Wednesday, 31 December 2014

Some thoughts on François de La Rochefoucauld and Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuve

Sainte-Beuve writes: “There comes a moment in life when L. pleases us, and in which we think him more true than perhaps he really is.” He is true for the person, the circumstance, the hurt, the special experience or recollection of the experience which inspired the maxim. He is true for a particularity, that particularlity (whatever it is) being something that we have known or had in our own case.

Sainte-Beuve writes: “We cherish the secret insult; we suck the bitterness with pleasure. But this very excess has something reassuring. Enthusiasm for those thoughts is a sign that already we are passing beyond them and beginning a cure.” If we cannot escape amour-propre (self-regard), if self-interest is not only a given but a necessary of all human conduct, then we treat L. as an equal before we begin. But can we ever “pass beyond” in this way, can we ever “begin a cure”? L. gives no answer, he has no philosophy, and no philosophical guide to life – this is not his business.

Sainte-Beuve writes: “Maxims are things that cannot be taught; half a dozen persons before whom to recite them are too many; the maker of them will be admitted to be right only in a tête-à-tête.” It could be argued that that is even too many. A tête-à-tête with L. himself, perhaps. For does L. believe what he is saying? Or is what he is saying meant to shock and so make us think anew about the subject of the maxim – courage, fidelity, possessiveness, &c.? If L. is playing a game of wit with us then who is true and to what degree? How far can we push it? This reading of it as wit comes only with re-reading, when L. has become familiar, even a companion. Yes, we can agree about them with another, but the maxims are finally a matter of agreement or dissension solely between the reader and his understanding of L.’s meaning – its precision.

Sainte-Beuve writes: “His nature, without his then suspecting it, had an arrière-pensée in all enterprises, and that hidden thought was an instinct to reflect upon the enterprise when it was over. All adventures were to finish with him in maxims.” Hard to believe that this was ideal. One feels that L. thought and felt a very much greater world outside that of his maxims, we see it in Madame de Sévigné’s letters and elsewhere in the literature. Just as existentialists would stop writing if they were existentialists, so L. would have written nothing if he was completely bitter and disillusioned. The maxims were an art form, not just the result of his life adventures. However, it is one thing we can say, maxims are the end, the very end of one story, or the beginning, the barely discernible first beginnings of another story.

Sainte-Beuve writes: “The moralist in L. is stern, grand, simple, concise …” Unlike most literature, L. allows for no double meaning in his writing. There is no ambiguity, no space for colour, comparison, allusion. He reminds one of Simone Weil in her strictures to the task of making the point.     

Sainte-Beuve writes: “Segrais and Huet thought he had more sagacity than equity; and the latter even remarked, very acutely, that the author had brought certain accusations against mankind for the sole purpose of not losing some witty or ingenious expression he meant to apply to them.” Until we learn that L.’s practice is a developed game of sayings, we are still only being served leaden cynicism. The maxim is used precisely at the moment when its wit and ingenuity is seen to suit the case.

Sainte-Beuve writes: “L.’s maxims do not in any way contradict Christianity, although they do without it. His man is precisely the fallen man…” Self-regard is not the same as selfishness. But where does one become the other, and in what way are we meant to understand self-regard in L. other than in a perjorative sense?

Sainte-Beuve writes: “Some of the maxims he rewrote thirty times, until he reached the necessary expression; nevertheless, there seems no torturing effort.” The greatest part of the story is imagining him, quicksilver, in his retirement, testing the phraseology. One wonders about his surroundings, his gout. We see his hot face, his wry smile – and we feel the melanchology begin to move in, not the melancholy in the works, only its final, overall effect, which is its secret poetry.

Entry in Notebooks, 13-16th September 1989. These quotes from Sainte-Beuve and my responses were basis for a Reading Group session at the time on the Maxims of La Rochefoucauld.

Monday, 29 December 2014

Some thoughts on the Letters of Marie de Rabutin-Chantal, marquise de Sévigné

Reading the letters of Madame de Sévigné. The anthologies of mother-daughter correspondence that come out today seem precious and strained beside her enormous expressions of love. She can hardly control herself in her excitement to get everything out, while her developed, delightful skill of entertaining exacts a complete control. She can gossip and even get bitchy, but she is never small-minded or cruel. But this is only the start. Madame de Sévigné’s view of the court world is broad. Her Catholicism is devout and needful. Her honesty about her own talents, especially as reflected in that of her very fortunate daughter, endears her increasingly. Her confession that she does not understand some of M. La Rochefoucauld’s new maxims is an almost perfect example of her civilization: she obviously comprehends the rest of them. Her self-analysis, as when she fears that her love for her daughter is idolatry, has about it the sudden back cut of Christina Stead. But it is her spirit – the thing you get in the spry openings, the witty build-ups, the rolling pages of personal descriptions – that can still seduce.

Entry in Notebooks, 16th August 1989

Some thoughts on ‘Last Poems’ by Vincent Buckley

The major concerns of Buckley at the end in this collection. Dying. Looking at one life from the point near death. Memory. Honour. Inevitability.

Place. Mood and sensuality of place. Australian cities. Sense of moving into or away from a place. And especially Ireland.

The creation of poetry. How the voice speaks and sounds. The Irish voice (but, notice, not the Australian voice much). And then, music.

Politics of all kinds. Literary politics (his game). Irish politics. War.

Family life. The ancestors. The present generation. What the future holds. Relationships within the family. The fears of women. Privacy.

Civilization. Human interaction. Human respect. The public domain. Ethical questions, discussed with careful passion or with satire or with irony.

Physicality. Uncomfortableness. The restlessness of the body. The coming to terms with materials.

Meaning. Finding “some place in a story.”

The personal concerns. Notice the voice is nearly always his voice, Vin’s voice.

Entry in Notebooks, 17-18th July 1989, after first encounters with this new poetry 

Sunday, 28 December 2014

Some thoughts on ‘The Star Chernobyl’ by Julia Voznesenskaya

Like Thomas Merton’s nuclear weapon poems composed entirely of newspaper quotes, the book works by accretion and irrefutability of the media evidence. The story of the three sisters is helpful – more helpful for non-Russians, who desire to know what the Russians really think (and how) of the Chernobyl accident – yet the story does not tell us anything deeper. How deep do we want to go? Recognisable types, individuals, caught off-guard by the disaster everyone has secretly known was “a matter of time” and which, when it happened, would be “a sign of the times.” The story is there to help the reader reassess the large segments of Pravda &c. quotes set between each chapter, and it is those which anyone literate in the disaster will find more disturbing than the story itself. The dialogue is shoddy (the translator?) yet the force of circumstance around which it revolves gives it an excuse. The conversation at the expense of the Party sounds like a genre unique to the modern Russian condition: imagine what it must be like when the samizdat get satirical. All the time, too. We think of ‘Stalker’ (Andrei Tarkovsky), the three men going into The Zone, and what to find? Although this book has none of the hypnotic character of that film, we can hear the click-click of the train carrier moving inexorably into the unknown as each page is turned.  

Entry in Notebooks, 16th July 1989 

Saturday, 27 December 2014

Some thoughts on ‘Under the Eye of the Clock’ by Christopher Nolan

New research shows that cerebral palsy sufferers have stopped development at the point of learning how to turn over, stand up, &c. Many years later they cannot perform certain actions because their mind has restricted them: they can go back into a fetal position. It does not affect their intelligence or growth in other areas. Nolan’s favourite words – casting, crested, cradled – reveal someone limited by a body that cannot obey the wishes of the mind. The compacting of his sentences is not simply the result of his method of composing with the ‘unicorn’ – dropping the articles, inventing new words, rearranging traditional order; it comes from a great rush to get things said, an intense urgency governed by his disability and by the strains of time (the eye and the clock) to get it all out. So what if his mother edited or added? It seems almost inevitable, considering the method. What is at the core – in the beauty of the descriptions of friendships, family and happiness, and in the unique poetic sentences – could only come from one person out of hardship. It is surprising how little actual hardship is dwelt upon, yet it is the unseen base out of which all of this develops. But we still have it at the very end and are left in no doubt.      

