Tuesday, November 21, 2017

On the books I kept

You shall know me by the books I kept.

I realise that it is a romantic and questionable notion, applying only to some people and in limited ways. But I live by the example of my parents, for whom books and reading were tools of emancipation. For my mother, who responded so well to the first books she encountered as a child that she was allowed to attend high school. Later, after the war, this enabled her to go to university in a big city, instead of staying and becoming a teacher in her rural community, as her parents had planned. And for my father, who had to leave school at fourteen to work full time in his family’s upholstery workshop, but who made up for his lack of formal education by reading widely and voraciously, including in the subjects of my mother’s long and laborious tertiary studies.

For a time, in fact, it was my father who did all the reading. My mother’s eyesight became quite poor as she embarked upon her final exams and her dissertation, just before I was born. Therefore he read the necessary textbooks to her, teaching himself a great deal in the process about Greek and medieval philosophy, as well as Roman history and the Latin language.

I grew up in a house full of books. They weren’t just any books – are they ever? – but rather a specific collection that mapped the history of my parents’ intellectual development and their relationship. I only became aware of this much later.

Growing up in that small apartment crammed with bookshelves, I developed the habit of reading anything that came to hand. For me, it was a perfectly natural thing to do, to read a Russian or French novel in translation simply because it was within reach, or had an attractive cover, even if it spoke of things I couldn’t really understand, or was full of names I couldn’t sound out.

Frequently a visitor would quip that we sure had a lot of books. Still, I  assumed everyone lived in a library like we did, even when we visited other houses and I saw that they didn’t.

Over time I built my own, considerably smaller library, which I largely dismantled before moving from Italy to New Zealand. But I didn’t pine too much for the loss, as I knew I would have time to build another. Gradually, however, I became aware of the problems my parents’ library would pose. After Dad died and Mum moved into a rest home back in the old village, things came to a head. How many books would she be allowed to take? The people at the home promised a couple of shelves in a communal area, and limited space in her room. This wasn’t an issue they had ever come across before – not in the place she had left seven decades earlier in no small part because it didn’t value education or cultivate curiosity for things beyond local knowledge.

After some negotiation, we settled on fifty books.

Fifty books. So few. I went up and down ladders, read out the titles to her. Almost every single one brought up a memory, some of them involving my father, or my sister, or an old friendship, or an exam. That library was, if not quite the story, at least a story of her life. We spent hours on this job on successive nights, neglecting others that might have seemed far more urgent in the short time allowed for packing up the apartment during my overseas visit.

The first selection was heartbreaking. Mum could barely let go of one book in ten out of the thousands she owned. But I understood that it was part of the process, a gradual coming to terms. We revised the list, once and then twice. Settled on what needed to go in that almost fateful box.

They are my books now. Mine and my sister’s. There was nothing we could do with the bulk of the library, no-one we could even donate it to; there is no longer a market in Italy for second-hand books that aren’t rare or antique. They are objects of no cultural or monetary worth. Most of them had to be destroyed.But I treasure the few I possess, as relics both of my early education and of the values and ideas that my parents shared and endeavoured to transmit to us.


You shall know me by the books I kept.

I know it is a false statement; there is so much it leaves unsaid and unquestioned. But while books are still material objects, as opposed to sequences of digital code, and while they occupy space in our homes and encumber our lives, I know it also contains a grain of truth. That we are in conversation with our books. That they help to define who we are, like other aspects of our taste and our style. Or like the people we love.

This was my column for this year’s Winter issue of Overland, which is having its subscription drive this week with daily prizes. Subscribe to Overland. Don’t do it to support a worthy publication and good writing, do it because it’s a great thing to get in the mail four times a year.

Also, in the latest issue I have a long piece on the invention of dynamite and the prehistory of the war on terror and it’s now online.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Inside the Personal Computer

The inside of a computer looks a bit like a city, its memory banks and I/O devices rising like buildings over the avenues of soldered circuits. But then so do modern cities resembles motherboards, especially at night, when the cars sparkle like point-to-point signal carriers travelling along the grid. It is a well-worn visual metaphor in films and advertising, suggesting that the nerve centres of business and finance have come to resemble the information infrastructure that sustains them. Besides, isn’t the city at the sharp edge of the late capitalist era above all a generator of symbols?

And yet this technology with which we are so intimate, and that more than any other since the invention of writing has extended us, remains mostly opaque to us. Why would anyone bother to learn what digital machines look like on the inside? What difference would it make, when the uses we make of them are so incommensurate with this trivial knowledge?

I like pop-up books, and early pop-up books about the inner workings of computers have become obsolete in an interesting way. They are the last thing we would think to use to demonstrate such knowledge nowadays. They are so prone to jamming or coming apart. They have none of the grace and smoothness that our devices aspire to.

The centre piece of Sharon Gallagher’s Inside the Personal Computer – An illustrated Introduction in 3 Dimensions (1984) is the machine itself, complete with keyboard and floppy disk drive.

If you push the disk inside its unit and lower the flap, a Roman blind-like mechanism changes the message on the screen from INSERT DISK AND CLOSE DOWN to HELLO: THIS BOOK EXPLAINS WHAT I AM AND HOW I WORK. BY THE END YOU’LL KNOW ME INSIDE OUT.

It’s a neat trick. But the book is at its best when it gets into the basics of how transistors work, or uses wheels to explain how to translate a number into binary code, or a typed character first into ASCII, then into its binary equivalent.

Or simply what happens when you type “M”.

There is the mechanical action that alienates us from the digital word. Writing technologized language but still allowed us to write in our own hand, whereas there is simply no way of typing gracefully. Any M is like any other M, and even if we choose a fancy font the translation from the essential M (ASCII code 77) to the fancy M happens inside the computer and in code. This is not a ‘bad thing’. It’s just the state of the tools of our culture, which require a different kind of practice.

