by Paul Elie
from Georgetown University

When Alighieri Met Marley

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I’d just finished making much ado about the digital points of entry into Dante when I was brought back to the oldest and most reliable technology that exists for encountering the poet: a poem – a poem “after Dante,” a “version” or “imitation” of a piece of the Divine Comedy.

My guide in this was Rowan Ricardo Phillips.  Rowan joined Dinaw Mengestu and Georgetown’s Lannan Fellows for a reading at Copley Hall on campus last night, preceded by a conversation at the Lannan Center, which I moderated.  To prepare, I turned again to Phillips’ remarkable first book, The Ground, and read his “version” of a passage from the Purgatorio as if for the first time.  It begins this way:

                                  He was gone.  Like a leap

Of flame that, after having burst from the sun,

Is dragged back into the sun as though nothing

Leaving only the seen surface of the sun.

Rowan began his reading by reading – speaking – his piece of the Purgatorio.  But not before explaining that it takes place near the top of Mount Purgatory, where Dante meets a Provençal troubadour (his name was Arnaut Daniel) whose songs in dialect were at once earthy and profound.

In the poem, Rowan makes this singer a singer from our own time, whose  voice he rendered perfectly in his own voice for the Copley audience:

And slowly a bright starfield fell to the sea,

Fell about the one my guide had pointed out.

And he said, Rastaman.  Higher man. Angel

Seven sealed … No.  But I smell some of the smoke

Of Babylon on I.  Come closer.  Closer.

So I-man ave some ital veneration.

I am Bob, who weep and strum and gather and

Love all tings lickle and small.  Jah left I lung

And guitar to sing to everyone.  All dem!

It’s through poetry like this that the doors of perception are opened.

Dante’s World, Open to Ours

"In the middle of the road of my life …"  More than any other literary work, the The Divine Comedy is meant to be entered into, the way you enter a particular place at a particular time.  As Dante enters the world of the hereafter while still mortal with Virgil as his guide, we as readers are invited to enter it with Dante as our guide.

Artists and scholars alike have poured great energy into imaging forth the immersive experience of the poem, whether through illustrations (such as Gustave Doré’s and Tom Wright’s), through films (such as Harry Lachman’s 1935 effort – poster above), or through the schematic maps and charts found in the front matter of most translations.  Lately, these efforts have been joined by digital counterparts which strive to join the immersive experience of the poem to the immersive experience of the web. There’s the Paris Review's long-running bloggy commentary on the Inferno, which I’ve followed and posted about.  And there’s Georgetown’s MyDante, which the staff at the Center for New Designs in Learning and Scholarship characterize as “a custom-designed online environment developed … [to] aid students’ contemplative engagement with the poem.”

Now MyDante will figure into in a spatially ambitious point of entry into the poem: a massive open online course called “The Divine Comedy: Dante’s Journey Toward Freedom,” developed by Georgetown in partnership with EdX, the university online learning enterprise whose members include MIT, Harvard, UC-Berkeley, and the University of Texas.

Philosophy professor Frank Ambrosio is leading the course, building on his celebrated Georgetown College course on the poem; following Dante’s own balanced scheme, he will devote four weeks each to the Inferno, the Purgatorio, and the Paradiso.

The tag for the course – and for all of GeorgetownX’s courses – applies just as well to Dante’s hereafter: “… free and open to anyone in the world.” 

Hoping to audit the course (with tens of thousands of other students) and report back as I go.  

Robert Plant in Brooklyn: Artisanal Zeppelin

We set out for the movies at BAM Cinema – but I put a few twenty-dollar bills in my wallet, just in case somebody had tickets to sell for Robert Plant and the Sensational Spaceshifters in the Opera House next door.  Well, somebody did: so instead of seeing an Israeli thriller we’d never heard of before, we got to see one of the most famous singers alive – a performer as famous as any who has played the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s giant opera house in a hundred years.  (Yes, including Enrico Caruso.)

