Friday, May 31, 2013

Dragon-Tamers, Dante's Inferno and the Writer as Literary Navigator

What is an author? Not merely a penner of fancies, a fabricator of fairy-tales, but, in the greatest of literary traditions, a navigator of the reader-trodden byways of their own fictional work. One who has not only traveled this way before but possesses an intimate acquaintance with each slight curvature of road, and with far-seeing omniscient eye winks at our fresh innocence; navigator and map-maker who holds the world in the palm of his hand. Uncharted regions were, in medieval practice, inscribed with the phrase hic sunt dracones (here be dragons) referring to claw-footed beasts of ferocious intent, horned men and monstrous serpents that lurked beyond the horizon; mythical miscreants expressive of the disquietude associated with the dark unknown quarters of things.

The author, however, has not only plumbed the depths in the intimacy of literary creation but has tamed the dragon that slumbers in the far-reaches. For like Virgil who guides Dante through the nine circles of hell he possesses vast knowledge of all things; yet we the reader are struck to the marrow by each new revelation, tentative explorers of a bright new world where all beyond the page remains, for a time, shrouded in the dark expectation of yet-unread.

In present-day versions of the Inferno particular punishments may have been reserved for the compromised writer: one selling without soul, the mindless purveyor of literary tripe (and doubtless for this narrator who arrogantly assumes the prerogative of judgement!) The Virgil-author accompanies us through the turn of page, through the concentric circles of punishment, and the accumulation of gathered understandings. In the sixth circle lies the city of Dis, entrenched and entombed within the Stygian marsh; here the epicureans are trapped within flaming tombs. The linguistically wily, the users of flattering verbiage occupy the ninth circle to which the two poets descend on the back of the winged monster Geryon. These misusers of language are mired and steeped in human excrement, evocative of words utilized in life. These escalating bands of  inventive torture function not merely as a form of divine retribution but serve as the warped gratification of a destiny readily chosen during life. That is not to say all fictional works find analogy in the grim shadows of Dante's inferno - merely a mechanism expressive of the dramatic human plight that lies at life's core, and the oft-times torturous trail that we follow passing through it.

So perhaps writers, manipulators of words, guide the Dante-novice as well as occupy the rings through which they pass. They themselves inhabit the narrative, permeate the prose, breathe beneath the skin of each character, infiltrate the landscape just as they draw us through it. The author occupies all spheres simultaneously: the disembodied voice, the Absent One whose perspective filters through the prose like an incarcerated divinity behind a gossamer veil; the omniscient repository of wisdom particular to this literary journey. They are the one who take us to the brink of some hitherto unimagined literary expanse, whether it be the moons of some fantastical world or the prosaic routine of white-collar modernity - but there is always something under the surface. The placidity, the comfortable conformity, is inevitably disrupted. For the ongoing narrative is a dramatic one, and our guide will see us through the pitfalls and the predicaments. This, after all, is the furious admixture of life - the convulsive tempestuousness of character interaction set amidst a vividly imagined panorama.

Conrad's The Secret Agent opens with a simple description of a rather dilapidated storefront, Balzac's Lost Illusions with the antiquated tools of printing-presses that will prove so instrumental to S├ęchard's trade, Dickens' Oliver Twist in the grim workhouse located within the town of Mudfog, but with each one feels the authorial hand taking our own, astutely aware of the journey in its entirety; but for us the path ahead is darkly shrouded - just our ever-present attendant beckoning us onwards, pointing out environmental features, providing the contextual immediacy within which the plot will begin to unwind like Theseus' thread before us. As Virgil guided Dante, so Lord Krishna counseled Prince Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita - an epic narrative that like the Iliad formed a battleground allegory for the ethical and moral struggles of life. The text itself is designated smiriti or 'that which is remembered' as opposed to texts divinely revealed - thus diminished by its mortal origins but to my mind imbued with the poignant wisdom and courage that escapes Gods of Old, the Immortals who intrinsically comprehend neither courage nor sacrifice in the face of impending death. For the writer a text remembered is perhaps the most sublime achievement of all, implying a centrality of collective pertinence if you will, a literary representation of humanity's most prevalent of themes: a reiteration, a recognition, a renewed awareness of the central questions of what it means to be human; a literary echo that, like Jung's archetypes, resounds through subsequent reading generations.

