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Posts tagged ‘Dante’

Divine Comedy Summer Course 2016

This is just a short post to draw attention to the Divine Comedy Summer Course, which will be taking place in Sale Marasino, Italy, this July. The course is run by DRTF’s long-time contributor and Dante specialist Gianfranco Serioli. His posts have included the following: “Ulysses between Home and Dante” and “Dante’s Two Suns“.

Registration for the course can be completed at

Divine Comedy summer course 2016

Ulysses between Homer and Dante Alighieri


The three kingdoms of the Divine Comedy are populated by people of different social classes. However, because it is also a pedagogical work, Dante prioritises exchanges with well-known characters, both mythical and real, in order to use them as universal examples.  Ulysses is one of the most prominent of these well-known figures.  So what do we know about him?  The legendary king of Ithaca appears in several classical works, but it is from the Odyssey, the epic poem which tells of his troubled return trip home after the Trojan War, that the collective consciousness learns of those peculiar traits which made him an icon. In this second poem we can barely recognize the warrior of the Iliad, in which he only really plays a marginal role. In the Odyssey, on the other hand, he is presented without the privileges befitting his royal rank, and he is forced to rely solely on his intelligence and cunning in order to survive. The most suitable Homeric adjective is polytropos (πολùτρoπoς), which we can translate as “someone having multiple faces”, or “many-sided”: in other words, someone who is able to face different situations and to adapt in order to survive and succeed. His craftiness and courage, his faith in himself and the innate curiosity driving him to plumb the depths of human understanding, make him a symbol of secular humanity, a kind of Vitruvian Man of literature, someone who is the measure of the creation that surrounds him.

In typical fashion, Dante chooses the person who embodies the highest form of these virtues, and then proceeds to show that without faith they amount to nothing. Which is why I believe that the Florentine author depicts his Ulysses as a catastrophic failure: according to Dante if man is guided by faith he can become a giant: “You made him a little lower than the heavenly beings and crowned him with glory and honour” (Psalm 8), but when he is alone he is like a reed bent by the wind, to use Pascal’s famous image. In fact, man’s inanity also leads the psalmist to write: what is man that you are mindful of him, the son of man that you care for him?” (Psalm 8 again).

Because in the Bible it is the right hand of God that saves man from death on numerous occasions, Dante is able to link Ulysses’ spectacular fall to his blind faith in himself as a man. This new interpretation was only made possible by a drastic abandonment of the central Homeric tradition, which doesn’t tell us his death, but which predicts it in Book 11 of the Odyssey (as per the famous soothsayer Tiresia) as a death coming in old age, at home and from the sea. This compelled Dante to revive a second and less famous mythological vein, which is mainly attested in Seneca and Pliny the Elder, according to which our hero didn’t return to Ithaca at all but instead passed through the Pillars of Hercules.

In the Inferno, Ulysses tells Virgil and Dante his story from the moment of his departure from Circe, the sorceress who had hosted him for over a year and given him a son, Telegonus. He then continues to tell of how his fondness for his son Telemachus, his deep respect for his elderly father and his love of his wife Penelope (the strongest of human sentiments) could not surpass his burning desire (literally described almost as a fire) to be fully acquainted with man’s vices and virtues, the two poles that embrace the whole complexity of humankind. The search for knowledge is emphasised by recalling all the lands Ulysses passed through, but also by highlighting the old age of the man who has seen it all and who is now facing the ultimate and most coveted challenge, the Pillars of Hercules, the westernmost limit of the world, the crowning glory of a life spent in the pursuit of knowledge. At this point Dante makes his brilliant move: while the Christian hero has an obvious (albeit not simple) choice to make between good and evil, Ulysses, like the other tragic heroes from classical antiquity, has to choose between two evils. The choice is either to obey God by not passing beyond the geographical limits of the world, thereby renouncing knowledge, or to disobey Divine prohibition but to live like a man: both choices lead to punishment. Ulysses’ choice will be the most significant of his entire life, and he wants to remain true to himself and indeed he does. And so, thanks to a refined syncretism, the Pillars of Hercules, near Gibraltar (see map above), become the metaphor for the limits given to man by God. In medieval theological thought, God supplied man with all that was necessary to live, but man had to accept the existence of a mystery he couldn’t understand and which he should not investigate. In his Summa Theologiae, St. Thomas Aquinas advised man to restrain his desire to know, even about the good!

Ulysses therefore makes his understandable but calamitous decision: to go beyond human limits. This has often been read as a moment of supreme human dignity, but also reflects a situation well known in the great 5 b.C. Athenian tragedy: hubris (ὕβϱις), where by his arrogance man fails to recognize the distance between his own nature and that of God. As with Greek tragedy, nemesis (νέμεσις), the equalising punishment of the gods, immediately springs into action and casts man down to a position so low  to make him wish he had never been born.

We find similar situations in the Bible, for instance in the book of Genesis, 2, 16-17: “The Lord God gave man this order: ‘You are free to eat from any of the trees of the garden except the tree of knowledge of good and bad. From that tree you shall not eat‘”. Of course, this prohibition is the equivalent of that regarding the Pillars of Hercules: a restriction on man’s freedom. But here the prohibition does not have an end in itself because “the moment you eat from it” – the Bible continues – “you are surely doomed to die”. The prohibition aims, then, to maintain a universal equilibrium, we could say a natural one, between divinity and creature, between the highest knowledge of God and those who can’t properly handle that knowledge.

