Posts Tagged ‘Dante’

Gogol’s “Dead Souls”: a comic inferno

A preamble
I first read Dead Souls when, as a teenager, I developed a mania for 19th century Russian literature, and determined to read everything I could lay my hands on. The version I read then was the work of an anonymous translator, and probably one of the many versions that had been so mercilessly attacked by Nabokov as “worthless”. Nabokov did, however, praise the translation by Bernard Guilbert Guerney, a revised version of which is still available. Since Nabokov’s critique, a good many well-received translations have appeared. I re-read Dead Souls a few years ago in the highly rated modern translation by Robert Maguire published by Penguin Classics. This third and latest reading was in response to a mini-group-read organized by Richard, who blogs in Caravana de Recuerdos, and by Scott, who blogs in Six Words for a Hat. I have, till now, deliberately avoided reading their posts on Dead Souls until I had put my own reactions down on paper – or, at least, on computer screen. I’ll remedy that once I have posted this.

The translation I read this time round was the older version published by Penguin Classics, by David Magarshack. All quoted passages in this post are taken from this translation.


Anyone familiar with 19th century literature will know the landscape. An unutterably dreary, drab little town, somewhere in the provinces, miles from anywhere, riddled with filth and poverty and decay and corruption, and stinking of moral stagnation and decay. It is the place from which any person of sensitivity longs to escape – like Chekhov’s Three Sisters; those who don’t, like Chekhov’s Ionych, become embroiled in the corruption; or, like Dr Ragin in Chekhov’s “Ward 6”, become victims of it. It is this town that forms the grey setting of Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, and it is this town we see collapsing into psychopathic violence and an almost apocalyptic disorder in Dostoyevsky’s Demons; and it is this town also that is revealed in Tolstoy’s Resurrection as containing behind its shallow façades of faux-respectability the most unutterable institutionalised cruelties. Meanwhile in Saltykov-Schedrin’s The Golovlyov Family, this town seems to stand for Hell itself, from which no-one can ultimately escape. This town is as much a landscape of the mind as it is a real landscape, and it looms large in Russian literature.

The earliest appearance of this town, as far as my admittedly limited reading allows me to judge, is in Gogol’s play The Government Inspector. And it reappears in the novel Dead Souls. In the play, an ordinary man, at a loose end and unable to pay his hotel bill, is mistaken by the corrupt town officials for an inspector, and is larded with all sorts of bribes; by the time the truth is realised, he is away with his gains. And even as we’re laughing, the mayor of the town breaks the invisible fourth wall of the stage to tell us directly, the audience, that we are laughing at ourselves: we all inhabit this Town of the Mind. In Dead Souls, which Gogol referred to as a “poem” rather than as a novel, we once again have a visitor from outside, who causes consternation. But it is not the outsider, Chichikov, who seems at first to be the centre of the reader’s attention: it is the rather eccentric narrator. Chichikov is described, and yet not described, so that we, the reader, get no mental picture of him:

The gentleman in the carriage is neither too fat, nor too thin; he cannot be said to be old, but he was not too young either.

And having given us this piece of non-description, the narrator veers off for no apparent reason to tell us about two peasants speaking about Chichikov’s carriage. What they say is not quite nonsensical, but it doesn’t really seem to make much sense either:

“Lord,” said one of them to the other, “what a wheel! What do you say? Would a wheel like that, if put to it, ever get to Moscow or wouldn’t it?” “It would all right,” replied the other. “But it wouldn’t get to Kazan, would it?” “No, it wouldn’t get to Kazan,”” replied the other. That was the end of the conversation.