The other thing that this book makes clear is that the personal computer hasn’t changed very much at all since 1984. Its component parts are largely unchanged: a motherboard, a central processing unit, RAM and ROM, I/O ports. Floppy disks have become USB sticks, while hard drives – which boasted at the time ‘between 5 and 50 megabytes of information – the equivalent of between 3,000 and 30,000 typewritten pages' – have fewer moving parts. But their function is the same as in the early models. Ditto the monitors, which have become flatter, and in colour. Even the mouse already existed, although back then its name still commanded inverted commas. Today’s computers, then, are a great deal more powerful, but otherwise fairly similar to what they were like three and a half decades ago. What makes them unrecognisable is that they’re all connected. And for that – for the internet – it makes even less sense to ‘take a look inside’. Inside what? Does the internet reside in the telephone exchange, or at the headquarters of ICANN, or where else?

The inside of a computer looks a bit like a city, but it’s an alien city. None of its buildings have doors or windows. The roads are made not of stone or asphalt but of plastic and metal.

The pictures above, by the way, show the guts of mine, which I recently upgraded. It’s what I used to write this blog and everything else from 2010 to June of this year, but I feel no attachment to it – it would be silly to.

There are guides on the web to help you mine your old computer for gold using household chemicals. They come with bold type warnings about how toxic the process is. But in fact computers are both hazardous to manufacture and to dismantle. Waste materials from all the PCs and assorted electronic devices discarded since 1984 have created massively polluted districts and cities in the global south. Places like the Agbogbloshie district of Accra, Ghana, and countless others. Vast dumping sites that are mined for scraps of precious metals as much as for the personal information left onto the hard drives, while leeching chemicals into the local water supply.

This would be a more meaningful inside in which to peer if we want to understand how computers work, and their effect on the world’s societies. One effect of globalisation has been to displace human labour. Not eliminate it, far from it, but rather create the illusion in the most advanced nations that manufacturing jobs have disappeared, and meaningful work consists in either farming the land or providing services. Automation has claimed many of those jobs, of course, but other have simply shifted away from the centres where most of the consumption takes place. This is another way in which the computer has become a mysterious machine: because no-one you know makes them.

Inside the Personal Computer was written 33 years ago in an effort to demystify an object that would soon become a feature in every household, and change everyone’s life. On the last page, it is no longer the book that ‘speaks’ to the reader, like in the first pop up, but the computer itself. Its message is perfectly friendly but in hindsight more than a little eerie.

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Inferno XIV: Horrible justice

The full text of the canto in Italian/English

The giant lies on a bed of fiery sand, and barely seems to notice the lightning bolts that are raining upon him. Dante calls him quel grande, ‘that great one’, a qualifier that William Blake took to indicate physical as opposed to moral stature. It could have gone either way, really. For mythology dictates that Capaneus – one of the seven kings of Thebes – was both a man of indomitable spirit and enormous size.

Dante and Virgil have come to the third rung of the fifth circle of Hell, out of the forest of the suicides and to the edge of a desert where fire rains as thick and steady as snow in on a mountain on a day with no wind. This is di giustizia orribil arte, a horrible form of justice. The damned are naked – though in fact they all are, throughout Hell, it’s mentioned here just to emphasise the punishment – and react to the torment in different ways. Some crouch, some lie face down, some stomp around in a vain attempt to extinguish the flames. But not Capaneus. He lies still, disdainful, refusing to show any outward sign of pain. And when he boasts that an army of cyclops churning bolts out of the furnace of Mount Etna for Zeus to throw at him would not be sufficient to give to his enemy the satisfaction of seeing him squirm, Virgil retorts that this is the true nature of his punishment: not just suffering through an eternity of physical agony but also being consumed by that anger without outlets, save for this once in a death-time encounter with the unlikely traveller.

Di giustizia orribil arte. This is the essence of the Inferno and of its catalogue of punishments, which have to be borrowed from ancient literature because there is no explicit mention of Hell – let alone a detailed description – in either the Old or the New Testament. Although its roots date back to Augustine, Hell is a medieval invention: the distorted mirror, perhaps, to ordinary life for the majority of people. That ‘horrible justice’ warps the image of the merciful Christian God into an architect of infinite torture chambers. (Remember: in Dante’s vision, Satan is not the administrator of Hell, but its chief prisoner.)

We were taught about these things at high school. Our school had circles, too, and it too was upside down: in the sense that it started hard, and it finished easy. In the first two years, it separated the worthy from the unworthy. Of our intake of thirty-three, nine survived unscathed at the end of the first year. Nine were held back. The remainder had to set a varying number of remedial exams (call it Purgatory), which some failed so they were held back after ruining their summer holidays. The main rituals of school were the written and oral tests, both scheduled and unscheduled. The oral ones we called ‘interrogations’. They could happen at virtually any time, and its subjects were chosen via lotteries designed by the teachers which were sometimes so elaborate as to resemble the ancient art of the Kabbalah.

At the end of the first year, I was deemed one of the worthy ones. But only just. And on the last day our maths teacher warned me: study as if you had to sit a remedial exam, for I’ll test you as soon as school comes back. Which, naturally I didn’t. And so, on the first day we had maths after the summer holidays – I swear this is true – our teacher came into the classroom, put her book down, didn’t say hello, but rather: “Mr Tiso, please come to the blackboard.” Thus, I spent the remainder of that year trying to climb back the mountain of that failed mark. Another pilgrim’s progress.