Never a big fan of Led Zeppelin, I must have been the only person in the house who had never yearned to hear “Whole Lotta Love” and “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You” live.  Those songs sounded bone-crunchingly good – as good or better than they must have sounded when Zep played them at Madison Square Garden in 1977.  But I was just as drawn to Plant’s other material, and the song that knocked me out was “Nobody’s Fault but Mine.”

It’s a Blind Willlie Johnson number from the Twenties (if his soul’s lost, this great gospel blues singer declares, it’s “nobody’s fault but mine”), and the versions I know are Johnson’s 1927 recording and Bill Frisell’s from a New York rooftop a few years ago – not the Zeppelin version on Presence or the version from Plant and Jimmy Page’s post-Zeppelin collaboration of 1994.  At BAM, Plant – making Zeppelin artisanal for Brooklyn – announced the song by name-checking Mavis Staples and then commenced to lead the band in a version of “Nobody’s Fault but Mine” that brought in the Staples Singers’ signature tremolo, front-porch banjo, the single-string African violin called the ritti, and T Bone Burnett’s Americana stew all at once.   For as long as it lasted, all blues was one.

This week is the first anniversary of Everything That Rises, and I can’t think of an apter way than this to carry the site’s “Our Kind of Spirituals” feature forward into a second year.

Plant’s second concert from Brooklyn is streaming live on NPR tonight – Sunday night.   

On “On Being”: Nathan Schneider on the Nones

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Nathan Schneider has a screen saver unlike anybody else’s.  He told Krista Tippett about it in a conversation at the Chatauqua Institution over the summer, up now at YouTube and at onbeing.org:

The background screen on my cellphone – where I’m pulling up Facebook and Twitter – is a picture of what happened after Hurricane Sandy, when activists filled churches with rescue supplies. a process not organized by the state.

To me, Nathan is a neighbor in Brooklyn.  To Krista and the OnBeing staff, he is “a public intellectual for the millennial generation.”  He has earned the tag through a pair of original books, God in Proof: A Search from the Ancients to the Internet and Thank You, Anarchy: Notes from the Occupy Apocalypse the “God book” and the “Occupy book,” he calls them.

Krista’s point of entry into the conversation is the experience of the “nones” – young people who emphatically declare that they have no religious affiliation.  In the United States, the “nones” are a new phenomenon; but what’s especially striking about the conversation is how familiar the traits Nathan (who knows the “nones” better than anybody) are from past ages.  The “nones,” as he tells it, are “without a tether,” and yet they are framing ultimate questions more intensely than many people who do consider themselves religious; and the “nones” aren’t set against religious so much as against religion’s shortcomings.  “Church, act like a church – that’s their cry,” he tells Krista.  “Act like a church.”

That was the outlook, at different points, of (to take three examples) Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, and Walker Percy, who all – it is easy to forget – began adulthood as “nones.”

Digital Detox, the Prophets’ Way

“Stop all the clocks, unplug the telephone …” That’s W.H Auden, from a poem put back into wide release a few years back through a heartbreaking scene in Four Weddings and a Funeral.  It’s known as the “Funeral Blues,” but it’s strikingly akin to a new approach to shmita being tried out in Israel just now.

Shmita is the biblical Jewish practice of letting the land lie fallow ever seventh years, so that the minerals in the soil have a chance to replenish themselves. Jodi Rugoren explains: “The Torah commands farmers not to till their fields and to let poor people and animals feed off what grows; separately, it mandates that all debts be forgiven during shmita years.” In modern times, the practice has been adapted, sometimes controversially; and now a solar energy company called Energiya is trying to adapt it for digital society:

“People are thinking, this is just too good to remain in the area of arcane Halakhic arguments, the values here are really important for any modern society,” explained Julian Sinclair, a vice president at Energiya who is also an economist, rabbi, and author of a new book on shmita, referring to debates over Jewish law. “It’s about the sources of our wealth and letting go of our control and the hold on the things which make us wealthy, and the absence of which leaves other people behind.”

How to leave behind the things that leave other people behind?  Here’s how companies can do so: Donate patents to a common pool.  Rotate management and employee positions.  Swap out one business model and swap in another.  Reduce year-end bonuses and give the money to social causes.  Restore limits to the workday and require employees to go offline from their company accounts on the weekends.

