Wednesday, July 26, 2017

On the unbearable closeness of others


Originally published at Overland.

We live in literal times. Far too literal. Hell’s vestibule in Jean-Paul Sartre’s No Exit was supposed to be a metaphorical, metaphysical place. Now we’ve gone and invented it. A virtual space. An enormous room. We share it with throngs of strangers. Hell is other people, and we are other people’s Hell.


I think I have, in general, a good relationship with social media. I value the ways it has helped me stay in touch with friends and family overseas, plug into activist political networks, find an audience for my writing and vastly expand my range of readings. All of these things are important to me.

I also suspect I am more comfortable than most with the other side of the bargain: the demand for continuous presence, both implicit and explicit. The noise of that incessant conversation finding its way into daily routines, competing with the parallel demands of people with whom I am physically close – demands that are no less urgent but altogether more justifiable.

There is, of course, an even darker side: the subtle and not so subtle surveillance imposed on those who depend in any way on state support, or who must project a docile image in order to find work, or who can be fired on a whim. Then there is the vile abuse that speaking one’s mind can attract. Abuse that, for some more than for others, mirrors wider and less novel patterns of discrimination. I am a man, and I am white, so my direct experience of this side is limited. But this also underscores the degree to which this place of places differs depending on one’s viewpoint and circumstances.

The neutral nature of the Net is one of the great ideological illusions of our times. A text is a text is a text: our online communication may be broken down into ones and zeros and then split into data packets which are sent on their separate ways, always reconfiguring itself upon reaching its destination. But where is the end of the line? And who is watching?

Social media networks both embody and exemplify the illusion. We often speak of Facebook or Twitter as if they were recognisable places with fixed coordinates and characteristics. Yet every timeline, every stream, is unique. Two people may only have each other in common. When they talk, feeling like they are sharing the same space, they are in the company of completely different people. The enormous room is not a room at all. It’s more like a funhouse, a maze of mirrors.

Sartre dramatised Hell – that is to say, French society – as the experience of sharing an enclosed space with strangers, for all eternity. The sardonic twist in the play is that the door of Sartre’s small room was never locked, leaving the audience to ponder if the prisoners could have chosen to leave at any time.

Belonging to a social network is, on the face of it, also entirely optional. But then so is owning a telephone. Ask yourself: is it really a field you can leave blank and still hope to find work or have a normal social life?

As long ago as 2012, Time magazine mused, ‘Does Not Having a Facebook Page Make You “Suspicious” to Employers?’ This and other articles like it were in response to reported attitudes of HR departments across the United States. According to Forbes, people who left the networks aroused particular suspicion. What could they possibly have to hide? At around the same time, German magazine Der Taggspiegel noted that not having a Facebook profile was one thing Aurora theatre shooter James Holmes and Norwegian mass murderer Anders Breivik had in common. The two stories quickly intersected, leading to dozens of articles declaring that not being on Facebook makes you unemployable and possibly a psychopath.

Facile hysteria aside, how meaningful is the choice not to be on social media? And what are the costs – both personal and professional – of leaving social networks for those who feel that their returns are steadily diminishing?

Like I said, I’m one of the lucky ones, a reasonably well-adjusted denizen of the networks. Yet even I confess to experiencing those feelings, sometimes. The spurious need for validation. The subtle sense of claustrophobia. Above all, the intolerable and downright unnatural closeness of people. The room is so large. Do I really know the location of the doors? Could I step through them, if I felt I needed to?

This is all so new: never before have humans had the capability to be constantly in contact. It is hubris to think we could possibly be in control. Allowing users to modulate the distance between one another goes directly against the commercial needs of the owners of the networks, which is how we know that the solution won’t come from them. And perhaps there isn’t one, save for looking – somewhere, somehow – for new circuits of solidarity and for new ways to make room for silence.



My colum for the latest issue of Overland, 'On the books I kept', is up now.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Inferno V: Into the unseeing world


We are at the edge of the second circle of Hell, finally stepping into il cieco mondo, the unseeing world. But we are also in a high school classroom in late 1987. It’s winter, and the large rotating windows of the old, early Fascist-era building are kept closed to prevent the heating system from being overwhelmed. The atmosphere inside, where twenty-five kids of the approximate age of sixteen sit at their desks, is stifling. Our teacher starts to introduce the canto.