By the time we covered Dante – from the third year to the fifth – the terror had abated somewhat. All of the unworthy (at least in the eyes of the school system) had been weeded out, and the subjects became easier. Not relative to the supposedly superior intellect and work ethics of the survivors, you understand, but in terms of the actual curriculum and the pace at which it was taught. The school’s brand of justice became a little less horrible, although in most respects it remained just as arbitrary and opaque.

This was the context of our Dante: a block of knowledge that sat on top and next to the others in the strange edifice we were intent on building. Just as in the study of history, philosophy and the rest of literature we were moving into the modern era – there to meet with the hard sciences we had been studying since the first year – in that weekly hour or two we returned to the Middle Ages.

It wasn’t an unpleasant detour, far from it. I think most of us rather enjoyed it. But all our subjects were compulsory, and we were never invited to question or reflect on the underlying logic. What was the theory of education that led to three years of close readings of the Divine Comedy alongside the study of Latin, algebra or physics? What sense were we supposed to make of all that knowledge, and whom was it supposed to turn us into?

Whilst continuing to walk alongside the great ring, between the forest and the sandy terrain on which the rain of fire falls, Dante and Virgil come to a stream of putrid red water. Why had they not crossed it before, and where does it come from, asks Dante to his guide. Virgil explains that their counter-clockwise trajectory down the pit of Hell hasn’t quite spanned the whole circumference yet. He then answers the second question: in the middle of the sea (ie the Mediterranean, the only sea that Dante knew) there is a paese guasto – a country in ruin – by the name of Crete, and on that island there’s a mountain, and inside that mountain there is the colossal statue of an old man, with his back on Egypt and the eyes bent toward Rome. His head is made of gold, his chest and arms of silver, his belly of copper, his leg and his left foot of iron, while the right foot – on which the statue leans – is made of clay. There is a crack running down the statue, from which a stream of tears springs. And these tears, which pool at the bottom of the hollow mountain, are the source of all of the rivers of Hell – Acheron, Styx and Phlegethon – as well as the stream to which the two poets have come.

For once, this is a biblical story: it is told in the book of Daniel, in the form of a dream of the king of Babylon’s, Nebuchadnezzar. Except his statue had both feet of clay, not just one (from which we get the expression ‘a giant with feet of clay’). The various materials of which the colossus is made are meant to represent the ages of humanity, and its progressive moral decay. What the allegory meant for Dante is not conclusively clear, though it is regarded as probable that the foot of clay represents the Papacy, the foot of iron the emperor: one weaker, but more heavily leaned on; the other stronger, but less relied upon.

For us, the giant is a mystery. For Dante, it was an explanation. For his world made a kind of sense that ours doesn’t, and never will again.


Previously: Inferno I, II, III, IV, V, VI, VII, VIII, IX, X, XI, XII, XIII.

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Inferno XIII: The forest of the things that aren't

Of all the cantos, this may be the saddest. Nowhere else does the worldview of the poet – which reflected the most enlightened thinking of his time, at least among Christians – seem more warped and distant. Hanging over it are all the innumerable personal stories lost to history of people whose mental illness was viewed by society as a sin.

George Grosz, Trees at Wellfleet, Cape Cod, Massachusetts (1946)

Having crossed the river of boiling blood that delimits the first level of the fifth circle, Dante and Virgil have come to the edge of a wood che da neun sentiero era segnato – that paths, it had none. This is the beginning of a description through negatives. You know the forests that surround Cecina and Tarquinia – asks the poet – where only the wild boars roam? Well, this one was nothing like that. And then:

Non fronda verde, ma di color fosco;
non rami schietti, ma nodosi e ’nvolti;
non pomi v’eran, ma stecchi con tòsco.

Per Longfellow: not foliage green, but of a dusky colour; not branches smooth, but gnarled and intertangled; not apple-trees were there, but thorns with poison.

This is the forest of the things that aren’t. And so even its sole apparent living inhabitants – the harpies that nest among the trees – are not described and perhaps not even seen by Dante, but recalled from the relevant passage in Virgil’s Aeneid, safe for remarking that fanno lamenti in su li alberi strani: literally ‘they make laments up in the trees strange’, where strange could refer either to the trees or the laments.

However, what Dante hears as the pair ventures into the pathless wood are definitely human voices.

Io sentia d’ogne parte trarre guai
e non vedea persona che ’l facesse;

‘I heard on all sides lamentations uttered and person none beheld I who might make them.’ The absence now is the absence of human forms, from which the reader would quickly deduce that we’re in the presence of a very ancient trope, that of people turned into trees. But Dante – the great scholar of classical literature who thinks or pretends to think that his journey is not occurring in a book – appears blind to this most obvious of foreshadowings. Or does he? The next line is delicious.

Cred’ïo ch’ei credette ch’io credesse…
I thought he thought I thought…

So, to try to explain: Dante was standing in the forest, listening to voices of uncertain provenance, and (at the time of writing) he recalls thinking that Virgil might have been thinking that he (Dante) might have been thinking that people might be hiding among the trees. The implication of the line is that he didn’t in fact think that, but had figured that the voices were coming directly from the trees. So, when Virgil instructs him to break a twig off one of the trees, believing that he would not be believed if he just told him the truth, Dante plays along, but knowing that he would likely be causing pain to what is left of a person.

Therefore, he puts his hand forward, and gently plucks the thinnest of branches. To which a voice replies: Perché mi schiante (why do you break me?) and quickly again Perché mi scerpi (why do you tear me?). Maybe these tree-people are highly sensitive to pain. Or maybe this tree-person – one Piero della Vigna – is reacting so violently because he knows that the injury, however slight, was quite needless; that it was all a narrative pretext to get the action going.