Sounds like the “digital detox” recounted in the current Outside by David Roberts, who spent twelve hours a day online – tweeting more than 50 times a day for grist.org – before going offline for a year (the year he turned 40) in order to walk, do yoga, read novels, play electric bass, and generally seek mindfulness.  He found it – but realized, too, that so pronounced a change in one’s habit of being isn’t just personal, but requires change of the kind that (it seems to me) the new shmita would like to bring about:

There’s only so much any individual can do in the face of these forces. Mindfulness may be a necessary form of self-care, even self-defense, but it is not a solution to digital unease any more than driving a Prius is a solution to climate change. Instead of just treating our anxieties exclusively as a symptom of poorly engineered minds in need of hacking, perhaps we also ought to see them as a collective challenge, to be addressed through social and political action.

“As for me I don’t read anything but the newspaper and the Bible,” Flannery O’Connor told a friend in a letter in 1964. “Everybody did that it would be a better world.”  I wouldn’t want to go that far — not at all; but I find that when I go offline, as I’ve been offline lately in order to work up some publishable writing, I wind up reading books and magazines and The New York Times.

That’s one reason this site has been so thick with pieces dealing with books and magazines and the Times rather than other sites. I’ve been digital-detoxing, dead-tree style – a one-man short-term gentile shmita round the Jewish holidays.

The photograph is of a cabin in an especially remote part of Curtis Canyon, Wyoming, taken when the adventurer Guy Starbuck stayed there.  

J.J. Sullivan on Donald Antrim: “Definitely Bent”

Like Hendrix doing the Byrds, or Otis Redding doing Aretha Franklin, or David Bowie doing Iggy Pop —- that’s what John Jeremiah Sullivan doing Donald Antrim, as he just did for the Times Magazine, feels like.  Strength meets strength, and unguessed-at resemblances pop out in strange places.

Here’s Sullivan on Antrim’s “fictional universe” – a well-worn device that JJ gives plenty of fresh tread:

Of the qualities that set Antrim apart from the group of writers he’s often casually lumped in with or excluded from — the Eugenides-­Franzen-Lethem-Means-Saunders-Wallace cluster of cerebral, white-male, Northern fiction makers born around 1960 — it may be this predilection for characters “not necessarily redeemed” that offers the neatest distinction. It’s not that those other writers don’t ever do evil characters or antiheroes or that they all write tidy, hopeful plots. It’s not even that Antrim’s­ characters are beyond the pale in their badness, in a Cormac McCarthy manner — they aren’t psychopathic (except insofar as being human may involve being a little bit psychopathic). It’s more the case that Antrim’s fictional universe is different. It doesn’t bend toward justice, not even the kind that knows there is none but sort of hopes art can provide absolution. His universe bends — it is defi­nitely bent — but always toward greater absurdity (in both funny and frightening guises).

And here’s JJ’s sketch of Antrim reading from a memoir of his literary-critic father at a festival in Edinburgh:

By the end of his reading, Antrim was speaking directly to the ceiling of the tent-bar, shaking his fist at some entity that was a combination of his God, his father’s ghost and the New Criticism. People stomped their feet. He did that thing so very few writers can do, completely skipping over the notion that there could be an “authentic” way of giving a “reading” and embracing instead the performative aspect, delivering the lines. I was about to say that a writer needs to be “especially confident in his or her work” to “pull this off,” but it seems more likely that a person needs to be a little nuts, or at least possess, as Antrim claimed for himself, “a lot of rich child-theater experiences.”

Don’t stop here: go to the piece and read the story JJ tells about Antrim, David Foster Wallace, and Jonathan Franzen — Franzen, whose acts of friendship to other writers are the makings of a story that needs telling.  

