Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Inferno VII: The circle of capitalists


"Pape Satàn, pape Satàn aleppe!"

If these words ever meant anything in any language, or were otherwise intelligible to the contemporaries of Dante Alighieri, that meaning is lost. What’s left to us is the beginning of a curse, or a demonic incantation, which is quickly cut short by Dante’s guide, Virgil.

Taci, maladetto lupo! consuma dentro te con la tua rabbia.

But who is this ‘accursed wolf’ whom Virgil hopes will be ‘consumed inwardly by its own rage’? The illustration by Gustavo Dorè looks nothing like a wolf, nor like the fiera crudele – ‘cruel wild beast’ – of the only other line that mentions its appearance.


Dorè’s Plutus is a demon with human semblance. Perhaps he’s Plutus or Ploutos, the Greek and Roman god of wealth and agricultural bounty, son of Iaison and Demetra; or else he’s Pluto, the god of the underworld that bears his earlier moniker (Hades), and from which we get the sometimes planet by the same name. Or possibly both, because in medieval times the two were routinely mixed up.

Wealth and death, whether married by poetry or by historical accident, oversee the seventh canto of the Inferno. Or, more precisely, the fourth circle of Hell, because for the first time Dante breaks the symmetry of one circle per canto. The fourth and fifth are both here.

First he and Virgil encounter, on a giant ridge that encircles the whole perimeter of hell as it continues to narrow towards the bottom, the throng of the greedy and the prodigal. The poet calls them gente più ch’altrove troppa, people who, more than elsewhere, are too numerous. But too numerous for what? In excess of what? This claim would appear to break a rule of Hell alluded to in the fifth canto, whereby each circle is smaller than the one that precedes it, and is occupied by a smaller number of souls guilty of a greater crime. This violation, then, is likely a result of the poet’s own psychological judgment rather than an actual fact. There shouldn’t be so many people here, so many spirits damned by a sin so grave.

And what do they do? What is their contrappasso?

The greedy and the squanderers are two faces of the same coin (as it were), and serve two halves of the same punishment. Each is condemned to push a boulder with their chests along the arc of the ridge. When they reach the end of the half circle, they crash into the other group, who are pushing boulders in the opposite direction. As if in a fit of road rage, they exclaim to one another perché tieni? perché burli? ‘Why do you keep?’ ‘Why do you squander thus?’ Then they turn around and start pushing their boulders in the opposite direction, along another semi-circle. And so forth. The most famous illustration is, of course, Dorè’s.


But I am also reminded of the perpetual circle of Dr Seuss’ Star-on, Star-off machines in The Sneetches, overseen by the greedy Sylvester McMonkey McBean.


The greedy in this circle are all members of the clergy, as signalled by their tonsure. ‘Clerics, popes and cardinals’ in cui usa avarizia il suo soperchio – in whom avarice exercises its excess (implied: as everyone knows). And when Dante observes that he ought to be able to recognise at least some of them, Virgil explains that la sconoscente vita che i fé sozzi, ad ogne conoscenza or li fa bruni: the unknowing (ignorant) conduct that sullied them in life, darkens them to knowledge in death – ie, conceals their appearance, makes them unrecognisable. Thus we are spared a catalogue of Dante’s contemporaries which might have created the exiled poet or the courts that gave him sanctuary some political bothers. (Although he was not one to pull punches in this area as we shall see later on.)

The greedy are greedy, the meaning is pretty much unchanged. But the squanderers are marked by greed as well. Perhaps they collectively represent the mercantile/banking class that was flourishing in Florence in Dante’s lifetime, along with early forms of conspicuous consumption not by aristocrats or priests, as was customary, but regular citizens.

We are at the dawn of capitalism, and medieval Florence is one of its nerve centres, servicing as it does the Papal state with a range of financial services (lending, changing, insurance) as well as with increasingly sophisticated goods. Dante has no regard for this private enterprise and its attendant private fortunes. This deeply Christian man, this medieval man, has no ideological basis from which to regard capitalist wealth creation as a means of social or material progress. Therefore he simply sees no future in it, other than the very bleak metaphysical outcome of an eternity spent pushing boulders in Hell.