Entry in Notebooks, 6th July 1989 

Some thoughts on ‘Life A User’s Manual’ by Georges Perec

Do the lists always work? Isn’t there an emptiness behind pages of detail? It is a work of immense care and attention, yet are the rooms of the house full of scrappiness? As a fan of inventories this book is a wonder to read – yet the reader is left too often with a disjunction, between the objects of the room and the person, that cannot be solved, cannot be soldered. One imagines the rapidity of the puns, the verbal play, the suggestiveness of styles in the French, which in translation cannot achieve the same effect. Perhaps, as in ‘Ulysses’ or Rabelais, listing and listing has its own momentum and thrill, the only way to say “there is more” is to say more and more. The curiosity of the curiosity shop, the curiosity of the plan Perec set himself in writing each chapter along such restricted lines of play – these things keep the fascination long after the objects and their connotations have started to wear out. Again though, what delight to have someone who makes us aware in a novel way of the hundreds of things that we surround ourselves with and live in common with, daily.

Answer to the first question: what do you mean ‘work’? Answer to the second question: what do you mean ‘behind’? Answer to the third question: only what is on the page.   

Entry in Notebooks, 5th July 1989 

Wednesday, 10 September 2014

Ten Favourite Novels (2)

Mention of ‘The Magic Pudding’ in List 1 prompted thought about ten influential children’s books, books that had an impact at the time, and still do.

Alice in Wonderland & Through the Looking-Glass (Lewis Carroll): The main character is pure reason meeting the absurdity of the social world, making them adult books written to amuse, but usually confuse, children.

We are All in the Dumps with Jack and Guy (Maurice Sendak): All of his books are a gift, but I especially like this one because it dares to deal head-on with homelessness and the mistreatment of children, and how when we learn compassion things change.

The Wind in the Willows (Kenneth Grahame): A microcosm of Edwardian England, though I have wanted to write in heroic couplets a sequel where they all end up on the Western Front: Toad as an irresponsible idiot general, Ratty as a poetry-spouting captain, Mole as the private who goes ‘over the top’, and Badger as the army chaplain, epitome of English conscience, who wishes they’d all just stayed home.

The Young Visiters (Daisy Ashford): The title is correct, as is the spelling throughout this artless masterpiece written by a nine-year-old child for adults.

Winnie-the-Pooh (A.A. Milne): Pooh Sticks predates Samuel Beckett in making something out of next to nothing, while the geography of the ‘expotition’ to the North Pole simulates how we imagine the rest of the world without having to go there.

The Castafiore Emerald (Hergé): The unique Tintin story where the plot is based on an enigma rather than an adventure, as much ado about nothing is only resolved in the final frame on the last page.

Eloise (Kay Thompson): The antithesis of the ‘poor little rich kid’, Eloise makes innocent havoc wherever she goes, though mainly on her stamping ground of the Plaza Hotel NYC, which she shares with her “rawther marvellous” English Nanny.

Comet in Moominland (Tove Jansson): When we read books to our children we experience a second childhood, as happened for me reading these fantastical stories to my daughter, full of magic and the Northern Lights.

The Tailor of Gloucester (Beatrix Potter): My childhood copies of her books have fallen apart from enthusiasm and this one, like all her books a story of the actions of grace, is no exception.

The ‘Bulldog’ books (Arthur Catherall): Ripping yarns about a tugboat in the South China Sea that took on pirates, swindlers, smugglers &c., that I borrowed madly one after the other when I was about ten from the Moorabbin Public Library, Jasper Road, Bentleigh.

Sunday, 7 September 2014

Ten Favourite Novels (1)

A recent local Facebook thread invites us to list ten favourite novels. Novels are not my main reading and I have no system for how to read novels. However, here are ten novels I have read at times in my life when they made a significant impact. Each has a one sentence comment. The list does not even begin to describe my passion for Italian literature, let alone what has come out of say England or the United States since Samuel Johnson. I will return for a second or third list anon.

The Magic Pudding (Norman Lindsay): My grandmother gave me this book when I was six, its rumbustious Ballarat-types fighting over a scrumptious possession as though someone (boat people?) would take it from them.
The Vivisector (Patrick White): Sometimes we find the book that meets a need, as in my 20s I read this sprawling story of a Sydney painter, which spoke in infinite and caring detail of my own country.

Anna Karenina (Leo Tolstoy): From the opening scenes at the ice rink to the end at the railway line, he is unstoppable as he enlarges our lives with his imaginative world.
The Brothers Karamazov (Fyodor Dostoevsky): This is a book for grown-ups, fraught by the reality of evil and leavened by the beauty of holy relationship.

The Trial (Franz Kafka): I read this at school, my first encounter with a novel that was not there to entertain, that could be read at the same time as realism, satire, psychodrama, and parable.
Too Loud a Solitude (Bohumil Hrabal): The shortest novel in the list, about a man who works in a paper pulp factory and who, when not drinking pilsener, reads Lao-Tze &c., which he rescues from pulp oblivion – salutary for a librarian!

Ulysses (James Joyce): The author claimed “on my word as a gentleman” there is not a serious word in it; in my view, the greatest comic novel in English.
Finnegans Wake (James Joyce): The most terrifying verbal object in world literature, by turns entrancing and unreadable, sometimes within the same minute.

Gargantua and Pantagruel (François Rabelais): No one knows who wrote the first novel, but this is one of them, as it shows how the vibrancy of medieval life knows no bounds except for mortality and the love of Christ.
Life, a User’s Manual (Georges Perec): Although I am a huge fan of Italo Calvino, the greatest novel to come from the Oulipos is about the contiguous lives of residents of a Parisian apartment block, 11 Rue Simon-Crubellier, an address that does not exist in reality.

Tuesday, 17 June 2014

How Ulysses Teaches us How to Read Ulysses

Turning Over Idly Signatures of All Things I am Here to Read : How Ulysses Teaches us How to Read Ulysses

Paper on how to read Ulysses given by Philip Harvey at Bayside Arts and Cultural Centre in Brighton on the 16th of June 2014 as part of Bloomsday in Melbourne.


Nobody wished to claim my first copy of Ulysses. It was on a shelf in the lost-and-found at my school, incongruous amidst misplaced football jumpers and unnamed biology textbooks. It was a worn-out Penguin edition. No-one explained how it got there. Maybe it was a teacher’s guilty secret. Maybe someone left it in a classroom when they couldn’t find the dirty bits. I knew about James Joyce from A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, but everything about Ulysses was different from any book I had ever seen. Like many a novice, I gave up trying to understand the Latin on page one and flipped to the back. I hate having a long wrangle in bed or else if its not that its some little bitch or other he got in with somewhere or picked up on the sly if they only knew him as well as I do yes because the day before yesterday he was scribbling something a letter when I came into the front room … he covered it up with the blottingpaper. Anyone’s first impression of Molly Bloom will be of something striking and beautiful, and mine was no exception. It was not so much what was being said, I hadn’t the context then to get much of the meaning, it was how it was being said. This was a state of being without punctuation but plenty of rhythm. Sentences seemed to stop and start arbitrarily or with some grammatical logic of their own, and the vocabulary was rich and colourful, full of surprise images and vivacious Irish idioms. The voice was thrillingly single-minded. It was full of talk outside my personal experience, but I wanted to know more. Molly Bloom, I noticed, was not interested in full-stops and only went for capitalisation as the mood took her. As I started reading in other episodes of Ulysses I gradually found the whole book had an attitude about matters of style. No-one spoke in quote marks like in a normal novel, but after an indented dash. Some episodes used English that wasn’t modern at all, or set out the words in ways that were without reference to anything, precisely. Undoubtedly those first teenage encounters instilled interest, essential in any work of literature, which left open the possibility for returning to Ulysses when I was ready to know more. This experience also taught me that James Joyce was deeply interested in how people read. All of his games with word-play, layout, syntax, punctuation – the presentation of Ulysses itself – was about the pleasures of reading. He deliberately created a unique reading environment for the reader. He said himself that when someone opened Ulysses they would recognise it instantly as Ulysses and no other book. Just as he wished to see Ireland and existence in a renewed way, he does so by challenging our reading habits, by making us read the language in a new way. All of this takes time, and even though none of us will meet Joyce’s expectation of spending our whole lifetime reading his writings, we are enlarged by giving over long time, slow time, to gain from the comedies he puts before us. I can say of my first copy of Ulysses in chorus with the Honourable Mrs Mervyn Tallboys when reporting on an obscene Spanish photograph and wanton billet-doux sent to her by Leopold Bloom in an overheated moment: “I have it still.”


