Eros, Dantesque and Freudian
From Paradiso by Dante Alighieri. Illustration by Gustave Doré, 1868
by William Flesch
When I was younger, in college and grad school, I’d read that someone my current age had won the lottery, and it just seemed so pointless. What would they do with twenty years of money coming in that could possibly make their, or anyone’s, life better? There they would be, beaming out of the front pages of the New York Post, their slovenly decrepitude accentuated by the big checks and grins so appropriately transfigured into the harsh half-tone dots of the giant photo.
This was part of a larger combination of fear and hope: fear for what I would be like at my current age, how I would cope with being this old, with having no prospects before me except the dead end one. Hope that by that time I would no longer be myself, but some other person, an older one, who could have nothing to do with the younger me. (Cf. Hazlitt’s Essay on the Principles of Human Action.) That unimaginable person really didn’t have to be imagined, since he’d be “one of them,” those others who belonged to a different time, to a different attitude towards time. I could see that I wasn’t one of them, part of that older generation.
At some point I really started liking, because it made life so much more luminous, books by the very old that were written in the voice of the young. In particular, as I’ve mentioned before, Norman Maclean’s Young Men and Fire, one of the four or five greatest non-fiction books I have ever read. I mention it here, because I think that’s when that category occurred to me. (I’d felt the same, I think, about Joseph Mitchell, though I didn’t quite put it to myself that way. And that’s the surprise in Proust too: the extreme old age of the narrator, which we discover only at the end.)
I think this seemed luminous to me because it meant the possibility of communication on equal terms with people much older than I was — it meant I could be friends with them. Those friendships, not many, but real friendships among equals, have mattered a great deal to me. Imperceptibly — with the same imperceptibility of time passing — I became aware that older generations were no different. They were neither more nor less insightful than we were. And I’d wanted them to be both.
What I had once imagined was that that difference would reside in a difference in what mattered to them. What matters to the old? Not the love that mattered to us. No: Cranky issues about health, money, rudeness, insult, etc., instead. That’s what I thought. So I was not that person, and my fear of becoming that person (as I have said) also brought the reassurance that that person would no longer be me.
But it turns out that (I began to discover from my conversations with my old friends) and is turning out that what matters all the way through is love. (“Love of the real,” the pretty old Stevens put it.) That was somehow Dante’s insight, and if Freud said the poets were there before him (did he? That’s for another post), then Dante did indeed anticipate Freud’s most important insight: that our involvement in the world is always driven by, always troubled by, always channeled through love.
That is becoming more and more to me to seem an amazing insight of Freud’s: the thing I could not bear to think — that the relation of the old to the world is the same as that of the young — turns out to be true. They love love-songs as much as ever. At this age, I’m glad it is; and it’s the reason that I’m glad it is. I love love-songs as much as ever.
This probably sounds more sentimental than I meant it to: it’s really Freud’s insight that’s been striking me. Dante’s version of it can be seen in these lines, I think:
Tu lascerai ogne cosa diletta
più caramente; e questo è quello strale
che l’arco de lo essilio pria saetta.
Tu proverai sì come sa di sale
lo pane altrui, e come è duro calle
lo scendere e ‘l salir per l’altrui scale.
You will abandon* all things whose delight
is dearest to you: this is the first arrow
that from the bow of exile takes its flight.
Thenceforth the taste of others’ bread will harrow
your tongue with salt, and you will have to labor
on others’ stairways, hard and steep and narrow.
[More literally: You will abandon* everything most dearly delightful: and this is that arrow which the bow of exile will first shoot. You will experience how salty is the savor of the bread of others, and how how hard a path is the descent and ascent on others' stairways.
*"lascerai," as in "Lasciate ogne speranza, voi ch'intrate": "Abandon all hope, you who enter here," inscribed on the gates of hell. Hope, yes, but not love.]
This is almost the exact center of Paradiso. Dante’s twelfth century ancestor, Cacciaguida, is prophesying his life back down on the farm, even after he’s seen Paradise. Now we know that love moves the sun and other stars in Dante, but the thing that’s deepest, that always deepest, is not the love of God (everyone since Plotinus or Plato knows about that) but the love of matter (Philip Pullman) and the material world that represents something different from the love of God.
Where Dante seems to anticipate Freud is the idea that everything is driven by love. Love isn’t one principle among others: it’s the principle. And the wrong way to read this (the sentimental way I was trying to abjure), is as the apotheosis of love. (It occurs to me that this fits in with stuff I’ve written about the personification of love, in this article on Love as the Burning Boy, for example.) Love belongs to all: no less to those in the Inferno who love their sins than to those in the highest reaches of Paradise who love their inscrutable God. Yes, those in the Inferno love God too: the point is that even there, everywhere, everyone loves. Love’s not an apotheosis because it makes no moral distinctions: the fact that you love isn’t a saving feature about you.
Not in real life, anyhow. It is saving as a literary fact: Gatsby and Ugolino alike are great because they love. That’s what I like about it: it’s a literary virtue, a virtue in fiction. That’s why it’s not an apotheosis, as Dante and Freud both see.
So Cacciaguida’s speech has always struck me as amazing because of the way it sends Dante back to real life: the exile in which he’s writing this poem. Here he’s been in Paradise, and he ‘s been promised that that’s where he’ll return. But what presses upon him, more grim than any Purgatory, is exile in this world. Even in a world with heaven to follow, maybe particularly in a world with heaven to follow, the stops are more poignant than endings.
In our lives, this world is all you get, and its vicissitudes, even terrible ones like exile, are just part of what life is. But in a universe with an eternal afterlife in prospect — I think this is what’s so amazing about Dante — this life, this brief vigil of the senses — is all the more precious, since all the rest of it won’t be on this earth which is the only place for earthly love, the love that is not apotheosis but fictional (sub specie aeternitatis). Love up there will be completely secure. But that won’t be human experience any more. The love that is human experience, the earthly love that is the totality of being human, for as long and only for as long as we are human: Earth’s, if not the right, at least the only place for that. And Dante, like Freud, sees it as the totally of human experience.
The distinction I used to make, between my adolescent concerns for love and the old folks’ different ways of being, becomes in Dante a distinction between the real and mortal love of this life, from first to last, young and old, and whatever transcends, and so fails to belong to, this life. That other love, which moves the sun and other stars, will come when it comes. But it makes our precarious and mortal love, our precarious and mortal relation to the world, all the more its own, all the more what it means to be in the world, all one’s life. All one’s life.
That other world is the Truth, and therefore can have nothing to do with the fictional, unreal, real world (whose substance is cathexis alone) which is the only world we live in, and which is utterly and irretrievably bounded and limited by the truth it does not belong to, as all fictions are utterly and irretrievably bounded and limited by the truth to which they do not belong. The sublunary world we live in, our world, is only here, and being in it is being with what we can only love here, and what we do love here. That’s how Dante anticipated Freud.
Piece originally published at Arcade |