Nevertheless, man is often seduced by the desire to embrace absolute knowledge. In fact in Genesis 3, 4-5, “the serpent said to the woman: ‘You certainly will not die! No, God knows well that the moment you eat of it your eyes will be opened and you will be like gods who know what is good and what is bad.‘” By eating the forbidden fruit, Adam and Eve surrender to hubris and in doing so they lose earthly paradise forever, instead becoming acquainted with strain, pain and death, which may precisely be the knowledge from which God wanted Man to be spared. Ulysses can be read as the exact Dantesque parallel to this biblical episode: he accepts an impossible challenge. Man will always be inadequate in his relationship with God, and Ulysses is presented in the same terms. In fact, when facing his supreme challenge, he is described as an old man, accompanied only by a handful of weak friends and sailing an old ship, a remnant from a formerly glorious fleet, which Dante calls a “log”. In spite of this he refuses to exclude himself from the dream of absolute knowledge, and utters the famous ‘orazion picciola‘. This short speech is one of the best-known passages of Italian literature, a majestic tribute to the classical idea of oratory as the art of persuasion. The ‘orazion picciola‘ states non only Ulysses’ life essence, but also that of the whole of Greek culture:

And then I said: ‘O brothers, ye who now

have through a hundred thousand perils reached

the West, to this so short a waking-time

still left your senses, do not deny yourselves

experience of that world behind the sun

which knows not man! Consider the seed

whence ye have sprung; for ye were not created

to lead the life of stupid animals,

but manliness and knowledge to pursue.’

The Italian hendecasyllable’s musicality gives this passage great emotion and the result is never in doubt: Ulysses persuades his old friends to follow him. As a mark of respect for Ulysses, Dante prolongs his tragedy and as a last tribute to him, for a little time he gives him what he is looking for. For five months, in fact, our hero sails across a hemisphere that no living human had ever seen before, and he sees, just before the end, the incredible view of the mountain of Purgatory, whose enormity is in itself a symbol of divine disproportion relative to man, while the astonishment of the sailors is both amazement at the view and of the inevitable death to come. The eyes of faith, for Dante certainly, should be the only way for man to know God. Indeed, man, by his very nature is unable to see him face to face: in Exodus 3,6 we read “‘I am the God of your father – he continued – the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob”. Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God‘. But then comes the moment of retribution: a sudden wind rises from the island, forming a whirlpool, swallowing the ship and its passengers together with their load of unfettered knowledge, thus restoring the equilibrium between man and God.

This is what we can say about Ulysses as a character. But if we analyse this episode within the context of the work as a whole, we can see it also as a clear sign of the high esteem Dante held himself in as a poet. As early as the first Canto, he establishes himself as an enthusiastic follower of Virgil not only as regards the tragic style (the highest form of poetry) but also regarding the prophetic mission carried out through literature. This idea will be reaffirmed later in Paradise 25, when he describes the Divine Comedy as a work “that hath made both Heaven and Earth copartners in its toil”. Again in Inferno 4, when he visits Limbo, a place populated by the unbaptized, he is accepted by the five most celebrated classical poets (Homer, Virgil, Ovid, Horace and Lucan) as one of their limited group, and this feels like a sort of official poetic investiture. Later on, in Purgatory 11, he runs through the most refined poets of contemporary (and only recently born) Italian literature and asserts that Guinizzelli’s greatness as a poet has already been surpassed by Cavalcanti’s, and that that of another poet (clearly Dante) is going to leave them both trailing in its wake. With respect to this aspect then, the episode of Ulysses is enlightening.  Just as Virgil, in recounting the conquest of Troy in Book 2 of the Aeneid, is Homer’s direct successor, so Dante feels he is able to carry on from that Latin masterpiece, not only taking up one of its prominent characters, but also incorporating a novel death for Ulysses, and moreover giving it a deeper sense: that enlightened by faith.

Gianfranco Serioli is a teacher of Italian literature, and director of the Divine Comedy summer course in Sale Marasino, Italy – info:

Reading as (True) Travel: Part 2


Since writing the first post in this series a few weeks ago, I’ve discovered that the Germans have a word for the inconsolable yearning that seems to be at the root of much of what we do as humans: Sehnsucht. Apparently the notion is now commonly used by psychologists to describe our feelings of inadequacy regarding what we view as incomplete in our lives, as well as our perpetual search for happiness and alternative forms of living. C.S. Lewis became fixated with the idea, which he described as:

“… our lifelong nostalgia, our longing to be reunited with something in the universe from which we now feel cut off, to be on the inside of some door which we have always seen from the outside …

Over a number of years this thought led C.S. Lewis towards his espousal of the Christian faith, which he saw as the only satisfactory counterpoint to the inherent restlessness of the human heart. Similarly, Ulysses’ condemnation in the Inferno is heavily linked to his pursuit of knowledge by purely terrestrial means (i.e. physical as opposed to spiritual travel). For Dante, as for C.S. Lewis, the only way to arrive was to embrace God.

However, turning away from religion, it is clear that a large part of what we derive from books and travel comes from the process itself. In other words, we often undertake both not as necessary steps towards a fixed goal or “arrival”, but as activities we enjoy in and of themselves. This is certainly where Robert Louis Stevenson was coming from when he declared that “to travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive.” Indeed, despite his frail health, Stevenson was a man constantly on the move, and his travel writing (notably In the South Seas, 1896) is said to have deeply influenced Joseph Conrad, who also travelled extensively in the south Pacific and used it as the location for much of his own work (see Lord Jim and Victory).

