Archive for the ‘Dorothy Sayers’ Category


Idea, Energy, Power – Dorothy Sayers

February 7, 2014
The image of Dorothy L. Sayers, the creator of Lord Peter Wimsey, the great fictional detective of the 1920s and 30s, is of a moonfaced, heavily built, bespectacled elderly woman in mannish clothes. Yet she first caused a stir as a tall thin girl, nicknamed Swanny on account of her long and slender neck. The slightly gawky, enthusiastic young woman (above) had a passion for language. She also had a zest for friendship, laughter and men. She would in later life become famous for her advertising slogans ("My Goodness, my Guinness"), for her theatre and radio plays, her religious writings, her translation of Dante's Divine Comedy, and her letters. Her friend C.S. Lewis, author of the Narnia series of books, maintained that she was one of the great letter-writers of the 20th century.

The image of Dorothy L. Sayers, the creator of Lord Peter Wimsey, the great fictional detective of the 1920s and 30s, is of a moonfaced, heavily built, bespectacled elderly woman in mannish clothes. Yet she first caused a stir as a tall thin girl, nicknamed Swanny on account of her long and slender neck. The slightly gawky, enthusiastic young woman (above) had a passion for language. She also had a zest for friendship, laughter and men. She would in later life become famous for her advertising slogans (“My Goodness, my Guinness”), for her theatre and radio plays, her religious writings, her translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy, and her letters. Her friend C.S. Lewis, author of the Narnia series of books, maintained that she was one of the great letter-writers of the 20th century.

I SUPPOSE that of all Christian dogmas, the doctrine of the Trinity enjoys the greatest reputation for obscurity and remoteness from common experience. Whether the theologian extols it as the splendor of the light invisible or the skeptic derides it as a horror of great darkness, there is a general conspiracy to assume that its effect upon those who contemplate it is blindness, either by absence or excess of light.

There is some truth in the assumption, but there is also a great deal of exaggeration. God is mysterious, and so (for that matter) is the universe and one’s fellow-man and one’s self and the snail on the garden-path; but none of these is so mysterious as to correspond to nothing within human knowledge. There are, of course, some minds that cultivate mystery for mystery’s sake: with these, St. Augustine of Hippo, who was no obscurantist, deals firmly:

Holy Scripture, which suits itself to babes, has not avoided words drawn from any class of things really existing, through which, as by nourishment, our understanding might rise gradually to things divine and transcendent… . But it has drawn no words whatever, whereby to frame either figures of speech or enigmatic sayings, from things which do not exist at all. And hence it is that those who [ in disputing about God strive to transcend the whole creation] are more mischievously and emptily vain than their fellows; in that they surmise concerning God, what can neither be found in Himself nor in any creature.’
St. Augustine, On the Trinity, Book 1 Chapter 1

He proceeds, in his great treatise, to expound the doctrine analogically, using again and again the appeal to experience. He says in effect: “a Trinitarian structure of being is not a thing incomprehensible or unfamiliar to you; you know of many such within the created universe.

There is a trinity of sight, for example: the form seen, the act of vision, and the mental attention which correlates the two. These three, though separable in theory, are inseparably present whenever you use your sight. Again, every thought is an inseparable trinity of memory, understanding, and will. [cf. Eddington, Philosophy of Physical Science: "Still less is a single sensation strictly separable from the environment of emotion, memory and intellectual activity in which it occurs; nor is it strictly separable from the volition which directs attention to it and the thought which embodies sapient knowledge of it."] This is a fact of which you are quite aware; it is not the concept of a trinity-in-unity that in itself presents any insuperable difficulty to the human imagination.”

We may perhaps go so far as to assert that the Trinitarian structure of activity is mysterious to us just because it is universal — rather as the four-dimensional structure of space-time is mysterious because we cannot get outside it to look at it. The mathematician can, however, to some extent perform the intellectual feat of observing space-time from without, and we may similarly call upon the creative artist to extricate himself from his own activity far enough to examine and describe its threefold structure.

For the purpose of this examination I shall use the mind of the creative writer, both because I am more familiar with its workings than with those of other creative artists, and because I shall thus save the confusion of a great many clauses beginning with “and” and “or.” But, mutatis mutandis[Vocab: Mutatis mutandis is a Latin phrase meaning "changing [only] those things which need to be changed” or more simply “[only] the necessary changes having been made”.], what is true of the writer is true also of the painter, the musician and all workers of creative imagination in whatever form.

“The writer” is of course understood to be the ideal writer, considered when engaged in an act of artistic creation, just as, in considering the “father” we always intend the ideal parent, considered while exercising the functions of parenthood and in no other activity. It is not to be imagined that any human writer ever works with ideal perfection; in the tenth chapter of this book I shall try to point out what happens when the writer’s trinity fails too conspicuously to conform to the law of its own nature — for here, as always, there is a judgment for behavior that runs counter to the law.

Since this chapter — and indeed this whole book — is an expansion of the concluding speech of St. Michael in my play The Zeal of Thy House, it will perhaps be convenient to quote that speech here:

For every work [or act] of creation is threefold, an earthly trinity to match the heavenly.

First, [not in time, but merely in order of enumeration] there is the Creative Idea, passionless, timeless, beholding the whole work complete at once, the end in the beginning: and this is the image of the Father.

Second, there is the Creative Energy [or Activity] begotten of that idea, working in time from the beginning to the end, with sweat and passion, being incarnate in the bonds of matter: and this is the image of the Word.

Third, there is the Creative Power, the meaning of the work and its response in the lively soul: and this is the image of the indwelling Spirit. And these three are one, each equally in itself the whole work, whereof none can exist without other: and this is the image of the Trinity.

Of these clauses, the one which gives the most trouble to the hearer is that dealing with the Creative Idea. (The word is here used, not in the philosopher’s sense, in which the “Idea” tends to be equated with the “Word,” but quite simply in the sense intended by the writer when he says: “I have an idea for a book.” [Similarly, of course, "Energy" is not to be understood in the physicist's technical sense (e.g., Mass X Acceleration X Distance), or "Power" in the engineer's sense (e.g., applied force); both these words are used in the sense intended by the poet and the common man.]

The ordinary man is apt to say: “I thought you began by collecting material and working out the plot.” The confusion here is not merely over the words “first” and “begin.” In fact the “Idea” — or rather the writer’s realization of his own idea — does precede any mental or physical work upon the materials or on the course of the story within a time-series. But apart from this, the very formulation of the Idea in the writer’s mind is not the Idea itself, but its self-awareness in the Energy.

Everything that is conscious, everything that has to do with form and time, and everything that has to do with process, belongs to the working of the Energy or Activity or “Word.” The Idea, that is, cannot be said to precede the Energy in time, because (so far as that act of creation is concerned) it is the Energy that creates the time-process. This is the analogy of the theological expressions that “the Word was in the beginning with God” and was “eternally begotten of the Father.” If, that is, the act has a beginning in time at all, it is because of the presence of the Energy or Activity. The writer cannot even be conscious of his Idea except by the working of the Energy which formulates it to himself.

That being so, how can we know that the Idea itself has any real existence apart from the Energy? Very strangely; by the fact that the Energy itself is conscious of referring all its acts to an existing and complete whole. In theological terms, the Son does the will of the Father. Quite simply, every choice of an episode, or a phrase. or a word is made to conform to a pattern of the entire book, which is revealed by that choice as already existing.

