Politics as Dante's Inferno

Literature professor that I am, I appreciate this application of the unutterably great Dante to today’s political and cultural woes.  It’s by Henry G. Brinton, pastor of Fairfax Presbyterian Church, who got it published in USA Today:

In Inferno, hell is cold at its deepest levels, not hot. People are frozen in place, eternally. Nothing ever changes. . . .

The hell that Dante envisions is a series of concentric circles, containing the souls of people being punished for a variety of sins. His poem is “the drama of the soul’s choice,” according to English crime writer and poet Dorothy Sayers. The seriousness of the sin increases as the observer moves downward from the first circle to the ninth; for instance, the residents of the second circle are being punished for lust, while the souls in the ninth are suffering for treacherous fraud against individuals and communities. . . .

In Dante’s frozen ninth circle, there are two damned souls who do not face each other. Instead, they are pressed together chest to back, with one gnawing the back of the other’s head. I think of my Facebook friends who send blistering political messages, containing insults that they would never deliver face to face. . . .

Says Peter Hawkins of Yale Divinity School, a Dante scholar, “Among the many things lost at this depth is the notion of e pluribus unum, one out of many.” Here, private egos run wild, with no chance of healthy partnership.

In this ninth circle, the man who is eating the other’s head is an Italian count who was betrayed by an archbishop and locked in a tower to starve to death. The two men are traitors who represent corruption within both the state and the church, but what locks them in hell is the hatred they chose in the last moments of their lives. Dante is reminding us that we don’t have to choose that path.

We can all choose to do better, right along with the characters of The Divine Comedy. As the story moves from Inferno to Purgatorio to Paradiso, the focus of the characters shifts — they gradually move from looking at each other to gazing upward toward “the love which moves the sun and the other stars.”. . .

Politics is so often a zero-sum game, with one candidate’s gain coming from another’s loss, but Dante offers a heavenly ideal of sharing and mutuality. “In the Paradiso,” says Alan Jones, dean emeritus of Grace Cathedral Episcopal Church in San Francisco, “love is the only ‘commodity’ that isn’t diminished by sharing.”

via Column: When politics freezes over – USATODAY.com.

The Transfiguration of Bob Dylan

Bob Dylan has an interview in Rolling Stone that is confounding some people for bringing back that whole religion thing.  You can’t read it online without a subscription, but David Zahl at Mockingbird posts some highlights:

Do you ever worry that people interpreted your work in misguided ways? For example, some people still see “Rainy Day Women” as coded about getting high.

It doesn’t surprise me that some people would see it that way. But these are people that aren’t familiar with the Book of Acts…

People thought your music spoke to and reflected the 1960s. Do you feel that’s also the case with your music since 1997?

Sure, my music is always speaking to times that are recent. But let’s not forget human nature isn’t bound to any specific time in history. And it always starts with that. My songs are personal music; they’re not communal. I wouldn’t want people singing along with me. It would sound funny. I’m not playing campfire meetings. I don’t remember anyone singing along with Elvis, or Carl Perkins, or Little Richard. The thing you have to do is make people feel their own emotions. A performer, if he’s doing what he’s supposed to do, doesn’t feel any emotion at all. It’s a certain kind of alchemy that a performer has..

[When you talk about] transfiguration, you mean it in the sense of being transformed? Or do you mean transmigration, when a soul passes into a different body?

Transmigration is not what we are talking about. This is something else. I had a motorcycle accident in 1966… Now, you can put this together any way you want. You can work on it any way you want. Transfiguration: You can go learn about it from the Catholic Church, you can learn about it in some old mystical books, but it’s a real concept. It’s happened throughout the ages. Nobody knows who it’s happened to, or why. But you get real proof of it here and there. It’s not like something you can dream up and think. It’s not like conjuring up a reality or like incarnation–or like when you might think you’re somebody from the past but have no proof. It’s not anything to do with the past or the future.

So when you ask some of your questions, you’re asking them to a person who’s long dead. You’re asking them to a person that doesn’t exist. But people make that mistake about me all the time…

So live performance is a purpose you find fulfilling?

If you’re not fulfilled in other ways, performing can never make you happy. Performing is something you have to learn how to do. You do it, you get better at it and you keep going. And if you don’t get better at it, you have to give it up. Is it a fulfilling way of life? Well, what kind of way of life is fulfilling? No kind of life is fulfilling if your soul hasn’t been redeemed…

You said that you originally wanted to make a more religious album this time–can you tell me more about that?

The songs on Tempest were worked out in rehearsals on stages during soundchecks before live shows. The religious songs maybe I felt were too similar to each other to release as an album. Someplace along the line, I had to go with one or the other, and Tempest is what I went with. I’m still not sure if it was the right decision.

When you say religious songs…

Newly written songs, but one that are traditionally motivated.

More like “Slow Train Coming”?