Seaward ho! Hang the treasure! It’s the glory of the sea that has turned my head.”

The idea of travel for its own sake plays a prominent part in Stevenson’s Treasure Island, a novel which dwells on the invariably anticlimactic nature of achieving a specific goal or arriving at a specific place. The treasure itself becomes a corrupting influence, and is depicted as a stale symbol lying in stark opposition to the travel and adventure that precedes its acquisition. Gold requires a sophisticated system of exchange to recognise its value; in other words, it is inherently worthless. And yet, despite the absence of a meaningful objective, the central quest of Treasure Island is portrayed as a welcome antidote to the drab professionalism of nineteenth century Victorian England.

Reading is a similarly exhilarating but anticlimactic process. The realisation towards the end of a good book that there aren’t many pages left can be crushingly disappointing, as though we expected something more to appear miraculously after the final sentences. It is not, howver, a disappointment that stops us picking up more books, from which we must infer that, as with travel and treasure-hunting, reading is a never ending activity the real pleasure of which lies in the doing and not the arriving. As T.S. Eliot said,

We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”

The Editors

Reading as (True) Travel: Part 1


in our mad flight we turned our oars to wings

Inferno XXVI

It has been suggested elsewhere on this website, somewhat unoriginally, that every time a reader picks up a book he or she embarks on a journey, often of intellectual discovery, but potentially also of the emotional, imaginative, or even spiritual variety (see Roomful of Mirrors). Indeed, J.M.G. Le Clezio, chief inspirer of this series of posts and author of the original essay “Reading as True Travel”, argues that reading offers a form of departure that extends far beyond the limits of physical travel:

The world’s mystery cannot be found through exploration: mystery resides rather in the world’s imaginable power.”

Certainly, it must be accepted that seeing more of the world will not necessarily open the traveller’s eyes to the infinite subtlety of the human mind (unless perhaps said traveller is the 17th Earl of Oxford on a controversial visit to Verona) and, to this extent, any parallels we may seek to draw between reading and travelling are limited: the results we can hope to achieve from each activity are distinct, albeit potentially overlapping. However, in this piece I would like to focus more on the similarities between what it is that drives us to pick up books, on the one hand, and book plane tickets, on the other.

Apologies for digging up Dante for a second week running, but I find it difficult to attempt to comprehend these underlying urges without referring to the Florentine poet’s conception of man as Ulysses preparing to embark on a final expedition, this time to the “unknown” half of the world that was thought to lie beyond the Pillars of Hercules (dividing Europe and north Africa). Dante sees Ulysses as the ultimate traveller, a hero perpetually and tragically in search of more. More what, exactly? More of everything, but most importantly more knowledge – “all men desire to know” – which is why he is a sort of anti-hero in the Inferno: he embodies both the desire for knowledge (always a delicate area where faith is concerned), and humanity’s inherently unsatisfied and restless nature.

There is no doubting the fact that the search for discovery and the pursuit of knowledge drive, to a large extent, our desire to read as well as our desire to travel. We read books to find out what happened and how things work, to marvel at other people’s imaginative creations, and, above all, to marvel at beauty (see Why Read? No.17). We travel for similar reasons. Moreover, we may return to books and places, but there is nothing quite like the joy of the new, of experiencing the hitherto unexperienced. As such, there is a large element of risk-taking in both reading and travelling – not in terms of physical danger, obviously, but in terms of whether or not we ultimately find what it is we set out to discover. After all, it is one thing to seek the contemplation of beauty, for example, but another altogether to strike gold in a way that is distinctly subjective and personal to us. We may be recommended books to read or places to visit, and yet it is almost impossible to foresee what it is that will move or impress us. It is not uncommon to put down a book or return from a holiday thoroughly uninspired by the preceding ‘journey’. Invariably, however, we trust that there is something out there for us, even if it is hidden away on the other side of the world. Something that would be good to see, something we must see.

Reading and travel are often viewed as activities of leisure, to be taken up in spare time away from the harsh reality of working life. I would suggest, on the contrary, that both are in fact often motivated by an underlying sense of urgency. See, for example, the frequency with which both inspire bucket-list discussions: “100 books/places to read/visit before you die”. That reading and travel might both reflect humanity’s consciousness of mortality is an idea that seems to surface frequently in Julian Barnes’ novel A History of the World in 10 ½ Chapters, not explicitly perhaps, but it lurks behind some of the more central themes. In particular, the story of Noah’s ark, which Barnes uses as one of many ‘pillars’ around which to base his 10 ½ narratives, connects the idea of salvation through physical travel to that of salvation through literature. That may seem a stretch but bear with me – the story of Noah is intended (in the Bible) both as a literal account of humanity’s survival by taking to the seas, and as an allegory for humanity’s salvation through faith. That faith is accessed and understood, at least doctrinally, via books, and the story of Noah appears in the first book of the Bible, Genesis


So should we be more inclined to see readers (ourselves) as intrepid physical and spiritual adventurers rather than as armchair navel gazers? Probably not, but there is undoubtedly a desperate yearning at the root of much of our literary activity, a yearning caught between despair at the inadequacy of what we know is true, and the hope of what might be true in the as yet unexplored landscapes of some distant reality. Barnes once again manages to convey this exquisitely in his assessment of Géricault’s Raft of the Medusa – a painting painfully split between an overwhelming sense of foreboding doom and a glimmer of hopeful expectation (see the tiny ship on the horizon). It is easy to imagine that Ulysses experienced something similar as he sailed beyond the boundaries of man’s earthly realm, glimpsing the mountain of Purgatory as he did, before being sucked down to the eighth circle of Hell.