Because Ulysses is a book for adults. Its concerns are almost entirely about how adults negotiate with the world. I found there were a number of ways of reading Ulysses, when I returned to it in my twenties and thirties.

(a)   The first thing I discovered is that Ulysses is a gigantic network of cross-reference. When I dallied with Molly Bloom in my youth I had no idea that half the things she talks about in her monologue are facts past and present mentioned elsewhere in the novel. This completely shot the popular idea I had been given that the book was some kind of stream of consciousness. What Molly is streaming is the hard realities of her urban existence, all detailed elsewhere in Ulysses, albeit on soft mattresses after a heady afternoon of love-making. And this art of cross-reference is at work and on show in the lives of the other two main characters as well, cross-reference that deepens with time-soaked reading.
(b)  The second thing I found was that Ulysses has one enormous footnote, is in fact reliant for its survival on footnotes. In Finnegans Wake Joyce calls the three greatest European poets of the last millennium Daunty, Gouty, and Shopkeeper and today we could not properly or fully understand Dante, Goethe, and Shakespeare without the aid of footnotes. It is astonishing to think that 14th century contemporaries of Dante read the Divine Comedy and got all the references to politicians, artists &c. as though they were reading the Saturday paper. We can read Dante for enjoyment but still need a note to tell us why that particular pope is upsidedown in the quicksand. But from the start, every page of Ulysses required a footnote somewhere and the footnote business went from a jog to a sprint after Joyce’s death. There are books entirely dedicated to annotation. Much of Joyce criticism is a slavish exercise in finding out what else the words mean than their literal meaning. We ask ourselves what kick Joyce got out of loading his book with enough secrets to keep the scholars busy for centuries. Not only do we enjoy having 1904 Dublin recreated for us in 2014, we also have to go to the trouble of seeing how Joyce recreated it. Some people ask: what’s the point? I found after going to Dublin that those with a knowledge of Dublin will always have a headstart on the rest of us, but that footnotes are as much a history book as a clue to the purposes of Ulysses: to be treated as a necessary good and not an evil necessity. The difference between knowing Leopold Bloom’s ancestors were Hungarian Jews and why we have Martello Towers is one kind of good, for which a discerning reader will best judge the significance.
(c)  The third thing I found is the biggest footnote of all, the various biographies of Joyce, his family and friends, and pre-eminently Richard Ellmann. Some readers talk about life before and after Ellmann with the same rapture as Molly recalls life before and after Gibraltar. For some people, Ellmann is like a second Ulysses, a key to all mythologies within the main text. This view recommends highly Ellmann’s achievement, though nothing can replace the realised masterpiece itself. In terms of slow reading, or proper reading in fact, this passion for biography tells me this is because Ulysses is insistently autobiographical. All three main characters are projected aspects of the mature Joyce, while countless minor characters are described through Joyce’s personal perceptions. This is not simply some ego trip, but the transmutation of raw knowledge and experience into the forms taken by the novel. Any biography that assists with our awareness of how Joyce did that will be an asset for the seasoned reader.


All of which still only gets us so far in how to read Ulysses. As I said, my earliest reading was at the end of the book, not the start. In fact, I’m not sure I have read Ulysses straight through from “Stately, plump…” to “Yes I will Yes” but I have read the whole thing several times, some sections hundreds of times. Bloomsday in Melbourne helped there. And as I said, Joyce in his layout directs us in how to read. But he does more, because he gives other clues about how to read his book through his descriptions of the reading behaviour of his characters. I am now going to quote some of these descriptions and construe readerly meanings from them.

[page 45]
Ineluctable modality of the visible: at least that if no more, thought through my eyes. Signatures of all things I am here to read, seaspawn and seawrack, the nearing tide, that rusty boot. Snotgreen, bluesilver, rust: coloured signs.

Stephen on Sandymount Strand. One of the first direct references to reading in the book is about reading everything, anything at all in the world – not just words, but all things. This invitation to the reader is a wake-up call. Joyce asks us to read everything in creation, in the light, through our eyes and our experience. The signatures are the shapes, forms, and qualities of all things, animate and inanimate. And Ulysses itself is filled with descriptions of all things in careful detail: natural things, manmade things. And all of those minute descriptions, page upon page, are sensory celebration not just of the physical existence of Dublin but of our world in general – the world of daily, physical existence. All of which is one way of reading the book: as a reverie of all things visible.

[page 77]
-Show here, she said. I put a mark in it. There’s a word I wanted to ask you.
She swallowed a draught of tea from her cup held by nothandle and, having wiped her fingertips smartly on the blanket, began to search the text with the hairpin till she reached the word.
-Met him what? he asked.
-Here, she said. What does that mean?
He leaned downwards and read near her polished thumbnail.
-Yes. Who’s he when he’s at home?
-Metempsychosis, he said, frowning. It’s Greek: from the Greek. That means the transmigration of souls.
-O, rocks! she said. Tell us in plain words.

Molly having breakfast in Eccles Street. She began to search the text with the hairpin. We are asked to read Ulysses with Molly’s hairpin. That is to say, we scan again to find things needing further elucidation. Joyce is conceding that his book is full of big words that make us so unhappy. We have about as much chance of knowing what metempsychosis means as Leopold Bloom. But Joyce is telling us not to be afraid of the big words, whose meaning anyway is open to several meanings and endless wordplay, as indeed metempsychosis itself reappears throughout the book in outlandish reformulations. Molly is our model of going for help, and if Poldy does not come up with the goods she may have to go somewhere else. All of Ulysses is read using Molly’s hairpin. It is not untrue to say that the whole text hangs together using her hairpins.  

[page 83-85]
Bloom kicked open the crazy door of the jakes … Before sitting down he peered through a chink up at the next-door window. The king was in his countinghouse. Nobody.
Asquat on the cuckstool he folded out his paper turning its pages over on his bared knees. Something new and easy. No great hurry. Keep it a bit. Our prize titbit…
Quietly he read, restraining himself, the first column and, yielding but resisting, began the second. Midway, his last resistance yielding, he allowed his bowels to ease themselves quietly as he read, reading still patiently, that slight constipation of yesterday quite gone.

Bloom at stool. An impression persists that Ulysses is all head stuff, cerebral reading, but here Joyce tells us that reading is about the slowness and process of the body. Reading is done at our own physical speed and, of course, without the body we couldn’t read. Furthermore, we read Ulysses itself as an ode to the human body. The book opens with a half-naked man intoning words of the Roman Mass and ends with a half-naked woman recalling again the affirmation of her own body. Between these scenes we are asked to read closely the regular and irregular processes of the body we ourselves inhabit. Regular is Bloom after breakfast:

He tore away half the prize story sharply and wiped himself with it.

He lives in a world of transitory reading, where permanence can be torn away and used for practical ends. And where his day’s plan is found in a here-today-gone-tomorrow newspaper: “What time is the funeral? Better find out in the paper.” We read the book slowly in order to measure for ourselves the passage of time.

[page 106]
He walked cheerfully towards the mosque of the baths. Remind you of a mosque, redbaked bricks, the minarets. College sports today I see. He eyed the horseshoe poster over the gate of college park: cyclist doubled up like a cod in a pot. Damn bad ad. Now if they had made it round like a wheel. Then the spokes: sports, sports, sports: and the hub big: college. Something to catch the eye.

Bloom at his creative best. Bloom is an advertising man. Wherever he goes he is checking for new ideas to put into advertisements. We today, in our world of 24-hour promotions, are even more immersed in this way of thinking than Dubliners in 1904. “Something to catch the eye” is a motto of Ulysses also, and how to read it. First, because the entire book is riddled with the everyday words of newspapers, noticeboards, hoardings, tickets, programs, flyers, menus &c. – the ephemeral printed language of the city. We are made to see all of this. Far from being written out of the script, it becomes integral, is enjoined, is part of the script. We read the multiple distractions on show everywhere. Then also, “something to catch the eye” is Joyce’s own working aesthetic. His novel is itself a parade of word surprises. Even the paragraph we just heard has mosque, redbaked, minarets, horseshoe, cod in a pot. We are presented with a profusion of gorgeous vocabulary that keeps our attention and elevates the entire reading experience.

