Tag Archives: George Steiner

To Reach the Opposite Side of the Shore: Dante’s Inferno

Dante’s Inferno Canto 3 lines 107-108, drawn by Gustave_Doré 1861-1865

Reading Eliot’s Daniel Deronda recently has inspired me to do a complete reread of Dante’s Divine Comedy which she brilliantly alludes to in her novel. It has been far too many years since I have looked at any part of that Italian masterpiece and I felt I ought to revisit it. I had three immediate, intense reactions to the first few Cantos of The Inferno, in Robert Kirkpatick’s translation, which I will share here. There is nothing new or earthshattering in my thoughts, these are simply my gut, instinct reactions to a text which I have come back to after many years.

First—how can I even put this–*Vergil. Yes, Vergil. I knew he was lurking everywhere in The Inferno but when I was younger and less experienced in translating The Aeneid I had no real appreciation for Dante’s reworking of and allusions to that Roman poet and his Epic. As I was slowly making my way through the Cantos, I kept thinking that—and I truly do not mean to offend with this statement—it is just not possible to have a deep appreciation for Dante without reading The Aeneid, or at least reading Books 1, 4 and especially 6 of The Aeneid. I highly recommend the Fagles, Fitzgerald or Ferry translations; or better yet, find a friend, neighbor, colleague, long lost family member or a lover who knows Latin and make them translate it for you from the original. Trust me—it will enhance your admiration for and understanding of the Divine Comedy like nothing else.

Secondly, as Vergil is showing Dante around the place before they get to the circles of Hell proper, they come upon a kind of limbo in which all of the important ancient authors dwell. This is Vergil’s own resting place (if you can call it that) and Dante specifically points out four other names he thinks are worthy of Vergil’s company: Homer, Horace, Ovid and Lucan. Yes, Lucan! I think that when I read The Inferno for the first time that I had no idea who Lucan was. But now that I am older and more experienced (certainly not wiser, just more experienced) his named jumped out at me and gave me such joy to see. Anyone who knows me well knows that I have a serious soft spot for Silver Age writing, especially Seneca and Lucan. I don’t think it’s necessary to read Lucan’s De Bello Civile to understand Dante’s references to this Roman epic, but I encourage you to read this masterpiece anyway. Dante has inspired me to pick up my Latin texts of Lucan and translate my favorite sections once again. More on Lucan in another post…

Finally, I was moved by Dante’s reworking of one of my favorite passages in Aeneid Book 6. When souls are lined up on the shores of the Styx, waiting for Charon to take them to their final resting place, Vergil describes them as a countless mob, desperate to reach the other side of the river where either the Elysian fields or Tartarus awaits them (3.305-312-translation is my own):

Here this entire, sprawling mob was rushing to the riverbanks—mothers and men and the bodies of great heroes devoid of any life, boys and unmarried girls, and young men placed on the funeral pyre before the very eyes of their parents: the number of souls standing there can be compared to the vast number of leaves in a forest, sliding from their places during the first frost of autumn, that fall to the ground; or to the many flocks of birds that are gathered on the land from the deep ocean, when the cold part of the season drives them across the sea and sends them to warmer climates. These souls stand there praying to be the first to make the crossing and stretching out their hands in great desire to reach the opposite side of the shore.

In Vergil’s underworld, however, an incalculable number of these souls will not be allowed to make the journey across the Styx and are doomed to roam about in a type of limbo; those whose bodies were never properly buried and any person that has committed suicide must tragically accept this fate of nothingness. Dante applies Vergil’s metaphor to his version of Hell in Canto 3 as Charon, too, is waiting to bring across a vast number of souls onto his raft to cross a black swamp. What I found chilling and brilliant and fascinating about Dante’s version is that these souls will all make it across, eventually, but this immense number of spirits are waiting to gain their entrance into The Inferno; this is not limbo, this is not a state of nothingness, this is a place where countless souls are waiting to enter into a state of pain, and suffering, pure Hell (106-118):

And then they came together all as one,
wailing aloud along the evil margin
that waits for all who have no fear of God.
Charon, the demon, with his coal-hot eyes,
glared what he meant to do. He swept all in.
He struck at any dawdler with his oar.
In autumn, leaves are lifted, one by one,
away until the branch looks down and sees
its tatters all arrayed upon the ground.
In that same way did Adam’s evil seed
hurtle, in sequence, from the river rim,
as bird’s that answer to their handler’s call.
They off they went, to cross the darkened flood.