The Editors

Dante’s Two Suns

“Soleva Roma, che ‘l buon mondo feo, 

due soli aver, che l’una e l’altra strada 

facean vedere, e del mondo e di Deo”


“Rome, which formed the world for good,

once held two suns that lit the one road

and the other, the world’s and that to God.”

 Purgatorio XVI


Dante Alighieri is well known for being the author of the Divine Comedy, probably one of the most important works written in the West in medieval times, given its continuing influence over the creative arts up to the present day. And yet not everyone knows his other works in quite the same way, particularly the Convivio and De Monarchia, which reveal his many interests and proficiencies as well as the staggering wealth and depth of his knowledge. As he shows off this encyclopaedic knowledge, certain themes crop up more than others, revealing the author’s particular interests. Perhaps the most prominent of these is politics. For Dante, to meditate on this theme meant to take stock of his own condition, so tragically determined by his political choices. Immersed in the Classical authors, Dante had assimilated the political thought of Aristotle and Cicero. As a result, he conceived policy as the way to create a pacific coexistence for citizens through laws and justice. In line with Classical ideals, Dante considered it a moral duty for everyone to be involved in political life if they had the capacity to do so. 

Being a politician in the Middle Ages was not exactly an easy ride. A centuries-old and at times ferocious struggle for supremacy was ongoing between the Church and the Holy Roman Empire. On the one hand, the pope wanted to exercise his power over the emperor as the head of a Christian nation. On the other, the German emperor was determined not only to obtain complete autonomy from the pontiff, but also to influence certain important decisions within the Roman Church, such as the designations of bishops and even the election of the pope. 

In the peripheries of the Empire, the tensions between these authorities reached a violent climax in Italy, at the time one of the richest parts of Europe, both culturally and economically. These violent conflicts, probably owing to the area’s proximity to Rome, were not only well documented in city records, but also in Dante’s own private reflections. There were two factions: the Guelphs, who traditionally supported the Pope, and the Ghibellines, allies of the emperor in opposition to the pontiff. The period was characterised by wars between neighbouring cities as well as within cities. This generated the climate of terror and bloodshed to which the Divine Comedy bears witness. The poet himself was banished from Florence and later sentenced to death for his political activism. It is worth noting the traditional reluctance of political theorists to deal with practical administration, from Aristotle to the early 16th Century. Indeed, only a generation after Dante, Petrarch, although he did write about the troubling Italian situation, carefully abstained from involving himself in it. In this regard also, the Florentine showed himself to be the brightest star in the Medieval cultural environment. 

Dante’s fascinating progression from Guelph to Ghibelline is not our main concern, however, as I would like to focus the discussion on his philosophical speculations, which were aimed at resolving the moral paradoxes of Christians who were involved in policy. To obey the rules of the Church or to obey the laws of the state? The debate was an age-old one, dating back as far as the 5th Century BC in Athens, when Antigone made her touching decision in Sophocles’ well-known tragedy. For the first time in the history of western literature, freedom of conscience had been recognised by the Theban heroine’s choice to prioritise the law of the gods over earthly laws. However the dichotomy which led her to sacrifice her young life remained intact and irreconcilable.

Dante recalled St Augustin’s idea from De Civitate Dei and developed it, enabling him to heal this rift by illustrating the autonomy and necessity of both institutions as they descended directly and naturally from God. His explanation was a philosophical one: given that man is made of body and soul, his nature is both corruptible and incorruptible. And as any nature must have a purpose, Dante found that living in peace was the purpose of the body, and eternal happiness the purpose of the soul. Moreover, he identified two guides appointed by God to lead the people towards those aims: the emperor was the leader of earthly life and the pope was the leader of eternal life. 

As such, he argued that the emperor must have unrestricted power, since only a person who has everything does not desire anything else, and is consequently in a position to treat people equally. (Some of you may remember an Italian Prime Minister who used the same argument to win votes, but the final result did not quite match up to the idea!). The pope, as the Vicar of Christ, was only supposed to be concerned with giving moral instruction to humanity in order to secure their salvation, while supposedly being immune to all power and riches.

Thus Dante, as a Christian and politician of the early 14th Century, was able to corroborate the “Two Suns Theory”, an early version of secularism according to which the Church and the empire were two separate entities that were both necessary for humankind. Although his philosophical thought is rigorously scholastic, the poet approaches problems from an ethical stance, rather than treating them purely speculatively. His reasoning is never merely an end in itself but a tool with which to discover the solution to existing problems and situations.

It doesn’t matter if much of our later reading gives Dante the role of a tireless and blind loyalist, belonging to an antiquated world. It doesn’t matter if he did not adequately consider the Italian bourgeoisie’s reinforcement as a pressing request of freedom and autonomy hardly compatible with the absolute power of the Emperor. It doesn’t matter if national kingdoms were appearing on stage as competing powers for the Holy Roman Empire, and therefore representing a serious threat for the political unity of Christianity. It doesn’t matter if Dante’s ideological structure, which he meticulously constructs in his works, was going to collapse like a house of cards.

The great Florentine writer and philosopher should not be considered as a laudator temporis acti; that is, an inactive, slow and pessimistic reader of contemporary society. Rather he should be considered as a man who courageously made his critical skills available for the advancement of society, which, according to him, was the only possible means to achieve the advancement of mankind, and therefore the only way to reflect the divine order on Earth.

Gianfranco Serioli is a teacher of Italian literature, and director of the Divine Comedy summer course in Sale Marasino, Italy – info:

Pushkin 2: Epic poetry, a love unthinkable, a youth unbearable

 “I am writing now not a novel, but a novel in verse – the devil of a difference. Something like (Byron’s) Don Juan – there’s no point in thinking about publication; I’m writing whatever comes into my head.”

Pushkin writing to a friend, 1823

Eugene Onegin is magnificent. Do not be fooled by Pushkin’s glib suggestion that his poem contains the fleeting fancies of his mind. Written over the course of eight years – started during his exile and finished in the year of his marriage –Eugene Onegin is informally autobiographical, a social commentary and a timeless love story.

Touching briefly on Pushkin Part 1, it is clear that if you read a translated text a good deal of Pushkin’s technical ability and talent as a wordsmith is lost. In particular, feminine rhymes at the end of lines are not easy to replicate without some degree of word replacement. Translating Russian to English requires around one third more words so we also lose some of the acute, direct nature of Pushkin’s text. That is not to say that he is ever verbose or overly wordy, far from it. My copy is the Penguin Classics translation by Stanley Mitchell. Wherever words and phrases are untranslatable, they are often substituted for lines from Pushkin’s contemporaries, idols and influencers; Byron is used often. As a result, the translator appears to have done an excellent job replicating the character and style of the original. One might hope that the author himself might have been proud of the translation. A slight quirk of Eugene Onegin and Pushkin’s work is that French is frequently used for both description and conversation – as was the case amongst the Russian ruling class of the time. This provides an escape route of sorts. On occasion, his characters cannot describe something in Russian or simply prefer to use French. For translation purposes it is beneficial when a romantic language is used in these tricky spots.

Epic poetry is rarely easy to read. This grand literary tradition began as a format for entertaining story telling and an outlet for extraordinary imaginations. It was then somewhat hijacked by the intelligentsia through the middle and industrial ages so as to advance authors’ personal agendas and advertise their intellect alongside the original purposes. A good example of this (very bias, admittedly) theory can be found in Dante’s Inferno in Cantos 4 and 8 where he encounters history’s greatest poets, exposes their limitations through allegory and moves swiftly on. Eugene Onegin is a refreshing diversion from this trend. The tone of the text, narrated by Pushkin himself, is almost chummy. The reader is directly addressed on a frequent basis and the audience’s feelings often anticipated and read out loud. Pushkin demonstrates kinship with his fellow, contemporary poets (some of whom appear as minor characters) and far from exalting his art or his intellect he seems to acknowledge its waning influence:

To Spartan prose the years are turning,
Coquettish rhyme the years are spurning;
And I – I with a sigh confess –
I’m running after her much less.

Pushkin is refreshingly honest and plain in his reflections and descriptions. As a result the reader is favourably disposed to the writer: I have rarely felt more rapport with an author, let alone one nearing their 180th birthday. 


Eugene Onegin is a difficult book to review or summarise without spoiling the plot. The story is not long and moves apace; there are occasions where months pass between stanzas and years pass between chapters. This actually leaves the reader intrigued by what the characters have been doing and how they have been developing rather than encouraging a sense of bewilderment. This pace and the quixotic verse in which it is written yield characters that are more silhouettes than anything else. They flash between scenes giving you glimpses of a dark romance, torment and duty. In many ways, it reads more like a play or indeed an opera.

The two central characters are Eugene and Tatiana. Eugene, a wealthy twenty-something becomes bored with and resentful of Moscow society and moves to his estate in the countryside. Nonetheless he never attempts to rid himself of his dandy habits:

“One can still be a man of action
And mind the beauty of one’s nails”

Unsurprisingly, his fancy ways and disaffected personality do not enamour him to the locals. Still he strikes up a friendship with the youthful, slightly green, poet Lensky who is part of the regional gentry. Through Lensky, Eugene is introduced into local society and, in particular, Lensky’s fiancée Olga and her older sister Tatiana. The elder sibling becomes infatuated with this worldly newcomer and falls into a deep love:

“(Tatiana) Your fate already you’ve relinquished
Into a modish tyrant’s keep (Eugene’s)
Imbibe the magic bane of yearning,
Daydreams will court your every pace,
And you’ll imagine in each place
A tryst to which you’re always turning;
In front of you and everywhere
You’ll see your fateful tempter there.”

Tatiana’s love is rejected. The apathetic Eugene masochistically denies himself pleasure at every turn and refuses to entertain Tatiana’s pleas. His response to her letter of love and devotion is almost as pathetic as it is sad. Through the poem, love letters and responses to them provide the most detailed look into the characters’ personalities. In this neo-classic romance we are forcefully drawn into Eugene’s world of sadness and spurned hope. It is marvellous.

(Spoiler alert!) The damage caused by Onegin’s self-pity continues to the end. He courts jealousy, which ends in him being challenged to a duel by his great friend Lensky whom he shoots dead. Tormented by these events Eugene leaves the countryside and travels. Tatiana is left torturing herself with memories. She frequently visits Eugene’s deserted house to read his books in his study. The hero of the story is truly lethal, physically and emotionally. 

