Star Gazing

Ernest,

Your letter reminded me of a beautiful moment in Dante’s Divine Comedy, when just before entering the dooming gates of hell, Dante, the literary character, addresses Vergil, his guide, who tells him that Beatrice  has advised their journey.  What’s particularly moving about this passage, which I have quoted below, is the hope that Dante displays even in the face of what lies before him.  Just a few short paces off lie the gates of hell itself, with that infamous inscription carved into stone above the top: LASCIATE OGNE SPERANZA VOI CH’INTRATE, “ABANDON ALL HOPE, YE WHO ENTER HERE!”

But Dante doesn’t do this, instead he finds all the more hope in what Vergil has told him:

 

“Oh pietosa colei che mi soccorse!

e te cortese ch’ubidisti tosto

a le vere parole che ti porse!

Tu m’hai con disiderio il cor disposto

sì al venir con le parole tue,

ch’i’ son tornato nel primo proposto.

Or va, ch’un sol volere è d’ambedue:

tu duca, tu sengore, e tu maestro.”

Così li dissi; e poi che mosso fue,

intrai per lo cammino alto e silvestro.

 

“O compassionate, she who thus availeth me!

And courteous, thou who hast obeyed so prompt

The truthful words that she hath put to thee!

Thou hast inclined desire in my heart

For venture, with thine words, that I renew

To mee the primal purpose as before.

Now go, for to us both a single will:

Be thou the leader, thou the lord and master!”

And even so I said to him.

When he had moved,

I entered by the journey deep and cruel.

 

Seeing through all the brutal devastation that lies directly in front of him, Dante is able to hope in something glorious that comes long after it.  By God’s grace and love, symbolised in the figure of Beatrice, ‘who availeth’ him, this woeful journey though the land of tears serves, even by its very ugliness, to but highlight the profound beauty and eternal splendour of a salvation yet to come.

Dante says he is moved with disiderio, ‘desire’, which comes from the Latin, desiderare, a word composed of two parts: de, meaning ‘concerning’, and sidera, meaning ‘the stars’ or ‘the heavens’.  So Dante is foreshadowing the last moment of the Inferno, when he and Vergil come forth out of hell—a place of unbearable darkness, where even the stars neglect to shine—to see once more, in the very last line of the book, something truly awe-inspiring:

 

E quindi uscimmo a riveder le stelle.

We thence went forth to rebehold the stars.

 

This line inspired a moment in my twelfth symphony (2012):

 

 

I think life is a lot like this.  Gratitude for God’s small gifts in the present is a way of desiring; that is, a way of regarding the stars, our ultimate destiny in Christ.  By giving thanks for something like a familiar cup of tea, a good grade on a blog post, or a book consisting of something other than meaningless numbers and names, we are able, by an ironically short sighted act of thanks, to transcend all of our present despairs and adversities, liberated, by God’s grace, to live with an ever present hope in our eternal beatitude, to endure, even through the fiery pains of hell itself, with a perpetual and imminent longing for that ineffable vista of the stars.

 

Your servant,

TWM

Thanks in Hell

I have decided that the three best expressions of thanks in literature all take place in hell.

In a very specifically insignificant order, they are:

(1) When the devils of Milton’s Paradise Lost praise Satan for designating himself to go and tempt man (Milton Par. II.476-485)

(2) When Dante thanks Virgil for renewing his courage just before entering limbo (Dante Infer. II.133-142)

(3) When Odysseus makes sacrifices to ingratiate the dead (Hom. Od. 11.23-33)

I think the notion of thanks in hell creates a very strange paradigm.  Milton does a good job exploiting the bizarreness of it when he writes ‘for neither do the Spirits damn’d / lose all their virtue’.  Of course, he is making a pun off the etymology of the word ‘virtue’, which, in the Latin, virtus, had also a connotation of mere strength, not necessarily associated with any moral standard.

 

Their rising all at once was as the sound

Of thunder heard remote. Towards him they bend

With awful reverence prone; and as a God

Extol him equal to the highest in Heav’n:

Nor fail’d they to express how much they prais’d,

That for the general safety he despis’d

His own: for neither do the Spirits damn’d

Lose all their virtue; lest bad men should boast

Their specious deeds on earth, which glory excites,

Or close ambition varnisht o’er with zeal.

