate them and use them to string together longer melodies, making yourself at home again in foreign modes, unknown places, until these new-yet-familiar themes, too, become a part of your life song.

Schumann’s Arabeske: A Musical Love Letter

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(video performance at link below article)

It is my conviction that one must fall in love to play Schumann well. I did not at first enjoy practicing his Arabeske, Op. 18; while I understood the piece theoretically, I did not truly understand it emotionally or spiritually until I, like the composer, fell in love. Then, all at once, its nuances and imagery became obvious, for I was better able to empathize with its composer and his situation.

This piece, it became apparent, was born of sweet affection. The story of Robert and Clara Schumann is a familiar one: he was a brooding, poetic soul with a passion for literature and composition and she the prodigious daughter of his piano teacher. Their love was one that overcame distance, disapproval, and even disease as Robert gradually declined due to mental illness.

The Arabeske, Op. 18 was composed during the couple’s three-year engagement while Clara was touring abroad. One of his experiments in small-form writing, the Arabeske is an exquisite example of Schumann’s ability to compact immense ideas into concise creations.  In this seemingly-simple piece, reflections of the composer can be discovered. Always torn between his two loves — music and literature — Schumann put elements of both into his work. In the notes of the central motif, we can hear the outline of his beloved’s name: the main theme hangs upon the notes “C” and “A” and might be interpreted as the spelling of “Clara” using the musical alphabet.

Also apparent are the two sides of the composer. In his literary works, Schumann presents himself as both the introspective “Eusebius” and the more extroverted “Florestan.” The opening theme and the first minor passage are reminiscent of the character of Eusebius as they gently flow along but build like an obsession. The more demanding nature of the second minor passage might be considered a Florestian outburst; here the composer is filled with determination! A third character, however, is also present; “Raro,” a name created by combining the last letters of “Clara” and the first letters of “Robert,” is a personification of the balance found in their marriage. This third character resounds in the gentle, bittersweet transition passages and, at last, in the heartfelt conclusion.

There is much more that could be said of this piece. For instance, the ending, comprised of suspensions, sounds like a goodbye across a great distance and the recurring theme carries different connotations with each repetition as the composer considers the same thought with different inflections and emotions. Indeed, I discover something new and lovely with each practice session, but perhaps it is best to let the Arabeske speak for itself, a small love letter from both composer and performer.

Up the Ladder, Down the Ladder: on artistic affection

“He now is struck with wonder by
what’s wonderful in him. Unwittingly,
he wants himself; he praises, but his praise
is for himself; he is the seeker and
the sought, the longed-for and the one who longs;
he is the arsonist— and is the scorched.”

The Metamorphoses of Ovid

In his Metamorphosis, Ovid paints perhaps the most poignant picture of unrequited love: Echo desires Narcissus, who desires the beauty of his reflection. This tale displays that to love in vain is to love too little: to love the particular rather than the universal, the carnate rather than what is being incarnated. As creative and intellectual beings, mankind must be reminded of the dangers of preferring images to realities and of settling for earthbound affections rather than allowing these to point heavenward. 

Plato, in Symposium, discusses the love of beauty, and, in particular, the proper ordering of this love toward its highest form: loving the Beautiful itself. The philosopher concludes by introducing a tool (Diotima’s Ladder) for understanding the progression of love from common to virtuous, mortal to immortal.

“First, [the Beautiful] always is and neither comes to be nor passes away… Second, it is not beautiful [in] this way and ugly that way…Nor will the beautiful appear to him in the guise of a face or hands or anything else that belongs to the body. It will not appear to him as one idea or one kind of knowledge. It is not anywhere in another thing…but itself by itself with itself… always one in form; and all the other beautiful things share in that.” 

Symposium, Plato 

Diotima’s Ladder (so named for the woman who supposedly first explained it) emphasizes that love is fundamentally driven by the desire for immortality. According to this idea, affections ought to strive from what is beautiful yet earthly to, rung-by-rung, the Beautiful: that is, the highest form of beauty, which is eternal, objective, self-sustaining, and preeminent. Beautiful particulars partake in this formal Beauty, which is not lessened by their existence, but rather manifest through their various incarnations.