The narrator is in no rush to move things along. We are given a leisurely account, seemingly overloaded with utterly irrelevant detail, of the filthy inn, and of the people working there; and then, of the town itself. The details the narrator fixes upon tend towards the eccentric, or even the downright bizarre; much of what he says seems like non-sequiturs. And when the narrator uses a simile or a metaphor, the image takes on a life of its own, quite overwhelming that which it purports to describe:

As he entered the ballroom, Chichikov had for a moment to screw up his eyes, dazzled by the blaze of candles, the lamps, the ladies’ gowns. Everything was flooded in light. Black frock-coats glided and flitted about singly or in swarms here and there like so many flies on a sparkling white sugar-loaf on a hot July day when the old housekeeper chops or breaks it up into glittering lumps in front of an open window, the children gather and look on, watching with interest the movements of her rough hands raising and lowering the hammer, while the aerial squadrons of flies, borne on the light breeze, fly in boldly, just as if they owned the place and, taking advantage of the old woman’s feeble eyesight and the sunshine that dazzles her eyes, cover the dainty lumps in small groups or in swarms.

Whew! But we aren’t finished yet:

Already satiated by the abundant summer, which sets up dainty dishes for them on every step, they fly in…

And so on for another few hundred words, the reality this image has been set up to elucidate by now more or less forgotten. It is fair to say, I think, that I have never come across a narrative voice quite like this one. Dickens too loved eccentricity, and one often wonders about the sanity of some of his characters; but here, one is left wondering about the sanity of the narrator himself.

In the second chapter, Chichikov sets off to visit local landowners. The landowners and their estates are all described by that same affable but seemingly demented narrative voice. And what that voice tells us is just as bizarre as the voice itself. These elements of the bizarre are dropped in as if they were perfectly reasonable and everyday. For instance, Chichikov, having lost his way on a stormy night, and his carriage having overturned, is put up by elderly widow, who sees to his comfort:

“Take the gentleman’s coat and underwear and dry them first in front of the fire as you used to for your late master, and afterwards have them well brushed and beaten.”

“Yes, ma’am,” said Fetinya, spreading a sheet over the featherbed and laying down the pillows.

“Well, here’s your bed all ready for you, sir,” said the old lady. “Good night, sir, sleep well. Are you sure you don’t want anything else? Perhaps you’re used to having your heels tickled for the night. My late husband could not get to sleep without it.”

As the novel progresses, an extraordinarily vivid cast of characters appears – each bizarre and eccentric beyond the bounds of sanity. There’s the impossibly effusive Manilov; the bear-like, deliberate, and somewhat madly methodical Sobakevich; the disgustingly filthy and threadbare Plyushkov, surely the most grotesque and repulsive of all literary misers; and Nozdryov, the colourful braggart, bully and compulsive liar – except, of course, no-one outside a Gogol novel could lie with quite such uninhibited flamboyance and gusto. Chichikov visits these landlords to buy from them, at as cheap a price as he can, serfs (or, not to put too fine a gloss on it, slaves, which is what they were) – serfs who are dead, the “dead souls” of the title, but who are still listed from the last official census as being alive, and for whom, consequently, the landowner is continuing to pay taxes. When Chichikov’s curious business activities are known, the town is in turmoil. All sorts of strange stories start up, and are believed: it becomes common knowledge, for instance, that Chichikov had been planning to elope with the Governor’s daughter (shameless hussy that she is!) A meeting of worthies discuss who Chichikov may be. The postmaster knows: Chichikov is none other than Captain Kopeikin! And who is this Captain Kopeikin? The postmaster launches on a long story – fully reproduced, in all its Gogolian bizarreness – of a Captain Kopeikin who had lost an arm and a leg in the 1812 campaign. Only after the story has progressed through several pages does someone think of mentioning that Chichikov has both arms and both legs. The postmaster admits that he was wrong, and sits down; Kopeikin is not mentioned again. Why the postmaster had thought Kopeikin was Chichikov in the first place is not explained.