[page 155-156]
Bloom stayed in his walk to watch a typesetter neatly distributing type. Reads it backwards first. Quickly he does it. Must require some practice that. mangiD. kcirtaP. Poor papa with his hagadah book, reading backwards with his finger to me … How quickly he does that job. Practice makes perfect. Seems to see with his fingers.     

Bloom at the newspaper office. The more we read Ulysses, the more we read it backwards. The more progress we make going forwards, the more enjoyable we find it going back to previous references. The internal monologues, for example, grow with re-reading. Just the shift in thought in this passage – from typesetter to hagadah to exodus – makes increasing sense when re-read. Carl Jung, when he read Ulysses, said, ““The book can just as well be read backwards, for it has no back and no front, no top and no bottom. Everything could easily have happened before, or might have happened afterwards.” The name typeset backwards is that of the departed Patrick Dignam, reminder too that Ulysses, though set on one day in time, tells everyone’s stories backwards through time. Although we know life goes on, Bloomsday itself is the culmination of everything up until that moment, which we look back from in order to see how we arrived at this present moment.

[page 166-170]
-Silence for my brandnew riddle!

Lenehan announces in the Freeman’s Journal office and it takes four pages of Dublin talk before we get the answer to “What opera resembles a railway line?”

-The Rose of Castille. See the wheeze? Rows of cast steel. Gee!

Joyce once said that if the Catholic Church could base its foundation on a pun (You are a rock and on you I will build a rock) then it ought to be good enough for him. The Dubliners themselves thrive on punning right through the narrative. Joyce’s “employment of puns is daunting and programmatic” (Peter Porter), such that almost anything in the text could have a double meaning. When a friend once criticised his overuse of puns as trivial, Joyce replied: “Yes. Some of the means I use are trivial – and some are quadrivial.” Although it seems accidental in its placement, Lenehan’s joke about the Rose of Castille itself becomes layered with Freudian and other meanings once we make the connection that Molly Bloom, who grew up in Gibraltar, is herself a rose of Castille who resides, we know, in a house near a railway line. She imitates the sounds of the trains during her monologue.

[page 194-195]
A procession of whitesmocked men marched slowly towards him along the gutter, scarlet sashes across their boards. Bargains … He read the scarlet letters on their five tall white hats: H, E, L, Y, S. Wisdom Hely’s. Y lagging behind drew a chunk of bread from under his foreboard, crammed it into his mouth and munched as he walked. Our staple food.

The HELYS men are emblematic of how words come together and break up again. Later, Bloom crosses Westmoreland Street “when apostrophe S had plodded by.” This is poetic and linguistic consciousness itself at work, where the very letters of the alphabet are characters in the novel. Joyce invites us to read words in this way, so that we not only hear and see the construction of English vocabulary, but how words fragment, how syllables carry effect, how sound itself is life in the making. Ulysses contains innumerable plays on the structure of words and is one reason for reading it aloud.

[page 236]
-All these questions are purely academic, Russell oracled out of his shadow. I mean, whether Hamlet is Shakespeare or James I or Essex. Clergymen’s discussions of the historicity of Jesus. Art has to reveal to us ideas, formless spiritual essences. The supreme question about a work of art is out of how deep a life does it spring. The painting of Gustave Moreau is the painting of ideas. The deepest poetry of Shelley, the words of Hamlet bring our mind into contact with the eternal wisdom, Plato’s world of ideas. All the rest is the speculation of schoolboys for schoolboys.

George Russell states the objective of art in the library. Joyce once said: “The pity is that the public will demand and find a moral in my book, or worse they may take it in some serious way, and on the honour of a gentleman, there is not one single serious word in it.” But then we know Ulysses springs out of deep life and puts into dramatic form the hard-earned knowledge borne of experience that we call human. Does it show forth wisdom? Let the individual reader be the judge. We read the novel as a comedy – it certainly has a resolved or ‘happy’ ending – but the way in which suffering and loss live together with the contradictions of ordinary daily life are close at hand throughout the book. It is the Quaker librarian, further on in this scene, asks, “Do you think it is only a paradox. The mocker is never taken serious when he is most serious.” After which Joyce writes the sentence: “They talked seriously of mocker’s seriousness,” rather like us in this seminar. Russell’s speech raises another question for the slow reader too; what is the main theme of Ulysses? The more I read the book, the more I know there is no simple answer to that question and people have different ideas about what is central and peripheral.

[page 277-278]
-Mournful mummer, Buck Mulligan moaned. Synge has left off wearing black to be like nature. Only crows, priests and English coal are black.
A laughed tripped over his lips.
-Longworth is awfully sick, he said, after what you wrote about that old hake Gregory. O you inquisitional drunken jew jesuit! She gets you a job on the paper and then you go and slate her drivel to Jaysus. Couldn’t you do the Yeats touch?
He went on and down, mopping, chanting with waving graceful arms:
-The most beautiful book that has come out of our country in my time. One thinks of Homer.

Mulligan mocks Dedalus, i.e. Joyce, and Yeats together. Part of the fascination here though is that Mulligan could be describing Ulysses: “The most beautiful book that has come out of our country in my time. One thinks of Homer.” In fact, we have no choice but to think of Homer quite a bit because Ulysses re-enacts tales of the Odyssey in domestic coded fashion. Our appreciation of the novel is improved, if not always helped, by familiarisation with the Homeric parallels. We are made to accept a literary tradition going back millennia. Later in his life Joyce brooded over the concern that the structure of Ulysses was over-determined (as we would say), yet Homer (and Dante and Shakespeare) play roles in our understanding of the novel. There are other ways in which “one thinks of Homer.” It helps to know, for instance, that the Greeks heard Homer as a series of examples of masculinity, because that is a central theme in this book of Joyce’s. Ulysses is a journey, but it is also a series of tests for the individual that must be met and lived through.

[page 302]
Mr Bloom turned over idly pages of The Awful Disclosures of Maria Monk, then of Aristotle’s Masterpiece. Crooked botched print …
He laid both books aside and glanced at the third: Tales of the Ghetto, by Leopold von Sacher Masoch.
-That, I had, he said, pushing it by.
The shopman let two volumes fall on the counter.
-Them are two good ones …
Mr Bloom, alone, looked at the titles. Fair Tyrants by James Lovebirch. Know the kind that is. Had it? Yes.
He opened it. Thought so ...
 He read the other title: Sweets of Sin. More in her line. Let us see.
He read where his finger opened.
-All the dollarbills her husband gave her were spent in the stores on wondrous gowns and costliest frillies. For him! For Raoul!

Bloom selects books at the bookstall. He demonstrates in microcosm how we read Ulysses by reading other books at the same time. How the wildly varying styles of each episode are not separate from one another but part of the same interest. How there are parts we leave aside and other parts we return to. How we move rapidly from idle interest to total engagement on the same page. These books are not the high literature discussed by Stephen and his friends. They are penny dreadfuls, soft porn, true crime. It is some of these books and not Ulysses, ironically, that fit the definition of dirty books. Bloom’s own home library, catalogued toward the end of the novel, shows by stark contrast that the books he keeps are about facts: books of history and science. They are not the titillating literature he reads from the bookstall and keeps moving along in a surreptitious way. The scene warns us that Ulysses is about people reading books, high, middle and very low brow. Ulysses is a book about other books. Ulysses is about how reading directs our everyday lives.

[page 592]
He addressed me in several handwritings with fulsome compliments as a Venus in furs and alleged profound pity for my frostbound coachman Balmer while in the same breath he expressed himself as envious of his earflaps and fleecy sheepskins and of his fortunate proximity to my person, when standing behind my chair wearing my livery and the armorial bearings of the Bellingham escutcheon garnished sable, a buck’s head couped or.

