Dante, and not…

Dante, and not…

Mark is giving another lecture series, on Dante’s Inferno, which partially overlapped Faulkner, though on a different day of the week, in different libraries of different towns. Our work schedules didn’t allow for attending both and we had to choose. After four weeks of heady Faulkner we decided to try the lighter fare, and so missed The Sound and the Fury. But we went back to Faulkner, after two lectures on Dante, for Absalom, Absalom! And I’m glad we did.

Mark is a gifted speaker, and his first Dante lecture shared historical context and gossip, poetical craft and practice, an array of critical readings, and the advantages and disadvantages of differing translations. He engaged us so well that we lay aside the (now, seemingly,) burdensome prose of Faulkner for an easier, prettier read. But another lecture in and I was longing for substance, for meaning, for relevance. I was bored. Mark chose for our text a translation by the Italian poet John Ciardi, as it preserved almost perfectly the structure and rhyming schemes of the original Italian. I didn’t like it. In English, the verse is sing-song, childishly colors the content to superficial and self-indulgent concerns. I pushed back. I searched for and found the Divine Comedy online, as originally written in the Tuscan dialect. An interesting fact – the great popularity of the work in Dante’s time and afterwards helped institute Tuscan as the language spoken by all of Italy. So a contemporary Italian speaker can read Dante in the original. This excited me. Speaking and reading Spanish – a close Romantic cousin to Italian – has always helped me when in Rome (and restaurants), so I decided to reclaim Dante by reading just what he wrote. It is a much more satisfying and beautiful reading in every poetic sense (though I rely on Google Translate more than I’d like), but still not enough. I share none of Dante’s preoccupations, and am curiously incurious about them. So I put Inferno aside.

Bruce is a trooper. He wasn’t really captivated by Dante, either, but he doesn’t share my willingness to immerse myself in Faulkner, to give myself up to the work. He is exasperated by the density and ellipses, the lack of linearity and discernible story, questioning even the purpose of writing in such a way, about any such things. But he took me back to Salisbury for Mark’s last two lectures anyway, not reading Absalom, Absalom!, and instead just enjoying the leisurely break from routine, the incremental arrival of spring, and Mark’s passionate intellect.

He found sympathy for his vexation, for Mark describes reading Faulkner (and especially Absalom, Absalom!) as bushwacking one’s way through it. It is just one of many descriptions and metaphors of difficulty and pain that let Bruce know he is in good company. Contrary to Mark’s assessment though, Faulkner’s circumnavigations, circulatory weavings are not unsettling to me, nor is the ‘problem’ of unreliable and contradictory narrators. I accept the book as just a collage, a painting – fiction that yet tells the truth. That I am sure I will come to see.

Something I do see, guided as I am by Mark’s critical and historical read, is the constant looping of the colonized, the never-ending struggle to make sense and meaning, to author selfhood and community by those for whom the South’s Master Narrative does not fit, work for, or include. Omg, I am again in free-fall, resonance. This is my real MeToo moment. I too have many many stories of violation, but now they coalesce, annunciate into understanding – the breadth and length of my life as one with that unrecognized, unacknowledged, thwarted, set upon, sabotaged, out-of-bounds other, which is Woman. Those of us who threaten Man, with equal brilliance, unscripted beauty, uncommon passion, unique talent, with agency and sufficiency – with the claim of legitimate and authentic being, un-deferred. Even MUSE is a vehicle to make sense of it, to retaliate, to refuse, another try, to write the right story, to right-size and right-shape the overbearing, oppressive, imposed construct.

Now Mark uses the word – fabrication – the literary device I have sensed and embraced, but he expands its meaning beyond literature and craft to include the very stuff of consciousness. Faulkner’s writing is chaotic, self-similar, it exactly mirrors the way we encounter and experience the world, and make sense of it, fictively. As his readers we rationalize and build the book’s worlds: the Old South, its Lost Cause, Puritan-ism, and Race just in the way the characters do, following Faulkner’s lead. Our different constructions, rather than gainsaying us any superior view, any omniscience, instead prove the inventive point. It is the path to understanding that Faulkner mimics, exposes, unearths, and so he exposes our path – our methods and techniques laid bare, so that even our supra-cognizance thus achieved is also, only, suspect and fashioned – our truths and vision no more or less self-serving and fictive, no more or less true. Faulkner reveals the performative aspect of truth. Truth is what we make it, by/with repeated enactments, stagings, rehearsals, and scripts. We invent our reality, stitch it doggedly, skillfully to our foundational and necessary, life-sustaining Master Narratives. We do not give up our original stories any more easily than the Church gave up the ghost on a geocentric universe, and with no less violence. Read: Antifa; KKK; EarthFirst; NRA; Passover; BLM; La Raza; and every -ism ever thought or spoken.

Oh, Woe to those whose Master Narratives collide.


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