Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Freedom in Poverty

Reading canto XI of the Paradiso, I was really interested in the portrayal of St. Francis as the groom of poverty. He asked her hand in marriage, rather than just being unlucky enough to know her. I find this amazing, and I am saddened to think this is something that is denied to most of us. Not that I think we can't be poor; I am in fact very poor myself and will probably spend the next decade dealing with student loan repayment, etc. What I wish is that I could embrace Poverty in a radical way like St. Francis did.
We live in a society where this sort of radical poverty isn't really possible anymore. One may be ascetic, but you can't eat by gleaning. You can't be without running water, because there are laws regulating our standard of living! No one can go live in the wilderness like Thoreau and the Desert Fathers did; the wild is either private or public property, and you'd be arrested for squatting. Likewise, if I pick a fruit from someone's orchard, it's a crime. There is almost no way to ask Poverty's hand in marriage anymore.
When Dante described Amyclas, who found absolute freedom in absolute poverty, it reminded me of a song by LaRue that says "I don't feel like I've got anything to give, so I guess I've got nothing to lose." This is a Christian band and they are talking about poverty of spirit or ability, but I think there is something beautiful in the idea that poverty frees us from fear. When you have nothing to give, you have nothing to lose. It is easier to give, the less you have; just look at the parishioners of churches on the Mexican/US border and compare them to the churches up north. Or compare the poor widow in Luke to the rich people in the temple, who gave a tiny percent of their income away. Or consider all the poor women who coordinated the early disciples' travels, providing food and beds.
Our society demands we have certain things, and while I'm not arguing that it's necessarily bad (I love having running water and electricity), it does mean that we spend a lot of our lives trying to maintain all these things, and there is never a limit to what you need. I don't think our culture is greedy per se, because the only way to 'make it' nowadays is to meet a set of expectations that continues to burgeon outward. Someday I'll have my student loans paid off, but as an English Professor there will be so much more expected of me. If I'm ever a wife, I'll be responsible to help maintain a household, and there will be a lot of pressure to have a dual income household, to buy a house, to have two cars, to have nice furniture in my house; when I have children, I'll be responsible to provide for them, and the expectation is that I will help them go to school, get cars, etc. etc. A lot of parents can't do that, or don't care to do that, but they experience pressure for it. The pressure to have nice things increases with age and prestige. If I am a 'professional' (as compared to a cashier) I will be expected to have even more. On the one hand, I can't wait to be done with school so I can have my dream job and make more money. On the other hand I see my older brothers and friends and think, if being 'grown-up' means dedicating your life to the accumulation of property I would rather be a student forever.
I wish that I could embrace poverty. I hate stuff. I have way too much stuff. In my ideal world, we all wear sweats everyday because they're comfortable, and we don't care if we look good. We all eat local food, and all you have to do is grow it and pick it. We all just travel as much as we want, and don't have to worry about maintaining a 'home base' with all the utilities. I envy the freedom of St. Francis, and of Amyclas. Of course, I say 'ideal' because I don't think I could reach this in any case. It's just a nice dream.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Purgatory as the comfortable place? Yeah, that's me.

I find myself slightly reluctant to leave the Purgatorio, where I feel as though I understand the world, to travel on to Paradiso where the spheres are both over my head and over Dante’s. Before, events made sense in the Inferno and Purgatorio, probably since they are closer to human experience, but now the journey is to Paradiso, beyond human existence and crossing the threshold of the divine, where we can’t really be expected to comprehend the decisions and justice of the divine, even when they are explained, still takes some time to grapple with and digest. Even when Beatrice explains all to Dante and he accepts it, I still have trouble with her explanations. This is probably just my own problem with being told about religious ‘truth’ and being condescended to by people who believe they know this ‘truth.’ Perhaps I just don’t respect authority enough, because that is what she is, Dante’s figure of Divine Love that holds the ‘truth,’ she is his religious authority.

Back to Purgatorio. I understand the human struggle. I understand how Purgatorio stands for humans striving everyday to improve themselves, whether spiritually or otherwise. When Professor Anderson put the poem up in class, I could see the entire Comedy in there as well as just Purgatorio. The load gets lighter as the speaker travels, she continues on her way to improve her life, to save it. Her journey is the human journey through improving her life, as the Purgatorio is also a journey of learning and improvement. There is nothing really so abstract in the allegory of Purgatorio. The abstract nature of Paradiso essentially blows my mind. I suppose when Dante says that only some people can follow him on this part of the journey that have eaten of the bread of the angels, meaning that they have also experienced the faith that he is experiencing, that this might exclude me. As Professor Anderson discussed with us in class, Dante continually says that he can’t really describe what is happening, since he is experiencing faith and divine love and so can’t really translate the experience into words for the rest of us. As Beatrice is constantly telling him, how he sees Heaven is also not really how it is, since his mortal mind can’t possibly grasp what Heaven really is, so they have nicely created the hierarchical illusion that he and Beatrice travel through specifically for him. The hierarchy is all so he can understand, is what I pulled out of the discussion. Dante’s mind likes hierarchies and order, so Heaven is ordered for his understanding, even though everybody truly is equal and all together in the Empyrean. That I understood more. Perhaps if I was up touring Heaven and Beatrice was taking me around, she’d throw everybody together at a big table with a huge dinner and show how well they all get along, laughing and telling stories, and then I’d understand how Heaven works since I like to think of it as a big uniting experience where everybody finally comes together. Dante would probably look at how Heaven was presented to me and scratch his head. But then I would remind him that it’s a personal experience of faith and God’s love, which can’t be truly described to anyone else, just as Dante tells us.

Monday, February 19, 2007

The Experience of Faith, or Faith Through Example

Professor Anderson’s extended starter question about how Dante would react to people discussing the Bible as something one must read to understand got me thinking about one of the central themes of The Divine Comedy: experience is crucial to understanding. As we briefly discussed in class, one aspect of Dante’s whole journey through hell, purgatory, and heaven is so that he can experience it, grow more solid in his faith, and relate his experiences to others so that they can experience it through him. There is such a huge emphasis placed on the eyes and other senses because they allow a more vivid experience of situations. I think this is key to understanding Dante’s faith.