The Anglo-Irish Mrs Bellingham gives testimony against Bloom at the Court of Conscience. Vital for our purposes here is the claim “he addressed me in several handwritings.” Joyce addresses the reader in several handwritings. Each of the eighteen episodes is presented using a different style, a different handwriting. By dispensing with a uniform mode of expression and employing very many more than just eighteen to tell the story, Joyce makes himself, the author, almost invisible. We have no idea what his true hand could be, concluding that all or none may be his true self. Even as we adapt to this way of reading, we find that the handwriting is sending its own messages, so that we engage with each episode on its own expressive terms. 

[page 896-897]
then a girl Hester … she gave me the Moonstone to read that was the first I read of Wilkie Collins East Lynne I read and the shadow of Ashlydyat Mrs Henry Wood Henry Dunbar by that other woman I lent him afterwards with Mulveys photo in it so as he see I wasn’t without … I don’t like books with a Molly in them like that one he brought me about the one from Flanders a whore always shoplifting … I couldn’t read a line Lord how long ago it seems centuries of course they never come back and she didn’t put her address right on it either

Molly remembers a woman from her youth. Hester was clearly a sophisticated acquaintance who introduced Molly at an impressionable age to Victorian chick lit and early detective novels. It reveals that Molly is a much broader reader than we guess from the books brought home by her husband. The passage reminds us that books change the way we see ourselves, and the world. Molly steps into the world of sensual and sexual experience -  by reading about it at the same time, just as we do when piecing together the knowingness of Ulysses. Joyce’s own attitude to reading – that we remember more than we ever know, even years later – compels him to extravagance, out of concern that we as readers can so easily forget, even down to not getting the name or the address right.

[page 899]
he always tells me the wrong things and no stops to say like making a speech your sad bereavement sympathy I always make that mistake and newphew with 2 double yous in I hope he’ll write me a longer letter the next time if it’s a thing he really likes me O thanks be to the great God I got somebody to give me what I badly wanted to put some heart up into me you’ve no chances at all in this place like you used long ago I wish somebody would write me a loveletter his wasn’t much and I told him he could write what he liked yours ever Hugh Boylan in old Madrid silly women believe love is sighing I am dying still if he wrote it I suppose thered be some truth in it true or no it fills up your whole day and life always something to think about every moment and see it all around you like a new world I could write the answer in bed to let him imagine

Molly thinks about the men. Molly Bloom is a close reader of life and writing. She knows that Blazes Boylan has no skill at love letters, as even now, after everything, on June the 17th she still wishes somebody would write her a love letter. We know that Ulysses is a love letter to Nora Barnacle, set on the day when she and Jim first walked out together. Indeed, there is a very elementary way of reading the novel, which is to understand that it is a love letter. The book is filled with love letters, but the relationship between the author and his heroine makes the whole book come alive. We share the secrets of expressions of love by reading Ulysses, Joyce is letting us in on the words in the letter and that is, I believe, how we are meant to read them: slowly, again and again, whenever we need to go back and read them.  


Ellmann, Richard. James Joyce. New and revised edition. Oxford University Press, 1982.
Joyce, James. Ulysses. Reissued 1960 Bodley Head edition, published by Penguin Books, 1992.
Jung, Carl Gustav. The Spirit in Man, Art and Literature.
Porter, Peter. ‘I Rather Like the Sound of Foreign Languages like Ezra Pound’, in Life by Other Means : Essays on D.J. Enright, edited by Jacqueline Simms. Oxford University Press, 1990, page 128.

Saturday, 7 June 2014

James Joyce, the Church and the State

As usual around June, I take down Ulysses for some more good-humoured updates on what happens on Bloomsday. This year my reading coincides with news of the latest church scandal from Ireland, the gruesome revelations about the remains of nearly 800 children found in a disused sewage tank in Tuam, County Galway. The children died between 1925 and 1961 while under the care of the Bon Secours nuns. Other graves are also being uncovered.

One is forced to make connections of meaning between what James Joyce is saying in Ulysses and the stories coming out about Magdalen laundries, child sexual abuse, and now these mass graves. The iron power of the Catholic Church in Ireland is object of his continuous satire in Ulysses, a power that only became entrenched after the Civil War. At times the satire goes on too long, Joyce seems unable to restrain himself from questioning the Church through the cleverness of his art. It makes one see that, whether in 1904 or after, simply no one was allowed to ask any questions of the internal power of the Church in Ireland. Yet Joyce sees intuitively that the Church is trapped too by its own influence in this world.

Catholicism, under Eamon De Valera and others, was used as the moral basis and guide of the Irish State. In the same year that Ulysses was published (1922) De Valera was instituting, in the sudden absence of any other model, a form of restrictive Catholic nationhood. And as the Australian lawyer Kieran Tapsell has drawn to our attention recently, 1922 was the year Pope Pius XI issued the decree Crimen Sollicitationis, “that created a de facto ‘privilege of clergy’ by imposing the ‘secret of the Holy Office’ on all information obtained through the Church’s canonical investigations.” In real terms, this meant that the State not only would not, but could not, question the actions of the Catholic clergy or religious. They could act without fear of exposure, virtually a law unto themselves.

It was a diabolical situation. While we now blame the Church alone for what happened in parishes and religious houses, actually the Church under De Valera and beyond was used as an extension of the State. It was locked into the process. Church houses did what the State couldn’t do because it didn’t have the funds. The Catholic moralism of De Valera’s Ireland is a grim thing to behold from this distance. It was a kind of ideological puritanism, of the very kind depicted in comic measure in Ulysses, which after 1922 turned Ireland almost into a kind of theocratic republic, in which any alternative to the Church line was ignored or publicly rejected.

Dire poverty was Ireland’s biggest challenge. We know this to be the case in 1904 too, where in Ulysses virtually every character owes somebody something; borrowing and gambling are two of the main economic activities; pastimes, really. Because the State could not support unmarried mothers and their children, it passed the responsibility to the Church. The religious orders were left to run the homes like businesses, with the babies sold into adoption, the mothers forced into hard labour in the laundries. The State was relieved of responsibility and the Church protected itself from scrutiny or investigation. The clergy and religious were left with enormous powers over the most vulnerable women and children in society. There was power without unaccountability,
judgementalism without compassion. 

Ulysses contains other forewarnings of what could happen in a place like Dublin. For example, we have Molly Bloom, who is a huge irrepressible reminder to Irish readers of sexuality. In fact, sexuality is one of her prime messages; Joyce never allows us to forget her sexuality through the whole book. Sexuality, that is the very thing being suppressed by the Church, with devastating results, as we see in these latest reports. Where the body is thought of as sinful, when the body is seen at all, then it becomes permitted by those in control to punish the sinful body, to treat the sinful body with indifference. The Church authorities were guilty of the heresy of Manichaeism. Joyce grasped this fact and we can only marvel at his relentless celebration of the human body in Ulysses. Sexuality, as an integral fact of being human and having a body, is therefore celebrated as well.  

The Tuam revelations raise other major questions about Dublin in the early 20th century, such as, where are the fathers of these children? Are they the Blazes Boylans of the world? We think too of the Maternity Hospital scenes later in Ulysses, where the women give birth while the men all drink and make filthy jokes. What is Joyce saying about Dublin in 1904? Are the men just drinking the whole time? Joyce softens the picture with the presence of experienced souls like Leopold Bloom, but the overall image remains problematic. And are the women really all alone, left to sort out the realities? Something missing from Ulysses is the network of women (and men, at times) who must have worked to protect mothers and children from a fate at the hands of the authorities. It is Bloom, the solitary and sensitive networker, who works against the prevailing indulgences.

And lastly, in this context we look at the portrayal of children in Ulysses. We ask what Joyce thinks of childhood and children. The scene stays in the mind in which one of Simon Dedalus’s daughters seeks money for food. There is no hope offered, let alone something to go on with. The father is, typically, caught up in his own daily interests rather than in those of his own family. The gap between the adults and children is profound, something Joyce makes clear too in the classroom scene that morning where Stephen displays little empathy or time for the students in his charge. So while Ulysses treats the transition from youth to age as a main theme, what are we to make of the absence of analysis about the transition from childhood to youth?

Friday, 16 May 2014

George Barker

George Barker

George Barker writes at length
On sperm and roses and death.

