Posted by: mmkelly | December 11, 2009

Chaucer, the Left-Overs

I thought that this week, since I am reading a collection of essentially unrelated and sometimes unfinished stories from all over the Canterbury Tales, it would make sense to spend a paragraph exploring each tale rather than treating the work as a whole and analyzing the greater themes. Because we read almost all of the more famous or relatable tales in class last year, the remaining tales are quite variable in their quality: several feature some interesting experimentation with the narrative voice, some revolve around now dead literary genres, and some are simply unexpected. Overall, they were mostly enjoyable, with only a few thousand lines of rather boring prose (that would be you, Melibee’s Tale).

The Cook’s tale was one of the more enjoyable fragments. The prologue places the Cook in the midst of the Canterbury Tales ongoing obsession with “quiting.” Writing directly after the Miller’s Tale and the Reeve’s Tale—who both told tales that disparaged the others profession—the Cook’s prologue features a heated, though somewhat jovial, argument between the Cook and the host, Henry Bailey. Bailey begins it by attacking the Cook’s culinary abilities, claiming that whoever ate at his restaurant would likely get sick because of all the flies in his kitchen. The Cook responds by promising Bailey that “thou shalt be quit” (4362) in his story, which will feature an Innkeeper who is tricked. However, we never get to this part of the tale because, apparently, it was never finished. Instead, we get the story of a young apprentice who runs amok, gambling and dancing at every opportunity, and is eventually booted out by his master. Two aspects of the tale stand out: first, its generally bawdiness, epitomized by the last line of the fragment which describes how the apprentice “swyved for hir sustenance” (4422) and, second, for its rather conformist vision of society. The cook, it seems, does not trust anything that complicates his rather stark understanding of good and bad. Certainly, the apprentice is known to be bad simply because of his outlook on life—“for thefte and iot, they ben convertible”—even before the narrator reveals the apprentice’s habit of stealing from his master. From the prologue and the beginning of the tale, one can only imagine that Chaucer intended to write one of his more entertaining, if off-color, stories, and it is unfortunate that it was never finished.

The Melibee’s tale has been portrayed by some as the poet’s revenge for the interruption of the Tale of Sir Thopas. Certainly, the tale seems to be somewhat vindictive towards the general reader. However, the writing itself is not devoid of thematic development: it continues, in its slow and ponderous style, the Canterbury Tale’s ongoing argument about the role and value of “auctoritee.” Melibeus, come home to find his wife injured and his daughter killed by enemies, consults every possible source to determine the proper reaction to this violence. In many ways he he resembles a Middle English Hamlet, except far less decisive. Over and over, he and his wife cite classical and Christian sources as a way of justifying certain actions—but the end result of all this accumulated literary wisdom (all of this accumulated “auctoritee”), is a mass of muddled and contradictory aphorisms. “Ovide” (977), “Senek” (980), and “Apostle Paul unto the Romans” (988) are all cited—but the effect they have is unclear. The story as a whole, then, in its cumbersome and tedious way, seems to question the value of book knowledge, claiming that real wisdom is the kind that can be applied and that any sort of witticism that fails this utilitarian test is simply a waste of time. There is also a sense that talk and action are in conflict—the greater the talk the less the action—and all too often the former takes precedence.

The prologue to the Manciple’s tale is portrayed as the beginning of the second Cook’s Tale. Bailey, continuing his vitriolic attack on the Cook attempts to make the hopeless drunk, currently embroiled in a complete inebriated stupor, tell a tale. This prologue features some of the more effective physical slap-stick comedy in the entire Canterbury Tales as it describes the difficulties of lifting the overweight Cook on to his horse after he falls asleep and falls off. The Manciple eventually decides to tell a tale instead of the Cook, taking pity on the poor drunk, and tells a rather profound tale about the power of rumors and words. It is a very standard tale—classical characters, artificial set-up, ultimate tragedy, and overtly stated moral—but also quite effective. The ultimate message of the story—that words, once unleashed, can never be taken back—is particularly profound, especially in a book like Canterbury Tales which is so concerned with the complicated way in which words are used in different contexts by different people:

“But he that hath misseyd, I dar wel sayn,
He may by no wey clepe his word again.
Thing that is seyd is seyd, and forth it gooth,
Though him repente, or be him leef or looth.
He is in thrall to whom that he hath sayd
A tale of which he is now yvel apayd.” (353-58)

I think that the tale is especially neat if we see the Crow, who can “counterfete the speche of every man” (134) as a parallel for Chaucer himself. After all, the Canterbury Tales are Chaucer’s attempt to mimic the accents, rhetoric, and ideas of different people from different classes, professions, and regions of England. Yet, while certainly this ability to mimic and replicate is valuable, it also dangerous—this incredible fluency with words is a curse as much as it is a gift. The tale also makes some interesting statements about marriage and love, generally espousing a pragmatic attitude towards both. In response to Apollo’s jealousy over his wife, the Manciple makes the point that you marry the woman you marry. If Apollo’s wife has unfaithful desires, he simply has to deal with the fact—“A good wyf that is clene of wek and thought / sholde nat been kept in noon await, certain; / and trewely the labour is in vayn / to kepe a shrewe, for it wol nat be” (148-51). One cannot transform a spouse into something they are not. The tale also takes a similar view on sex, noting that it is an unfortunate, but nonetheless true, fact of lust that “flesh is so newfangel, with meschaunce” (193). Finally, the Manciple’s Tale continues the discussion of “Auctoritee.” He constantly makes allusions yet simultaneously claims an uneducated humility—“but for I am a man noght textual, / I wot noght telle of testes never a del / I wol go to my tale, as I bigan” (235-7). Thus, he attempts to gain legitimacy by making literary allusions, while maintaining a sort of “common touch” by professing his own provincial simplicity.

In contrast to the Manciple’s rhetorical humility, the Man of Law speaks with lawyerly confidence and superiority. The Tale, as a whole, is very focused on depicting the speech of lawyers—which, though a clever idea, renders a fairly dry narration. He tells the story of a Christian woman, who is kidnapped, stolen, abused, etc. by pagans, with the ultimate end that she converts everyone to Christianity. In contrast to the normal martyr story, this Tale has a happy ending. I think it would make for an interesting comparison to look at martyr stories versus the stories of temporal endurance that end in happiness? After all, the point of the martyr stories is that a happy ending in the temporal world is unnecessary—the happy ending is the entry into heaven.

The Physician’s Tale represents the martyr story that differs from the Man of Law’s Tale only in that it ends in death rather than joyful reconciliation. Like the Man of Law’s Tale, it features a version of Christianity that is almost epidemic; contagious, it infects whoever encounters the main character. This tale also features a critique of medieval justice—when Apius makes his ruling, even though it is obviously corrupt and ill-considered, his judgment holds and cannot be appealed or challenged. One strange aspect of the story was that the public only expressed its disapproval of the ruling once Virginia had been beheaded—I suppose this demonstrates how humans sometimes require a real tragedy before they take a necessary action, they have to be inspired by real pain and not just theoretical injustice.

Especially in the past two tales, there seems to be a shared depiction of women as passive objects. In the whole of Chaucer, there is a tendency to portray women as either entirely virtuous and pure or entirely corrupt and sinful. With some exceptions—the Wife of Bath, of course, being the most significant—Chaucer does not see women as having control over their lives. Perhaps this can simply be assigned to the rules of genre, which demand that characters act in certain preordained way. Yet, I think that Boccaccio, writing with similar genres, manages to make female characters seem more like real people, and, even if genre is the excuse, I do not think that entirely justifies utterly gendered treatment of the sexes—with men able to achieve a full spectrum of humanity and women only able to occupy the extremes of human nature.

Finally, there is the Canon’s Yeoman’s Tale. More than any other part of the Canterbury Tales, this section relies entirely on the narrative voice. The servant of the Canon presents his master in a positive light, making vast claims about his skills of alchemy, and then suddenly turns to criticism as soon as his master departs. The depiction of medieval science, which certainly piqued the curiosity of the party, seems quite mysterious, and I think this story as a whole might prove a useful analogue to my developing paper on the Summoner’s Tale. “Science,” which I presented my paper as being entirely logical and rational (an inaccurate modern connotation), had a far more complex social role in the Middle Ages, feared and disdained as much as it was revered.

Overall, the remains of the Canterbury Tales are an astoundingly odd collection of stories and testify to Chaucer’s incredible ability to depict numerous points of view. Whereas Boccaccio tells tales from multiple genres, Chaucer tells stories from multiple genres from multiple points of view, adeptly taking on the opinions and mannerisms of his constructed characters. The “leftovers” of Chaucer especially demonstrate this chameleon aspect of his writing because they are so diverse and, in many ways, unapproachable. Because they come from all over the place—from the bawdy to the intensely spiritual—they are that much more radical and experimental, enhancing the curiosity of some while diminishing the approachability of others.

Posted by: mmkelly | November 30, 2009

Boccaccio’s Decameron

Boccaccio’s Decameron completely overturns modern stereotypes of the Middle Ages, granting the characters in his story a diverse and realistic array of motivations and impulses. While he certainly pays homage to the cultural centrality of ideas about chivalry, he also undermines these ideas by acknowledging the hypocrisy which underlies the application of chivalric ideas; though overtly Christian, Boccaccio has no qualms about making explicit and extremely focused attacks upon the corruption and excess of the Catholic Church; and though written in a time with extremely proscribed class and gender roles, he constantly provides subalterns with opportunities to upturn the social hierarchy and achieve a fairly real social parity. The Decameron is an amazingly bold work. It is written in a no-holds-barred style, often making shockingly explicit sexual references, and it demonstrates the full extent of medieval culture, unearthing the realities that people dealt with beneath the stated veneers of chivalry and faith. Boccaccio presents, through stories often fantastic and romantic, a fairly just world full of opportunities….Is it realistic or idealistic—hard to say.

The central feature of the book, as Boccaccio states in his introduction, is love and the variety of emotions that it evokes. Boccacio sees loves as taking place between a dichotomy of pain and pleasure—“In these tales will be found a variety of love adventures, bitter as well as pleasing, and other exciting incidents, which took place in both ancient and modern times” (3) he explains in the introduction—mirroring both the “inordinate amount of distress” as well as the “abiding sensation of pleasure” (1) that he has felt in his own life. Consequently, the tales in their depiction of love often switch between emotional opposites—a long-endured pain is finally transformed into the ultimate pleasure of sexual attainment and a joyous love is shattered in eternal separation. This attitude also conveys a key aspect of Boccaccio’s understanding of love: the game of love is winner-take-all—to lose is absolute pain and death, while to win is absolute pleasure and life—and therefore ordinarily repugnant behavior is justified.

Of course, the repugnant behavior that Boccaccio describes and sometimes lauds was a new development. Indeed, the author claims that it was during the plague of 1348 that a great change occurred in society, making it “inevitable that among the citizens who survived there arose certain customs that were quite contrary to the established tradition” (9). People adapted to the plague in different ways—some “of the opinion that a sober and abstemious mode of living considerably reduced the risk of infection” and others maintaining “that an infallible way of warding off this appalling evil was to drink heavily, enjoy life to the full, go round singing and merrymaking, gratify all of one’s cravings whenever the opportunity offered, and shrug the whole thing off as one enormous joke” (7)—and Boccaccio aligns himself emphatically with the latter. Overall, he justifies his sexualized perspective on contemporary Italian society as realistic: with the coming of the plague, “all respect for the laws of God and man had virtually broken down and been extinguished in our city” (7-8) and because women were being treated for disease, and therefore exposing their bodies to strange men, those who recovered “were possibly less chaste in the period that followed” (9). (This certainly parallels Thucydides analysis of the social effects of the plague in Athens).

Females, in the Decameron, are presented ambivalently: Boccaccio often overtly describes them as the weaker sex, yet in many stories gives them great agency to pursue their own happiness and generally treats them as equals, and not as objects. While setting up the Decameron’s frame, one of the seven ladies states, “[we] must remember that we are all women, and every one of us is sufficiently adult to acknowledge that women when left to themselves, are not the most rational of creatures, and that without the supervision of some man or other their capacity for getting things done is somewhat restricted. We are fickle, quarrelsome, suspicious, cowardly, and easily frightened…” (17). And yet, as the stories progress, women always seem to make decisions and to take part in trickery. Several deceive poorly acting husbands, others pursue an unrequited love, and some even manage to climb the precipitous medieval social ladder.

One prime example of Boccaccio’s positive depiction of women is in the introduction to a story told by one of the ladies. She begins by declaiming the current materialism of current women, stating that “She who sees herself tricked out in the most elaborate finery, with the largest number of gaudy stripes and speckles, believes that she should be much more highly respected and more greatly honored than other women, forgetting that if someone were to dress an ass in the same clothes or simply load them on its back, it would still carry a great deal more than she could, nor would this be any reason for paying it greater respect than you would normally accord an ass” (63). A true and virtuous women, therefore, is not a decoration—as much medieval romance would have you imagine—but a thoughtful human. In comparison to his predecessors, Dante and Petrarch, who generally treated women as abstract objects of inspiration, Boccaccio adopts a surprisingly enlightened view upon gender roles.

Perhaps most remarkable is the description of women’s sexual desires and needs as being excessive of men’s. Several stories feature old men who have acquired young wives, but fail to keep them satisfied. After all, “a fresh and vigorous young woman needs something more than food and clothes, even if modesty forbids her to say so” (183). In several stories, a man who believes himself lucky to have seduced a beautiful woman, finds himself taxed by the woman’s sexual demands. One man finds himself as the sole sexual provider for an entire nunnery, a task that quickly exhausts him. Certainly this violates many medieval stereotypes about gender roles—women are not purified objects set atop a pedestal, but are lusty and sinful human beings capable of the same, if not stronger, emotions as men.

Continuing a theme shared with other members of the fourteenth-century Italian canon, the Decameron regularly criticizes the contemporary corruption of the Catholic Church. While this criticism is slightly moderated by the book’s undoubting Christian faith, the absolute distrust of the Christian Church is undisguised. The first story, the tale of Ser Ciappelletto, tells the story of a entirely corrupt man who lies his way into sainthood. Indeed, “the fame of his saintliness, and of the veneration in which he was held, grew to such proportions that there was hardly anyone who did not pray for his assistance in time of trouble, and they called him, and call him still, Saint Ciappelletto” (36). However, the storyteller presents this troubling tale of ecclesiastical corruption with a positive message. Ser Ciappelletto, despite the menace he poses to Catholicism, demonstrates the truth of Christianity: for “how very great is God’s loving-kindness towards us, in that it takes account, no of our error, but of the purity of our faith, and grants our prayers even when we appoint as our emissary one who is His enemy, thinking him to be His friend, as though we were appeaing to one who was truly holy as our intercessor for our favor” (37). The Church’s temporal corruption demonstrates the benevolence of the Christian God, who accepts prayer even though it comes in such a convoluted manner. Similarly, in story 1.2, when the Jewish man travels to Rome to seek conversion to the Christian faith, he is ironically drawn to Christianity not by the purity of the Church but by its impurity: upon seeing the moral decay of Rome, he remarks that only a true religion could withstand such corruption and degradation and still survive.

This distrust of the Church is reflected in a distrust of the churches messengers. Priests, nuns, and monks are often portrayed as fools, deviants, and hypocrites. One story begins with a long diatribe against the priesthood which, according to the storyteller, “consists for the most part of extremely stupid men, inscrutable in their ways, who consider themselves in all respects more worthy and knowledgeable than other people, whereas they are decidedly inferior. They resemble pigs, in fact, for they are too feeble-minded to earn an honest living like everybody else, and so they install themselves wherever they can fill their stomachs” (205-6). Throughout the book, priests are lusty, nuns are lascivious, and the entire Church is indicted as more corrupt than the society they are trying to purify.