The pace of the narration is slow – for modern readers, perhaps, too slow for a comedy: but it is in the narrator’s eccentric voice that so much of the comedy resides – a voice apparently gentle and friendly and even reasonable, and yet, we suspect, utterly insane. And for that voice to establish itself, a slowness of pace is required. The narrative, such as it is, unfolds at a leisurely pace, and that leisurely pace may perhaps suggest a certain gentleness: but the sheer bizarre nature of the content, full of mad non-sequiturs and irrelevant and often grotesque details, belies any sense of the gentle. Gogol had seemingly intended this narrative to be the first part of a trilogy that was to reflect Dante’s vision of Inferno, Purgatory and Paradise: what we see here is no less than Gogol’s vision of Inferno itself. The Dead Souls of the title are not merely the dead peasants.

It is hard to imagine how these Dead Souls presented here could be redeemed, as Gogol had intended: it is hard to imagine what Gogol’s Purgatorio and Paradiso may have been like. Gogol never completed his grandiose project. Towards the end of his life (he died when still in his early 40s), he became dangerously insane, developed a sort of religious mania, and seemingly starved himself to death. And, during these last terrible days, he burnt what he had written of the second part of Dead Souls. (There exists a quite horrific painting by Ilya Repin of Gogol burning the manuscript.) Some fragments of this second part have, however, survived, and all modern English editions dutifully include these chapters, but I find them distressingly banal and uninspired. Gogol may have aspired towards redemption, but it seems to me unlikely that his imagination could conceive of anything but the hellish. The rather hellish last days of Gogol’s own life are perhaps not surprising.

What we get in this novel – or this “poem”, as Gogol insisted it to be – is a vision of Hell itself. But things are never simple with Gogol. From our viewpoint, we may think this to be the Hell of a slave-owning society; and yet, Gogol was firmly in favour of serfdom (slavery by another name), and opposed strongly liberal campaigns for emancipation. It is hard, at least for me, to imagine what really went on in that very strange mind of his. I generally try to heed the well-worn advice of “trust the book, not the writer”, but it becomes difficult here to try to put out of mind details of Gogol’s own life and opinions.

In this third reading, the sense of an Inferno seemed more apparent than had previously been the case. It’s a comic Inferno, certainly, but comedy and seriousness are by no means mutually incompatible. Somehow, the comedy renders this Inferno all the more disturbing: as with the farting devils of Dante, the comedy, if anything, intensifies the horror. Here is world that is utterly grotesque, but presented with such vividness and, despite its slow pace, animated with such vitality, that the effect it had on Russian literary culture, and, one suspects, on the Russian mind itself, is tremendous, and can hardly be over-estimated. That drab Gogolian town became for succeeding writers – for Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy and Chekhov, for Saltykov-Schedrin – the very image of Hell itself. I know of nothing quite like this outside Russian literature: in no other literature that I know of has a physical location become so firmly entrenched as also a moral and psychological landscape. But Gogol could not transcend this landscape, much though he longed to, any more than could the characters of Saltykov-Schedrin’s utterly bleak and desolate novel The Golovlyov Family. This is a Hell in which we still remain trapped.

Initial impressions of Dante’s “Inferno”

It is presumptuous to set out to “review” something such as Dante’s Inferno. Even at best, what one reviews is not so much the poem itself, but one’s reactions to the poem. Entire  books can be written – indeed, have been written – about how this poem, or the larger poem of which this is but the first part, has echoed through the arts and literatures of the Western world through the centuries; it is so permanent a fixture in the culture of the Western world that anything other than scholarly exegesis appears pointless. For what can I, a mere novice to this work, encountering it for the first time (and in translation at that) in my 50s, say anything at all that could possibly be of interest to anyone else?

But that is one of the beauties of the internet: one may make the most vapid and thoughtless statements about the most intricate and complex of works, and it can count as a “review”. During my first forays into the cyberworld all those years ago, it used, I remember, to irritate me to read that Hamlet was not too bad once you sort of got into it, or that Anna Karenina had boring patches that really sucked, or that it was really kind of hard to get into Great Expectations, or identify with any of the characters in Madame Bovary, and so on. Nowadays, such comments tend to amuse me, although I still wonder why people who appear to have so little understanding of what literature is should feel the need to pass judgement on public fora on matters that clearly go far above their heads, and be so utterly lacking in humility as to imagine themselves capable of seeing through works that generations of the finest minds have revered to the point of idolatry.