Years later we find that Tatiana has journeyed to Moscow to find a husband; she marries a famed general. She becomes a woman, a paragon of society, embodying truly Russian values and virtues. Gone is much of the simple country girl, replaced by an urbane yet unpretentious princess, the toast of Moscow: “the city’s flower”.

Eugene returns to Moscow following his travels and forces himself to re-enter society circles. He falls in love with Tatiana, his tragic infatuation matching the young girl whom he encountered in the countryside years before. The crushing inevitability of this emotional inversion has the reader squirming with ineffectuality yet slightly rejoicing in Eugene’s plight. It is one of the oldest stories in the book. Eugene writes to his love, he begs her for forgiveness and fulfilment. Tatiana, the once-lovesick youngster, responds and reaches a zenith:

Your heart is honest and I prize it:
And there resides in it true pride
With candid honour, side by side.
I love you, why should I disguise it?,
But I am someone else’s wife,
To him I shall be true for life.”

The ephemeral scenes and the mysterious ‘cut-scenes’ provide a dream-like quality to the book. The occasional meetings that the reader has with the characters provide intrigue and engagement in equal measure through the quality of the writing and the timeless yet tough subject matters. For all Eugene’s self-absorption it is hard to dislike him. Tatiana is loveable and Lensky likeable. The characters showcase parts of Pushkin himself and you will aspects of yourself in all of them. Above all else Eugene Onegin is a letter of love and of guidance to the young:

Blest who in youth was truly youthful,
Blest who matured in proper time,
Who, step by step, remaining truthful,
Could weather, yearly, life’s bleak clime
To curious dreams was not addicted,
Nor by the social mob constricted,
At twenty was a blade or swell
And then at thirty married well;
Ridding himself, on reaching fifty,
Of debts and other bills to foot,
Then calmly gaining rank, repute
And money, too, by being thrifty;
Of whom the world’s opinion ran:
An estimable man.

Eugene Onegin is a gift, a brilliant work, and this verse buried deep inside Chapter VIII seems to have been echoed seventy years later by our very own Rudyard Kipling.

Matt Bradley

The Literature of Oppression: Part 4

Escape to Hell by Muammar Gaddafi

Before he was trapped in a sewage pipe in the desert, buggered with a length of steel piping and killed by a mob holding camera-phones.  Before the female bodyguards, and the poor schoolgirls, and the secret bedroom to which he took them, with its gruesome gynaecological surgery next-door.  Before he came in from the cold, and renounced nuclear weapons, or shook Blair’s hand to close a deal with BP.  Before Lockerbie, and WPC Fletcher, and the IRA.  Before he was called Mad Dog, or Fuzzy-head, or Abu Shafshufa.  Before he took to wearing a furry ushanka-hat with the ear-flaps tied beneath his chin, before he permed his hair, before he dressed like an African chieftain and carried a fly-whisk.

Before all of that, Muammar Gaddafi wrote a story called ‘Escape to Hell’.  We cannot know for certain precisely when he wrote it – but it was likely in the 1980s, when Gaddafi had already been leader of Libya for fifteen years.  By then, his brand of political ideology was becoming more fixed: a peculiar blend of social conservatism, populism, revolutionary socialism, pan-Arabism and pan-Africanism.  Gaddafi’s literary style was also on display, and it did not receive a warm reception.  His speeches were rambling and awkward, lurching between standard Arabic, his Bedouin dialect, and Berber tongues.  He liked to coin words in Arabic, but these were laughed at by the intelligentsia in Cairo and Damascus.  And he had published The Green Book as a manifesto of his political philosophy – but this was a poorly-written and widely-mocked collection of aphorisms, bought by tourists as a trinket and recited by school-children in a drone.

* * *

Hardly surprising, then, that Escape to Hell did not attract much attention when it was published in 1993 in a collection of short-stories.  In the bookshops of Tripoli and Benghazi, loyal followers might have bought a copy, but even they must have been underwhelmed by the cover: a green field and a bright sun, drawn in childish bright colours.



And Escape to Hell begins, as uninspiringly as its cover, as a kind of Gaddafi memoir.  There are odd allusions to history, to leaders overthrown by their people, but they feel forced and unnatural. But it is also disarmingly honest: Gaddafi describes his fear of the mob, his fear of his father (who beat him), and his loneliness as a poor Bedouin from the desert in smart, urbane Tripoli.

Having rambled for five or six pages, the reader might be forgiven for shutting the book, bored. He might think that, after all, perhaps Colonel Gaddafi just felt unloved, and out-of-place, and scared.  Maybe that explains it all.

The more cynical reader might even dismiss this outpouring as a clever ruse: self-deprecating to appeal to the wealthy burghers of Tripoli and Benghazi who had never really trusted this upstart shepherd’s boy.  “At least,” Gaddafi wanted them to think, “this Colonel knows his place. He seems to have a healthy fear of us, the people — maybe we can keep him in check after all.  Best to stick with him for a little while longer.”

Keep on reading.  It gets much better.  Without warning, Gaddafi drops all the introspection, all the talk about his fears and his father.  His writing comes to life. It is as though Gaddafi has stepped away from the lectern, jumped down from the podium, two steps at a time, run through the auditorium to where you are sitting, grabbed you by the collar and lifted you out of your seat.