Sex, in the Decameron, is often conflated with Love. One woman explains her adultery away by claiming that “The fact is that I am unable, in my husbands absence, to withstand the promptings of the flesh and the powers of Love” (150). That is, “Love” or sexual desire drives her to seek sexual satisfaction from someone else. The entire book operates on a similar conception of Love that subsumes idealistic and chivalric notions with pragmatic realities. For instance in the story of Bernabo (2.9), a character attacks Bernabo’s depiction of his wife as an utterly pure creature by arguing that he must have “not devoted enough attention to the study of human nature…When the rest of us spoke so freely about our womenfolk, we were merely facing facts, and so as not to let you run away with the idea that we suppose our wives any different from ours, I would like to pursue this subject a little further with you” (167). Sexual transgressions are, in fact, assumed in this highly practical world, for “What chance do you think a women, fickle by nature, can have against all the entreaties, the blandishments, the presents, and the thousand other expedients to which any intelligent lover will resort?” (167).

Two final points are worth mentioning. First, the entire idea of honor is based upon an acknowledged separation between a public “truth” and a private reality. A woman might lose her virginity to a man—an act that should entail her loss of honor—but the loss of honor only occurs once the loss of virginity becomes public knowledge. There is an acknowledged hypocrisy here—people believe that laws can be escaped from, that they don’t have to obeyed as much as respected. Secondly, Boccaccio gives us several heroes who act with incredible deceit. In 3.6, we have a character who completely deceives and manipulates a woman into having sex with him under false pretenses—an act which ultimately ends positively for him. Upon confrontation by the woman, our hero exclaims, “Save my soul, do not upset yourself so. What I was unable to achieve by mere wooing, Love has taught me to obtain by deception. I am your Ricciardo.” Deceit in the name of love is encouraged in the book, and it is something often ennobled rather than despised.

Perhaps, then, because of his pragmatic attitudes and willingness to deceive, we should consider Boccaccio to be the Machiavelli of Italian Romance.

Posted by: mmkelly | November 16, 2009

Petrarch’s Canzoniere

Over the course of this independent study, we have looked at a wide variety of authors, each thinking in their own unique way. Ovid naturally forms expansive visions of the world; St. Augustine narrows and defines topics to their utmost pith and core; Dante understands the world through meticulous metaphor and analogy. Though Petrarch resembles each of these earlier authors in certain characteristics of his writing—sharing an imaginative curiosity with Ovid, an encyclopedic thoroughness with St. Augustine, and a synergistic utilization of historic and religious source material with Dante—he is uniquely his own. He chooses one topic, almost as a formality, and uses it to explore anything or everything. Laura, this mysterious muse of the poet, is the prism through which Petrarch shines his light on the world, refracting his understanding of life through this central node.

Certainly, this approach lends itself to inconsistency. In describing the variety of emotions and thoughts inspired by his all-consuming love for a woman unable or unwilling to requite, Petrarch manages to describe ideas and emotions that often seem to contradict each other. He describes his love for Laura as both an exercise in masochism (Sonnet 37, All too often we love / Whatever is most strange / And brings along the biggest crowd of sighs! / I am one whom weeping seems to please…”) and also a pure love full of chivalry, a passion for a woman for whom “to weep / is much more sweet than anyone believes” (Sonnet 130). Similarly, while he originally states that her love leads him to spiritual improvement (“I see, my noble lady, / a gentle light that streams from your bright eyes / directing me along the way to heaven…”, Sonnet 72), he comes to believe that her love is a distraction from his spiritual duties, for “To love a mortal being with such faith / as should belong to the Lord God alone / is not allowed to those who live for honour” (Sonnet 264). Indeed, perhaps in the context of one’s immortal state, Petrarch “wasted [his life] in love of a mere mortal thing” (Sonnet 365).

Perhaps the greatest example of Petrarch’s artistic detachment and lack of concern for depicting reality, are his series of “pathetic fallacy” poems (Sonnets 41-3), in which he describes in sequence how Laura’s disappearance and reappearance both have complete control over the weather and then, suddenly, no effect at all. The poems serve more to demonstrate Petrarch’s playful ingenuity in manipulating current literary tropes and imagining new artistic perspective, than to actually depict the extent of his love for Laura. This is a common thread throughout the Canzoniere, where Chaucer presents an incredibly complez and diverse set of opinions about love, while in his Triumphs Petrarch manages a much more consistent and orderly argument for a hierarchy of universal powers. The fact that these two great works of poems express too different visions of art and the world–one expansive and self-contradicting, the other narrowed and consistent–attests to his mind-boggling creativity and disconcerting insincerity. One never knows what the Petrarch actually believes, because he can so nimbly express any opinion.

Similarly, Petrarch’s prodigious mind, able to view his subject from every angle, develops a view of life that distinguishes himself from everyone else: his love for Laura, so deep and profound, so artistically inspiring, provides him with a unique subjective understanding of life and artistic distance from life distinct from the average human being’s existence. Over and over, the poet describes the sorrow and bitterness that his unrequited love for Laura instills within him, he weeps and sighs constantly, he finds himself sick and wounded with Love. In all of this, the histrionics of medieval chivalry, Petrarch feels that he has experienced something which “sever[s] me from all the world” (Sonnet 17). Indeed, “From thought to thought, along each mountain top Love leads [Petrarch] on,” because for a man with such a potent experience of love “no well-trodden ways could ever bring [his] mind to peace.” (Sonnet 129). In light of Petrarch’s mountaineering adventures—his ascent Mount Ventoux of might be the first instance of European mountaineering and illustrates his unique curiosity in the world, the man who climbed simply for the view—this phrase takes on added meaning. He sees his ability to think and imagine as of a higher order than the ordinary, and because he holds such a powerful love in his heart he mounts loftier peaks and inhabits wilder paths than the ordinary human.

Indeed, nature, and the isolation that nature can provide for the wandering soul, is one of the more significant themes of Canzoniere. In Sonnet 35, Petrarch describes how he wanders through the wilderness—through the desert, mountains, and shores—in the attempt to “keep free from people’s obvious interest,” looking “intently less [he] go where human footprints have left any traces.” He claims to be so successful in his wanderings that only the natural environment knows of his mental anguish and “men do not.” Of course, in his attempt to escape the pain of love he is unsuccessful, for no matter how far he walks over what rugged terrain, he can find no place in which “Love does not come too.” The entire set-up of this poem is to use the environment to emphasize Petrarch’s isolated individuality. Only he can access remote nature—find the places where humans have left no traces—and, therefore, only he can commune face-to-face, without any outside distractions, with love. He affirms this use of natural imagery in Sonnet 259, written after Laura’s death, where he describes how his “wish has always been to live alone / (as river-banks, fields, woods are well aware) / avoiding the deaf dull-eyed people here, to whom the way to heaven is unknown.” His love has made him a sort of special human—for “love has made [him] a native of the woods.” (Sonnet 236)—and forces him to seek solitude, fleeing from the unenlightened masses. When Petrarch climbed Mount Ventoux, he used the experience to demonstrate his specialness and uniqueness; and when he writes poetry, a similar thread of narcissism weaves through. Only he had the curiosity and the imagination to climb the mountain, only he has the capacity to plumbthe emotional and spiritual depths inspired by an all-consuming love, and only he can access the higher meaning these experiences evoke within him.

