The Pursuit of Happiness

Comet Falls, Mt. Rainier National Park (July 29, 2005).

The tables outside the cantina were full of beautiful laughing men and women.… Everyone who sat there looked on display, the women in their lovely summer dresses, the men with their hair oiled back on their heads, their tanned bare feet resting proprietorially on top of their Gucci loafers. One wanted to applaud them for presenting such a successful vision of life: you could almost believe they had lived their whole lives, had been reared and groomed from birth, for this one particular night: that this was the pinnacle, this golden summery evening they had all reached simultaneously. 

Yet it made me a little sad to see them there, laughing and drinking champagne, for you knew it was all downhill from here.[i]

— Peter Cameron, Andorra

The narrator in Cameron’s novel experiences the “golden summery evening” at the cantina through the lens of his own unhappiness. He has fled a failed life in America for a Mediterranean idyll, but joy continues to elude him. This apparently happy scene of shared human pleasure only deepens his alienation. Unable to join the fun, he judges the beautiful, laughing people for their complacency, their privilege, and their shallow indifference to mortality. 

In Michael Cunningham’s The Hours, Clarissa Vaughan recalls her own close encounter with happiness, when she made the mistake of thinking it would last. 

It had seemed like the beginning of happiness, and Clarissa is still somewhat shocked, more than thirty years later, to realize that it was happiness.… What lives undimmed in Clarissa’s mind more than three decades later is a kiss at dusk on a patch of dead grass, and a walk around a pond as mosquitoes droned in the darkening air. There is still that singular perfection, and it’s perfect in part because it seemed, at the time, so clearly to promise more. Now she knows: That was the moment, right there. There has been no other. [ii]

What is happiness? It can be pursued, but can it be possessed? The word is derived from “hap,” an Old English term for fortune or chance—something that happens to us, for good or ill. But “happy” and “happiness” have come to denote only the good things, without the mishaps. 

If asked to recall our happiest moments, a multitude of memories would rise to the surface. But if asked whether we are happy now, or living happy lives, how would we answer? The University of Pennsylvania is conducting an online Authentic Happiness Survey, with twenty-four groups of five statements each to measure the presence or absence of happiness. Group 24, for example, offers the following choices: 

  1. My life is a bad one.
  2. My life is an OK one.
  3. My life is a good one.
  4. My life is a very good one.
  5. My life is a wonderful one. 

The #1 statement in a group is always pretty dismal (I’m usually in a bad mood … I’m pessimistic … I am unhappy with myself … I feel like a failure, etc.) The #5 statement sounds way too good to be true (My life is filled with pleasure … If I were keeping score in life, I would be far ahead … I always get what I want … My life is filled with joy … I could not be happier with myself, etc.). 

The majority of my own answers landed in the middle (#3), reflecting a pretty typical mix of highs and lows. I had no #1s, a couple of #2s, six #4s (three due to privilege, three due to personality), and two #5s (“I truly love my work” and “Most of the time I am fascinated by what I am doing”—both of these reflecting a mixture of privilege, personality, and the good fortune of getting to do what I love). My authentic happiness score was 3.46 out of 5. That seems about right for a privileged white male occasionally beset by the minor melancholies of disappointed hopes, both personal and generational.

It was an interesting survey, one of many attempts to grapple with the unhappiness of our times. Currently, the most popular course at Yale is “Psychology and the Good Life,” created by Professor Laurie Santos in response to the mental health crisis among college students, who, she says, are “much more overwhelmed, much more stressed, much more anxious, and much more depressed than they’ve ever been.” 

In a survey of Yale students taken before the pandemic, 60% said they had felt “overwhelmingly anxious” sometime during the last year. And 50% reported feeling “completely overwhelmed” in the past week. For many college students, and for Americans in general, “happiness feels increasingly out of reach.” The pandemic, climate change, and the politics of fear and hate have multiplied our sorrows and anxieties almost beyond measure.

According to University of California (Irvine) professor Sonia Lyubomirski, author of The How of Happiness, 50% of one’s happiness is determined by genes, while 40% flows from our thoughts, actions, and attitudes. That leaves only 10% attributable to circumstances, although many people believe that circumstance is the key factor in personal happiness. If I change my job, my home, my partner, I will be happier. Lyubomirski’s numbers assume, of course, that one’s basic needs are being met. For a war zone Ukrainian, a Central American refugee, or a long Covid sufferer, circumstance weighs far more heavily.

Santos’ course, and her ongoing podcast, The Happiness Lab, seek to help people address the more significant 40% factors: thoughts, actions, and attitudes. I’ve only listened to the first episode, but many have testified to the value of her efforts.[iii]

Happiness is a subject of supreme interest. Everyone wants it, but for many it seems in short supply. It’s also hard to define. A century ago, Vita Sackville-West questioned its usefulness as an index for life.

But what was happiness? Had she been happy? That was a strange, clicking word to have coined—meaning something definite to the whole English-speaking race—a strange clicking word with its short vowel and its spitting double p’s, and its pert tip-tilted y at the end, to express in two syllables a whole summary of life. Happy. But one was happy at one moment, unhappy two minutes later, and neither for any good reason; so what did it mean? … Certainly, there had been moments of which one could say: Then, I was happy; and with greater certainty: Then, I was unhappy—when little Robert had lain in his coffin, for instance, strewn with rose petals by his sobbing Syrian nurse—but whole regions had intervened, which were just existence. Absurd to ask of those, had she been happy or unhappy? … No, that was not the question to ask her—not the question to ask anybody. Things were not so simple as all that. [iv]

Well then. Am I happy or unhappy? I have had moments and days when it was indeed bliss to be alive. But what should I say about those intervening regions where the evidence is mixed? Is happiness only an occasional oasis in the desert of ordinary time, or can happiness reside in the barren places as well?

“Small things go a long way,” says Zadie Smith. “All day long I can look forward to a Popsicle. The persistent anxiety that fills the rest of my life is calmed for as long as I have the flavor of something good in my mouth,” [v] Rebecca Solnit, arrested for demonstrating at a nuclear test site in the Nevada desert, said that “even when you’re in handcuffs, the sunset is still beautiful.” [vi]

In The Spiritual Meadow, John Moschos’ seventh-century collection of tales about desert monastics, an elder warns a wayward disciple, “Brother, pay attention to your own soul, for death awaits you and the road to punishment.” The disciple took little heed, and when he died, the elder continued to worry about his fate. 

