Dante’s Tears: The Poetics of Weeping from Vita Nuova to the Commedia, by Rossana Fenu Barbera

Rossana Barbera

Sometimes you find a book that answers questions you didn’t know you had. This book roused my curiosity about many things, not just Dante and tears, but also silences, numerology, medicine, and religious beliefs during the Late Middle Ages.

Earlier this week someone mentioned a history professor she once had who hated the sentence: “Things were different back then.” When I read these works of Dante’s back in my schooldays, that’s probably why I didn’t question all the weeping that goes on in them. As it turns out, though, the cultural context for tears really was different from today’s.

I haven’t read Dante since then, though of course I’ve encountered references and bits and pieces of his work over the years. Still, I had no trouble following Dr. Barbera’s explanations of the various meanings of tears during that time and how this understanding illuminates Dante’s most famous works. (Full disclosure: I have known the author for over ten years, first as a teacher and then as a friend.)

By tracing the way Dante presents his own tears and those of others, the author demonstrates how Dante’s philosophy and world view developed over the 26 or so years he spent writing these works. In Vita Nuova, where he first meets Beatrice,:

Dante’s confused and distressed state of mind is not merely emotional or decorative. It embraces the very essence of the book, the writing of which seems to be motivated by Dante’s finding a new path in life, finding his new life . . . Vita Nuova is the stage on which Dante represents his struggle to define the truth of Love, to test positive and negative behavior. Vita Nuova was the occasion, in Dante’s life, to discover a new poetic; in a way, it is the paradise and wood where Dante gets lost.

The Commedia, in which Dante travels through Hell, Purgatory and Heaven, demonstrates Dante’s evolution to a more nuanced understanding of love and death, sin and redemption, and to a new poetics to express them. He more subtly uses different kinds of weeping to describe whom he meets and what he learns during his time in Hell and Purgatory. For some he meets, tears are a relief or a means of atonement. For others, they are a terrible punishment.

For example, Dante reserves the ninth and lowest circle of his Hell for traitors, those who broke the political order or society’s rules, which to him meant betraying the community itself. I was struck by the current relevance of this verdict, centuries before Rousseau published The Social Contract, which describes how citizens are willing to surrender some of their freedoms to the government in exchange for protection of their remaining rights.

Confined with Lucifer in a frozen lake of tears, these traitors are not allowed to weep, and therefore not given any way to relieve their sorrow or to petition God for forgiveness. If they do cry, their tears are frozen in their eye sockets, their heads tilted back. By delving into the significance of tears and Dante’s poetic use of them, the author brings home the true horror of these punishments and the depth of Dante’s scorn for these traitors.

I was also particularly interested in the history and meaning of the sin of acedia, better known today as sloth. However, it is more complicated than laziness. What we now call sloth was understood as a medical problem related to melancholia and tristitia (sorrow) until the “first Christian thinkers . . . began to associate diseases with or to explain them as a product of vice and sin.” When first identified as one of the seven deadly sins, it was considered “an inertia of the spirit” seen among monks who shifted their attention “from spiritual aspirations to earthly appetite.”

The relevance to today is obvious. As massive problems beset our society—problems we feel powerless to solve—it is tempting to bury our heads in the sand, whether by binge-watching television shows, video games, retail therapy, or focusing on personal ambition. Even though Thoreau’s “To be awake is to be alive” has been my motto since my teens, I am not immune; the lure of my book-lined room is sometimes irresistible.

In Dante’s Purgatory, acedia is the middle of the seven plateaus, separating the sins “that cause harm to others (Pride, Envy, and Wrath)” from the sins of “excessive love of earthly goods (Avarice, Gluttony, and Lust).” It is “intended as the mother of all temptations”. The exploration of Dante’s uses of weeping helps us better understand Dante’s struggle in this crucial area, the centerpoint of the entire Commedia and how we ourselves might move forward with open eyes.

Drawing on over a hundred sources, the author summarizes research and scholarship. She goes further and adds her own conclusions, clearly expressed and supported by the journey she has taken us on through the beliefs and worldview of the late 13th and early 14th centuries. Like the most satisfying of jigsaw puzzles, the pieces of the author’s argument slot together and yield a fascinating new portrait of Dante, his times, and his works.