Petrarch, despite his wealth of writing, on occasions insinuates a doubt about the ability of art, poetry, or writing to truly express real feelings or to give full voice to his understanding of the world. Indeed, though Petrarch expends a lifetime writing sonnets about his beloved, he admits, with mock shame that he has “never / managed to fix [Laura’s] name in my verse” (Sonnet 20). He can write all the verse he wants, but it will never be sufficient to fully convey the extent of his love and the extent of Laura’s beauty. He also admits that in writing he has to choose carefully which details to leave in and out. Though this may be an obvious matter in authorship, it is integral to understanding the essential subjectivity of writing: one chooses what is important—what will be included and what will be left out—in one’s work.

Ultimately, the most wonderful and most troubling characteristic of Petrarch’s work is its slipperiness, its ability to constantly reconsider perspective. Over the entire course of the Canzoniere, a collection of three hundred-some poems, Petrarch regards essentially one subject over and over, finding a different way to do so each time. Obviously this is impressive—it requires great creativity and amazing imagination to reconceive and reassess his love for Laura in so many ways. Yet, at the same time, it makes his poetry seem somehow insincere. If Laura is simply an artificial construct used to evoke his brilliance and genius, what we find in the Canzoniere are not poems of love, but rather poems of self-love. The inconsistency of Petrarch’s general poetic sensibility, the reconciliation of contradictory sentiments and ideological frameworks, the employment of symbols in oppositional contexts conveys to the reader that the author, rather than using poetry as a tool of acquiring or interpreting meaning from life, uses poetry as a means of narcissistic self-exposure. Of course, his far more orderly book of poems, the Triumphs, presents the opposite vision of him as a poet–for here he has a unified vision of human virtue and weakness. In the end, the comparison of the two works leaves us with the definite idea that though Petrarch was decidedly a genius–a man who coul reimagine any object, who could see with many eyes–he was also a man, who, somewhat sadly, lacked a message.

Some more things to talk about:
1) Petrarch constantly uses the symbol of the Laurel tree to represent Laura. What exactly about the Laurel makes it suitable for this purpose? Is it simply that the names are similar and the metaphor therefore convenient, or are there deeper parallels to consider?

2) On occasion, Petrarch considers other topics. He writes about other poets of love, the crusades, his own relation to God. How these poems contribute to a greater understanding of his work? How do they inform our understanding of his love for Laura?

3) Several times Petrarch talks of his love is fated and evokes a sort of stoic philosophy (i.e., one should simply accept their fate, be it bad or good). Indeed, one might characterize the entire moral framework of the Canzoniere as revolving around a sort of omnipresent fatalism (see, specifically, 69).

4) Sonnet 87 attaches agency to Laura. Petrarch seems to waver between expressing her as a passive subject who is benignly unaware of his suffering and a more active person who realizes her effect upon him. Doesn’t this matter?

Posted by: mmkelly | November 3, 2009

Dante’s Purgatorio

Through some quirk of literary history, Dante’s Inferno has been raised up above the rest of the trilogy in popular consciousness. Perhaps because of the accessible voyeurist lure of its strange punishments and fearsome beasts or perhaps because of the imaginative allure of strange and foreign places or perhaps even because it is, simply, the first book, the Inferno has risen to a place of special preeminence in the Divine Comedy. This is unfortunate because it may cause readers to ignore the Comedy’s most relevant book for a human audience, Purgatorio, which features an almost parallel world to human earth, where individuals strive forward in the effort to achieve salvation. Whereas one notices again and again the strangeness of the Inferno, one cannot help but feel a connection, a sense of intimacy, with Purgatorio; where the Inferno is magical and mythological, Purgatorio feels real.

Part of this quality derives from Dante’s enhanced ability to empathize with the punishments of the inhabitants in Purgatory, as opposed to the sinners of Hell. In the Inferno, Dante cannot really understand the pain and suffering that the sinners experience, beyond a generic sense of horror. He is apart from their experience, separated from their moral decrepitude, more apt to give them sermonizing morality speeches than pity. In contrast, Purgatory essentially reflects a purified life on Earth—that is, life on Earth if everyone suddenly chose to seek salvation. Dante shares this desire, and so his travel up the mountain parallels the journeys of everyone else in Purgatory—though his shadow constantly identifies him as someone who does not belong in Purgatory, his spiritual search seems profoundly at home.

Perhaps Purgatorio’s attractiveness comes from the sincerity of its subjects. There is an earnestness in Purgatory. Virgil constantly goads Dante up the mountain, giving him very little time to talk; angels goad all of the penitent (“What is this, laggard spirits? What negligence, what delay is this? Haste to the mountain to strip you of the slough that allows not God to be manifest to you” an angel shouts at the climbing citizens of Purgatory in Canto II). All of the shades they meet along the way are hard at work shedding their sins and they request, almost without exception, that Dante ask the people on Earth to pray for them so that they can expedite their entry into heaven. In contrast to Hell, where everyone seems to have their own agenda and their own feelings—the occupants of Purgatory seem downright staid and monochrome. They all share the same focused goal, and they each approach it with the same intensity and singleness of purpose.

In contrast to a Hell filled with individuals, each unique in their own moral degradation and decay, there is a real sense of community in Purgatory. In Hell, no one could be trusted and each person suffered, traveled, and endured on their own. Punishments were divvied up as to make each individual unique—crimes matching punishment, often on a case-by-case basis, making sure that no sin would be neglected. In Purgatory, however, each person passes through the same rings and, though some rings affect individuals more than other, they all share the same experience. They all also face the same destination: every individual in Purgatory will eventually walk through the fire into Eden and Heaven beyond.

This sense of connection eventually violates the image of Purgatory as a parallel world to Earth, because those on Earth have a powerful effect on the inhabitants of Purgatory. The penitent constantly request that Dante convince their earthly relatives to aid their path to salvation through constant prayer. One man, for example, asks the poet to “do me the courtesy to beg them in Fano that good prayers be made for me, only that I may purge away my grevious sins” (Canto V). Purgatory is more than just a mirror for the City of God on Earth, but is part and parcel with earth as well–the two worlds intertwining and linked intimately.

Yet, though there is this sense of community and connection (connection even with the temporal world, where individual Christians still affect the fate of those in Purgatory), each individual is empowered and centered on their individual goal of salvation. In a way, the community only exists because all of the individuals share the same goals and therefore find communal travel the best way of ensuring that they all eventually get to where they want to go. In Canto XVIII, a group of the penitent explain their rush up the mountain, saying “We are so filled with desire to keep moving that we cannot rest.” Though individuals, they share this real desire and so form a community. Yet, still, each is in charge of their own lives and, because of this, no one seems particularly bothered by their various burdens. They accept their burdens as justice and continue their penance—indeed, they almost embrace their burdens because that is the one way in which they know they can eventually erase all burdens by entering into Heaven.

One way we can see the growing individuality of humans in Purgatory is through Dante’s growing independence from Virgil. In Hell, there were dangers to face and things to hide from—deceit and violence around every corner. In Purgatory, the only danger is from the inside—the fear that one might not have enough will to erase their sins. Purgatory requires great inner human strength, it necessitates a powerful enough will to climb the mountain that seemingly has no end. Yet, it features no dangers outside of one’s own tendency to distraction. The scene in which Virgil departs from Dante’s company is particularly affecting. Saying, “No longer expect word or sign from me. Free, upright and whole is they will and it were a fault not to act on its bidding; therefore over thyself I crown and mitre thee” (Canto xxvii), Virgil leaves Dante as an equal. This egalitarian quality of Purgatorio—where every man becomes responsible for himself—is foreshadowed by an earlier interaction between Virgil and the poet Statius. When Statius realizes who Virgil is, he immediately bows his head. But Virgil raises him up, saying with poetic beauty, “Brother, do not do so, for thou art a shade and a shade thou seest” (Canto XXI). In Purgatory, all are brothers, all are shades, and all are equals.