This truth, which is difficult to convey in explanation, is quite clear and obvious in experience. It manifests itself plainly enough when the writer says or thinks: “That is, or is not, the right phrase” — meaning that it is a phrase which does or does not correspond to the reality of the Idea.

Further, although the book — that is, the activity of writing the book — is a process in space and time, it is known to the writer as also a complete and timeless whole, “the end in the beginning,” and this knowledge of it is with him always, while writing it and after it is finished, just as it was at the beginning. It is not changed or affected by the toils and troubles of composition, nor is the writer aware of his book as merely a succession of words and situations.

The Idea of the book is a thing-in-itself quite apart from its awareness or its manifestation in Energy, though it still remains true that it cannot be known as a thing-in-itself except as the Energy reveals it. The Idea is thus timeless and without parts or passions, though it is never seen, either by writer or reader, except in terms of time, parts and passion.

The Energy itself is an easier concept to grasp, because it is the thing of which the writer is conscious and which the reader can see when it is manifest in material form. It is dynamic — the sum and process of all the activity which brings the book into temporal and spatial existence. “All things are made by it, and without it nothing is made that has been made.” To it belongs everything that can be included under the word “passion” — feeling, thought, toil, trouble, difficulty, choice, triumph — all the accidents which attend a manifestation in time.

It is the Energy that is the creator in the sense in which the common man understands the word, because it brings about an expression in temporal form of the eternal and immutable Idea. It is, for the writer, what he means by “the writing of the book,” and it includes, though it is not confined to, the manifestation of the book in material form. We shall have more to say about it in the following chapters: for the moment, the thing I am anxious to establish is that it is something distinct from the Idea itself, though it is the only thing that can make the Idea known to itself or to others, and yet is (in the ideal creative act which we are considering) essentially identical with the Idea — “consubstantial with the Father.”

The Creative Power is the third “Person” of the writer’s trinity. It is not the same thing as the Energy (which for greater clearness I ought perhaps to have called “the Activity”), though it proceeds from the Idea and the Energy together. It is the thing which flows back to the writer from his own activity and makes him as it were, the reader of his own book.

It is also, of course, the means by which the Activity is communicated to other readers and which produces a corresponding response in them. In fact, from the reader’s point of view, it is the book. By it, they perceive the book, both as a process in time and as an eternal whole, and react to it dynamically. It is at this point we begin to understand what St. Hilary means in saying of the Trinity: “Eternity is in the Father, form in the Image and use in the Gift.”

Lastly: “these three are one, each equally in itself the whole work, whereof none can exist without other.” If you were to ask a writer which is “the real book” — his Idea of it, his Activity in writing it, or its return to himself in Power, he would be at a loss to tell you, because these things are essentially inseparable. Each of them is the complete book separately; yet in the complete book all of them exist together. He can, by an act of the intellect, “distinguish the persons” but he cannot by any means “divide the substance.”

How could he? He cannot know the Idea, except by the Power interpreting his own Activity to him; he knows the Activity only as it reveals the Idea in Power; he knows the Power only as the revelation of the Idea in the Activity. All he can say is that these three are equally and eternally present in his own act of creation, and at every moment of it, whether or not the act ever becomes manifest in the form of a written and printed book. These things are not confined to the material manifestation: they exist in — they are — the creative mind itself.

I ought perhaps to emphasize this point a little. The whole complex relation that I have been trying to describe may remain entirely within the sphere of the imagination, and is there complete. The Trinity abides and works and is responsive to itself “in Heaven.” A writer may be heard to say: “My book is finished — I have only to write it”; or even, “My book is written — I have only to put it on paper.” The creative act, that is, does not depend for its fulfillment upon its manifestation in a material creation. The glib assertion that “God needs His creation as much as His creation needs Him” is not a true analogy from the mind of the human creator.

Nevertheless, it is true that the urgent desire of the creative mind is towards expression in material form. The writer, in writing his book on paper, is expressing the freedom of his own nature in accordance with the law of his being; and we argue from this that material creation expresses the nature of the Divine Imagination. We may perhaps say that creation in some form or another is necessary to the nature of God; what we cannot say is that this or any particular form of creation is necessary to Him. It is in His mind, complete, whether He writes it down or not.

To say that God depends on His creation as a poet depends on his written poem is an abuse of metaphor: the poet does nothing of the sort. To write the poem (or, of course, to give it material form in speech or song), is an act of love towards the poet’s own imaginative act and towards his fellow-beings. It is a social act; but the poet is, first and foremost, his own society, and would be none the less a poet if the means of material expression were refused by him or denied him.

I have used in this chapter, and shall use again, expressions which to persons brought up in “scientific” habits of thought may seem to be out-moded. Scientists are growing more and more chary of using any forms of speech at all. Words like “idea,” “matter,” “existence,” and their derivatives have become suspect. “Old truths have to be abandoned, general terms of everyday use which we thought to be the keys to understanding will now no longer fit the lock. Evolution, yes, but be very careful with it, for the concept is slightly rusty.

Elements … their immutability no longer exists. Causation … on the whole there is little one can do with the concept; it breaks at the slightest usage. Natural laws … certainly, but better not talk too much of absolute validity. Objectivity … it is still our duty as well as our ideal, but its perfect realization is not possible, at least not for the social sciences and the humanities.” [Huizinga: In the Shadow of Tomorrow]

This difficulty which confronts the scientists and has compelled their flight into formulae is the result of a failure to understand or accept the analogical nature of language. Men of science spend much time and effort in the attempt to disentangle words from their metaphorical and traditional associations; the attempt is bound to prove vain since it runs counter to the law of humanity.’

The confusion and difficulty are increased by the modern world’s preoccupation with the concept of progress. This concept — now rapidly becoming as precarious as those others quoted by Huizinga — imposes upon the human mind two (in the hypnotic sense) “suggestions.” The first is that any invention or creative act will necessarily tend to supersede an act of earlier date. This may be true of mechanical inventions and scientific formulae:

We may say, for example, that the power-loom has superseded the hand-loom, or that Einsteinian physics has superseded Newtonian physics, and mean something by saying so. But there is no sense whatever in which we can say that Hamlet has “superseded” the Agamemnon, or that

you who were with me in the ships at Mylae

has superseded

en la sua voluntade e nostra pace


tendebantque mantis ripae ulterioris amore.

The later in date leaves the earlier achievement unconquered and unchanged; that which was at the summit remains at the summit until the end of time.

The second suggestion is that, once an invention has been brought into being and made public by a creative act, the whole level of human understanding is raised to the level of that inventiveness. This is not true, even within its own sphere of application. The fact that every schoolboy can now use logarithms does not lift him to the intellectual level of the brain that first imagined the method of logarithmic calculation.

But the absurdity of the suggestion becomes glaringly obvious when we consider the arts. If a ruthless education in Shakespeare’s language could produce a nation of Shakespeares, every Englishman would at this moment be a dramatic genius. Actually, all that such an education can possibly do is to improve a little the general apparatus of linguistic machinery and so make the way smooth for the appearance of the still rare, still incalculable genius. Genius is, in fact, not subject to the “law” of progress, and it is beginning to be extremely doubtful whether progress is a “law” at all.

For these reasons, we need not allow ourselves to be abashed by any suggestion that the old metaphors are out of date and ought to be superseded. We have only to remember that they are, and always were, metaphors, and that they are still “living” metaphors so long as we use them to interpret direct experience. Metaphors become dead only when the metaphor is substituted for the experience, and the argument carried on in a sphere of abstraction without being at every point related to life.