 

(Milton Par. II.476-485)

 

Milton goes on: ‘lest bad men should boast / Their specious deeds on earth, which glory excites, / Or close ambition varnisht o’er with zeal.’  So for Milton thanks, in hell, is an end in itself.  The damned are virtuous, or strong, not for the sake of being virtuous, but in order that they might be praised for it.

But Dante understands that gratitude can also be a means to an end.  It can move someone to do something good—like ascending to paradise—for which they only lacked sufficient motivation.

 

“Oh pietosa colei che mi soccorse!

e te cortese ch’ubidisti tosto

a le vere parole che ti porse!

Tu m’hai con disiderio il cor disposto

sì al venir con le parole tue,

ch’i’ son tornato nel primo proposto.

Or va, ch’un sol volere è d’ambedue:

tu duca, tu sengore, e tu maestro.”

Così li dissi; e poi che mosso fue,

intrai per lo cammino alto e silvestro.

 

Pardon my horrific translations; I was having a little too much fun this morning:

“O compassionate, she who availeth me!

And courteous, thou who hast obeyed so prompt

The truthful words that she hath put to thee!

Thou hast inclined desire in my heart

For venture, with thine words,

That I renew to mee the primal purpose.

Now go, for to us both a single will:

Thou the leader, thou the lord and maestro.”

Even so I said to him; and when he had moved,

I entered by the journey deep and cruel.

 

However, I mostly included the Homer quote to motivate people to keep reading.  I thought it was funny in its obscurity.  Odysseus it trying to motivate the dead souls to speak to him, using a technique that we may call ‘pre-thanks’

 

ἔνθ᾽ ἱερήια μὲν Περιμήδης Εὐρύλοχός τε

ἔσχον: ἐγὼ δ᾽ ἄορ ὀξὺ ἐρυσσάμενος παρὰ μηροῦ

βόθρον ὄρυξ᾽ ὅσσον τε πυγούσιον ἔνθα καὶ ἔνθα,

ἀμφ᾽ αὐτῷ δὲ χοὴν χεόμην πᾶσιν νεκύεσσι,

πρῶτα μελικρήτῳ, μετέπειτα δὲ ἡδέι οἴνῳ,

τὸ τρίτον αὖθ᾽ ὕδατι: ἐπὶ δ᾽ ἄλφιτα λευκὰ πάλυνον.

πολλὰ δὲ γουνούμην νεκύων ἀμενηνὰ κάρηνα,

ἐλθὼν εἰς Ἰθάκην στεῖραν βοῦν, ἥ τις ἀρίστη,

ῥέξειν ἐν μεγάροισι πυρήν τ᾽ ἐμπλησέμεν ἐσθλῶν,

Τειρεσίῃ δ᾽ ἀπάνευθεν ὄιν ἱερευσέμεν οἴῳ

παμμέλαν᾽, ὃς μήλοισι μεταπρέπει ἡμετέροισι.

τοὺς δ᾽ ἐπεὶ εὐχωλῇσι λιτῇσί τε, ἔθνεα νεκρῶν,

ἐλλισάμην, τὰ δὲ μῆλα λαβὼν ἀπεδειροτόμησα

ἐς βόθρον, ῥέε δ᾽ αἷμα κελαινεφές:

 

Then Perimedes and Eurylochus held the victims;

And I, drawing a sharp blade from my side, [presumably, on which a sheath was hanging],

Dug a trench, deep and long on this side and that,

And on both sides of it I poured a libation to all the dead,

First with honey-milk, then with a redolent wine,

And third, again, with water; and on it, I sprinkled light barely-groats [because, apparently, dead souls like that sort of thing]

And to the many wandering heads of the dead souls, I vowed

That when I had come to Ithaca, a barren ox, whichever is the best one,

I would sacrifice it in my halls, and would fill a pyre with goods,

And to Tiresias, alone and afar, I would sacrifice a black ram,

Which distinguishes itself from our sheep.