For the trees cannot speak unless they are being attacked in that way. It is the Harpies which, by feeding on the leaves, fanno dolore, e al dolor fenestra – ‘create pain, and a window to pain’.

It is a recurring question in the Inferno, whether for the spirits to talk to Dante is a form of torment or temporary reprieve. What he has to offer to them, in most cases – as he does to Piero – is the promise to speak of them to the living. And in fact, little would be known of this disgraced counsellor to emperor Frederick II, were it not for the Commedia. But remember the words of Francesca in the fifth canto: Nessun maggior dolore che ricordarsi del tempo felice ne la miseria. There is no greater pain that to think back on one’s happiness in a time of misery. And time, for the damned, stretches like a Mobius Strip: circular, eternal, always folding upon itself, always taking them back to the time of their personal Fall. To speak therefore is to feel pain and in this forest it is only through pain that the spirits can speak.

The second level of the fifth circle is reserved to suicides (and gamblers, which I won’t get into except to say their fate is to be hunted by dogs through the thick woods). It is lower than the first level, because for medieval theological ethics to cause harm upon oneself was worse than to cause harm to others. To take someone’s life is a crime against that person, and to the laws of God. But to take one’s own is a crime against nature, therefore directly against its creator. And God, who is omnipotent and cannot be harmed, nevertheless takes all offences against His divine person very seriously. Therefore, the mere murderers are upstairs, whereas those that squandered their own life or their own fortune are down here, and subject to an even more exquisite torment than being turned forever into ragout.

Remember: to suffer from what we would call depression, the Romantics called melancholy and medieval Christians called sloth, was also a deadly sin, and for similar reasons: to negate the beauty of life and creation was regarded as an affront to God. We already found the souls of the slothful who stopped short of suicide along with the souls of the violent who stopped short of murder, submerged in the murky waters of the Styx. Murderers and suicides similarly go together.

We can, I hope, reject outright these archaic notions. But as well as reaffirming this ethical system as it applies to the dead, the canto hints at its likely social consequences for the living. For while Piero’s speech is dignified and moves Dante to pity, the poet’s imagery – for which there is no known theological source – is merciless. In the end of ends, Piero explains, when all the spirits of Hell are reunited to their bodies after the Judgment, the suicides will be condemned instead to hang theirs from these branches: as a lifeless simulacrum and eternal reminder of the life that they rejected.

It’s hard to read these lines today without thinking of Billie Holiday and Strange Fruit, but those are historical contexts that resist comparison. What reading a medieval poem can also be good for, however, is to remind us that the stigma of mental illness has roots that reach very deep into our culture.

Previously: Inferno I, II, III, IV, V, VI, VII, VIII, IX, X, XI, XII.

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Inferno XII: Of false cows and rivers of blood

The Lavini di Marco (literally ‘slides of Mark’) are blocks of limestone created by prehistoric landslides and criss-crossed by the footprints of various species of dinosaurs. They are mentioned in a treatise by the late medieval scholar Albertus Magnus – who thought them to be of much more recent origin – and can be spotted today while driving along the Modena-Brennero motorway, near Rovereto, at the foot of the Italian Dolomites. Dante is unlikely to have visited them, but he read Albertus Magnus’ De meteoris (which is concerned with the weather and earthquakes, as opposed to meteorites) and uses the Lavini to describe the landscape of Hell. Or, more precisely, the steep rocky terrain that Dante and Virgil have to cross in order to descend into the seventh circle.

Image source
Hell is a place on earth, and places on earth resemble Hell. Few of Dante’s contemporary readers would have had the opportunity to visit the Lavini, so in all likelihood the reference is of a literary nature, aiming at readers of Albertus Magnus. In this and in other details, the Commedia appears to be written for an audience of Dante’s peers: fellow men of letters who took an active interest in political life, versed in classical sources and Christian theology and familiar with the Who’s Who of thirteenth-century Italy. Yet Dante also dared to imagine that the poem would be a future classic, written in a new language – the language of ordinary people – and building upon the towering learning of previous ages. Thus the references in the poem are like geological layers, each built on the existing bedrock of facts and stories slowly accreted before Dante’s time. And the Commedia itself is an ark or storehouse of the knowledge accumulated up to the time of its production.

The Western tradition up to the two centuries immediately before the Christian reformation was a system of beliefs with an absolute claim to universality. Dante would not have conceived that this knowledge could ever be departed from. He didn’t know about the dinosaurs that left their mark on the limestone of the Lavini di Marco, and would have struggled to expand his stories to incorporate those monsters. Virtually all of the scientific knowledge of our time contradicts the foundations of his worldview, and he would barely recognise Catholicism itself. Yet the book survives, like the encyclopaedia of a dead world imagined by Borges.

However, this is not the book that Dante wrote. It can’t be. He wrote it for other thirteenth-century Christians who believed in the same natural world as he did. A world with ice in the middle, cored by the cone-shaped Hell, with a Southern (or ‘bottom’) hemisphere full of nothing but water except for the mountain-island of Purgatory. The book we read is a different book because we live in a different world. Only the words stay the same.