If you know an Italian of adult age, try to come up behind them and whisper or shout: “Canto Quinto!”. Chances are they will turn around and reply: “Paolo e Francesca!” For the fifth canto of the Divine Comedy is all about them, the murdered lovers, and it has been drilled into students with particular fervour for many generations. Partly because the topic is likely to appeal to the cohort – after all, isn’t it at this age that Dante burned for young Beatrice? – and partly because it’s still early enough in the poem for the attention of students not to have waned, and teachers try to take advantage.

But first, stavvi Minos.


This is how the great Romantic era engraver Gustavo Dorè imagined Minos, the mythical king of Crete who – per the medieval Christian practice of using ancient Pagan bestiaries to populate Satan’s demon army – stands in judgment of the souls that have passed through the river Acheron. Dante explains that he and Virgil have moved to the second circle, which girds a smaller space, but houses much greater pain. Thus, in three lines, he has explained how the Inferno works: namely, as a concentric series of circles, each getting smaller and less populated, but increasing in the severity of the punishment to fit progressively more serious crimes. The fourth line is memorable and menacing:
Stavvi Minòs orribilmente, e ringhia
There stands Minos horribly, and growls
We should all practice standing horribly. But Minos’ function is not merely decorative. Each soul that come before him volunteers the full list of his or her transgressions. Then he, conoscitor delle peccata – a true connoisseur of sin – giudica e manda secondo ch’avvinghia. That is to say, he points them to the right circle by wrapping his tail around himself a corresponding number of times. This is Minos sending some folks into the second circle in Michelangelo’s Buonarroti Last judgment fresco in the Sistine Chapel.


In other words, he’s sending them right here. We are among the lustful che la ragion sommettono al talento – who allow their appetites to prevail over reason – and who are at the mercy of an everlasting wind that di qua, di là, di giù, di sù li mena (‘hither, thither, downward, upward, drives them,’ per Longfellow).

There is the customary catalogue of figures from history and myth. Semiramis, Cleopatra, Dido, Helen of Troy, Tristan (of Tristan and Isolde). Achilles is here, because Dante – who had no direct access to Homer’s Iliad – followed the apocryphal embellishment according to which the hero fell in love with Priam’s daughter Polyxena, a fact that the Trojans exploited to draw him into a fatal ambush. But these arch-famous names are a mere appetiser. The stars of the show are these two.

As drawn by Dorè 
Or if you prefer these two.

As painted by William Dyce, during the Romantic period but in the style of the Renaissance

We say Paolo and Francesca, but by rights it should be Francesca and Paolo, seeing as she’s the one who does all the talking in the canto. They are Francesca da Polenta (aka Francesca da Rimini) and Paolo Malatesta. Francesca was the wife of Paolo’s brother Gianciotto, to whom she had been married to bring peace between the powerful rival families. This true crime story would have been very familiar to contemporary readers, and Dante tells it sparingly, allowing instead Francesca to fill it with psychological detail.
Amor, ch'al cor gentil ratto s'apprende,
prese costui de la bella persona

che mi fu tolta; e 'l modo ancor m'offende.


Amor, ch’a nullo amato amar perdona,

mi prese del costui piacer sì forte,

che, come vedi, ancor non m’abbandona.
These are some of the most famous lines in our literature. In prose: Love, which swiftly seizes the tender hearts, caused him to fall for my fair body, which was taken for me in a manner that still offends me (meaning, probably: that I relive constantly). Love, that exempts no one beloved from loving, filled me with a longing for this man so strong, that as you can see it has not yet abandoned me.

It’s a tale that makes the poet weep, and the modern reader balk. Judged by our standards, there is very little shame in the momentary, almost accidental falling of the two lovers into a trembling kiss while reading together in Francesca’s house. The young Dante had built a career out of putting such stories in verse, minus the bloody ending.
Amor condusse noi ad una morte.
Caina attende chi a vita ci spense.
‘Love led us both to the same death,’ a possible reference to the fact that Gianciotto, having surprised Francesca and Paolo together, reportedly killed them both with a single thrust of his sword. ‘Caina awaits the murderer,’ meaning that Gianciotto – who at the time when the poem is set, the year 1300, was still alive – is destined to take residence in a much lower circle. But it’s a small consolation, and I think it was small even for us, poorly invested teenage students of Dante, who failed to see the justice, or the divine love (which the believers among us were taught about), in the fate of the two lovers.

