One of the strangest aspects of Dante is that his hell is not made up solely of types or famous exemplars or figures, but rather local no-names; even those who were famous in Dante’s time are usually not famous enough to be remembered by the average reader. Similarly, the text is entangled in a politics that now feels obscure – the pressing issues for Dante have become historical footnotes that most of us only know in fact on account of reading the Comedy. This can be annoying for readers; these matters can feel like the inside joke that alienates those not in the know. It is no wonder that such alienated readers have been put off by the text and accused Dante of bringing his own petty concerns into a theological system that ought to be treated as so much “higher”.
But I feel like there is something more than this that discomfits readers – or at least me – upon encountering Dante’s organization of hell. Simply put, I think that, if Dante’s purpose were simply to get catharsis by putting his opponents in hell, he would sound much more like Swift in his more embittered moments. Swift had good reason to be embittered, and much of it was turned to good use, but there are moments when, reading him, we find ourselves cringing at his unabashed spite in some of his caricatures. Dante is different though. We cringe for different reasons.
Particularly, I think we cringe because our encounter with Dante’s figures and politics drives home our own proximity to sin. Modern readers are manifestly comfortable with types and symbols and such because they can remain just that – one can imagine a manifestly proud person, or an unfaithful person etc. while at the same time making excuses for oneself regarding one’s own relation to such vices: “Clearly the Satanic arch-figure is evil, but in my case there are extenuating circumstances and things are so much more complex – there is environment and upbringing and genes etc. to account for…” What makes us uncomfortable about Dante though is that he does not offer us figures that can be magicked away into irrelevant ether. We (post)moderns are polite and non-judgmental in our approach to the characters in the Inferno, but I think this approach is not always so altruistic as we think: We judge not lest we realize that our neighbours might be sinners, which means that we too might be sinners too. This is something we don’t like to think about because, whether secular or Christian, we prefer to hide behind a mask of ostensible morality, and this often involves denying, even to ourselves, the extent of our sinfulness. This I think is not hard to see in Christian circles, what with the many scandals etc. that one encounters in which people have been seemingly living multiple disconnected lives. What I don’t think we as readily notice is that the same thing happens with whatever other so-called values we adopt in society: multiculturalism, environmentalism, liberty, equality, fraternity etc. Society becomes a self-justifying system such that it needs to destroy whatever threatens its facade of progress and good values – and the things that threaten it just happen to be sinners, that is, all of us. In making this claim, I am not I hope simply inventing charges, for it comes out of direct experience I have had with societal treatment of mental health. We are far more interested in demonstrating that we are helpful, and getting the attached funding and accolades, than we are in actually being helpful.
This of course leaves us with the question of what to do about all this muck that Dante dredges up in us. The answer is simple and swift in its striking:
It starts with a story. There was once a fine restaurant that specialized not only in serving fine cuisine, but in collecting and experimenting with recipes from many different cultures, time periods, and persons. Because of its excellence in this, its fame spread by word of mouth, and more and more people kept coming. The owners were happy about the restaurant’s popularity, but they had one problem. Having started out as a small operation, their building was not very aesthetically pleasing. Their ovens and kitchen tools, though still workable, were not cutting edge. And every night they had to turn people away because the restaurant wasn’t big enough to hold them.
Their profit on the business had increased greatly due to their popularity, and so they began to use this profit to fix these problems. They were able to purchase some kitchen tools and new ovens. But there was not enough left over to renovate and expand the building. That is, until the joint owner of the place, young and wise in the ways of the world, came up with a brilliant idea. “People love this restaurant,” he said, but they are being turned away. And other people who might love it choose not to come because, aesthetically speaking, the place is a dump and not very progressive. So let’s do this. You know those hot dogs they sell at Ikea – the really cheap ones, for fifty cents? Let’s get rid of our old menu and only serve those. They are easy to make, so we can let go our highly trained and expensive chefs, and the ingredients are not nearly as costly. With the left over money we can do our renovations and make the place sexy, and no one will know the difference.”
Another story: Once upon a time there was a university. It was not the richest or sexiest or most glamorous of universities. It did not rank where it wanted to rank in MacLean’s university listings. But what it did do, it did well. Though it was not liable to win any popularity contests, its students were grateful for the humble patience, rigor, and attention they got from their professors – often moreso than students at bigger name factory-like universities that generate more prestige than solid critical thinking.
At some point someone came along and said, “This university isn’t very sexy. Let’s spend a lot of money on advertisement and recruiting to raise the profile of the university. And let’s renovate the university, and make it bigger and more cutting edge.” When asked how he planned to do this, he did not of course say that he meant to get extra money by cutting at the very heart of the university, the scholars without whom the university does not exist. Administrators never say this. Rather he made abstract decisions he refused to discuss, and let things fall as they may, without acknowledging the effects. Things were, as they always were, tight all around, and everyone had better just tighten their belts and prepare for winter; what he didn’t mention is that for some of those “tightening their belts,” this would mean starvation – not an altogether bad thing from a fiscal point of view because one less mouth to feed costs less.
These are parables, and you can take them as you will. What is not a parable is what is currently happening to the University of Regina English department, and it is in many ways similar to both stories above. The English Department, of which I am an Alumnus (both BA and Masters), is experiencing cuts so severe that it has become nearly if not completely impossible to teach both the writing courses that are prerequisite for English and non-English students alike, and the more specialized courses that are the business of the English discipline proper. What’s more, the discussion of this with upper level administrators largely consists in the ruse of pitting faculties and disciplines against each other in such a way that it merely looks like the cuts are unfortunate but necessary cuts serving the needs and demands of the public – if science and computers are more popular and useful than the arts, it’s not the administrators’ jobs to put money elsewhere – they must put it where the people want it put.