In the metaphors used by the Christian creeds about the mind of the maker, the creative artist can recognize a true relation to his own experience; and it is his business to record the fact of that recognition in any further metaphor that the reader may understand and apply.


Pentecost 2 – Dorothy Sayers

August 27, 2013
It is interesting to rake into one's own mind and discover, if one can, what were the combined sources of -power on which one, consciously or unconsciously, drew while endeavoring to express an idea in writing.

It is interesting to rake into one’s own mind and discover, if one can, what were the combined sources of -power on which one, consciously or unconsciously, drew while endeavoring to express an idea in writing.

Dorothy Leigh Sayers was a renowned English crime writer, poet, playwright, essayist, translator and Christian humanist. She was also a student of classical and modern languages. She is best known for her mysteries, a series of novels and short stories set between World War I and World War II that feature English aristocrat and amateur sleuth Lord Peter Wimsey that remain popular to this day. It has been said that with her creation of Lord Peter Wimsey that Dorothy Sayers, in the first half of the 20th century, rightly occupies a place of honor alongside Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot and Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes as one of the finest detectives in the murder mystery genre, in the traditional British mould. However, Sayers herself considered her translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy to be her best work. She is also known for her plays and essays.


It is as though the writer’s Idea had passed from eternity into time and then back into eternity again — still the same Idea, but charged with a different emphasis of Power derived from our own response. Not only that: if it is a play like Hamlet, which has already stimulated powerful responses in the minds of other men, our personal response will be related to a greater unity which includes all those other foci of Power. Every scholar and critic who has written about Hamlet, every great actor who has ever played the part, every painter or musician who has found a source of power in Hamlet, retransmits that power to the spectator, in accordance with the capacity for response that is in each.

It is by this kind of process that words and phrases become charged with the Power acquired by passing through the minds of successive writers. Pure scientists (who find this particular kind of power embarrassing to them) are always struggling in vain to rid words of their power of association; and the ugly formations which they devise for this purpose have as their excuse their comparative freedom from the artist’s brand of creative power.

Here is a trifling example. I was once taken to task by an arms expert for using the word “dynamite” as a symbol of explosive force. He contended, very justly, that dynamite was out of date; we now knew a great many substances that exploded more readily and with more devastating effect. My defense was that the newer words, though associated with more material power, had fewer associations of literary power. “Dynamite” carries with it the accumulated power flowing from the Greek dynamis — such concepts, for example, as belong to the words dynamo, dynamic, dynasty, and so forth, and such literary associations as Hardy’s The Dynasts. Hardy’s poem brings with it the thought of Napoleon’s explosion of power; “dynasty” taps the power of ancient Egypt as it is interpreted in our minds. The expression “tri-nitro-toluol” (which I might have chosen) is, at present at any rate, much less rich in verbal associative power; also, its actual syllables unfortunately associate themselves with such jingling compounds as “tol-de-rol” and “tooralooral” — formations which, however powerful in their own sphere, contribute little to the energetic expression of “explosive force.”

It is interesting to rake into one’s own mind and discover, if one can, what were the combined sources of -power on which one, consciously or unconsciously, drew while endeavoring to express an idea in writing. Here, for instance, is a whole string of familiar passages which were obviously hovering about in my memory when I wrote a phrase in The Nine Tailors:

When the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy. –
Book of Job

Above it stood the seraphims: each one had six wings; with twain he covered his face, and with twain he covered his feet, and with twain he did fly.
Book of the Prophet Isaiah

He rode upon the cherubims and did fly; He came flying upon the wings of the wind.
Psalms of David

With Saintly shout and solemn Jubily,
Where the bright Seraphim in burning row
Their loud up-lifted Angel trumpets blow,
And the Cherubick host in thousand quires.
Touch their immortal Harps of golden wires,
With those just Spirits that wear victorious Palms,
Hymns devout and holy Psalms
Singing everlastingly.
Milton: At a Solemn Musick

The carved angels, ever eager-eyed,
Stand, where upon their heads the cornice rests,
With hair blown back, and wings put cross-wise on their breasts.
Keats: The Eve of St. Agnes

Only they see not God, I know,
Nor all that chivalry of His,
The soldier-saints who, row on row,
Burn upward each to his point of bliss.
Browning: The Statue and the Bust

… incredibly aloof, flinging back the light in a dusky shimmer of bright hair and gilded outspread wings, soared the ranked angels, cherubim and seraphim, choir over choir, from corbel and hammer-beam floating, face to face uplifted.
The Nine Tailors

In addition to the passages quoted, there is, of course, the direct association with actual angel-roofs, such as that in March Parish Church, which I know well, and pictures of others, such as that at Needham Market. Vaguely, too, I fancy, there was an echo of other, remoter associations:

… all the dim rich city, roof by roof,
Tower after tower, spire beyond spire,
By grove and garden-lawn and rushing brook,
Climbs to the mighty hall that Merlin built.
And four great zones of sculpture, set betwixt
With many a mystic symbol, gird the hall:
And in the lowest, beasts are slaying men,
And in the second, men are slaying beasts,
And on the third are warriors, perfect men,
And on the fourth are men with growing wings,
And over all one statue in the mould
Of Arthur, made by Merlin, with a crown,
And peaked wings pointed to the Northern Star.
Tennyson: The Holy Grail

Four great figures the corners on,
Matthew and Mark and Luke and John.
Camilla Doyle (a poem read years ago, the title of which I have quite forgotten. This is itself “associated” with the children’s rhyme about Matthew, Mark, Luke and John).

Where the walls
Of Magnus Martyr hold
Inexplicable splendour of Ionian white and gold.
T. S. Eliot: The Waste Land

A bracelet of bright hair about the bone.
John Donne: The Funeral

It is, of course, open to anyone to point out that these great streams of power have been much diminished by pouring through my narrow channel. That is quite true, and is partly a measure of my lack of capacity and partly a recognition of the fact that any passage within a work demands a volume of power appropriate to its place in the unity of that work and no more. But what is important, and not always understood in these days, is that a reminiscent passage of this kind is intended to recall to the reader all the associated passages, and so put him in touch with the sources of power behind and beyond the writer. The demand for “originality” — with the implication that the reminiscence of other writers is a sin against originality and a defect in the work — is a recent one and would have seemed quite ludicrous to poets of the Augustan Age, or of Shakespeare’s time.

The traditional view is that each new work should be a fresh focus of power through which former streams of beauty, emotion, and reflection are directed. This view is adopted, and perhaps carried to excess, by writers like T. S. Eliot, some of whose poems are a close web of quotations and adaptations, chosen for their associative value; or like James Joyce, who makes great use of the associative value of sounds and syllables. The criterion is, not whether the associations are called up, but whether the spirits invoked by this kind of verbal incantation are charged with personal power by the magician who speeds them about their new business.

The Power — the Spirit — is thus a social power, working to bring all minds into its own unity, sometimes by similarity and at other times by contrast. There is a diversity of gifts, but the same spirit. Sometimes we feel that a critic or student of a man’s work has “read into it” a good deal more than the first writer “meant.” This is, perhaps, to have a rather confined apprehension of the unity and diversity of the Power. In the narrower sense, it is doubtless true that when Solomon or somebody wrote the Song of Songs he did not “mean” to write an epithalamium on the mystic nuptials of Christ with his Church.