The elder fell to his prayers and said, “Lord Jesus Christ, reveal to me the state of the brother’s soul.” He went into a trance and saw a river of fire with a multitude of people in the fire itself. Right in the middle was the brother, submerged up to his neck. The elder said to him, “Didn’t I warn you to look after your own soul, my child?” And the brother answered, “I thank God, father, that at least my head is spared from the fire. Thanks to your prayers, I am standing on the head of a bishop.” [vii]

Even in hell, small things go a long way! And happiness can turn up anywhere, as poet Jane Kenyon reminds us:

There’s just no accounting for happiness …
It comes to the monk in his cell.
It comes to the woman sweeping the street
with a birch broom, to the child
whose mother has passed out from drink.
It comes to the lover, to the dog chewing 
a sock, to the pusher, to the basket maker,
and to the clerk stacking cans of carrots 
in the night. [viii]

We are grateful when it comes, and for the memory it leaves. But happiness is more than the occasional perfect moment. It is a practice, a way of being, a fullness of life which transcends the inevitable fluctuations of fortune. Such a practice might be summarized in two words: authenticity and love. 

At my ordination to the priesthood (September 17, 1970).

Authenticity is fidelity to your truest self: becoming more and more like the person you have been created and called to be. Sometimes the way is rough and steep. Sometimes you get lost or delayed. But by God’s grace, you embrace the journey. Parker Palmer describes this process as a matter of vocation:

Our deepest calling is to grow into our own authentic selfhood, whether or not it conforms to some image of who we ought to be. As we do so, we will not only find the joy that every human being seeks—we will also find our path of authentic service in the world. True vocation joins self and service, as Frederick Buechner asserts when he defines vocation as “the place where your deep gladness meets the world’s deep need.” [ix]

Authenticity, then, finds its greatest expression in acts of love. Becoming our truest self takes us beyond our individuality, into the interdependent communion of the Divine Whole. My own happiness cannot be sustainably severed from collective well-being. Happiness, as it turns out, is not a private affair. It is the way of self-diffusive, self-offering love. And until justice and human flourishing are universally shared, the way of love will include suffering. Self-sacrifice for love’s sake can be costly and painful, as Jesus and the saints have shown. Happiness accepts the truth of that. No justice, no peace. But it is also true, as Catherine of Siena said, that “all the way to heaven is heaven.” You don’t have to wait until the end of time for happiness to show up.

“Do not look for rest in any pleasure,” said Thomas Merton, “because you were not created for pleasure; you were created for JOY.” [x]  Happy are those with a hungry heart. Happy are those who give themselves away. Happy are those who do not mistake crumbs for the feast. Happy are those who know it’s not just about them. Happy are those who say yes to the gift. Happy are those who yearn for the Divine Beloved. Happy are those who don’t count the cost. Happy are those who love their story. 

On the summit of Mount Sinai (May, 1989). Blessed is the way up. Blessed is the way down.
The trail is beautiful. Be still.

We think of Saint Francis of Assisi as a joyful saint, but he was also pierced by the stigmata, the wounds of Christ. And he taught that the most perfect joy is to be found neither in worldly things nor in spiritual enjoyments. Nor is perfect joy simply a matter of pleasure, contentment, or delight. This was bewildering and counterintuitive for his brothers, so he explained it this way:

“Imagine coming home to the monastery on a stormy night.
We knock on the door, but it is so dark
that the surly porter mistakes us for tramps.
‘Go away!’ he shouts.
And if we continue to knock and the porter comes out 
and drives us away with curses and hard blows—
and if we bear it patiently
and take the insults with joy and love in our hearts.
Oh Brother Leo, write down that that is perfect joy! 
Above all the graces and gifts of the Holy Spirit 
which Christ gives to his friends is that of conquering oneself 
and willingly enduring sufferings, insults, humiliations and hardships 
for the love of Christ.” [xi]

Saint Francis wouldn’t have sold many self-help books, but he knew that happiness unacquainted with suffering and sorrow isn’t the real deal. “If it be sweet, if it be not sweet,” [xii] my story is what I was made for. My story is why I’m here. Happiness is saying yes to the story’s gift with a thankful heart.

The late Joseph Golowka, one of my most beloved elders, still roughing it in Baja at 86 (Sept. 24, 2005).

When I go back to earth
And all my joyous body 
Puts off the red and white
That once had been so proud,
If men should pass above
With false and feeble pity,
My dust will find a voice
To answer them aloud: 

“Be still, I am content,
Take back your poor compassion!—
Joy was a flame in me
Too steady to destroy.
Lithe as a bending reed
Loving the storm that sways her—
I found more joy in sorrow
Than you could find in joy.” [xiii]

— Sara Teasdale, “The Answer” 


[i] Peter Cameron, Andorra (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1997), 149-150.

[ii] Michael Cunningham, The Hours (New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 1988), 98.

[iii] The statistics and quotes from Santos and Lyubomirsky are found in Adam Sternbergh, “The Case for New York Face,” in Lapham’s Quarterly, Vol. XII, No. 3 (Summer 2019), 81-85. Four times a year, Lapham’s Quarterly presents a marvelous and stimulating collection of writings and images from many periods and sources on a given topic. This issue’s subject is “Happiness.” Sternbergh’s article was originally published in New York Magazine in 2018. Additional quotes from Santos were taken from her podcast, The Happiness Lab, Season 1, Episode 1 (“You Can Change”): https://www.happinesslab.fm

[iv] This excerpt from Sackville-West’s novel, All Passion Spent (1931), is also in the “Happiness” issue of Lapham’s Quarterly, p. 139.

[v] Ibid., 134. Smith’s excerpt is from her essay “Joy” (New York Review of Books, Jan. 10, 2013). 

[vi] Rebecca Solnit, Storming the Gates of Paradise: Landscapes for Politics (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007).

[vii] John Moschos, The Spiritual Meadow (written c. 600), trans. John Wortley (Collegeville, MN: Cistercian Publications, 1992/2008), 35. 

[viii] Jane Kenyon, “Happiness.”  

[ix] Parker Palmer, Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2000), 16.

[x] Thomas Merton, Seeds of Contemplation (1949), p. 172. Cited in William H. Shannon, Christine M. Bochen, Patrick F. O’Connell, eds., The Thomas Merton Encyclopedia (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2002), 231.

[xi] Adapted from The Little Flowers of St. Francis, 53 chapters on the life of Francis of Assisi written at the end of the 14th century.

[xii] Anne Sexton, “Rowing.” “As the African says, / This is my tale which I have told,/ If it be sweet, if it be not sweet,”/ Take somewhere else and let some return to me.…” 

[xiii] Sara Teasdale, “The Answer,” in Christian Wiman, ed., Joy: 100 Poems (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2017), 138. 