Nearly all of the academic writers I know loathe tangled academic prose. What makes this book such a joy is not just the breadth of scholarship and the shrewd conclusions, but also the clarity of the prose. Even if you are not familiar with Dante’s works, the liberal quotations here will bring it to life and perhaps inspire you to explore these two works armed with your new understanding.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a copy of this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Thérèse, by Dorothy Day

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The last couple of weeks I’ve been writing about books that inspired Dorothy Day, who devoted her life to working for peace and social justice. Always her focus was on ordinary people: working people held back by low wages and bad working conditions and those most vulnerable in our society such as people living in poverty. With Peter Maurin she founded the Catholic Worker Movement with the intention of actually living according to the precepts that the Catholic church and indeed all Christian sects preach.

While I am not a Catholic myself, I turned to this short biography because Day was deeply influenced by St. Thérèse of Lisieux, also known as the Little Flower. Unlike the other Teresa, St. Teresa of Avila who was an activist and reformer as well as a mystic, Thérèse came from a humble background and lived what would seem to be an unremarkable life until her death from tuberculosis at 24.

Upon entering an enclosed Carmelite convent at the young age of 15, she spent her time in prayer and performing the hard work necessary to the community of 20 nuns, such as the back-breaking work of washing clothes by hand outdoors in winter. Near the end of her life, she was asked by the prioress to write an account of her life, an autobiography that has comforted and inspired many people

What sets her apart from other saints is her simple approach to spirituality. What she called her “little way” consists of practicing the presence of God and offering each moment to Him by making it an act of love. If another nun teased her by splashing her with dirty water, she responded with affection instead of anger. If she was assigned some hard task, she performed it without complaint, even when she was in great pain from her illness. Day says that Thérèse described these “irritations encountered in her life with twenty others under obedience . . . to show of what little things the practice of virtue is made up.”

Not all of us are broken on a wheel or shot full of arrows. The stories of most saints are dramatic and heroic. Thérèse’s everyday offering, though, is something we can all do. We can all strive to be a little bit better in everything we do.

In his Introduction, Robert Ellsberg says:

From Thérèse, Day learned that each sacrifice endured in love, each work of mercy might increase the balance of love in the world. She extended this principle to the social sphere. Each protest or witness for peace—though apparently foolish and ineffective, no more than a pebble in a pond—might send forth ripples that could transform the world . . .

Thérèse’s little way, in fact, offers an essential key to interpreting the message of Day. In a time when so many feel overwhelmed by the vast powers of this world, she bore witness to another power, one disguised in what is apparently small and weak. Certainly, life at the Catholic Worker offered daily, hourly, opportunities for self-mortification—the little decisions to sacrifice one’s time, privacy, comforts, and cravings for the sake of others. It was the practice of these small, daily choices . . . that equipped Day for the extraordinary and heroic actions she performed on a wider stage.

These days I often feel “overwhelmed by the vast powers of this world” and take comfort in the idea of small actions: a call, a postcard, a rally. I struggle to find the right balance between resisting being bullied and responding with love. This account of Thérèse’s life helps me look at these issues a different way. Complete and unquestioning obedience like hers is not right for me, but I could be more compassionate.

In a novel by Elizabeth Goudge, I read of an elderly woman in rural England during the Blitz. Unable to help those being bombed in London in any practical way due to poor health and fortune, she did the only thing she could: she prayed. My practical nature resists the idea that prayer and good intentions actually help others, but they can’t hurt, and I certainly know that some small action can have huge consequences later. We don’t know how another person may be influenced by what to us is a casual aside.

It is Thérèse’s parents whom I’ll remember from this book. Both wanted the religious life but were rejected by the holy communities they sought to enter. Day says of Thérèse’s father that “he made up his mind to live a holy life in the world.” This, to me, is the essential problem: how to live according to your ideals in this flawed world where temptations abound and compromises are the norm.

For Louis and Zélie Martin, their way was to work hard—he as a watch and clockmaker; she as a maker of fine Alençon lace—and raise their five daughters according to their beliefs. Day says of Louis “It was through marriage and the bringing up of a family that he was to play his great and saintly role in the world.” The same is true of Zélie. To the joy of both parents, all of their daughters became nuns. All are remembered for their goodness.

