March 11th 2017

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY Money flows freely to fuel anti-coal campaign

CANBERRA OBSERVED People and renewables get on till pay day arrives

EDITORIAL Commission report demonstrates old saying about statistics

ENVIRONMENT Ignore claims that Antarctic ice sheet will melt away

SAME-SEX MARRIAGE Taiwan society divides over gay agenda

ECONOMICS Globalisation: a bumpy ride for some

GENDER POLITICS Parliamentary stalemate on same-sex marriage

CULTURE WARS Samizdat and the internet

FOREIGN AFFAIRS Theresa May prepares Britain for post-EU life

HISTORY Christianity and progress in human happiness

MUSIC What's the score? Originality v novelty

CINEMA Silence: Stamping on the face of faith

POETRY AND SOCIETY The modern world and damnation as voyeurism

SOCIETY The working class and globalisation

BOOK REVIEW The man who split the party

It's time to build new water storages in the Basin

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The modern world and damnation as voyeurism

by Peter Kelleher

News Weekly, March 11, 2017

Some years ago, I was confirmed in a suspicion I had that the modern reader, if he is inclined at all to attempt Dante’s Divine Comedy, is likely to stop at the Inferno.

This is for two reasons: the unrelenting ferocity of Dante’s vision of Hell; and the seeming confirmation of the modern’s view that Medieval (or early Renaissance, or your label of choice) culture was obsessed with Hell and its horrors.

Dante Alighieri

The confirmation of the modern reader’s tendency to give up with Hell came after a circle of fellow poetry tasters and I had read through the Inferno a canto at a time over the course of two years. As we emerged from that foul place to once again gaze on the stars, I suggested we go straight on with the Purgatorio at our next meeting.

At that, one of our number said she had had enough, and could not be persuaded that the Purgatorio would be any less an abominable a vision than the Inferno had been. She had supped enough on horrors.

Nonetheless, a number of us did take on Purgatorio; and now, a mere five years down the track, we have seen the stars again and now are hurtling towards the Empyrean on our way to the poet’s vision of Heaven in the Paradiso.

My friend’s response prompted me to give some thought to the social and the poetical and how they interact – or fail to do so – in modern life.

This modern world that prides itself on its liberation from stultifying authorities such as Bible-bashing pastors and maleficent black-robed priests is actually animated by some of the narrowest of dogmas imaginable. One such dogma is that each man is the measure of all things; not man, the species, mind you, but each man and woman as an individual.

We are probably familiar with the results of such radical autonomy of the individual in the political and social spheres, but it also has terrible consequences in the sphere of the arts, perhaps especially with poetry.

Let me illustrate.

Did any of our readers catch that great series on Channel Eleventy in which promising young poets competed in readings of sonnets for the chance to win a tour of Florence – Dante’s birthplace – and get their work published? No? Just my point. No such show exists; nor can we imagine such a show outside of satire. Yet poetry has been with mankind from the beginning; even predating prose. Indeed, poetry reached some of its most elevated and complete expressions almost as soon as mankind had the leisure to sit down and write it. Homer appeared in that half-light world between prehistory and history.

Now we bravely face the world without it, depleted in the primordial rhythm of cascading words that was the last but one defence against life as a bare Hobbesian act of survival for the benefit of the species. The last defence is prayer; though that too is in retreat from the heart of the autonomous automaton that the individual today aspires to be.

So, to the two reasons that I mentioned above that moderns get no further than the Inferno I now add two more: the Inferno is the first part of The Divine Comedy, and a modern can’t pay attention long enough to get beyond the start of anything (not the vice of my friend, though, I might note); and secretly the modern loves to wallow in horrors.

Just take a look at modern pictorial art; the “art” of the intellectuals. Or any public building that was put up in the last 70 years. Or public statuary. And cease to wonder why it is that the media (“our” media) dwells so long and minutely (and lovingly) on every act of terrorism that shakes the West (even as deaths in Baghdad, mounting to the thousands each year, scarcely get noticed).

As a result, much of the modern world, in the West at least, having gotten lost, has sat down in the darkest forest and refused to move to find a way out, no matter how strong be the promptings of fear, vanity or passion:

Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita
Mi ritrovai per una selva oscura,
Che la diritta via era smaritta.

Canto 1, lines 1–3, Inferno

“Midway upon the journey of our life
I found myself in a dark wilderness,
for I had wandered from the straight and true.”

Translation Anthony Esolen (Random House, New York, 2002)

They stop before they even begin. Perhaps that explains why so many people assert that The Divine Comedy is an allegory; they didn’t get past Canto One of the Inferno, which does, indeed, uncharacteristically of the poem in its entirety, contain allegorical elements.

But that’s a charger of a fresh complexion.

All you need to know about
the wider impact of transgenderism on society.
TRANSGENDER: one shade of grey, 353pp, $39.99

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