Saturday, June 6, 2009

Quotations from Dante - Behave yourself

Down in the 10th bolge of the 8th Circle (reserved for the Falsifiers, whether of person, words, or currency), Dante gets caught up in the conversation between some of the local denizens who are rehearsing their evil deeds. He gets so involved in it that Virgil is disgusted and dresses him down. Dante's profound embarrassment earns his guide's pardon, though:
Think no more of it; but another time,

Imagine I'm still standing at thy side
Whenever Fortune, in thy wayfaring,
Brings thee where people wrangle thus and chide;

It's vulgar to enjoy that kind of thing.

[xxx, 144-148]
My first Presbyterian pastor once told me that it's no sin to laugh at dirty jokes that happen to be funny, but that doesn't mean you ought to seek them out, and it doesn't mean you ought to encourage the one telling them by saying nothing.

Of course, it's not just humor that's in view here; it's taking too much interest or pleasure in the sinful lives of others; it's titillating. We take a perverse vicarious pleasure, maybe, in hearing of "exploits" that we'd never pursue ourselves. It's far better for us to take more interest in living our own lives well than to enjoy the wickedness (or even simple boorishness) of others.

It's not too hard to see most modern entertainments as being the sort of trash that Dante has in mind here: we watch other people behaving badly, and we revel in it. Whether it induces us to sin is beside the point. "It's vulgar to enjoy that kind of thing."

Of course, more must be said. This part of the Inferno is there for a reason, so if Dante can relate these sordid tales himself, obviously it's not the mere telling that's an issue in his view. It's what we do with them ourselves that's far more important.

But now I feel myself getting close to a post on aesthetics, and this armchair philosopher isn't up to that task.

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