And if this were the real problem, I might have some sympathy. After all, some of the Arts, grounded in the humanities, have done a good job of making themselves irrelevant by boldly ushering us into the brave new world of a “post-human” or “post-person” age. If the idea of humanity is an old fashioned construct used as an instrument of oppression, then surely disciplines grounded in the humanities must die with the deconstruction of humanity. Perhaps university administrators are listening more closely to the humanities than we think – after all, in a university after cyborg theory, does it really matter whether there is anything human – or humanities oriented – left?
But though this is a problem, I submit that the real issue at hand is not between departments or faculties, but rather between a university designed for real education, and a sophistic shell that needs to sing its own hollow praises because no on else will. At bottom, it is not really a question of funding more popular and “useful” classes and cutting smaller and “less useful” classes. Because there is another element at play. At the same time that all this business of Arts cuts has come up, the university is spending massive amounts of money to renovate its downtown campus and expand its program for continuing education. It may just be me, but I fail to see how a university can even begin speaking of continuing education when it is failing to fund education, plain and simple. And like most modern universities, it seems that U of R is increasingly caught up in the need to preen its image through advertisement and rhetoric, and to ensure that its technological standards are cutting edge. And if someone protests that the money used for renovation is not the same as that being taken from the Arts, and that it was raised independently in a variety of ways, I would suggest that there needs to be a seismic shift in the rhetorical orientation of the university. When we raise money for buildings and let the primary business of education wither, we are not being a university but something else.
As an alumnus, I can say with the utmost honesty that, when I think back to my degrees at U of R, the moments that changed my life did not involve architecture or renovation. Nor did they involve the most up to date experiences of technology. Nor did they involve advertisements so loud in their self-praise that they seem to be compensating for something. No, it was those classes where I met ideas I had not before – more than this, had the opportunity to discuss these with classmates who were likewise new to the subjects as well as professors who had been studying these subjects and ideas all their lives. I know I will be critiqued as an idealist who does not understand the complexities of fiscal systems, but I also know that these systems have no way of gauging the ongoing impact of real professors doing real research and engaging in person with students. I’m sure it looks good on the books and at the fundraisers to have new technology and prettier buildings and a media campaign that makes you look good, but to be quite frank, it is not these things that university students remember throughout their life. No one will look back and say, “Gosh, I’m sure glad I got to work in that smartly renovated building,” or “Gee, I’m glad we got to use touchscreen rather than the old fashioned computers with qwerty keyboards.” No one’s life will be changed by the inflated advertisements telling you how the U of R will help you fulfill your dreams. In fifty years, the architecture will be outdated, the technology will seem archaic, and the ads will seem so backward and cute, “so 2012.” But I guarantee that certain discussions and certain books encountered in university will stick with and influence a student for the rest of his/her life – if nothing else, my own life is a testimony to that. And that would not have happened without fair, knowledgeable professors who knew how to lead me through the right texts, and knew the right questions to ask. So, yes, it may be that the university has to make some cuts in these hard financial times. But making cuts that cripple departments like English is a little like claiming to save someone’s life by removing that person’s heart. Yes, sacrifice will have to be made – but it may have to be made by those who prefer a university that looks good over a university that is good.
In my second last post, I talked about the problem of imagination in Evangelical circles; in this post I want to talk about someone who is doing something to redress it, a modern English poet, priest, and scholar by the name of Malcolm Guite. Guite was brought to my attention about a month ago at a concert by Canadian singer/songwriter Steve Bell. At some point after the concert, I looked him up, and was duly impressed with what I found. He dares to write sonnets in the 21st Century. He has written a book on theology and imagination (which I need to order), and includes a discussion of Old English poetry. His work that I have thus far become most familiar with is his CD, “The Green Man.”
This CD has a lot of good things going for it, both from a literary and theological point of view. The title track is – at least I would argue – an oblique reference to Gawain’s green night interpreted as a synthesis of Christ and the personified fertility of nature (a little like Chesterton’s Thursday). Like Gawain’s Green Knight, this “green man” cannot be beaten no matter how careless his human foes are; the chorus states “If you cut me down, I’ll spring back green again.”
Guite’s reference to the green knight is typical of the rest of the album. He inhabits Biblical and literary phrases but puts his own slight enough twist on them to ensure they don’t become preachy or cliched. Though he lacks the cultural and politico-religious fabric from which poets such as Donne and Herbert wove their work, he nonetheless attempts to follow in their footsteps. “New TV” is a brilliant satire of modern society (no matter where you plug it in, you won’t get any love from your new TV), while “Our Lady of the Highway” takes Marian devotion to Highway 61 – and includes a good chunk of quotation from the Magnificat. “Open Door” is reminiscent of something Rich Mullins might have written, an infinite riff on the Biblical image of Christ as the door to heaven. “Angels Unawares” discovers grace in the midst of humble earthy romance, and “Texas Farewell” includes some treats for C. S. Lewis fans (I’ll let you discover those for yourself).
It is encouraging to me that people such as Malcolm Guite manage to exist somehow in the modern world; it is encouraging to see someone daring to imagine things outside of both secular narrowness and its cloned Evangelical narrowness so often found in Christian singer/songwriters. It is encouraging to find someone who measures time by liturgical seasons and sings about nature, whiskey, and God like some kind of Johnny Cash turned celtic. And it is in the hope of encouraging others that I share his website.