Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Dante

Dante, builder of worlds

with 2 comments

During my first semester in college, along with classes on Latin, expository writing, and, for some reason, the literature of science in the English Renaissance, I took a class on Dante. At that point, my knowledge of Dante was very limited: I’d read the Inferno, in the comically inadequate prose translation included in my set of the Great Books of the Western World, but it was easy to see that this was one work where I’d benefit from a more guided approach. The class I took, taught by Professor Lino Pertile, was that and more: it was a transformative experience that set the tone for the next four years of my life. People go to college for all kinds of reasons, but what I wanted, in the most earnest way possible, was to enter a world of ideas. And while it’s always good to be taken by the hand and led through a major work by a talented teacher, at that moment, Dante, in the excellent translation of Allen Mandelbaum, came to represent both the life of the mind that I wanted and an adventure that I alone had survived.

The result, weirdly enough, is that I’ve come to regard the poem that Borges has called “the most justifiable and the most solid book of all literature” as something like my own personal property, and an intimate part of my own life. Some of this is due to the fact that Dante, as far as I can tell, is rarely taught in American public schools, and if he is, students invariably stop at the Inferno, which is only part of the story. But even more important is the conviction, which is hard to explain to anyone who hasn’t read the Comedy, that I somehow lived this story with Dante. You can approach this poem from any number of angles, but the really strange thing is how convincing it all is. I know that Dante is essentially writing fantasy, albeit with a theologically unimpeachable grounding in Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas, but I still sometimes find it hard to believe that the historical Dante Alighieri didn’t actually experience the journey he describes here. Because if you want to talk about world-building, this is by far the greatest example in all of literature.

How does he do it? Dante is a reminder, perhaps the ultimate one, that the greatest philosophical conceptions can be less persuasive than a single well-chosen detail. In some ways, the elaborate architecture of Dante’s afterlife is the least impressive part of the poem: many theologians of Dante’s time, or fantasy writers today, would be capable of constructing the nine circles of hell, but few, if any, would be able to imagine Chiron, the centaur, dividing his shaggy beard with the arrow in his hands before he can talk. (Ruskin called this image “a thing that no mortal would ever have thought of, if he had not seen the centaur do it.”) Dante is full of such astonishing, concrete, mysterious touches, including his poem’s most controversial aspect, the meting out of divine justice after death. Far from simply condemning his enemies and rewarding his friends, Dante uses his choices to convey the incomprehensibility of the divine mind: he punishes men he loved in life, like Brunetto Latini, and elevates Ripheus, a figure who appears in two lines in the Aeneid, to the level of the highest saints, as if to represent how little we can really know about God’s intentions.

Of all the many tributes to Dante, I stumbled across one of the strongest only the other day, in the chapter “Farinata and Cavalcante” in Erich Auerbach’s Mimesis. Auerbach is an unparalleled close reader, with an attention to detail that borders on the absurd (he describes one of Dante’s phrases as “a future clause of adhortative import with an adverbial qualifier”), so it’s all the more powerful when he opens up into unstinting praise:

But if we start from his predecessors, Dante’s language is a well-nigh incomprehensible miracle. There were great poets among them. But, compared with theirs, his style is so immeasurably richer in directness, vigor, and subtlety, he knows and uses such an immeasurably greater stock of forms, he expresses the most varied phenomena and subjects with such immeasurably superior assurance and firmness, that we come to the conclusion that this man used his language to discover the world anew.

This sense of both discovering and building an entire world, like the cycle of dream creation described in Inception, is one that all writers of fantastic fiction have tried to create, but none has done it better than Dante. As a result, even today, when I haven’t read the Comedy in many years, its images still burn in my imagination, as if I’d been to hell and back myself. To an extent that no other work of art has matched, it’s a world made of words. And it’s a journey that every writer needs to take.

Written by nevalalee

February 15, 2012 at 10:46 am

Agnosticism and the working writer

with 6 comments

Being an agnostic means all things are possible, even God, even the Holy Trinity. This world is so strange that anything may happen, or may not happen. Being an agnostic makes me live in a larger, a more fantastic kind of world, almost uncanny. It makes me more tolerant.

Jorge Luis Borges, to the New York Times

Of all religious or philosophical convictions, agnosticism, at first glance, is the least interesting to defend. Like political moderates, agnostics get it from both sides, most of all from committed atheists, who tend to regard permanent agnosticism, in the words of Richard Dawkins, as “fence-sitting, intellectual cowardice.” And yet many of my heroes, from Montaigne to Robert Anton Wilson, have identified themselves with agnosticism as a way of life. (Wilson, in particular, called himself an agnostic mystic, which is what you get when an atheist takes a lot of psychedelic drugs.) And while a defense of the philosophical aspects of agnosticism is beyond the scope of this blog—for that, I can direct you to Thomas Huxley, or even to a recent posting by NPR’s Adam Frank, whose position is not far removed from my own—I think I can talk, very tentatively, about its pragmatic benefits, at least from a writer’s point of view.

