Tag Archives: fear

amor mi mosse, che mi fa parlare

Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux, Ugolino and His Sons (1865--67)

Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux, Ugolino and His Sons (1865–67)

And he said to me: “This miserable way
is taken by the sorry souls of those
who lived without disgrace and without praise.”
—Dante Alighieri, Inferno (Canto III)

According to Signor Dante, there are many sins that will consign a soul to one ring of hell or another. Perhaps that is reason why, upon reading his Inferno, I was most fascinated by the Ante-Inferno.

These wretched ones, who never were alive”

Of course one assumes that the murderers, adulterers, avaristic, and blasphomous will suffer the Mintors’ exacting evaluation. But the merely meh? Those that simply lived without praise or disgrace? Seems a little harsh.

“Now you must cast aside you laziness,”
my master said, “for he who rests on down
or under covers cannot come to fame;
and he who spends his life without renown
leaves such a vestige of himself on earth
as smoke bequeaths to air or foam to water.
Therefore, get up; defeat your breathlessness”
—Canto XXIV

“Defeat your breathlessness.” Well, okay; that may have to be my new call to arms…. In a rare move I decided to purchase a copy of Dante’s Inferno rather than check it out of a library. But pecuniary considerations pushed me to a used bookstore where I spent some time comparing alternate translations. In the end I went with a cheap paperback version which had the Italian on the verso and English on the recto. The translator was Allen Mandelbaum. But what did I know? I simply compared various lines and made my purchase based on the version that moved me more.

O souls who are so cruel
that this last place has been assigned to you,
take off the hard veils from my face so that
I can release the suffering that fills
my heart before lament freezes again.”
(Canto XXXIII)

I began reading my purchase at my friends’ house in Brooklyn (a lovely, dear-to-me couple who have generously allowed me to sleep on their couch half the week during my summer internship at the Met where I walk by the incredibly life-like Ugolino sculpture every work day [Ugolino was in the ninth circle]). It wasn’t until I was asked who had done the cover art that I looked at the title page and became aware that the person who did the interior illustrations (not the cover art: that was Hans Mamling) was a professor of mine, Barry Moser.

In a kind of strange synchronicity, very soon after that discovery my relationship with the eminent Mr. Moser suddenly blossomed from a professor/student admiration into wonderful friendship. I mention that for two reasons: 1) I love the crazy coincidence of accidentally reading the book he illustrated and then at the very same time I am reading it being contacted by him. And 2) full disclosure. Although—I’d have high praise for the drawings regardless of knowing, or not, the artist.  When I saw his depiction of the Centaur from Canto XII my jaw dropped. My only thought was how could have anyone ever drawn a centaur any other way? It is truly menacing.

But back to Dante. By some powerful art of contradiction, Dante (through the exquisitely talented Mandelbaum) describes the utter despair and terror of hell with the most beautiful language.

“I’d utter words much heavier than these,
because your avarice afflicts the world:
it tramples on the good, lifts up the wicked.” ( Canto XIX)

I know a few corporations and politicians who should hear those words. It is quite a fun read. The book evokes so much thought about the nature of good and evil, heaven and hell, eternity and finality. But,  there is also a strange avarice for, or fetishizing of punishment. The excessive nature of the punitive measures are almost absurd. And many of the crimes are….well…My son Augie was confused how anyone doesn’t wind up in hell. He’s only twelve and can see no one he knows would not be headed there. But more than that, I began to wonder things like: what does it really mean to be cold, wet, and damp (as in the third circle meant for gluttons) forever? If there is never anything other? No means of comparison? No hope of comparison? What does that mean?

Perhaps it is just a failure of my imagination to imagine a constancy of that level of pain that does not incapacitate or cause death, but so then, if you are already dead…then what?  If you are already dead and suffering eternal pain what does pain or fear mean?  Fear of what? Not death, obviously. It’s all gruesome and terrifying but, as Augie put it, “After a while you’d get the routine. It’d just be boring.”

*title from Canto II: Love prompted me, that Love which makes me speak.

Advertisements

Sins of Denial

The word “lie,” like the word “truth,” is banned in art, and during the normalization neither of them can be used (251). 

IMG_2587When writing fiction, an author strives to make a story feel real and true, the reader must believe. Breaking the suspension of disbelief with questions like, “could that have really happened?” is naturally to be avoided. Unfortunately, non-fiction never ceases to mercilessly move the goalpost of plausible truth. It is difficult to compete with the awful, endless absurdity that is reality.  Mariusz Szczygiel has rather brilliantly shown fiction to be a mere sliver of the horrors of non-fiction. Exhibit A, his brilliant book of creative non-fiction,  Gottland: Mostly True Stories from Half of Czechoslovakia. 

2. not succumbing to idleness (so it is best to read, but with one reservation: DO NOT READ RUSSIAN NOVELS, says the slogan thought up by Bata and posted on the wall of the felting unit. Why not? Bata’s reply is on the wall of the rubber unit: RUSSIAN NOVELS KILL YOUR JOIE DE VIVRE) (17-18).

Szczygiel collection of vignettes in dark, despairing humor give a history of Czechoslovakia through the 1900s. It is fascinating, heartbreaking, and puzzling. Whywhywhy? Totalitarianism is formidable in its exercise and precision of terror.  The truth that it is nearly impossible to be heroic under total surveillance is made plain- at best the sound of your soul squashing will be second guessed and dissected by future gawkers of history, further robbing it of meaning and complexity.

Beginning the book with the grand rise of  the Plato/Henry Ford-esque utopian entrepreneur Tomás Bata (legendary Czechoslovakian canvas shoe maker) sets the perfect tone to a tale of societal engineering gone so incomprehensibly wrong.

‘I realized that, in Czechoslovakia, a hospital for the mentally ill was the only normal place, because there everyone could say what they really thought with impunity’ (journalist Eda Kriseova quoted, 167).

The stories of various screen stars, writers, singers and artists coping with life under extremely unfunny and cruel conditions that are shoved down every Czech citizen’s throat with an arrogant “it’s good for you” attitude are just devastating. The people that don’t kill themselves, must distort themselves into, as Szcygiel makes beautiful reference to, cubist versions of themselves: broken up, disjointed, disconnected. And still, goodness knows why, but there are always the unflappable spirits among us:

Though haggard and deprived of a job, he is always happy about something. He says that in prison he sang arias from Wagner’s operas. (“And if I hadn’t ended up in there, it never would have occurred to me to sing.”) (235).

The style of Szczygiel’s prose perfectly accentuates his theme of human fragility coping with the absurdity, cruelty, and bureaucratic black humor that history endlessly doles out. That people even survive societies where intellectuals are imprisoned for being the enemy of the “working man” (what ever that actually means…) while pulp fiction is literally being pulped for the crime of corrupting the intellect of the working man, (say what?) is remarkable. Little that would give pleasure through escapism survived, 70%, Szczygiel reports, of all “trash” crime fiction, horror, thrillers, adventure, science fiction and romance novels were liquidated. All pleasurable fiction was to be replaced with “social-realist trash.” Because, why just live it, eh? Besides why would you want to escape? Are you a traitor? Unsurprisingly,  the reverberations live on. I have difficulty understanding the totalitarianism mind-set, but no difficulty at all fearing it.

“Oh, that’s Procházka’s writing. Take a look, I think he wrote something about The Ear there,” he says.
Yes, he did.
“This story is made up. The things that really happened were far more terrible.” (director Karel Kachyna quoted, 145).

No doubt.

*Title from page 102: Taking note of linguistic details in the Czech Republic can offer clues. Thus, in situations where someone ought to say: “I was afraid to talk about it,” “I hadn’t the courage to ask about it,” or “I had no idea about it,” they say:
“THERE WAS NO TALK about it.”
“NOTHING WAS KNOWN about it.”
“that WASN’T ASKED about.”
I often hear the impersonal form when people have to talk about communism. As if people had no influence on anything and were unwilling to take personal responsibility. As if to remind me that they were just part of a greater whole, which also had some sin of denial on its conscience.

I would only add that, it seems to me, “communism” in this context is a mutable term. It is fundamentalists of any kind for whom freedom of thought and human dignity is actively suppressed, violently or in more subtle forms of propaganda and dogmatic ideologies, that are a plague upon peace and compassion. Haven’t we fought this battle, didn’t others cover this ground? Perhaps, but it seems to me reckless to neglect stating that this proclivity for fundamentalism is very much a part of present current affairs in many places around the world. I can’t just gawk. And as history has shown, simply speaking is a lot.

** Gottland translated from Polish by Antonia Lloyd-Jones