But now, it seems, I am about to join their ranks: I am about to write what passes on the net as a “review” of a work that, frankly, went over my head, but which has been intensely admired across generations and across cultures by the most refined of tastes and by the most acute of intellects. So yes, Dante’s Inferno really was kind of hard to get into, the boring patches really did suck, it was hard to identify with any of the characters, but, for all that, once you did get into it, it really wasn’t too bad. And if that reads like a poor attempt at satire (which it is), it’s only fair to warn the reader beforehand that what follows is unlikely to be much better. But I did set up this blog to record my thoughts on my reading, and so I might as well get down to it.

The first issue I had to grapple with was how I should take this. Taking it literally was, of course, quite out of the question: indeed, Dante himself used the word “allegory” to describe this poem, although I am not sufficiently knowledgeable about early 14th century Italian culture to know what Dante may have meant by the word. But that still leaves open the question: as a reader in the early 21st century, if I cannot take this work literally, how should I take it? If it is indeed an allegory, what is it an allegory of?

The question remained an open one in the early cantos, in which one is carried along by the sheer vividness of the images: that fearful forest in which the poet is lost half-way through the path of life; the wolf and the lion, and the leopard that allures even as it terrifies; these are all, even at first reading, striking, to say the least. And, famously, the pagan poet Virgil is Dante’s guide. As with every other aspect of this poem, this has been endlessly discussed, but one reason for making Virgil his guide is surely to acknowledge Virgil’s influence. As in Milton’s poetry, the imaginative world of this poem seems at least classical as it is Christian: the Styx, Charon, the Gorgons – all these figures from classical mythology reappear, and the Sixth Book of Virgil’s Aeneid, with its depiction of a journey into the pagan Underworld, never seems too far away.

But somehow, the world medieval Christianity seems more distant to us now than does the classical world. What are we nowadays to make of all these people – many of them real people – assigned by a Christian God to everlasting torment? I think I got a semblance of an answer to this in the famous fifth canto, in which the adulterous Francesca and her lover Paolo, clasped tightly together, whirl aimlessly in the winds. Dante’s reactions are sympathetic: he records that he swoons after hearing Francesca’s story. There is certainly no indication that he approves of the divine punishment meted out to the guilty lovers: and yet, here they are in Hell: no matter how sympathetic Dante may be, God presumably isn’t.

But this does not seem to me so much a critique, nor even a vindication, of God’s judgement: that’s more Milton’s theme than Dante’s. For Francesca’s fate brought to mind another literary adulteress – Emma Bovary: I remembered particularly that scene where she, clasped close in sexual embrace to her lover Léon in a carriage with the blinds drawn down, whirl aimlessly for hour after hour through the streets of Rouen.  And it seemed to me that Dante was depicting in his allegorical manner what Flaubert depicted a few centuries afterwards – the Hell we make for ourselves by our own actions. Sometimes, the Hell we make is made by evil deeds; at other times, as with Francesca da Rimini, or, indeed, with Emma Bovary, the Hell is created by foolishness, by failure to understand things rightly. Some other times, as with Anna Karenina, Hell is created because these people, being who they are, could not do otherwise.

This, I am sure, is far from the only way to read the Inferno. It may not even be the most rewarding way to read it, as it no doubt obscures other equally important approaches. But, at my first reading, it worked for me. Only by relating this poem to literature with which I was already familiar could I make some sense out of it. The sins that have brought these people into this Hell are, to a lesser or greater extent, a betrayal of their potential as humans: Francesca, for instance, did not understand the meaning of love. She speaks the word “amor” often – “amor”, love, has brought her, she says, to this, but, like Flaubert’s Emma, she has but a faint understanding of what the word means. And even out of this is Hell created.