No. No. Not at all. They’re more like “Just a Closer Walk with Thee.”…

Has your sense of faith changed?

Certainly it has, o ye of little faith. Who’s to say that I even have any faith or what kind? I see God’s hand in everything. Every person, place and thing, every situation…

Clearly, the language of the Bible still provides imagery in your songs.

Of course, what else could there be? I believe in the Book of Revelation. I believe in disclosure, you know?

There is more at The Transfiguration of Robert Zimmerman, or Just a Closer Walk with Dylan | Mockingbird.

The interview has other revelations, or at least disclosures, about Dylan and his work.  For example, we see that he is still irked at the  folk purists who charged him with betrayal when he started playing an electric guitar:

These are the same people that tried to pin the name Judas on me. Judas, the most hated name in human history! If you think you’ve been called a bad name, try to work your way out from under that. Yeah, and for what? For playing an electric guitar? As if that is in some kind of way equitable to betraying our Lord and delivering him up to be crucified…

This comment about the relationship between the artist, emotion, and the audience is a revelation:

The thing you have to do is make people feel their own emotions. A performer, if he’s doing what he’s supposed to do, doesn’t feel any emotion at all. It’s a certain kind of alchemy that a performer has.

Exactly!  And this is what many would-be artists don’t realize.  Art of whatever kind is not about just vomiting up your inner emotions.  Music, poetry, fiction, acting, painting, film, and other art forms require intense discipline, concentration, and objectivity.  An artist can’t just go up and go berserk in front of an audience.  (Performers who seem to do that are just acting.)  Art does indeed involve emotion, but it isn’t primarily the artist’s.  What all of those objective techniques do “is make people [the audience, the listeners, the readers] feel their own emotions“!

Thanks also to David Zahl for appending this sampler from Dylan’s new album, Tempest:

Connected TV dramas as the new novel

Since the time of the ancient Greeks, a dramatic production seldom lasts much more than two hours, about the limit of human endurance sitting in one place.  Thus, plays, movies, and TV shows tend to be relatively short.  Novels, though, can take weeks to read.  That means that novels can take up stories of greater length, complexity, and depth than the typical play or film.  (Not that those forms don’t have their own complexity and depth–I mean, think of Shakespeare–but there can’t be as much story as in a novel.)  When a novel is made into a film, we generally say, “The book is better than the movie,” but that’s to be expected.   How can you compress the incidents in a 350 page book into the two hours of a movie?

But now it’s possible to develop a filmed story that can go on for hours, days, weeks, even years.  Dramatic series on television are no longer self-contained one-hour tales.  Rather, the episodes are connected with each other to tell a bigger and bigger and longer and longer story.  Now filmed versions of novels can be quite faithful to the original.  And now TV series can constitute creative long-form fiction in the same way that a novel does.

Film scholar Thomas Doherty comments, proposing to call the new series “Arc TV”:

Long top dog in the media hierarchy, the Hollywood feature film—the star-studded best in show that garnered the respectful monographs, the critical cachet, and a secure place on the university curriculum—is being challenged by the lure of long-form, episodic television. Let’s call the breed Arc TV, a moniker that underscores the dramatic curvature of the finely crafted, adult-minded serials built around arcs of interconnected action unfolding over the life span of the series. Shows like Mad Men, Breaking Bad, Downton Abbey, Homeland, Dexter, Boardwalk Empire, and Game of Thrones—the highest-profile entrees in a gourmet menu of premium programming—are where the talent, the prestige, and the cultural buzz now swirl. Fess up: Are you more jazzed about the release of the new Abraham Lincoln biopic by Steven Spielberg or the season premiere of Homeland (September 30, 10 p.m., on Showtime)? The lineup hasn’t quite yet dethroned the theatrical feature film as the preferred canvas for moving-image artistry, but Hollywood moviemakers are watching their backs.

This being from the medium that inspired the wisecrack “Imitation is the sincerest form of television,” Arc TV has antecedents aplenty. The format owes obvious debts to a swath of small-screen influences—the mid-70s explosion in quality TV, the BBC’s Masterpiece Theater imports on PBS, Steven Bochco’s Hill Street Blues (NBC, 1981-87) and L.A. Law (NBC, 1986-94), and especially Stephen J. Cannell’s Wiseguy (CBS, 1987-90), the show usually credited with bringing the multi-episode arc to serial American television.

Yet its real kinship is literary, not televisual. Like the bulky tomes of Dickens and Dreiser, Trollope and Wharton, the series are thick on character and dense in plot line, spanning generations and tribal networks and crisscrossing the currents of personal life and professional duty. Episode per episode, in milieux that stretch from the ruthless geopolitics of a medieval off-world to the gender dynamics of a post-zombie apocalypse, the tide of action ebbs and flows in a meandering but forward direction, gaining momentum over the course of a season (now likely to be a mere 13 episodes), before congealing and erupting in a go-for-broke season finale.Traditionally, even late into the age of cable, television thrived on two durable genres, the weekly 30-minute sitcom and the hourlong drama. Play the theme song, rack up the signature montage, and a virgin viewer has no trouble following along. Each episode was discrete and self-contained, wrapped up on schedule, with no overarching Ur-plot, designed to be digested full at one sitting, and meant to spiral autonomously ever after in syndication: Gilligan stranded forever on his island, Columbo freeze-framed in his trench coat.

