Love Among the Ruins: Roberto Rossellini’s “Journey to Italy”

Alex (George Sanders) and Katherine (Ingrid Bergman) on the road to Naples.

Alexander:       “Where are we?”
Katherine:       “Oh, I don’t know exactly.”

— Opening lines of Journey to Italy

 

The first shot of Roberto Rossellini’s 1954 film, Journey to Italy, is through the windshield of a speeding Bentley on an open stretch of country road. It is an image of pure velocity, revealing neither origin nor goal, but only the fact of motion. Inhabiting the subjective eye of the camera, we know only that we are rushing forward, out of the past, into the unknown.

Then we see who is inside the car. Alex and Katherine Joyce are Londoners, on their way to Naples to sell a villa inherited from their Uncle Homer. We deduce from their clothes—his tweed jacket and her leopard-skin coat—that they are a couple of means, accustomed to shaping their own story. But the names “Joyce” and “Homer,” invoking the great voyager Ulysses, suggests that their journey will take them beyond the familiar into the land of unknowing. “Where are we?” “Oh, I don’t know exactly.”

For the Joyces, Naples, along with nearby Vesuvius and Pompeii, is radically elsewhere—neither Rome nor Milan, and certainly not London. In the Italian south, modernity has not erased the archaic remnants of mythic memory or silenced the primal voices of earth, sea, and sky. The ancient past is not dead and gone. It speaks through rituals and ruins. It erupts from the depths of history, utters forgotten tongues.

Time slows in the south. The north’s purposeful hurry dissipates beneath the Neapolitan sun. The forward rush of the opening scene is replaced by aimless drift. A firm sense of story—beginning, middle, and end—dissipates into Mediterranean languor. The eventful developments we expect from movie narrative are absent. Like Dante in the dark wood, Alex and Katherine have strayed from the straight road of storytelling. They have lost their way.

The Italian south doesn’t create their malaise; it reveals it. “I’m getting sick of this crazy country,” Alex complains. “It poisons you with laziness. I want to get back home, back to work.” Without the familiar fictions of their London life, the habitual doings and distractions which postpone the honest reckonings of a hungry heart, they find themselves face to face with the alienation, egoism and fatigue of a failing marriage. They hardly know what to say to each other. When they do, the words are often abrasive or wounding.

Rossellini’s leads were actors whose own lives were in emotional disarray. Both Ingrid Bergman (Katherine) and George Sanders (Alex) had recent divorces, and Bergman’s current affair with Rossellini—a scandal at the time—was coming apart. She was tearful on the set. Sanders, recruited precisely for his sour and cynical manner, was also unhappy. With his biggest roles behind him, what was he doing with a largely nonprofessional cast in a low-budget art film?

Rossellini’s practice of handing out dialogue at the last minute kept his actors off balance, so they couldn’t overthink their performance in advance . Trained in the conventions of Hollywood’s highly scripted and plot-driven narratives, Bergman and Sanders often seem at a loss in a film where so little happens. His confusion and her uncertainty infused their roles with authenticity, blurring the line between fiction and documentary.

“All those shots of eyes looking.” —Jacques Rivette

“The film opens a breach and all cinema on pain of death must pass through it.”

— Jacques Rivette on Journey to Italy [i]

Journey is more than the story of a marriage. Its wider theme is the malady of the secular age. Both Alex and Katherine are imprisoned within themselves, unable to connect with each other or the world. To borrow a phrase from Jean-Luc Godard, they are “castaways of the western world, survivors of the shipwreck of modernity.” [ii]  Journey would pave the way for a cinema of alienation, haunted with the ghostly nonbeing of lives “lacking in purpose, in passion, in zest, in a sense of community, in ordinary human responsiveness, in the ability to communicate.…” [iii]

This was a new kind of cinema, born of twentieth-century trauma. After the Holocaust and Hiroshima, it became impossible to limit the art of film to self-contained stories, within which the actors can take action to resolve problems and produce definitive and satisfying conclusions. The damage and disfigurement of humanity, its existential crisis and utter lostness, had to find authentic representation in movies about “nothing.” That is to say, their true subject would not be a narrative but a condition.