There is another circle in Hell, hosting two quite separate groups of souls, known to the chronicles as the wrathful and the sullen (for Dante rarely names the sinners or the sins using the short-hand of his commentators). Both live in the murky waters of the Styx, the mythological river which is reduced here to a shallow marsh. But the two groups are quite alien to each other. The wrathful stand outside the water, fighting incessantly and for no reason; the sullen – which we might call the clinically depressed, for whom Dante and his time had no compassion – dwell underneath the surface, weighed down by their inwardly directed anger. Their sin consists in part in a failure to act (linking them with the indifferent of Hell’s vestibule) and partly in failing to appreciate the glory of creation and the gift of life, representing the contrary vice to the hedonism of the greedy. They want to talk, lamenting how they roamed sadly ne l'aere dolce che dal sol s'allegra, in the ‘sweet air which by the sun is gladdened’ (per Longfellow), but water pushes the words back down their throats.

Enough. In this heroic poem without danger of adversaries, Dante and Virgil have come to the foot of a tower, whereby the canto ends.



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

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Inferno VI: Black rain over Florence


Io sono al terzo cerchio, de la piova
etterna, maladetta, fredda e greve;
I have come to the third circle of the rain
Eternal, cursed, and cold, and heavy


We must learn to understand the laws of punishment. The Dantean contrappasso is usually translated as talion, but it doesn’t mean ‘an eye for an eye’: it means to suffer the opposite. We saw an example in Hell’s vestibule, where the throngs of the indifferent – those who spent their lives refusing to take sides – are condemned to chase a tattered flag of indiscernible design. That is to say, to subscribe to and be eternally consumed by a meaningless cause.

So now, having come to the third circle – the circle of the gluttons – we may expect the punishment to come in the form of the withdrawal or denial of scrumptious foods that are kept just outside of reach, or for the dwellers to be consumed by a persistent and self-perpetuating hunger. But the sentence is far crueller, and requires a little explanation.

As soon as we get past Cerberus, that is.

In adapting his ancient sources (above all Virgil) and transferring the demons of Hades to the Christian Hell, Dante always degrades them. Stripped of their nobility and majesty, the likes of Charon and Minos are reduced to infernal interns, servants of a master whose design they cannot comprehend. The fearsome three-headed Cerberus of Greek and Latin mythology suffers a similar treatment, while at the same time being rendered a great deal more disquieting by the addition of human features. He has nails, not claws. Hands, not paws. Human faces, not canine muzzles, and bearded too.
Li occhi ha vermigli, la barba unta e atra,
e ’l ventre largo, e unghiate le mani;

Red eyes he has, an unctuous beard and black,
And belly large, and armed with claws his hands.

As imagined by William Blake

The monster graffia li spirti ed iscoia ed isquatra – claws at the damned, flays them and tears them apart. But the rain is a greater torment. The rain that makes them howl like dogs. The rain that lashes them incessantly, causing them to writhe and turn in order to expose one side to the unendurable pain and briefly shield the other.

I say rain, but it’s more of a thick, putrid hail. In an image straight out of a modern horror, the mass of the gluttons lies underneath it in a pool of foetid mud, face upwards, like a carpet of bodies, and it’s with horror that Dante describes walking on those shapes that look like persons. A human mud.

And all this, for the sin of gluttony?

But surely in the Middle Ages the word meant something else, something other. Not a mere carnal indulgence, nor the affectation of being a foodie. Not a sweet tooth, or an insatiable appetite, or a hyper-refined taste, but a particular form of greed that becomes truly sinful when set against the experience that so many of Dante’s contemporaries could draw upon in order to imagine the torments of Hell: hunger.

This is why gluttony is not just sin but a mortal one. In these, the centuries of the Zannis, when a bad crop could decimate entire families, the spectre of hunger, as well as its relentless persistence wherever and whenever it took hold, to not only live comfortably but to hoard food (we’ll meet the otherwise greedy in the next circle) is a crime against human dignity. And so the contrappasso is one of the most humiliating punishments in the whole of Hell.

Giovanni Stradano, 1587

It is here, among the gluttons, that the poets meets Ciacco: a wealthy man of Florence who died after Dante’s birth, and with whom Dante has a conversation about the immediate future of the city. Thus medieval Florence is transported into Hell, its social life superimposed onto that slimy tangle of bodies: the first in a series of irruptions of politics and Dante’s present in the poem. There are more interesting ones, so I’m not going to delve into the details of Ciacco’s prophecy. Suffice to say that his presence here serves also to link the city with the sin.

After the conversation, Ciacco lowers his head. Virgil explains that he won’t raise it again until the angels’ trumpets herald the arrival of the nemica podestà, the powerful one that is hostile to the damned. After the day of judgment, when the spirits have been reunited to the bodies of the dead and the final sentences have been pronounced, all of the tortures suffered in Hell will be felt more keenly, so what Dante is effectively witnessing and describing is a mere semblance or preview of the eventual, true and truly eternal Hell.

