Saturday, January 13, 2007

Dante: Poet of the Earthly World

Dante Between Purgatory's Mountain and the City of Florence
Santa Maria del Fiore, Florence 1465
(Image from Wikipedia)

One of my online friends, Sperwer, who has been in Korea for some time, knows the Korean language, understands a lot about this country, has his own blog (Sperwer's Log), and frequently writes on things Korean, also has his other interests, one of these being martial arts, another of these being ... Dante.

Or so I assume, for Sperwer has sent me an article on Erich Auerbach titled "Dante: The Supreme Realist," written by Michael Dirda for the New York Review of Books (Volume 54, Number 1, January 11, 2007).

Sperwer knows my fascination with Milton's Paradise Lost and has probably noticed that I've sometimes cited parallels to Dante's Divine Comedy, which Milton hoped to surpass but without which Milton's own achievement would have been unthinkable.

Yet, even Dante's achievement -- according to Dirda, commenting on Auerbach's views -- would have been impossible without Christ:

For Auerbach, though, Christ stands as a turning point in artistic as well as religious history. While the ancient philosophical ideal of ataraxia -- the state of serene calm -- counsels a stoic indifference to life's vicissitudes, Christianity asks each of us to engage intensely with this world. Just as God's son had subjected himself to an earthly destiny and was willing to submit to creaturely suffering, so our own lives, our own "wrestling with evil," have now become "the foundation of God's judgment to come." Our consciousness of sin further encourages focused attention on our unique selves and our specific vices and virtues. The Christian world, consequently, throngs with distinct souls, each finding or losing its way to God. This revolution accounts for the sheer diversity of the characters and personalities shown in the Commedia.

This is a fascinating argument, that Christ's incarnated, earthly life justified each Christian's intense, individual engagement with the world and thus accounts for the diversity of individuals in Christendom and thereby the concrete, embodied, diverse individuals whom we encounter in Dante's Commedia.

Sometime, I'll have to actually read Auerbach's Mimesis (along with his Dante) and bring it to terms with Blumenberg's Legitimacy of the Modern Age and Brague's Eccentric Culture, all three (or four) of which -- so it seems -- engage in world-historical efforts toward understanding Western civilization, and thereby prove themselves quintessentially Western.

Will the Western civilization that made such literature as Dante's possible persist?

Hegel famously maintained that the owl of Minerva flys at dusk, that we gain wisdom at the turning of an era, and Auerbach -- according to Dirda -- sensed a turning:
[I]t is hard to overlook the elegiac tone in so much of ... [Auerbach's] scholarship, inevitably a reflection of the century's dark middle decades. When he wrote Dante: Poet of the Secular World in 1929, Auerbach recorded something of what European civilization had accomplished just before the barbarians overwhelmed the city of man and God. In still later years, this great humanist grew increasingly convinced, as he wrote in the preface to Literary Language and Its Public, that "European civilization is approaching the term of its existence; its history as a distinct entity would seem to be at an end."
Dirda remarks, "That seems, for good or ill, more true than ever."

I wonder what, precisely, Dirda means. That Europe's "history as a distinct entity" is "at an end" because the whole world is becoming Westernized, or because a world civilization is emerging, or because Europe is literally dying away as its native birth rate falls below sustainability?

That third possibility is the most worrisome...


At 3:30 PM, Blogger Sperwer said...

Glad you found the article engaging.

Assuming the accuracy/plausibility of Auerbach's view on the perceived difference (perceived by CHristians? - I think Auerbach may have at least implicitly adopted the Christian point of view) between the Stoic ("ataraxic")and the Christian ("engaged") perspectives on/stances in the world. I wonder whether it's a fraud. I don't think the Stoic attitude is accurately characterized as one of withdrawn resignation any more than is the buddhist attitude as later misrepresented by the earliest Western commentators. But I suppose what's most interesting is that whether it's accurate or not, it is itself an historical artifact of enormous importance insofar as it was the winning interpretation that helped to put paid to perhaps the defining ideology of the pre-Christian age in the West.

[I think I'll stop here, before I fall into a bemused stupor from having all these BIG IDEAS overloading my neural network.]

At 10:07 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Every religion seems to have its quietist and world-denying side, though some tend more in that direction than others. Islam, for instance, is usually rather activist and engaged with the world, and even its world-denying tendencies (such as we're currently seeing) tend to be rather destructive.

As for Christianity and Stoicism, the former borrowed rather a lot from the latter -- or simply absorbed its assumptions -- and the West owes as much to its pagan past as to its Christian inheritance. That's part of Brague's argument about the West as an Eccentric Culture.

But my own neural networks are overloading, so off to bed now...

Jeffery Hodges

* * *

At 10:58 PM, Blogger Sperwer said...

I concur that the West owes as much to its pagan as its Christian and, as Braque would have it, various other pasts. And insofar as Christianity and Stoicism are concerned, the former's borrowings from the latter are vast.

But I think that the point that Auerbach is making - which I think is also correct - is that in the process of such borrowing Christianity also engaged in a lot of what Nietzsche would have dubbed transvaluation of values (of a sort that N. abhorred in this case). Hence the Stoic goal of ataraxia gets diminished as a sort of quietistic withdrawal, while many of the individual virtues celebrated by the Stoics get harnessed in service of a dramatically new ethic, which is made to SEEM a little less revolutionary than it actually is by being dressed up in Stoic robe and sandals.

That's what I meant by observing that the Christian point of view of Stoicism that seems to infuse Auerbach's treatment is - even if a misrepresentation of Stoicism - itself an historical artifact of great significance.

At 4:08 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Okay, I see what you mean now.

I'd agree that the early Christians to some degree misrepresented Stoicism, which was certainly more than a philosophical system of withdrawal. I'd characterize the Stoic attitude as one of engaged detachment. Marcus Aurelius, a Stoic if there ever was one, was certainly engaged. Any detachment was purely interior -- but, of course, interiority was very important to the Stoic, and to be found in things as well as in human beings.

As for Auerbach's views (implicit or explicit) on the process of borrowing, transvaluation, and misrepresentation that you were talking about, I think that I'll need first to have read Auerbach.

I just hope that I can find a job that'll give me the time for reading such things...

Jeffery Hodges

* * *


Post a Comment

<< Home