For the mature Dante, however, there could be no mercy, only sorrow. And of his sorrow, the famous pietas, the canto is full, until finally, all it takes to push him over the edge is the realisation that while Francesca was talking to him, Paolo was quietly weeping. Down goes Dante, again, come corpo morto cade, like a dead man falls.

Back in 1987, the bell rings, calling us to a different task.




Previously: Inferno I, Inferno II, Inferno III, Inferno IV.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Inferno IV: Alt-Heaven


This one begins between a lightning and its thunder. One burst out of the ground underneath Dante’s feet at the end of the last canto, causing him to faint on the spot. (Something of a standard reaction, as we shall see.) The other awakens him from l’alto sonno – his deep sleep – at the beginning of this one. But now he’s on the other side of the Acheron.

How did he get there, since no living soul could set foot on Charon’s boat? How long was he unconscious for? We don’t know. There is no time for questions, either, as the urgency to both explore il cieco mondo (the blind – read: dark – world) into which he’s venturing, and to hasten the narration to leave room to what is to follow, counsel the poet to move right along.

The architecture of Hell is not yet clear. We haven’t been told, for instance, that each of the concentric circles will harbour fewer souls, guilty of greater crimes. Recall how, in the vestibule, Dante encountered more people than he ever imagined to have died in all of human history. These in theory were guilty of the least serious sin of all – refusing to take sides. But you got the sense that Dante despised them most of all. Hell, then, while based on a palimpsest of popular and literary accounts passed on through centuries – some originating before the Christian myths themselves – and steeped into the prevailing theological theories about the hierarchy of sins and the forms of punishment, is nonetheless also a mirror of Dante’s own peculiar ideas about human affair and ethics.

This is especially true of this circle. We are in Limbo, although nobody – not even the Pope – seems quite sure if the place even exists. The most updated judgment, made as recently as 2007, claims that it’s a ‘plausible theological hypothesis’. So, it probably exists, if only to fill a gap in the scriptures and not damn to Hell proper unbaptised children, or everyone who was born before the birth of Christ. It’s not a holiday camp, mind, as the occupants of limbo are said to be consumed by perpetual longing for the salvation they were never given a chance to attain. Baptism, says Virgil, is porta de la fede che tu credi , ‘the gateway to your faith’. But it was never open to them.

Limbo, by the way, literally means edge, deriving as it does from the Latin word lembus, meaning ‘hem’.


This is a 15th century miniature by Priamo della Quercia that illustrates the canto in an edition held at the British Library. I haven’t found a detailed caption, but Dante seems to appear twice: as the sleeping figure bottom left (before the thunder wakes him), and the one directly above, talking to the man in the pink tunic. That’s Virgil. Next to him, brandishing the sword, is the Greek poet Homer. Next to him, in no discernible order (at least not by me), the three Roman poets Horace, Ovid and Lucan, whom Dante also meets on his way to the walled city on the right. Notice though how dark-skinned everyone but Dante is, and resembling Middle Eastern men. It’s a feature that links (albeit accidentally) with a peculiarity of Dante’s Limbo, namely the inclusion of three named Muslim men, therefore by extension of righteous people of that entire religion.

It was a remarkable concession that has no documented precedents in the beliefs of the time nor a clear explanation. One thing is to place in Limbo people like Homer or Virgil, who were born before Christ. Another to create a walled citadel with an entirely tolerable (after)lifestyle, and fill it not just with scientists, writers and heroes, but also with practitioners of a faith with which Christians had gone to holy war.

Ibn Sīnā, the great 10 century scholar, whom Dante knew as Avicenna; Ibn Rushd, the 12th century philosopher who gave medieval Europe access to the works of Aristotle, and whom Dante knew as Averroè; and Salah ad-Din himself, the scourge of the crusaders. All of these Dante not only refused to damn, but deemed worthy of spending eternity in conversation with his beloved Virgil and with other great ancients, thus suggesting a continuity between classical Greek and Roman culture and the Islamic world.