Dante’s intended reader commanded the knowledge of his time and needed few words to be reminded of the well-worn stories of that shared imaginary. Twelve lines into this canto, for instance, we come across l’infamia di Creti… che fu concetta ne la falsa vacca – the infamy of Crete, who was conceived inside the false cow. This is the Minotaur, the part-bull, part-man monster whose origin story – as told by Ovid – is as follows: having gifted a magnificent white bull to Minos, king of Crete, as a sign of his favour, the god Poseidon expected that Minos in turn would sacrifice it to him. But the sacrifice never came. Poseidon therefore cursed Minos’ wife Pasiphaë, causing her to fall madly in love with the bull. In order to consummate this love, Pasiphaë asked Daedalus to build a wooden cow for her to hide inside, and presented it to the bull (as it were). From this union came the Minotaur, a monster child with the head of a bull whom Pasiphaë tried in vain to nurse, for the child’s only sustenance was human flesh. After seeking advice from the oracle at Delphi, Minos asked Daedalus to build a labyrinth in which to imprison the Minotaur in his palace at Knossos. At this time, Crete was at war with Athens, and for every battle won Minos would exact a tribute of young men and women to the feed to the monster. Finally Theseus, son of the king of Athens, volunteered to be one of the sacrifices, slayed the Minotaur and found his way out of the labyrinth thanks to the thread gifted to him by the Minotaur’s half-sister, Ariadne.

All of this, the model reader of the Commedia would recall by a mere mention of the infamy of Crete and a false cow. Funnily enough, however, Dante seems to get the Minotaur the wrong way around: not a fearsome man with the head of bull – as is represented in all of the classical iconography – but a bull with the head and possibly the torso of a human, similar to a centaur. This reminds us that his sources were not the ancient statues or the pictures on black figure pottery, but books with few or now illustrations. Whereas we, who know about the dinosaurs and that the earth revolves around the Sun and all the other things, can instantly call up hundreds of visual sources to test and if necessary contradict the poem. This is another of the paradoxes of the Commedia: that a book that produced and continues to produce so many images was written by a man who lived in a world were pictorial representations were almost incomprehensibly scarce.

Image source
How’s this for a picture: this is the canto of the river of boiling blood, in which those who committed violent acts against others are left to cook, each at a depth commensurate to the gravity of their crimes. So the tyrants are almost completely submerged – all that sticks out is the hair – whereas common highway robbers are soaked merely to the ankles. This is a purely visual scene: gone is the stench that overpowered Virgil and Dante before they came down the landslide, forcing them to repair behind a block of marble. Or rather, it’s not gone but it no longer rates a mention. From now on, as the horrors of the lower Hell pile upon one another, Dante will tell us of the things he has seen.

Previously: Inferno I, II, III, IV, V, VI, VII, VIII, IX, X, XI.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Inferno XI: The geography of crime and punishment

Hell is a place on Earth. And although it is inhabited by spirits that are non-corporeal, they too will be reunited with their bodies after the Day of Judgment – whereupon they shall have to endure a second eternity, longer than the first, except now they’ll be endowed with an even greater capacity to feel pain, and even less hope of future relief. A sentence, mind you, that can never be served in full: for the debt is not to society, but to God.

The Divine Comedy is a poem about crime and punishment, as well as virtue and reward. God’s justice consists in punishing the dead in order to educate the living, and its geography recalls a concentrationary universe as opposed to a prison system, precisely because it does not allow for rehabilitation or redemption.

The eleventh canto of the Inferno, like the third, is devoid of action or movement, and takes the form of a discussion between its leading actors – or more precisely a lecture by Virgil to Dante – concerning the geography of Hell: that is to say its spatial organisation, which is highly symbolic and allegorical but nonetheless also concrete and physical. For Hell is a place on Earth. And to remind us of this earthly nature is the setting of the conversation: for the two poets, having walked away from the open graves in which the Epicureans are crammed by their thousands, are now standing behind the upturned stone of the tomb of another heretic – an early medieval Pope by the name of Anastasius – to seek protection from a prodigious stench. ‘We had better delay our descent,’ proposes Virgil, ‘to give time to our senses to get used to the tristo fiato’, the ‘doleful breath’ emanating from the depths of Hell.

This stench is another mix of body and spirit: as much physical (there are rivers of boiling blood just below) as it is moral. The three lowest circles of Hell are where the violent spirits are housed. This violence includes not just physical assaults but also theft, robber, deception and fraud: anything that causes injury, whether to people or their possessions, or to the self (suicide, gambling), or to God – which includes blasphemy, of course, but also subverting the order of nature. So, not only sodomy (as we might expect) but also usury. For – as Virgil explains to Dante, who questioned him on this particular placement – the worldly labour of humans (be they farmers of tradespeople) mirrors the celestial work of God, and is thus descended from it, whereas trying to get monetary wealth to reproduce itself, without labour, perverts the purpose of creation.

I’m not going to attempt to discuss here the minutiae of Dante’s penal code, with its synthesis of Aristotelean ethics and Christian theology. This is the Comedy at its most obscure, opaque and ultimately distant to the modern reader – so much so that not even the Italian school system, with its passion for testing students on arcane knowledge, expected us to seriously delve into Virgil’s dissertation. Besides, there will be further opportunities to go over the catalogue of the damned in some detail, for the last three circles span the remaining 23 cantos of the Inferno. As the upside-down cone of Hell narrows down, the poem will progressively expand.

For now, I just want to hint at this geography, and at its double nature – both actual and symbolic, both physical and metaphysical – because reading the Comedy is also a journey into understanding how these categories operated in the psyche of medieval Europeans. To repeat a point I’ve already made and will continue to make in this series of posts: Dante knew the things he imagined to be true.

And then those things had to be represented, that is to say reimagined. From the crude, naïve schematism of Priamo della Quercia, the miniaturist who illustrated the poem a little over a century after Dante’s death (and who hear compresses the entire contents of this canto, including a spurious Pope Anastasius, whose spirits does not in fact appear).

Through the expressionistic and already modern map that Sandro Botticelli drew for an edition commissioned to him by Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de' Medici and completed around the year 1500.

Via William Blake.

Down to the present day textbook diagrams

and the infographics

Click here for the full-size image

Click here for the full-size image

or the printable study posters.