A sobering thought to take into the next canto, but not before another cliff-edge ending to remind us that Dante knew how to create expectations as well as any modern screenwriter. Thus, out of nothing:

Venimmo al punto dove si digrada:
quivi trovammo Pluto, il gran nemico.
We came unto the point where the descent is;
There we found Plutus the great enemy.






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

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

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Inferno II: Better call soul


When I first read the Divine Comedy it wouldn’t have occurred to me to compare it to a television show – TV was a bit shit in the 80s – but now it does. The first canto is the pilot episode in which we are introduced to the main characters and given a glimpse to the kind of show that the Comedy will turn into. It begins in media res, right in the middle of the action (‘Midway upon the journey of our life / I found myself within a forest dark’…), and a bunch of stuff happens involving exotic wild animals, setting us up for an equally exciting second episode. But those expectations – like in the best kind of television – are set to be confounded.

If in the first canto everything happened, in the second one nothing does. The action spans a few moments, the time necessary for Virgil and Dante to exchange a few words and for the sun to set behind the crest of the hill they are about to climb.

Or are they? Dante is not so sure anymore. His resolve has drained out of him. He doubts that he is capable and worthy of the journey made before him by the likes of Aeneas and Saint Paul. Virgil is unmoved: quit being a coward, he rebukes him. Then, to restore his courage, he tells him of the mission that was entrusted upon him (meaning Virgil) by the soul of a woman, now deceased, whom Dante loved as a younger man. The bulk of the canto takes the form of a flashback, or rather a series of nested flashbacks, as the plan to shepherd Dante out of his dark forest is formulated and transmitted through the celestial chain of command, from the Virgin Mary down to Virgil. The speech has the desired effect on Dante, who is once again ready to take his first step up the hill. We are back to where we started.

A 15th century illustration of the canto by Priamo de la Quercia
But a synopsis does not account for what words make happen in this canto. We are at the threshold between cultures: from the classic one of Virgil to the middle-age of Dante, at the height of the Catholic Church’s secular dominion over Europe; but also – like a prophecy – from that late feudal age of almost universal illiteracy into the modern one, in which an encyclopaedic poem about theology, philosophy, politics and history is accessible to the masses.

In the early 14th century, Latin was still the language of the pan-European intellectual class. It was also the language of the fathers of the church, therefore things spoken or written in Latin were automatically closer to the truth.

Dante’s decision to write the great poetic testament of European medieval culture in the vernacular, that is to say the language of the people, was both daring and visionary, for it presupposed a public that didn’t yet exist, in a country that didn’t become a country for another five and a half centuries. In so doing, not only did Dante practically invent the Italian language, but the very idea of Italy.

William Blake, 'Dante and Virgil enter the woods'
But the poem has just begun, in fact it’s almost unbeginning, retracing the steps of that boastful first canto. We’re still at the foot of the hill and the edge of the forest, and simultaneously in the present time of Dante-the-writer, as he sets down to record his adventures. After the ritual invocation to the muses, in a famous line he appeals to the mente che scrivesti ciò ch’io vidi, literally ‘the mind that wrote down the things I saw’, although back then ‘mind’ really meant ‘memory’.

It’s a dense and contradictory image, that of the poet seeking divine inspiration while at the same time claiming that his job is merely to jot down the things he remembers, in the order in which they occurred. Of course this is a narrative frame, as any of Dante’s contemporary readers, if pressed, would have acknowledged: none would be so credulous and devout to think that the poet had really travelled to the other world, on a mission from God. Yet those same readers would have also believed – as no doubt Dante himself did – that poetry was an instrument for investigating the truth. Their relationship with the text, which we can only vaguely imagine, would have been radically different from that of a modern reader. But it pays to bear that radical difference in mind, as the question of what is true in the poem and about the poem is a key to its interpretation.

The ritual invocation to the muses and the power of memory segues wonderfully into Dante’s doubts – as expressed to Virgil – that he is the guy for the job. Here Dante is simply trying to talk himself out of proceeding, like someone who disvuol ciò che volle –unwills what he willed. Had Dante succeeded, there would be no poem. So naturally Virgil has to dissuade him. "S’i’ ho ben la parola tua intesa, l’anima tua è da viltade offesa. Or, in prose: ‘If I get what you’re saying, cowardice got the better of you.’

