/* Added by TWP, 10/12/2012 */ /* End of addition */

One of the live oaks that bless my home

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Self-fulfillment?

Oh, brave Odysseus, son of Laertes! You were so beloved by the bright-eyed Athena and - after slaying the Suitors and resettling with your faithful wife, Penelope, - you were granted by Zeus a long peaceful life in your beloved Ithaca.  Home at last!

Homer told us your dazzling story that might have taken place around 1200 B.C. Now fast forward 2500 years, and this how Dante Alighieri described meeting your Spirit burning in the Eighth Circle of Hell:

Then of the antique flame the greater horn,
  Murmuring, began to wave itself about
  Even as a flame doth which the wind fatigues.
Thereafterward, the summit to and fro
  Moving as if it were the tongue that spake,
  It (Odysseus' Spirit, TWP) uttered forth a voice,
  and said: "When I
From Circe had departed, who concealed me
  More than a year there near unto Gaeta,
  Or ever yet Aeneas named it so,
Nor fondness for my son, nor reverence
  For my old father, nor the due affection
  Which joyous should have made Penelope,
Could overcome within me the desire
  I had to be experienced of the world,
  And of the vice and virtue of mankind;
But I put forth on the high open sea
  With one sole ship, and that small company
  By which I never had deserted been.
Both of the shores I saw as far as Spain,
  Far as Morocco, and the isle of Sardes,
  And the others which that sea bathes round about.
I and my company were old and slow
  When at that narrow passage we arrived
  Where Hercules his landmarks set as signals,
That man no farther onward should adventure.
  On the right hand behind me left I Seville,
  And on the other already had left Ceuta.
'O brothers, who amid a hundred thousand
  Perils,' I said, 'have come unto the West,
  To this so inconsiderable vigil
Which is remaining of your senses still
  Be ye unwilling to deny the knowledge,
  Following the sun, of the unpeopled world.
Consider ye the seed from which ye sprang;
  Ye were not made to live like unto brutes,
  But for pursuit of virtue and of knowledge.'
So eager did I render my companions,
  With this brief exhortation, for the voyage,
  That then I hardly could have held them back.
And having turned our stern unto the morning,
  We of the oars made wings for our mad flight,
  Evermore gaining on the larboard side.
Already all the stars of the other pole
  The night beheld, and ours so very low
  It did not rise above the ocean floor.
Five times rekindled and as many quenched
  Had been the splendour underneath the moon,
  Since we had entered into the deep pass,
When there appeared to us a mountain, dim
  From distance, and it seemed to me so high
  As I had never any one beheld.
Joyful were we, and soon it turned to weeping;
  For out of the new land a whirlwind rose,
  And smote upon the fore part of the ship.
Three times it made her whirl with all the waters,
  At the fourth time it made the stern uplift,
  And the prow downward go, as pleased Another,
Until the sea above us closed again."

Inferno, Canto XXVI, bold letters by TWP

Why did you, Odysseus, - King of Strategy, The Clever One - abandon your land and family again in search for the ultimate self-fulfillment and joy of adventure?  Did you and your brave men have to meet such a terrible end?  Why did you offer Poseidon another chance to take revenge upon you?  Did you forget you blinded Poseidon's son, the Cyclops Polyphemus, with a wooden stake? And you boasted about it! Where was Athena? Or was Dante merely rewriting your true story that unfolded just as it was ordained by the Gods and told by Homer?  Or, perhaps, I only imagined your cruel death and punishment, Odysseus? Perhaps I did imagine it all, who knows?

Must we - like you, Odysseus, -  seek thrills, all else be damned? I too abandoned my beloved parents and country for the thrill of adventure.  Am I a better man 31 years hence?

P.S. Dante Alighieri, suffering from a mid-life crisis on his 35th birthday, decided to take a hike to the bottom of Hell, but froze in fear before he reached Hell's outer gates. It thus became obvious to God that Dante needed both courage and mentoring to fulfill his life's adventure. Virgil became Dante's wise guide only after pleading from three saints:  Beatrice, Rachel, and Lucia.  Just like Zeus could not resist his beautiful daughter, Athena, pleading for Odysseus, God could not resist the beautiful gentle Beatrice.

Oh, gorgeous women, you always have your way with Gods! And with men like Newt Gingrich, but not so with Rick Santorum, whose attitude towards women is decidedly 13th century. Rick should then know that his medieval God punishes forbidden love and plain lust much less severely than other vices:  Cleopatra, Helen, Paris, and Tristan reside in the First Circle of Hell after all, and Romeo and Juliet were not even born yet during Dante's short escapade.

The truth is that both Newt and Rick already belong in the Eight Circle of Hell, and one day the black Cherubim will say to the angels: "Do not take them, wrong me not!  They must come down with my minions because they gave the fraudulent counsel...for he who repents not cannot be absolved, nor is it possible to repent of a thing and to will it at the same time, for the contradiction does not allow it." Actually, we cannot be sure what the black Cherubim will do with Newt.  He fits like a kid glove into three or more Circles of Hell.  What is Newt's destiny: free roasting, or just boiling pitch pits guarded by the hyperactive devils with sharp forks? Where are Alichino, Draghignazzo, Grafficane, or Farfarello, when we need them?

Dante went much farther into the Realm of Shadows than Odysseus.  Odysseus merely sought the Spirit of the blind prophet Tiresias of Thebes. In this respect, Dante's quest for self-fulfillment was deeper and more dangerous. In Dante's story, Odysseus was thrown into the second deepest circle of Hell for treachery and false advice. So much for wisdom, bravery, perseverance, and respect for the Gods. Our new unforgiving God does not care about these virtues as much as He sees our vices and mercilessly punishes us. Dante witnessed all gradations of God's wrath and eternal damnation one day before Good Friday in the year 1300.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Why such a long silence?

I am guilty of not writing for almost five months, and I feel bad.  Teaching, being a department chair, a fundraiser in chief, getting major research contracts started, trying to write those papers, appear in public, etc., while remodeling my home and trying to spend some time with my family and friends did this to me.

And then I had to remind myself that I must think positively, so that I would not scare my readers and listeners more than necessary.  There has been enough bad news and failures around us, people are stunned and scared, and the last thing they need is more scaremongering.  Let's leave it to Newt.

On the opposite extreme, I was really unnerved by the sunshine forecasts of ever-increasing hydrocarbon production and prosperity in the U.S.  - with no extra effort. These forecasts are based on self-serving delusions, denial and ignorance, and are incredibly dangerous to the well-being of our great country. 

So how do I become a reassuring guide, who at the same time does not avoid  exposing the guided to difficult and very scary truths?

My problem is not new. Here is the end of Canto II of Inferno by Dante Alighieri, written in the year 1300, or so.  Dante is willing himself to learn about Hell first hand and losing his courage at the very beginning.   He is rescued, and he has this to say about regaining courage and power of will:

Such I became with my exhausted strength,
  And such good courage to my heart there coursed,
  That I began, like an intrepid person:
"O she compassionate, who succoured me,
  And courteous thou, who hast obeyed so soon
  The words of truth which she addressed to thee!
Thou hast my heart so with desire disposed
  To the adventure, with these words of thine,
  That to my first intent I have returned.
Now go, for one sole will is in us both,
  Thou Leader, and thou Lord, and Master thou."
  Thus said I to him; and when he had moved,
I entered on the deep and savage way.

(Succoured means helped or aided.)

Trying to be a Dante's student, this is what I said in an interview for The Nation.  I think that's a good start.