Understanding comes through experience. I have also wondered about Mary the way that Natalie and Tams do. Professor Anderson explained that she is significant because of her life’s example. I understand this through Dante’s emphasis on eyes. By seeing her example (prominent images of her in cathedrals, for example), we can more fully experience the faith that she exhibited. This idea goes right along with Tams’ comments about how The Divine Comedy is an example for us to follow, and I think this is exactly as he intended.

From what Dante says and from my own experiences and observations, we must be immersed in the culture of our faith for it to remain strong. This is one of the main purposes of the church. There are several verses in the Bible which warn and advise Christians to attend church and stay within a circle of believers. I believe the analogy is to a sheep that strays from the fold and is then vulnerable to an attack by the wolf. Yet if it stays in the protection of the shepherd it will be safe from harm.

To relate this to my own life, I have many friends who grew up in church and had very strong beliefs until they left home and stopped attending church. Gradually their faith has waned, and now I commonly hear them say things like “Yeah, I believe in God, but I don’t go to church or anything.” To use a Dantean metaphor, they are wandering in a dark wood with these vague beliefs unconfirmed by any actions. It’s easy to point fingers at others’ lives, and that’s not my purpose in writing this. One thing Dante shows us is that everyone has their own sins that they struggle with and we all have the hope of redemption. It can just come much less painfully if we place ourselves in places and situations where we will experience our faith often.

The Cyclical Relationship Between Reason and Faith

To paraphrase a very interesting point recently made by Professor Anderson, Dante believes in absolutes but he doesn’t believe humans can grasp them absolutely. Because of this, reason is not enough. The fact that reason is not enough is very intriguing to me. There are things about God that the human mind cannot understand. This seems fitting because if we could grasp everything perfectly, we would be on the level with God. In the Purgatorio it is quite obvious that reason leads to faith, as Virgil guides Dante through the levels towards Beatrice. Reason can only take Dante so far and because of this, faith must take over in the end. So, does faith lead to reason, or does reason lead to faith? I would argue that because the relationship between the two is cyclical, one always leads to the other, regardless which comes first.

For me, faith came before reason because I grew up in the church. Even as a child, I understood the central message of Christianity and I accepted it. I think that the central message is so basic, that even a child can understand and believe it. Maybe as adults we need to have more childlike faith. That is, believe something before you have every single thing figured out, and allow things to fall into place as your life progresses. On the other hand, it was only a matter of time until I began to face intellectual questions regarding my faith, and I turned to reason to understand what I had always believed.

I have also read stories of nonbelievers who set out to disprove some part of Christianity, and in the end, their research led them to the conclusion that it was the truth. In these instances, it was reason that led to faith. Their studies and logic led them to believe. This final step of faith is crucial.

Regardless of the religious faith or sect, I think both reason and faith are very important because you must understand what you believe and why you think it is the truth, but also cherish the spiritual experience. If someone were to ask you why you believe in the Bible, you cannot say “because I have faith”. Someone cannot relate to some obscure feeling that you have within you. It would be impossible to explain the spiritual experience because it is something not easily put into words. Often, it is the reason side that someone first connects with. People experience God in radically different ways, just as the same song can have a variety of effects on an audience. Faith fills in the gaps of understanding. I don’t know that we can ever be totally sure about anything. So, you must have faith.

There are others who refuse to believe anything until they can understand all the fine details and have an answer to every question. But reason can only lead you so far. As I said before, there are things that we as humans will never fully understand and we must turn to faith to bring us the rest of the way. Faith will lead us again and again to reason and the two will enforce each other as one’s understanding increases. It would be ridiculous to stand in a dark room refusing to turn on the light until you could explain exactly how electricity works. You must believe that flicking the switch will cause the light to turn on, take a step of faith, and then do it.

Addressing Other Postings

Betsy asks some good questions as she brings extreme religion into the picture. I have a great example of how they react to Dante, though I can’t speak for how he would view them. My sister is a partial-extremist. They have mandatory classes, rules for everyday living (I don’t just mean regular life rules, I mean specific acts they must perform), they speak in tongues, etc. I rarely talk to her because every conversation turns to religion, or judging me, or her favorite topic: “How much longer are you going to go to college instead of getting a job?” I always hand the phone to mom. Because of a death in the family this weekend and my mother being gone to comfort her mother, my sister decided to call me many times, which I couldn’t pass off to mom. I told her late Sat. eve. that I was starving. I hadn’t eaten all day, decided a week ago to fast for a day to try and cleanse my body. “Why would you do something like that?” Well, I’ve felt fatigued, my adult acne has gotten worse regardless of meds and I think a day of cleansing could be good. I drank protein water, green tea, milk, OJ, and V8. Probably not what a typical fast would be, but hey, it’s my first. I told her that two of my classes have brought up this kind of cleansing and about reading Dante and the sins in Purgatory… She attacked him. I kept saying it was not supposed to be literal, the ideas were supposed to teach us to be better people, etc. “That’s what church is for. There’s no such thing as Purgatory. You’re supposed to read the Bible as a guide, not literature. And many more that I won’t quote.” Yes, I tell her, but sometimes outside sources help as well because they give us examples. Anyway, she went on for about 20 minutes. Not sure what all she said because I held the phone away until she sounded like a mouse with a high-pitched voice. So, don’t know how Dante would view her religion, but it’s one conversation I would love to watch. Got any popcorn?

Natalie questions Mary’s part in the Catholic religion. The way I was taught was that the Catholic’s worshipped Mary and that is why I should never be a Catholic. Let’s just say, as I got older I have come to realize many things that I was told was untrue. I have to view it for myself. I did attend a Christmas Mass with my aunt once. The deacon who sang was tone deaf. I didn’t understand what was going on; huge difference from Southern Baptist, and my aunt couldn’t explain it. She just kept telling me that Catholicism would be a good religion for me. I don’t judge other religions, wouldn’t that be hypocritical anyway? I figure if they all have the same God… Anyway, just because I don’t understand, doesn’t mean it is wrong. I would like to know more about various religions, what they have in common, how they differ, etc. I too am curious about Mary’s figure in the Catholic religion. I was relieved when Prof. Anderson brought her up in class. Like I mentioned above, sometimes an example is better than a guide. No, I’m not saying that Mary is more important that the Bible. I just know that some people learn better through example.