Gustave Doré, 'I am Beatrice'

What follows is Virgil’s account of having been approached in limbo (where he dwells as someone who died before the birth of Christ) by a donna beata e bella – ‘a fair, saintly lady’ (per Longfellow): it’s Beatrice Portinari, the daughter of a Florentine banker, whom Dante loved desperately as a young man but who was married in her teens into another banking family, and who died – probably of childbirth – at the age of 24, ten years before the setting of the poem. Beatrice explains she was approached by Santa Lucia, who alerted her to the grave circumstances in which Dante found himself. Santa Lucia in turn had been sent by the Virgin Mary herself, this triple relationship symbolically reflecting three different stages of Christian grace. But Beatrice – who will play a starring role in the Paradiso, 66 cantos from now – is not merely a symbol, nor a messenger. Her eloquence is her own, as is the pity she feels for the man who once loved her, and she is not shy about asserting her own identity:
I’ son Beatrice che ti faccio andare;
vegno del loco ove tornar disio;
amor mi mosse, che mi fa parlare.

Beatrice am I, who do bid thee go;
I come from there, where I would fain return;
Love moved me, which compels me to speak.
The effect of these words on Dante borders on the erotic:
Quali fioretti dal notturno gelo
chinati e chiusi, poi che ’l sol li ’mbianca,
si drizzan tutti aperti in loro stelo,
tal mi fec’io di mia virtude stanca
More or less: ‘Like little flowers that the chill of night had forced to bow and close, once warmed by the sun open up and stand upright on their stem, so did I regain my exhausted strength.’

Dante is rearing to go now. It’s his turn to encourage Virgil: tu duca, tu segnore, tu maestro – ‘my guide, my lord, my inspiration’ – as if he had been waiting all the time to be pointed in the right direction.

Thus ends this extraordinary, circular canto, in which nothing happens and human time has no meaning. For when was Virgil summoned by Beatrice? When were those decisions made, and the message passed along, that the poet should be rescued from his deathly moral crisis? Recall how in the first canto Virgil is introduced as someone who had long been silent (che per lungo silenzio parea fioco). Perhaps, then, like this canto suspended in time, Virgil had always been there, a shadow waiting for a man of flesh and blood to get lost in the dark forest of his mind.


Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Inferno I


Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita
mi ritrovai per una selva oscura

Midway upon the journey of our life
I found myself within a forest dark

Italians study Dante the way English people study Shakespeare: reverently, and mandatorily. My father, who attended a vocational school for artisans before starting work at 14, was nonetheless taught about him, and would sometimes recite a few of those classic rote-learned facts. For instance, that the Divine Comedy is a ‘didactic allegory’.

When my turn came to attend a far more academic high school, forty years later, the study of Dante spanned three whole grades. At sixteen we studied the Inferno; at seventeen, the Purgatory; at eighteen, Paradise. Throughout the year, typically at the rate of one hour a week. It was an ambitious programme, befitting the archaic, pre-war design of our school system. When the country became a Republic, in 1946, it did not create new and more democratic schools. Instead, it opened the doors of the schools for the children of doctors and lawyers – the licei – to the children of factory workers and farmers. At least in theory. In practice, the prospect of spending three years studying a medieval didactic allegory, or five years learning Latin and/or Greek, acted as an implicit socioeconomic barrier. Households such as mine – working class, but full of books – were not in the majority.

School was, sometimes, our forest dark: an impenetrable thicket of arcane knowledge and arbitrary tasks, designed to select us and prepare us – although it wasn’t clear exactly for what.

First plate of the Comedy illustrated by Gustave Doré
Dante wrote the Divine Comedy from 1308 to 1321, while in exile from his native Florence. The action however is set in the year 1300, the year of the first Catholic Jubilee. ‘Midway upon the journey of our life’ means at the age of thirty-five, based on the conventional belief – stated by Dante in the Convivio – that placed the duration of life at seventy. (Dante was born in 1265.) The journey of Dante spans one hundred cantos but only seven days, and begins either on the 25th of March – the day of the death of Jesus on the cross – or on the 7th of April, its lunar anniversary in the year 1300. In other words, Easter Friday.

The dark forest represents moral confusion and sin, That’s the first allegory, right in the poem’s opening tercet. There are over fourteen thousand of these tercets in the poem, each comprising three lines of eleven syllables each with alternate interlocking rhymes (ABA BCB CDC and so forth). Think about that design for a moment, and the almost superhuman effort that erecting such an edifice of words might require. And then, to match the formal audacity, a subject matter to rival and surpass ancient tales of journeys into the Afterlife. For while it’s true that Aeneas and Odysseus had walked among the dead, those pantheistic religions were a great deal more accommodating of such fantasies. For a Christian poet to imagine an equivalent journey, not only through Hades but to Heaven as well, would have come dangerously close to heresy.

Placing three Popes in Hell – two of whom were not even dead yet – was pretty gutsy as well.