Scott Fitzgerald’s Legacy: Here, There, and Everywhere

"Was The Great Gatsby an influence on Brideshead Revisited?”  The question came from my students in class last week.  (Not sure: Evelyn Waugh’s ace biographer Martin Stannard says inconclusively that Waugh read the novel “in later life.”)  Meanwhile in the New Yorker, Adam Gopnik was proposing that F. Scott Fitzgerald’s truly influential book is The Crack-Up, for it

helped invent a genre: the addiction confession, which became a strong form of American writing in the second half of the twentieth century. “The Crack-Up” is hanging over the shoulder not just of the confessional poets but of “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” and “A Fan’s Notes” and, for that matter, “Eat, Pray, Love.”

Gopnik’s piece about recent books dealing with Fitzgerald – dealing with the Fitzgeralds; that is, with Scott and Zelda both – takes in the new book on The Great Gatsby by Maureen Corrigan, who is Georgetown’s critic-in-residence as well as the book critic for NPR’s Fresh Air.  Gopnik (who has never met a book he fully likes about a book he really likes) takes issue with Maureen’s assertion that Gatsby — a murder mystery, in part — anticipates film noir.  But he praises her reporting: “Sylvia Plath, she surprises us, was a Fitzgerald fan, densely annotating her copy of `Gatsby.’”

Here’s the passage from Maureen’s book, So We Read On:

How did the undergraduate Plath read Fitzgerald? The answer is studiously. Plath underlines sentences on practically every page of her Gatsby. Most of the underlinings have to do with color symbolism … There are lines under Myrtle’s sister’s “sticky bob of red hair,” George Wilson’s “light blue eyes,” and Myrtle’s “brown figured dress.” Indeed, a lot of the comments and underlinings convey the impression of a good student taking down a professor’s lecture notes.

Maureen sees Fitzgerald’s legacy as, well, Gatsby. Gopnik sees it as The Crack-Up. New York's book critic, Kathryn Schultz, sees it somewhere else:

The Great Gatsby might be the least funny book about rich people ever written. The British, who kick our ass at writing about class, know how useful a dash of humor is—how it can lift up or deflate, jostle or soothe, comfort or eviscerate. (In a literary hostage exchange, I would trade a thousand Fitzgeralds for one Edward St. Aubyn, 10,000 for an Austen or Dickens.) In leaving that note out, Fitzgerald is not just making a stylistic choice, nor even just signaling his solemnity of purpose. He is all but inventing a new narrative mode: the third-­person sanctimonious. 

The photograph is of Sylvia Plath’s marked edition of The Great Gatsby.   

On Poverty: Just Sitting There Talking

“The United Nations of Trastevere.”  That’s the tag (probably fashioned by a giornalista over a cappuccino) that has attached itself to the Community of Sant’Egidio.

This week it seems especially apt.  As the leaders of the world’s nations traveled to the United Nations to meet and talk at the General Assembly, friends of the Community of Sant’Egidio assembled at Princeton University for a conference on the subject of “Poverty and Peacemaking.”

Assembled is too formal a word: these people were friends, collaborators, people from diverse communities known and admired at second- or third-hand, now all together in the same place, the way we were in Washington in 2006 when the Community brought its annual Prayer for Peace to Georgetown.

Conference is too formal a word, too: it was several dozen running conversations that spilled into one another – in seminar rooms, in the basement eatery, on walks through the Princeton campus, and in a candlelight procession (modeled on a Buddhist ceremony devised in Japan after U.S. atomic bombs struck Hiroshima) – that concluded Friday’s program.

And so is subject too formal a word.  For the people in the Community of Sant’Egidio – Italian Catholics and the friends they’ve made in sixty countries worldwide – poverty and peacemaking are lifelong preoccupations that inform just about everything they do.

In the panel discussion I joined, the question was whether it is really useful to talk about poverty.  The answer was yes – as long as the limits of talk, and the end or goal of the talking, are kept in view.  Georgetown’s Anthony Moore explained how Ignatius of Loyola, with his “Two Standards,” urged the person who is engaged with Ignatian spirituality to see poverty always through the standard of the gospel.  Ida Beth Malloy from the Rescue Mission of Trenton pointed out that the first step for a person of means to help a poor person is for the one to recognize the other as a person by hearing his or her story.