The Dude mentioned how in Purgatorio, the sun couldn’t be seen but felt as the warmth of God’s love. I immediately think of the valley winters. So often we see sunlight sending its rays down in various fields and wish to be able to step out of our gray, cloud-shrouded area into the warm rays. These two images combined brings to mind how some people believe that our life on earth is Purgatory as we try to learn and strive for Paradise. I personally believe that all of us have at least one of the seven sins haunting our lives. Instead of one prominent one, some of us may have a few that aren’t as extreme as the one. For instance, gluttony and sloth can sometimes run hand in hand (wouldn’t they be an ugly couple). So, while we are on earth, we can face these guys head on, read a little Dante, and try to make the best of our lives.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

la maria es mia

I have always been interested in the significance of the Virgin Mary in the Catholic faith. The figure of Mary seems to be key to the faith but I have never understood exactly why. As mentioned by Professor Anderson in class, there exists among many people a misconception concerning the significance of Mary to the faith. Many believe that Catholics worship Mary, misplacing a reverence due God and Jesus. I can identify with this because as a person looking in from the outside, it sometimes appears that Mary is placed on a pedestal and worshipped in a way. I think that some Catholics even pray to her (not sure about this though). Because I have never attended Catholic mass or done much extensive research on the Catholic faith, I have drawn all conclusions from experience and observation, which can often lead to misunderstandings. While visiting some very beautiful Catholic cathedrals in various parts of Spain, for example, I noticed some consistencies in the decoration and adornment of the cathedrals. In many of them, the figure of the Virgin Mary was more prominent than that of Jesus. Whether depicted in a painting or a carving or statue, it was obvious that, for the architects and church leaders of the day, Mary deserved a central position in the cathedral. There was always a figure of Jesus as well, but often placed in a more obscure section of the front panel, and many times the figure of Jesus was much smaller and less ornate than Mary’s. Why is this? Jesus is the Son of God and He is divine. Mary is the mother of Christ, but she is still only human. So, why is she placed in such a central position?

I understand that Mary led a holy life and served God, but is she more important than Jesus? Although I still don’t understand her exact degree of importance, I don’t believe that Catholics would place her above Jesus. Professor Anderson briefly addressed the significance of the figure of Mary in class. He explained that Mary is a complicated figure and that the common assumption that Catholics worship her is false. She is an example of chastity and purity and we should view her life as an example. Professor Anderson also said that Mary is an example of how to see Jesus. I found this particularly interesting because it is easier to try to imitate the life of a human woman than to try to imitate the life of Jesus, who was completely sinless. I am still wrestling with my understanding of the importance of Mary and how she fits in the big picture because I think a clearer understanding of the role of the Virgin Mary will enhance my understanding of the poem. Dante must have viewed her as an important figure because stories of her life are a recurring theme throughout the Purgatorio.

Christian counter culture, an extreme example: What would Dante think?

On thinking about Purgatorio and how much Dante wants to create a counterculture or encourage others to create a different, more godly environment for themselves, I thought of the documentary Jesus Camp. I saw Jesus Camp recently, and it was a very scary example of a religious counterculture. People send their children to a Pentecostal camp, and these children have religious experiences everyday, but they go to the point of shaking and falling to the floor and speaking in tongues. They also tell them how they should feel about political issues and President Bush, having them all pray for him and his success in electing the man they wanted to the Supreme Court via Bush’s cardboard cutout. The adults around these children create an environment such that it essentially brainwashes children into an extreme Christian faith. And as we discussed in class, what affects the mind affects the body. The fanaticism that gets poured into these children affects the state of their bodies, and when they believe the Holy Spirit is descending to them to speak in tongues, it makes me think that it’s just the influence of the adults on their minds, exhorting them to extreme outpourings of emotion. When I was watching this, I couldn’t help but think of how Dante would react to this sort of religious culture, and I believe that this is an extreme of which Dante would disapprove.

I refer back to Ciardi’s notes on page 346, where he says “Dante’s Aristotelian mind could not cherish any excess: the Good is the Golden Mean, to wander from the mean in either direction is equally culpable.” This really intrigued me, because this said to me that Dante wants people to have a healthy balance of both religion and other responsibilities in their lives, and not too much of one or the other. So it seemed to me that he was also saying too much religion is a bad thing. I don’t think he means too much God, but too much religion, meaning too much human institution and interference in faith does not create a true or natural faith. However, I could be way off base and inserting too many of my own biases.

How do you think Dante would feel about extreme Christianity, one that involves teaching Creationism instead of Evolution, encouraging children to evangelize to the masses, and be soldiers for God in our nation? Do you think he would think it too far away from a Golden Mean, or do you think he would embrace it as the counter culture that he desires opposing the degradation of the dominant culture? Or does this not even apply to Dante, since he was never faced with these issues in medieval times?

Dante is Controlling the Airwaves

(I wrote this entry over a week ago and I finally got it to work.) So I am a dork... I am just going to put that out there first. I watch a show called Full Metal Alchemist (FMA) on the Cartoon Network. It came here from Japan, as so many cartoons do, and it only plays at about 3 in the morning, M-H, so I record it on my DVR, which I am now unfortunately addicted too. A long time ago I began to notice many intertwining themes that are at play in Dante's Devine Comedy that are also in play in FMA. The first of which that came to my attention a while ago was that there are characters on the show that embody the seven deadly sins. Each one of these characters, which are known as homunculus (a word in alchemy meaning “an artificially made dwarf, supposedly produced in a flask by an alchemist; a diminutive human being; or a human fetus” []) and on the show they are said to be soulless beings created by an alchemists’ acumination of sins. Each sin is represented by a person who embodies many of the traits that are described in the Devine Comedy.


