One of the most common comparisons you’ll hear made by reporters and commentators on news programs is that some natural or human disaster is “like something out of Dante’s Inferno.” I don’t think the people invoking Dante like this have actually read the Inferno, or are familiar with the illustrations by Gustave Doré that have done so much to shape the way we visualize the poem. Instead, what is usually meant is something hellish. Meaning lots of flame, and possibly dead bodies. This despite the fact that the lowest levels of hell in Dante are actually frozen over.
It was not always thus. In World War One, during the battle of Verdun, an American aviator could be more precise:
During heavy bombardments and attacks I have seen shells falling like rain. Countless towers of smoke remind one of Gustave Doré’s picture of the fiery tombs of the arch-heretics in Dante’s “Hell.”
Now this is the way a classical analogy is supposed to work. Dante’s Inferno actually varies quite a bit between its different levels, in terms of the landscape and the punishments meted out. Here, however, the comparison being made is exact: to the sixth circle and the flaming tombs of the heretics. If one knows Doré’s illustrations one can understand, can see, what the airman is talking about.
Today hell is just hell, whether Dante’s or Doré’s or whoever’s. It’s become more generic. This is both a cultural leveling and a leveling of the imagination. We’re poorer for it.
As this year’s federal election draws nearer I’ve been receiving campaign literature in the mail. This week I got something from the Christian Heritage Party candidate that was all about protecting women from various forms of “insidious abuse.” It includes an essay written by the candidate himself where I found this: “I will work to strengthen the dignity of females of all ages and womanhood through offering courses to empower women.” I have to say I pulled a total blank on what he means by womanhood here. It’s hard not to think he has something specific in mind, but what? What are the degrees of womanhood?
It was an oft-repeated criticism of American involvement in Vietnam that the U.S. was waging a war in a country that few of its citizens would be able to find on a map. That was a zinger, then and now, though, in the American public’s defence, at the time Vietnam was only twenty years old (it had most recently been French Indochina).
I was thinking of this recently when preparing my notes on the movie They’re Watching, which was set in Moldova. This threw me. Before finding out this little tidbit of information, if you’d asked me if there was a country of Moldova I would have said there wasn’t. I associated the name with a province in the former Austro-Hungarian Empire and thought that the filmmakers were invoking it as an imaginary place like Ruritania or the Duchy of Grand Fenwick. But actually Moldova is a sovereign state, having been one of the Soviet Socialist Republics and gaining independence when the Soviet Union collapsed.
This was humbling. I thought I knew enough of the basics of world geography that the existence of a European country I didn’t know of came as quite a surprise. But as I went flipping through a pocket atlas recently I found other examples of my ignorance of how the world is divided up. Just as surprising to me as the existence of Moldova was the discovery that there’s a part of Russia that isn’t connected to any other part of Russia (what’s called an exclave). This is the Kaliningrad Oblast, the old Prussian Königsberg. Who knew? Well, probably a lot of people. But I didn’t.
Political boundaries are often in flux, which justifies the printing of new atlases. I found several such boundary issues in my browsing. Suriname, for example, claims big chunks of both Guyana and French Guiana (the countries to its west and east respectively). I have no idea how valid these claims are, but on a map they look significant. Meanwhile, Western Sahara has been administered since 1979 by Morocco, but is still considered a (huge) disputed territory. I knew nothing of this.
The upshot is that I don’t have the right to make fun of anyone else’s ignorance of geography. There are plenty of places I not only couldn’t find on a map but that I’ve never even heard of. I guess I’m not a man of the world.
It’s a testament to something that every time I happen to re-read a previous post I’ve made at one of my sites I find something that needs to be corrected. Usually this is just a typo or some infelicity. But in the last couple of weeks I came across a pair of glaring factual errors that were absolute howlers. One was in a review of a book and the other of a movie.
The nice thing about running a blog is that you can immediately correct your mistakes. And once they’re fixed you can pretend as though they were never made. You can’t do that with print. Still, I’m depressed to find so many goofs. I actually do try to make sure that a post is clear of errors before I publish it online. But still the fact is I don’t think I’ve ever posted anything, in over twenty years, that didn’t have at least one mistake in it. As I’ve said, I find them all the time. They turn up like stones in a field.