I will conclude with a quote by George Steiner who says in his book Real Presences about the tradition of these epic masterpieces: “Virgil reads, guides our reading of, Homer as no external critic can. The Divine Comedy is a reading of The Aeneid, technically and spiritually ‘at home’, ‘authorized’ in the several and interactive senses of that word, as no extrinsic commentary by one who is himself not a poet can be.” Nothing has enhanced my reading of and awe for Vergil more, in recent memory anyway, than making my way slowly through the Divine Comedy.

*The Roman poet’s full name is Publius Vergilius Maro, so this name in English his name becomes Vergil. Gilbert Highet in The Classical Tradition, discusses the popularly of the misspelling, Virgil, which began early, possibly as the result of Vergil’s nickname Parthenias which was based on the poet’s sexual restraint. In the Middle Ages, the name Virgil was thought to refer to his magical (as in the virga magic wand) powers. For whatever reason, Virgil seems to be the popular way of spelling his name even today but I only use the original spelling of Vergil. I put this note here to stop anyone from correcting me on the spelling of his name which irks me to no end. I mean, come on. How can a classicist be accused of misspelling the name of one of antiquity’s most important authors! (It’s happened more times than I care to discuss.)

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A Colossal Drama: The Brothers Karamazov by Dostoevsky

Set design for The Brothers Karamazov for Jacques Copeau’s Théâtre du Vieux-Colombier by Louis Jouvet.

I found it a bit baffling at first that my reading experiences with  The Brothers Karamazov and War and Peace have been equally sublime and edifying even though they are written in such different styles.  I couldn’t quite grasp the difference between these novelists until I read George Steiner’s essay Tolstoy or Dostoevsky in which he compares the narrative of Tolstoy’s novels to epic and Homer and Dostoevsky’s to tragedy and drama.  For my mind these are the perfect analogies to describe the uniqueness of these Russian greats:

…More, perhaps, than those of any novelist of comparable dimension, Dostoevsky’s sensibility, his modes of imagination, and his linguistic strategies were saturated by drama.  Dostoevsky’s relationship to the drama is analogous, in centrality and ramification, to Tolstoy’s relationship to the epic.  It characterized his particular genius as strongly as it contrasted it with Tolstoy’s.  Dostoevsky’s habit of miming his characters as he wrote—like Dickens’s—was the outward gesture of a dramatist’s temper.  His mastery of the tragic mood, his “tragic philosophy,” were the specific expressions of a sensibility which experience and transmuted its material dramatically.  This was true of Dostoevsky’s whole life, from adolescence and the theatrical performance recount in The House of the Dead to his deliberate and detailed use of Hamlet and Schiller’s Räuber to control the dynamics of The Brothers Karamazov.  Thomas Mann said of Dostoevsky’s novels that they are “colossal dramas, scenic in nearly their whole structure; in them an action which dislocates the depth of the human soul and which is often packed into a few days, is represented in surrealistic and feverish dialogue…” It was recognized early that these “colossal dramas” could be adapted to actual performance; the first dramatization of Crime and Punishment was produced in London in 1910.  And referring to the Karamazovs, Gide remarked that “of all imaginative creations and of all protagonists in history none had been claims to being presented on a stage.”

When we read Aeschylus’s Agamemnon, we are not just experiencing the events of a day in the life of this father, son, husband and king; but we are witnessing all of the character traits of the House of Atreus, good and bad, that have seeped into his blood and his soul.  We are also given a hint as to the nature of his son’s soul which has equally been affected by these familial ties.  Similarly, in The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoevsky immediately launches us into a detailed account of the father, Fyodor, and his history of drunken and sexual debauchery.  And anytime one of his sons drinks excessively, seduces a woman, or is quick to anger Dostoevsky reminds us that this is a characteristic of a Karamazov.  I am not quite half way through the book yet, but I suspect that the inability of one or more of his sons to break from the father’s soul-destroying patterns will result in tragedy.

