Parte per te stesso

July 17th, 2011

I was going to begin this sentence with the phrase “in these times of massive lunacy,” but when, looking at the national political scene, could one not have described it thus?  Just the other day, Senator Orin Hatch (Shit-for-brains, Utah) trotted out once again the idea of a constitutional amendment requiring the federal government to have a balanced budget, just a bare two years after the federal government saved his ass and everybody else’s from economic catastrophe by (cue drums) deficit spending.  Meanwhile, the liberals’ Great Hope Obama calls for “shared sacrifice” to reduce the deficit, with cuts to social support programs coupled with raised taxes on some of the playtoys of the rich, as if there were some parity involved.  It brings to mind Anatole France’s quip that “The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich and the poor alike to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread.”  At the same time, on the right wing the Tea Partyers and their associated stooges for the megarich like Eric Cantor (Dickhead, Virginia) insist that the social contract should not apply to them, at least not insofar as they are expected to contribute to society – they’re perfectly happy to receive government benefits –  while across the room the progressives flounder in a myopia which cannot perceive the difference between Haley Barbour and Barak Obama.  A plague on all their houses.  As did Dante seven hundred years ago, I declare myself a Party of One.

We think of Dante as a poet, but for most of his life that was not his primary identity.  He was a politician, back when that was a very demanding metier indeed.  As Robert Hollander put it in the introduction to the marvelous translation he and his wife Jean made of L’Inferno, “[t]he political situation of northern Italy during [Dante’s] lifetime was distinguished by factionalism and chaos.”  There were two main parties, loosely divided along lines of ideology and loyalty to the two main supranational actors of the day, the Pope on the one side and the Holy Roman Emperor on the other.  The Guelphs mostly sided with the Pope, the Ghibellines with the Emperor.  The last Emperor to rule in Italy died about fifteen years before Dante was born.  During Dante’s lifetime, the Emperor, the Pope, and the King of France engaged in a three way Great Game for control of northern Italy.  In Florence, where families were quasi-tribal entities and allegiance to clan was paramount, the situation was further complicated by the division of the Guelphs into two factions, Black and White.  One set of families and their adherents led the Blacks, another set comprised the Whites.  Dante was born into a White family and married into a Black family.  An apothecary and erstwhile moral philosopher, he rose to be one of six Priors, the highest political office in the city.

One can only speculate that Dante’s ties to both Guelph factions facilitated his ascendancy.  During his term as Prior, he demonstrated that he was above factionalism in the most dramatic way possible, by voting to banish his own brother-in-law as well as his best friend, leaders respectively of the Blacks and Whites, for fomenting civil disorder.  But factionalism sucked him in.  In 1302 the Blacks successfully conspired with the Pope and the King of France to take over the city, and Dante, due to his White heritage, was exiled from Florence on bogus charges of public corruption, with a death penalty hanging over him.  He never returned to his birthplace, even rejecting an offer of pardon because accepting it would have implied that he was guilty.  His honor was more precious to him than his safety.

Dante’s chief project for the rest of his life was the gigantic three part poem we remember him by.  In it he rejected the claims of all parties and factions, and created a political vision based on his own understanding of humanity’s place in the universe.  Although this vision was intimately informed by and shaped to conform with the dominant theology of his day, in its honest spirituality, its love for and knowledge of people as suffering, seeking, sapient beings, the Commedia rises as far above mere timebound dogma as Dante rose above factionalism in his term as Prior.  No more evidence of this is needed than that we still read it with profit, seven hundred years later.  But none of this could have been achieved if he had remained a Guelph or converted to the Ghibellines or chosen some other identity off the menu offered by his times.

In Paradiso, Dante describes what happened after he was exiled.  He puts the words in the mouth of an honored ancestor, purporting to tell Dante before the fact what is to befall him.  As translated by the Hollanders:

You shall learn how salt is the taste
of another man’s bread and how hard is the way,
going up and down another man’s stairs.

But the heaviest burden your shoulders must bear
shall be the companions, wicked and witless,
among whom you shall fall in your descent.

They, utterly ungrateful, mad, and faithless,
shall turn against you.  But soon enough they, not you,
shall feel their faces blushing past their brows.

Of their brutish state the results
shall offer proof.  And it shall bring you honor
to have made a single party of yourself alone.

“Of their brutish state the results shall offer proof,” indeed. Guantanamo is still open. Senator Mitch McConnell (Coward, Kentucky) thinks it’s too scary to bring accused terrorists from there to the mainland for trial.  Bradley Manning is still in prison. Leonard Peltier is still in prison.  War criminals George Bush, Donald Rumsfeld, and John Yoo are not.  Nearly ten percent of all American workers don’t have jobs, the social safety net has gaping holes, and the conversation in Washington concerns whether to tax corporate jets or to starve government so you can drown it in a bathtub.  The wicked Republicans pander to the worst among them, the witless Democrats don’t know how or when to fight or what for, the socialists can’t tell friend from foe.  And, as Kurt Vonnegut might have said, and so on.  The parties that wrack my country do me no honor, so I’m going to have to do it by myself alone.

This entry was posted on Sunday, July 17th, 2011 at 5:55 pm and is filed under Current events, Politics, Why Dante. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

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