French film scholar Antoine de Baecque writes about the impact on filmmakers of the shocking footage shot during the liberation of the Nazi death camps. The idea of “aestheticizing horror” through fictional recreations of the camps seemed obscene at the time. “I could never do that,” said American director Samuel Fuller. “How can you do it better than the Germans?”[iv]  But those terrible images lodged themselves permanently in the psyches of directors like Rossellini, Antonioni, Resnais and Godard. As de Baecque writes:

“These images born of the war, which deeply marked cinema and filmmakers at the time, did a kind of subterranean work, a ‘reworking’ so to speak, subconsciously—since they never actually appear in postwar films—and then resurfaced in films (often ten years later) in definite forms, like traumatic memory that, little by little, had bored its way into the history of cinema. An art form had lost its innocence, and the great auteurs would no longer be making the same kinds of films.” They could only “return to the real by getting out of the studio to film the world.” [v]

Skulls of unknown dead at the cave cemetery of Fontanelle in Naples.

In Journey, the memory of death resurfaces again and again. We see the charnel house skulls in a Naples cemetery, a funeral cortège rounding a corner to block our progress, and the ruins of Pompeii, where a thousand Romans were buried alive by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 A.D. Even when Alex and Katherine bask in the pleasant Mediterranean sun, the volcano looms behind them as a reminder of mortality.

Sunbathing at Homer’s villa, with Vesuvius in the background.

Two people have lost their way in a world of death. Is there no exit? The spirituality of Naples wants to speak, but Alex has no ears to hear, no curiosity beyond his enclosure of self-absorption. Katherine, however, proves more adventurous. When she drives into Naples from the villa, the film cuts between her “entombment” inside the car and the fecundity of street life all around her—strolling lovers, pregnant women, sidewalk vendors. The contrast between the carefully composed studio shot of Katherine behind the wheel and the cinéma vérité footage of the street creates an unstable mix of fiction and documentary. The wall between herself and a wider reality is starting to crumble.

The polished studio shot of Katherine encased in her car contrasts with the documentary realism of the street scenes around her.

“That’s what God is for, to make our lies truth.”

— Iris Murdoch, The Good Apprentice

In writing about the novels of Iris Murdoch, theologian Paul S. Fiddes describes the ‘unselving’ of self-enclosed characters. He could be writing about the Joyces as well. Like Murdoch’s protagonists, they “learn, or fail to learn, to be truthful, which means giving attention to what is real around them. At one level … this means noticing people as they actually are, rather than as we want them to be for our convenience. It means delighting in all the contingent details of the world, recognizing the ‘otherness’ of people and things, and living with all the hazards of accident. At the very least the disciples of goodness accept the ‘muddle’ of the world, and at the best they experience its amazing variety as being the Sublime.” [vi]

Katherine’s tourist itinerary of Naples thus becomes something more: a journey into the depths of the past—the cave of an ancient Sibyl, an ossuary of anonymous skulls, galleries of Roman sculpture, the ruins of Pompeii. Here she begins to face what Rose Macaulay called “the ruins of the soul; the shadowy dreams that lurked tenebrously in the cellars of consciousness; in the mysterious corridors and arcades of dreams, the wilderness that stretches not without but within.” [vii] Remnants of a vanished past, signifying the paradoxical dance of time and eternity, interrogate the meaning of her present existence. As we are now, so you shall soon be. What are you doing with the tiny slice of time you’ve been given? When you’re gone, what remains?

In the archaeological museum, the eyes of the past interrogate the modern viewer.

 When Katherine looks at statues, they stare back. Who are you? The “I” of the camera, a third subjectivity, looks at both—at the statue, then at Katherine. In the museum and the other visited sites, the film becomes a documentary of Ingrid Bergman’s face, “a sensory surface on which the sounds and images are imprinted. The film appears to rest entirely on her reactions.” [viii]

When Katherine gazes into the sulphur pits of Vesuvius, where subterranean energies surface into visibility, we are reminded of Dante’s Inferno, the classic template for every descent into the soul’s hidden depths.

Katherine and her guide at the sulphur pits of Vesuvius.