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The Kingdom of This World: Why Men Fight in War and Peace

The Battle of Schöngrabern. 1883.

As I am making my way through War and Peace, I can’t help but notice the similarities of theme, narrative techniques and even characters between Tolstoy’s epic and Homer’s Iliad.  I was glad to see in Steiner’s essay Tolstoy or Dostoevsky a small section explaining what Steiner feels is Homer’s significant influences on Tolstoy, not just in War and Peace, but in all of his writings, even his autobiographical pieces.  Steiner writes:

The Homer of the Iliad and Tolstoy are akin in yet another respect.  Their image of reality is anthropomorphic; man is the measure and pivot of experience.  Moreover, the atmosphere in which the personages of the Iliad and of Tolstoyan fiction are shown to us is profoundly humanistic and even secular.  What matters is the kingdom of this world, here and now.

This concentration of what Steiner calls an anthropomorphic reality is particularly evident in Tolstoy’s descriptions of why upper class men, accustomed to rich and pampered lives, voluntarily go to war and sacrifice their comfort for the Russian monarchy.  I have written in a previous post about the Ancient Greek concept of kleos (“glory” or “fame”)  which theme Homer weaves throughout his narrative.  In Bronze Age Greece kings and wealthy men also leave behind their families and relatively comfortable lives in order to fight at Troy and win kleos.  Homer’s Bronze Age warriors, however, want fame not only in this life but also in the next; they will give up their mortal existence in exchange for eternal glory.

Tolstoy’s heroes in War and Peace have motives similar to the warriors in the Iliad.  But I would argue that the men who are fighting the French in Tolstoy’s epic have incitements for battle that are more deeply anthropomorphic—of the here and now, as Steiner would say—than the Homeric heroes.  Tolstoy spends a great deal of time laying out both Prince Andrei’s and Count Rostov’s reasons for volunteering to fight in the war.  In my initial post, I discussed Prince Andrei’s dissatisfaction with his marriage and the boredom he feels while attending insipid society balls and parties.  Tolstoy, at first, describes the Prince as a man that wants something more exciting and meaningful in his life but it is not just boredom that is his driving force to step onto the battlefield.  We learn that Prince Andrei’s hero is, ironically, Napoleon himself, the very man against whom the Russians are fighting.  The Prince craves the recognition, fame and glory that is bestowed on this most famous of French commanders.  As an adjutant on General Kutuzov’s staff he prepares for the battle of Austerlitz and daydreams of earning his mark of greatness, no matter the cost:

‘Well then,’ Prince Andrei answered himself, ‘I don’t know what will happen and I don’t want to know, and can’t, but if I want this—want glory, want to be known to men, want to be loved by them, it is not my fault that I want it and want nothing but that and live only for that.  Yes, for that alone!  I shall never tell anyone, but, oh God! What am I to do if I love nothing but fame and men’s love?  Death, wounds, the loss of family—I fear nothing.  And precious and dear as many persons are to me—father, sister, wife–those dearest to me—yet dreadful and unnatural as it seems, I would give them all at once for a moment of glory, of triumph over men, of love from men I don’t know and never shall know, for the love of these men here,’ he thought, as he listened to voices in Kutuzov’s courtyard.

These words could just as easily have been spoken by Achilles or Hector in the Iliad.

Count Rostov, at the tender age of eighteen, also volunteers to be a part of the cavalry in the war against the French.  Rostov is more naïve and youthful than Prince Andrei, but he too is seeking fame and glory.  But there is a major difference between the type of fame that Prince Andrei and Rostov crave.  The Prince wants to be know by all men, but Rostov wants to be known by one man, in  particular, the Russian Emperor Alexander I.  Rostov gets his first glimpse of the Emperor while the army is on parade in front of their beloved leader.  Rostov can only be described as smitten at the sight of his sovereign and his sole motivation for fighting in the war is to distinguish himself and gain the notice of Alexander I.  The description of Rostov’s love for his Emperor, as the troops prepare for the battle of Austerlitz, is striking:

And Rostov got up and went wandering among the camp fires dreaming of what happiness it would be to die—not in saving the Emperor’s life (he did not even dare to dream of that) but simply to die before his eyes.  He really was in love with the Tsar and the glory of the Russian arms and the hope of future triumph.  And he was not the only man to experience that feeling during those memorable days preceding the battle of Austerlitz; nine-tenths of the men in the Russian army were then in love, though less ecstatically, with their Tsar and the glory of the Russian arms.

