Monday, March 29, 2004

Augustine, in the course of hisjourney towards God, had a bit of a hard time. Not the least of these was love - or more accurately, the difficulty of learning to love properly.

"I cared for nothing but to love and be loved," he writes, "But my love went beyond the affection of one mind for another, beyond the arc of the bright beam of freindship. Bodiliy desire, like a morass, an adolescent sea welling up within me exuded mists which clouded over and obscured my heart, so that I could not distinguish the clear light of love from the murk of Lust" (Augustine, Confessions, Pine-Coffin trans., p 43).

Augustine, in other words, has found himself in Oscar Wilde's classic quandry: mind in the gutter, eyes on the stars. Love is the near-perfect embodyment of this paradox. It calls upon both the spiritual and beastial sides of our natures, driving even the most sainted to distraction, making philosophers of us all.

In Plato's Phaedrus, Socrates argues that because we desire the good things we do not have, and because love is a manefestation of this desire, the object of ove is, by virtue of its being loved, good (I'm missing a trick in there, but its late & I'm free-associating). He further argues that the trick is to recognize the true object of desire - not perhaps the pretty face or the charming smile, but the echo of divine, eternal truth that lies behind it (this argument is getting Epicurian).

Anywho. Augustine recognizes this. "The life we live on earth has its own attractions . . . because it has a certain beauty of its own in harmony with the rest of this earth's beauty." However, "all these things and their like can be occasions of sin because, good as they are, they are the lowest order of good . . ." (Pine-Coffin, p 52).

So what is sin here? Not - perhaps - not doing good, but rather not seeing good when it is before us. The great 'morass' that Augustine struggled with is the first obstacle towards loving properly. Once that is recognized, however, there is the further difficulty of learning not to love, wheather through friendship of admiration, andything for its material, temporal value alone.

In Dante's Inferno, we see this process played out. In Canto V, Dante finds himself in the company of 'those who sinned in carnal things/ their reason mastered by desire." There, he meets Paolo and Francesca, who's desire - and the manner in which it played out - brought perdition (apologies to anyone who's read about this passage in my blog before - I tend to get hung up on it). Dante asks Francesca te relay their story. She tells how one day they read the story of Sir Lancelot, alone:

Sometimes as we read our glances joined

Looking from the book to each others eyes


'This one, who now will never leave my side.

Kissed my mouth, trembling. A Galeotto, that book!

And so it was he who wrote it; that day we read

No further." All the while the one shade spoke,

The other at her side was weeping; my pity

Overwhelmed me and I felt myself go slack:

Swooning as in death, I fell like a dying body.
(Pinsky translation)

Dante faints after hearing Francesca's story, overwhealmed by the tragic lovers' story. And well he should be. He is himself on a journey, literally through hell, goaded by Beatrice, his lost love. His journey mirrors the spiritual quest that both he and Augustine share - through lust and worldy desire to divine love and true transcendence.

A lover or a romantic poet (as Dante was in his youth) might argue that Paolo and Franscesca should welcome their fate - after all, what ardent lovers wouldn't choose to spend eternity anchored to one another? But what the swooning Dante (the pilgrim of the poem) was beginning
to recognize was that this paralizing, soul-tossing force is as constrictive as it was liberating.

Francesca's line, "that day we read no further" echoes Augustine's conversion in his Confessions. Augustine, having taken up his book & read, has a revelation that finally - after a lifetime of seeking - allows him to turn towards God. Francesca, by contrast, is brought down while reading - carelessly - of love. She is unable to move beyond her lust for Paolo, and is relegated for eternity to the hurricaine of Hell, bound to her lover, but unable to move forward. Is it any wonder Dante should swoon?

In Canto V, Dante is closer to Paolo and Francesca than he is to Beatrice and any Divine Truths. Later, in Purgatorio, Beatrice chides,

When from the flesh to spirit I ascended,
And beauty and virtue increased
I was to him less dear and less delightful
And to ways untrue turned his steps

Persuing false images of good
That never any promise fulfill
(Canto XXX, line 125 - Wordsworth translation)

Dante failed to realize that her beauty increased after death as she was freed from earthly trappings of beauty. Had Dante loved her for her true worth, he'd have saved himself a trip.

OOf. Moral absolutism is exhausting. Off to bed.

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