What I am really trying to say is
George Barker writes at length
On sperm and roses and death.

Once or twice he offers the world
To his four-year-old daughter in verse

Or addresses a well-suited art critic
In whimsical words that stand unsanded
And heavy-handed, but most times

George Barker writes at length
On sperm and roses and death.

His wives and mistresses
And fifteen children are, I imagine,
His most insightful critics

As he writes at length about loneliness
And the appreciable pains of hell.

Saturday, 19 April 2014


Here are my contributions to a seminar on Dante’s Divina Commedia conducted with Dr William Johnston on Thursday the 27th of March 2014 at the Institute for Spiritual Studies, St Peter’s Church, Eastern Hill, Melbourne. Will’s papers and other material from the seminar are available on the parish website.


Peter Steele, of blessed memory, Melbourne poet and Jesuit, cites the American Ralph Waldo Emerson: the Commedia is “autobiography in colossal cipher”. By which he means, Dante’s life is written large through the code of his poem. Steele embellishes on that idea by adding that the Commedia “might also be called metaphor in colossal suspense.” Which I take to mean, Dante’s poem keeps us hanging on even as it goes on talking about ultimate questions. In literary terms generally today, this is a central issue because while some writers strive to find through their words ways of describing and explaining everything knowable in human terms, others have abandoned that objective, saying words cannot do this, nor should we be making such grand universalising claims for our writing. So, while Dante’s critics say the poet can never explain everything there is to know about existence, Dante nevertheless stands as a classical example of how this might be achieved. Can our experience be turned into global statements?

Another Australian poet, Clive James, once hosted a late night London TV show called The Late Clive James. This is a very Dantesque joke, where a person who is alive presents himself as someone who is at the same time over there interviewing people on the other side. In the introduction to his new translation of Dante, Clive asks: “What kind of story has all the action in the first third, and then settles back to stage a discussion of obscure spiritual matters? But the Divine Comedy (he says) isn’t just a story, it’s a poem: one of the biggest, most varied and most accomplished poems in all the world. Appreciated on the level of its verse, the thing never stops getting steadily more beautiful as it goes on. T.S. Eliot said that the last cantos of Heaven (Paradiso) were as great as poetry can ever get. The translator’s task is to compose something to suggest that such a judgement might be right.” (p. xi of his translation) Interviewed himself lately online, after he almost died, Clive James said that the thing about Shakespeare and Dante is they both had “an incredible, vivid capacity for imagery and argument packed into a tight space.” I would add, they had an incredible store of stories they knew how to retell in their chosen mode.

Unlike Clive, the Irish poet Seamus Heaney abandoned the idea of translating Dante and it is worth hearing why. He says (p. 425-6 of O’Driscoll interview) that “for a while I was so exhilarated by the whole marvel of Dante that I was tempted to have a go at doing the complete Inferno – simply for its own imaginative splendour.” Why did he abandon the idea? “Because I didn’t know Italian, because I couldn’t gauge tone, because I was at a loss about all the little particles strewn around the big nouns and verbs. That was what I told myself, at any rate. I soldiered on for four hundred lines or so, consulting my Sinclair and my Singleton; but after I’d done three cantos, there was a realization that I couldn’t achieve what I wanted, which was to get a style going that would be right for me and the material. I couldn’t establish a measure that combined plain speaking with fluent movement. I just couldn’t match the shapes that the bright container of the terza rima contained. For a big job like that, you need a note that pays you back, if you know what I mean: you need to be making a music that doesn’t just match the original but verifies something in yourself as well.” This admission of defeat is honest and salutary. Heaney recognises that it is better to leave the poem alone rather than deliver something that doesn’t work effectively. I especially like “all the little particles strewn around the big nouns and verbs”, which is as good a description of dealing with Italian as you can get. It is those little inflected vowels that can change the meaning of a whole verse; sometimes a whole passage can hang on just one such sound in Italian.

Dante wrote his poem in the early 1300s. This is only a couple of decades before the pandemic known today as the Black Death killed possibly over half of Europe’s population. Dante’s poem is written 200 years before Columbus found the New World, a major shift in European imagination. Three hundred years before Galileo proved that the Earth goes around the Sun. Over 500 years before Darwin argued that our every existence is premised on evolution. Over 600 years before a human stands on the Moon and takes a photograph of the Earth coming up over the horizon of its satellite. All of this would have to go into a poem written by Dante in 2014 because empirical description of the world we know is as much a part of the Comedy as its spiritual attentions. These questions face serious writers today, for they are presented with the same basic questions as Dante. Who are we? What do we make of our temporal existence? Where do we come from? Where are we going?  

Poets take up Dante’s objectives, or are heavily influenced by his presence. Heaney abandoned direct translation but then wrote a poem about St Patrick’s Purgatory in Ireland, one of the original places of the very idea of Purgatory, in which Dante plays a guiding role. In ‘Field Work’ we hear Heaney’s translation of the story of Ugolino and Archbishop Ruggieri, the story in one of the lowest circles of Hell, in which two men’s hatred of one another is so unforgiving that one perpetually gnaws on the other’s skull. Written in the context of the bitter conflicts of the time in Northern Ireland, the poem takes on profound social meaning.

Harking back, Eliot used Dante as the mood setting and starting point in several of his most famous poems. “I had not known death had undone so many,” he writes in The wasteland, written soon after the First World War, the line a direct lift from Inferno 3, in which Dante describes a near-endless procession of people filing into Hell:

Si lunga tratta
Di gente, ch’io non avrei mai creduto
Che morte tanta n’avesse disfatta.

The West Australian poet John Kinsella has written his own Divine Comedy, where Dante’s poem is used as a template for a series of cantos about the private life of his family on a farm, with repeated expressions of concern about political collapse, land degradation, climate change, and urban corruption.

And so on.

But two kinds of modern writer come close to Dante in their preoccupations: story tellers who are concerned about the consequences of individual actions, whether good or bad; and writers in spirituality who wish to explain the connections between our made-up public lives and our internal private lives, determined as they are by different experiences of love.


For many people, Dante means Inferno. Full stop. Many people who have not read Dante conclude that it’s ‘That poem about Hell’. Or, and this includes many genuine readers as well, Inferno is where the action is, and everything later is not so interesting. Inferno is where all the interesting evil people are to be found, they believe, and this makes for good literature. Everyone keeps one eye on the villain, because villains are at the centre of the excitement. Apparently.

Our responses in this regard are very modern. It comes from reading too many novels and seeing too many films. It is our expectation that bad people will help spice up the story. It defines us as brainwashed romantics with an addiction to crime stories.

However, the Comedy is not a novel in the modern sense at all, the novel had not been invented when Dante wrote his poem. The Comedy draws on romances like Arthur and other knightly legends and on the courtly love mode then prevalent in European writing. It is truly an anthology of short stories and anecdotes, but it is not a novel.

Nor are the people found in Inferno there for our vicarious delectation as readers with prurient interests in bad people and what they might do next. They are there because they are in Hell, and that is the main message. In fact, Dante is showing us that people in Hell cannot do anything ‘next’. They are actually trapped permanently and cannot escape. There is No Exit. When we see these people in such a state Dante and Virgil are asking us, by implication, would you want to find yourself in this predicament? Because, you see, it is Inferno that is not interesting. The descriptions are certainly interesting, but who would want to live there?

A way to appreciate the message is by paying attention to the character Dante’s own reactions in the circles he visits with Virgil. When it is sulphuric, he holds his nose it’s so disgusting. When he sees something especially horrible in a pit or stream he is shocked, he averts his gaze. Sometimes he gets the shakes, or faints. In real time, if we were Dante himself and not the armchair traveller, we are being advised that this would be our response too. Our main reaction would be: I’m out of here!

Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita
mi ritrovai per una selva oscura,
che la diritta via era smarrita.

(Inferno I, 1-3)

Companionship is vital to our reading of the Divine Comedy. Without Virgil we could not traverse Inferno. I say ‘we’ because the opening lines of the poem must not be translated ‘In the middle of my life’ but quite explicitly ‘In the middle of our life’. Brilliantly and subtly, Dante involves us, any reader of his poem, from line 1 as a fellow traveller. So right away we too trust Virgil and treat his every word and action with respect and expectation. In fact we too can only survive Inferno by going along with Virgil. In Inferno we are locked into witnessing shocking things with only one person to help us through, and even then Virgil is not always very communicative.