Gustave Doré: Dante and Virgil in the 8th circle of hell.

The crisis point in Journey follows a bitter argument between Katherine and Alex. At the very moment Alex says the fatal word—“divorce”—they are interrupted by Burton, the villa’s property manager, who insists they come immediately to the excavation at Pompeii, where a pair of “bodies” is about to be uncovered.

When Pompeii was buried under six meters of volcanic ash two thousand years ago, its inhabitants died instantly. Their bodies dissolved over time, leaving hollow forms in the hardened ash. During the shooting of Journey to Italy, archaeologists were in the process of injecting plaster into those forms to recreate the ancient “bodies,” and Rossellini was allowed to film the fictional Joyces watching the real uncovering of a buried past.

“You must come!” Burton had told them. “Imagine—to actually see the shape of a man just as he was then, the moment when he was surprised by death.” In fact, what they do see is two people, a couple who took their last breath lying side by side as lovers.

The forms are real plaster, but at the same time they are fictional figures, reimagined into the visible from the empty shapes left behind by the dead. They are, in effect, tangible expressions of nothingness, which might also be said about the hollow and aimless lives of the Joyces. For any viewer, those plaster forms of vanished Pompeiians prompt unsettling meditations on life and death, presence and absence, and our own essential nothingness. I myself contemplated Pompeii’s plaster ghosts almost fifty years ago, and I can still recall the melancholy—and the fascination—those forms evoked in me. As Julian of Norwich put it in the 14th century, without divine love sustaining us in every moment, we would all sink into nonbeing.

Alex and Katherine watch the unearthing of the ancient couple at Pompeii.

What the Joyces behold, as they watch the archaeologists brush away the ash from the plaster forms, is history made visible. Staring into the abyss of time, they are confronted by the smallness and brevity of their own lives. Their own nothingness surfaces into awareness. The falsity of their solipsistic lives, independent of a larger world and ignorant of death, begins to give way.

The image of the ancient lovers is itself a shock, history’s rebuke to their own loveless marriage. Perhaps most terrible of all is the photographic nature of the forms, capturing a single instant of the past and removing it from the flow of time. The Roman lovers are a still image, frozen in a moment with no future. For Katherine and Alex, stuck in a hell of their own making, it displays the horror of an existence which cannot change, a deadness with no exit. They recognize themselves—sans embrace—in the plaster forms.

Katherine recoils and bursts into tears, demanding that they leave the site. As the couple descends a flight of ancient stairs to find their car, Katherine asks her husband, “Is this the way out?” It is another Dantean moment: the way down is the only way up.

Once back in their car, they try to put some distance between themselves and the place which has tried their souls. But the south will not let them go. Passing through the town of Maiori on the Amalfi Coast, they are blocked by a great crowd jamming the central square. It is a procession for San Gennaro, the only Christian festival to claim an annual miracle: the liquefication of the martyred bishop’s dried blood. The persistence of this claim in a skeptical age highlights the archaic strangeness of a region where the past seems so unperturbed by modernity. And in this land of miracles, Journey to Italy reaches its miraculous conclusion.

Unable to drive any further, Katherine and Alex get out their car, the symbol of their isolation from and control over exterior circumstance. Immersed in the teeming crowd, they seem nakedly exposed to the energies all around them. When Katherine is suddenly swept away by a surge of bodies, Alex runs to rescue her. They embrace. Suddenly—miraculously—awakening to a forgotten but genuine bond between them, they confess their folly and profess their love.

The miraculous reconciliation defies expectations.

It’s a Hollywood ending, but one in quotes, because this is a modernist work, where the real and ambiguous world insists on breaking into the neatly scripted story. If the revelations and crisis that preceded this moment only result in a happy ending for the couple, who might then resume their distance from the world if not each other, it is not a true unselving. It would allow the lie of autonomous lives to carry on.

Alex and Katherine embrace as the camera pulls away.

The film’s true miracle is not the “happy ending” of the Joyces’ embrace and the lovely closeup of famous movie stars. Rather, it is their disappearance into the larger world of humanity and history, and through that, into the ultimate mystery of the world, whom we call divine. And this miracle happens when the camera, on a crane, pulls away from the couple to sweep over the crowd. The Joyces are not forgotten, but they are now understood as part of a much larger world. But this world is not anonymous and impersonal. The uniquely personal remains undiminished in this great communion of mortal beings, as the final shot, now at eye level, watches face after face after face pass by, into a collective future that never stops unfolding.

Every age will see a film differently. I’ve watched Journey to Italy many times over the years, but viewing it during the pandemic has touched an existential nerve. Larger realities are breaking into our settled world, and we will never be the same. Our own Vesuvius looms on the horizon.

Film critic Laura Mulvey, in her commentary on the excavation scene, points out that cinema itself, not just particular films, confronts us with our mortality:

“The figures of the excavation are formed by an imprint left by the original. Film too is an imprint.…The presence of the human figure on celluloid is one more layer, one more trace of the past brought to life and preserved.… With the coming of death and the passing of time, Ingrid Bergman and George Sanders, as well as the passersby in Naples, are now themselves dead, their images fossilized on celluloid, just as the figures of Pompeii were cast in plaster.” [ix]

“Life is so short,” says Katherine among the ruins. And as today’s pandemic spreads its shadow over the earth, and climate change undermines the stability of the physical world, we too have become more conscious of our vulnerability and our brevity, and less able to maintain the illusion of untouched autonomous lives. We can no longer keep death at a safe distance; we dance every day on the razor’s edge between being and nonbeing. Who knows when we, too, will be “surprised by death?”

But in the long run of time, the question of my fate or your fate must give way to a larger perspective. We are all in this together, and—come what may—I believe we will, in the end, be gathered into the great procession of a redeemed humanity, shouting “Glory!” for all eternity. It will no longer be death that takes us by surprise, but grace.

Love among the ruins. “Life is so short.”

 

Journey to Italy (1954) is the third feature in a trilogy of “voyage” films which Rossellini made with Ingrid Bergman, who left a successful Hollywood career to make these art films—some of her best work—with the Italian director, with whom she would fall in love. All 3 films involve a transformative journey into an unfamiliar and challenging place—a barren island in Stromboli (1950), the world of the poor in Europe ’51 (1952), and the mysterious south of Italy in Journey. In the U.S., The Criterion Collection has produced a beautifully mastered box set of the Trilogy, with excellent commentaries, to which I am indebted, on the discs and in the booklet. Journey to Italy can be streamed, but (in the U.S. at least), it is available on disc only in the box set, which is definitely worth having if you love film.

 

[i] Cited in James Quandt’s commentary, “Surprised by Death: Roberto Rossellini’s Voyage Trilogy,” on the Criterion disc, 3 Films by Roberto Rossellini with Ingrid Bergman (2013). Rivette, along with Godard, Resnais, and Truffaut, would be greatly influenced by this film, and often praised it in their writings.

[ii] Godard is describing his own film, Contempt (1963), which was itself an hommage to Journey to Italy. Cited in Quandt’s commentary.

[iii] This quote from Richard Gilman’s “About Nothing—with Precision,” Theater Arts 46, no. 7 (July 1962), p. 11. Gilman is writing about another Italian director, Michelangelo Antonioni, who would take the theme of alienation to the limit in films like La Notte (1961), where the alienated couple remains stuck in their private hell, unlike the couple in Journey to Italy. Rossellini regarded Antonioni’s films as too pessimistic, but both filmmakers were dealing with the same modern malady: alienation, drift, and emptiness. Gilman is cited in Seymour Chatman, Antonioni, or, the Surface of the World (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1985),

[iv] Cited in Antoine de Baecque, Camera Historica: The Century in Cinema, trans. Ninon Vinsonneau & Jonathan Magidoff (New York: Columbia University, 2008), 68. Fuller shot footage for the U.S. Army during the liberation of the camp at Falkenau (you can find it on YouTube), but he never tried to recreate the horror in a fictional way. He did show his actors watching documentary footage in Verboten!(1959). The fictional shots pale when intercut with real images of mass death.

[v] Antoine de Baecque, 45.