By the same process of reasoning, when Drayton wrote:

Since there’s no help, come, let us kiss and part;
Nay, I have done: You get no more of me .. .

he did not mean to express the complicated emotion of impatience, relief, acceptance and forlorn hope which you experienced “at the last gasp of Love’s latest breath.” Nevertheless, he was a true prophet of your emotion, since he did express it, so that you feel the lines to have been written “for you.” In coming into contact with his Power, through the ink-and-paper body of his Energy, you are taken up into the eternal unity of Drayton’s Idea. You now lie within the orbit of the Power, which (immanent and transcendent) is also within you, and your response to it will bring forth further power, according to your own capacity and energy.

If you react to it creatively, your response will again assume the form of: an Idea in your mind, the manifestation of that Idea in some form of Energy or Activity (speech, behavior or what not), and a communication of Power to the world about you.

This threefoldness in the reader’s mind corresponds to the threefoldness of the work (Book-as-Thought, Book-as-Written, Book-as-Read), and that again to the original threefoldness in the mind of the writer (Idea, Energy, Power). It is bound to be so, because that is the structure of the creative mind. When, therefore, we consider Trinitarian doctrine about the universal Creator, this is what we are driving at. We are arguing on the analogy of something perfectly familiar to our experience. The implication is that we find the threefold structure in ourselves (who are the-Book-as-Read) because that is the actual structure of the universe (which is the-Book-as-Written), and that it is in the universe because it is in God’s Idea about the universe (the-Book-as-Thought). Further, that this structure is in God’s Idea because it is the structure of God’s mind.

This is what the doctrine means; whether it is true or mistaken is another matter, but this is the Idea that is put forward for our response. There is nothing mythological about Christian Trinitarian doctrine: it is analogical. It offers itself freely for meditation and discussion; but it is desirable that we should avoid the bewildered frame of mind of the apocryphal Japanese gentleman who complained:

“Honorable Father, very good; Honorable Son, very good; but Honorable Bird I do not understand at all.”

“Honorable Bird,” however, has certain advantages as a pictorial symbol, since, besides reminding us of those realities which it does symbolize, it also reminds us that the whole picture is a symbol and no more. There have been people so literal-minded as to suppose that God the Father really is an old man with a beard, but remarkably few adult persons can ever have believed that the Holy Ghost really was a dove.

In what we may call the “standard” pictorial symbol of the Holy Trinity, the emphasis is rather upon the diversity than upon the identity; it depicts the Unity-in-Trinity. The Father, usually conceived as an aged priest, robed and crowned, holds upon His knees the figure of Christ crucified; between them hovers the Dove. The pictures of the First and the Third Persons are pure intellectual symbol — they represent nothing in time-space-matter; but the picture of the Second Person is living symbol: it represents an event in history. This is what our analogy would lead us to expect: it is only the Energy that issues in a material Book-as-Written; the Idea and the Power remain immaterial and timeless in their reflected natures as the Book-as-Thought and the Book-as-Read.

A set of miniatures by Fouquet in the Book of Hours of Etienne Chevalier, presents us, on the other hand, with a very interesting pictorial symbol of the identity of the diversity, the Trinity-in-Unity: here, Father, Son and Holy Ghost are shown as all human, all young and all exactly alike. This is the Trinity in the mind — the essential identity of Idea, Energy and Power, which is reflected as a Trinity in the work — the Book being the same book, whether thought, written or read.

Of these two pictorial symbols, the former operates to prevent the spectator from “confounding the Persons,” and the latter, to prevent him from “dividing the Substance.”

“So that” (as the Athanasian Creed observes, in what looks like a glimpse of the obvious, but is really as complex and profound as the obvious usually turns out to be) “there is one Father, not three fathers, one Son, not three sons, one Holy Ghost, not three holy ghosts. And … the whole three Persons are consubstantial together , and co-equal.”


Dorothy Sayers – Jacques Barzun

August 16, 2012

Dorothy Leigh Sayers, 1928

Dorothy Leigh Sayers was a renowned English crime writer, poet, playwright, essayist, translator and Christian humanist. She was also a student of classical and modern languages. She is best known for her mysteries, a series of novels and short stories set between World War I and World War II that feature English aristocrat and amateur sleuth Lord Peter Wimsey that remain popular to this day. It has been said that with her creation of Lord Peter Wimsey that Dorothy Sayers, in the first half of the 20th century, rightly occupies a place of honor alongside Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot and Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes as one of the finest detectives in the murder mystery genre, in the traditional British mould. However, Sayers herself considered her translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy to be her best work. She is also known for her plays and essays.


Dorothy Sayers manifested early a gift and a passion for words. Born in Oxford, she was the only child of a clergyman and musician and of a woman of modest education but energetic, highly intelligent, and proud of an ancestress who was a cousin of Hazlitt’s. Unfortunately for mother and daughter; four years after the child’s birth the family moved to a vicarage in Cambridgeshire, remote but handsomely endowed.

There the wife grew increasingly bored with her husband, and the child was reared with hardly any young friends or other society. Dorothy amused herself by voracious reading, writing stories and poems, imagining what the outer world was like, and pondering the details of the Christian faith, which she read as a story. At the same time, she was a tomboy, full of life like mother and practical in everyday matters. These traits shaped her subsequent career: innocence, energy, a down-to-earth attitude that did not limit imagination, and a peculiarly intimate feeling for what has been called the Christian epic.

She went to Somerville College at Oxford, where she became a fine scholar (read her next-to-last tale, ‘Gaudy Night), and was one of the first batch of women to receive a full Oxford degree instead of a certificate — or rather, two degrees in one ceremony: Bachelor and Master of Arts. So far, her life had been smooth and pleasant; now she must earn a living. She served as secretary to a man who ran a service associated with a school in France. They had a sort of love affair  — in words — that was the first of her misfortunes in that domain. After two more episodes, which left her with an illegitimate son who turned out handsome and intelligent, she found late in life a congenial husband, though his latter days darkened hers by his becoming ill, alcoholic, and of uncharacteristic bad temper.

So much for the unedifying yet anguishing odyssey that Sayers had to endure while developing her literary gifts. A job as copywriter in the largest London advertising agency proved useful (read Murder Must Advertise) and enjoyable too: there was good writing even in ads. In all that she wrote she aimed at the simple and direct.

Like Henry James, who gave a full-blown theory of the novel, Sayers laid down that of the detective tale, using her; scholarship by turns seriously and with humor. Interviewed on the subject, she manifested her forthright ways of speech: “Imbeciles and magazine editors” would ask her to discuss crime fiction “from the woman’s point of view.” To such demands one can only say ‘Go away and don’t be silly.’ You might as well ask what is the female angle on the equilateral triangle.”

On aesthetics at large she wrote an extraordinary little book, The Mind of the Maker. Its thesis is that the ordinary experience of making anything — creating art or applying workmanship to any object — corresponds to the meaning symbolized by the Trinity.

  1. First comes the creative Idea which, foresees the whole work as finished; this is the Father.
  2. Next comes the creative Energy, which engages in a vigorous struggle with matter and overcomes one obstacle after another; this is the Son.
  3. Third is the creative Power of the work, its influence on the world through its effect on the soul of the user-beholder; this is the Holy Spirit.

All three are indispensable to completeness as they unite in the work. The demonstration had a double purpose, critical and religious. While analyzing human creation it showed that God’s work as revealed in Christian theology followed the same pattern and man is indeed made in God’s image.