Pride, in the show, is known as Fuhrer, who is the head of the state army, and so he is embodied in the Purgatorio (Canto XII, line 52-54) by Sennacherib, King of Assyria, who believed in a false God to deliver him to victory in battle, and was then killed by his own two sons (p. 388 of our book). The Fuhrer, much like Sennacherib, believed that through Alchemy he would be able to regain his soul, we find out this is not true through the discourse of the show, and in the end his own son unknowingly delivers to his destroyer, the one thing that is needed to kill him, which is the bones from his original body. His false God though was a woman named Dante, who I will talk about, possibly in another blog because this one is going to be quite long.


Envy is an extremely strong homunculus who is able to take on the appearance of anyone else and impersonate them. It is envious of all humans because they have souls unlike it does. Envy, who’s name in life (life being FMA) I don’t know, but I do know that it is most envious of the main characters who we later find out are step brothers. After reading the notes I saw a connection between Envy and “Sapìa of Siena” (Canto XIII, line 94, p. 349). Sapìa , according to the editor, is Provenzano Salvani’s (who is mentioned in Canto XI the level of the Proud) Aunt who watches him be beheaded reportedly saying “Now God, do what you will with me, and do me any harm you can, for after this I shall live happily and die content. (p. 399)” The only thing that Envy, in FMA, says will make her happy is the death of her brothers. The other things is that Envy is so easily swayed by peoples words that she never bothers to actually look and see if she can find the truth, only taking things at face value; just as the blind in the level of Envious in The Purgatorio would do if they could see.

I would continue to break down these characters one by one but then this blog would become extremely long winded and I wouldn’t be able to mention my main observation from FMA that relates to The Devine Comedy. At several points in The Devine Comedy Dante references Florence, is town of origin, as being hell, or like hell, or of sharing many attributes of. Almost as if, had he broken apart Florence into section, thrown in many historical figures, and mythological beings, and structured it in an orderly way so that there were three main levels each of which had their own divisions, it would be quite similar to the structure presented to us in his comedy. In FMA there is also a gate, and through this gate few people have passed to come out on the other side. One is a female character who name is Dante, and the other two are the main character and his father. Their aren’t many similarities between Dante the character from FMA and Dante the writer whatsoever besides a name. But the gate, that is a different story.

Throughout The Devine Comedy, Dante makes allegorical links between his location in the afterlife and to that of Florence leading the reader to the conclusion that they are only separated by a forest and a gate, but that they in someway mirror each other. The gate in FMA does the same thing, except it is the link to the world that we know and live in. When they go through their gate, them being those who live in the world of the FMA, they are taken to our Earth, which is the same, but different. On our Earth instead of pursuing Alchemy and trying to synchronize with the Earth through science, we chose to develop mechanical things with our science. As a result, when they arrive in our world we are on the brink of WW2 and they are thrown into the middle of it.

The links between the show and The Devine Comedy are very obvious and there are so many them it boggles the mind. I suggest, if you don’t mind a little violence in your cartoons, and aren’t afraid to nerd it up, that you tune in and see if you can find some similarities yourself.

Is Dante Trying to Remind Us of Something...

While I was reading the Purgatorio in the Envy Canto's (XIIV, XIV, XV) I started to notice that they are numerous allusions to the sun, or to light. In fact, I found at least seven such occasions, of which I made note throughout the three Canto's of Envy. My first conclusion about Dante and his talk of the sun was, "the Sun is mentioned so often because the people in this level of the Purgatorio (I think in italics) are blind and so they can't see the sun. But they can feel it's warmth, so it serves as like the warmth of God, but since they are in the shadows of the cliff they cannot feel the sun, and therefore to feel God's touch they much get past their envy and step into the light." Pretty simple conclusion for most people, assuming you have been to a church sermon in the past. My thought was also spurred on further when I read Dante the characters personal thought which was what truly helped me com to my own conclusion, if only it is a translation of his own.

"Just as the sun does not reach to their sight,
so to those shades of which I spoke just now
God's rays refuse to offer their delight;" (Canto XIII, lines 67-69, p. 393)

This seems right on target...maybe. Much of what Dante writes is, as we all know, allegory and alludes to other things -at least according to scholars and Professor Anderson (present company not excluded)- much more far fetched than the suns rays being like the warming touch of God, right? But then I looked back at the first time that Virgil looks to the sun for guidance and I remembered that he, on Earth and still in the afterlife, was a Pagan. Which spurred on my thoughts.

What Virgil says about, or rather to, the sun is this;

"Then he looked up and stared straight at the sun...,

'O Blessed Lamp, we face the road ahead
placing our faith in you: lead us the way
that we should go in this new place,' he said

'You are the warmth of the world, you are its light;
if other cause do not urge otherwise,
your rays alone should serve to lead us right.' " (p. 392)

This is said before, not after, the quote above from Dante. Thinking further I remembered that Virgil, on Earth, was a Pagan. From my understanding of Pagan beliefs, they worshiped the Earth and the Sun was seen as one of, if not the most, central part to many Pagans' religious practices. It was almost as if Dante was pointing out that Virgil, even though a great man, is still a Pagan and that we as readers must remember that that is the reason he cannot enter heaven, or rather leave purgatory (Baptism being the main reason). Assuming that my thoughts are correct, or at least leaning in a good direction, I think that Virgil saying this in the level of Envy is fitting because he is, or possibly is, a little envious of Dante because he is getting what appears to be "special treatment" from God, and Virgil is still stuck in The Purgatorio. So it might be Virgil's way of cursing God because he feels that he is being treated unfairly and this may possibly be the point at which Dante begins to pull away from, or start to realize that Virgil can only teach him so much.
I don't know what everybody is going to think about this but hey, that is what the blog is here for.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Behind the Looking Glass: Secular Truth

One thing it’s easy for us to forget (myself included), and that Prof. Anderson keeps trying to remind us is to read The Divine Comedy allegorically. Dante has some great religious commentary in here, but the poem isn’t just about the afterlife: it’s about this life too! So I’m going to take a crack at it:


This was clearly illustrated when Dante met Provenzano Salvani in the first cornice of the proud. He was prideful in life, but he was able to advance quickly through Ante-Purgatory because of a good deed he performed for his friend. What goes around comes around. Give good away, and it will come back to you. This is further illustrated in Canto XV when Virgil explains to Dante how the treasure in Heaven grows greater as it is shared.