[vi] Paul S. Fiddes, Freedom and Limit: A Dialogue between Literature and Christian Doctrine (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 1999), 173.

[vii] Rose Macaulay, The World My Wilderness (1950), cited in Christopher Woodward, In Ruins (New York: Pantheon Books, 2001), 231. Macaulay’s character is contemplating the bomb craters and ruined buildings in 1946 London. The remnants of past destruction bear thematic resemblance to Pompeii and evoke similar responses.

[viii] Antoine de Baecque, 65.

[ix] Laura Mulvey is a noted British film theorist. Her richly informative commentary is on the Criterion disc.

“The Worm That Gnaws the World”––Trump and the Problem of Evil

Dis gnaws the traitors in the pit of hell (Inferno 34), Codex Altonensis, Pisa, c. 1385.

Trump will eat your soul in small bites.

–– James Comey

What could I say, what could I do to help this wounded creature whose life seemed to be flowing away from some secret hurt?

–– Georges Bernanos, Diary of a Country Priest

 

In his timely essay on “The Psychology of Evil,” Frank Batavick summarizes M. Scott Peck’s diagnosis of evil as a personality disorder:

“Evil individuals programatically indulge in scapegoating, blaming personal problems or the problems of society on someone else or another class of people. That’s because the evil parties consider themselves above reproach and must deny their own badness. By lashing out against others and saying they see evil in them, they are able to transfer their guilt. Evil people are also unable to assume the viewpoint of their victims, and so they lack empathy for the hurt they have caused with their cruel words and deeds.”

Such “malignant narcissists” reject all criticism and repress all self-doubt. They cannot bear the pain of introspection. As “people of the lie,” they deceive themselves as well as everybody else. Their own will trumps all others, and they take no responsibility for the damage they do. As Peck put it, “It is said ‘neurotics make themselves miserable; those with character disorders make everyone else miserable.'” [i]

Our country was poorly prepared for such an “evil” person to be given the power of the Presidency. So far Trump has paid little price for defying norms and breaking laws. And his 10,000 lies (since being elected) go largely uncontradicted in the media, which simply repeat them without correction 65% of the time [ii], amplifying his corrosive disinformation many times over. Corruption, collusion, federal child abuse, a shameless war on the poor, the strangling of democracy, and the ravaging of planet earth are all met with a shrug by craven Senators and 40% of the electorate. Even our best-intentioned leaders lack effective means to contain the raging fires of fascism, tribal hatred, and climate suicide.

What’s going on now, what’s driving us all to the brink, seems more than one man’s “personality disorder.” It may be too late for therapy. We need an exorcism.

“The world of evil is so far beyond our understanding!” says Georges Bernanos’ fictional country priest. “Does the Monster [Satan] care that there should be one criminal more or less? Immediately he sucks down the crime into himself, makes it one with his own horrible substance, digests without once rousing from his terrifying eternal lethargy.”[iii]

Bernanos’ image of evil as an eater of souls, a black hole sucking everyone’s crime into its own “horrible substance” seems disturbingly apt for these times. None of us is exempt from its gravitational pull. Even as we resist its malignancy, we risk being tainted by it, feeding it with our own fascinated loathing. Gaze at it too long and your own heart turns to stone.

As Bernanos’ priest warns a young woman whose hatred for her father’s mistress is eating her own soul:

Who are you to condemn another’s sin? He who condemns sin becomes part of it, espouses it. You hate this woman and feel yourself so far removed from her, when your hate and her sin are two branches of the same tree. Who cares for your quarrels? Mere empty gestures, meaningless cries––spent breath. Come what may, death will soon have struck you both to silence, to rigid quiet. Who cares, if from now on you are linked together in evil, trapped all three in the same snare of vice, the same bond of evil flesh, companions––yes, companions for all eternity.”[iv]

 

Eugène Delacroix, Dante and Virgil in Hell (1822)

In the Divine Comedy, Dante finds the direct road to salvation blocked by three beasts: a leopard, a lion, and a wolf, representing “the three dispositions that heaven refuses”–– incontinence (obsessive lust for one’s own satisfaction), violence (the will to do harm, but also mindless rage) and fraud (hatred of truth and betrayal of trust). His only remedy is the downward path into the depths of the human shadow, facing the condition of our fallenness with honesty and humility.