The first page of Aldus Manutius' 1502 edition
But I’m running ahead of myself. Dante has barely walked out of the forest and begun to climb a rather promising-looking hill that a leopard, a lion and a wolf jump out before him, forcing him to retreat. The word ‘fear’ appears five times in this opening canto, but nowhere more memorably than in the 53rd line: con la paura che uscia di sua vista, which Longfellow translates as ‘the fright that from her aspect came’. But it’s a pallid echo of Dante’s image, in which fear seems to physically radiate from the appearance of the ravenous wolf: as if to give origin to the expression ‘a frightful sight’.

It is then, just as he is about to turn back towards the forest, that Dante spots the figure of a man che per lungo silenzio parea fioco. Both of my annotated editions of the Divine Comedy interpret fioco as meaning hoarse, therefore ‘someone whose long silence had almost deprived of his voice’. That’s the word Longfellow uses in his classic nineteenth century translation, suggesting this interpretation reflects an age-old consensus.

I’m sure that the scholars are correct but frankly it has never made any sense to me. Dante at this point hasn’t heard the man speak yet. How could his voice sound hoarse ? The standard Italian meaning of fioco is dim, as in ‘a dim light’. I prefer to read the line therefore as a classic Dantean synaesthesia. After all, haven’t we just been told that in the forest ‘the sun was silent’, meaning that the place was dark? Fioco offers a perfect call-back to that image: Dante failed to see the man because he stood in motionless silence.

William Blake, The Mission of Virgil
No matter. What does matter is the identity of this man, who finally reveals himself. He was born sub iulio – at the time of Caesar – and lived in Rome in the era degli dei falsi e bugiardi, ‘of the false and lying gods’. (I get false, but how do you lie by not existing?) His parents both hailed from Lombardy. He was a poet, and sang of the just son of Anchises, that is to say Aeneas.

He could have just said ‘Hey there, I’m the ancient poet Virgil’, but that wouldn’t quite cut it, poetically speaking.

Dante is ecstatic: this is the author whom he most reveres, and to whose example he feels he owes his style and his fame. A short prophecy later (a man will come who will vanquish the beasts – though none of the commentators can quite agree on whom it might have been), Virgil explains that he will guide Dante first through Hell, then through Purgatory. Once they get to the Gates of Saint Peter’s, however, Dante will have to find another guide, for Heaven has a strict ‘no Pagans allowed’ code.

The canto ends in typical fashion, which is to say dynamically, as a springboard to the next one.

Allor si mosse, e io li tenni dietro. 
Then he moved, and I followed behind.

Gustave Doré, plate V: end of the first canto
The Divine Comedy is an extraordinary compendium of medieval European culture, and one of the high points of human civilisation. It is also a supreme joy to read, and a reason in itself for learning Italian, as indeed many people have – for instance Ann Goldstein, who went on to become the translator of Elena Ferrante and Primo Levi. I’m not sure it should be parcelled and served as homework to sixteen year olds, but then it’s hard to find a time in life to read a long medieval poem that doubles as an encyclopaedia to a lost world. Perhaps there is no good time. Which is the same thing as saying that it’s always the best possible time.


Wednesday, June 7, 2017

How to draw a tree


How to draw a tree. How to draw a person, a house, or the Sun. How to colour-in the sky. Basic skills for children, or adults for that matter, taught via a series of small books. A project very much of its era: for while it’s quite possible to imagine similar books being produced now, the approach to teaching creativity within rules – the classical alongside the modern – is something I recognise from the pedagogical fashions of my childhood.


How to draw a tree was the star of the show, and is still in print, also in English. It isn’t so much an instructional book as the story of how trees are drawn by nature. The inspiration is this drawing by Leonardo Da Vinci, on the proportional growth of tree branches (from his Treatise on Painting).


Leonardo’s theory held that ‘all the branches of a tree at every stage of its height when put together are equal in thickness to the trunk’. The book’s author – my beloved Bruno Munari – uses this idea for a collage exercise towards the end of How to draw a tree, but translates otherwise the drawing as the following recipe/mantra repeated throughout the text, in big print and small print, upside and sidewise and down:
Every branch is thinner than the branch that precedes it.
That is the moral of the story of how to draw a tree.

I’ll get back to the book. But for the purposes of this post I revisited the others in the series, almost three decades on from when I first encountered them. And found them inferior to that first title. How to draw a house (by Roberto Lanterio) is just a catalogue of the different shapes that dwellings take in different cultures. You won’t know how to draw them any better than before you picked up the book. How to draw a person (by Rinaldo Donzelli) is similarly lacking in invention. How much better it might have been had it borrowed Munari’s own approach – from an essay in his seminal collection L’arte come mestiere – to drawing faces out of found design elements and shapes. Fellow children of the Lego generation could really have done something with this.


