Sunday, March 1, 2015

Reading Merton and Dante

Lent is a great time to read Dante. Against the backdrop of dust and detachment, the Inferno acquires a resonance it otherwise would not have, its tortures and punishments a little more relevant during our pre-Easter introspection. I’m reading it now with my senior classes, progressing slowly from Canto 1 to 34. It’s going slowly, as it should—we probably won’t finish until the end of March.

In honor of the 100th birthday of Thomas Merton (this Jan 31), I’ve also been reading through New Seeds of Contemplation, one of the prolific Trappist’s most popular spiritual works. Like many, I first encountered Merton through The Seven Storey Mountain, an autobiography of conversion written while the monk was still young, in his early 30s. The book’s title is taken from the seven circles of Dante’s Purgatorio, which are ascendant and cathartic, unlike the nine of the Inferno, which descend into the frozen center of the world. Before Merton became a monk, he received an M.A. in English from Columbia, where he studied under the renowned poet and critic Mark Van Doren (the image above is of a young Merton, probably from those Columbia days). The “material of literature,” Merton wrote in his autobiography, “is chiefly human acts—that is, free acts, moral acts. And, as a matter of fact, literature, drama, poetry, make certain statements about these acts that can be made no other way.” In the little I’ve read of Merton’s writings, I’m not surprised, then, to find him using the techniques of literature rather than those of dogma to express spiritual realities.

Consider his following description, from New Seeds, of the ways in which we divide ourselves from each other in our attempts to get ahead:

I have what you have not. I am what you are not. I have taken what you have failed to take and I have seized what you could never get. Therefore you suffer and I am happy, you are despised and I am praised, you die and I live; you are nothing and I am something, and I am all the more something because you are nothing. And thus I spend my life admiring the distance between you and me; at times this even helps me to forget the other men who have what I have not and who have taken what I was too slow to take and who have seized what was beyond my reach, who are praised as I cannot be praised and who live on my death...
This familiar identity—how can we not recognize it in ourselves, good consumers that we are?— is rooted in division, Merton notes, and one who lives such a life “is not a person but only an ‘individual.’” Such a man, he continues, “cannot find himself because he is lost; he has ceased to be a reality. The person he believes himself to be is a bad dream.”

I couldn’t help but thinking of his description of an identity of division as I read through some of the early cantos of the Inferno. The beautiful thing about reading the Inferno with students is that the cantos almost teach themselves, each revolving, as it does, around the central question of how the punishment for a certain sin is uniquely suited to the sin itself. In Canto 7, that sin is avarice, and the punishment is a variation on the myth of Sisyphus. Instead of rolling the boulder up the hill, in Dante’s Hell, those whose lives were consumed by greed are doomed to roll boulders at each other, in ceaseless and merciless competition against their fellow residents of the fourth circle. Here is the poet’s description, in the excellent translation I read with my students, by Providence College’s Anthony Esolen:
I saw far more than I had elsewhere seen,
            howling on one side, howling on the other,
            popping their chests to roll enormous weights.
They slammed those stones together front to front,
            then straight off each side turned about and yelled,
            “Why do you fritter?” “Why the fists so tight?”
So in the dismal circle they went round
            on either hand to the point opposite,
            bellowing out their poetry of shame,
And when they’d gotten halfway around the ring,
            they turned around to have another joust (lines 25-35).
A few lines later, his guide Virgil explains:
They will butt head to head forevermore.
            From the tomb these will rise with their fists shut,
            and these with half the hair ripped from their scalps.
Ill-giving and ill-keeping snatched from them
            the lovely world, and set them in this brawl.
            I will not prettify it by my words (lines 55-60).

Doomed to relive their lives for all eternity, the greedy are doing exactly what they did while they were alive: rolling boulders at each other, in defense, or attack. Or perhaps both: after all, once rolling boulders becomes a livelihood, would there be any difference between the two? The avaricious define themselves by competition alone, and have set themselves “in this brawl” that never ends. They might as well be chanting Merton’s lines as they heave the stones toward their fellow men: “I have what you have not. I am what you are not…”

During the dark of this Lent, I could do worse, I suppose, than to meditate on what Merton and Dante have to say to one another, speaking across the gap of six-and-a-half centuries about the dark regions of the spirit.

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