Aided by a wise companion (Virgil) and protected by the powers of heaven, he makes his harrowing descent into the underworld. Along the way, various monsters and demons try to hinder his pilgrimage. The Minotaur tries to bully Dante and Virgil, but it becomes so consumed with “inhuman rage” that it loses focus. “Run past him while he’s going berserk,” shouts Virgil, and the pilgrims slip safely by.[v]

Further down, the hybrid form of Geryon, “that foul effigy of fraud,” seems even more daunting. “Behold the beast whose stench afflicts the world,” warns Virgil. Geryon has the face of “a righteous man, benevolent in countenance.” These are qualities seen nowhere else in hell, but Geryon’s disarming smile is only a mask. His body is that of a serpent (the archetypal deceiver) and his tail wields the poisonous sting of a scorpion. In classical myth, Geryon “enticed strangers to be his guests, only to kill and eat them.”[vi]

But while Dante is left by himself for a time to converse with dead souls, his guide (we know not how) manages to tame the beast, who consents to carry them into hell’s deepest place. It’s a frightening plunge into darkness, with only the blast of air against the poet’s face to measure the speed of their descent. Recalling the tragic images of Phaeton and Icarus falling to their deaths increases Dante’s sense of panic. “I thrust my head forward / and dared to look down the abyss. / Then I was even more afraid of being dropped, / for I saw fire and heard wailing, / and so, trembling, I hold on tighter with my legs.”[vii]

Facing his fear of the beast and accepting the dangers of the downward passage enable Dante to continue. As Helen Luke insists in her Jungian interpretation of the Inferno, the journey toward wholeness requires us to embrace our shadow and hold on tight. “[I]f we have the courage to see the true menace, and will consent to be aware of our own frauds, then Geryon becomes our servant and will carry us down on his back that we may look upon the roots of evil in the [human] psyche.”[viii]

And what does Dante find at hell’s deepest core? He finds Lucifer, or what is left of him, forever stuck in ice of his own making (the bitter wind generated by his flapping batwings freezes the outflow of infernal rivers). His single head has three faces, each with a different sickly hue. The mouth of each face chews without swallowing the body of a notorious traitor. Everything about him is a wretched parody of the Divine. The three faces parody the Trinity, the freezing wind parodies the life-giving breath of the Holy Spirit, the eternal chewing parodies the eucharist.

This is not the heroic and colorful rebel of Milton’s Paradise Lost, but a virtually lifeless thing without mobility, speech or thought. The “creature who had once been beautiful” is reduced to “the evil worm that gnaws the world.”[ix] Virgil calls him “Dis”––not a proper name, but a prefix: “away from,” “split-off,” “apart from,” as in “dis-ease” or “dis-order.”

Gustave Doré, Dis frozen in the lake of ice (1861)

Dante scholars Charles H. Taylor and Patricia Finley “dis” the king of hell as the epitome of brokenness : “The figure at the center of the realm of darkness symbolizes what is most split off from consciousness; separated into opposites the ego does not conjoin, giving rise to the psychological splitting and the paranoia that are at the core of destructive pathology. . . Dis stands frozen at the nadir of Hell as the emblem of lovelessness, the coldheartedness at the core of our deepest failures to be human.”[x]

In Perelandra, C. S. Lewis gives a similar diagnosis of Satan as “no longer a person of corrupted will,” but “corruption itself, to which will was attached only as an instrument. Ages ago it had been a Person; but the ruins of personality now survived in it only as weapons at the disposal of a furious self-exiled negation.”[xi]

What does all this add up to? Although these various literary and psychological descriptions of evil seem chillingly on the mark with respect to our current political situation, the point is not to demonize Trump. He is doing a fine job of that without our help, and he is a symptom more than a cause. As Gandalf says of Sauron in Lord of the Rings, “Other evils there are that may come; for Sauron is himself but a servant or emissary. Yet it is not our part to master all the tides of the world, but to do what is in us for the succor of those years wherein we are set, uprooting the evil in the fields that we know. . .”[xii]