The history of these representations is also a history of the readings of Dante and of the uses of the comedy – from quasi-sacred poem to text you have to study in order to demonstrate competence at school, and that some read for pleasure.

This very limited gallery shows how Botticelli’s extraordinary cross-section map is still the dominant model for thinking of the Inferno. This seminal illustration has become the subject of a documentary released in Italy and Germany last year, which I wish I had an opportunity to see but so far has not been screened in this country. So the best I can do is to point you to the highest resolution image I could find, so you can pore over the details if you wish. For the record, we are roughly here, at the edge of the living cemetery of the heretics, under the flaming walls and towers of the city of the Dis. Midway down Botticelli’s map.

All of these pictures fuse the mental structure of the poem with the physical shape of Hell, which is appropriate since in Dante’s imagination they were one and the same. The Comedy is both fantasy and vision, both poem and prophecy. And for the justice it describes to be realised, the reader must believe that its punishments are real. Hell is a place on Earth.

Previously: Inferno I, II, III, IV, V, VI, VII, VIII, IX, X.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Inferno X: The circle of me

In 1985, just as I enrolled at high school, the new law on the teaching of religion came into effect. Instruction in the history and practice of Catholicism had been part of the compulsory state curriculum since the Lateran Treaty signed by Mussolini and Pope Pius XI in 1929. Now as before, every state school would have to offer an hour per week of the stuff, under the supervision of a teacher nominated by the local dioceses. However, the process of opting out had been simplified. During our first year, in my class of 33, only two students chose to sit it out, of which I was one. That number may have risen by one or two units – if that – by the time we entered the third year, when we began studying the Divine Comedy. The alternative to the teaching of religion was… nothing. By law, schools were not allowed to dismiss students early or let them start late, so we had to remain in the building. But there were no replacement activities or teachings. We just spent an hour in an empty classroom.

Picture the breakfast club, but for atheists.

Individual reasons for not opting out of what we called ‘the hour of religion’ might have been complex, so one shouldn’t read too much into those numbers: I suspect social anxiety played as big a part in the decision as the strength of a family’s Christian faith. All the same, when it came to Dante, our teacher could rely on the fact that he was presenting the poem to a class that by a very large majority identified as Catholic. Albeit Catholics of a different era.

The sixth circle of Hell is where the heretics dwell. They were introduced at the end of the ninth canto as a vast population of souls twice dead, sentenced – that is – to spend eternity in a cemetery of open graves – some of which, though not all, are on fire. And since this cemetery is encircled by walls, like a city, Dante told us specifically to think of contemporary examples, such as the still surviving cemetery of Arles. The famous Alyscamps, pictured above.

The scene, then, is that of a necropolis, or city of the dead. But the contrappasso only makes sense for a specific subset of heretics: namely, atheists. The taxonomy is somewhat questionable, seeing as members of different contemporary religions don’t count for Dante as either unbelievers or heretics (remember how he placed a number of famous Muslims as well as ancient Pagans in a rather heaven-like region of limbo?). But the atheists are here, including Epicurus – who lived three centuries before Christ, hence could have been grouped with Pagans and more specifically with the eminent Greek philosophers of limbo – because those who l’anima col corpo morta fanno, ie believe that the soul perishes at the same time as the body, commit an actual sin. And a mortal one at that.

Thus the contrappasso of atheists is to ‘live’ (to exist, to think, to feel) forever as dead people. Or at least until Judgment Day, when the open tombs will be sealed, presumably with their regained bodies inside, but – also presumably – there to continue to suffer in the knowledge that others would enjoy eternal life in the timeless post-apocalyptic universe.

Back to our room (nearly) full of sixteen year old Catholics, where I was being taught these lines, it occurs to me now that had we believed those scenarios to be literal – as some young men and women of Dante’s age would have, or might have – then the vast majority of the class could have pointed its collective finger at the three or four of us who opted out of the weekly religion hour and declared: ‘There. This is where you’ll end up.’ And maybe I did think it, something along the lines of: this is my circle. The circle of me.

But my friends and I were not written into the canto. Frederick II was – he, who my mother venerated precisely because he had tried to make knowledge, and not religion, the business of the state; he who built, among many other things, the incomparable Castel del Monte.

Here is also a Cardinal, Ottaviano degli Ubaldini, because making open professions of atheism didn’t disqualify one from highest ranks of the Catholic hierarchy at a time when the power wielded by Cardinals was above all temporal and political. Here is also – and I mean quite literally, all these souls and a thousand others are crammed into a single grave – Cavalcante de’ Cavalcanti, father of Guido, a great poet and great friend of Dante, who feverishly asks the pilgrim if his son still lives. For that is the second part of the punishment: the souls of the atheists, along with some others in the great prison system of the Inferno, can see some way into the future, but not the present, like old people whose sight and whose memory can only focus on distant things. They, the Epicureans, who when they lived, lived only for the present moment.

However, the tenth canto is above all the canto of Farinata degli Uberti, the great Florentine Ghibelline (to simplify: supporter of the Holy Roman Emperor, that is to say first Frederick II, then his illegitimate son Manfred, King of Sicily, as he vied for the succession), who triumphed at Montaperti against the Guelphs of Florence and, at the great council of Empoli, cast the deciding vote against those who wanted to destroy the city; and who yet, after Manfred’s death and the rise of the Guelphs, was exhumed from the grave where he had spent the previous two decades and summarily thrown into the Arno, while two of his living sons were beheaded in the public square (a macabre feast to which Dante would have been a spectator, as a young man, long before his own disgrace and exile), and three more were burned at the stake, along with his widow Adaletta. His family’s palace, then destroyed, lies under the paving stones of what is now Piazza della Signoria.

