Monday, April 05, 2004

In his examination of the Greek psyche, Bruno Snell adapted this theory to account for the rise of the individual in Greek society. In Snell’s view, self-awareness, what he calls the “discovery of the mind” comes into being when desire is frustrated.

. . Love which has its course barred, and fails to reach its fulfillment, acquires a particularly strong hold over the human heart. The sparks of a vital desire burst into flame at the very moment when the desire is finally blocked in its path. It is the obstruction which makes the wholly personal feelings conscious . . . [the lover] seeks the cause in his own personality (Snell, 1952, p 53).

Literary theorist Anne Carson takes this idea further, suggesting that formation of self also results from literacy. “Reading and writing change societies,” she writes,

As an individual reads and writes he gradually learns to close or inhibit the input of his senses, to inhibit or control the responses of his body, so as to train his energy and thought upon the written words . . . In making the effort he becomes aware of the interior self as an entity separable form the environment and its input, controllable by his own mental action . . . Literate training encourages a heightened awareness of personal physical boundaries and a sense of those boundaries as the vessel of ones self. To control these boundaries is to posses oneself. For individuals to whom self-possession has become important, the influx of sudden, strong emotion from without cannot be an unalarming event (Carson, 1985, pp 44-45).

Dante was the embodiment of this literate lover. In his youth, He fell in love with a young Florentine woman his own age. He wrote of his first encounter with this woman, "who was called Beatrice (she who blesses) by many who knew not what to call her" in his book Vita Nova, or The New Life. Dante described not only the inception of his love for Beatrice, but also the turmoil this love created within him.
Dante first encountered Beatrice when they were both nine years old. At the instant at which he caught sight of her, Dante felt his life changed, and his very soul cried out. First, "the spirit of life, which dwells in the most secret chamber of the heart," spoke these words: "Ecce deus fortior me, qui veniens dominabitur mihi," (behold a god stronger than I, who, in coming, shall rule over me). After the spirit of life had spoken, the "spirit of the soul," which "dwells in the high chamber to which all the spirits of the senses carry their perceptions," called out "Apperuit iam beatitudo vestra" (now the joy and blessing which is yours has appeared). Finally, the "natural spirit," which "dwells in that place where our nourishment is supplied," cried out, weeping, "Heu miser! quia frequenter impedus ero deinceps" (Alas, poor me! For from now on I often will be hindered). The arrival of Beatrice announces the overmastering of Dante’s ego, of his basic appetites and desires; Dante is now beholden to something higher.
The literate mindset craves control, of self and of fate. For good or for ill, the literate mind would rather master the helm of its own fate than leave its course to external controls. Tragedy comes when we lose that control, or, perhaps more accurately, when we are reminded that control is no more than vain illusion.

In his Poetics, Aristotle defines the proper length of a tragedy as being sufficient for “the sequence of events, according to the law of probability or necessity, [to] admit of a change from bad fortune to good, or from good fortune to bad.” Notice here that a tragedy is defined as being any change in fortune, whether from good to bad, or bad to good. The change itself, the uncontrollable movement of fortune, is tragic.

But I could be wrong.

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