At the end of the tragic and horrendous battle, Rostov finds himself alone with the Tsar, but like a nervous lover, cannot bring himself to approach this great man:

But as a youth in love trembles, is unnerved, and dares not utter the thoughts he has dreamt of for nights, but looks around for help or a chance of delay and flight when the longed-for moment comes and he is alone with her, so Rostov, now that he had attained what he had longed for more than anything else in the world, did not know how to approach the Emperor, and a thousand reasons occurred to him why it would be inconvenient, unseemly and impossible to do so.

Tolstoy’s description of soldier as lover stuck me as an inverted example of Ovid’s theme of Militia Amoris (“soldier of love”) that he incorporates into the Amores.  The feelings of love and admiration in this context of battle deepen, I think, the anthropomorphic reality that pervades War and Peace.  But, like the Homeric heroes and Ovid as a lover, Tolstoy hints that, although these men have lofty, mortal goals, things will not turn out well for them.

 

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Flinging Open the Doors of Perception: My Initial Thoughts on War and Peace

George Steiner, in his book Tolstoy or Dostoevsky, writes: “Great works of art pass through us like storm-winds, flinging open the doors of perception, pressing upon the architecture of our beliefs with their transforming powers.”  Having read the first few hundred pages of War and Peace, I can already tell that this epic will reshape how I view other authors and works of literature.  There will be a marked difference in my reading life before Tolstoy and after Tolstoy.  I have to admit that I was apprehensive because my experience reading Anna Karenina several years ago was not as pleasant as I had hoped.  In retrospect it was a matter of choosing to read a book at the wrong time.  But my foray into War and Peace could not be more pleasurable.

Prince Andrei, the first born son of a stern, wealthy, bellicose old man, has especially captured my attention.  In the opening scene of the book he is attending a party with his pregnant, young wife, referred to in the test as the “little princess” and it is evident that he has no real affection or patience for her.  The Prince is dignified, taciturn and eager for a military career and his wife’s incessant and trivial babbling about social gossip irritates him.  When the Prince’s friend, Pierre, visits their home this young husband has some shocking advice for his single friend about marriage:

‘Never, never marry, my dear friend! That’s my advice: never marry till you can say to yourself that you have done all you are capable of, and until you have ceased to love the woman of your choice and have seen her plainly as she is, or else you will make a cruel and irrevocable mistake.  Marry when you are old and good for nothing—or all that is good and noble in you will be lost.  It will be wasted on trifles.  Yes! Yes! Yes!  Don’t look at me with such surprise.  If you marry expecting anything from yourself in the future you will feel at every step that for you all is ended, all is closed except the drawing room where you will be ranged side by side with a court lackey and an idiot!…But what’s the good!’ and he waved his arm.

It seems that both Prince Andrei and his wife feel stuck in this marriage and have realized too late, already with their first child on the way, that they are ill-suited for one another.  The little Princess would rather be in Moscow or Petersburg, going to parties and balls, and visiting with her friends, but instead she is forced to live in the country with her crotchety, old father-in-law and her pious sister-in-law, while her husband goes off to war.  Although the little Princess is depicted as being shallow and insipid , I still sympathized with her as well as Prince Andrei; both are stuck in this marriage for the sake of family and propriety and neither one of them are getting their needs met.  It’s interesting that Tolstoy wrote these words when his own marriage—one that would prove to be rather tumultuous—was only in its first few years.

In the first few hundred pages alone we get thoughts about marriage, love, life, war and death.  I have not been this captivated by a work of fiction in a very long time.  It is difficult to capture the brilliance of the entire books with these posts, but I am hoping to update my blog every few hundred pages with a focus on particular passages, like the one above, that catch my attention.  I also feel so lucky to have come upon George Steiner’s book length essay on Tolstoy which I will read eagerly alongside War and Peace.