We can each of us play a “great and saintly role in the world” even when our lives are quite ordinary. Whatever we call our practice—compassion, mindfulness, or the presence of God—we can pursue it as our gift to the world.

What book has inspired you?

The Courage for Truth: The Letters Of Thomas Merton To Writers, edited by Christine M. Bochen

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I’ve been looking to the past for ideas and inspiration about dealing with fascism and totalitarian regimes. I started with books by Dorothy Day, one of my greatest heroes, a woman who truly lived her ideals. From there, I’m moving on to the books that inspired her, by writers such as Simone Weil, Georges Bernanos, and Ignazio Silone.

Then Jeremy distracted me with this volume of letters. Of course, I loved reading the descriptions and commentary on his own and others’ works. Merton especially loved the work of writers from Latin America, and there are many here to whom he’s written and whose work I’ll want to look up.

But what fascinated me was a theme that has come up a few times recently. As Christine M. Bochen, the editor of this volume, says in her Introduction, “Merton sensed in writers a hope for the future of mankind. Merton believed, as the title of this volume suggests, that the courage for truth was their special gift.”

In November I attended a writing conference which ended with a workshop led by Donald Maass. He asked us, “How do you want your novel to change the world?”

Don’t laugh. Novels have led to social change. Think of how To Kill a Mockingbird contributed to the Civil Rights Movement or The Handmaid’s Tale to the Women’s Movement. Oliver Twist drew attention to child poverty and All Quiet on the Western Front to the reality of war. Poetry, too, has been a powerful weapon, whether written or sung.

I have for some time been clear about my purpose for writing. I can’t do much that will affect those in power. But I can tell stories, as I did in Innocent, my memoir of my time on welfare. Many people have told me that reading Innocent changed their view of welfare recipients. What I’ve learned in my lifetime is that big social changes happen when the minds and hearts of the people are swayed. And stories are the way to do that.

In fact, reading any fiction opens your heart and mind to the lives of others. Studies such as the ones described in this article have shown the neurobiological basis for how reading builds empathy. The same areas of the brain are used when we read about a character’s experiences as when we experience something in real life. It only makes sense. When we read a novel, we see the world through someone else’s eyes. Once we experience what life is like for them, once it has become our life too, our intolerance and prejudices fade.

In a letter to José Coromel Urtecho dated 15 March 1964, Merton writes:

. . . the poets remain almost the only ones who have anything to say . . . They have the courage to disbelieve what is shouted with the greatest amount of noise from every loudspeaker, and it is this courage that is most necessary today. A courage not to rebel, for rebellion itself tends to substitute another and louder noise from the noise that already deafens everyone, but an independence, a personal and spiritual liberty which is above noise and outside it and which can unite men in a solidarity which noise and terror cannot penetrate.

Of course, Merton recognises that there are risks involved when you take on the power structure. Still, in a letter to Boris Pasternak dated 23 October 1958, he says: “Both works (Dr. Zhivago and Vladimir Soloviev’s Meaning of Love) remind us to fight our way out of complacency and realize that all our work remains yet to be done, the work of transformation which is the work of love, and love alone.”

What novel or poem can you think of that has contributed to social change?

Best books I read in 2016

As a writer, I learn something from every book I read. These are the ten best books I read in 2016. Although I read much fiction, I’m a bit surprised to see how many of the books I’ve selected are nonfiction. Please check the links to the blog archive for a fuller discussion of each book.

1. Stirring the Mud: On Swamps, Bogs, and Human Imagination, by Barbara Hurd

Stirring the Mud is a slight book, only nine essays, but I’ve been reading and rereading it for weeks, pondering the images and leaps of thought. Reading these essays, I came to love standing with Hurd as she lets her shoes sink into the mud, water seeping in to wet her socks, thinking about what grows there, what is lost there, what is preserved there. She examines the liminality of these places, how mysteriously hidden their edges are.