The dramatis personae existed in a realm that was picaresque, a pre-novel mode in which a one-dimensional protagonist is hit by one damn thing after another. A viewer could spend years, maybe decades, with the likes of Matt Dillon on Gunsmoke or Steve McGarrett on Hawaii Five-O and not know a whit about the hero’s psychic interior or personal history. Many of the surviving remnants of network television follow that time-worn template. The repetition compulsion of Homer Simpson—always the same, never learning from experience—is an ironic homage to the picaresque legacy: “D’oh! D’oh! D’oh!”

By contrast, Arc TV is all about back story and evolution. Again like the novel, the aesthetic payoff comes from prolonged, deep involvement in the fictional universe and, like a serious play or film, the stagecraft demands close attention. For the show to cast its magic, the viewer must leap full body into the video slipstream. Watch, hour by hour, the slow-burn descent into the home-cooked hell of the high-school-chemistry-teacher-turned-meth-kingpin Walter White in Breaking Bad, or the unraveling by degrees of the bipolar CIA agent Carrie Mathison, falling off her meds and cracking to pieces in Homeland.

At its best, the world of Arc TV is as exquisitely calibrated as the social matrix of a Henry James novel.

via Cable Is the New Novel – The Chronicle Review – The Chronicle of Higher Education.

I would argue that the novel still has advantages over what can be portrayed visually on television.  A novel can present a character’s thoughts and feelings and experiences directly and completely, right into the reader’s imagination. Some of that can be hinted by good acting and clever filmmaking, but it isn’t the same, just watching everything on a screen.  Reading has huge advantages over watching.  (I agree with Charles Lamb that it’s better to read Shakespeare than to watch a production of Shakespeare, that his plays work best performed in the “theatre of the mind.”)

Still, we don’t always want to give our imaginations a workout, so it can be pleasant and relaxing to let  someone else imagine the stories for us.  So I pay tribute to the fictional possibilities of this new artform.

Voting and the neighbor

Todd Wilkens, host of Issues, Etc., has a provocative post on voting like a Christian.  He is applying to this work of the calling of citizenship what Luther taught is the purpose of all vocations:  To love and serve one’s neighbor.

Why does a Christian vote? A Christian doesn’t vote for the same reason the unbeliever votes.

A Christian doesn’t vote because it’s his right. That’s why the unbeliever votes. For the Christian, his own rights have nothing to do with it.

A Christian doesn’t vote to get his way. That’s also why the unbeliever votes. For the Christian, getting his way has nothing to do with it.

A Christian doesn’t vote to protect his own interests. For the Christian, his own interests have nothing to do with it.

A Christian votes to serve his neighbor —-period.

A Christian votes because he is called to do so by the needs of his neighbor. This means that a Christian will sometimes vote against his own rights, his own way and his own self-interest; but always in favor of his neighbor and his needs. At the ballot box, the neighbor comes first.

On election day, don’t vote like an unbeliever. Make you vote count …for your neighbor.

via Steadfast Lutherans » Why Vote?.

So what difference would this neighbor-centered ethic make?  Which, in your opinion, would be a better neighbor-centered vote, for Obama or for Romney?  Is there only one answer, or might vocation lead different people to different decisions?  If the latter, does that mean that God calls people to contrary actions?  How can that be?

Judge the debate

Read our live-blog commentary, below.  It was a cool exercise, interacting with each other and with the topic in real time.  Now, recollecting the debate in tranquility, what do you think about the debate as a whole?   Who will be helped, and who will be hurt?  What were the notable moments?  And, for the bottom-line question, who won?

In which we live blog the debate

Greetings, all of you Cranachers of every political persuasion.  In this experiment in real-time online interaction and discussion, I will post comments on the first presidential candidate debate as it unfolds and invite you to do the same.  Or you can just read what we are all saying.

To follow the discussion you’ll need to hit “refresh” frequently so as to see the latest comments.

What will happen if we have several hundred people trying to comment at once?  I have no idea.  That’s why we call it an experiment.  I doubt that we’ll crash the whole internet, so don’t worry about it.

It’s fine to interact with other people’s comments, but do that briefly and not as long arguments or digressions.  Try to keep the thread in synch with what is happening on television.

If this works, we might try other real-time Cranach get-togethers.

(After the debate, sleep on it, and we’ll discuss our overall impressions–including our views of “who won”–tomorrow.)

In the meantime, as the candidates take their places, let’s begin. . . .

 


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