Finally, the Purgatorio is lovely in that it is filled with hope. Whereas the Inferno is filled with remorseless sinners who will remain there, tortured, into eternity, those in Purgatory have the opportunity to strive forward into a better life. Humans in Purgatory are “worms born to form the angelic butterfly that soars to judgment without defense?” (Canto X). Even the intellectual terms that Dante uses to express sin and salvation are transformed between Hell and Purgatory: critic E G Gardner notes that “Whereas in the Inferno sin was considered in its manifold effects, in the Purgatorio it is regarded in its causes, and all referred to as disordered love.” (139)

Only once, in Canto XII, does Dante overtly compare Purgatory to Hell, and in this passage he clearly explains the two as very different places. “When we were turning our steps there, ‘Beati paupers spiritu’ was sung in such tones as no words would tell. Ah, how different these passages from those of Hell, for here the entrance is with songs and there with fierce lamentations!” Though comparing a relatively superficial set of circumstances in the two realms, this passage has greater symbolism, for Hell and Purgatory have profound differences despite often artificial similarities. Even though they both include sinners, even though they both include arduous and painful punishments—the type of sinner and the goal of punishment are very different.

Ultimately, as Sinclair explains in his comments, the profundity and accessibility of Purgatorio stems from its closeness to temporal human experience: “The life of Purgatory is the Christian life, life under the dispensations of grace and under some of the limitations of the earth; and in approaching a scene so expressly Christian as the Valley of the Princes, where the atmosphere is all of penitence and prayer and spiritual aspiration” (103) one cannot help but feel the passage’s powerful relevance to temporal life. As Sinclair summarizes, “the whole subject of the Purgatorio is the perfecting, by penitence and fellowship and prayer, of the life of man among men” (445-6). And for this reason, because we are in this modern age predominantly concerned with the life of humans among humans, Purgatorio deserves more recognition.

Some further notes:

I’m pretty sure I didn’t get all of the weird symbolism in the end. The concept of Beatrice makes no sense to me. Why is this woman, who died when Dante was 9, so important to him? Why does she occupy such a prominent place in Heaven and why does she send Virgil to guide Dante along the way?

As always, Dante inserts his own personal life into the story. Particularly notable is his criticism of Italy in Canto VI (“Ah, Italy enslaved, hostel of misery, ship without pilot in the tempest, no princess among the provinces but a brothel!”), and his very personal connection with those who suffer (like himself) from pride and anger.

Posted by: mmkelly | October 18, 2009

Dante’s Inferno

Dante writes three long poems in which he describes the entirety of the universe from heaven to hell in minute detail. This seems like a fairly ambitious project, to construct an entire framework of justice and punishment for all humanity while incorporating the often contradictory mythological and religious heritage of pagan and Christian Rome. Yet, what strikes one when reading Dante’s Infernois not the profundity of his poetry, but the intimacy of it. Though he chooses these vast and complex religious structures (hell, heaven, purgatory) as his subject, Dante seems primarily occupied with his own life and with the life of his city, the poem’s setting merely providing a symbolic setting for his criticisms of the contemporary world.

Dante often uses important figures from recent history to illustrate the crimes punished at each circle of Hell. Thus, the triumvirate of corrupt Popes from Dante’s lifetime—Nicholas III, Boniface VIII, and Clement V—appears in Canto XIX to illustrate the sin of simony. While certainly their inclusion helps illuminate the types of prisoners contained in the third bolgia, it seems they serve a further purpose. The poet is not simply trying to denounce the type of person who would “prostitute for gold and silver the things of God,” he is denouncing specific trends in the contemporary Catholic churches hierarchy. When Dante speaks with Boniface, his words are passionate and his rhetoric personal (indeed, he worries that perhaps his diatribe was “overbold”) for he sees the sin of simony (essentially, the selling of the Church’s sanctity) as monstrously corrupting. The public nature of this sin infuriates Dante because simony’s wide effects on wider society, for the Boniface’s “avarice afflicts the world, trampling on the good and exalting the wicked.”

By using contemporary figures, Dante heightens the moral immediacy of his poem. The point is not simply that simony is bad. The point is that simony is bad and the Catholic church is currently perpetuating the practice of simony. While he acknowledges the abstract sin of simony, he places emphasis on the immediate effect of its current practice. Writing of the men under whose shadows he had lived, Dante’s lines take on additional poignancy. Perhaps he might be among the good who have been “trampled upon,” perhaps his wicked enemies have been “exalted.’

The autobiographical nature of the Inferno therefore, adds a layer of complexity. Oftentimes, it seems that the poem is simply an allegory, a medieval Pilgrim’s Progress. Yet, while Dante and Virgil are symbolic characters representing various stages of human enlightenment, and while each circle of hell is suffused with a sort of symbolic justice (punishments matching sins, physical appearances reflecting inner corruptions), the book seems more like a poet’s attempt to understand a cruel and unfair world than a theological poem attempting to understand the celestial reality beyond earth through a steady stream of symbolic constructions. There is a temporal centrality to the Inferno: the sun always lurks ahead urging Dante and Virgil on, the stars of the sky, invisible in hell, signify their reestablishment in the normal world when they journey back out to Earth. When Dante talks to the sufferers in hell, he always looks for the people he knows, seeking out the famous Florentines at every level. He is a gossipmonger, finding out the dirty secrets of his fellow Italians, promising to carry back messages and lessons to Earth. Strangely, Dante never seems particularly interested in the inner workings of Hell—though he notes its various topographic eccentricities and orderings, he does so more out of compulsion than curiosity—and often expresses a desire to halt his tour of hell in order to continue a conversation with one of his contemporaries.

Perhaps this is why Dante’s trilogy has become such a canonical book. There seems to be a palpable enthusiasm for all things human, even though humanity is always tainted by sin. No greater cases exist than Dante’s treatment of Francesca, Ulysses, and Ugolino. Dante, supposedly, should feel no pity for the judged sinner, because God cannot but judge rightly. However, in these specific cases, he becomes so embroiled in the lives of his subjects that he forgets about their sins, the brightness of their exaggerated humanity palliating his moral outrage. Francesca’s capacity to love, Ulysses need to explore, and Ugolino’s endurance of dreadful torture all capture Dante’s imagination. His conversations with these characters, unlike the conversation with Boniface, end in no moral indignation or sermonizing, rather they end with a certain awe and respect for humans who have lived life on a higher plane, who have felt greater passions, and who have seen greater sights.

This introduces a second odd, and slightly troubling, aspect to Dante’s Inferno. Dante, though he often expresses his agreement with the punishments meted out to sinners, sometimes seems to regard the punishments as excessive or unjust. Though he places the heathens, those who never had a chance to believe in Christianity, in a relatively comfortable place in Hell, there is still a sense of injustice in knowing that they are punished at all. Indeed, Dante simply seems in awe of all the great poets and philosophers walking around this ring, offering no criticism of their great, though unintentional, sin. Should these great thinkers, these influential persons, these intellectuals who have released such knowledge and such beauty into the world really be constrained eternally in Hell? Dante, apparently, does not think so. Certainly, Virgil proves that these great men can escape divine justice, that their fated unbelief can be transformed and they can be freed from their ignoble position. But, if exceptions can be made for the greatest and most creative of humans, doesn’t this reflect poorly an entire celestial system designed to enforce pure and unadulterated justice? Dante’s exile is the subtext constantly shifting behind the description of hell, the poem barely concealing his bitterness at those sinful worldly forces that caused his social ostracism. He writes about hell to expose the sins of those who, he believes, have corrupted human institutions–who have led Florence into such violent civil strife and the Papacy into such hypocrisy and moral lassitude.

Ultimately, one might be able to picture Dante’s hell as a reflection of his desires for the temporal world. Whereas the temporal world is filled with injustice and moral iniquity, hell is filled with justice–the sinful of the world finally get their just deserts, they are contorted by their punishments and deformed by their burdens. Yet, on occasion, Dante recognizes the individuals affected by this rigorous system of justice and feels a sense of unease. As much as he craves the justice of hell, as much as he wishes for the consistency of divine punishment, he recognizes that only in the earthly sphere can someone love like Francesca or explore like Ulysses. There is, then, opportunities in the earthly realm that would be negated in hell, specifically because of its all-consuming fairness. Two pulls act upon Dante: the desire for the consistent justice of hell and the recognition of the limitless possibilities, and all the creativity and passion implied, of Earth.