2. Reading the Forested Landscape: A Natural History of New England, by Tom Wessels

Tom Wessels’ book helps me understand what I’m looking at when I examine the woods that come almost up to my porch. This is not a tree identification book, however. It’s more like a magic decoder ring. It gives the information you need to look at a patch of woods and make a pretty good guess at what it looked like 100 years ago and what has occurred to disturb it in the meantime. This book changed my view of the natural world.

3. Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End, by Atul Gawande

Gawande examines these issues through stories of his patients and his own family, encouraging us to look at that phase of life that we mostly try to pretend will never happen, that inevitable decline into death. Most interesting to me, he takes us through the history of solutions for how to make the end of life meaningful, comfortable and affordable, from the first retirement communities to exciting new ideas.

4. Islands, the Universe, Home, by Gretel Ehrlich

This collection of essays is truly stunning. In the things of her world Ehrlich finds tangible evidence for the thoughts and ideas jostling in her head, anchoring them to coherence. Her world is primarily her ranch in Wyoming, its five-acre lake, the nearby mountains. Other essays take us further afield. Whatever destinations we find in these essays come from the resonances between the pieces of her mosaic and the echoes they call up in our own hearts.

5. The House of Belonging: Poems, by David Whyte

The poems in this book are different from those to which I’m usually drawn. At first glance they don’t even seem to be poems—aside from the line breaks—but rather the sort of heart-to-heart you have with an old friend late at night over a cup of tea or glass of whisky. Yet within the plain speaking is a core of light. Such poems may look easy, but must require great patience to revise and revise again in order to craft something so seemingly inconsequential into a work invested with such meaning.

6. Saving Our Sons: Raising Black Children in a Turbulent World, by Marita Golden

Ta-Nehisi Coates’s book Between the World and Me has been getting a lot of press since it came out last year. With good reason: Coates’s letter to his son is an essential reminder to all of us, in the U.S. at least, that a hope and a dream alone are not enough to undo centuries of racism built into the structure of this country. Yet it was this slim book by Marita Golden that I first read twenty years ago that truly brought home to me the dangers faced by young men of color and the emotions endured by their parents.

7. The Edge of Heaven, by Marita Golden

The story opens with twenty-year-old Teresa Singletary and her mother, Lena, facing a major turning point in their lives: Lena is being released from prison. Through a “chorus of voices”, the story conveys the terrible damage not just to the person imprisoned, but also to her or his family. While the journey is sometimes dark and the human cost is huge, it is in the end a story of love’s possibilities.

8. Burning Your Boats, by Angela Carter

I love these stories. Actually Carter calls them tales, saying they draw on images from dreams and legends, from fairy tales and the unconscious. While these tales do provoke unease, they also overwhelm with audacity and rich allusions and tangled passion. She layers in the descriptions and emotions until you feel as though the whole thing is going to explode—and then she reels you back with a coolly humorous detail or sarcastic observation.

9. I Capture the Castle, by Dodie Smith

Seventeen-year-old Cassandra Mortmain and her family love their dilapidated home: a house attached to and using a corner of a partially ruined castle. It would be better, though, if they had some money for little things like, oh, having more candles so they can read at night, fixing the leaks in the roof, actually getting enough to eat, and paying the rent. I love Cassandra’s storytelling, her humor, her peculiar turns of phrase, her odd outlook. Every page holds delightful surprises.

10. Tell the Wolves I’m Home, by Carol Rifka Brunt

As this story opens, fifteen-year-old June remembers when and her sister Greta were being driven by their mother to Uncle Finn‘s apartment to continue sitting for the portrait he was painting of them, Uncle Finn who was dying of AIDS. This is more than a coming-of-age story, more than a dealing-with-the-first-death story. It is an engrossing story of deeply human emotions, ones we deny or fear, ones that lead us into actions we regret and the connections we crave.

What were the best books you read last year?

Ordinary Mysteries, by Stephen Vicchio

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It’s been almost 15 years since I first read this collection of short essays by Vicchio, longtime Philosophy professor at Notre Dame College of Maryland. Even then I recalled having already encountered a few of the pieces in the local paper; this was back when Op-Ed pages sometimes carried such diversions.

