Archive | March, 2011

Midpoint – Dante’s Inferno

6 Mar

So let’s start at the beginning. The beginning. Now where is that? There is always a before and always an after to the beginning. Every beginning starts in the middle of something – in medias res. For Dante, in medias res meant in the middle of a forest:

In the middle of our lives’ way,
I found myself in a Dark Wood
Where the straight way was lost

What kind of middle of the way is this where forward motion hits a dead end? Where life’s vital energies come to a terrifying standstill? Where every step you take could be your last step?

This is the midpoint.

The midpoint is a strange and uncanny place. It’s not the half-way mark on a straight, finite line. It’s not equidistant from the beginning and the end. No, it’s a sentiero interrupto, a path without issue. It’s a place where all footing is lost and where, if there is to be any resumption of motion, it will have to be on a different footing altogether. That’s what it means to begin in the middle of the way: to find a new footing and, in so doing, to undergo a turn, a swerve, rather than continue on the same rectilinear course.

The midpoint marks a turning point. Look! There is the mountain. There is the path that leads upwards to the light. But the way is blocked by those three Beasts. If you don’t turn yourself around at the midpoint, if you don’t turnaround the midpoint, you’ll stand there, petrified.

The midpoint crisis can happen anywhere along the way. It can occur any age in the life of an individual. Or at any stage in the history of a nation. The Civil War was one such midpoint in American History. Perhaps we are at another one now.

Most of us will not be lucky enough to avoid losing our way on a path without issue, at least once, either in our personal lives or as a citizen of a state. When it happened to Dante, when he found himself in a state of spiritual paralysis, he realized that he was not going to overcome his debilitation on his own, and that he was in need of help.

This was the turning point: His recognition that there was nothing he could do to help himself; that he depended on an act of grace – some intervention from the outside – to save him from his cardiac arrest and to put things back into motion again.

No experience reveals what it means to be human more decisively than being in need of help. “Desperately in need of some stranger’s hand.” And in Dante’s universe, only those who know how to appeal for help have a chance of receiving it. Dante’s conversion at the midpoint of the journey begins with a turn for help.

In Dante’s case, rescue came in the guise of a ghost: the shade of the Roman poet Virgil who had been dead for over thirteen hundred years. Appearing to him at the base of a mountain in Inferno I, Virgil tells Dante that if he wants to reach the summit of that mountain, the Mountain of Salvation, he will have to go down to the very bottom of the earth, the center of all gravity, and begins his climb from there. The only way up is down. You must convert your perspective such that what appears before to you as up, now appears as down and vice versa. Indeed, it is only by turning the whole world upside down or inside up that you can “break on through to the other side” and that “things will appear as they are: infinite.”

Marcel’s Madeleine (Excerpts from “How Marcel Proust Can Change Your Life”)

5 Mar

How to Open Your Eyes

The happiness that may emerge from taking a second look is central to Proust’s therapeutic conception. It reveals the extent to which our dissatisfaction may be the result of failing to look properly at our lives rather than the result of anything inherently deficient about them.

Here’s the famous madeleine passage:

No sooner had the warm liquid mixed with the crumbs touched my palate than a shiver ran through me and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary thing that was happening to me. An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, something isolated, detached, with no suggestion of its origin. And at once the vicissitudes of life had become indifferent to me, its disaster innocuous, its brevity illusory…. I had ceased now to feel mediocre, contingent, mortal.

By a quirk of physiology, a cake that has not crossed his lips since childhood, and therefore remains uncorrupted by later associations, has the ability to carry him back to Combray days, introducing him to a stream of rich and intimate memories… it isn’t his life that has been mediocre so much as the image of it he possessed in memory. Proust noted elsewhere:

The reason why life may be judged to be trivial although at certain moments it seems to us so beautiful is that we form our judgment, ordinarily, not on the evidence of life itself but of those quite different images, which preserve nothing of life – and therefore we judge it disparagingly.

Proust made the distinction between voluntary and involuntary memory:

Voluntary memory, the memory of the intellect and the eyes, [gives] us only imprecise facsimiles of the past which no more resemble it than pictures by bad painters resemble the spring…. So we don’t believe that life is beautiful because we don’t recall it, but if we get a whiff of a long-forgotten smell we are suddenly intoxicated, and similarly we think we no longer love the dead, because we don’t remember them, but if by chance we come across an old glove we burst into tears.

What separates involuntary and voluntary memory is both infinitesimal and critical. Before he tasted the legendary tea and madeleine, the narrator of “À la recherche du temps perdu” was not devoid of memories of his childhood. Yet the memories were lifeless because they lacked the equivalent of the touches of the good painter, the awareness of light falling across Combray’s central square in mid-afternoon, the smell of Aunt Leonie’s bedroom… – details that suggest it would be more accurate to describe the madeleine as provoking a moment of appreciation rather than recollection.

Why don’t we appreciate things more fully? The problem goes beyond inattention or laziness. It may also stem from insufficient exposure to images of beauty, which are close enough to our own world in order to guide and inspire us. Because of the speed of technological and architectural change, the world is liable to be full of scenes and objects that have not yet been transformed into appropriate images and may therefore make us nostalgic for another, now lost world, which is not inherently more beautiful but might seem so because it has already been widely depicted by those who open our eyes…[But] beauty is to something to be found, rather than passively encountered, that it requires us to pick up on certain details, to identify the whiteness of a cotton dress, the reflection of the sea on the hull of a yacht, or the contrast between the color of a jockey’s coat and his face.

The images with which we are surrounded are often not just out-of-date, they can also be unhelpfully ostentatious. When Proust urges us to evaluate the world properly, he repeatedly reminds us of the value of modest scenes:

True beauty is indeed the one thing incapable of answering the expectations of an over-romantic imagination…. What disappointments has it not caused since it first appeared to the mass of mankind! A woman goes to see a masterpiece of art as excitedly as if she was finishing a serial-story, or consulting a fortune teller or waiting for her lover. But she sees a man sitting meditating by the window, in a room where there is not much light. She waits for a moment in case something more may appear, as in a boulevard transparency. And though hypocrisy may seal her lips, she says in her heart of hearts: “What, is that all there is to Rembrandt’s Philosopher?”

However touching, this does sit somewhat uneasily with evidence that Proust himself had rather a taste for ostentation… the accusations run something like this: he had elaborate names in his address book, he went to the Ritz all the time, he went to many parties. Proust was ready with an honest answer. It was true, he had been attracted to the ostentatious life…however…Proust was disappointed by glamor when he found it.

[But] rather than ceasing to discriminate between people altogether, we may simply have to become better at doing so. The image of a refined aristocracy is not false, it is merely dangerously uncomplicated. There are of course superior people at large in the world, but it is optimistic to assume that they could be so conveniently located on the basis of their surname.

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