We later meet with characters who have committed deeds far more heinous, but at each instance, they either misunderstood or ignored or pretended not to know the diverse potentials of humanity. I was even reminded at times of Ibsen’s late masterpiece John Gabriel Borkman, in which Ella Rentheim accuses Borkman of that one crime for which, she says, there can be no forgiveness – the killing of love in another person. In their different ways, the inmates of Dante’s Inferno have all killed love – even Francesca, who insists that it was love that had brought her here.

We meet with all sorts of evil here. Shakespeare’s Macbeth had been happy to “skip the life to come”: he had been concerned only with “here, but here, upon this bank and shoal of time”. Lady Macbeth too had been concerned with “here, but here”: she had desired so complete a darkness to descend upon the earth that even her knife should not see the wound it makes. But by the time the play ends, they are both in Hell: existence for Macbeth is a meaningless tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow, this bank and shoal of time no more than a futile eternity, with each day undifferentiated from the day that had preceded it, or the day that will follow; and Lady Macbeth, who had called upon darkness to envelop the world, has to have a light always about her, for her Hell, as she knows, is “murky”. To experience this play is not to take satisfaction of two wicked characters getting their come-uppance: rather, it is to share in the overwhelming horror of the Hell these humans have made. And it is this same sense of overwhelming horror one finds in the Inferno in its most sombre passages. It is the Hell we create when we fail to understand what we, as humans, may be.

Reading over that last paragraph, that final sentence strikes me as too schematic a summary of a work of great complexity. However, complexity cannot be grasped in its entirety – at least, not at first reading; so simplification, sadly, is inevitable. But how can such simplification account for those many passages of crude, knockabout humour and comic-strip horrors that are also apparent here? I wish I knew. For Dante’s Inferno isn’t always sombre, and if some parts make us laugh, it may be reasonable to infer that Dante intended us to laugh.

But if the Hell we make for ourselves is the Hell that comes about when we betray our human potential, then how do we account for the famous Canto of Ulysses? In Canto 26, we meet the great hero of Homer’s Odyssey, and who is also, suitably transformed, the hero of Joyce’s Ulysses. But unlike the other classical figures, he is not in Limbo: he is in Hell. Why? His lines are some of the most magnificent in all literature, and, in a famous chapter in If This is a Man, Primo Levi’s account of his experiences in Auschwitz, Levi relates how, even in the midst of the very real Hell which he had inhabited, these lines had suddenly seemed to him the most important thing in the world:

  “O frati”, dissi “che per cento milia
perigli siete giunti a l’occidente,
a questa tanto picciola vigilia

d’i nostri sensi ch’è del rimanente
non vogliate negar l’esperïenza,
di retro al sol, del mondo sanza gente.

Considerate la vostra semenza:
fatti non foste a viver come bruti,
ma per seguir virtute e canoscenza”.

   “Brothers”, I said, “a hundred thousand
perils have you passed and reached the Occident.
for us, so little time remains to keep

   the vigils of our living sense. Do not
deny your will to win experience,
behind the sun, of worlds where no man dwells.

   hold clear in your thought your seed and origin.
You were not made  to live as mindless brutes,
but go in search of virtue and true knowledge.”

(Translated by Robin Kirkpatrick)

This is the voice of the questing Faust, of Prometheus. It is not hard to see why a passage such as this should have made so great an impact on the Romantics. Here is the origin of one of Tennyson’s most splendid poems, but Tennyson’s view of Ulysses was unambiguously admiring: Dante’s isn’t. His Ulysses, after all, is in Hell.