The fact that Priamo Della Quercia depicts Greek and Roman poets using the same ethnic tropes – even the Mantuan Virgil – suggests that nearly two centuries after Dante’s death there were still some who viewed all non-Christians as racially other, and alike.

Yet the citadel with seven walls – this urbane sanctuary for unbelievers, or people of the wrong faith – is like a Heaven within Hell. Ask me if I’d rather spend eternity frolicking in Dante’s prato di fresca verdura (‘meadow of fresh verdure’, per Longfellow) with ancients poets and warriors – men and women – or rather become part of the clockwork bliss machine described in the Paradiso, and I, a modern, would have little hesitation. But Limbo exists only as part of the metaphysical penal system of the medieval Christian mind: that is to say, it can only be thought of as a lesser place, whose supplice lies in the knowledge that there is happiness of an entirely different order, elsewhere.

For now, the holiday is over, and Dante and Virgil take their leave. The canto ends. E vegno in parte ove non è che luca. ‘And to a place I come where nothing shines.’




Previously: Inferno I, Inferno II, Inferno III.

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Inferno III: The shape of the world


Per me si va ne la città dolente,
per me si va ne l'etterno dolore,
per me si va tra la perduta gente.

Through me the way is to the aching city,
Through me the way is to eternal pain,
Through me the way among the people lost.
If the first canto of the Divine Comedy had one of the great ‘into the middle things’ beginnings in all of literature (‘Midway upon the journey of our life / I found myself within a forest dark’…), the third canto has the most cinematic one before the invention of cinema. There is no introduction, no explanation: just the epigraph carved above the gates of Hell, made visible to the reader in words as a camera would to a film audience.
Giustizia mosse il mio alto fattore;
fecemi la divina podestate,

la somma sapïenza e ’l primo amore.


Justice incited my sublime Creator;
Created me divine Omnipotence,
The highest Wisdom and the primal Love.
There is no narrator, either. The gate hasn’t even come into being yet. There are just words.
Dinanzi a me non fuor cose create
se non etterne, e io etterna duro.

Lasciate ogne speranza, voi ch’intrate.

Before me there were no created things,
Only eternal, and I eternal last.
All hope abandon, ye who enter in!
It is only when the last of the nine lines is uttered, or formed in one’s mind, that the structure on which they are stamped becomes clear. We are at the famous threshold between the realm of the living and the realm – or rather, the city – of the damned.


But where is this place? For the Romans, the entrance to the underworld was in a very specific geographical location – a cave near lake Avernus, in modern-day Campania – while Homer placed the Hades visited by Odysseus either in Southern Italy again or, according to some readings, on the East coast of Spain. This, in spite of the fact that the Acheron river is located in the Epirus region of Greece. Mythical and observable geography were as blended for ancient Europeans as they were during the Middle Ages.

Before we get to Dante’s own conception of the world, let’s clear up a stubborn misconception: namely, that Christians before Copernicus and Galileo thought the Earth to be flat. As a matter of fact they knew perfectly well that it was round, although they had no real clue of its size. On this they followed the ancient Egyptian astronomer Ptolemy, who had sadly departed from the astonishing empiricism of his predecessor Eratosthenes, basing himself instead on the rather more extravagant ideas of Aristotle.


The Aristotelean-Ptolemaic model of the universe, with the Earth at its centre and a series of celestial planes rotating around it like clockwork, furnished Christians with the perfect symbolic representation of God’s creation. But it wasn’t without its upheavals. Before the creation of Adam and Eve and their subsequent fall, there was the far more spectacular – as well as literal – fall of Lucifer out of Heaven and onto Earth. It wasn’t the impact that produced the crater that was to become Hell: it was rather the ground which retreated before him, to avoid coming into contact with the beast. The displaced ground traversed the Earth and appeared at the antipodes in the form of a mountain island, which was to become the Garden of Eden first, then later Mount Purgatory.