However I do recall being struck by the book’s central fold-out pages, which vividly illustrate how real-life faces aren’t symmetrical, and also that they are more interesting that way.

Not this

Nor this

But this

I never owned a copy of How to draw the sun, but from what I can gather from the internet it contained another of Munari’s old ideas– namely that ‘the sunset is just a dawn seen from behind’ – and also employed another favourite technique of his, which consist in highlighting a visual element by concealing it behind something else, or pointing to its absence.


Munari’s stated intent in writing or overseeing these books was to help readers avoid the clichés typical of childhood drawings. Trees, people, houses, skies, the Sun: for each of these basic elements of our early art there is a stereotype we can immediately picture in our heads, and easily repeat even as adults. Munari’s method is to strip down these socially acquired conventions, and teach how to look at the world as artists – that is to say, to capture the essence of a subject, its visual signature, so as to be able to reproduce it on the page.

Back to the trees, then, whose job is to grow and branch out.


Every branch is thinner than the branch that precedes it, and this is almost all you need to know.


The growth of our basic tree is shaped and constrained by its environment. For instance, by the wind.


And naturally different kinds of trees branch out in their own peculiar ways.


By observing an oak leaf, we discover that their veining reproduces the pattern of how a tree grows. Take out the outline of the leaf, and we are back to drawing trees.


Some adults, ponders Munari, will resist these teachings. They will say ‘I can’t draw’. But of course you, can, he taunts them. You can draw the letters of the alphabet, for one thing. You can draw them big and small, uppercase and lowercase, in wavy lines or at right angles, can’t you. Yes, yes, yes. Well then, he continues, if you can draw a capital Y you can draw a tree. There are no excuses.


How to draw a tree is less a practical lesson than an extended meditation, the story of how (and why) one might draw a tree. Above all, it presumes of young children and primary school teachers a willingness to engage in philosophical enquiry. For that fact alone it deserves to be reprinted and read and kept around, at least for as long as there are still people and trees.



Bruno Munari, Disegnare un albero. Bologna: Zanichelli, 1978. (Available in English as Drawing a Tree.)

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Very little Britain


Imagine a distant future in which all that is left of British culture is a copy of The Daily Mail from 19 April 2014. Or, if you prefer, imagine yourself a traveller to Britain who comes to the country armed only with the aforementioned newspaper as a guide. By a fortuitous coincidence, I happen to own a copy of the very issue in question.


What kind of object is this? At over a hundred pages thickly covered in small type, it packs a great deal of reading material. If one were to approach it with the mindset of a future archaeologist, enough to make several inferences about the customs, habits and culture of these by-now ancient people.

Ruled by a benevolent Princess with a keen interest in footwear, the Britons were a tightly knit people who loved in a series of villages with names like Cheltenham, Richmond and Teddington, and who appeared to care very deeply for each other's business. Intensely tribal and distrustful of foreigners, the Britons kept mostly to themselves, save for sharing in the occasional amusing, quirky story from faraway lands. But their prevailing sentiment was a generic, all-purpose fearfulness, mixed with concern that they might be getting a bad deal from health authorities or the local supermarket.

18 April 2014 was a slow-news day, at least as measured by the contents of the Daily Mail that came out the next day. The issue is decidedly ho-hum, at least by the publication’s renowned standards. ‘Swarming migrants’ barely rate a mention, and its most lurid tales concern dead celebrities as opposed to active politicians. But it’s a more instructive read that way, without the distraction of overtly fascistic performances. It’s easier to focus on what the bulk of the newspaper is really about, and how it goes about constructing its reader/subject.

Firstly, my Daily Mail has no clear logic or structure. Outside of the business section and the sports section, it consists of a stream of news items in no particular order of salience or gravitas, jumping cheerfully from a mailman being chased by an exotic bird to a child of 7 being set fire to in the street.


The tragicomic style often extends to within the news items themselves. The front-page story about the Duchess of Cambridge walking on a beach in Sydney on wedge heels, for instance, goes from informing us that
the camel-coloured shoes have a braided leather strap at the ankle and a cork platform wedge which does, admittedly, give the wearer slightly more stability than a stiletto of the same height
to an account of William and Kate’s fighting back tears after chatting with the parents of a nine month old boy about to die of meningitis.

