Dante and the Canadian November
6 November 2007
November in Canada is a season of two contradictory impulses. The first is the Massey Lectures, a series of five one hour lectures delivered on CBC Ideas for a work-week sometime during this month. The Massey Lectures to me represent some of the better characteristics of our species: the desire to not only grow in knowledge, but to communicate it as well. This lecture series invites the so called expert to break down the professional linguistic barriers that too often separates them from a broad audience.
The Massey Lectures used to invite scholars and writers of international habitation, but since the mid-nineties have focused on Canadian speakers, highlighting how much excellent thinking is being done by Canadians. My own excessive fondness for the work of John Ralston Saul stems from his delivery of the 1995 Massey Lectures, and my support of Michael Ignatieff’s quest for the Liberal leadership (and the subsequent eventual likelihood of Prime Ministership) comes from his 2000 Lectures (and in that case, it wasn’t so much the content of his talks, which was on human rights, but the fact that Canada deserves to have a Prime Minster who’s intelligent enough to have delivered the talks in the first place). Other past notables of the Massey Lectures include Charles Taylor (who delivered the 1991 Lectures) and Northrop Frye (in 1962; the series The Educated Imagination I consider to be essential reading).
Prior to the can-con, Noam Chomsky taught us about the media-as-propaganda model in 1988, and Dorris Lessing taught us about ‘the prisons we live inside’ in 1985. Lessing’s lectures were re-published by the House of Anansi Press last year, just in time for this year’s Nobel win to spike sales, and I picked up my copy the other day.
This brings me to the other side of Canadian November, and that’s the poppy. This is the impulse which contradicts our desire for knowledge (that desire to grow as individuals and as a species) and that is the desire for barbaric violence. The poppy sentimentalizes what should be considered simply shameful. How can its motto of ‘lest we forget’ still be said after 90 years of more war after that ‘war to end all wars’? It’s shame should be apparent in this embarrassment.
This year I’ve decided to boycott this emblem of remembrance, because I’m tired of war, I’ve had an ear and eyeful from the news all year and I want nothing to do with it. I don’t support the troops, I think Western governance has gone on a patriarchal war-is-glory bender and whatever threats exist are only exaggerated to promote the real agenda, which is an ancient Roman ideal of glory in death, destruction, and the vanquishing of enemies. Fuck all of that.
In her first lecture twenty-two years ago, Lessing brought up the unspoken facet of violence and war which she had witnessed in her lifetime, and that was that war was for many people fun. She opens her talks with a tale of a farmer who’s expensively imported bull had killed the boy who took care of it, and that this farmer decided to kill the bull because in his mind it had done wrong. She also tells of the post-WW II symbolic trial and ‘execution’ of a tree that had been associated with General Petain. Lessing points out that the farmer’s actions, and the villagers who destroyed a tree, were irrational, acting out of symbolism but not sense. As she says, ‘I often think about these incidents: they represent those happenings that seem to give up more meaning as time goes on. Whenever things seem to be going along quite smoothly – and I am talking about human affairs in general – then it is as if suddenly some awful primitivism surges up and people revert to barbaric behavior.’ Later, she writes:
To return to the farmer and his bull. It may be argued that the farmer’s sudden regression to primitivism affected no one but himself and his family, and was a very small incident on the stage of human affairs. But exactly the same can be seen in large events, affecting hundreds or even millions of people. For instance, when British and Italian soccer fans recently rioted in Brussels, they became, as onlookers and commentators continually reiterated, nothing but animals. The British louts, it seems, were urinating on the corpses of people they had killed. To use the word ‘animal’ here seems to me unhelpful. This may be animal behavior, I don’t know, but it is certainly human behavior, when humans allow themselves to revert to barbarism. […] In times of war, as everyone knows who has lived through one, or talked to soldiers when they are allowing themselves to remember the truth, and not the sentimentalities with which we all shield ourselves from the horrors of which we are capable … in times of war we revert, as a species, to the past, and are permitted to be brutal and cruel. It is for this reason, and of course there are others, that a great many people enjoy war. But this is one of the facts about war that I think is not often talked about. (p.15-16)
It is my sense, as noted above, that the Western world has not grown out of the immaturity of its violent, Imperial and Roman past. It used to be the comparison between the United States and Rome was a metaphor, and it has now become an analogy. It can be argued that since the Renaissance the Western project has been the resurrection of the Roman political state.
There is a reason why Roman dramas are part of our televisiual schedules, and that the actors speak with English accents, and that reason is simply that to a contemporary audience at mid-20th Century, when these dramas began to be made, the English accent was associated with Empire, but we still have not shifted to Roman dramas of American accents. Perhaps that wouldn’t be ‘exotic’ enough. Perhaps because American Empire is Robert Duval saying he loves the smell of napalm in the morning, or a cowboy falling on a nuclear weapon, or Nicholson telling us we can’t handle the truth. A Roman drama with American accents wouldn’t work because we associate American Empire with a vulgar New World technological advantage and Ancient Rome still sounds better in an Old World voice.
Cue Dante. This is written as an introduction to the link below, a discussion on Dante’s Paradiso, a recent translation of which has just been published. I’ve tried to read the Paradiso more than once over the past few years and always find it extremely boring, and that’s part of my point. There is a reason why the dark, violent, Hell-Vision of Dante is more often translated, more often talked about, more often borrowed for a cinematic vision. Because we are still barbarians. Resurrecting Rome while still caught in a Dark Ages mind-set that likes all this violent shit. (Beowulf anyone?).
And yet, seven hundred years ago, in the midst of that Middle Age between the light of Empires, a man imagined Heaven. It has been said that this alone should be heralded, as a supreme accomplishment of the human imagination. And that is why I’ve tried to read and appreciate it. Because it represents something other than violence and darkness, and if we find it boring, it’s because we still allow ourselves to be thrilled by cruelty and brutality. We still pay money to see digital humans ripped apart by monsters, fake blood flying everywhere. The Romans had least had the balls to do it for real, they didn’t try to hide behind our ’special effects’ which somehow is supposed to do two things: maintain a moral vision of human worth (which is continually contradicted by the cruelties in the news) and prevent us from seeing the dubious morality of being entertained by violence.
And so, a conversation on Dante during the season of Ideas and poppies.
- Nov 2007: Introductory essay for Goodreads 07w45:3
- 2007-2015: published on my blog in Nov 2007 where it remained
- Aug 2015: this version produced