So: the Earth for Dante comprised two hemispheres. The Boreal one, which included all of the land (save for Mount Purgatory), delimited by the Pillar of Hercules at one end and the Ganges at the other; and the Austral one, featuring the world’s only ocean. At the top of this sphere – Dante of course had no concept of North or South – was Jerusalem: the centre of the centre of the universe. And while Hell as a concrete, real, existing place would have to be situated somewhere in the Boreal hemisphere, nonetheless its location was also highly symbolic and necessarily indeterminate: for the forest in which Dante gets lost is primarily a moral condition.

This is what I’m trying to get to: geography for us moderns is a discipline that allows to trace routes between two or more destinations in a precise and replicable fashion. For the ancients, as well as for Dante, it was secondary to a belief system. Therefore their maps were criss-crossed not just by roads but also – and far more importantly – by stories, including the story of how the world itself came to be.

Bernhard Gillessen, Gli ignavi

Beyond the gates there is only darkness, pierced with sounds.
Quivi sospiri, pianti e alti guai
risonavan per l’aere sanza stelle,
per ch’io al cominciar ne lagrimai.

Diverse lingue, orribili favelle,
parole di dolore, accenti d’ira,
voci alte e fioche, e suon di man con elle
Longfellow translates, losing the rhymes and the syncopated, discordant rhythm of the original:
There sighs, complaints, and ululations loud
Resounded through the air without a star,
Whence I, at the beginning, wept thereat.

Languages diverse, horrible dialects,
Accents of anger, words of agony,
And voices high and hoarse, with sound of hands
Just like the words appeared before the architrave that bore them, so too do the damned make themselves known before Hell has become visible to the poet. Gradually he starts to see: the immense multitude before him is running in a vast circle, chasing a tattered flag blown by the wind. They are the ignavi, that is to say the uncommitted, or the indifferent: those who went through life without ever picking a side, and whom not only Heaven but Hell itself abhors. This is why they are condemned to wander in its huge vestibule, chasing a flag that represents nothing, while envying those who suffer far greater pains in the circles below. They are an endless train of people, ch’i’ non averei creduto che morte tanta n’avesse disfatta – ‘more than ever I’d have thought that death could have undone’. Bitterly, then, the journey into Hell begins with an indictment that seems to encompass most of humanity.

Dante wrote the Divine Comedy in exile, as a result of having picked the losing side in the political affairs of Florence. His contempt for those who refused to take part is therefore that much more understandable, and finds an echo – in times of similar if not greater turmoil – in the words of the young Antonio Gramsci.

So wretched are these souls, that they are not even deserving of a moment of contemplative reflection. Says Virgil: Non ragioniam di lor, ma guarda e passa. ‘Let us not speak of them, but glance and move right on.’ There is no shade like Virgilian shade.

What follows is another object lesson in mythical geography, for Dante and Virgil come to a river that soon acquires a familiar name, Acheron, just like the old, towering figure of the ferryman carrying the damned across turns out to be none other than Charon. The practice of enlisting the demons of Greek mythology to staff the Christian Hell wasn’t invented by Dante, but is nonetheless instructive, as is the reference to the ‘real’ river which flows in Greece, but that must not be taken as being the same literal river. Just like the Pagan gods were certainly not real (remember? Virgil lived ai tempi degli dei falsi e bugiardi, ‘in the era of the false and lying gods’) but who knows maybe some of their demons were, so too Hades cannot have been real – for it wasn’t created by the one true God – but the real Hell can resemble Hades to a degree that goes far beyond the literary homage to the sixth book of Dante’s beloved Aeneid. It’s a cultural paradox, embodied in the Comedy by the figure of Virgil, whom as well as a guide to the lower levels of the Christian cosmology acts as the ferryman between the ancient world and the middle age.


We’re nearly done. ‘Charon the demon, with eyes like burning furnaces’ (Caron dimonio, con occhi di bragia) calls out to the souls converging from the entire world to the shores of the Acheron, and hurries them onto his barge, beating with his oar the ones who hesitate. But few do, ché la divina giustizia li sprona,/sì che la tema si volve in disio: for divine justice has turned their fear into desire (to reach the place of their eternal damnation). The image has barely had time to register when an earthquake shakes the shore, and a powerful wind rises from the bowels of the earth. Whereupon Dante immediately collapses, ‘like a man who falls to sudden sleep’, and so the canto ends, as cinematically as it began, fading to black.



Previously: Canto I, Canto II