Before writing this highly original book, Sayers had lectured and written plays on religious themes for festivals held in Canterbury cathedral and other churches. For these she did’ research in medieval history, literature, and language and her activity brought her national attention as an intellectual evangelist. When the BBC commissioned her to present in dramatic form six programs depicting the life, and death of Jesus, she wrote a script that combined simplicity in word and idea with emotion free of sentimentality.

And like naturally religious persons in the Catholic tradition, she enjoyed being humorous about the objects of her faith. In Pantheon Papers for instance: “St. Supercilia’s unworthy father brutally cornmanded her to accept the hand of a man who, though virtuous, sensible, and of good estate, knew only six languages and was, weak in mathematics. At this the outraged saint raised her eyebrows so high that they lifted her off her feet and out through a top-storey window, whence she was seen floating away in a northerly direction.”

Sayers continued without letup what .she considered her missionn to show the role and validity of belief, using reason and example in the manner that makes The Mind of the Maker a work of permanent interest, comparable to C. S. Lewis’s works. But Sayers was not an absolutist. Belief in God she thought indispensable to answering unavoidable cosmic questions and as a fixed point by which to settle earthly ones, but to demand or enforce a particular conception of the Deity would ensure only division and oppression. She was explicitly a pragmatic relativist. More than once, in various contexts, she writes: “The first thing a principle does is to kill somebody.”

The research she had done in the history and literature of the Middle Ages had persuaded her that she could translate Dante. Competent in Greek, Latin, and French, she now learned Italian and rendered Dante in the terza rima verse scheme of the original. Her youthful scribblings had trained her to think metrically and she chose the simplest, briefest language to give due place to Dante’s wit, sarcasm, and humor — little or none of which had appeared in previous efforts; all were solemn in deference to the theme.

She died suddenly at the age of sixty-four before quite finishing. But a friend supplied the lack and the translation appeared in the Penguin Classics, to mixed reviews, some enthusiastic. Much praise came from C. S. Lewis. Her version has two merits: it makes for an easily readable and dramatically effective work, like Samuel Butler’s prose translation of the Iliad and the Odyssey; and her interpretation of Dante is tenable if one remembers that he wrote a pamphleteering poem in which, as a wandering exile, he damned his political and personal enemies, extolled friends, and put forth dogmas by no means all orthodox.

What will remain of her work as a whole is a matter for conjecture. The attitudes and prose style of crime fiction have changed, though several of her tales keep being reprinted. The Mind of the Maker [a payingattentiontothesky reading selection here] has the survival value of an original idea perfectly developed and expressed. In the rest of her writings Sayers was ahead of time. The present preoccupation with the Bible, Jesus, and Creation should lead back to her views. If the colloquial Dante finds no lasting favor, the scholarly introduction and notes must remain important for students.

Sayers’s conclusion that principle kills had been borne in upon her by the onset and the conduct of the Great War. National honor, naval supremacy, colonies for show rather than benefit, regions that must be conquered to redeem “people of our race,” and “No peace, no surrender” had been goals pursued so stubbornly that Europe had turned itself into a vast burnt offering without seeing that the two sides were cooperating to that end on identical principles.


The Image Of God – Dorothy Sayers

April 4, 2011

Dorothy Sayers

 IN the beginning God created. He made this and He made that and He saw that it was good. And He created him in His own image; in the image of God created He him; male and female created He them.

Thus far the author of Genesis. The expression “in His own image” has occasioned a good deal of controversy. Only the most simple-minded people of any age or nation have supposed the image to be a physical one. The innumerable pictures which display the Creator as it hirsute old gentleman in flowing robes seated on a bank of cloud are recognized to be purely symbolic. The “image,” whatever the author may have meant by it, is something shared by male and female alike; the aggressive masculinity of the pictorial Jehovah represents Power, rationality or what you will: it has no relation to the text I have quoted. Christian doctrine and tradition, indeed, by language and picture, sets its face against all sexual symbolism for the divine fertility. Its Trinity is wholly masculine, as all language relating to Man as a species is masculine.( cf. St. Augustine: On the Trinity; Bk. XII, Chap. V.)

The Jews, keenly alive to the perils of pictorial metaphor, forbade the representation of the Person of God on graven images. Nevertheless, human nature and the nature of human language defeated them. No legislation could prevent the making of verbal pictures: God walks in the garden, He stretches out His arm, His voice shakes the cedars, His eyelids try the children of men. To forbid the making of pictures about God would be to forbid thinking about God at all, for man is so made that he has no way to think except in pictures. But continually, throughout the history of the Jewish-Christian Church, the voice of warning has been raised against the power of the picture-makers: “God is a spirit,” (St. John 4: 24) “without body, parts or passions;” (Articles of Religion, I ) He is pure being, “I AM THAT I AM.” (Exodus 4: 14).

Man, very obviously, is not a being of this kind; his body, parts and passions are only too conspicuous in his make-up. How then can he be said to resemble God? Is it his immortal soul, his rationality, his self-consciousness, his free will, or what, that gives him a claim to this rather startling distinction? A case may be argued for all these elements in the complex nature of man. But had the author of Genesis anything particular in his mind when he wrote?

It is observable that in the passage leading up to the statement about man, he has given no detailed information about God. Looking at man, he sees in him something essentially divine, but when we turn back to see what he says about the original upon which the “image” of God was modeled, we find only the single assertion, “God created.” The characteristic common to God and man is apparently that: the desire and the ability to make things.

This, we may say, is a metaphor like other statements about God. So it is, but it is none the worse for that. All language about God must, as St. Thomas Aquinas pointed out, necessarily be analogical. We need not be surprised at this, still less suppose that because it is analogical it is therefore valueless or without any relation to the truth. The fact is that all language about everything is analogical; we think in a series of metaphors. We can explain nothing in terms of itself, but only in terms of other things. Even mathematics can express itself in terms of itself only so long as it deals with an ideal system of pure numbers; the moment it begins to deal with numbers of things it is forced back into the language of analogy.

In particular, when we speak about something of which we have no direct experience, we must think by analogy or refrain from thought. It may be perilous, as it must be inadequate, to interpret God by analogy with ourselves, but we are compelled to do so; we have no other means of interpreting anything. Skeptics frequently complain that man has made God in his own image; they should in reason go further (as many of them do) and acknowledge that man has made all existence in his own image.

If the tendency to anthropomorphism is a good reason for refusing to think about God, it is an equally good reason for refusing to think about light, or oysters, or battleships. It may quite well be perilous, as it must be inadequate, to interpret the mind of our pet dog by analogy with ourselves; we can by no means enter directly into the nature of a dog; behind the appealing eyes and the wagging tail lies a mystery as inscrutable as the mystery of the Trinity. But that does not prevent us from ascribing to the dog feelings and ideas based on analogy with our own experience; and our behavior to the dog, controlled by this kind of experimental guesswork, produces practical results which are reasonably satisfactory.

Similarly the physicist, struggling to interpret the alien structure of the atom, finds himself obliged to consider it sometimes as a “wave” and sometimes as a “particle.” He knows very well that both these terms are analogical — they are metaphors, “picture-thinking,” and, as pictures, they are incompatible and mutually contradictory. But he need not on that account refrain from using them for what they are worth. If he were to wait till he could have im­mediate experience of the atom, he would have to wait until he was set free from the framework of the uni­verse. (Research forces us to think far beyond the limits of the imagina­tion. Formulae afford the medium of expressing the new discoveries, but the imagination is incapable of conveying the particular reality to our mind. The confident “it is” is reduced to a hesitating “it ap­pears to be.” A process appears to be the action of waves or of particles depending on the angle from which it is viewed. Dispense with formulae to express a scientific generalization and only analogy remains. — Huizinga: In the Shadow of Tomorrow.)