It is not, I think, that Dante does not see the glory or the heroism of Ulysses’ striving:  were that the case, he couldn’t have given Ulysses lines so magnificent and so heroic. But Dante also knows that Ulysses, in his heroic striving, has broken bonds that should be precious:

né dolcezza di figlio, né la pieta
del vecchio padre, né ‘l debito amore
lo qual dovea Penelopè far lieta,

vincer potero dentro a me l’ardore…

   … no tenderness for son, no duty owed
To ageing fatherhood, no love that should
Have brought my wife Penelope delight, 

   Could overcome in me my long desire… 

(Translated by Robin Kirkpatrick)

This image of the man who sacrifices all for his striving towards an ideal is also familiar to us: he may be heroic, as is Ibsen’s Brand, or Dr Stockmann in An Enemy of the People; but he is also dangerous. By the time this figure appears in The Wild Duck, he is Gregers Werle, a fanatic, a man who is, perhaps, mentally unstable. And all these aspects are in Dante’s Ulysses: the striving is heroic, magnificent, but, as Ibsen was to know, even that can create its own Hell.

In the final canto, Dante and Virgil come face to face with the Devil himself. But this is not, I think, the climactic section of the poem. The Devil here is not like Milton’s Satan: there is nothing about this figure that intrigues of fascinates. Later generations could speak of Milton being on the Devil’s side without knowing it, but such a comment could not be made about Dante. To Dante, evil is unremarkable – mere brute, lumpen stupidity, lacking in any feature that may, even superficially, be considered attractive. The climactic point of Inferno had, I think, come in the previous canto, with its grotesque picture of Count Ugolino and Archbishop Ruggieri in the frozen lake, the former gnawing for all eternity into the latter’s brain. Such an image may be so grotesque as to appear comic, but it there isn’t a trace here even of black comedy, any more than there is of fascination. For Dante, evil wasn’t fascinating: it was merely nauseating, disgusting, a perversion of all that humans are capable of  being.


Given my very limited acquaintance with a work one could spend one’s entire life studying, I really don’t know that I can give anything more than a record of some initial impressions. Having come to this work relatively late in life, I doubt I’ll ever get to know it as well as I should. Certainly, there was much at this first reading that I found puzzling, that went way over my head. But one has to live with that: one can’t give everything the attention they deserve. In the meantime I think I’ll give Dante a bit of a rest before moving on to the Purgatorio. No doubt, there will be much there also that will go over my head, but perhaps a little learning need not be so a dangerous thing when one is aware of how little that learning is!

Literature and religion

Well, it had to be done. I have, this week, started to read Dante. Not in the original, of course – I am a very poor linguist – but in Robin Kirkpatrick’s translations, which come with detailed introductions and copious commentaries and notes, invaluable for someone like myself, shamefully ignorant as I am both of the historical and the cultural context of the Commedia. And it is a dual language edition, so I can, at least from time to time, glance across to the Italian text to get at least a feel of what the original sounds like. 

So why Dante? Well, life is too short for anything but the best. And how do I know this ranks among the best? Well, I don’t, of course. But given that one cannot check everything out for one’s own self, one has to rely to a great extent on the judgement of others – one has to go by reputation. Which is not to say that one abnegates one’s own judgement, of course; but one’s judgement can only be applied to what one has already read, and, except in the obvious cases of twaddle that are recognisable from a mere extract or two, this judgement doesn’t take one very far in deciding what to read next from that vast and as yet unknown ocean of literature. One has little choice but to rely on reputation. 

In a recent post, I suggested that the four most significant pillars of Western literature are Homer, Dante, Cervantes and Shakespeare. This is contentious, of course – not for what has been included, but for what has been left out: what about the Greek tragedians, one may ask? Or the Romans? And why stop at the early 18th century? – why not move on to Goethe and Heine and Pushkin, or to Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, or on into modernism? Indeed. This is why trying to compile lists of these things, or attempting to define the criteria of inclusion into a literary canon, is such a fruitless activity. But however we define the literary canon, there is no-one whose place in it is more secure than Dante’s. To anyone with an interest in literature, this is a peak that just has to be scaled. 