“We must love one another or die”—What Does the Iliad Tell Us about the Invasion of Ukraine?

Francisco de Goya, “Ya no hay tiempo” (There isn’t time now), from The Disasters of War (1810-1820).

It is true that our weakness could prevent us from defeating the force that threatens to overwhelm us. But this does not prevent us from understanding it. Nothing in the world can stop us from being lucid.

— Simone Weil

Humility before the real, before untamable existence, is what we learn from the grief and supplications of the tragic poets and the exhortations and lamentations of the prophets.

— Rachel Bespaloff

In the summer of 1939, two women visited an exhibition of Goya’s The Disasters of War at the Geneva Museum of Art and History.[i] Goya’s 82 etchings, graphic depictions of the human cost of war, impressed each of them deeply, especially in the shadow of looming European conflict. The day after the exhibition closed, Hitler’s troops invaded Poland.

Rachel Bespaloff.
Simone Weil.

Rachel Bespaloff and Simone Weil did not know each other. They saw the Goyas in Geneva on different days. But they had many things in common. Both were of Jewish descent, and both were French, although Bespaloff had been born in Ukraine. Both were philosophers, consumed by the questions of affliction and human suffering. Both would die too soon—Weil at 34 from malnutrition and heart failure in 1943, and Bespaloff at 53 by suicide in 1949. And both responded to the outbreak of World War II with influential essays on the Iliad

Homer’s tragic epic, the founding work of European literature, bears impartial witness to the creative and destructive forces at work in the finite historical world. The poet sings of war, but his underlying theme is the complexity of human nature and human experience. There is rage in the Iliad, and cruelty, but wisdom and compassion as well. 

With the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the reflections of Weil and Bespaloff on this ancient epic provide a timely lucidity. For example, Weil’s analysis of wrathful Achilles pinpoints the ultimate futility of force. In the Iliad, the harder Achilles tries to enforce his will, the more resistance he generates. Weil could have been describing Vladimir Putin: 

“Homer shows us the limits of force in the very apotheosis of the force-hero. Through cruelty force confesses its powerlessness to achieve omnipotence. When Achilles falls upon Lycaon, shouting ‘death to all,’ and makes fun of the child who is pleading with him, he lays bare the eternal resentment felt by the will to power when something gets in the way of its indefinite expansion. We see weakness dawning at the very height of force. Unable to admit that total destruction is impossible, the conqueror can only reply to the mute defiance of his defenseless adversary with an ever-growing violence. Achilles will never get the best of the thing he kills: Lycaon’s youth will rise again, and Priam’s wisdom and Ilion’s beauty.” [ii]   

Weil argued that the Iliad’s true subject was not any one figure, but the fateful dynamics of force to which both Greeks and Trojans were subject: “Force employed by man, force that enslaves man, force before which man’s flesh shrinks away. In this work, at all times, the human spirit is shown as modified by its relations with force, as swept away, blinded, by the very force it imagined it could handle, as deformed by the weight of the force it submits to.” [iii]

In her opening paragraph of her essay, Weil sees both the victors and the vanquished as dehumanized and uncreated by powers not of their own making. The victors are “swept away” when force goes its own way, generating consequences they can’t control. The vanquished are turned into “things,” stripped of the capacity to think, or act, or hope. Even if a victim’s life is spared, he or she is as good as dead. Force “makes a corpse out of [them]. Somebody was here, and the next minute there is nobody here at all.” [iv]

Francisco de Goya, “Que Valor!” from The Disasters of War (1810-1820).

Goya’s war images convey this truth. They grant no wider picture of strategy or purpose, but only offer snapshots of an ambient violence, which seems to exist independently of the anonymous actors caught up in war’s depersonalizing horror. “What courage!” reads the artist’s caption, “Que Valor!” Was Goya being ironic? One might interpret this etching as an image of resistance—a brave woman standing on the bodies of her fallen comrades to reach the cannon’s fuse and repel the oppressors. But I can’t help seeing a pile of indistinguishable corpses, and a faceless figure whose own subjection to the laws of force has but one future. 

As Weil put it, “for those whose spirits have bent under the yoke of war, the relation between death and the future is different than for other men. For other men death appears as a limit set in advance on the future; for the soldier death is the future, the future his profession assigns him.” [v] In his classic novel of the American Civil War, Stephen Crane said the same thing even more chillingly: War is “like the grinding of an immense and terrible machine.” Its “grim processes” are designed to “produce corpses.” [vi]

This pair of photos posted last week by a young Ukrainian couple on social media feels both stirring and sad. Scheduled to be married in May, they realized they might not live that long. So they rushed the wedding. As sirens sounded the Russian attack on Kyiv, they made their vows of lifelong fidelity. Then they took up arms to defend their city. Their courage is inspiring, like the man before the tank in Tiananmen Square. But their vulnerability is heartbreaking. May God protect them.

Weil describes the immutable laws of force, which has no regard for such “perishable joys.” [vii] “To the same degree,” Weil says, “though in different fashions, those who use it and those who endure it are turned to stone.” In battle, thought and choice and hope are swept away. “Herein lies the last secret of war,” Weil says, “a secret revealed by the Iliad in its similes, which liken the warriors either to fire, flood, wind, wild beasts, or God knows what blind cause of disaster, or else to frightened animals, trees, water, sand, to anything in nature that is set into motion by the violence of external forces.” [viii]

In other words, everyone involved is a victim of war. That is why neither Homer nor Goya seem to take sides. The unflinching visual witness of The Disasters of War may have been undertaken in protest against the brutality of Napoleon’s army in Spain, but as the series evolved it became harder to distinguish the nationality of perpetrators and victims in the images. We only see human beings equally deformed by the workings of force. There is no great cause in these pictures, only suffering. 

Attribution: Nexta TV

For me, one of the most disturbing images of the war’s first week was this video of a Russian soldier taking evident pleasure in the firing of missiles into Ukraine. As a Christian, I am obligated to see Christ in his arrogant face, but it is not easy. He is smiling at the death of his fellow beings. The patch on his uniform reads: “They will die and we will go to heaven.” Nevertheless, understanding this man to be himself a victim of force plants a seed of compassion in me. He has lost his humanity to the machinery of war. I must pray for him as well. 

In writing about the Iliad, Weil was repeating Goya’s message that “violence obliterates anybody who feels its touch. It comes to seem just as external to its employer as to its victim. And from this springs the idea of a destiny before which executioner and victim stand equally innocent, before which conquered and conqueror are brothers in the same distress. The conquered brings misfortune to the conqueror, and vice versa.[ix]

Francisco de Goya, “Las mujeres dan valor” (The women are courageous) from The Disasters of War (1810-1820).