In the meantime, so long as he remembers that language and observation are human functions, partak­ing at every point of the limitations of humanity, he can get along quite well with them and carry out fruitful researches. To complain that man measures God by his own experience is a waste of time; man measures every­thing by his own experience; he has no other yardstick.

We have, then, various analogies by which we seek to interpret to ourselves the nature of God as it is known to us by experience. Sometimes we speak of Him as a king, and use metaphors drawn from that analogy. We talk, for instance, of His kingdom, laws, dominion, service and soldiers. Still more frequently, we speak of Him as a father, and think it quite legitimate to argue from the analogy of human fatherhood to the “fatherhood” of God.

This particular “picture-thought” is one of which Christ was very fond, and it has stamped itself indelibly on the language of Christian worship and doctrine: “God the Father Almighty,” “like as a father pitieth his own children,” “your Father in Heaven careth for you,” “the children of God,” “the Son of God,” “as many as are led by the spirit of God are sons of God,” “I will arise and go to my father,” “Our Father which art in Heaven.”

In books and sermons we express the relation between God and mankind in terms of human parenthood; we say that, just as a father is kind, careful, unselfish and forgiving in his dealings with his children, so is God in his dealings with men; that there it. a true likeness of nature between God and man as between a father and his sons; and that because we are Nons of one Father, we should look on all men as our brothers.

When we use these expressions, we know perfectly well that they are metaphors and analogies; what is more, we know perfectly well where the metaphor begins and ends. We do not suppose for one moment that God procreates children in the same manner as a human father and we are quite well aware that preachers who use the “father” metaphor intend and expect no such perverse interpretation of their language. Nor (unless we are very stupid indeed) do we go on to deduce from the analogy that we are to imagine God as being a cruel, careless or injudicious father such as we may see from time to time in daily life; still less, that all the activities of a human father may be attributed to God, such as earning money for the support of the family or demanding the first use of the bathroom in the morning. Our own common sense assures us that the metaphor is intended to be drawn from the best kind of father acting within a certain limited sphere of behavior, and is to be applied only to a well-defined number of the divine attributes.

I have put down these very elementary notes on the limitations of metaphor, because this is an examination of metaphors about God, and because it is well to remind ourselves before we begin of the way in which metaphorical language — that is to say, all language — is properly used. It is an expression of experience and of the relation of one experience to the other. Further, its meaning is realized only in experience. We frequently say, “Until I had that experience, I never knew what the word fear (or love, or anger, or whatever it is) meant.” The language, which had been merely pictorial, is transmuted into experience and we then have immediate knowledge of the reality behind the picture.

The words of creeds come before our eyes and ears as pictures; we do not apprehend them as statements of experience; it is only when our own experience it brought into relation with the experience of the men who framed the creeds that we are able to say: “I recognize that for a statement of experience; I know now what the words mean.”

The analogical statements of experience which I want to examine are those used by the Christian creeds about God the Creator.

And first of all, is the phrase “God the Creator” metaphorical in the same sense that “God the Father” is clearly metaphorical? At first sight, it does not appear to be so. We know what a human father is, but what is a human creator? We are very well aware that man cannot create in the absolute sense in which we understand the word when we apply it to God. We say that “He made the world out of nothing,” but we cannot ourselves make anything out of nothing. We can only rearrange the unalterable and indestructible units of matter in the universe and build them up into new forms. We might reasonably say that in the “father” metaphor we are arguing from the known to the unknown; whereas, in the “creator” metaphor, we are arguing from the unknown to the unknowable.

But to say this is to overlook the metaphorical nature of all language. We use the word “create” to convey an extension and amplification of something that we do know, and we limit the application of the metaphor precisely as we limit the application of the metaphor of fatherhood. We know a father and picture to ourselves an ideal Father; similarly, we know a human “maker” and picture to ourselves an ideal “Maker.” If the word “Maker” does not mean something related to our human experience of making, then it has no meaning at all. We extend it to the concept of a Maker who can make something out of nothing; we limit it to exclude the concept of employing material tools. It is analogical language simply because it is human language, and it is related to human experience for the same reason.

This particular metaphor has been much less studied than the metaphor of “the Father.” This is partly because the image of divine Fatherhood has been particularly consecrated by Christ’s use of it; partly because most of us have a very narrow experience of the act of creation. It is true that everybody is a “maker” in the simplest meaning of the term. We spend our lives putting matter together in new patterns and so “creating” forms which were not there before.

This is so intimate and universal a function of nature that we scarcely ever think about it. In a sense, even this kind of creation is “creation out of nothing.” Though we cannot create matter, we continually, by rearrangement, create new and unique entities. A million buttons, stamped out by machine, though they may be exactly alike, are not the same button; with each separate act of making, an entity has appeared in the world that was not there before. Nevertheless, we perceive that this is only a very poor and restricted kind of creation. We acknowledge a richer experience in the making of an individual and original work.

By a metaphor vulgar but corresponding to a genuine experience, we speak of a model hat or gown as a “creation”: it is unique, not merely by its entity but by its individuality. Again, by another natural metaphor, we may call a perfectly prepared beefsteak pudding, “a work of art”; and in these words we acknowledge an analogy with what we instinctively feel to be a still more satisfying kind of “creation.”

It is the artist who, more than other men, is able to create something out of nothing. A whole artistic work is immeasurably more than the sum of its parts.

But here is the will of God, a flash of the will that can,
     Existent behind all laws, that made them, and lo, they are!
And I know not if, save in this, such gift be allowed to man,
     That out of three sounds he frame, not a fourth sound, but a star.
Consider it well: each tone of our scale in itself is nought,
     It is everywhere in the world — loud, soft, and all is said:
Give it to me to use! I mix it with two in my thought:
     And there! Ye have heard and seen: consider and bow the head!
Robert Browning: Abt Vogler.

“I mix it with two in my thought“; this is the statement of the fact of universal experience that the work of art has real existence apart from its translation into material form. Without the thought, though the material parts already exist, the form does not and cannot. The “creation” is not a product of the matter, and is not simply a rearrangement of the matter. The amount of matter in the universe is limited, and its possible rearrangements, though the sum of them would amount to astronomical figures, is also limited. But no such limitation of numbers applies to the creation of works of art. The poet is not obliged, as it were, to destroy the material of a Hamlet in order to create a Falstaff, as a carpenter must destroy a tree-form to create a table-form.

The components of the material world are fixed; those of the world of imagination increase by a continuous and irreversible process, without any destruction or rearrangement of what went before. This represents the nearest approach we experience to “creation out of nothing,” and we conceive of the act of absolute creation as being an act analogous to that of the creative artist. Thus Berdyaev is able to say: “God created the world by imagination.”

This experience of the creative imagination in the common man or woman and in the artist is the only thing we have to go upon in entertaining and formulating the concept of creation. Outside our own experience of procreation and creation we can form no notion of how anything comes into being. The expressions “God the Father” and “God the Creator” are thus seen to belong to the same category—that is, of analogies based on human experience, and limited or extended by a similar mental process in either case.