Dante and Virgil escape Hell by climbing down Satan's ragged fur, passing through the center of the earth and emerging in the opposite hemisphere beneath a star-studded sky. Just as we traverse the literary peaks, precipices and verdant valleys of a narrative work, the author travels a path beside us, resides within the characters we encounter along the way, and imbues all with a feverish expectancy for that which is to come. He (or she) is a whisperer of wisdom, a distant parent, a conjuror of magic, a God...a revealer of uncomfortable truths; or perhaps merely a silent companion, a shadow glimpsed in peripheral vision...of substance so intangible as to be barely there - a ghost in the literary machine.

8 comments:

  1. As always a delightful post, PJ. Your blog is one I read each time with pleasure, learning as I go about those works of literature I have omitted to read. I marvel at your ability to put your ideas into words, making the prose sing as if the music of the poetic is all there is in existence.
    Thank you.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thank you for being so kind as to stop by and read my musings - for what, indeed, is a writer without a reader? Thank you for your support and encouragement, and your lovely comment - all of which is greatly appreciated.

      Delete
  2. Dearest PJ, your musing to the reader is like a journey through the blissful shaded Elysian Fields where literary giants reside. No Stygian marshes here, no "winged monsters" or "flaming tombs", but the tranquil rustle of tree leaves and the sough of the Okeanos.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Dearest Dana - such praise from a writer of your caliber humbles me indeed - and inspires and elevates further efforts! I have always thought Dante's Inferno to be lushly gorgeous in a muck and mire kind of way...thank you my dear for visiting my musing and taking the trouble to leave your blissful comment!

      Delete
  3. My dear PJ, this beautiful musing sends me on Dante's epic journey of life, death and redemption, of which you so eloquently expounded, that every author must travail and the reader must travel in a literary work of universal meaning and transformative quality. Your piece has left me in wonder and reminiscent of Thomas Wolfe's *You Cant' Go Home Again.* Once we make that plunge into the outer world of brightness, darkness and other unknowns, there is no way to go but forward, no turning back, only to emerge a different soul:

    “There came to him an image of man’s whole life upon the earth. It seemed to him that all man’s life was like a tiny spurt of flame that blazed out briefly in an illimitable and terrifying darkness, and that all man’s grandeur, tragic dignity, his heroic glory, came from the brevity and smallness of this flame. He knew his life was little and would be extinguished, and that only darkness was immense and everlasting. And he knew that he would die with defiance on his lips, and that the shout of his denial would ring with the last pulsing of his heart into the maw of all-engulfing night.”

    ― Thomas Wolfe, You Can't Go Home Again

    It seems that everyone must travel through their own "Inferno" in the journey of life, while many literary greats portray the stories of such great journeys; and Wolfe supports the notion that we cannot retreat to former days, for once we are changed, the evolution requires an ascendance in our thinking and being:

    “Something has spoken to me in the night...and told me that I shall die, I know not where. Saying: '[Death is] to lose the earth you know for greater knowing; to lose the life you have, for greater life; to leave the friends you loved, for greater loving; to find a land more kind than home, more large than earth.'”

    ― Thomas Wolfe, You Can't Go Home Again

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Blissful contributions Shari! This has me pondering on the evolution of the literary voice...but that is another musing.... Wolfe's words are sublime indeed, and provoke further thoughts on the literary path traveled by both author and reader. Thank you for your kind visit Shari, and your wonderful wonderful comment inscribed on the electronic wall behind you!

      Delete
  4. Dear PJ, the depth of your musings imbues writers with hopes of immortality at the same time as it delicately points to scriveners, another category altogether. Your descent into the circles of Hell is a modern Divine Comedy, out of which your author-hero emerges wielding the elixir of true creation. Let me add that sometimes we venture into Hades, another conception of the Underworld, where we remain prisoners of the dark unless a bold spirit comes to our rescue. And yet in the dark we create for others to bask in the light that has been denied to our tortured souls.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Dearest Marta,
      Thank you for your perusal of my humble musing and your lovely commentary. Your thoughts regarding Hades are intriguing indeed - being trapped in the mire and muck (with hopeful progression to Purgatory at the least?) Perhaps we are rescued when our works successfully connect with another, perhaps it is our readers that draw us out of the dark?

      Delete