A few other thoughts:

1) I think I have read the same Dante quote in three separate books by Wallace Stegner. He uses the phrase “they read no more that day” from the Francesca story to describe a particularly intellectual sexual encounter between characters. I always thought it was both a strange and thought-provoking quote (particularly because he used it so many times) and I was glad to read it in its original context.

2) Having never read Virgil and not really knowing anything about him, I always felt slightly confused with his role. Why had he been granted so much power? Why did he seem to have access to God and Christ–after all, he had been among the heathens who did not believe in Christianity? The commentary I read along with the poem acted as if Virgil represented the ideal of the state or empire. In my ignorance, this seems forced. Wouldn’t he rather stand for Dante’s ideal of a poet who comprehends the fullness of truth?

3) I didn’t discuss at all the fact that Dante manages to reconcile Classical and Christian mythology into a consistent syncretic mixture. Was there a medieval basis for doing this or would other contemporary commentators have found it offensive? Certainly St. Augustine would have disapproved of any theological confusion between what, to him, were two entirely separate religious and cultural systems.

Posted by: mmkelly | October 6, 2009

St. Augustine, City of God, Part II

Why does St. Augustine write City of God?

Supposedly, St. Augustine writes the City of God to refute those who blamed the sack of Rome on the state conversion from the Greco-Roman gods to the Christian Gods. This discussion segues nicely into a proof of the superiority of Christianity over all other religions and philosophies that Augustine knows of. After all, the best theological defense is a good theological offense. However, by the end of the book, it is clear that Augustine has more ambitious plans than a mere defense of Christianity. In fact, what he is really trying to do is institutionalize and formalize the essential technical details of the early Christian faith and to provide a foundation for the City of God which exists in the temporal world.

Augustine spends a great deal of time refuting people. These people fall into two different types of categories—doubters from outside the faith and heretics from within the faith. Examples of the former would be the various schools of philosophy—Platonist, Epicurean, Skeptic, Neo-Platonist, etc.—who, even though many approach Christian doctrine, lack the essential ingredient for salvation: the belief in the one God; examples of the latter are varied and often highly specific—people who believe baptism guarantees entry into heaven, people who believe acceptance into the Catholic Church guarantees entry into heaven, people who believe being merciful guarantees entry into heaven, etc.—and Augustine criticizes them for misunderstanding and misconstruing the scripture, which he believes to be highly articulate in expressing its message. Though individually wearying and overly specific, Augustine’s grandiose refutations and tedious quibbles aggregate into a more profound whole. In such a thorough review of the various theological debates of the Mediterranean tradition, Augustine attempts to create a clear and coherent theology, a theology without contradiction and differing geographical flavors. He wants to establish a religion that is objective and true.

Bosch, Heaven and Hell

Bosch, Heaven and Hell

This desire for objectivity is overt. Augustine tells us that while “Varro asserts that the defining characteristic of the New Academy is this view that all things are uncertain[,] The City of God…wholly detests such doubt, which it regards as madness.” (947) For those who believe in the one true God—a God who is benevolent, omnipotent, omnipresent, omniscient, etc.—how can there not be certainty? With such an ultimate force, with such an absolute arbiter lingering overhead, the entire cosmological structure must be fixed. The belief in such a precisely defined and infinitely powerful divinity necessitates a hierarchical structure that is firmly rooted and beyond the doubt of human rationalists like Varro.

It may perhaps be important at this point to analyze how St. Augustine envisions the ontology of the universe. Above all, of course, is God, the triumvirate. Then follow the good angels and spirits. The two middle levels are convoluted and intertwined between humans living in the temporal world: the City of God, with its community of saints waiting to join their superiors in heaven, and the City of Man, with its unrepentant sinners unknowingly approaching an eternity in hell. Beneath them come bad spirits (no doubt where Augustine would place the divinities of Greco-Roman heritage) and demons who distract humans from the love of the True God. Finally, lowest of all lurks Satan, the absolute evil.

What is interesting about this hierarchy is that everything in the eternal world is already set and cemented. God can only be good; Satan can only be evil (although in his evil, he is merely a tool for God); etc. These realms are static and unchanging. In contrast, the temporal world is fully dynamic, it is the place where humans have the opportunity to determine their destiny. This human world has history and action; the divine world lacks history, for nothing can ever change. Though Augustine may seem to disparage the temporal world, he is actually emboldening it and emphasizing its importance. Until the Day of Judgment, God and Satan are really on the fringe of the cosmos—watching impotently as humans skitter between eternal salvation and damnation.

The central cosmological hinge, then, is between the City of God and the City of Man. This is the distinct but oft-hidden boundary between eternal salvation and eternal punishment; this is the space where all moral and existential decisions are made. Augustine gives us the source and definition of the two cities in Book XIV, Chapter 28:

Two cities, then, have been created by two loves: that is, the earthly by love of self extending even to contempt of God, and the heavenly by love of God extending to contempt of self…In the Earthly City, princes are as much mastered by the lust for mastery as the nations which they subdue are by them; in the Heavenly, all serve one another in charity, rulers by their counsel and subject by their obedience.

However, while the difference between these two cities is of enormous import, it is often incredibly difficult to distinguish between them. As God tests and rewards each individuals in different ways, it is impossible to tell in the temporal world to which city they belong. Indeed, though Augustine provides us with a definition of these two cities, it is clear that the only time this definition will be applied is on the Day of Judgment when Christ comes to determine the fate of all humans. However, though we cannot hope to assign humans to either City ourselves, it is in our vital eternal interest to attempt to place ourselves in the City of God and we therefore need to utilize the definition of the City of God as a goal to aspire too.

But while the City of God is the goal, the City of Man is inescapable. It is what humans are born into, it is what surrounds them, and only through strenuous moral effort can they hope to climb up to the higher stage. The City of Man, then, is the true center of the cosmos. With God and Satan occupying both polarities, the City of Man is the only place where there is a doubtful outcome, the only place susceptible to the pulls of both poles. (Here I am assuming that those who have entered the City of God won’t leave. It seems unlikely that someone who has accepted God and realized the benefits of his Truth, would give it up for eternal damnation.) Augustine seems to have a profound ambivalence on this point. His book is about the City of God and it’s fight against the pagans. He claims that the Bible depicts the City of Man only to further the aims of the City of God:

The writer of these Sacred Scriptures, therefore—or, rather, the Spirit of God acting through him—is concerned only with those events which both compose an account of the past and also foretell the future, and only with those which pertain to the City of God. For whatever is said here of those men who are not citizens of that City is said to this end: that the City of God should profit or be conspicuous by comparison with its opposite.” (697-98)

He exults in the salvation of man through entry into the City of God, asking even “Whether the life of mortals should be called death rather than life”? (550). Yet, it seems that his book is really not at all about the City of God nor about heaven, rather it is about the necessity of exiting the City of Man. The book is truly a cautionary tale, urging its readers to accept a life in Christ so that they may escape eternal punishment. After all, the members of the City of God are already on the path to salvation, they have already imbibed the truth of Jesus Christ the Savior, and therefore need no succoring en route to their eternal existence in Heaven.

Ultimately, Augustine describes two ends of sin: “Either, like the Sodomites, the men themselves are punished for their sins, or, like the Ninevites, the men’s sins are destroyed by repentance.” (1088) And this, it seems, summarizes the world. People have two choices: to sin and be punished or to repent and be saved. This is the nexus of Augustine’s cosmos, this is the center. For a human being on earth, God need not be considered at all—the decision to leave the City of Man to enter the City of God is all that matters.