“As much light as it finds there, it bestows;
thus, as the blaze of Love is spread more widely,
the greater the Eternal Glory grows” (XV.70-2).

This reminds me of a song I used to sing when I was younger, in Girl Scouts, which stated: “love is something if you give it away, you end up getting more. It’s just like a magic penny.” Interesting that this song compares love to money, a form of wealth, which is the same context in which Dante is trying to understand love and grace and eternal glory. This principle works, devoid of religious context. When you give away (money, good deeds, etc.), you get something in return, whether it’s the instant gratification of knowing you did a job well done, whether it’s recognition of some kind, or whether it’s other unrelated good deeds and such rendered for you. This illustrates the idea of the greater good (socialist in nature) versus individual good (capitalism, if you will). Corporations have tended to focus on individual good at the cost of the greater good, and we (society) are beginning to see this hidden cost and hold corporations accountable. Perhaps Dante-the-character didn’t understand at first the benefits of sharing resources and responsibility, but hopefully CEOs and shareholders are beginning to realize that the more they share, the better off they’ll be. In a very simplistic example, if they raise their workers’ wages up to a somewhat reasonable amount, they will have more contented workers, which will result in higher productivity and less resistance. We may not always be able to quantify or make tangible the benefits of the commons, but they’re there.

Environment and Moving “Up” the Mountain

Your environment has an effect on you. Countless scientific studies have proven, expanded upon, and extrapolated about this. Rhiannon has spoken to this in her personal story, and the topic of music has been discussed by Rachel as well. I have been so intrigued by the points being made by Prof. Anderson in the past few class meetings: that faith is not an intellectual matter of ceding to certain ideas, but is more about getting yourself in an environment that engenders a mood and mindset where you’ll be in the right place emotionally to tackle faith. It’s not a question of “getting it” as much as it is an issue of surrounding yourself with an alternative culture that will get you to feel it, to truly know it with your heart.

This completely applies to secular life still on this planet. What and who do you surround yourself with? Are you consciously choosing environments to inspire and encourage you? Where are you focused, and where are you going? Rhiannon talked about her sense of purpose in her life. I was just telling someone today how I like to feel like I’m moving, progressing towards some goal. Sometimes I’m not sure exactly what goal it is, and sometimes what I have in mind for myself isn’t always what works out (and isn’t always what should work out), but I’m constantly moving, self-improving, and progressing. Perhaps not up the mountain towards God (but perhaps…who knows? I don’t know where I’m at with religion at the moment), but at least up something, say perhaps Maslow’s Triangle: Hierarchy of Needs, towards self-actualization. Better than I was the day before.

In conclusion: Dante speaks to secular life through images of a religious afterlife.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Of Rivers and Music and Other Such Sweetness

The first two cantos of The Purgatorio strongly remind me of the movie A River Runs Through It. I think the same sort of pastoral and wondering emotions inspired by one’s environment are prominent in Dante and the movie. The scene where Norman returns via train to Montana and the scene where Dante emerges from Hell are very similar. There is a scene where Norman has been away teaching in the city and takes a train back home to Montana. It’s the same effect as when Dante leaves Hell and then suddenly finds himself in some place calm and there’s clean water where he can wash the grime of the city away. The characters from both scenes are coming from a very industrial (cities, trains, etc.) and dirty place to a very natural place of peace and beauty. Their reactions are similar as well. Both Dante and Norman are filled with awe at the environmental contrast.

Another similarity that strikes me now is the presence of music. We’ve discussed in class how Purgatory is filled with beautiful chants and hymns. In A River Runs Through It there are several scenes where Norman is singing hymns in church. One such scene occurs shortly after his return home and you can see him looking around at the congregation united in song with a look of contentment on his face as if that type of music, or any type of music, had been lacking from his fast-paced city life.

While there are many similarities to The Purgatorio in this movie, there are also connections to The Inferno as well. Norman’s brother, Paul, destroys himself by his bad choices. The movie clearly demonstrates that Paul makes the choice to get caught up in gambling, drinking, and fighting. Norman repeatedly warns him and even goes with him one night to see if he can stop the excess, but Paul shrugs off the advice and continues the same behavior. We can see this allegorically as Norman representing good conscience and the voice of reason which Paul rejects in favor of his girlfriend and gambling buddies who represent overindulgence and sin.

This is significant because we can clearly see Paul making the choice of sin and Hell. Further, he rejects religion by refusing to attend the church his father pastors. According to Dante, it’s pretty clear that Paul would go to Hell after he dies, unless he chose God at the last moment. A River Runs Through It provides a classic contrast of the good, dutiful son and the sinful, irresponsible son which complements the lessons Dante-as-character is learning by seeing the contrasts between hell, purgatory, and later, heaven.

Friday, February 9, 2007

The Music of Life

Thinking about our last two lectures and the emphasis on the sounds of Purgatory I realized there is something about the music... while I was reading, I kept hearing that they were singing, but it wasn't until I was done with the reading that I thought about what that music might sound like. I've always had this notion that music is holy, all music. Everyone has an instant connection to the spiritual realm through music. That's why there are so many genres. Whether it's Gregorian chanting, steel drums, hip-hop, country western, whatever, there is a music that touches us. A lot of people like songs with good lyrical content (because let's face it, there's a lot out there that has really poor quality lyrics.) I'm one of those people- sometimes. Sometimes the sound of music or of a voice stops you altogether, and dashes all your notions about lyrical content to the ground.

I love Dead Can Dance. They are probably my favorite band. There were two singers in Dead Can Dance: Brendan Perry and Lisa Gerard (I say were because they split up and now have solo careers.) Perry usually sings in English, but not always. Gerard sings phonetically most of the time, which means, she isn't actually singing words. She also sings on the Gladiator soundtrack (she collaborates with Hans Zimmer a lot) in case anyone is familiar with that. One of my favorite songs, "Devorzhium," was on the movie Unfaithful, in what is arguably the sexiest sex scene ever made. The song has no words, but there is singing, and something about her voice is incredibly seductive, and perfect for that scene. Gerard's voice is captivating whether she is singing words in English, words in some other language, or random sounds. It's one of those you've-got-to-hear-it-to-believe-it things.