My own contribution involved little more than quoting Dorothy Day, whose memoir The Long Lonelinessone of the truly great books about poverty – was conceived during a visit to her old friends Malcolm Cowley and Caroline Gordon at Princeton in 1950.  In the postscript, Day explained that the Catholic Worker movement began in talk, nothing more.  It’s worth quoting at length, as an account – the best one I know – of the generative power of conversation when friends come together.

We were just sitting there talking when Peter Maurin came in.

We were just sitting there talking when lines of people began to form, saying, “We need bread.” We could not say, “Go, be thou filled.” If there were six small loaves and a few fishes, we had to divide them. There was always bread.

We were just sitting there talking and people moved in on us. Let those who can take it, take it. Some moved out and that made room for more. And somehow the walls expanded.

We were just sitting there talking and someone said, “Let’s all go live on a farm.”

It was as casual as all that, I often think. It just came about. It just happened …

It all happened while we sat there talking, and it is still going on.

It still is going on —

Our Kind of Spirituals, No. 52: Jackson Browne, “Before the Deluge”

As I reckon it, today’s People’s Climate March is the largest mass rally in New York focused on an issue other than war and peace since … since the “No Nukes” rally brought 200,000 people to Battery Park  in September 1979, six months after the leak of radioactive waste at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant in Pennsylvania.

That rally was the keystone of a week of rock concerts at Madison Square Garden, featuring Bruce Springsteen, Bonnie Raitt, Crosby Stills & Nash, and Jackson Browne, who was one of the principal organizers of MUSE: Musicians United for Safe Energy.

Browne’s song “Before the Deluge” addressed “the ways the Earth was abused” well before it was fashionable to do so.  It’s at 12:00 on this video taken from Japanese television, with seventies clothes and hair styles on full view.

Plenty of people would say that “No Nukes” was a failure: after all, we still have nuclear power plants in the United States, don’t we?  But the U.S. is significantly less reliant on nuclear power than, say, France – and significantly less reliant than it would have been without anti-nuclear activism.

If the People’s Climate March can help make the developed nations significantly less reliant on fossil fuels, it will have been a success.

 “With the energy of the innocent / They were gathering the tools / They would need to make their journey back to nature …”

Bill McKibben: Six Million Acres

This is the weekend when, in New York at least, everything happens at once: the Brooklyn Book Festival, the Woody Guthrie guitar event with Bill Frisell, the Community of Sant’Egidio’s conference on Poverty and Peacemaking at Princeton – all that, and 350.org’s People’s Climate Change March near the United Nations, where the General Assembly meets next week.

Don’t know what to think yet about divestment from fossil fuel companies as the next step in climate change.  Don’t know why pension funds and universities should divest their stock holdings when we individually aren’t divesting our cars, our gas grills and charcoal pits, our ever-multiplying arrays of devices that must be charged with electricity generated by plants that burn coal.

What I do know is that I trust no one more to be at the front of such an effort than Bill McKibben.

His book Wandering Home, from a few years ago, is a book I feel was written “at” me (the way Melville put it about Moby-Dick and Hawthorne). Bill lives partly in Vermont and partly in upstate New York, and in the book he walks from the one to the other and makes you see the place and the wild in a new way — even if you didn’t grow up nearby, as I did.

You see that Vermont and the Adirondacks are part of the same territory (“Adimont? The Verondacks?”). You see that Adirondack Park is “the largest park in the lower 48, 6 million acres, bigger than Glacier, Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, and Yosemite combined.” You see that the model for the park – a vast protected area assembled from many parcels of once commercial land and allowed to return to a wild state while the small towns within it function as before – is more feasible, and more hopeful, than any other.

You see that McKibben — branded an ideologue — is affable and practical, a “rootless child of the suburbs” who came to the wild much the way I am coming to it now: “… through the written word” – in his case, the work of Edward Abbey and Wendell Berry.

Who better to lure me back to the Adirondacks in midlife?  Who better to lead a climate-change effort than can’t be called anything but radical?

All those events in New York are going to use a lot of energy, that’s for sure.     

See you Sunday.