But approaching something such as the Commedia leads to a somewhat awkward question: how should we, in our secular and disbelieving age, approach religious literature? And religious art as well, for that matter. And religious music. Of course, I do not mean to suggest that one has to have religious belief to appreciate or even love works with religious content: it should come as no surprise, for instance, to see Richard Dawkins choose Bach’s St Matthew Passion amongst his Desert Island Discs. But the question still remains: do we secularists appreciate such works despite their religious content? Or could it be that, despite our professed disbelief, we love these works because of it? 

I find this an endlessly fascinating question, and I fear there is no way to discuss this question without at least touching on that awkward and potentially embarrassing issue of one’s own religious beliefs, or lack of them. I would prefer not to go into this too deeply here, firstly because I am not at all learned in matters of theology, and secondly because it is an extremely contentious area, and whatever personal view I put forward, I am bound to anger and even alienate at least some of my readers. But if I am to write about literature (which is after all the primary purpose of this blog), then it’s hard to see how I can escape writing about religious literature; and if I am to write about religious literature, my own religious (or irreligious) outlook is far from irrelevant. So, with apologies beforehand to anyone whom I might offend, I might as well take a deep breath and dive in: how do I, who profess no particular religious belief and who usually write “None” when asked to specify my religion on an official form, approach a work as the Commedia which is entirely imbued with Christian thought? Is it possible to take anything at all from the Commedia without, at the very least, a leap of the imagination into this world? And can one be capable of such a leap without having, at the very least, some sort of sympathy with religious belief? 

Before we dive into discussion of such matters, we should, I think, acknowledge that the extreme poles of devout belief and of unconditional disbelief are but that – poles; and that, between these poles, there are almost infinite shades of grey, almost infinite nuances. The very presence of these nuances is often denied by the Dawkinsites, who appear to insist that either one believes or one doesn’t, and that there can be no room for “I don’t believe but…”.  I think this is the first of many points where I part company with the Dawkinsites: far from dismissing this but as intellectual pusillanimity, as they appear to do, it is in this region of but that we find depth and richness: but for this but, our lives, beset as they would be with immutable certainties, would, to my mind, be arid indeed. It is in this region of but that the human imagination, without which there can be no art or music or literature – or even, for that matter, science – flourishes. Far from dismissing this but, let us welcome it, and look into it a bit deeper: but what

My own first tentative steps into this region of but are motivated by certain feelings – feelings of yearning and of awe – that I know I often have, but which I cannot articulate to any degree of precision. Vaguely defined though these feelings may be, I know I experience them when I listen to certain music, or when I read certain lines of poetry. And not just then: there are all sorts of occasions when I know I feel certain things that, for want of a better word, may be described as “transcendent”, since they appear to transcend the mere physicality of the world I inhabit. Now, it may well be that “appear” is the key word here, and that these feelings of transcendence are no more than my synapses synapsing and my neurons doing whatever it is neurons are supposed to do. Yes, perhaps. But do I want to see myself as no more than a collection of neurons and synapses? The answer, for all my professed rationality, is “No, I don’t”. It may well be that I am no more than the sum of my constituent physical parts, but there is a very big part of me – no doubt deeply irrational – that rebels at such an idea. The Dawkinsites will tell me to amputate away that irrational part of myself , but I cannot. And neither, frankly, do I want to. Those who demand that, out of respect for rationality, we deny ourselves these feelings, might as well demand that we deny ourselves feelings of sexual desire, which, after all, are equally irrational. Of course, some have exhorted us to do just that, but they have been no more successful than I think Dawkins & co will be in their exhortations. Irrational or not, there are some aspects of our humanity that we cannot reasonably be expected to part with; and insisting, like some modern Pentheus, that we do so , seems to me unrealistic, and possibly, as Pentheus himself found, dangerous. 