Rachel Bespaloff, writing during the Nazi invasion of France, attributes the Iliad’s impartiality to the seeming impartiality of life itself: 

“With Homer there is no marveling or blaming, and no answer is expected. Who is good in the Iliad? Who is bad? Such distinctions do not exist; there are only men suffering, warriors fighting, some winning, some losing. The passion for justice emerges only in mourning for justice, in the dumb avowal of silence. To condemn force, or absolve it, would be to condemn, or absolve, life itself. And life in the Iliad (as in the Bible or in War and Peace) is essentially the thing that does not permit itself to be assessed, or measured, or condemned, or justified, at least not by the living. Any estimate of life must be confined to an awareness of its inexpressibility.” [x]

The impartiality of Homer and Goya is echoed in one of the most remarkable battle scenes in the history of cinema. In Terence Malick’s The Thin Red Line, U.S. marines are trying to take a Japanese position on a Pacific island in World War II. But instead of encouraging the viewer to take sides, the director presents both the Americans and the Japanese as common victims of force, as if we were seeing war through God’s eyes. On the soundtrack the gunfire and explosions remain faint, barely there, while a slow elegiac score, like the music of weeping angels, allows us to reflect on the tragedy of violence instead of stirring our partisan emotions. One of the soldiers, a kind of Christ figure, speaks in voice-over: 

This great evil, where does it come from? How does it still enter the world? What seed, what root did it grow from? Who’s doing this, who’s killing us, robbing us of life and light, mocking us with the sight of what we might have known? Does our ruin benefit the earth? Is this darkness in you too? [xi]

Impartiality is not the same as indifference. Although she favored pacifism, Weil wrote her essay after joining the fight against fascism in Spain (the near-sighted and clumsy intellectual had to be sent home after accidentally stepping into a pot of boiling oil). She spoke out in favor of struggles for independence in the French colonies, and worked for the French Resistance. Similarly, Bespaloff renounced her own pacifist sympathies when Hitler seized France. Both women felt their ideals constrained by the “yoke of necessity.” [xii] Sometimes force simply won’t let you abstain. Bespaloff would later lament that history had forced her entire generation “to live in a climate of violent death,” amid “the smoke of crematories.” [xiii]

To see everyone as a victim is to realize the limits of force and begin to discover the power of compassion. “Those who live by the sword die by the sword,” said Jesus. And Weil, who got to know Jesus pretty well in her final years, urged us to “learn that there is no refuge from fate, learn not to admire force, not to hate the enemy, nor to scorn the unfortunate.” [xiv]  

This is not a prescription for passivity in the face of naked aggression. Along with most of the world, including many of Russia’s own people, I support the Ukrainian resistance, but it’s not enough just to take sides in the ancient game of force. Even as we are swept up in the necessities of conflict, we must strive to imagine a better way and a better world. 

In late 1942, when Weil was working in the London office of the French Resistance, she proposed a plan to parachute hundreds of white-uniformed nurses onto battlefields, not only to tend to the wounded but also to provide an image of self-sacrificial goodness in the midst of cruelty and violence. She herself wanted to be in the first wave of this non-violent invasion. In submitting her plan to the Free French authorities, she made a visionary argument:

“There could be no better symbol of our inspiration than the corps of women suggested here. The mere persistence of a few humane services in the very center of the battle, the climax of inhumanity, would be a signal defiance of the inhumanity which the enemy has chosen for himself and which he compels us also to practice … A small group of women exerting day after day a courage of this kind would be a spectacle so new, so significant, and charged with such obvious meaning, that it would strike the imagination more than any of Hitler’s conceptions have done.” [xv]

Charles de Gaulle thought her quite mad, and her plan of course went nowhere. But I always find myself inspired by “impossible” visions which refuse the seductions and delusions of force. When Hitler invaded Poland, W. H. Auden wrote a poem, “September 1, 1939,” calling upon the lovers of justice to “show an affirming flame” in the night of “negation and despair.” As we now weigh our best measures against the worst possibilities, Auden’s key line is more urgent than ever:

“We must love one another or die.” 

Käthe Kollwitz,”The Mothers,” from Seven Woodcuts on the War (1924)

[i] After Madrid was bombed in the Spanish Civil War, the Prado’s art treasures were moved to the League of Nations in Geneva in early 1939. The museum exhibition with the Goya etchings ended on August 31 of that year. The invasion of Poland began on September 1, 1939.

[ii] Simone Weil, in Simone Weil & Rachel Bespaloff, War and the Iliad (New York: New York Review of Books, 2005), 54. Thanks to NYRB for publishing these essays together for the first time.

[iii] Ibid., 3.

[iv] Ibid., 3.

[v] Ibid., 21-22.

[vi] Stephen Crane, The Red Badge of Courage, ch. 8, quoted in War and the Iliad, p. xi.

[vii] The term is Bespaloff’s, referring to Hector’s recitation of everything the war is about to take from him: his city, his family, his comrades, his very life (War and the Iliad, 43).

[viii] War and the Iliad, 26.

[ix] Ibid., 20.

[x] Ibid., 50.

[xi] The Thin Red Line (1998), written and directed by Terence Malick, based on the novel by James Jones (1962). Released by Twentieth Century Fox. A beautiful blu-ray edition is available from The Criterion Collection. Jim Caviezel, whose other-worldliness rose above the warring world to intimations of the Transcendent, spoke the voice-over. He would eventually play the role of Jesus in Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ (2004).

[xii] War and the Iliad, 21. The phrase is Weil’s.

[xiii] Ibid., 23.

[xiv] Ibid., 37.

[xv] Simone Weil, quoted in Robert Zaretsky, The Subversive Simone Weil: A Life in Five Ideas (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2021), 155.

“What do I know?”

Caravaggio, The Conversion of St. Paul (1601). Rome, Santa Maria del Popolo.

In the year 1570, Michel de Montaigne, age 36, was riding “an undemanding but not very reliable horse” through the woods near his Dordogne estate. It was a leisurely outing, a respite from his duties in local politics and the management of the family lands. He was accompanied by some of his workers, one of whom decided to show off by racing his powerful farm horse to the front of the line. But the show-off misjudged the width of the path. Instead of dashing triumphantly past Montaigne’s horse, he rammed it from behind, “striking us like a thunderbolt with all his roughness and weight, knocking us over with our legs in the air.” 