I started thinking about this again after reading a blog post by Bookslut’s Jessa Crispin, who relates that she was recently talking about the mystical inclinations of W.B. Yeats when a self-proclaimed atheist piped up: “I always get sad for Yeats for his occult beliefs.” As Crispin discusses at length, such a statement is massively condescending, and also weirdly uninsightful. Say what you will about Yeats’s interest in occultism, but there’s no doubt that he found it spectacularly useful. It provided him with symbolic material and a means of engaging the unseen world that most poets are eventually called to explore. The result was a body of work of permanent importance, and one that wouldn’t exist, at least not in its present form, if his life had assumed a different shape. Was it irrational? Sure. But Wallace Stevens aside, strictly rational behavior rarely produces good poets.

I’ve probably said this before, but I’ll say it again: the life of any writer—and certainly that of a poet—is so difficult, so impractical on a cosmic scale, that there’s often a perverse kind of pragmatism in the details. A writer’s existence may look messy from the outside, but that mess is usually the result of an attempt to pick out what is useful from life and reject the rest, governed by one urgent question: Can I use this? If a writer didn’t take his tools wherever he found them, he wouldn’t survive, at least not as an artist. Which is why any kind of ideology, religious or otherwise, can be hard for a writer to maintain. Writers, especially novelists, tend to be dabblers, not so much out of dilettantism—although that can be a factor as well—as from an endless, obsessive gleaning, a rummaging in the world’s attic for useful material, in both art and life. And this process of feathering one’s nest tends to inform a writer’s work as well. What Christopher Hitchens says of Ian McEwan is true of many novelists:

I think that he did, at one stage in his life, dabble a bit in what’s loosely called “New Age,” but in the end it was the rigorous side that won out, and his novels are almost always patrolling some difficult frontier between the speculative and the unseen and the ways in which material reality reimposes itself.

Agnosticism is also useful for another reason, as Borges points out above: tolerance. A novelist needs to write with empathy about people very different from himself, and to vicariously live all kinds of lives, which is harder to do through the lens of an intractable philosophy. We read Dante and Tolstoy despite, not because of, their ideological convictions, and much of the fire of great art comes from the tension between those convictions and the artist’s reluctant understanding of the world. For a writer, dogma is, or should be, the enemy—including dogma about agnosticism itself. In the abstract, it can seem clinical, but in practice, it’s untidy and makeshift, like the rest of a writer’s life. It’s useful only when it exposes itself to a lot of influences and generates a lot of ideas, most unworkable, but some worthy of being pursued. Like democracy, it’s a compromise solution, the best of a bad lot. It doesn’t work all that well, but for a writer, at least for me, it comes closer to working than anything else.

Painting, writing, and the shape of fiction

with 3 comments

At the moment, along with about eight other books, I’m working my way through Sparks of Genius by Robert and Michèle Root-Bernstein. It’s basically an account of what the authors regard as the thirteen essential tools of artists and other creative types—abstracting, analogizing, playing, and so on—and while the book’s argument isn’t all that tightly structured, as a series of illustrations of the creative process, it’s great. Every page has three or four juicy stories or quotes from a wide range of artists, writers, and other thinkers, and it’s already proven to be a useful source of advice and inspiration.

I’ve just finished the chapter on imaging, which points out that many great writers have also been painters or visual artists. Along with Wyndham Lewis, quoted below, the authors list Thackeray, the Brontë sisters, Edward Lear, D.H. Lawrence, Marianne Moore, and G.K. Chesterton, who actually drew charming cartoons of the action he wanted to portray. As Wyndham Lewis notes, artistic training obviously helps an author with his or her observational skills, but I think it’s even more valuable in encouraging nonlinear thinking. After even a little experience in the visual arts, it’s hard not to see one’s novel—as Beethoven did with his symphonies—as a kind of sculptural entity, which can inform narrative structure in ways that aren’t obvious when the story is taken moment by moment.

My own art background is sort of a mixed bag. I’ve always enjoyed drawing, and was pretty good at it all the way through my twenties, but it’s been so long since I’ve picked up a pen that I don’t know how much of that early facility is left. In college, I took an intensive semester-long course on oil painting, and while most of the paintings I produced were fairly embarrassing, I welcomed the chance to learn the elements of an unfamiliar craft—making stretchers in the Carpenter Center woodshop, stretching the canvas with a staple gun and some cool pliers, mixing the paint, managing the palette. The background I acquired served me well for The Icon Thief, in which the details of painting construction play a small but crucial role, but it also allowed me to think about narrative in unexpected ways.

A painting, after all, is experienced all at once, while a novel is experienced one moment at a time. (An author’s skill, as certain critics like to point out, is generally judged on the level of the paragraph.) But when I think back to my own favorite novels, I don’t always think of individual scenes or moments, but of the entire book at once, as if I’m viewing it as a single plastic object. Stories have inherent shapes and patterns that only appear when you stand back, and while they may remain invisible to the first-time reader, they affect the unfolding story of the book in perceptible ways. (An early example of this is The Divine Comedy, which is organized along two distinct dimensions.) Some background in painting and other forms of visual composition—as well as the allied arts, like animation—is as good a way as any for a writer to get into the habit of seeing how his novel really looks.

(And of course a painting, in turn, can be experienced as a work of narrative, as The Mystery of Picasso so memorably demonstrates. Art, especially great art, refuses to fit into the obvious categories.)

%d bloggers like this: