Sunday, 18 June 2017

No.45 - The geology of Dante's Inferno

Did Satan become a meteorite?
"Creation/Fall" (Dan Wylie 2017; acrylic on canvas)

In the early 14th century Dante Alighieri, author of the matchless Divine Comedy, would not have known about meteorites. Yet the rocky architectures of his Inferno ironically suggest something just like that.

Inferno fascinates me for many reasons besides the religious and the ethical questions it raises. While teaching it again recently, it struck me how pervasive is the presence of rock in the poem, how elaborate its depiction, how intricate its relationships to both ancient mythologies and the geographies of Dante’s real Italian life.

Google “Dante’s Inferno + rock” and you’ll discover some pretty odd stuff, including some hard-rock bands who favour spicing their songs with diabolical imagery, and a route-map to a rock climb named Dante’s Inferno on Old Reservoir Wall in Eden Park, Ohio. Not many seem to have written at length about this aspect of the poem, though: I found one sketchy article, and a chapter in a book on mediaeval geology that I can’t presently access. No doubt there’s more out there, but why take the fun out of having my own run at it? I’m also having fun re-imagining the vivid landscapes in paint: as the character-pilgrim Dante and his guide Virgil descend the multiple, narrowing circles of Hell, they are constantly encountering geological features: valleys and fissures and giddying cliffs, rivers of blood and swamps of boiling mud, jagged ridges and ditches, embankments and screes and a series of stone bridges. Those famously appalling words, Abandon hope all ye who enter here, are carved on a gateway of rock.

Oddly – and inexplicably – some features seem to have been built by the hand of man: the walls of the City of Dis halfway down, seemingly of “cast iron”, with “deep-dug moats” and huge towers sending undeciphered signals into the void; sarcophagi with carved lids; pathways. But even these apparently manufactured features, despite the paradoxical implication that eternal Hell is subject to change through time, have all the force of a terrible geological permanence.

Geological? The word ‘geology’ was only invented in 1795, and in Dante’s time knowledge of earth processes was still primitive. Much of what passed for science then was derived from the Greek philosophers such as Aristotle – and even his unflagging curiosity was available to Dante only indirectly through commentators such as the Persian Ibn Sina (a.k.a. Avicenna, d.1037) and Isidore of Seville. Aristotle had proposed something like continental tectonic-plate movement in his Meteorology (circa 350 BC); Isidore in his Etymologies (circa 610) aired the current theories of why the earth was demonstrably unstable:

The earth’s natural attribute is that of dryness, for if it is moist, that comes from a union with water. Of its motion some say that it is the wind in its hollows that, itself moved, moves the earth. ... Others maintain that lifegiving water moves in the earth and simultaneously shakes it, like a vessel, as for instance Lucretius (see On the Nature of Things). Yet others are of the opinion that the earth is “spongy”, and that its mostly hidden, collapsing interior shakes everything placed upon it. Also, an opening in the earth is created through the movement of water in the lower regions, or through repeated thunder, or through winds that erupt from cavities of the earth.

And Isidore, in his encyclopaedic geographical survey, notes the volcanic activity and visible lava of Mount Etna on Sicily and on the neighbouring Aeolian islands which “burn like Etna” and were “riddled with caves and tunnels” – real precedents for Hell which Dante would have read about, if not actually visited. Isidore, who took the actual existence of ancient mythic figures and places for granted, also described Paradise (“in the east”), thus:

A spring which bursts forth in the centre irrigates the whole grove and it is divided into the headwaters of four rivers. Access to this location was blocked off after the fall of humankind, for it is fenced in on all sides by a flaming sword, that is, encircled by a wall of fire, so that the flames almost reach the sky. Also the Cherubim, that is, a garrison of angels, have been drawn up above the flaming sword to prevent evil spirits from approaching, so that the flames drive off human beings, and angels drive off the wicked angels, in order that access to Paradise may not lie open either to flesh or to spirits that have transgressed.

 Isidore seemed to envisage a wheel-shaped Earth, but most, including Dante, knew it for a sphere, even if no one knew the full nature of its core. It is this mundane sphere with which the rebellious Satan, booted out of Heaven, calamitously collides. So massive is the impact that it at once creates the entire, funnel-shaped hollow of Hell, from one side of the planet to the other. In fact, only in the closing lines of Inferno, after they have traversed all nine terrible circles, does Virgil explain to Dante how this worked. They have just scrambled over the hairy flanks of Satan himself, locked in ice, and are about to emerge at the foot of Mount Purgatory, directly opposite on the globe from Jerusalem (I like to fancy this is Table Mountain):

On this side he fell down from Heaven; the earth,

Which till then had stood out here, impelled by fear
Veiled itself in the sea and issued forth
In our own hemisphere. And possibly,
What now appears on this side fled its berth
And rushing upwards left a cavity:
This hollow where we stand.
(Canto 34; Robert Pinsky’s translation)

In short, the shape of Hell is formed by the very earth shrinking from the repellent presence of evil.

As for the details of the resulting stony architecture – Dante strikes an extraordinary balance between mathematical precision in the arrangement of sins-to-circles, and an atmosphere of monstrous chaos – these are often paralleled with geology on the surface:

Where a wall of mountains rises
To form fair Italy’s border above Tirolo
Lies Lake Benaco, fed by a thousand sources: ...
There, all the cascades Benaco cannot contain
Within its bosom join in one river that flows [and]
Soon spreads to a marsh...
(Canto 20)

Descriptions of parts of the underworld are similarly precise:
"Transitions" (Dan Wylie, 2017)
                                    We travelled across
            To the circle’s farther edge, above the place
            where a foaming spring spills over a fosse.
            The water was purple-black; we followed its current
            Down a strange passage. This dismal watercourse
            Descends the greyish slopes until its torrent
            Discharges into the marsh whose name is Styx.
                        (Canto 7)

This kind of precision is deftly melded with the landscapes culled and modified from the various Classical accounts of others’ visits to imagined Underworlds: Orpheus, Ulysses, Theseus, Aeneas. So, for example, the pilgrims cross two of the rivers of the Greeks’ mythical Hades, Acheron and Styx, with their respective grumpy boatmen. But Dante also draws on apocryphal Christian texts (there is surprisingly little about hell in the Bible itself). Of these, the most geologically interesting is the so-called “Harrowing of Hell”, first related in the Gospel of Nicodemus. This is a mythic event in which Christ, between Crucifixion and Resurrection, visits Hell in order to liberate a clutch of deserving souls – and in so doing causes a substantial earthquake. Dante knew about earthquakes in seismically unstable Italy, describing one in Canto 12:

                                    This side of Trento
There is a place a landslide fell and struck
The Adige’s flank: because of unstable ground
Or earthquake, rocks once tumbled from the peak
And formed a passage where people can descend –
Such was the footing we had in that ravine...

Indeed, on the bank of Acheron “the earth of that grim shore/ began to shake: so violently / I shudder and sweat recalling it now” (Canto 3). Earth tremor as psychological terror. At several points in the narrative Virgil and Dante have to negotiate the damage of the Harrowing: at one juncture, Virgil sort of slaloms down a loosened scree holding a terrified Dante in his lap like a baby; at another, the sixth of the ten rock bridges across the ditches of the Eighth Circle has collapsed, necessitating some awkward and exhausting climbing. The lithic architecture of this realm – Malebolge – is precise:

A wide deep pit: concerning its design
"Trust" (Dan Wylie, 2017)
I shall say more in time. A belt remains
Between the base of that high wall of stone
And the central pit, a circular band divided
In ten concentric valleys, as in a plan
Where guardian moats are successively graded
Around a castle’s walls.
            (Canto 18)

The sixth bridge was shattered, as one resident of Hell informs the pilgrims, 1265 years previously – that is, when Christ was 35, the poem being set at Easter, AD 1300. By negotiating the wreckage of the bridge, Dante and Virgil are in a way re-celebrating that event: the 35-year old Dante, following Christ into Hell, is in the process of resurrecting his own sin-bedevilled soul.

            One could write a lot more, but suffice it to end with a speculation that rock itself is so present in the poem that it is virtually a character in its own right. It almost has agency. In an unremittingly over-written but provocative recent book, Stone: An ecology of the inhuman (2015), Jeffrey Jerome Cohen avers:

The philosopher Michel Serres argues that stone is the foundation of story at every archaeological level of human history. ... Stone becomes history’s bedrock as lithic agency impels human knowing. Neither dead matter nor pliant utensil, bluntly impedimental as well as collaborative force, stone brings story into being, a partner with language (just as inhuman), a material metaphor.

Though he has little to say about Dante or Inferno, Cohen pertinently adds:

Thinking geologically brings the mediaeval and the modern into unaccustomed proximity and reveals how, when imagining deep time, a shared vocabulary of cataclysm reveals an abiding inclination to stories of rocky entanglement, to the making of exigent and unexpected art.


Wednesday, 7 June 2017

No.44 - Swimming off Cape Town: Unexplored theme #23

Like most middle-class touristic people who visit Cape Town, I guess, I have now and then dunked my semi-naked body in one or another of the surrounding seas. Always there is someone in the water off Fish Hoek or Muizenberg, Kommetjie or Clifton Beach. What does it all mean? Why do some perform this strange ritual, while others are terrified? What is the social meaning of this liquid sensuality? How has the sheer geography of this ocean-girt city inflected the behaviour of its inhabitants? Can the disparate motivations of all those individuals add up to a pattern, an identifiable ripple in the fabric of our society?

Naturally, there are more writers in Cape Town than you can shake a fresh steenbras at, and many of them have written about swimming off Cape Town – as far as I know a wholly unexplored literary motif. 

I started thinking about this – or doing something in my head resembling swimming more than thinking – because in browsing the poetry journals, as one does, I couldn’t help noticing how many swimming poems there are. These are quite distinct from poems about the ever-present ocean itself – what Finuala Dowling called in one poem the “Mad Atlantic” – and distinct from perhaps equally numerous beach-walk poems. It’s the act of immersion that intrigues me, the contact of human skin and salt water, and the relations of this immersion to gender, class and race, to sharks and gulls and kelp, to pleasure and fear, to athleticism and escape, to baptism and reverence. Poems and novels begin to hint at the layered meanings that swimming bears for its various practitioners.

One might start with two extracts from poems by well-known Capetonian poet and academic Kelwyn Sole. In “Poems of the sea for me”, the ocean is both “motherland” and “fatherland”:


to run closer
and dive in
means to
come to

a jolt of blindness
a mordancy of salt
that only shocks
until it passes, and

the swimmer
can perceive
to before

- my fatherland’s the sea (New Contrast 39:48)

Sole’s poem “Ocean” sounds more cynical about our condition. Perhaps the sea (as Natal poet Douglas Livingstone repeatedly suggested) is our ultimate origin, to which we subconsciously long to return – so we at some level feel weirdly in exile on land:

                                    the sea
does not coddle its children;
we hunker down through squalls,
trust to skidding compasses
past sleeting rain and windscream
merely to be exiled, again and again,
finally stranded ashore: and come
to ourselves walking upon doctrines
of rock                         or sand

Often immersion in the sea is used as a metaphor for something else – the progression of a love-relationship, for example.  This is the case in Rosamund Handler’s “Letter from...”

the cowed hush of waves
made me feel

ephemeral at twenty-two
the lichened rock
to which I clung
rigid as the face of a dead man

winter again
so many seasons untraceable
yet I recall how it was:
how I could have let go
if only you had held fast 
(New Contrast 148:19)

Sarah Frost’s “From the sea” takes this kind of figuration a bit further, here depicting the struggles of the poet herself:

You, poet, alone, immobile, at your keyboard,
the night sighing, a stranger at your back.
You wrestle the anger of the invisible,
lay it down. Stop picking at the scab of ‘not good enough’,
that makes you mute, look around.
Poets shoal within reach,
also surfacing to breathe. (New Contrast 151:11)

This makes for a nice segue to a novel which is also centrally about a poet and the sea, Finuala Dowling’s lovely What Poets Need, whose cover actually depicts a man swimming. The novel’s protagonist, struggling poet John Carson, regularly escapes into the water. Sometimes he has kids in tow:

Another still, hot day dawned, buzzing with the expectations of school holidays. This morning I took Sal, Harriet and Vera’s Alan with me when I went down for my swim at Dalebrook pool. Alan so loved it he stood before me shivering and thin in his towel, asking could we stay there all day ... On the slippery back wall of the tidal pool, Sal fights with him (hand to hand combat) but then steps back in her little Speedo costume and says, ‘I’m the princess. I don’t fight’. (176)

The following passage is particularly suggestive.

I swim there [Fish Hoek] at least once a week, usually because the tidal pool here is empty of water or too full of people. The men who swim at Fish Hoek corner in the morning are very interested in the water temperature. ’16.9’, they like to say, heartily, reading from a thermometer pendant. The women just stride in, adjusting their bathing caps and laughing as they catch waves on their boogie boards. I’m sort of friendly to them, but quite relieved once I’ve passed the breakers and am alone.
            I thought today about those few seconds before you’re properly ‘in’ cold water: how unpleasant it feels as you stand there clutching your unwilling sides. It must be fear of the evolutionary step backwards: back to the old amphibian life. Then, when you’re in, how lovely it is, all cares gone.

In that, you can feel the subtle pressures of gender roles, tensions between companionship and solitude, dress fashions, the imprint of scientific models. And there are more (so to speak) undercurrents in the next extract: sensitivity to seasonal changes, seaborne occupations, modes of leisure, the interface of sea and human architectures – and the internally liberating effect of the swim itself:

In October, you can still see whales breaching, and hear them blowing. Always on calm days there are kayaks gliding, and in almost all weathers, a fishing boat near the horizon. I rest my arms on the wet wall, look across at Simon’s Town bay in the distance and the harbour with its protective dolosse in the foreground, and say to myself, This is your life. It is hard to believe I am so lucky. (195)

The assumption that “swimming is always therapeutic” can be deceptive, though. John Carson takes his ailing 70-year old mother swimming:

 ... I stayed with her till she seemed to be swimming at her ease. Then I struck out as usual, aiming for the round house at Sunny Cove as my marker. I turned back at one point to check on her, but she wasn’t there. I was puzzled, peering. Something was wrong. I swam back inshore as rapidly as I could. Two men – a father and son, I think – were lifting my mother’s frail, limp body out of the water. She’d decided to cut her swim short, she’d been returning to the shore, when a wave had come from behind and felled her.
            We helped her to her feet. She spluttered and staggered ... She hardly spoke again after that, though she lived another two weeks. (204)

The antithesis between the therapeutic and the dangerous swim is also featured in perhaps the best-written of the novels I touch on here: Justin Cartwright’s White Lightning (2002). The rather unfortunately-named James Kronk has returned from England to the Cape to tend his dying mother. He tries to reintegrate by, among other things, connecting with ‘nature’ through mountain walks – and swimming:

The fuzzy lights on the lower levels of the mountain are visible in the biscuit twilight as i enter the water. I catch a wave easily – they are strong but benign, rolling resolutely to the beach – and then another. The water always feels warmer after the sun has set, warmer and more viscous. I emerge from the waves a better man, towel myself, and sit at the water’s edge. (180).

But the mad Atlantic is fickle, and late in the novel Kronk’s own internal and societal unravelling (I won’t reveal too much) is reflected in turbulent weather. He is chased into the sea by some angry pursuers. This is escape for real, rather than escapism:

The grey waves are huge. The wind is holding them back so that they rise and fall sharply, their crests dispersed by the wind. Gulls cry in their cold-hearted fashion. Here on shore the rain and the mist are so low that the tops of the sand dunes are obscured, but out to sea, some miles away, a filtered light strikes the water, forming a silver island within the bay. ... I run in up to my waist  and then dive into a breaker. As I emerge from this mountain of water, another huge wave follows and tumbles me over, so that I am rolled towards the beach, where the seven men are waiting. ... I am beyond the breakers now, swimming steadily, breast-stroke. My plan is to swim far out of sight and wait until night falls, perhaps an hour away, and then come ashore in the dark. ... I keep swimming ... out to where my father nearly caught the biggest Red Steenbras ever seen ... (237).

I won’t spoil the ending for you. But it’s a reminder that for all the swimmers taking their pleasure, there are those who failed to swim, and died: so many shipwreck victims, the Xhosa chieftain Makana, who drowned trying to escape from Robben Island in 1819, to the famously suicidal Afrikaans poet Ingrid Jonker, who walked into the ocean to drown in 1965. In the very first poem of AndrĂ© Brink’s selection of translations, Black Butterflies (2007),  entitled “Escape”, Jonker wrote of death in water as a liberation from her own mental distress:

From this Valkenberg [mental hospital] have I run away
and in my thoughts return to Gordon’s Bay
Washed out my body lies in weed and grass
in all the places where we once did pass.

So, more or less, it transpired. But let’s end on a more cheerful note – a scene from, of all places – Agatha Christie’s one southern African-set crime thriller, The Man in the Brown Suit (1924):

I caught a fast train to Muizenberg and got there in about half an hour. It was a nice trip. We wound slowly round the base of Table Mountain, and some of the flowers were lovely. My geography being weak, I had never fully realized that Cape Town is on a peninsula, consequently I was rather surprised on getting out of the train to find myself facing the sea once more. There was some perfectly entrancing bathing going on. The people had short curved boards and came floating in on the waves. It was far too early to go to tea. I made for the bathing pavilion, and when they said would I have a surf board, I said “Yes, please.” Surfing looks perfectly easy.  It isn’t. I say no more. I got very angry and fairly hurled my plank from me. Nevertheless, I determined to return at the first possible opportunity and have another go. I would not be beaten. Quite by mistake I then got a good run on my board, and came out delirious with happiness. Surfing is like that.  You are either vigorously cursing or else you are idiotically pleased with yourself. (94)

So much for being at sea on a “plank”.