Another example is the singing of the Mbuti/BaAka people. These are the people who live in the forests of the Central African Republic, also known as 'pygmies' (although that isn't very nice). They don't call themselves pygmies. They are BaAka, which means "The Forest People." Their religion/worldview is that the forest is their mother and their God, and they are its children. All life comes from the forest, and they sing to it. My first year of college was at Bakersfield College. I took a class in Ethnomusicology, and we did a unit on African music. There are so many types of African music; we had to identify the country, culture, and purpose of the song as well as every instrument being used! The first time I listened to the CD with the BaAka singing "Makala," I was overwhelmed. If you've never heard their singing, I heartily recommend it. I can't hear it without crying. It is so incredibly beautiful and sincere, and just... human? I don't know how to explain it, but this is the song of my heart. Something about their voices moves me, although I have no idea what is being said, and there is almost no music (just someone drumming on a hollow-log drum).

When I hear Dante's description of Purgatory, I hear that sort of thing. Music that stops you in your tracks. Music that makes you sit there, smiling in the sun, contemplating and not thinking. Music that brings tears to your eyes. Music that can change you.

*if you want to hear Mbuti singing click here:

I am Geryon, hear me ROAR!

When reading about ante-Purgatory, an image came to mind: Dante was getting cleansed of the stench and sin from Hell before heading towards the heavenly place. I pictured the religions that dip their finger in holy water and cross themselves before entering a church or chapel (not sure if only Catholics do this). Like baptism, the sinners wash away their past lives and transgressions and leave the intentional sinning behind. Of course, for those of us who have a strong conscience, rumination never allows the past to be completely gone. We remind ourselves of the foolish past in order to keep from repeating the mistakes. This is very simplified. So, before entering a holy place, the outside must be washed off (crossing with the holy water) in order to go forth with pure thoughts. Or, before committing oneself to the Baptist religion (or others) the sins must be washed away with a baptism before proceeding.

If Dante hadn’t been washed of the stench, he would be taking those horrific images with him into Purgatory. With negative energy in the mind, it is very difficult to see the positive in anything. Dante needed a moment of meditation and purification of the mind before opening his mind up to the glorious light ahead. Without it, he would be looking at that glorious light through a dark veil and his eyes would not be completely opened to the wonder. Does this sound cheesy or does it actually sound as profound as I intend?

Looking back into Hell, I see Geryon and how this is a perfect image for people. Most everyone has multiple personalities, the one’s we can control. We have the image that we give to our parents, grandparents, or others whom we wish to view us as flawless as possible. Then we have the image of our dark sides, the parts of us that we may be ashamed of, and suppressed emotions. We also have the image that we give to employers or professors, first introductions, in-laws, etc. Our image isn’t stone, at least mine isn’t. (For those of you who have a single image for everyone, I can’t say that I envy you, but good for you. When I say ‘our’, I don’t mean everyone, but those of us to whom this applies.)

To give an example, I’ll name a girl Penelope and introduce her to a male friend of mine. Penelope comes across as a sweet girl with a good sense of humor. My male friend really likes her. As he gets to know her, he sees some of her real personality; she is very impatient and blames everyone else for her problems. He begins to see the wings of reality appear. She has a temper when she doesn’t get her own way. Here comes her hairy chest and arms (what an image!). He then discovers she hates animals (as if!) Her hairy arms and claws appear. Get the idea? Of course, wouldn’t her claws appear with the temper? Anyway, so not everyone has the complete body of imperfections, but gradually reveal those true identities the more we get to know them. Then my warped mind compares Geryon to Mr. Potatohead. We begin with a simple potato. Then we add a pegged eyeball, a nose, etc, revealing a different image with every added body part. Geryon and Mr. Potatohead, now that’s stretching it. So, here’s a question for you to ponder: Are we being frauds if we only reveal the good parts of ourselves or are we just being human?

Monday, February 5, 2007

Il Purgatorio

The concept of Purgatory is fundamentally a Roman Catholic idea; it occurred to me that Limbo is the ideal division between Heaven and Hell (if I were constructing Heaven, which I'm not). The only way Purgatory can make sense on a literal level is if, as Dante has it, souls are gladly working their way towards glory. In many ways, this earthly life seems like a Purgatory; after my conversion to the Christian faith I began to feel a sense of purpose, as if I were climbing a mountain towards God. Earthly life is a place and time for us to seek glory and joy. I'm reminded of the poem "Uphill" by Christina Rosetti:

Does the road wind up-hill all the way?
Yes, to the very end.
Will the day's journey take the whole long day?
From morn to night, my friend.
Shall I find comfort, travel-sore and weak?
Of labour you shall find the sum.
Will there be beds for me and all who seek?
Yea, beds for all who come.
For me, it feels like I am moving "onward and upward" (C. S. Lewis). I began life not knowing what it was all about. I spent many years in the "Dark Wood" where Dante's poem begins. This makes me wonder if Dante was contemplating suicide, because obviously he is lost and grieving, and the suicides are in a dark wood in Hell. Either way, that's where I was. Without oversimplifying the greatest event in my life, or sounding like a lunatic, at the age of fourteen I heard the voice of God, totally unexpectedly. I always say that "Jesus had me at hello." He didn't show up as Virgil and take me on a tour, but I do think there was a Heavenly Lady interceding on my behalf (my Abuelita Uva). I say I "heard" God although what I was using was not so much my ears as my blood. God asked me "Aren't you tired of this? Aren't you ready for more?"
At that point, I knew I was ready for more. Purgatory in Dante involves a lot of choosing to move on- the souls decide for themselves when they are ready to arrive on the shore, and when they are ready to move up. My own life has involved some serious decision-making, and I feel like since I've know what I'm moving towards, I haven't regretted a single move. There are days when I question myself, and even God, sure, but I have full confidence that this movement called my life is, in fact, "onward and upward."
It's easy to confuse the circumstances of my life with the condition of my soul, but on further examination there is clearly an enormous difference. Through the "Purgatory" of this life, God is preparing me for His kingdom. I am being tested, not punished (because just like in Hell, punishment is a choice). The test is my own willingness to say "I'm ready." Because by choosing readiness, you're already there. Furthermore, like the souls in Purgatory, I am moving in joy. Jesus said "These three things remain: Faith, Hope, and Love." I am moving in faith, with hope, and in love, towards the greatest of these, Love. I can't help but see the parallels between this and Dante's Purgatory.
I know this is pretty religious and personal, and I tried to make "I" statements, because what I think about other people's lives is irrelevant. Of course, I want everyone to think life is joyful, and purposeful, but hey, that's up to the individual. What I am attempting to discuss, through my personal experience, is Dante's Purgatory, and how it relates to life in a culture that mostly doesn't believe in such a place. Dante wants us to read allegorically, and I can't help but feel that's the best interpretation for Purgatory. Because, otherwise, what is redemption and what is salvation? Jesus' sacrifice needs no help, and we don't get to Heaven for doing good works (apparently, it didn't work for poor Latini or Avicenna or anyone else). But by our attitude towards others, and towards life, we can promote God's kingdom in our hearts. I think it is ESSENTIAL to see this as a personal thing. I, like everyone else, want to better the world through good government and law, etc. but I must admit that the way to start is right here, right now, with these two hands. I don't think I'm a very good person, really, but God is a forward-thinker and He's asking me to think positively. God is moving us towards perfection, whatever that looks like. He is asking us to be joyful and to see other people, not just the long uphill climb, because when we look at the road it can really freak us out and discourage us. I think this is what Dante is saying. I shared some personal stuff because that's my way of understanding Purgatory, NOT because I want people to agree with my beliefs.

Sunday, February 4, 2007

Dante's Deference

In response to the recent assumption that we are all disrespecting authority, judging or disagreeing with Dante, and getting stuck behind cultural biases, I would like to clarify my views on Dante by further expanding on the subject I began exploring in my first post. In case you haven’t read it yet, I encourage you to do so. Otherwise, what I say in this post may seem unclear or out of context. Basically, I believe there is strong evidence so far in the Dante’s Comedy that he was quite open-minded about and courteous toward other beliefs and ways of life, and I find this inspiring. Support for this can be found in the respectful way he depicts Virgil (a non-Christian), Saladin (a Muslim), and mythological gods. This latter group is what I want to focus on in this post. I am particularly interested in the ways in which Dante incorporates mythological characters and beliefs into his version of the afterlife.

The first time I really took notice of the repeated mythological themes was rather late in The Inferno when Dante encounters Ephialtes and Antaeus among the giants in Canto XXI. On pages 243 and 244, Dante describes how these two souls are being punished for rebelling against the gods, specifically Jove. I was confused about why Dante, a devout Christian, would place so much power and authority in the hands of these pagan gods. Virgil, when speaking of Ephialtes, says, “this piece of arrogance…dared try his strength against the power of Jove” (XXXI 91-92). Antaeus is rewarded for staying loyal to the gods. Ciardi notes that “Antaeus did not join in the rebellion against the gods and therefore he is not chained” (246). Why would it matter that these two rebelled against pagan gods who couldn’t have been powerful or even existed if Dante believes in one, all-powerful God who had existed since before time began?

The only answer I can give is to ignore for a moment any literal interpretation of this passage. If taken allegorically, it could be shown as an example of what happens when one rebels against God, his angels, Church authority, or authority in general. Virgil calls attention to Ephialtes’ arrogance. It would indeed be the ultimate arrogance to challenge God. The fact that these are giants further illuminates their arrogance and the idea that they were so filled with pride that they quite literally had “big heads,” as we say today.

Another example of mythic characters is in Canto XXXII where Alessandro and Napoleone lie among those who were treacherous to kin. I draw a parallel between these brothers and Eteocles and Polynieces, Oedipus’ two sons who inherited his kingdom and ended up killing each other in a duel over who would control their inheritance. I have little interpretation of their inclusion other than that it only furthers my point that Dante relied on the classical myths when writing.

Further, mythological ideas of the afterlife and its physical structure literally run through The Inferno and The Purgatorio. Dante includes the rivers Tiber, Acheron, and Styx which figure prominently in classical mythology.

It seems obvious to me that just as Dante’s choice of Virgil as mentor (a Pagan leading a Christian = Paganism leading to Christianity) shows his respect for those beliefs which laid the foundation for his, his frequent use of mythological figures reveals not only a respect for traditional beliefs, but also for traditional stories and devices. Dante as poet and as character pays homage to the great poets and literary figures who he encounters. I think he also pays homage by including references to the great stories that came before his.

A response of my own view

I was going to post on a different subject, but I feel that I need to respond to Rhiannon and everyone else who believes that it’s rude and a waste of time to disagree with Dante.

I really don’t see what’s wrong with questioning Dante. I agree that he was a great poet and this is a great work, but I’m not just going to accept that everything is how it is just because he says so and that he’s great just because everyone says he is. I’m going to continually question and challenge, because this is a method of learning that is especially important to use as part of our university education. The culture that I come from encourages me to engage authority, and I don’t believe that just because I question a work means that I have disrespect for tradition. I don’t believe that by disagreeing with a few of Dante’s uses of poetic license that I am nullifying his achievement in creating the Divine Comedy, and I don’t believe that it prevents me from learning from Dante. I believe that it just keeps me from blindly following and agreeing without analyzing what I agree with.

I adore the humanity of Dante the character. Most of the time I am there with him, understanding his reactions, or looking at the notes if I’m confused as to why he would react a certain way. I believe that the Comedy is a great work. I also believe that part of my university education allows me to see past my cultural biases, and I take them into account not only when I analyze medieval works, but also any other work, like those by African authors or those by Japanese authors or other cultures that are very different from mine. When I analyze where I differ from Dante, I describe his position and then mine. This is a constructive method of disagreeing, and I don’t believe that it’s wrong.