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Arcs of Compressed Voltage: George Steiner on Heraclitus

Polymath George Steiner in his text entitled The Poetry of Thought: From Hellenism to Celan, ambitiously seeks to explore the tension between philosophy and language that has occupied western thinkers for millennia.  The author begins his essay with his thoughts on Heraclitus, the Presocratic philosopher whose fragmentary writing is notoriously enigmatic.  The Presocratics, and Heraclitus in particular, fascinated me so much as a graduate student that I chose them as the topic for one of my specialized exams for my Master’s degree.  After reading Steiner’s first chapter I immediately, and enthusiastically, dug up my old Heraclitus texts which I am chagrined to say I have not looked at for many years.  I offer a translation here of a few of my favorite fragments:

Fragment 2:
τοῦ λόγου δὲ ἐόντος ξυνοῦ ζώουσιν οἱ πολλοὶ ὡς ἰδίαν ἔχοντες φρόνησιν.

With the logos being common, many men live having their own personal purpose.

Fragment 7:
εἰ πάντα τὰ ὄντα καπνὸς γένοιτο, ῥῖνες ἂν διαγνοῖεν.

If all things would become smoke, then noses would discern them.

Fragment 12:
ποταμοῖσι τοῖσιν αὐτοῖσιν ἐμϐαίνουσιν ἕτερα καὶ ἕτερα ὕδατα ἐπιρρεῖ.

Different things step into the same waters and different waters are flowing upon the surface.

Fragment 17:
οὐ γὰρ φρονέουσι τοιαῦτα πολλοί ὁκοίοις ἐγκυ­ρεῦσιν, οὐδὲ μαθόντες γινώσκουσιν, ἑωυτοῖσι δὲ δοκέουσι.

Many men do not think about the things, nor do they know the things they learn. But they think they do.

Fragment 31:
πυρὸς τροπαὶ πρῶτον θάλασσα, θαλάσσης δὲ τὸ μὲν ἥμισυ γῆ, τὸ δὲ ἥμισυ πρηστήρ.

The transformations of fire are first the sea, half of the sea is earth, half of the sea is a hurricane.

Fragment 43:
ὕϐριν χρὴ σϐεννύναι μᾶλλον ἢ πυρκαϊήν.

It is necessary to extinguish hubris more than a fire.

Fragment 64:
τὰ δὲ πὰντα οἰακίζει κεραυνός.

The thunderbolt steers all things.

George Steiner’s discussion of Heraclitus is equally as poetic and philosophical as that of the Presocratic whose work he is attempting to analyze. In Poetry of Thought he says about Heraclitus’s prominent place in the history of philosophy and language:

Together with Pindar, rules Heidegger, Heraclitus commands an idiom which exhibits the matchless ‘nobility of the beginning.’ Meaning at dawn.

Philologists, philosophers, historians of archaic Hellas, have labored to define, to circumscribe this auroral force. Heraclitus’s dicta are arcs of compressed voltage setting alight the space between words and things. His metaphoric concision suggests immediacies of existential encounter, primacies of experience largely unrecapturable to rationalities and sequential logic after Aristotle.

Steiner continues his own fiery, mesmerizing language to discuss Heraclitus:

Heraclitus ‘works in original manner with the raw material of human speech, where “original” signifies both the initial and the singular.’ (Clemence Ramnoux one of the most insightful commentators). He quarries language before it weakens into imagery, into eroded abstraction. His abstractions are radically sensory and concrete, but not in the opportunistic mode of allegory. They enact, they perform thought where it is still, as it were, incandescent—the trope of fire is unavoidable. Where it follows on a shock of discovery, of naked confrontation with its own dynamism, at once limitless and bounded. Heraclitus does not narrate. To him things are with an evidence and enigma of total presence like that of lightning (his own simile).

“Auroral,” “voltage,”  “setting alight,”  “incandescent,”  “lightning.”  No one does Heraclitus like Steiner.  Steiner’s discussion of Lucretius in the next section of his text is equally as fascinating. More to come…

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