I thought that I would add some other topics that I found particularly interesting for discussion:

1) Last time we talked about teleology, the sense that history has a beginning the leads inexorably to a predetermined end (the Day of Judgment). I thought Augustine’s claim that Plato and Porphyry, if they could have talked to one another, would have discovered the essential truths of Christian doctrine is particularly fascinating. Essentially, he is asserting that even without Christ, humans could have somehow obtained a philosophical version of Christianity. (Book 22, Chapters 26-8)

2) I found Augustine’s historical treatment of the City of God somewhat troubling. If the City of Man dies in the flood and only Noah’s family, which belongs to the City of God survives, how is the City of Man recreated? Similarly, why does the City of God follow genealogical lines? Does this mean that there is a fate aspect to belonging to the City of God? Certainly it seems to imply this. Overall, this is an argument that Augustine never resolves. He tries to solve the fate/free will dialectic through the introduction of his vague and abstract conception of will, but this seems to create more complexity than clarity. (The discussion of will is in Book 12)

3) Augustine is very hard-line in enforcing entry requirements into heaven against the lax mindset of other theologians. He tends to emphasize the enormity of original sin, and the consequent debt that humans owe, than the enormity of Christ’s sacrifice, which might surpass the original trespasses of Adam and Eve in its importance. (This is all Book 22)

4) Finally, and this is a somewhat goofy subject, I had never thought about the difficulties of instituting eternity. After all, it would be quite hard to reduce a life, which has constantly changed for its entire existence, into a permanent and static body. The list of questions in Book 22, Chapter 12 is wonderfully creative and provocative.

Posted by: mmkelly | September 20, 2009

St. Augustine, City of God Against the Pagans: Part 1

If anything, St. Augustine is thorough.  He considers a wide variety of evidence, he meticulously deconstructs arguments delving into etymologies and mythologies, and he plucks out every inconsistency he can find in a veritable stable of classical philosophers and religious commentators. Perhaps this need to assiduously dissect every possible flaw or criticism of early christianity stems from insecurity. Writing in the context of a falling empire, an empire whose capital had recently been sacked by the armies of supposedly less sophisticated barbarians and an empire whose decline coincided with the adoption of Christianity as the state religion, Augustine had to combat historical correlations that reflected poorly on his adopted fate. What evidence is there that Christianity, with its visions of an immutable, omnipotent, and benevolent God overlooking the entire course of human action, had granted any sort of temporal benefit to the Romans?

St. Augustine of Hippo

St. Augustine of Hippo

The answer, essentially, is none. Augustine admits as much in the course of his argument: asserting that fealty to neither the Greco-Roman nor Christian gods guarantees worldly success or happiness (the former because they are in fact fake and powerless gods and the latter because he only guarantees eternal happiness to the pious, not temporal happiness). Augustine’s task, therefore, for at least the first third of the book is to attack cultural assumptions that divinities have an effect on the lives of humans, and that these effects might be affected by sycophantic human behavior. He does so, rather successfully, by attacking the various contradictions and idiosyncrasies of the ancient mtyhs; and less successfully by invoking the ineffable nature of the Christian God.

There is something obnoxiously ill-humored about the way St. Augustine approaches the structure of classic Greco-Roman mythology and spirituality. Clearly, these stories are incredibly complex: they derive from a variety of geographic sources and historical inspirations; they are adapative, having evolved over, in some cases, almost a millenia of storytelling and embellishment; they are broad, covering spiritual needs of the broadest sort and temporal needs of the greatest specificity. They are a pluralistic set of historic constructions, with a variety of well-defined uses and applications (St. Augustine reflects rather deeply on the significance of the tripartite representational system of Roman religion–the poetic, the philosophical, and the civic–each with their own sets of legitimizing characteristics). St. Augustine looks deeply into these myths and sees that they are growths–that there is no original source, but rather they are a constantly fluctuating and adapting group of deities. He studies these gods and notes their overlapping responsibilities. He criticizes these gods and decries their moral laxitude, their love of power over virtue, their jealousy and their rapaciousness. He sees them for what they are: human personalities applied to superhuman bodies with superhuman powers. In view of all of this, St. Augustine does  remarkable job of slowly peeling down each piece of the mythological veneer which obscures the fact that these deities are human constructions, that they derive out of human needs, aspirations, and ambitions. He looks into every cranny, he opens every closet, and he refutes every vague and casuist explanation.

In contrast, when discussing the intervention of the Christian God into world affairs, St. Augustine seems to drift. Whereas he came into the study of Greco-Roman religion from a position of cynicism and doubt, he begins his analysis of Christianity with the assumption that the biblical sources are correct, are indeed irrefutable fact. And irrefutable facts, it may be noted, are notoriously hard to argue against.

The question he must answer is why, if the Christian God is so bountiful and omnipotent, are Christians and the Christian empire killed, maimed, raped, and ravished? Why doesn’t this all-powerful shepherd protect his flock. Augustine’s response is unsatisfying: such a God, of such incomprehensible infinitude, cannot be understood nor explained, therefore it would be better not to ask such questions. Indeed, the ineffability of the Christiang God is his greatest strength and his mercurial nature, though constantly couched in terms of compassion and justice, can be explained through a variety of contradictory motives. When the good are punished, it is because they are being tested; when the good are blessed, it is because they deserve it. Why some good are deserving while other good are untested is unclear, but St. Augustine requests that respect divine authority enough to take him at his world. Similarly, some people, who are bad or are non-believers, lead remarkable happy and fulfilling lives. These people of course are enacting the Lords plan as unknowing pawns (for example, the Roman emperors are non-believers who are still spreading justice and law, which is an improvement, to the rest of the world so, even though they do not believe in God, they are aided by God because they are part of his grand plan for the universe). Others are simply punished and discarded for their disbelief. St. Augustine permits no criticism of the inherent unfairness of such a system because his faith forms to a  transitive tautology: God is justice; God is everything: everything is justice. God is good, therefore there can be no bad, and if there is bad, it is merely because we have misinterpreted an actual good because we lack God’s knowledge of past and future.

This can be very frustrating to read. St. Augustine unfairly deconstructs classical mythology while denying, from the very essence of his beliefs, that one can even question Christian truths. It is even more frustrating because he employs a variety of logical fallacies in his small, self-contained, chaptered arguments. First, he conflates all classical sources as one. When Homer contradicts Virgil, or Cato disagrees with Cicero, St. Augustine sees this as cause for discounting a religious tradition that had flourished among a variety of peoples for an exceptionally long time. Part of this, might be a direct outcome of the relative position of Christianity, a “new” religion with far less time to create a bundle of contradictory dogmas, and the Greco-Roman heritage, an “old” set of superstitions and religious practices that had evolved to meet the needs of diverse demographic populations.

A second logical flaw that St. Augustine employs with some regularity, is to consistently derive his arguments from deductive logic without ever evaluating his premises. Deductive logic is internally accurate: given a set of premises and a set of logical rules, it is impossible to create something that isn’t a true derivation of these premises and rules. However, if you choose the wrong premises, then your entire argument is worthless and should be discarded. Choosing premises then, is the most important step in the process of deductive logic. Augustine constantly breezes by this step, with the consequence that his analysis is clearly biased in favor of Christianity. For example, the assumption that God is good, while an essentially part of the Judeo-Christian viewpoint, does not apply to all religious traditions. Therefore, when Augustine invokes Christian definitions of divinity in his analysis of Greco-Roman religion, he has already decided the argument by his choice of premise. Of course, Greco-Roman religion is immoral when you define morality to be in opposition of Greco-Roman religion.

