A Thousand Doglike Faces, Purple from the Cold

April 2, 2010 § 2 Comments

The Last Supper, Tintoretto

Last night was Maundy Thursday: the night of The Last Supper, which instituted the Eucharist, and of Jesus washing the feet of his disciples as demonstration of humility. My Internet sources (I have never been a Christian) explain that it’s also a time for the reconciliation of penitents and of giving alms to the poor.

At the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, where I’m working part-time, Maundy Thursday is celebrated by special masses, foot-washing, and a 9 p.m. to midnight reading of Dante’s Inferno. I made it to the last half of the latter.

I can’t tell you what the Inferno has to do with the Last Supper or the reconciliation of penitents, since to my ear, Dante seems quite pleased at the fact that the sinners he encounters will suffer eternal torment. He names as many sinners he has personal knowledge of (as we might name Bush, Cheney, et al) and describes their individually tailored punishments. I resisted Dante for a long time, because though his images are fanstastic in the best sense and his language precise and thrilling, the emotional arc of the story did not move me. Yes, the following volumes give us Purgatory, and Paradise, angels and Beatrice and all that, but as far as I can tell nobody ever gets that far. Everyone likes hell.

A hell that is not especially terrifying, I might add, having read my share of novels written about psycho-killers, where the inventive tortures will actually make you despair, if only for the writer who dreams them up. In Dante, after a “wretch” has been submerged in boiling tar for some long period, and is fished out by demons and rent by their wicked talons, he’s able to carry on a coherent and quite civilized conversation with Virgil and Dante, telling his own story and reminding the latter poet to take note of all the other sinners, his old enemies who deserve to have society and posterity know their torment.

Poetic license, to be sure, but how can one really feel the agony of Hell when its ministrations don’t even flay the tongues of the damned? The tortures depicted in Greek myths, where the afflicted rarely spoke for themselves, were more convincing. Imagine Prometheus explaining in measured cadences the circumstances of his punishment, and the liver-eating eagle diminishes in fearsomeness. Less bloodthirsty Christians like to say Hell is the absence of God: eternal loneliness. It seems to me that, whether or not one desires vivid pain in the mix, loneliness is essential to a true Hell, whether it be the solitude of a desolate cliff or Sartre’s confinement among the unloving rasp of other people’s souls.

Dante’s sinners do suffer loneliness, strictly speaking, but I don’t feel it. It all seems quite cozy there in Hell. Only Satan seems left out, stuck fast in ice, unable to rule his subjects with the suave and wicked glee one has come to expect from the Prince of Darkness.

In any case, I enjoyed the reading, especially the half-canto read in Italian, the sonorous words breaking over me like the ocean, sparking fantasies of  a high-chambered room, oil-lamps burning, yellow silk wallpaper with faint sigils etched on it and a bed like a bier (covered in furs) where one could lie for a night hearing poetry in unknown languages read masterfully by a dozen disembodied voices.The voices might read different poems, but all in the same language at any given hour.

I also enjoyed the excellent food afterwards, and the conversation I overheard on the way there, among three young, non-religious people headed for a bar. They were discussing the theory that since Christ died on Good Friday and rose on Easter Sunday, on Saturday there is no God and all is allowed. The speaker of this theory modestly admitted she’d heard it from another.

Even a non-Christian like me knows Christ isn’t the only player, and his Dad is still minding the store on Saturday. But it did make me think of how this Saturday has been neglected in Christian mythology: what stories one could tell of Christ’s sojourn among the dead: the whisperings of corpses, the questions. If souls aren’t dispatched to their fate until the Last Judgment (opinions differ), and if the presence of the Son of God in their midst stirred a flicker of consciousness, wouldn’t they crowd around him like moths, confused and hapless, wondering?

Since today is my friend Deborah’s birthday, I’m offering you a poem from her new book of translations, The Dragonfly, by the Italian poet Amelia Rosselli. Deborah’s own poems can be found here. http://www.deborahwoodard.com/poetry.shtml

From Martial Variations

After God’s death came the rebirth.

After the endurance/

of the senses all days fell.

After the ink/

of China, an elephant was reborn: joy.

After joy/

hell set in after paradise

the wolf in its den. After/

the infinite came the joust.

But the tapers fell and the beasts/

sated themselves, and wool was

prepared and the wolf devoured./

After hunger the child was born,

after boredom the lover/

wrote his lines. After the infinite

fell the joust/

after the head was pummeled

the ink swelled. Warmly encased/

the Virgin wrote her lines:

moribund Christ replied to her/

don’t touch me!  After his lines Christ

devoured the suffering/

afflicting him.  After the night fell

the entire buttress/

of the world. After hell was born

the son hungry for/

success. After boredom broke the

silence the shrill/

whistle of the peasant woman

who sought water in the well/

too deep for her own arms. After the air that/

descended delicately around her immense

body, was born/

the daughter with a devastated heart,

was born the

suffering of birds,/

was born desire and the infinite

which once lost can never/

be found. Hopeful we totter

till in the end the ending fishes/

up a servile soul.

Amelia Rosselli, trans Deborah Woodard


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