Perhaps it has something to do with writing for the Internet. Or perhaps it’s just my own carelessness. As for the nature of my mistakes, my opinions, I find, change less and less. But my expression of those opinions is always in flux. This makes a blog a perpetual work in progress. Thanks for bearing with me!
I’m an early to bed, early to rise kind of guy. Very early. In fact, I live close to a gym that’s open 24-hours and I often go there to exercise at 2 or 3 o’clock in the morning. I usually have the place to myself at that hour, though there are a few other regulars. I’m never sure if they’re getting up as early as I am, or if they’ve stayed up late.
I’ve always been a bit this way. I enjoy the dead hours of the morning when there’s no traffic on the streets. When I lived in the country you could really feel like you were the last man on earth, though I had one farmer friend who would pass me on the road at 3 o’clock and mention wistfully how this was the greatest time of the day. A true kindred spirit.
The reason I bring this up is because this week I’m supposed to be filling out one of those TV viewing surveys. I told the survey company that I didn’t have a TV and they said that didn’t matter. I do, however, watch the TVs they have at the gym. So, being the responsible person I am, I figured I would enter this in the journal they gave me, in the column “Watched TV Out of Home.”
But no! You see, each diary page begins at 4 in the morning. And each day ends at 2 the next morning. So from 2 o’clock to 4 o’clock is a TV-viewing dead zone. Which is the only time of the day, at least most days, that I watch any TV. I don’t even exist within a measurable viewing demographic, despite the fact that stations no longer “sign off” at the end of the day. Sure they repeat programming, but they’re not just broadcasting a test pattern.
This is what life is like on the other side.
At the gym I go to the locker rooms (remember them?) are on the main floor, with a rather grand staircase leading up to the equipment and program rooms. During the winter months there’s a sign placed at the bottom of these stairs asking members to not go past that point wearing winter boots or outside shoes. You can’t miss the sign. You have to walk around it to go up the stairs.
Even if you didn’t read the sign, the effects of people not taking off their boots is evident. The stairs are often dirty and wet, and they have to put up signs warning how slippery the steps are. Upstairs, the carpeting is being ruined with all the salt brought in. The janitorial staff also have to mop the steps down several times every day because they are such a mess.
I spoke to one of the janitors on this detail the other day and mentioned how surprised I was that people didn’t take off their outdoor shoes before coming upstairs. He said that “Sadly (yes! he said ‘sadly’!) most people don’t read the sign.”
I don’t think that’s true. I think everyone knows the sign is there and what it says. And like I say, it’s obvious the mess they’re making. They just ignore it. In this they are following what I’ve described before as the essence of rude behaviour: a sense of privilege and entitlement that tells them that rules don’t apply to them. Such people are, in the favourite diagnosis of our age, narcissists. Or assholes. What this leads to is, as usual, a mess for someone else to clean up.
I was recently asked to write an essay that would look at some current trends in literary criticism. In order to provide some background I wanted to talk a bit about earlier books like Ezra Pound’s ABC of Reading and Cleanth Brooks’s The Well Wrought Urn. I have copies of both but since they’re buried away in boxes in my basement (I’m a slow mover), I thought I’d just walk over to the university library and check them out.
No luck. Neither book was available in the holdings of the university library, or any of the other university libraries that are part of the same library system. ABC of Reading was listed as being there but it wasn’t, while The Well Wrought Urn (available only in a single copy) was reported as missing.
What gives? These are two very well known, seminal books of literary criticism: the first a keynote of modernism and the other the signature work of the New Criticism. I was so sure the catalogue listings were wrong that I even went into the stacks to double check, but neither was there. Nor were they available in the city library system.
This would be weird enough, but just a month ago I’d had a similiar experience when looking for a copy of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. Again, this is a landmark work and very well known. It was just recently republished as part of the Library of America series. And yet trying to find a copy in the university and city library systems I came up empty. They didn’t have a single copy available. And again the stacks were bare.
I don’t offer this experience as evidence that it’s the end of the world as we know it, but I do think it suggests how much is changing. Obviously libraries are being transformed into something more than just warehouses for books, but they do still have stacks and holdings. With gaps this wide starting to show up though I’m not sure how valuable a resource they’re going to be for much longer.