By learning to love beautiful things, lovers progress up Diotima’s ladder to eventually love the Beautiful itself. First, they love the beauty of a single body. Then, this love expands to many bodies before blossoming into a love of the customs and laws which bind people together in harmony. (After all, harmony is an essential element of beauty.) Next comes the love of knowledge, demonstrating the progression from the physical to the philosophical. Finally, through their developed powers of affection, lovers will come to perceive and adore the Beautiful itself. 

In this philosophy, physical beauty becomes a mediator by which admirers might ascend to higher forms of affection. The problem, though, is that humanity tends to love too lowly; lovers become fixated on the glimpses of beauty found in lesser things when they ought to use these to turn towards the greatest Beauty. Mankind is content to praise the dimmer beauty of the moon, willfully forgetting that its light is a mere reflection of the sun’s. Perhaps it is because the Beautiful is, like the sun, too much for mortal eyes. More likely, though, men become acclimated to the climate of lowland loves, with eyes too weak to look heavenward. 

In On Loving God, St. Bernard of Clairvaux embarks on a similar attempt to reorder love. Much like Plato, he defines virtuous love as that which moves toward the highest, most enduring object. Rather than focusing on the love of the Beautiful alone, however, Bernard is concerned with redeeming lesser loves such as self-love by drawing them into proper relationship with God-love. 

His “ladder” is as follows: 

  1. Love of Self, for Self’s Sake
    The beginning of love in mankind is in the love of self; this is not necessarily immoral, for it can—according to Bernard—be the first step toward loving God. However, it may also be the final step for those who look no further.
  2. Love of God for His Benefits
    Here, man begins to love God, but only for the love God has demonstrated to him through His providence. Again, the soul may stagnate here, content with conditional affection.
  3. Love of God for God’s Sake
    Now, the Christian has experienced the sweetness of loving God for His own sake. There is a transcendent intimacy between lover and Beloved which is not reliant on benefits beyond simply loving and being loved. 
  4. Love of Self for God’s Sake
    This level is not reached on earth, for it is the redemption and perfection of self-love. In this, the self is in unity with God and is free to love itself in and through God’s love. This is the fullness of liberty in love. 

Again like Plato, Bernard begins with more material affections and uses them to draw lovers toward unity with divine love. In this, his theology is inseparable from the doctrine of the Incarnation, which is the reconciliation of body and soul in the fullness of love. 

In his allegory, The Great Divorce, C.S. Lewis writes of a painter who suffers from the same disordered affection that Ovid depicts and that both Plato and Bernard seek to remedy. As an artist, the painter ought to have a better understanding of beauty, but by his own pride, he descends Diotima’s ladder and renders himself incapable of loving neither beauty as manifest in creation nor the Creator Himself. Through time, he falls in love with his skill and material subjects and out of love with the Light that first enchanted him: 

“‘You’re forgetting,’ said the Spirit. ‘…Light itself was your first love: you loved paint only as a means of telling about light.’

‘Oh, that’s ages ago,’ said the [Painter]. ‘One grows out of that…one becomes more and more interested in paint for its own sake.’

‘…It was all a snare. Ink and catgut and paint were necessary down there, but they are also dangerous stimulants. Every poet and musician and artist, but for Grace, is drawn away from love of the thing he tells, to love of the telling till, down in Deep Hell, they cannot be interested in God at all, but only in what they say about Him.’

-C.S. Lewis, The Great Divorce

All lovers of beauty are in danger of becoming like this painter. Often a philosopher or artist will, like a Slinky toy, begin at the top of Diotima’s ladder and walk his way down. Many fall in love with beauty, but then devolve to love the images rather than the inspiration, losing sight of what they were recreating in the first place and loving light with only a utilitarian affection. In the same way, it is easy for artists, philosophers—even theologians—to cease loving God Himself and to settle instead for talking of Him, loving the study rather than the Person

Creative and thoughtful people are especially gifted with the ability to capture what is good, true, and beautiful in God and to communicate it with others or, to paraphrase Lewis, to “catch glimpses of Heaven in the earthly and to enable others to see the glimpses too.” Unfortunately, with great ability comes great responsibility and, in a fallen world, great potential for failure. 

