Monday, July 20, 2009

Aimless Reading: The D's, Part 3.5 (Dante Alighieri)

Originally uploaded by Michael_Kelleher
Aiighieri, Dante
Sinclair, John D.
The Divine Comedy
3: Paradiso

The professor who taught the class for which this book was purchased encouraged us to ask ourselves three simple questions about each work:

1. What does the author say?
2. What does he mean? (Yeah, he used the "universal" he. Sigh.)
3. Is it true or beautiful?

I always liked the "or" of the last question because it both creates and destroys the equivalence between the two terms. The first question asks about the text. The second asks how to interpret the text in an old-timey-author-as-authority kind of way. The third is about making a value judgment. In this formulation the text at hand can be considered valuable in three situations:

1. If it is true
2. If it is beautiful
3. If it is true AND beautiful

I like the fact that it could be either true OR beautiful and still have value. Presumably it would have optimum value if it were both. I also like the little Keatsian ring this formulation has to it. It's kind of a nifty little snap shot of New Criticism, don't you think?

For the third and final paper in this class, we were again asked to compare our experience to Dante's. And Jesus fell.

Looking back, I could have easily written a paper about ascending toward sobriety and some sort of religious awakening. I would almost certainly have received another A ++. Alas, it was not to be. I got a B+ and and then an A- for the course. I guess the extra pluses didn't have any real numerical value.

My problem with AA from the first minute was the whole religious thing. AA makes all kinds of claims about being unaffiliated with any single religious idea. This is a bit of a lie. AA is steepednot just in religion, but in Christian religious thought. When I started going in the early 90's it was also seized with a passion for all kinds of self-help, new age, guru-driven hoo-ha that just about drove me mad.

The few times I tried to express my sincere doubts about the religious elements of the program I was told in the most condescending terms that everyone felt that way at the beginning and that I would eventually come around. I never did, and I eventually stopped going, though I have managed to remain sober all these years.

Anyhow, in my third paper I sort of made my own value judgment that although something might be beautiful, it is better for it to be true, and that the Paradiso, though quite beautiful, was the least believable, the least attainable, the least comprehensible, and therefore the least relevant of all three books to my life (or to anyone else's for that matter.)

Suffering I got. Paying penance, ditto. Seraphim and cherubim, golden altars and piercing beams of light, not so much.

The same went for AA, where I used to go to three kinds of meetings:

1. Student Meetings
2. Bronx meetings
3. Manhattan meetings.

Student meetings were alright because we were all kind of in it together, trying to stay sober during college, when everyone around us was getting plastered 24/7. It helped to be among those who shared your suffering. Bronx meetings had a tough, hard-bitten, no-nonsense character about them. People often said things like, "Don't drink. Go to meetings. Or die. It's your choice." I always found that kind of thing useful, despite the fact that my life as a middle-middle class kid from the suburbs had little to do with the lives of the people in the Bronx.

And then there were the Manhattan meetings. My friend Jerome from the Bronx used to call Manhattan the Isle of Self-Importance, which is quite an apt description. Manhattan meetings were often long bitch sessions that included people talking about their therapists and their marital problems and their stalled/failed/former/future acting careers and so on and everyone seemed to believe they were owed something. There was a lot of talk about about meditating and using crystals and incense and getting colonics and taking vitamins and on and on and on, none of which I found useful beyond the fact of sitting in a room with a group of people not drinking or getting high.

Somewhere back in this post I knew where I was going with this -- I guess I was thinking that the Bronx AA was like the Inferno and Purgatorio -- visceral, practical, real -- whereas and Manhattan AA was like the Paradiso -- detached, removed, unattainable and fantastical.

Of course, as soon as I graduated from college I moved to Manhattan and lived there for the next 5 years. Then I moved to Buffalo, where have lived for 12. I guess I prefer the hard-bitten.

from the Paradiso:

O ye who in a little bark, eager to listen, have followed behind my ship that singing makes her way, turn back to see your shores again; do not put forth on the deep, for, perhaps, losing me, you would be left bewildered.

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