Montaigne flew a good ten yards beyond his fallen horse, losing consciousness when he hit the ground, “with no more movement or sensation than a log.” His companions thought him dead, and sought to carry his inert body back to his home. Along the way, however, he began to revive, “but only little by little and over so long a stretch of time that at first my sensations were closer to death than to life.”

Over the next few hours, Montaigne’s thoughts “floated on the surface of my soul … not merely free from unpleasantness but tinged with that gentle feeling which is felt by those who let themselves glide into sleep.” For that blessed interval, the pain of his body did “not belong to us.” When that pain finally entered his conscious awareness, its severity felt like a second brush with death, but without the dreamy gentleness of his initial encounter with fatal proximity.

The last thing his mind recovered was the memory of his accident. At first he thought he’d been hit by a stray bullet. The Wars of Religion had reached the Dordogne, and the distant pop of primitive firearms was not uncommon in his neighborhood. Eventually, his memory of colliding horses returned, “but that perception had been so sudden that fear had no time to be engendered by it.” And whatever happened next—his horse disappearing under him, his flight through the air, the hard landing and loss of consciousness—remained an utter blank.[a]

Although Montaigne’s Essais are an essential part of the literary canon, I must confess that I had not read his account of this unfortunate fall until my later years—last month, in fact, about twelve hours after I flew off my bicycle to make my own painful fall to earth. Such a timely reading was itself an accident. I happened to have with me Patricia Hampl’s reflections about Montaigne in The Art of the Wasted Day, and when I opened the book in my hospital room the next morning, her chapter about his fall was the next one up.

My own Montaigne moment occurred after the penultimate session of the Olympic Track & Field Trials in Eugene, Oregon, where I was spending ten days in athletics heaven. Bicycling across the University of Oregon campus at dusk, I was surprised to discover—too late!—that the sidewalk suddenly morphed into three descending steps, the kind of impossible shape-shifting that only happens in bad dreams or cartoon catastrophes. I remember a violent bounce off the first step, but not what happened next. I probably squeezed the brakes, pitching the bike into a forward roll and throwing me into space, but I retain no memory of my flight path. I can only recall the moment of impact and the immediate sensation of pain in my right side and shoulder. Thankfully, my head was untouched. Unlike Montaigne, however, I did not drift in a painless state of gentle detachment. But I did have the experience of a certain doubleness in my awareness. While part of me was howling with pain, another part was busy assessing the damage, noting the details, and wondering at the strangeness of my new reality.

Thanks be to God, I was soon supplied with angels of mercy—three students, plus a nurse who had finished her shift at a Catholic hospital only two blocks away. These angels helped me hobble to the emergency room. After two days in hospital, I was on the highway home with my wife at the wheel. Three and a half weeks later, I’m pretty much back to normal life while awaiting the orthopedic verdict on a displaced clavicle.

“I am myself the matter of this book,” said Montaigne of his immense and influential collection of essays. Although his voice is very personal in its wide-ranging reflections on self and world, vivid stories about himself are rare in his writings. Many have attributed the inclusion of his riding accident to its significance as a turning point for Montaigne. A year after his fall, he would withdraw from the world for a life of reading, thinking, and writing. For the next 22 years until his death, he spent the majority of his days philosophizing in the stone tower adjacent to his house.

His near-death experience had produced a clarity of purpose. Close encounters with extinction tend to focus the mind on what truly matters. Since I’m not going to be here that long, how shall I spend the time that remains? But what happened to Montaigne was more than a sense of heightened resolve. It also sparked a new perception of how consciousness works. Hampl describes this pivotal shift:

“In being knocked off his horse, he experienced the doubleness necessary to empower personally voiced writing. He experienced the fall—but he also observed the fall. Both. In separate but related strands of consciousness he experienced, and he saw the experience.”[b]

Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592)

Hampl compares Montaigne’s fall to the conversion of Saul. While the Book of Acts (9:1-6) says only that Saul “fell to the ground” in the face of blinding revelation, Caravaggio’s biblical painting makes it a fall from a horse, dramatizing the image of transformation as a great tumble from the heights of control and self-assurance, terminating in a shocking, shattering thud. Thus did Saul become Paul, someone altogether new. 

As for Montaigne, he might not have invented the personal essay had he not first been knocked silly, discovering in the process that the self is not just trapped within its own individual experience, but is capable of a larger, less narcissistic, more reflective understanding of mind and world. As Hampl writes, Montaigne’s head wound “gave him a new, enlarged consciousness. In his Essais he found the purpose of this self: to see and then to say. The personal essay was born of a smack upside the head.”[c]

Montaigne’s fall changed the course of his life, but it also changed his relation to death. He struggled with the fear of it through the loss of his father, brother, best friend and five infant daughters, not to mention the persistent slaughters of the religious wars. But when, in the first hours after his fall, he hovered in a strangely tranquil state of letting go, death appeared to have a “friendly face.” It seemed no longer a feared stranger or an impersonal nullification, but a companion as near to us on our first day as our last. 

For the rest of his life, the embrace of our mortality would be a recurring theme. His essay, “To philosophize is to learn how to die,”[d] offers various perspectives to help us live with death:

To begin depriving death of its greatest advantage over us, let us adopt a way clean contrary to that common one; let us deprive death of its strangeness; let us frequent it, let us get used to it … Whenever a horse stumbles, a tile falls, or a pin pricks, let us at once chew over this thought: ‘Supposing that was death itself?”

Why are you afraid of your last day? It brings you no closer to your death than any other did. The last step does not make you tired: it shows that you are tired. All days lead to death: the last one gets there.

‘Leave this world,’ Nature says, ‘just as you entered it. The same journey from death to life, which you once made without suffering or fear, make it again from life to death. Your death is a part of the order of the universe; it is part of the life of the world.’

I want Death to find me planting my cabbages, neither worrying about it nor the unfinished gardening. I once saw a man die who, right to the last, kept lamenting that destiny had cut the thread of the history he was writing when he had only got up to our fifteenth or sixteenth king!

Que sais-je?

And what has my own fall produced in me? I am not Paul. I am not Montaigne. But after that close encounter with the precipitous boundary of my existence, can I remain the same person I was before my short flight into the unexpected? 

The meanings of that Oregon night are still sinking in. Time will tell what I will make of them, or what they will make of me. As Montaigne always said, “Que sais-je?” [e]



[a] Michel de Montaigne, “On Practice,” in The Complete Essays, trans. M. A. Screech (London and New York: Penguin Books, 2003), II:6, pp. 416-427.

[b] Patricia Hampl, The Art of the Wasted Day (New York: Viking, 2018), 214.

[c] Ibid., 215-216.

[d] The Complete Essays, I:20, pp. 96, 107, 103, 99.

[e] Montaigne’s motto (“What do I know?”) reflected his suspicion of certainty and final conclusions, and his inquisitive open-mindedness.

Summer Reading

The New Novel (Winslow Homer, 1877)

Summer reading has a leisurely reputation, way up there with other genteel activities such as croquet and badminton and wildflower gathering. The act of reading has historically been considered a privilege, and summer reading is privilege taken to an extreme. Just the image of a reader in summer brings to mind something sensual and luxurious. We picture the reader outdoors only, arranged in some bucolic setting: forest or beach or yard.

–– Meg Wolitzer, “The Summer Reading List”

 

When Meg Wolitzer was twelve, she belonged to the local library’s Summer Reading Club, whose members agreed to read at least ten books during the long break from school. “Ten,” she exclaims. “We say the number with true disdain. Ten is nothing; ten is what we have ripped through before the first week in July. . .”

At summer’s end, the club newsletter published the names of the youthful readers along with the titles of all the books each has read. The library threw a party to celebrate their accomplishment, and hired a magician for entertainment. But the kids paid little heed to the performer on stage, for they were still “lost in plots, characters, populated worlds that we’ve plowed through during the hottest days of summer. We all know that there is something magical about the sudden voracity that’s been implanted in us.”

As an adult, Wolitzer still begins her summers with a visit to the library, randomly browsing the stacks until a book’s title or author calls to her. “If it does, then I pick up the book and look at the opening pages. . . I stand and read a little way in, trying to imagine myself surrounded by greenery, keeping company with this book for hours at a time. Is this prose I want to lie down with? I ask. Is this a voice I want to hear murmuring in my ear throughout the longest days of summer?” [i]

I’ve always identified with Wolitzer’s lovely essay, for the selection of summer reading is as critical to the season as compiling our travel itinerary or mapping my annual backcountry pilgrimage. What voices do I want to keep me company in the hammock, on the beach, or by the wilderness lake?

In these brilliant, languorous days of late July in Puget Sound, I am anxious to rise from the desk where I write this in order to rejoin my books out in the garden. But first let me share something of what I have found in two of this year’s summer reads.

Kathleen Hill’s thoughtful memoir, She Read to Us in the Late Afternoons, devotes each chapter to a single book, exploring who and where she was when she read it, and the ways in which that book has both illuminated and altered her own story. In her reflection on Henry James’ Portrait of a Lady, she pens a reader’s credo:

“Not so long ago I’d been afraid of living wholly inside of books. Fear of the unlived life had propelled me out of them. Reading, I thought, was a substitute for living, a sphere apart in which the reader underwent the characters’ lives rather than her own. . . And yet here I was, sitting on the verandah with [Portrait of a Lady]. . . pondering Isabel’s life as a way of pondering my own. What could this mean? It was as if I needed a novel, after all, to decipher events. Life was too fluid to reflect on, too transient. One state of feelings replaces another too quickly. . . But in the pages of a novel, time is slowed down so that you can feel within yourself what is transpiring. You can stop, you can ponder. And then see. In reading, you can find yourself where you are. Had I been mistaken, then, to think that reading must lead me away from life rather than toward it?” [ii]

A very different memoir, John Kaag’s American Philosophy: A Love Story, explores the dilemmas of his personal narrative through the lens of great thinkers of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. It was a perfect book to read last week beside Minnesota’s Lake Pepin, a wide stretch of the Mississippi River where my grandfather Charles Friedrich built a summer home still occupied by his descendants from Memorial Day to Labor Day.

“What the river says, that is what I say,” wrote William Stafford. And oh, with what pleasure did I sit on the sandy beach of “Friedrich Point,” regarding the immense flow of water through the heartland while mind and heart absorbed the deep currents of wisdom running through Kaag’s pages:

“The think, am, is, since Descartes, the basic mistake of all knowledge; thinking is not my thinking, and being is not my being, for everything is only of God or of the totality.” (Friedrich Schelling) [i]

“Love, recognizing germs of loveliness [even] in the hateful, gradually warms it into life, and makes it lovely.” (Charles Sanders Peirce) [ii]

“Life consists everywhere in a repetition of the fundamental paradox of consciousness. In order to realize what I am, I must, as I find, become more than I am or than I know myself to be. I must enlarge myself, conceive myself as in external relationships, go beyond my private self, presuppose the social life, enter into [the inevitable] conflict, and, winning the conflict, come nearer to realizing my unity with my deeper self.” (Josiah Royce) [iii]

“Have you then a discontent with your thought-horizon? If it is not a mere discontent but at the same time an earnest aspiration, there are goods in store for you whether you seek them among the mountains of philosophy or elsewhere. I wish I might lead you to some peak of vision, but it is seldom that I feel myself more than a wanderer––a climber.” (William Ernest Hocking in a letter to Agnes O’Reilly, his future wife) [iv]

The heart of Kaag’s book is his deeply personal search for healing and meaning. In the middle of his own Dantean dark wood––“so drear, so rank, so arduous a wilderness! Its very memory gives shape to fear”­­­––he chanced upon a dilapidated stone library in a New Hampshire forest.[vii]

The library is part of “West Wind,” the old 400-acre estate of William Ernest Hocking (1873-1966), a Harvard philosopher who grounded transcendental idealism in the empirical method of American pragmatism. “That which does not work is not true,” he declared. Over the years, he had amassed an extensive collection of precious philosophical works, which had never been donated or dispersed. In the quiet backcountry of New England, Hocking’s books remained exactly as he had left them fifty years ago.

Hocking’s descendants were not around, but the library, seeming dilapidated and forgotten, was unlocked. Upon entering, Kaag discovered an astonishing number of first editions from Descartes and Kant to William James and Josiah Royce, along with handwritten notes and inscriptions by Emerson, Whitman and Frost. It seemed philosophy’s equivalent of the Grail Chapel in Arthurian legend, a phantasmagoric no-place where all questions end and all desires are known. Or perhaps it bore greater resemblance to the long-deserted dining room in Great Expectations. Like Miss Haversham’s forlorn wedding cake, its rare and valuable volumes were being eaten away by mice, insects, moisture and time.

With the blessing of Hocking’s descendants, Kaag began to catalog and preserve what he could, a long process in which his own wounded story was critically examined and ultimately healed.

“West Wind taught me many things,” he wrote. “About longevity in the face of destruction, about dealing with loss, about love and freedom, but also about the discipline of philosophy. Philosophy, and the humanities more generally, once served as an effective cult of the dead––documenting, explaining, and revitalizing the meaning and value of human pursuits. It tried to figure out what is most worthy about us. At its best, philosophy tried to explain why our lives, so fragile and ephemeral, might have lasting significance.” [viii]

Kaag grounded his quest in the fundamental question posed by William James in an 1895 lecture to a student assembly in Harvard’s Holden chapel. His question was, “Is Life Worth Living?” And how did James answer? Maybe. It all depends on the choices and commitments of those who live it. The universe is still wild, untamed, and “half-saved,” he said. And maybe our own commitment to the divine work of redeeming it is a prerequisite, or at least a catalyst, for transformation:

“And to trust our religious demands means first of all to live in the light of them, and to act as if the invisible world which they suggest were real. . . It is only by risking our persons from one hour to another that we live at all. And often enough our faith beforehand in an uncertified result is the only thing that makes the result come true. . . [God’s own self], in short, may draw vital strength and increase of very being from our fidelity. For my own part, I do not know what the sweat and blood and tragedy of this life mean, if they mean anything short of this.” [ix]

Dogmatists may debate whether this grants too much capacity to mortals, undermining our sense of dependence upon grace. I prefer to understand the “maybe,” and our willingness to stake our lives on it, as grace’s natural habitat, and Love’s most perfect work.

Well the day is half gone. So is the summer. What shall I read now? Sebastian Barry’s On Canaan’s Side, an “elegiac” novel my sister just sent me in the mail? Or how about Amelia Gray’s “stunning” and “heavenly” new novel about Isadora Duncan? What else is lying around, crying for my attention? Bijan Omrani’s Caesar’s Footprints: Journeys Through Roman Gaul? Andre Malraux’s art history classic, The Voices of Silence? Edward Sanders’ 1968: A History in Verse? Devin McKinney’s “great metaphysical soup” and “white-hot prose” in The Beatles in Dream and History? David Orr’s Beautiful and Pointless: A Guide to Modern Poetry? Or has the moment come at last to pick up what R. Crumb calls “a crazy idea for a book”: How to Read Nancy, a lavishly learned critique of Ernie Bushmiller’s “perfect comic strip” by Paul Karasik and Mark Newgarden?

What the hammock says, that is what I say.

 

 

 

[i]Meg Wolitzer, “The Summer Reading List,” in Summer, ed. Alice Gordon & Vincent Virga (Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley Publishing Company, 1990), 59-63.

[ii]Kathleen Hill, She Read to Us in the Late Afternoons (Encino, CA: Delphinium Books, 2017), 116.

[iii]John Kaag, American Philosophy: A Love Story (New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2016), 167.

[iv]Ibid., 147.

[v]Ibid., 168-69.

[vi]Ibid., 171-72.

[vii] The quote is from Dante’s Inferno I:4-6 (John Ciardi translation). Kaag structures his book into three sections reflecting the triadic progress of the Divine Comedy: Hell, Purgatory, Redemption.

[viii]Kaag, 234.

[ix]William James, “Is Life Worth Living?”, delivered at Holden Chapel, Harvard University, April 15, 1895 (https://archive.org/stream/islifeworthlivin00jameuoft/islifeworthlivin00jameuoft_djvu.txt)

Dante and Lewis Carroll Walk Into a Dark Wood

Dante goes astray in a dark wood (Gustave Dore, 1870)

When I used to read fairy tales, I fancied that kind of thing never happened,
and now here I am in the middle of one!

–– Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

The economy of nightmare demands waking.

–– Gillian Beer, Alice in Space

 

We’re trapped in a nightmare and we can’t wake up. America’s ruling faction, supported by 75% of white evangelicals and 40% of American voters, seems pretty much OK with planetary suicide, racism, misogyny, militarism, authoritarianism, plutocracy, kleptocracy, blatant corruption, sexual assault and possibly even treason. The norms of democracy, truth and decency remain under sustained assault by the Trump crime family. Cruelty and violence against the “other” are on the rise, inflamed by the preachers of hate. As W. H. Auden wrote in another dark time (1941-42):

The evil and armed draw near;
The weather smells of their hate
And the houses smell of our fear.[i]

We organize, march, resist. We yearn for Mueller’s evidence and November’s Armageddon (though anxiously mindful of voter suppression, racial gerrymandering, Russian hacking and White House lawlessness). But even if we manage to throw the current rascals out, over a third of America will still be in love with disturbing ideas and ruinous behaviors. Malevolent lunacy is no longer confined to the fringes of American society. It has been openly embraced, endorsed, nurtured and exploited by the leaders and voices of the right, and it will not return to the shadows willingly––or, I fear, very soon.

The actions of the ruling powers now appear utterly contrary to normative assumptions about ethics, rationality and common decency. How can they be saying such horrid and crazy things? How can they be doing such horrid and crazy things? The United States has become a land of crippling nonsense.

Many of us feel as bewildered and indignant as Alice lost in Wonderland, where rules of logic and truth no longer apply. Her frustrated complaint about the chaotic croquet game could be a current op-ed column from the Washington Post: “I don’t think they play at all fairly . . . and they don’t seem to have any rules in particular: at least, if there are, nobody attends to them.”[ii]

Wonderland’s fascistic Queen is possessed by what Lewis Carroll described as “ungovernable passion––a blind and aimless Fury.”[iii] Sound familiar? As critic Gilian Beer describes Carroll’s dystopian fantasy, in the violent atmosphere of the tyrant’s court “there are rules but no order, voices but no listening, and assertions but no evidence.” The Queen of Hearts––long before Twitter––shouts “her mantra of ‘Off with their heads’ at the slightest show of resistance or misunderstanding.”[iv] In such a world, reasoned discourse is fruitless, and all our certainties come into question.

In Wonderland’s sequel, Through the Looking Glass, young Alice does her best to establish a sense of firm reality within the unstable flux of Lewis Carroll’s narrative world. But Tweedledee infects her with radical doubt, telling her she’s only a figment of the Red King’s dream.

“I am real!” said Alice and began to cry.

“You won’t make yourself a bit realer by crying,” Tweedledee remarked: “There’s nothing to cry about.”

“If I wasn’t real,” Alice said––half-laughing through her tears, it all seemed so ridiculous––“I shouldn’t be able to cry.”

“I hope you don’t suppose those are real tears!” Tweedledum interrupted in a tone of great contempt.[v]

Of course, Alice herself has been dreaming, and when she wakes up she sensibly declares: “I don’t like belonging to another person’s dream.” And with that her story ends, at which point the reader awakens as well, suddenly restored to the more stable “reality” of his or her familiar environment. But is that environment, the world in which we habitually live and move and have our being, just another dream as well? Can we rely on it? Can we trust it? Or must we wander forever in a hall of distorting mirrors, an endless maze of competing fictions and conflicting interpretations?