Artists are perceptive and often one or more of their senses are uniquely attuned to the medium of their art. A painter’s conception of color and a musician’s awareness of pitch enable them to capture beauty and share it with others. Likewise, a writer may explain ideas in innovative ways so that readers understand what was previously inaccessible. These artists are placed, by the virtue of their abilities, in a position to leap the lower rungs and work from the top of Diotima’s ladder. (Though, like the rest of the world, they likely begin at the base of Bernard’s steps toward loving God.)

However, there is a danger with being perched so high from the start; artists almost inevitably, like the painter in The Great Divorce, topple from the highest loves to the lowest. It is the same way with a bookworm who begins by loving stories, then loves books for the stories, but eventually becomes a hoarder who would rather buy books than read them. Those who love highly have the farthest to fall, which becomes tragic upon the realization that these talented few were equipped to draw others up the ladder while they themselves are sliding down. 

Recall the words of Ecclesiastes: 

“Of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh.”

-Ecclesiastes 12:12, ESV

The Preacher of Ecclesiastes, ironically, made a book. Only a few verses earlier, he describes how he “taught the people knowledge, weighing and studying and arranging many proverbs with great care,” proving that not only did he write a book, he did so to share “words of truth” using “words of delight.” The composition of Ecclesiastes was an academic and aesthetic matter. What he warns against in the conclusion, then, is not the making of books, but the making of them for their sake alone. 

Like the painter of Lewis’ allegory, it is unwise to become interested in the act of creating for its own sake or for the sake of reputation, for this becomes similar to the lowest rung on Bernard’s ladder: loving oneself for oneself’s sake. It is all too easy for the artist and philosopher to fall from the truest love of Light and Beauty to the lowest pandering, to sink from gathering glimpses of glory to glorifying the self only. 

The painter’s ghost is concerned with his reputation as garnered by his art’s reception. When speaking with the redeemed spirit, he only wants to know whether there are any famous men in heaven. To his dismay, he receives a very Ecclesiastical answer: fame was vanity compared to being perfectly known and loved in heaven. In descending Diotima’s ladder from loving the Beautiful to his own little beauties, the artist also fails to realize that if he truly loved himself, he would see that, as Bernard explains, perfect self-love is found in unity with God-love.

Readers, I too want my words to be read; I want my stories to be shared and my songs to be heard. However, we must remember why it is that we started creating in the first place: because we glimpsed something enduring and otherly that we wished to capture, communicate, and, eventually, commune with. We wished to clothe the divine so that we might better grasp and share it: to incarnate the invisible through our art and study. 

“To paint a picture or to write a story or to compose a song is an incarnational activity.” 

Walking on Water, Madeleine L’Engle

The essence of incarnation is manifestation and mediation; Christ as the Word of God incarnate displayed divine glory and proved Himself preeminent by being the mediation of man and Deity (Colossians 1:18). If this is so and art is also an act of incarnation, we must learn to love the words we pen only because they are shadows of the Word Himself. We must seek to pursue art only to increase in ourselves and others an appreciation for beauty and, through this, to draw closer in communion with the Source of all beauty. We must refuse to grow out of our first love of Light in favor of shadows. 

So, reader, lay aside your “ink and catgut and paint.” Do not let your love of beauty and creativity stay earthbound; love here and love well, but look ever upward. Let an adoration higher and more overwhelming than your own dictate your smaller affections. Let us not become like Narcissus, in love with the beauty we reflect rather than the Beautiful itself. Nor let us be like Echo, futilely following a beauty that will not love us in return. Rather, in turning to the true Light, let us learn to love beauty better and better until we can see its fullness face to face; let us incarnate it in our art and study so that others might see and believe in the Incarnation Himself. Then, we might truly love and be loved, basking forever in the Light we once only glimpsed.