Scott D. Moringiello
Scott D. Moringiello is an assistant professor in the Department of Catholic Studies at DePaul University, where he teaches classes on Catholic theology and religion and literature.
By this author
[Reposted from 9/10/11*]
One of my fondest memories of college is sitting in Greek 401, poring over Homer's Iliad. We would each take turns translating the text, and then the whole class would discuss what had just been translated. I remember, as if it were yesterday, my friend translating the following exchange between Andromache and Hector. (This is from Robert Fagles's translation.)
Pressing close beside him and weeping freely now,
Clung to his hand, urged him, called him: Reckless one,
My Hector your own fiery courage will destroy you!
Have you no pity for him, our helpless son? Or me,
And the destiny that weighs me down, your widow, now so soon
In reply, Hector tells his wife he must fight. He imagines that after the fall of Troy Andromache will be a slave woman is some Argive city. An Achaean will look on her and say,
"There is the wife of Hector, the bravest fighter
They could field, those stallion-breaking Trojans,
Long ago when the men fought for Troy." So he will say
And the fresh grief will swell your heart once more,
Widowed, robbed of the one man strong enough
To fight off your day of slavery. No, no,
Let the earth come piling over my dead body
Before I hear your cries, I hear you dragged away.
After the class finished translating the section, our professor, who was a 30-year veteran of teaching classics and a veteran of the US Navy, seemed to be holding back tears. He wasn't the only one.
“Taking steps is easy. Standing still is hard.” You’d be forgiven if you thought these words came from Blaise Pascal, the seventeenth-century philosopher and mathematician, who famously said that all of humanity’s problems stem from the fact that people are not able to sit quietly by themselves. The words come not from Pascal, but his twenty-first century avatar Regina Spektor, who sings them in her latest single “You’ve Got Time,” which is the theme song for the Netflix original series Orange is the New Black. The show has gotten a lot of good press, and it seems as though everyone in my demographic watches it. The good press the show has received has focused rightly on the solid writing, the excellent acting, the tight storyline. And although I appreciate all these things, I also think Orange is the New Black is the most morally serious television show since The Wire. It helps us confront uncomfortable truths.
[Below there is some profane language and perhaps a mild spoiler.]
Today I've posted my final installment of the Cammino attraverso la Commedia over at Verdicts. Thanks to everyone who has followed along, and special thanks to Helen and Flavia who performed intellectual works of mercy (you didn't know there were intellectual works of mercy, did you?) by commenting on each post. (They will certainly get time off in Purgatory for that!) Although Mary was in the upper room with the apostles, Bernard's hymn to Mary isn't a perfect match for Pentecost.
Pentecost reverses Babel. Whereas once language divided humanity, the words of the Apostles, spoken in the Spirit, unite humanity. Peter's speech in Acts 2 causes people to repent, and the newly repentant form a new community where they share with each other and praise God. In other words, Peter's speech helps to create a community of love. Until today, I hadn't thought of Dante as a Pentecostal, but the title fits. Above all, Dante's Commedia celebrates the interdependence of language and love.
Choosing a favorite canto in the Commedia is an impossible task. I can say, though, that Canto 23 in the Paradiso always takes my breath away. It's appropriate that a canto devoted to the beauty of Beatrice and the flames love for Mary reaches such poetic heights. Here Dante sees Beatrice as she is. Here he notes the impotence of his words. Here he witnesses the heavenly host surrounding Mary. Sometimes the best we can do when commenting is get out of the way. In that spirit, here are my favorite lines from that canto:
Genealogy plays an important role in the Commedia. We spent a good amount of time discussing how Dante has chosen his poetic fathers. His relationships with Virgil and Statius are central to the narratives of the Inferno and the Purgatorio. And some of the most interesting moments in those poems occur when Dante speaks with poets whose work has informed his own: his interactions with Brunetto Latini or with Guido Guinizzelli and Arnaut Daniel. We also see the importance of Florence as the land of Dante's fathers.
Heaven is won-der-ful, isn't it? That was the answer one of my students gave when we began our class discussion of the Paradiso a couple of years ago. Thinking about what heaven is like turns out to be a more difficult exercise than you might have expected. My students expect people in heaven to be happy, and they imagine that heaven is a place where everything works out in the end (or something like that). Sometimes they mention harps or clouds or people in white robes.
Today is the 200th birthday of the Danish theologian Soren Kierkegaard. Kierkegaard is famous for many things: being a forerunner of existentialism, his concept of the "leap of faith" (a term he never actually uses), and his attacks on what he saw as the lazy Christianity of his day, which was all too attached to Christendom, to name but a few. What always interests me about Kierkegaard, though, is his deep attachment to Jesus Christ. For Kierkegaard, human life does not make sense without Christ as its center and guide.
When Dante reaches the Garden of Eden in Canto 28, the as-yet-unnamed Matelda describes the two rivers Dante finds there: "On this side it descends and has the power / to take from men the memory of sin. / On the other it restores that of good deeds. / Here it is called Lethe and on the other side / Eno, but its water has no effect / Until they both are tasted" (Purg. 18:127-132).
Now that we have reached the middle of the Purgatorio and, therefore, the middle of the Commedia as a whole, I can't help but marvel again at how miraculous this poem is. It would be one thing to spin the story Dante spins, another to blend theology and philosophy and political history with narrative the way he does, yet another to mix without confusion and without syncretism the sacred and profane, the Christian and the pagan, as he mixes them, and still yet another to maintain a rhyme scheme and structure of the poem. Yet he does all this at the same time.