And I make no claim for anyone’s innocence––not even the saints who “persevere in resisting evil.”[xiii] As Will Campbell has reminded us in his succinct summary of the Christian faith, “We’re all bastards but God loves us anyway.”[xiv] Or as Pete Buttigieg, the most theological of the new presidential candidates, told Time magazine recently,

“This idea that we just sort people into baskets of good and evil ignores the central fact of human existence, which is that each of us is a basket of good and evil. The job of politics is to summon the good and beat back the evil.”[xv]

Good and evil are not usual subjects for political discourse, but we live in apocalyptic times. Souls are at stake, the human future is at stake, and to ignore the spiritual dimension of our current crisis only gives the advantage to the malignant shadow trying to consume the world. Night is falling, and it is time to put on the armor of light.

But as the Bible says in its most political book, the battle will not be won by our own violent replica of the devouring beast, but by the wounded Lamb of self-diffusive love.[xvi] Bernanos’ compassionate priest is an incarnation of this sacrificial archetype:

“Truly, if one of us, a living man, the vilest, most contemptible of the living, were cast into those burning depths, I should still be ready to share his suffering, I would claim him from his executioner.”

But the priest is also realistic about the soul-eating alternative: “the sorrow, the unutterable loss of those charred stones which once were men, is that they have nothing more to be shared.”[xvii]

Trumeau (detail), St. Marie de Souillac, France, 12th century.

 

Related post: Dante and Lewis Carroll Walk Into a Dark Wood

 

[i] Frank Batavick: “The psychology of evil,” Carroll County Times, March 23, 2017. https://www.carrollcountytimes.com/columnists/opinion/ph-cc-batavick-032417-20170320-column.html

[ii] Matt Gertz & Rob Savillo, “Study: Major media outlets’ Twitter accounts amplify false Trump claims on average 19 times a day,” Media Matters, May 3, 2019. https://www.mediamatters.org/blog/2019/05/03/study-major-media-outlets-twitter-accounts-amplify-false-trump-claims-average-19-times-day/223572

[iii] Georges Bernanos, The Diary of a Country Priest (Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press, 2002), 144.

[iv] Ibid., 138-139.

[v]Inferno, Canto xii.

[vi] Robert and Jean Hollander, note on Canto xvii.1-3, in their translation of Dante’s Inferno(New York: Doubleday, 2000), 295.

[vii] Inferno, Canto xvii, Hollanders translation.

[viii] Helen Luke, Dark Wood to White Rose: Journey and Transformation in Dante’sDivine Comedy (New York: Parabola Books, 1989), 33.

[ix] Infernoxxxiv.108 (Hollander).

[x] Charles H. Taylor & Patricia Finley, Images of the Journey in Dante’s Divine Comedy (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997), 111.

[xi] C.S. Lewis, Perelandra (1943).

[xii] J.R.R. Tolkien, The Return of the King (London: The Folio Society, 1997), 162.

[xiii] From the baptismal vows in the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer (1979).

[xiv] Will Campbell, Brother to a Dragonfly (1975). In a conversation following the killing of Episcopal seminarian and Civil Rights martyr Jonathan Daniels, Campbell was asked to sum up Christianity’s message in 10 words or less. His response indicated that simply pointing the finger at the evil of others did not do justice to the shared condition––and salvation––of fallen humanity.

[xv] Buttegieg, an Episcopalian, has also referenced Christ’s washing of the disciples’ feet as model for serving the common good. Time interview is quoted here: https://www.dailykos.com/stories/2019/5/5/1855559/-Pete-Buttigieg-shut-down-homophobic-hecklers-then-got-support-from-a-surprising-sourceThe footwashing quote is here: https://www.realclearpolitics.com/video/2019/04/07/pete_buttigieg_hypocrisy_of_evangelical_christians_supporting_trump_is_unbelievable.html

[xvi] In Revelation, a beast uttering “haughty and blasphemous” words makes war on the saints. “Who is like the beast, and who can fight against it?” everyone wonders. God’s reply is not an angelic army, but the Lamb offered since the creation of the world (Rev. 13).

[xvii] Bernanos, 164.

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).