If all this is true, then it is to the creative artists that we should naturally turn for an exposition of what is meant by those creedal formulae which deal with the nature of the Creative Mind. Actually, we seldom seem to consult them in the matter. Poets have, indeed, often communicated in their own mode of expression truth; identical with the theologians’ truths; but just because of the difference in the modes of expression, we often fail to see the identity of the statements.

The artist does not recognize that the phrases of the creeds purport to be observations of fact about the creative mind as such, including his own; while the theologian, limiting the application of the phrases to the divine Maker, neglects to inquire of the artist what light he can throw upon them from his own immediate apprehension of truth, The confusion is as though two men were to argue fiercely whether there was a river in a certain district or whether, on the contrary, there was a measurable volume of H2O moving in a particular direction within ascertainable velocity; neither having any suspicion that they were describing the same phenomenon.

Our minds are not infinite; and as the volume of the world’s knowledge increases, we tend more and more to confine ourselves, each to his special sphere of interest and to the specialized metaphor belonging to it, The analytic bias of the last three centuries has immensely encouraged this tendency, and it is now very difficult for the artist to speak the language of the theo­logian or the scientist the language of either. But the attempt must be made; and there are signs everywhere that the human mind is once more beginning to move towards a synthesis of experience.


Free Will And Miracle – Dorothy Sayers

February 28, 2011

One of the most intelligent women who occupied our planet was Dorothy Sayers: English crime writer, poet, playwright, essayist, translator and Christian humanist. She was also a student of classical and modern languages. She is best known for her mysteries, a series of novels and short stories set between World War I and World War II that feature English aristocrat and amateur sleuth Lord Peter Wimsey. However, Sayers herself considered her translation of Dante’s Divina Commedia to be her best work. She is also known for her plays and essays. We have featured her Introductory Papers on Dante here. Here she looks at the creative act of writing and compares/contrasts it to the divine creation, with some obvious and not so obvious considerations.


God created man in his own image and likeness, i.e. made a creator too, calling him to free spontaneous activity, not to formal obedience to His power. Free creative-ness is the creature’s answer to the great call of its creator. Man’s creative work is the fulfillment of the Creator’s secret will.
BERDYAEV: The Destiny of Man

A character in a writer’s head, unwritten, remains a possession; his thoughts recur to it constantly, and while his imagination gradually enriches it he enjoys the singular pleasure of feeling that there, in his mind, someone is living a varied and tremulous life, obedient to his fancy and yet in a queer willful way independent of him.
W. SOMERSET MMAUGHAM: Preface to “Cakes and Ale”


IN CONSIDERING THE QUESTION how far the writer should permit his imagined characters to become the mouth, pieces of his personality, we touched the fringe of that permanently baffling problem, the free will of the creature. All characters, from the most important to the least, and from the best to the worst, must express some part of the maker’s mind if they are to be a living creation; but if all express that mind in an identical way, the work as a whole becomes dull, mechanical, and untrue. At this point we begin to see faintly the necessity for some kind of free will among the creatures of a perfect creation, but our metaphor now becomes very difficult to apply, since it appears obvious that the characters invented by a human writer are his helpless puppets, bound to obey his will at every point, whether for good or evil.

The analogy of procreation is more helpful to us here n that of artistic creation. While the parent is wholly responsible for calling the children into being, and can exercise a partial control over their minds and actions, he cannot but recognize the essential independence of the entity that he has procreated. The child’s will is perfectly free; if he obeys his father, he does so through love or fear or respect, but not as an automaton, and the good parent would not wish it otherwise. We may observe here one of those curious complexities of which human nature is full. There is in many parents a striving to control their children, and to make of them, if not precisely automata, yet beings as fully subordinate to the will of their procreator as the characters of a novelist are to their creator. On the other hand, there is in the human creator a parallel desire to create something that shall have as much free will as the offspring of procreation.

The stories which tell of attempts to manufacture robots and Frankenstein monsters bear witness to this strange desire. It is as though humanity were conscious of a hampering limitation of its functions; in man, the image of the divine strives, as it were, to resemble its original in both its creative and procreative functions: to be at once father and God. From experience I am inclined to think that one reason why writing for the stage is so much more interesting than writing for publication is the very fact that, when the play is acted, the free will of the actor is incorporated into the written character. The common man is aware of the conflicting desires within the playwright’s mind, and often asks questions about them. Sometimes he asks: “Isn’t it exciting to we your characters come alive upon the stage?” Sometimes he inquires sympathetically: “Isn’t it maddening to hear the actors ruining your best lines?” The playwright can only reply that (unless the production is quite unnaturally good or superlatively bad) both propositions at undoubtedly true.’

A good deal, of course, depends upon the temperament of the playwright. If he is of the egotistical kind, finding no satisfaction except in the autocratic enforcement of his sole will, he will find actors maddening almost beyond endurance. This is the type of person who, in the sphere of procreation, tends to become a Roman parent. But if he is the more liberal kind of creator, he will eagerly welcome — I will not say bad acting, which is altogether sinful and regrettable — but imaginative and free acting, and find an immensely increased satisfaction in the individual creativeness which the actor brings to his part.

And let it be said at once that if the part is well conceived and well written, good acting, however free and individual, can never harm it. The greater the part, the greater the variety of “good” interpretations: that is why (contrary to lay belief) it is much easier to play “Hamlet” in Hamlet than to play “Charles, his friend” in a third-rate sentimental comedy. To hear an intelligent and sympathetic actor infusing one’s own lines with this creative individuality is one of the most profound satisfactions that any imaginative writer can enjoy; more — there is an intimately moving delight in watching the ,actor’s mind at work to deal rightly with a difficult interpretation, for there is in all this a joy of communication and an exchange of power. Within the limits of this human experience, the playwright has achieved that complex end of man’s desire — the creation of a living thing with a mind and will of its own.

None of this delight will, however, be gained unless the playwright is devoured with a real love for material form — unless, in the writing of the play, his Energy has imaginatively moved upon the stage in the way I have tried to explain, and conceived its Idea in material terms of flesh and blood, and paint, and canvas. For the true freedom of the Energy consists in its willing submission to the limitations of its own medium. The attempt to achieve freedom from the medium ends inevitably in loss of freedom within the medium, since, here as everywhere, activity falls under the judgment of the law of its own nature. Take, for example, that kind of writing for the stage which is called — with damnatory intent — “literary” drama. The objection to it is not that it is (in the broad sense) “literature,” but that it is so written as to conform to an alien literary medium. The speeches are quite simply not constructed in such a way as to be readily spoken by an actor. This means that the writer’s Energy has arrogated to itself a freedom from natural law — it has refused to be bound by the trammels imposed by flesh and blood.

The immediate consequence of this freedom is an intolerable sense of restriction, and the verdict of the critic will be that “the language is labored.” The truth is that such speech is not “labored” enough — in the sense that it has not been given enough workmanship. Similar efforts towards an illegal freedom issue in unmanageable stage-directions, or a multiplicity of vast stage-sets, which no amount of engineering effort can hurry upon the stage swiftly enough to preserve the unities. The business of the creator is not to escape from his material medium or to bully it, but to serve it; but to serve it he must love it. If he does so, he will realize that its service is perfect freedom. This is true, not only of all literary art but of all creative art; I have chosen a theatrical example, merely because there, as also in the creation of characters, failure to surrender to the law of kind produces disasters more patent and immediate than elsewhere.