Dante and Farinata, members of feuding families – though the Ubertis were of far higher rank and importance than the Alighieris – engage in this canto in one of literature’s great dialogues. Farinata, who is disdainful of Hell and of his fate, is still somehow defiant, yet humbles himself to ask why the Florentines of Dante’s generation hate his family with such ferocity. Dante, who is desperate to hear a prophecy of his own future, is also moved by compassion for the fallen enemy and his butchered progeny. It’s a great dramatic conversation, a piece of theatre. But, as always, it must end swiftly. And, as if to undercut the parole conte – the high, ornate words thatVirgil counselled Dante to use when addressing Farinata – the two proceed to the edge of the next circle, and are immediately overcome by its stench.

So there’s something to look forward to for next time.

Previously: Inferno I, II, III, IV, V, VI, VII, VIII, IX.

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Inferno IX: God is late

God is late. And because of the lateness of God, the poet and his guide are left outside the walls of the city of Dis, stranded and worried that the divine help will never come.

Remember, the army of demons that guards the iron-walled city had closed its doors on Virgil’s face. Up to this point, whenever they encountered a roadblock, all he had to say was Vuolsi così colà…, a formula roughly equivalent to ‘We’re on a mission from God’, and the ways would part before them. But not this time. And if Dante is afraid, which is common, so too does Virgil hesitate, which is not. ‘Still we should win this fight,’ he declares. Se non…

Dante calls it a parola rotta, literally a 'broken word', less literally a truncated phrase. Either way, there is a world of sense in those two words, and even more so in the ellipsis. Se non. If not. Or else. Or else… The ellipsis dilates time. How long does the doubt last? Long enough for Dante to question not only his own fortitude, but the wisdom of his guide. He asks, almost innocently: Say, did you ever come down here before, you who live in the first circle, among those whose only sentence is to have no hope of ever seeing God? By which he means: Are you sure you know the way? To which Virgil replies that yes, he travelled the full depth of Hell once, not long after his death, having been sent by the witch Erichtho to collect the soul of a dead soldier who resided in the ninth circle – the circle of Judas.

Lots of questions here. The literary reference is to the De Bello Civili (‘Concerning the Civil War’), an epic poem by Lucan which covers the events of the civil war between Julius Caesar and the army led by Pompey. In the episode of the summoning, Lucan makes no reference to Virgil or anybody else venturing through the underworld to pluck the soul of the dead soldier. More to the point: Virgil was still very much alive. Even more to the point: Judas wasn’t even born at the time. The Hell that Dante alludes to here was still in its primitive state, waiting to be remodelled following the death of Christ. So for Virgil to claim that he knows that way makes little sense. However, let’s just assume that Dante simply got a bit confused here – although it’s hard to fathom how he wouldn’t know that Virgil died more than two decades after Caesar, hence the events depicted by Lucan. There is still the question of why Virgil obeyed the command of an evil sorceress, and what power she may have held over his not-quite-dead-yet soul.

The hasty and somewhat incongruous digression is interrupted when – in very modern fashion – Dante-the-narrator tells us he can’t quite recall what Virgil said next because a horrific sight distracted him. They are the Furies, rapidly advancing. Their female-shaped bodies stained with blood, with serpents for hair, tearing at their own bodies with claws and beating them with the palms of their hands. Megaera, Alecto and Tisiphone, plus, not far away, their absent cousin, the Gorgon known as Medusa.

As painted much later by Caravaggio

The threat of the possible arrival of Medusa makes Virgil warn Dante to quickly cover his eyes – lest he be turned to stone at the sight – and then, in a rather beautiful and tender image, wrap himself around him and put his own hands over Dante’s, for extra safety.

There is something zombie-like in the way that all these souls appear to be attracted by the scent of Dante’s living body, is there not?

So on one side we have the Furies, behaving as women in ancient times did at funerals – including professional mourners, which in some countries (including mine) existed as late as one hundred years ago. On the other, Dante and Virgil united in a fearful embrace, awaiting the coming of a fourth, more dangerous monster.

And then God arrives.

This is the ‘problem’ with the Divine Comedy: that it literally takes place inside Deus’ own machina, so every threat to the safety of the travellers – no matter how theatrically elaborate – can never be truly suspenseful. The only way Dante will be lost is if he strays from the path. The appearance of danger, then, can only exist within occasional moments of (self-)doubt, in which to condense both the horror of the hero’s surroundings and the fear for his life. Such is the predestined nature of the pilgrim’s progress.

When God arrives, it is in the form of an angel that strides imperiously over the Styx while fending and fanning with his left hand the air made thick and greasy by the presence of so many condemned souls. Having reached the iron, red-hot doors of Dis, he opens them with the slightest touch of the reed he carries in his right hand. Then, after briefly haranguing the demons – off stage, as it were, since they fled the scene – and without deigning either Dante or Virgil of so much as a glance, he leaves again.

This particular God is like a cheat sheet for one of the videogames I played with my friends at the time we did Dante at school, in the mid to late eighties, and we got stuck on a level, either because we couldn’t solve a riddle or defeat a particular monster. Its function is to make it possible to advance. And, like the next level of the videogame after the enemies have been cheated out existence, the city of Dis appears at first empty. Una campagna, a countryside, like a walled city turned inside out. But, really, upon further inspection, a graveyard, its open tombs brimming with fire, each containing not just one corpse – souls of souls, people twice dead – but a whole army. Of whom and why, we’ll have to get into next time.

Previously: Inferno I, II, III, IV, V, VI, VII, VIII.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017


A ponderous tome of chaste entertainment and moral instruction, The Quiver ran at over 1,000 pages per yearly issue and must have cost a pretty penny in its day. But then the purchaser would barely have needed to secure any other reading material, as the publication appears to have aimed to sustain every aspect of a family’s intellectual and spiritual needs for its natural shelf life of twelve months.