Now he is shouting at you with a truer voice, all historical allusion and affected modesty thrown aside. Gaddafi changes tone abruptly; now he wants to tell the story of how he escaped to Hell.  It is the story of a journey into the desert, away from the mob he so fears, and a journey to solitude and tranquility. And it begins with Gaddafi fleeing Tripoli, hounded by the reader, by the mob.

Your very breath bothers me, invading and violating my privacy; it seeks to squeeze me dry, greedily devouring my essence, licking up my sweat and sucking in my breath.  Then it pauses, to give me a short breathing-space, before it attacks me again.  Your breath chases me like a rabid dog, is saliva dripping in the street of your modern city of insanity.  When I flee, it continues to chase me through cobwebs and esparto.  So I decided to escape to Hell, if only to save myself.

This is pretty good writing, at least stylistically.  Indeed, the whole of the second half of Escape to Hell — the description of Gaddafi’s journey to Hell — is better than you would expect.  The odd thing is that, as you read, you find yourself hearing echoes of great European literature.  After all, the journey to Hell — the descent to the Underworld — is a subject tackled by the greatest writers of all, by Homer, Vergil, Dante and many others.  That is not to say Gaddafi ranks among such great writers — only that there is a ring of literary truth in his writing that we also hear in the finest descriptions of Hell.

Reading the passage above, for example, one could be forgiven for thinking of Aeschylus’ play Eumenides (458 BC); of Orestes, Agamemnon’s son, the prince who killed his mother and was pursued for his crime by those hellish demons, the Furies — “Blow forth on him the breath of wrath and blood, / Scorch him with reek of fire that burns in you, / Waste him with new pursuit — swift, hound him down!

Or, having fled Tripoli, take the description of the beginning of the road into the desert. Gaddafi says: “The path to hell is covered with an unending natural carpet, which I walked along merrily and happily.  When the carpet came to an end, I found the road covered with fine sand. […] I stopped to choose the shortest path to take.”  At once, we think of the famous opening verses of Dante’s Hell — “Midway this way of life we’re bound upon, / I woke to find myself in a dark wood, / Where the right road was wholly lost and gone”.

And when Gaddafi says that he has escaped to the desert to flee the hellish, hounding crowds of Tripoli, to escape the mob, we think of the famous line from Jean-Paul Sartre’s 1944 play Huis Clos, about people locked in a room in the afterlife: “L’enfer, c’est les autres.” “Hell is other people.”

The cynic will say that Gaddafi has cribbed these allusions from European literature – so much for the illiterate, small-time country boy we encountered in the first half.  Gaddafi was cunning; more clever than he seemed; he must have been pretty well-read.  But, sneers the cynic, Gaddafi was no writer — The Green Book, and all those mad, rambling speeches are proof enough of that — so he can hardly be expected simply to have chanced upon the same turns of phrase as an ancient Greek dramatist, or a Renaissance poet, or an existentialist playwright. No, he was just a cheat, using high literature to make his point, turning beauty to his foul ends.

I disagree.  It is true that the second half of Escape to Hell is more convincing than the autobiographical first.  Whatever his ultimate goal, by describing his escape to the tranquility of the desert, Gaddafi expresses far more eloquently his fear of the Libyan people than he does in the prosaic first half of the story, where his openness and honesty is so earnest that even the most naïf reader must suspect its authenticity.

Instead, the journey to Hell rings true.  Gaddafi finds in the desert a lonely serenity, far away from the city — “How beautiful hell is compared to your city!”, he tells the reader.  I have heard this sentiment expressed by many who have been in the deserts of the Middle East. From young Egyptians fleeing smoggy Cairo for a weekend’s camping under the stars, to an Omani fisherman who liked nothing more than taking a trip into the desert and away from the treacherous sea. After he had crossed the sands of the Empty Quarter with tribesmen of the Rashid, the greatest British Arabist of all, Wilfred Thesiger, wrote something remarkably similar:

When I first entered the sands I was bewildered by the utter unfamiliarity of my surroundings and frightened by the feeling that I had only to be separated from my companions to be completely lost in the maze of dunes. Now, like any Rashid, I regarded the Sands as a place of refuge, somewhere where our enemies could not follow us, and I disliked the idea of leaving the shelter the afforded.

It is for this truth — both literary and simple — that Gaddafi’s description of his journey to Hell is so powerful. It is for this reason that Escape to Hell is good writing.

* * *

In Escape to Hell, Gaddafi journeys into the desert to flee the mob of Tripoli. He would do so again.  In 2011, when the tide of the civil war in Libya had turned against him and the rebels were in Tripoli, Gaddafi gathered his bodyguard and drove out to the sandy wastes, back towards Sirte, his hometown in the desert.

One can imagine that, driving through the sand-dunes in a small convoy, far away now from the shells and the bombs, Gaddafi felt again the calm about which he wrote in Escape to Hell.  Then, ambushed by rebels on the desert road, his followers were killed and Gaddafi was dragged from his hiding-place in a sewage pipe.  There, in the sands, Gaddafi met his end at the hands of a mob.  He had tried to escape, and now he is in Hell.