If anyone has heard about the Stanley Milgram experiment, it’s the one where he found out just how many people do respect authority in our culture, and will do what that authority says even if it means killing another person. Here’s a link to examine: or just Google “Milgram.” Over 60% of the people who were told to increase the voltage of the electrical shocks administered to the test subject above the lethal limit did so when told by the authority figure running the experiment. I think Dante would not accept that these individuals were acting just because an authority figure told them to do this. He would say that they chose their own actions and they chose not question the directions that were given to them. Free will was involved in this experiment just as much as it is involved in The Divine Comedy, and Dante scorns those who pretend that they don’t use their free will. He supports the questioning of human authority, as do I.

Saturday, February 3, 2007

Response to Rhiannon + My Complicated Relationship with Chris Anderson

“It hurts me as an English major to see how quick we all are to reject anything we disagree with! That's not what getting a university education is about. If you can't see past the cultural biases, what's the point of spending $300 on a class about a famous religious allegory?” Who said anything about rejecting Dante? I’m just trying to process him and I don’t believe I’ve said that I hate Dante, or dislike his poetry, or anything of that nature. I’m engaging in conversation with Dante, trying my damnedest to see past my own cultural biases through to what he’s trying to say and how he’s trying to say it. I think it’s rude and naïve of you to assume that the rest of us are incapable of seeing past these cultural biases, or of being as enlightened and in touch with Dante as you seem to think you are.

“Everyone has the right to their own opinion but you obviously don’t understand the difference between religion and faith.” Actually Rhiannon, I do. I wrote a lot of stuff that I didn’t end up including in that last blog post about how religion and spirituality are two wildly different things for me. For me, religion is associated with manmade institutions, excessive rituals, hate, exclusion, and discrimination. Spirituality, on the other hand, I understand as a personal relationship with a god, or higher power, or deeper connection to the universe in some way, personally, not through the conduit of a church or clergy.

“I find it kind of offensive to slam on religion in general as if it’s all crap just because you disagree with Dante.” Whoa. Thanks for assuming that my disenchantment with religious institutions stems from my “disagreeing with Dante.” Actually, if you must know, my distaste for religion predates this class by a few years. Assuming that I would get such strong convictions from reading an antiquated POEM is giving me way too little credit and Dante way too much. And if I am disagreeing with Dante, it’s not so much with him as with the cultural machine he is writing from. Obviously his views are not entirely his own, but belong to his era, his peers, his country, his culture as well. And if you’re getting offended by my posts, which have been my own processing of Dante and what he can mean to me in my life, that’s your prerogative. Maybe you should stop taking my posts (and yourself) so seriously.

My last post was a lot of me trying to personally process Dante in the context of my own experiences and values. Dante is writing from a very different space and time from me, and it has been difficult to figure out how to read and appreciate him. I TOTALLY agree with the point Prof. Anderson was making on Wednesday when he was comparing Dante to the comedic brilliance of Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. Dante is poking fun at religion and certain individuals at the same time that he is honoring and paying tribute to his religion and his god. He’s taking a critical look at Catholicism and inserting some of his own interpretations, vividly painting grotesque pictures to shock and amuse us, and hopefully ultimately inspiring us to critically examine how we live our own lives. It’s a complex relationship he has with the church and religion and spirituality; pretty much the furthest thing from “black-and-white.” It’s kind of like my relationship to Prof. Anderson: sometimes he’s pompous, arrogant, and downright rude (*cough! Monday’s “grafters” comment, cough!*), but other times he actually has insightful and thought-provoking things to say. I don’t loath him with every fiber in my being, but I’m also not about to sing his praises in a blog post encouraging my fellow bloggers to “listen as much as you can to what Dante and Professor Anderson are trying to convey,” as if he were some sort of deity himself.

I agree with Prof. Anderson in his blackboard comments, where he talks about how this poem is about freedom and part of Dante’s purpose here was to inspire us to exercise our free wills. I grew up in a Christianity where I was taught about Satan and the force of evil in our lives. Sin was always talked about in terms of temptation, and succumbing to temptation. The very nature of human nature, and the strength and persuasion and craftiness of the devil were always referenced as contributing factors to sin. It’s interesting to think about how even though you were strongly encouraged to take personal responsibility for sins so that you could repent and be forgiven, there was always some other factor that watered this down. Dante, on the other hand, is saying that it’s all you. Your sins are your choices. Dante’s devil is not around every corner, trying to tempt you from leading the good life. It is your own human failing, your own action of turning your eyes from what is good that is to blame. But, just as you decide what to fill your life with, so too you have the power to choose Christ and choose where you will be eternally. In this I think Dante is being a little progressive and forward. We are not timid creatures, tossed about by the gods and the demons, the forces of nature and good and evil, with absolutely no power or say in our lives. We are strong, intelligent, free-willed individuals, made in the image of God, with the freedom and ability to choose him or not. We are awesome! The characters we encounter in the Inferno have taken that free will and ran with it, in the opposite direction of God, and so they’re burning, gnawing each other’s necks, freezing, running around, being pursued and hacked apart and clawed by demons. This IS scary to us, because, in the words of Peter Parker’s Uncle Ben, “With great power comes great responsibility.” Is complete freedom, complete control of our situation, really what we want? Isn’t it easier to show up in church every Sunday morning, robotically nodding your head as you’re told what to do and what not to do, as opposed to getting out there in the real world and making up your own mind about things?

Thursday, February 1, 2007

did anyone read my first blog?

Basically I said that in our culture, no one has respect for authority. I'm feeling a lot of that right now. It hurts me as an English major to see how quick we all are to reject anything we disagree with! That's not what getting a university education is about. If you can't see past the cultural biases, what's the point of spending $300 on a class about a famous religious allegory? We had to spend a whole class period talking about this... crazy. I know a lot of people feel like their input isn't valued, or that we don't have enough time to cover all the material, but what did you expect when you signed up for a 10-week dash through the Commedia?

I just want to encourage everyone to keep trying, and please, stop and listen as much as you can to what Dante and Professor Anderson are trying to convey. This might be just a bacc core requirement, but it is still a really valuable class. Keep up your spirits, people; we're almost halfway through!