Several centuries of epistemological doubt have severed the connection between words and things. Language and narrative are reduced to a play of arbitrary signs which say and mean whatever we want, with no necessary connection to real things or proven facts. In the objectless virtuality of the Internet Age, the world is not directly encountered, but only imagined. “Reality” becomes a construction produced by the subculture of our choice––or the choice of those who manipulate our thinking.

Reality in such a circumstance is no longer a communicable experience which can be shared between opposing world-views. I, for example, am unable to comprehend the cruelty of the immigration storm troopers, the poisonous malice of the EPA administrator, or the murderous greed of the gun lobby. But in the world imagined by such people, it all makes perfect sense. As far as I know they all sleep with untroubled consciences. That’s why shame has proven such a feeble weapon of resistance. The liars, the haters and the destroyers take pleasure in what they do.

I suppose we can find some small hope in conservatives’ visceral reaction to Michelle Wolf’s monologue at the White House correspondents’ dinner last week. When the comedian held up a mirror to Trumpian vulgarity, skewered the hypocrisy and heartlessness of the ruling powers, and named liars for what they are, the tuxedoed elite showed at least a vestigial capacity to be ashamed, resulting in a lot of misdirected anger but alas no repentance.

Michael Certeau, a French Jesuit thinker (d. 1986), said we have become a “recited society,” where “people believe what they see and what they see is produced for them.”[vi] Like Alice, a society of spectators belongs to dreams manufactured by others. But unlike Alice, many of us are finding it difficult to wake up. Or as Graham Ward summarizes Certeau’s diagnosis of our preference for representations of reality over reality itself (the “object”):

“We defer the truth about the object to other experts, whom we have never seen nor can substantiate. These hidden experts in whom we put our trust enable us to accept as credible that which we are told is true. The space we as believers inhabit then is a space of ‘consumable fictions.’”[vii]

Who will rescue us from this body of death?[viii] Is there no exit from the infinite maze of fatal illusions? Can we glimpse any possible truth beyond the self-referential confines of human imagination?

In his sublime Commedia, Dante trod the perilous pilgrimage from illusion toward ultimate reality. By narrating his journey from the selva oscura (”dark wood”) of human ignorance, folly and sin into the radiant smile of divine Love, he made his supreme fiction a vehicle for transcending every fiction, including his own.

O you who have sound intellects,
consider the teaching which hides itself
behind the veil of these strange verses. (Inferno ix.61-63)

Let me suggest a few insights from the Inferno to provide perspective on our own predicament. First of all, the very structure of Hell clarifies the taxonomy of sin. The lower you go, the worse the offense. The upper level contains the “incontinent,” those whose will to resist evil and do good was weak or distorted. The next level down contains the violent, those who could not control the raging beast within them.

But the lowest level (occupying fully half of the Inferno’s text!) is reserved for the fraudulent and the treacherous, who didn’t just make bad choices or surrender to impulse. These are they who deliberately undermined the foundations of human community, which needs mutual good faith and trustworthy behavior to function in a healthy way. When lies become the common speech and there is no reliable shared reality, we are all in the deepest pit of hell.

The Inferno also raises questions of salvation and forgiveness. If we recoil at the apparent theology of eternal punishment so vividly described by the poet, we must remind ourselves that the Commedia is a fiction, using unreal means to convey real truth. As St. Augustine warned biblical literalists, “Whatever appears in the divine Word that can be referred to neither virtuous conduct nor to the truth of faith must be taken to be figurative.”[ix] Or as Dante scholar William Franke puts it, “the fantastic story exists for the sake of something that is supposed to be learned from it.”[x] In other words, the Inferno is about something other than the anger of a merciless god.

So what are we to learn from the troubling images of infernal suffering? Franke observes that “the inhabitants of Dante’s Inferno are consistently shown to be damned by their own self-interpretation, their eternally stubborn resistance in refusing to understand themselves as God sees them.”[xi] At best, they continue to romanticize their illusions and idealize their failings. At worst, they cling to their bitterness and rage. Either way, says the poem, if you have no desire to be transformed, go to hell.

But Dante’s poem is comedy, not tragedy, and the stasis of sin is not our fate. We are, in fits and starts, on the move toward bliss––but by no power of our own. Throughout this life and beyond, we are ultimately drawn and driven by Love divine.

The way may be rough and steep, and Dante the pilgrim suffers the trials of every pellegrino. He grows weary, succumbs to fear, wants to turn back, encounters insurmountable obstacles. And yet, by the grace of God, he finds his way, even when there is no way.

As for Dante the poet, neither the insufficiencies of language or of human intellect can prevent the poet––or the reader––from the prize of beatific vision. But it is hard to accept our limited capacities. From the depths of hell, Dante laments the impossibilities of his journalistic task:

Surely every tongue would fail,
for neither thought nor speech
has the capacity to hold so much.  (Inferno xxviii.4-6).

Even in the final canto of Paradiso, Dante is still confessing––repeatedly––how little justice his words can do to grasp and convey divine experience. But in the Commedia’s final lines, he lets go of language at last and simply abandons himself to “the Love that moves the sun and all the other stars.”

And to all who still languish in Alice’s nightmare, Dante’s Inferno, Trump’s America, or the particular thickets of our own dark wood, the Spirit and the bride say,

Come!

 

 

 

 

 

[i] W.H. Auden, For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio, in Collected Poems, ed. Edward Mendelson (New York: Random House, 1976), 272.

[ii] Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, q. in Gillian Beer, Alice in Space: The Sideways Victorian World of Lewis Carroll (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016), 192-3.

[iii] Lewis Carroll, q. in Beer, 208.

[iv] Beer, 204.

[v] Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass, q. in Beer, 161.

[vi] Graham Ward on Certeau’s The Practice of Everyday Life (1984), in Cities of God (London & New York: Routledge, 2000), 73.

[vii] Ward, Cities of God. The quoted phrase is from Michael Certeau, Culture in the Plural (1997), q. in Graham, 74.

[viii] Romans 7:24.

[ix] St. Augustine, in William Franke, Dante’s Interpretive Journey (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996), 86.

[x] Franke, 86.

[xi] Ibid., 106.

 

Citations from Dante’s Commedia are from Robert and Jean Hollander’s marvelous translations (New York: Doubleday: Inferno 2000, Paradiso 2007).