In a similar vein, several of the articles contradict their own claims. Take this startling piece on a possible sighting of the Loch Ness Monster via an image from Google Maps.


‘For six months,’ begins the piece, full of the vigour and optimism of youth, ‘the image has been studied by experts at the Official Loch Ness Monster Fan Club.’ Then, inevitably, a few paragraphs in: ‘Despite the club’s claim, however, another explanation for the shape seen in the image could simply be underwater currents in the loch.’

There is no hierarchy or news, nor a precise sense of what the rules for establishing facts are. What prevails above all is the emotional texture of the stories, at least one of which appears to be sourced from existential dread itself:
Hundreds of young Britons are being lured to join fighting in Syria by the ‘glamorous’ image painted in videos online, it is feared. (The emphasis is mine.)
The general effect is that of a newspaper written for squirrels, or other similarly nervous woodland creatures: always leaping from page to page, always on guard, never sure if the next turn will bring comfort or danger. One moment you read about the crisis in Crimea (‘It’s time to grab Putin by the roubles’, declares an editorial), the next you are warned alliteratively about a salmonella scare in bags of sultanas sold at Sainsbury. No sooner you have digested the tale of the teenage nephew of a British Guantanamo inmate shot dead fighting jihad in Syria, that you learn that a bottle of wine a day ‘is not bad for you’ according to ‘leading scientists’.

A topical advertisement.
It seems that on 19 April 2014 the Daily Mail gave immigrants a break so it could concentrate on bashing the NHS, with no fewer than three stories sounding the alarm on its culture and practices, and an editorial calling for an urgent debate ‘on whether a monolithic and increasingly uncompassionate system, run entirely by the State, is the most efficient means of delivering this country’s ever more complex healthcare needs.’ But leaving the conservative politics to one side, the NHS stories also fit within the newspaper’s borderline obsessive focus on consumer affairs. From the public health service to the bags of sultanas that could give you the shits; through dubious practices at British Gas, bank and insurance terms and conditions ‘longer than Macbeth’, the world’s airport attendants rifling through 22 millions items of luggage every day, and a council in Wales that plans to introduce a three-weekly bin collection, the Daily Mail reader is kept in a perpetual state of anxious vigilance over the workings of all service providers, public or private.

Then there are, of course, the always instructive stories about the petty legal troubles of the have-nots, which feed directly into that running sense of grievance. There is the ‘benefit cheat’ mother of six who was spared jail and is now escaping community service because she ‘claims to be too sick to do it’ (never mind that a court accepted evidence as to her state of health), and the woman who faked her own death to get out of a £39 fraud charge, to which the paper is willing to extend the courtesy of blurring the face of her child.


From there we move to the issue of CCTV cameras being installed on private properties but used to spy on others, leading to what is quite possibly the least self-aware headline in Daily Mail history.


I could go on. And I will. Did you know that  when1 in 5 Britons find a snail in the garden, they throw it over the fence? Or that scientists claim to have found aphrodisiac properties in a Himalayan plant (the ‘super tea that boosts your love life’)? Or that soup spoons sales have plummeted, signalling the end of proper table manners? And if you wonder where Amanda Platell is, well,


The Daily Mail paints a picture of life not in a modern, confident, outward-looking nation, but in a vast, bloated village. Its readers aren’t citizens. They’re not consumers, either. They resemble rather a roving neighbourhood watch, armed with a very long list of things and people which fit the definition of suspicious. I should say something about the advertising, too, which suggests that the readers of the Daily Mail are quite old, as evidenced by full pages devoted to chairlifts, riser recliners, walk-in baths, or a circulation booster called Happy Legs. But I take no comfort in this: the thing about old people is that they always get replaced, and besides the problem aren’t old people but old ideas.

What the Daily Mail presents us with, even or perhaps most especially on a slow-news day, is the concrete expression of an ideology. Occasionally, some of the tenets of this ideology are blurted out explicitly (for instance: ‘It’s families that create self-reliant, aspirational, decent citizens – not politicians.’) But mostly it is articulated in the form of stories that reflect a world view, and contribute to viewing the world in a very particular light. As an intellectual project, it is remarkably coherent and consistent. It is also very powerful, in that it emerges from a collection of facts, or things that look like facts. Sometimes you feel like you can almost make out an overall shape. But then you realise it’s only a shadow, or the underwater currents the loch.


Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Tale of a haunting: Jeff Sparrow’s search for Paul Robeson


As is the case with so many public figures, the internet offers no shortage of information on the life of Paul Robeson. Exhaustive and painstakingly annotated biographical wikis, in-depth artistic and political examinations and then – via YouTube and Google’s peculiar ability to skirt modern copyright law – tens of hours of primary and secondary material: not just in the form of samples of the man’s art, or full-length documentaries on his life, but also of his public interventions, including his testimony of May 1948 in front of the US Senate against the passing of the anti-communist Mundt-Nixon Bill, and – even more notably – the audio of his June 1956 hearing in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee. All of these documents are remarkable and interesting, just as their availability to anyone with a basic internet connection is an undoubted public good. Yet relevance and meaning don’t arise out of a mass of records. They require a thread, a purpose and a direction. A way to orient ourselves out of the maze that is the story of anyone’s life – let alone a life as large as Paul Robeson’s.


Jeff Sparrow’s No Way But This: In Search of Paul Robeson is an attempt to offer one such thread, out of the many possible ones. To the extent that it is a biography, it proceeds along a double, parallel track, recounting Robeson’s life at the same time as Sparrow’s own encounters with people who either remembered him or – more frequently – helped the author understand the historical and social circumstances in which he lived. While Sparrow’s admiration for his subject is palpable (and amply justified), the book is never triumphalist or hagiographic – or, worse still, nostalgic – nor are the central claims concerning the relevance of Robeson’s political thought uncomplicated. The book reads rather like the story of a haunting. What is it that moved a white Australian writer to travel the world in search of the ghost of a black American artist? And what did he learn?

Any mention of Paul Robeson, including in a book review, must be dutifully accompanied by a potted list of his achievements: that he was a star athlete in college football and a champion orator; that he graduated with a law degree from Columbia only to become one of the most popular recording artists of his generation, then a film and theatre actor whose credits include revolutionising the role of Shakespeare’s Othello; that he was a polyglot and a self-taught scholar of folk music among other subjects; that he was a champion of civil rights, of socialism, of the struggle against international fascism. That he achieved all of this in spite of being born in dire poverty, and of the horrific levels of racial discrimination that accompanied him even at the height of his fame; and finally that these odds were made even more insurmountable by the political persecution he suffered during the McCarthy era, culminating in calls for his internment, a de facto ban on his ability to perform and earn a living, and the refusal by authorities to issue him with a passport, making him a prisoner of his own country for nearly a decade.

This is Sparrow’s subject: larger than life, barely contained by history. The events that propel him back into our field of vision have to do most immediately with the rise of Trump and a new wave of explicitly racist and supremacist political projects (besides those that never went away), which in turn pose a renewed set of questions on the availability of radical alternatives, and on the political role of art and artists. The echoes are eerie, such as when Robeson was asked to account for his political sympathies in front of Francis H. Walter – the Democratic congressman who drafted the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952 allowing the US to ban immigrants on the grounds of their political affiliation, to the eventual inclusion of many prominent intellectuals. On this occasion, Robeson refused on principle to deny belonging to the Communist Party, of which he wasn’t in fact a member, and delivered a thunderous response to the question of why he would not seek asylum in the Soviet Union, since he thought so very highly of it:
Because my father was a slave, and my people died to build this country, and I am going to stay here, and have a part of it just like you. And no fascist-minded people will drive me from it. Is that clear?
As this episode exemplifies, Robeson’s story is one of unwavering commitment, a taking of sides that led him to lose his freedom, his fortune and very nearly his life. Yet its lessons aren’t completely straightforward, as the strategic decision by many socialists not to disavow Stalinism – argues Sparrow – produced precisely the outcome that Robeson had sought to prevent: the ‘erosion of the American Left’s moral authority and influence’. This arc mirrors the decline in Robeson’s health – both mental and physical – which resulted in his ultimate withdrawal from public life after one final period abroad, including a tour to Australia and New Zealand; as well as the transition into a new phase in the struggle for civil rights in the United States, to which Robeson was more a witness than a protagonist. But this ending, while sad, was by no means a defeat.

No Way But This grapples with Robeson’s contradictions as well as with the enduring, fierce urgency of his message: that call he made time and again for working people of all races to be allowed to live an ‘abundant and dignified life’. The solidarity that Robeson found outside of the United States – among the miners of Wales and Scotland, or the Republican fighters of Spain, and everywhere he travelled thereafter – forged his mature political consciousness, expanding the worldview of that ‘son of a slave’ born during the Jim Crow era to encompass a vision of global emancipation. Told sensitively and often movingly by a writer awake to the nuances of the political and social contexts in which Robeson moved, it is a story that reverberates today, full of tragedy but also exhilaration and promise. It is the story we need to hear.


This review was first published at Overland.

No way but this: in search of Paul Robeson is published through Scribe Publishing.



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