But at this stage, the Dawkinsite may ask: “What about the truth? Does that count for nothing?” But, in keeping with their oft-stated dictum that everything must be challenged, I think it is worth challenging, at least as an intellectual exercise, the belief (for it is no more than that) that the importance of truth overrides everything else. Can we be sure of this? What if the truth makes us unhappy? What if the truth diminishes the richness of our lives? This is not to deny the importance of the truth, but if everything should be questioned, then let us, as Ibsen did in play after play, question also the nature of truth itself, and of the human capacity to apprehend it, and also its importance when balanced against other claims. And let us not assume that we are in full possession of the truth in the first place: such  an assumption is, to say the least, highly questionable. 

It is at this point I realise how far I am from being that sceptical, rational creature I like to imagine myself. I’m not. But it doesn’t follow that I must therefore be a credulous, superstitious fool, for, contrary to Dawkinsite doctrine, it’s not merely a case of adhering either to one pole or the other: there are many shades of grey in between, and these shades must be acknowledged. True, I’m not entirely sure on what shade of grey in this in-between I stand on: indeed, I am not even sure I stand at all – our lives are not static, and neither are our frames of mind, even from one moment to the next. It is this constant flux in the unfathomable depths of our minds that gives our lives whatever richness they have: in this sense, uncertainty is not merely to be rejected – it is to be welcomed. 

It is with all this in mind that I approach religious literature. For I know I am not alone in feeling as I do: all human societies, in all parts of the world and in all times, no matter how primitive or how sophisticated, have had a belief in what may be termed– once again, very vaguely, for we have no vocabulary to express these things precisely – “spiritual”, i.e. something other than the physical. This inclines me to suspect that our yearnings towards spirituality, towards transcendence, towards whatever vaguely defined term we care to use, are innate, and cannot, for all the Dawkinsite exhortations, be wished away. And neither, I think, should we wish to wish them away. 

Beyond this, I don’t know that I am prepared to speculate. If I were asked if I believe in a personal God, I’d answer I probably don’t – “probably”, because I don’t know what shade of grey I may be on at any given moment. But despite my agnosticism, possibly leaning towards (but no more than possibly leaning towards) atheism, I do often find in religious writing – or in religious music, or in religious art – an expression of something which I cannot adequately describe, but which I know is far from alien to my sensibilities. That towards which we yearn may well be illusory for all I know, but the yearning itself isn’t. So, when I find myself in a state of rapture when listening, say, to Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis; or when I find myself responding to the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins describing a world charged with the grandeur of God; or when I am moved by Rubens’ Descent From the Cross; I rather suspect I am affected because of, and not despite, the religious content of these works. 

So, onwards and upwards, as they say: Dante. Given its reputation, it’s a bit daunting, but there’s no point merely sticking in an apprehensive toe into the water: one just has to dive in, and hope for the best. And of course, one cannot read something like the Commedia without knowing the Bible. My own knowledge of the Bible has mostly been absorbed from secondary sources: until, say, a couple or so years ago, I had read very little of the Bible.  Oh, of course, I paid lip service to it: it’s a pillar of Western civilisation; our entire culture, the norms of the society we live in, all flow from the book; the King James version is among the great literary miracles of the world; and so on, and so forth. It was far easier paying this lip service than actually reading the thing. So, after I finished my reading of all the Shakespeare plays about a couple of years ago, I decided that I really had to get to know the Bible at first hand. Since then, I have been reading through it, book by book (it’s not a volume that should be rushed through) – for, of course, the Bible is not a single book, but an entire library. And soon, I shall be tackling the Book of Psalms, which, a friend of mine (who I hope is reading this, and from whom I’ve nicked without permission quite a bit of the contents of this post – I’m sure he knows what I’m talking about) once described to me as “food for the soul”.  Well, in for a penny, in for a pound, as they say – not only will I be diving into Dante, I plan also to dive into the Book of Psalms, with the aid only of the renowned Tyndale Old Testament commentaries by Derek Kidner. And, depending on how my reading progresses, and how much I can take in, I hope to be reporting on those one hundred and fifty psalms, one by one, on this blog. For whoever may be interested. 

No more boasting like a fool – this deed I’ll do before the purpose cool.