I came upon a pristine copy of the 1899 edition at the Downtown Community Fair. I bagged it for $2. There is no market for these once prestigious class markers, which were printed in London and shipped to every corner of the empire to bludgeon readers with their colonial values.

(The 1899 Quiver opens with a story entitled ‘Lady Doctors in Heathen Lands.’)

There are no markings on my book, therefore no hints of its ownership history. When did it come to New Zealand? Who owned it, and did they keep it in the family? The Downtown Community Fair relies on charitable donations, so it seems likely that it was passed on by descendants of the original owners. The lack of bookshop stamps or prices written in pencil on the frontispiece supports the theory, while the absence of signs of mould suggests it spent the last century on a shelf inside a well-ventilated home, as opposed to inside an attic.

If I could tell you exactly why I care about these things, there would be no need for me to keep a blog.

It’s nine years this week since I started doing this, and there are some traditions surrounding my anniversary posts that I must honour. The first is a brief catalogue of my second-hand book acquisitions. Of which The Quiver is one.

I am literally writing this from inside a section of the astonishing home library of a friend who’s hosting me for a few days. I have work to do so I’m not allowing myself to browse the shelves. It’s hard. It’s also making the few treasures I collected over the years look pathetic. But then I am a false collector, pretending to fill holes in a library that doesn’t exist. Whatever am I going to do with an 1889 copy of the Morse commercial code know as Unicode?

The purposes of these codes was to save on the cost of sending telegrams by reducing complex sentences to single words. They were the URL shorteners of their day, if you like. I open my 1889 copy of the Unicode at random. It says that Secretio is short for ‘Leaving by train arriving at London Bridge at –,’ while Rigesco means ‘I sympathise deeply with you in the loss you have sustained.’ I sympathise, but I still want to save on cable costs.

I trade in useless knowledge. Like this 1969 issue of Popular Mechanics that instructs readers on how to create a small tornado inside their television sets.

Or yet another issue of This Is New Zealand, my beloved series of promotional books used by local businesses to impress their foreign contacts and clients. This one is from 1979 and is emblazoned with the name of New Zealand Cements Holdings Limited, which nowadays trades as Holcim. It will require a future post

Or there are the golden-era science fiction books I always pick up, regardless of the likelihood of my actually sitting down to read them – or, in most cases, re-read them, since what I’m doing here is slowly rebuild the library of my teenage years, which I dismantled in various stages before I left Italy.

But then there is always an actual treasure. This year, it’s this 1938 guide to the ‘Maori names of New Zealand train stations’, which is to say, to the Māori names of most places.

The guide originates from contributions made over the years by Māori readers to the remarkable New Zealand Railways Magazine, and was compiled by its most prolific writer, James Cowan. Some of its knowledge may have been superseded, but equally it’s a document that retains some value due to the time and circumstances of its production.


There is another tradition I must honour at this time of the year, and it’s the changing of the masthead. It’s time to farewell Marian Maguire’s beautiful design

Which followed on from two consecutive years of Sarah Laing’s

Who was preceded by Tim Denee.

And Dylan Horrocks.

And three times Shirley Carran.

All of whch originated from the flash card illustrated by Bert Warter for Bruno Furst’s 1949 books Stop Forgetting, whence the name of the blog.

Only to welcome a contribution by the splendid Sharon Murdoch. Thank you Sharon!


I always know where to begin, but seldom know when to end, which may account for the fact that this blog still exists. This year it was a struggle, at times, to keep going, just as it was painful to close the comments section, due to it being suddenly overwhelmed with spam. (I will however as soon as I can restore old comments – including Megan Clayton’s wonderful poems – which are currently hidden but not deleted.) Then in the winter I decided to embark upon a serialised reading of Dante, which is also a school memoir of sorts – because the world needs more memoirs! – and that project, indulgent as it is, has helped restore the pleasure of writing on these pages which I simply couldn’t do without.

Thank you to those who read any of the posts this year. The time you spend here is the other thing I couldn’t do without.

Finally, as is also customary: the last year of posts in clickable mosaic form. Cheers.

The loneliness of the election hoarding The neoliberalism question: notes on the Ardern/Espiner interview Inferno VIII: The one who weeps
The Library of Babel by Borges but with the words arranged alphabetically The man without a legacy Inferno VII: The circle of capitalists
Inferno VI: Black rain over Florence On the unbearable closeness of others Inferno V: Into the unseeing world
Inferno IV: Alt-Heaven Inferno III: The shape of the world Inferno II: Better call soul
Inferno I How to draw a tree Very little Britain
Tale of a haunting: Jeff Sparrow’s search for Paul Robeson About Firemen The dementia village
How to live 349 years longer 21 theses about Columbo Late capitalism: the infographic
On the things I can say in 800 words On only reading old books The Tony Alexander Doctrine, or 39 things to give up if you want to buy a home
The cost of raising children To kill the King Of sugar taxes and porridge gospels
Alpha women unable to love In other times On life without Facebook
Red Rosa Vale Mark Fisher Another year of Wellington
The world is a book Her real name: on the unmasking of Elena Ferrante Murdoch
Vale Umberto Eco Vale Marti Friedlander My fucking food bag: the universal, infinitely scaleable recipe for gluten-free pizza
Do you call this a blog post? The found poetry of Herald headlines in the form of a question Why I call myself a Marxist On the need for a sustainable immigration policy, and where I think you should stick it
Fail-proof Wellington, city of adverbs This time we rally
Gone West Eight.