13 February, 2008

Mimesis - "Odysseus' Scar"

One of the "big books" here on campus - at least in the professors' circles - is Erich Auerbach's Mimesis , which discusses, as the subtitle says "the representation of reality in Western literature." I recently had to read chapter one, “Odysseus’ Scar”, for a theology class, and it's quite interesting. Here Auerbach contrasts the literary styles of the Homeric epic and Hebrew Scripture, demonstrating the vastly different means through which each work depicts reality.

Whereas the Homeric epic lays out a panorama of life, meticulously recreating events in detail, the Old Testament focuses on select aspects of events and characters that relate directly to a specific message. Comparing the scene when Odysseus’ nurse, Eurykleia, recognizes her master to the scene of Abraham’s journey up the mountain to sacrifice his son, Isaac, Auerbach points out that the Homeric poem “scrupulously externalize[s]” the minutest thoughts, actions, and feelings of the characters. The Homeric approach brings each facet of the legend - Eurykleia's reaction, Odysseus' gestures in silencing her, etc - to the foreground of the tale.In contrast, the Abraham narrative directly recounts only scattered details of the episode - God's command, Abraham's prompt response. The brand of actions highlighted in Abraham’s story all center around a single theme – his unswerving obedience to God’s will - and the paucity of detail makes the few, seemingly minor, details which are included, such as the fact that the journey took three days, take on a significance that would be lost in Homer.

Much of this has to do with the aim of each narrative. Homer wrote a legend, in which the present is paramount and details simply add to the spectacle of the story. It is a good story, but Hebraic Scripture purports (and to us, is) more than a mere story. The Old Testament's primary aim is to present a single truth about the nature of man’s relationship with God and its development through the ages. The immediacy of events in Homer, together with the relative consistency of personality in the characters stands in contrast to the Old Testament. There, everything is fraught with the background story of salvation history (as the authors then understood it) while anticipating the fulfillment of this history in future generations. The personal development of individuals' relationships with God is of primary importance as well, considering that such relationships are exactly what drive the story of God's dialogue with men. We hardly expect to see the Abraham who descends from the mountain with his son unchanged by the experience, and indeed, we see a profound development in Abraham's relation with God, reflected by a renewed covenant. "Because you have done this, and not withheld your son, your only son, I will indeed bless you...by your descendants shall all the nations of the earth bless themselves, because you have obeyed my voice" (Gen 22:16-19.

Because of its purpose, gestures and words in Genesis aren’t depicted randomly – things that are not pertinent to the message of the story are hushed. Every word is there for a purpose and deserves attention when interpreting the passage. Though Homer’s tale explores many questions man has about existence just by its quality as a story, Auerbach says, such is not its direct aim. The Biblical authors sought to reveal divine truth and to comprehend recognize how it is that God interacts with the human race.

02 February, 2008

"Abandon every hope, who enter here"

The quotation in the title is probably one of the most famous phrases of Dante's "Inferno". I had a specific point I was intending to make before writing that, but the simply act of recording it has made me perform something of a double-take. (Dante's intricate layering of meaning upon meaning - of metaphorical sense on top of theological sense on top of literal sense - makes reading the Divine Comedy, not to mention discussing it, a daunting venture, dontcha think?)

That single line, inscribed above the gates of hell serves so many fascinating purposes. The most obvious reference, of course, is to the sinners who enter choosing to abandon hope of ever fulfilling the role for which God created each of them; to reject the one route to true happiness that lies in that role. Ironically enough, however, "Dante the pilgrim", having strayed from the path - that is, the "Way" which will lead him to heaven, can only get back onto the right track by first descending through hell. Still lost, he sees a mountain crowned with the sun - he wants to move towards the light, but is prevented by three beasts, the sight of which " so weighted me with fearfulness that I abandoned hope."

I hardly think it a coincedence that Dante's phrasing here directly echoes (or rather, foreshadows) the inscription over hell. But why? How could one who has abandoned hope ever be able to regain it by entering into the one place where hope most utterly dead?

First, Dante-pilgrim has a guide - Virgil, the embodiment of reason. Moreover, his journey is sanctioned, even commanded, by heaven. Beatrice, explaining to Virgil why she does not fear hell, gives us some idea of how it is that Dante may be kept safe. "One ought to be afraid of nothing other than things possessed of power to do us harm...God, in His graciousness, has made me so that this, your misery, cannot touch me." God offers Dante an opportunity to pass through the worst dangers in safety, providing him with the guide of reason to guide Dante's own choices, and with divine protection when reason fails (as we see happen in moments when Virgil's vulnerability in certain circumstances becomes pronounced. All of this seems to be getting off my original point, but I'll try to tie it in, I promise.

The sentence that sheds the greatest light on all of this for me comes directly after the inscription. Explaining the words carved above the gates, Virgil tells Dante that those in hell are souls who have "lost the good of the intellect". And what is the good of the intellect? Reason, perfected by faith in God. (I'm presupposing pretty much the entire substance of Fides et Ratio here, I admit...) As Dante descends further and further into the Inferno, the sins he encounters are offenses against reason - beginning with the virtuous pagans whose only fault was their lack of faith which made their reason imperfect, and ending with those who used their intellects to break faith. Hell is essentially "the great divorce" (to plagiarize the title of CS Lewis' book) between reason and faith.

Dante could abandon reason, his guide, and be lost in hell forever. He could lose faith in God's will, as he nearly does, for example, at the gates of Dis (lower hell) when even Virgil is unable to defeat the demons without divine aid. Either way, he would then be among those who have "lost the good of the intellect". However, hell is "innocuous", as Beatrice describes it, to those who accept the protection God offers. In the dark forest of the first Canto, Dante has only himself to rely upon, having lost the way to God. His hope is crushed when he is so alone, and his intellect is weakened. But once he accepts God's offer of aid, Dante can hope even as he crawls down Satan's hairy body in deepest chasm of hell.