The essays, which rarely run more than three or four pages, are what we would now call creative nonfiction. Truer to Montaigne’s original definition than to the formal school essays to which we’ve become accustomed, Vicchio’s ponderings range from funny to profound. Reading them is like having the best dinner conversation ever.

He takes the most ordinary occasions—looking at the clouds, going to a toy store, watching students raise their hands in class—and carries us more deeply into the experience. As a man who has read widely and thought deeply, Vicchio surrounds each simple experience with a web of echoes and associations.

For example, in “Music is its Roar” he writes about listening to the ocean on the last night of vacation in Bethany Beach, Delaware. After placing us in the moment by describing his porch and the beach and the children playing there earlier “looking like small King Canutes”, he tells us that “this evening everything has disappeared.” What follows are descriptions of the sounds and the thoughts roused by them, ranging from the Byron quote which provided the title, through baseball, Hindu priests and Darwin before coming to rest in Plato. Although this may sound forced and dauntingly erudite, believe me: It is not. The sentences flow one into another in a beautifully quiet rhythm, leading in only two short pages to a satisfying conclusion.

Others of his pieces take off from a news item. Since most of these pieces were written in the 1980s, you’d think old news would be boring. Unfortunately, though the names may have changed, we still have dishonest preachers, muggers, and mass murderers. We still have the mentally ill, shoved onto the street when the back wards were emptied, left to die alone, stifled by their delusions like Gladys Finkenbinder. The plastic she’d taped over her windows to keep the voices out prevented anyone from noticing the fire in her kitchen until it was too late.

In some essays, Vicchio writes about his childhood, summoning up a world now gone, a world of dancing to Buddy Deane with his sisters, cutting mass to have a cherry coke at the Rexall drugstore’s soda fountain, feeling awkward at CYO dances, watching Sky King on Saturdays, fearing the school incinerator and its terrifying keeper. Such pieces brought back many memories for me, but the grounding of experience in each is universal enough to appeal to those growing up in another time or place.

I especially loved the essays that touch on time and memory. This is a collection I know I’ll come back to again. And if you’re looking for some good dinner conversation, invite Stephen Vicchio by picking up this or another of his essay collections.

What essays have you read lately that set you thinking?

Saving Our Sons: Raising Black Children in a Turbulent World, by Marita Golden

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Ta-Nehisi Coates’s book Between the World and Me has been getting a lot of press since it came out last year. With good reason: Coates’s letter to his son is an essential reminder to all of us, in the U.S. at least, that a hope and a dream alone are not enough to undo centuries of racism built into the structure of this country. His fears for his son’s physical safety took on new resonance in the outrage over the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Freddie Gray and too many others.

Yet it was this slim book by Marita Golden that I first read twenty years ago that truly brought home to me the dangers faced by young men of color and the emotions endured by their parents.

Golden’s book has a different focus than Coates’s. It is not a letter written to her then-teen-aged son. Rather it is a combination of interviews, essays and journal entries that document her search to discover how on a practical level she can keep her son—and all our sons—safe.

How much should she worry about his taking on the walk and fashions of the street? Should she and her husband move out of Washington, D.C., to a suburb? Should she take Michael out of public school and send him to boarding school? What should she tell him so he can protect himself? How to couch it so as to scare him enough but not too much, this child she has worked so hard to make feel loved and safe and secure?

You can imagine how Golden’s thoughts and fears hit home with me, since I have two sons, at that time barely out of their teens. I worried about them, knowing how dangerous the streets are for young men, whether from other young men looking to assert themselves or from those who assume a teen-aged boy must be a troublemaker.

Walking in our neighborhood, they had been bullied by police who assumed they must be about to commit a crime. But they weren’t handcuffed or arrested. They weren’t shot. I knew already, before reading this book or any other, that insulting and infuriating as those incidents were, they were nothing—nothing—compared to what could, maybe would have happened if their skin had been a darker color. They and I are well aware that we walk with privilege, unearned and unwelcome.

I urge everyone to read this powerful book. Golden’s call to action is more vital than ever. She says:

There was a transcendent moment in our history when we faced bulldogs, water cannons, jail cells, firebombs, assassinations, sacrifice, so that our children could be full citizens. What will we do so that they can live?

They are my children too. And yours. They are the future.

What will you do?