Inferno is a place of stone, streams, and darkness. It is rough and disorganised. There is no fiery lava because Dante had never seen a volcano. In fact the further down we go the colder it gets, until the pit of hell is solid ice. There are manmade landscapes in Inferno, notably in Malebolge, and we wonder what constructions Dante knew from life that correlate to these fearsome ditches. We remember this when we arrive at Purgatorio, because that is a place of increasing interestingness, where entrances lead to new places full of something surprising, something to look forward to. At each step of the way in Purgatorio landscape is increasingly inviting, there is improvement, there is promise. This is not the case in Inferno.

The condition of those in Inferno is a warning to the reader about the pitfalls of committing those things, with the certain implication that we are in fact capable of doing such things. Inferno is at least realistic in forwarding the view that humans are quite capable of mistakes, crimes, and evil, and that we have to start by examining our own selves.

Falling and rising, descent and ascent are contrasts made between Inferno and Purgatorio. In Inferno we not only descend physically into more extreme conditions, but the descent is one of increasingly intolerable scenes of sin and punishment. Dante himself literally falls down on a number of occasions.

Many of our modern responses to Inferno are romantic goth. They indulge in the gloomy and terrifying. Or they presuppose that this is one really weird place that has to go on the tourist itinerary. Or it’s a chamber of horrors that give us an added thrill. But all of these modern responses still have to confront the actual meaning of the words on the gates of Inferno. We will read three English translations of the words very soon, but here they are in Dante’s original:

   Per me si va ne la città dolente.
Per me si va ne l’etterno dolore.
Per me si va tra la perduta gente.
   Giustizia mosse il mio alto fattore;
fecemi la divina podestate,
la somma sapienza e’l primo amore.
   Dinanzi a me non fuor cose create
se non etterne, e io etterno duro.
Lasciate ogne speranza, voi ch’intrate.

(Inferno 3, 1-9)


Although Purgatory was hardly doubted throughout the Middle Ages, the definition of Purgatory by the Western Church was only made in 1274, at the Council of Lyons. Dante (1265-1321) in that year was nine years old, living in Florence, which means he was of the first generation of Christians to grow up treating Purgatory as an officially sanctioned place of temporal punishment. In his lifetime Purgatory had moved from being a need for purification of sin of the departed, to being a recognised corridor towards paradise, one that all human souls might have to traverse. Purgatory has suddenly become big time, something we all need to know about.

So when we read Purgatorio we are shown a version of the place (it is now a place) at a precise moment in its evolution in religious awareness. We have to accept the idea that Dante wrote a poem about somewhere none of us can talk of with 100% certainty, the afterlife, using geographic forms like a mountain for Purgatory, which all of his readers knew to be a literary trick, but about which the place itself his readers decidedly believed in. It is, for us, a remarkable suspension of belief on their part to read descriptions of Purgatorio knowing they are a fiction, while the whole time hanging on every word in the certain knowledge that they and those they love will very likely find themselves in Purgatory itself at some future date. Anytime soon, in fact. “Metaphor in colossal suspense.” (Peter Steele)

Purgatorio the poem is an instruction about expectations. Dante meets two of the vital requirements of good storytelling: to entertain and to inform. But it is also a warning and even catechetical in its motives. Attentive readers of Purgatorio are wised up: they finish the poem better prepared than when they started. And they will read Dante ahead of other accounts because it is a superlative poetic accomplishment. While there are countless artworks and writings from the period that help explain Inferno, Purgatory, and Paradise to believers, the Commedia is an artistic expression in its own league. It is like comparing the rock video on the subject with the three hour cinematic masterpiece put out by Dante Studios. There is time for both, but most people will more certainly be wowed and warned by the big new sensaround release at the local picture house. Soon to be out on DVD.

Certain outcomes of making Purgatory doctrine laid the foundations for the Reformation 200 or so years later, especially in the practice of indulgences. Indulgences do not concern us here, though it is worth quoting Diarmaid MacCulloch when he delineates the pre-Reformation obsession with Purgatory geographically, saying that people north of the alps and on the Atlantic seaboard became more concerned with prayer as a ticket out of Purgatory than those south of the alps. As he phrases it in a sentence typical of his suave irony, “Dante Alighieri’s detailed descriptions of Purgatory in his fourteenth-century masterwork the Divina Commedia might suggest that southerners were indeed concerned with Purgatory, but his Italian readers do not seem to have transformed their delight in his great poem into practical action or hard cash.”

Readers who get stuck in Inferno and see this as the place where all the action happens, have a long way to go. Inferno is a dead-end ultimately without an understanding of what happens next. Indeed, Purgatorio is the poem that helps us better appreciate what is going on in Inferno.

Quando la nova gente alzò la fronte
ver’ noi, dicendo a noi: “Se voi sapete,
mostratene la via di gire al monte.”

E Virgilio rispuose: “voi credete
forse che siamo esperti d’esto loco;
ma noi siam peregrin come voi siete.

Dinzi venimmo, innanzi a voi un poco,
per altra via, fu sì aspra e forte,
che lo salire omai ne parrà gioco.”

And the new people lifted their faces
toward us, saying to us, “If you know
the way up the mountain, show it to us.”

And Virgil answered, “Possibly you believe
that this is a place with which we are familiar,
but we are pilgrims even as you are.

We came here just now, a little before you did,
by another way that was so rough and hard
that the climb must seem like play now, after it.”

(Purgatorio II, 58-66)

Notice that the people we meet here are ‘nova gente’ (new people) by contrast with those in Inferno, who are described as ‘perduta gente’ (Lost people). In these verses the word ‘peregrin’ (pilgrim) first appears in the Comedy.  For the first time in the poem we are on pilgrimage, we are on the way to learning about ourselves. Inferno was not a pilgrimage. Inferno was an endurance test, a wakeup call, a place of no escape. But an early sign that the infernal state has been escaped is the use of ‘peregrin’. It is behind us. While on pilgrimage we are not in a burning hurry, we can stop when we like, we make conversation as we wish, we have time to reflect on ourselves and others, what we have been and who we are now and what we can be in the future. None of that is possible in Inferno, which is somewhere passed through in haste, quick, get out of there. Inferno is not even really much of a journey, it is not a tourist destination. Pilgrimage is a medieval business, a way of finding the Way. Pilgrimage is what we do on earth in our allotted time, which may be why Purgatorio is for many readers, myself included, the most accessible and recognisable of the three places in Dante’s poem. Pilgrimage is a way of reconciling things in our own life: it is a ‘little life’ within the larger span of our life. We may
choose to remember the poem is set in 1300 that, coincidentally or not, was the first Holy Year of the Western Church. It was a Jubilee that was, in this case, a chance for sins to be pardoned if the penitent took a pilgrimage to Rome.

Noi volgendo ivi le nostre persone,
“Beati pauperes spiritu!” voci
cantaron sì, che nol diria sermone,

Ahi quanto son diverse quelle foci
da l’infernali! ché quivi per canti
s’entra, e là giù per lamenti feroci.

Già montavam su per lì scaglion santi,
ed esser mi parea troppo più lieve
che per lo pian non mi parea davanti.

As we were turning there, voices were
singing, “Blessed are the poor in spirit,”
so that there are no words to tell of it.

Oh how different are these openings
from those in Hell. Here one enters to singing
and there below to fierce lamentations.

Now we were climbing up the sacred stairs
and seemed much lighter than I had been where
I was walking on level ground before.

(Purgatorio XII, 109-117)

Normally it is harder to walk uphill than on a flat path, but here Dante observes that he is now lighter than he was previously. This is because heaviness is a condition of Inferno. Lightness is a feature of Purgatorio. This contrast only becomes apparent once we read Purgatorio. With each encounter, Dante feels himself lightened of a burden. Sometimes he talks about a weight being lifted from his shoulders. The first third of Purgatorio is a physical, emotional and intellectual effort of overcoming the weighted experience of Inferno. Recent scarred memory stays in the present. We are made to sense its presence, even though Inferno, it has been established, is behind us. Gradually, Dante describes the sense of being freed from the infernal state of mind. Purgatorio appears to be the place where both gravity and grace are at work, unlike Inferno where only gravity operates, and Paradiso, where we are drawn into another place altogether, one only possible through the operations of grace.