Third, St. Augustine seems to be a proponent of progressive history. Because of his belief in Christianity and the salvation of Christ, he understands the world to be tending towards an ultimate resolution in God’s grace. Because God has a plan for the world,  a plan that ends with the ultimate judgment of all souls, an underlying millenarianism underlies Augustine’s writing. This becomes problematic when he attempts to understand the philosophers who came before Christ. He automatically assumes that they are part of God’s plan to prepare the world for a better way through Christ, and his understanding of them is therefore biased towards placing them in a coherent progressive framework to a spiritually sanitized world. Consequently, St. Augustine dismisses many philosophers, especially the Platonists, as steps toward Christianity and not as original thinkers in their own right.

While there are many things that are obnoxious about The City of God, there are also many fascinating facets to the book. For me, one thing that constantly festered at the back of my mind, was the fact that for St. Augustine Greco-Roman religion was a real and formidable adversary. From the modern perspective, Christianity is still very much a live proposition–it is something that one can believe to be real and true–whereas Greek mythology is clearly a dead proposition, something that people would deride as superstition or mere culture. This provides a profound perspective on which to view the subjectiviy of human ideas. St. Augustine, though a stalwart believer in the trinity, finds the Greek pantheon to be very real and is unwilling to dismiss them as anything less than demons. Today, such a statement would be unthinkable, and this provides a wonderful window into how perspectives change with years. What today seems to b e a very quaint and overdone argument, was to St. Augustine the most important argument that could be made for the preservation of Christianity as the state religion of Rome.

Finally, it was interesting reading City of God directly after the Metamorphoses. Ovid sees the constant flux and movement of nature as being its most essential aspect: to change is to be real and alive; St. Augustine, on the other hand, uses the phrase immutable over and over to describe God, the one real thing. These dialectical worldviews–Ovid claiming that stability is only a superficial veneer hiding the constant flux of the world and Augustine believing that the entire world balances on the eternal stability of the one true God–form a major chasm in Western thought. Ovid is a writer who understands subjectivity, he is fun, whimsical and free; St. Augustine is a writer who yearns for objectivity, he is earnest and humorless, always trying to pin down the true and immutable nature of things. I think that you can understand a good deal of how people think in Europe for the next two hundred years by understanding the conflict between these two classic authors. They present two broad worldviews that, to this day, continue to grapple with one another.

Posted by: mmkelly | September 8, 2009

Ovid, Metamorphoses

Change is the constant theme of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, but it is  an ambiguous one. On the most superficial level, most of the stories presented in the book revolve or at least resolve around the anthropomorphism of the characters–gods change to humans, humans change to animals, and backwards and forwards and on and on. What is disconcerting about this constant literary trope is that there is no discernible pattern. Some characters are punished for their specific transgressions, while others manage to escape the mandates of justice; some characters are foully mistreated because of the jealousies of the God, while others receive divine favor; and some characters are simply doomed to a torturous fate. At a deeper level, there exists an underlying ambiguity about what is valuable in this world. Seemingly desirable attributes morph rapidly into curses: Arachne’s ability to weave so beautifully draws unwelcome attention from Athena; Midas’ golden touch, a gift of his own wishing, leads only to his misery; and Daedulus’ architectural genius leads to his own imprisonment in Crete and his ingenuity leads to his son’s death. Furthermore, the tone of the book constantly shifts–sometimes speaking in a overtly didactic and moralistic voice then, moments later, telling a tale with a fatalistic mentality that confounds any hope for a good and moral world.

The structure of the book lends to this sense of constant movement and flux. The Metamorphoses are only in the most abstract sense logically and chronologically oriented. The actions starts with the beginning of time when only Chaos reigns and ends with the “Apotheosis of Julius Caesar.” Indeed, Ovid himself in his prologue proclaims his desire to tell the history of the world “in one continuous song from nature’s first beginnings to our modern times.” Yet, though the book does indeed follow this plan of attack, lurching forward along some vaguely present timeline, this statement in itself seems disingenuous. Ovid’s work is only superficially “one continuous song” in that it moves smoothly from story; in its actually composition, however, books and stories are told by different narrators for different reasons in a turgid, roiling plotline that flippantly crosses intellectual boundaries: jumping from heaven to hell to earth, intertwining corporeal human history with the trivialities of divine politics, synthesizing Greek, Roman, and possibly even Hebrew (the creation of the world in Ovid’s eyes deeply resembles the Old Testament version) mythologies, and crossing all geographic borders.

So what is one to make of this exhilarating muddle?

I think a good place to start would be to examine the significance of Ovid’s title, looking specifically at is relation to the entire arc of the book and to its implications for the individual story. Metamorphosis, change, forms the common link in a book that seems to bound between contradictory narratives and an astoundingly diverse array of subjects. Understanding the meaning of metamorphosis, therefore, is the point of the book. The abstract significance of metamorphosis, perhaps, is the most accessible way of understanding the underlying intellectual framework of the poem. This is partly because, near the end of the book, Ovid becomes increasingly philosophical in describing how he views the world. Instead of presenting a series of seemingly unrelated and contradictory narratives, Ovid provides the reader, through the voice of Pythagoras with a coherent procedure of organizing the infinite idiosyncrasies of the world:

…In all creation/Nothing endures, all is in endless flux,/Each wandering shape a pilgrim passing by./And time itself glides on in ceaseless flow,/A rolling stream–and streams can never stay,/Nor lightfoot hours. As wave is driven by wave/And each, pursued, pursues the wave ahead,/So time flies on and follows, flies and follows./Always, for ever new. What was before/Is left behind; what never was is now;/

Ovid, or at least someones guess at Ovid

Ovid, or at least someone's guess at Ovid

And every passing moment is renewed.

This essential framework of belief, that all is cyclical and changing, everything transient and momentary, informs the whole of Ovid’s work. Every story, at its essence, speaks to the passing of time, the changing of nature, the blunting of ambitions that is inevitable in life. In the broadest view, in the metaphysical perspective, nothing is ever the same and everything rushes on. This is especially significant for humans because the ephemeral nature of life provides the omnipresent anxiety of the mortal mind.

In the context of this overarching preoccupation with change, the individual stories of the Metamorphoses all retain a central characteristic: they all contain at their heart, the human aspiration to be above the constant flux of the world, to exist beyond the swirling winds of history that will surely wipe away any remembrance of their existence. In this sense then, even the characters who are unsuccessful in the temporal world–say Icarus, who flies to close to the sun, or Phaethon who fails in his attempt to pull the sun across the sky–succeed in their immortal designs. Their desire was not necessarily to be virtuous or courageous or rich, but merely famous enough to be remembered. In this manner, virtue, courage, and wealth only serve as tools to a higher dream; after all, virtue is only in the eye of the beholder, courage lasts only till you die in battle, and wealth like all earthly possessions is subject to the flux of the world. Only fame remains eternal.

This ultimately is the key to unlocking the mystery of the metamorphoses. Everything is constantly changing, but some changes stand out; that is, challenging the gods might result in significant changes in your life just as simply growing old will result in changes in your life, but it is the quality of these changes that distinguish them. You can’t help growing old. It is an inescapable flux of life. Similarly, you can’t escape death because it is the ultimate flux of life. What you can try to achieve, however, is the everlasting immortality of a place in mortal history. This is a choice and it is a choice, that at least to Ovid, distinguishes between the great humans and the detritus of humanity.

It is to this ultimate permanence that Ovid ultimately applies and it is for this type of undying recognition that he writes his poetry. In his epilogue, he specifically states,

Now stands my task accomplished, such a work/as not the wrath of Jove, nor fire nor sword/ nor the devouring ages can destroy…I’ll be borne,/ the finer part of me, above the stars,/Immortal, and my name shall never die./My fame shall live to all eternity.

So much for flux. This is, of course, the ultimate metamorphosis: the transformation into something that lasts unchanging.

Posted by: mmkelly | September 1, 2009

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Hi Tess,

Apparently, this is what is called a “blog.” I think it should be a pretty reasonable way of doing my Chaucer journal. I’ll put something up about Ovid over the next week or so.

Mark

Posted by: mmkelly | September 1, 2009

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