 George Richards is a writer covering Middle Eastern affairs.  Follow George on Twitter: @gergis

Roomful of Mirrors

The Divine Comedy, Inferno, Canto 26 – Dante Alighieri

Dante’s Inferno is a book about sin and punishment, set within a staggeringly complex Aristotelian framework.  It’s also a platform for the poet to pass judgment on his contemporaries, and he pulls no punches in choosing who to condemn – there is a special pit in the eighth circle for Popes.  The twenty-sixth canto of Dante’s Inferno – Ulysses’ canto – on the other hand, is really all about what the Italian poet sees of himself in the Greek hero, or at least in his conception of the Greek hero, which is based on the Roman interpretation of Homer’s character, that is to say deceitful rather than just cunning.  Ulysses is allegedly in the eight circle of hell because of a series of acts of deception committed whilst on earth, including the Trojan horse.  This is not, however, the focus of the canto, which moves on from the sin of deception and looks at the events surrounding Ulysses’ death.

Here, Dante makes good use of poetic licence to kill Ulysses off in an inventive and previously unheard of manner: Ulysses reaches the end of his epic journey back from the Trojan war, concluding twenty years of war and adventure, and yet, at the moment when he should be settling down to rest on his hard-earned laurels, he baulks at the prospect and urges his men to follow him on yet another quest, this time on a voyage of exploration beyond the edge of the ancient world, demarcated by the mythical Pillars of Hercules between Spain and Africa.  All of this so that he can become an “expert of the world”.  Unfortunately for Ulysses this mission is abruptly cut short when he gets to the other side of the world, beyond the Pillars of Hercules, only for he and his crew to be engulfed by a whirlpool, taking the Greek hero straight down to the eighth circle of hell.

To cut to the chase, and for those of you who haven’t yet had the pleasure of reading the Inferno, Dante himself is also on a voyage, actually two voyages: a poetic journey, on the one hand, and on the other a literal journey to hell and back.  Furthermore, both journeys are the culmination of a life of learning, as Dante had previously written in his main philosophical work: “all men desire to know.”  This means that Dante’s encounter with Ulysses is a deliberately self-conscious one – both men had a passionate desire to know as much as possible.  And yet, Ulysses languishes in hell whilst Dante is granted divine protection as he undertakes a quest in the name of spiritual enlightenment; a classic Dantean paradox, possibly even the Dantean paradox.  Dante recognises that there is an insurmountable tension between his own intellectual adventure and a distinctly Christian sense of obedience and stability – it is a tension that cuts all the way back to Genesis and the Tree of Knowledge.  Can it be resolved? Not really, other than to say that Dante is not quite Ulysses, he is on an epic journey, but not purely for reasons of personal illumination, he is travelling for the benefit of mankind generally, which is in itself almost a far worse transgression for the poet to make.  In any case, the fact that Dante’s is a recorded journey means that he is never the only person on it – it is a perpetual, shared journey, started every time someone picks up a copy of The Divine Comedy.  If Dante’s sin reflects Ulysses’, he is not the only one to be drawn in – we are all, as readers, complicit.

What relevance does this have to us in the modern world, devoid to a large extent of the burden of religious obligation?  For starters, that reading is like travelling.  Both are extremely personal, even selfish, experiences, often carried out for the purpose of learning, entertainment and self-reflection.  Both offer a detachment and escape from the mundane reality of our lives, but both carry a risk, albeit remote, of alienation and self-absorption.  It is a risk that can be tempered by self-awareness, and Inferno 26 is, if nothing else, one of the greatest exercises in literary self-awareness ever performed.

The Editors  

11. Why Read? – “I wish I watched more TV”

Reading is not an important activity. Books can be important but reading is not. In conversation, the magic words ‘I really should read more’ appear with metronomic regularity. Yet I never fail to find this statement irksome. I usually respond by asking a question.


The answer is invariably nebulous and along the lines that reading is good for you. Reading, it appears, has become the entertainment equivalent of cod liver oil. Fantastic.

I blame us for this. I blame committed readers. We had to go and make reading so bloody special. If one were to ask a person at a party why they watch films then they would say ‘Erm, I just like them’ before backing away from you in favour of the last sausage-on-a-stick. But, readers are so very proud of their achievement that they insist on aggrandising the process.

For example, this very site includes a tab titled ‘Why read?’ The majority of visitors to are already keen readers and need no further convincing. All one gains is the chance to indulge in some pleasant self-gratification. For the remaining minority who came to this site by accident and want the same feeling, there are better places on the internet for it.

We have bought into the idea of reading instead of the enjoyment of books. Like any form of entertainment, the value of reading should be purely derived from the content of the material. The subject matter in a computer game, film, or conversation is of equal merit to that of a book if it offers the same insight.

So why do books demand reverence? If a friend joins you in the pub with an air of satisfaction and declares that he had watched Apocalypse Now for the third time or had played and beaten Far Cry 2, the response would be one of disdain. The friend would be called a geek or a layabout. If the friend announced his completion of Heart of Darkness then he could expect approval. The irony is that all three titles derive from The Divine Comedy.

The difference with books is the level of investment demanded in order to extract what the author intended. Books take time and active engagement on the part of the reader. If you do this you will reap the full reward. This fact is a blessing and a problem for reading. Books are ultimately the most satisfying experience because the lessons are partially self-taught and thus we take ownership of the conclusions. Conversely, because we have made this effort, we expect a pat on the back afterwards. This is why we distort the process of reading into an act of self-improvement. The inflated ideal of reading sucks all the fun out of a book, turning it into unwanted homework or the dreaded cod liver oil. For the retrospective pride of a task completed we turn reading into an achievement and a chore.

If you want to share your passion for books with those around you, than stop asking yourself why you read. Instead, recommend a book. And if that fails, just tell them it’s smutty.

James Ross