We also find here that people in Purgatorio sing, an expression not to be heard in Inferno. In Inferno there is weeping, howling, groaning, lamenting. The contrast is powerful. Singing is a natural human activity indicative of a listener, of belief in the future, of hope. Human noises in Inferno are the opposite, negative and painful sounds of enduring suffering and irreversible loss. Almost every canto of Purgatorio mentions singing. It is the singing of psalm lines, in particular, for the psalms were the commonly held poetry of the Mediterranean world of Dante. They were known to educated and uneducated alike. And we hear in this canto one of the beatitudes: Blessed are the poor in spirit. Because pilgrims in Purgatorio will hear the words of blessing.

All of which affirms the central fact that here there is hope. In Inferno we abandon hope. Complete absence of hope is a definition of Hell. Those in Inferno are fixed at the stage where they come to a realisation of the sins they have committed. Such a moment of painful realisation in real life can be like hell, which is one way of appreciating why Dante places them there: as a warning. We have to consider the idea that people in Inferno have no wish to be free of their sin and that hope itself is not on their list of priorities, or even possibilities. While Purgatorio offers the possibility of moving out of that fixity, of finding a solution to the mistakes in life, of learning to overcome past errors. 

Penance, for this reason, is central to an understanding of the first two books of the Divine Comedy. Repentance and the possibility of being forgiven seem not to be available to those in Inferno. Almost the entire reason for Purgatorio is repentance and forgiveness and reparation. The condition of those in Inferno is a warning to the reader about the pitfalls of committing those things, with the certain implication that we are in fact capable of doing such things. Inferno is at least realistic in forwarding the view that humans are quite capable of mistakes, crimes, and evil, and that we have to start by examining our own selves. Purgatorio is the option where that examination of self is on offer. Each individual in Purgatorio is going through some kind of penitential test, with the aim of future personal restoration.

Similarly, falling and rising, descent and ascent are contrasts made between Inferno and Purgatorio. In Inferno we not only descend physically into more extreme conditions, but the descent is one of increasingly intolerable scenes of sin and punishment. Dante himself literally falls down on a number of occasions. Whereas Purgatorio is on the up and up. Here the climb is increasingly easy (not always what we feel when we actually climb a mountain, by the way) and Dante is not prone to the same collapses as reported from the previous place. The further away from Inferno we find ourselves, the lighter we feel.

Falling asleep is one way of dealing with trauma, with shocking sights not previously thought imaginable. Sleep is one way of dealing with pain and in Purgatorio Dante reports on several occasions how he goes to sleep. In Inferno there is much fainting and swooning, where Virgil is there to pick Dante up and keep him on track. Perhaps after Inferno Dante was suffering from sleep deprivation and Purgatorio is a kind of catch-up. No one is going to be caught napping in Inferno and when Dante does sleep in Inferno it is sudden and deep, as when he loses consciousness after witnessing Paolo and Francesca in Canto 5. This year a professor in Bologna offered the theory that Dante himself had narcolepsy. Retrospective diagnosis based on a literary text is fraught with risk. Certainly Dante is fascinated with the process of falling asleep and describes it more than once in beautiful detail. Some critics of the narcolepsy theory say that Dante describes the poetic state of reverie attendant upon the creative act. Others that Dante the person in the poem falls asleep at those moments of the day, evening in fact, when the body would fall asleep naturally, and that this is Dante’s way of indicating time passing, in places where clock time is redundant. Whether or not the poet was narcoleptic, the theory draws attention to the sleep patterns through the poem and the poet’s acknowledgement of dream states as part of human experience, a source of the poetic muse. 

A noticeable contrast when we enter Purgatorio is improved inter-personal communication and human contact between Dante and those he meets. Contact is suddenly real, not just a matter of observation, a quick hello (if that) and then moving on, as we know it in Inferno. Words are no longer delivered under duress. Instead of briefings from Virgil about the circle we now find ourselves in, change happens. People are allowed to share their experiences. They no longer stand as examples of what we don’t want happening to us, but as people who by their actions show us what we can do in our own lives. This is why Purgatorio is the critical book in the Divine Comedy, it is the main access to the meaning of everything else we read about here. It is the book of examples, it is ‘Life, a User’s Manual’. 


Asked why readers shun the Paradiso reasons like these crop up:

1.     Nothing happens, there is no action.
2.     It’s unreal. It’s about a place that doesn’t exist.
3.     Nobody is perfect, so why try being perfect?
4.     The poetry is completely over the top.
5.     It’s this Italian poet’s fantasy about a girl he saw once when he was nine or something.
6.     It depicts an outdated view of existence and the universe.
7.     It is completely removed from my personal experience.

However, when we read Paradiso we find the complete opposite of these prejudgements and dismissals. Our expectations are contradicted at every turn.

1.     Far from nothing happening, we find there is too much happening, and we don’t have a guide like Virgil to explain.
2.     Far from being unreal, Paradiso turns out to be a series of descriptions of the inner world of our conscious experience.
3.     Although no one is perfect, and Dante admits as much right to the final canto, the poem describes the increasing wholeness of the person. This means spiritual growth and maturity, the overcoming and letting go of old ways, as seen in Inferno and Purgatorio. Each canto introduces a new way of understanding self, and self’s relationship to others and to ultimate reality.
4.     As for the poetry, Eliot said that the final cantos of Paradiso are as great as poetry could ever hope to get. Translators, Clive James amongst them, confess they feel they have to start at the start and work their way through the poem, rather than picking different sections and piecing it together. It’s as though they are confronted by the journey presented by Dante, they must go through the process themselves, from bad to good, damnation to grace. Paradiso is a reward for the translator. It is a reward for the reader.
5.     John Banville said of Seamus Heaney last year that “Genius is the ability to summon childhood at will.” It is remarkable that Dante, despite all the relationships, the ups and downs, in his life writes at all times with the powerful memory of the beloved young woman he rarely met or was ever close to. In exile in Ravenna, it is the deep inner connection he has with the world of his upbringing. I remember this when I ponder the popularity of the three cantiche. Inferno, it seems to me, is a 20-year-old’s poem, full of danger, inexplicable action, and bad stuff happening. Purgatorio is a 40-year-old’s poem, looking backward with some understanding of the good and the bad, knowing there is more only what and why. While Paradiso is a poem for 60-year-olds, a poem that reaches for peace and resolution and knows you cannot go on faffing around forever. You need bearing. The whole Commedia is about the life cycle, the experience of living itself. And how does Dante maintain perspective? By focussing on someone he loved before any of the experiences in the poem had even happened to him, in early adolescence. There she is at the start and at the end, in the world, as we know it.
6.     Paradiso is unlike any other poem. I am starting to see how one of its main effects is to describe what it feels like to know you are loved by someone else. This effect grows larger with each canto. They are descriptions of conscious states of beatitude, each one more satisfactory than the last. How Dante does this I just don't know, but the reader experiences the sense of being loved by someone outside of oneself. All the poetic constructs become quite secondary to this main experience. It is, for this reason, not Inferno and not Purgatorio.  And even though there is a journey involved, it’s not the going that is important here so much as the sense of being loved, and blessed. The someone else is Beatrice, that is Grace in and through a loved person, but is really what we mean by God.


Dante Alighieri. Purgatorio : a New Verse Translation by W. S. Merwin. Knopf, 2000.
Heaney, Seamus. Field Work. Faber, 1979.
James, Clive. “Introduction” in his Dante : The Divine Comedy : a New Verse Translation. Picador, 2013.
MacCulloch, Diarmaid. A History of Christianity : the First Three Thousand Years. Allen Lane, 2009.
O’Driscoll, Dennis. Stepping Stones : Interviews with Seamus Heaney. Faber, 2008.
Steele, Peter. “”Dante: Love and Death on the Longest Journey”, in Braiding the Voices : Essays in Poetry. John Leonard Press, 2012.