The judgment of the natural law is not without its bearing on the writer’s claim to autocratic control over the characters he invents. It is certainly true that these do not possess free will to the same extent that a child’s will is free from parental control. But all possess this measure of freedom, namely, that unless the author permits them to develop in conformity with their proper nature, they will cease to be true and living creatures.

Too much attention should not be paid to those writers who say (holding one the while with a fixed and hypnotic gaze): “I don’t really invent the plot, you know — I just let the characters come into my mind and let them take charge of it.” The theory that the mind can remain passive and empty, acting only as a kind of automatic “spirit-hand” for the characters, reminds one a little too much of the methods of “Savonarola Brown” and his gasping confidences: “Savonarola has come on — alive!” (Max Beerbohm: Seven Men.) Writers who work in this way do not, as a matter of brutal fact, usually produce very good books. The Lay public (most of them confirmed mystagogues) rather like to believe in this inspirational fancy; but as a rule the element of pure craftsmanship is more important than most of us are willing to admit.

Nevertheless, the free will of a genuinely created character has a certain reality, which the writer will defy at his peril. It does sometimes happen that the plot requires from its characters certain behavior, which, when it Ionics to the point, no ingenuity on the author’s part can force them into, except at the cost of destroying them. It may be that the Activity has chosen an unsuitable plot, or (this is perhaps more frequent) has imagined an unsuitable set of characters for working that particular plot out.

In such dilemmas, the simplest and worst thing the author can do is to behave like an autocratic deity and compel the characters to do his will whether or not. Theurgic exhibitions of this kind are frequent in the work of thriller-writers and in the more puerile type of film. A notorious instance is, of course, that openhearted and generous-minded young lover whom we so frequently see thrown into consternation by the discovery of his betrothed embracing a total stranger in the conservatory. If the lover were to behave in conformity with his character as laid down for him, he would trust the girl and await the very obvious and proper explanation, viz., that the stranger is her long-lost brother suddenly returned home. But since any such natural conduct would bring the story to a premature end, he is forced to deny his nature, believe the worst, and depart hot-foot for a distant country.

This hoary piece of untruth does little harm to the nonsensical fancies in which it is usually found embedded, since these are not, in any genuine sense, works of creative imagination. It is startling, however, to find a variation of it violently intruded into the last act of such an otherwise realistically conceived and honestly written play as Denys Amiel’s Famille.(First produced in Paris, 1937) Here its effect is disastrous, for the characters have a true nature to be destroyed; and the collapse of the power is in direct ratio to the previous strength of the characterization.

Similar, though rather more subtle, wrestings of natural truth abound in those romances where the heroine, after treating the hero for interminable chapters as though he were something the cat had brought in, is rescued by him under peculiarly humiliating circumstances and immediately falls into his arms in a passion of gratitude and affection. Knowledge of the very ephemeral nature of gratitude in proud and vain persons and of its irritating effect on the character, prompt the reader to wonder what the married life of the couple is likely to be, after thus starting from a false situation.

It is a falsity of this kind that makes both actors and audience uncomfortable about The Taming of the Shrew; whether it is played as burlesque or softened into sentimental comedy, we are still left protesting that ” ‘Tis a wonder, by your leave, she will be tamed so,” and nothing will persuade us that characters like those would really subdue themselves to a plot like that.

Yet another forcible deformation of natural character occurs when the author has allowed a character to develop along its natural lines without noticing that it has grown right away from the part it is called on to play in the plot. Mr. Micawber is a grand character, instinct with the breath of life; but inefficiency is of his very essence, and it is entirely inconceivable that he should ever have become an efficient detective for the investigation of Mr. Heep’s financial frauds. Somebody had to detect Heep, and Mr. Micawber was handy — may indeed have been designed from the outset — for the activity; but, superb fun though it all is, we cannot for one moment believe it.

The humanistic and sensitive author may prefer to take the course of sticking to his characters and altering the plot to suit their development. This will result in a less violent shock to the reader’s sense of reality, but also in an alarming incoherence of structure. Actions adumbrated at the beginning will fail to materialize; causes will be left without consequences, or with irrational consequences; the balance of the unity will be upset; and the book will trail away into disorder, or, in the critic’s picturesque phrase, “break its back.” At the worst, the theme (or bodily shape of the Idea) will disappear along with the plot. The reader will probably not be able to put his finger with any great certainty on the point at which the book goes wrong, but he will be left at the end with an instinctive awareness that there is a dislocation somewhere. So will the author. In extreme cases, the dislocation will be so shattering as to prevent the book from ever getting written. A most instructive account of how the unbridled development of free will in the characters wrecked the prospects of a work of imagination is given by J. D. Beresford in that extraordinarily fascinating book: Writing Aloud.

Here, with a candor and accuracy extremely rare in a writer, he traces the development of—or failure to develop—a theme which he tried for some years to embody in a novel, and which eventually defeated him because of the self-willed behavior of the characters. As the story shapes itself in his mind, the plot dislimns, reunites in new shapes; the center of interest shifts from one character to another, and we watch, with spell-bound apprehension (if we are framed to feel excitement about such matters) the foredoomed metamorphosis of the theme into something like its own direct opposite. It is as though we watched an army outflanked and pivoting to face an attack that moves gradually round to attack it from the rear. Beresford himself believes that the discrepancies in the story:

illustrate Mr. Forster’s remarks on the relation of character to plot; inasmuch as they show very plainly that when plot precedes character and must be adhered to whatever happens, character inevitably suffers.

His book itself, however, shows still more plainly that the trouble is not so simple as all that. What preceded plot and everything else was the fancy for presenting the character of a particular heroine.

“I should like her to be young next time; very young; and pre-war…. A pre-war heroine living in the present day. … She represents the “average woman” that is eternal throughout the ages. She shall be neither tall nor short, neither very dark nor very fair, neither alluringly beautiful nor noticeably plain, neither too clever nor a fool, neither hopelessly womanly (the “perfect wife and mother” sort  of thing) nor the kind we have read about so much lately (1927] who devotes herself to some art or profession, and babbles about woman’s freedom. She shall play games in moderation without making a fetish of them. She is original by not striving after originality, and with any luck I may achieve the same ideal, myself. If one could but make a convincing picture of the ordinary human girl, how she would show up against the young woman we get so much of now, in life and fiction.”

With that character he begins — not, we may note, with a character in a situation, but a character looking for a situation to exploit. The story is then gradually built up — background, plot, parentage and so forth — deliberately in order to account for and exploit the character of this girl (nicknamed, “J-J”). Other characters — arising this time out of the plot — supervene, and in turn arrogate to themselves the greater part of the writer’s creative interest. Being plot-founded (conceived, that is, as characters in a situation) they are enormously more powerful than the detached character of J-J; already the attackers have captured the “strong points.” Thus firmly based and equipped, they grow and cover the ground with the speed and ubiquity of pumpkins, and subdue the situation to their own will; they take command of the plot. After a hundred pages or so of this development the author stands aghast:

“In this book, struggle as I will, I do not seem to be able to stick to my first intention of telling the story of J-J. She, poor lamb, has so far served me only as a vaulting-horse, she who was to have been my ideal heroine, my interpreter. Instead of presenting a model for the girl of 1930 or so, she has become a horrible instance of Victorian repressions, a subject for vivisection, a manikin for the display of other people’s habits, anything in short but an interesting human being.”

For this disaster he can find no remedy. Either he must scrap the whole thing, or else “keep the other characters and the skeleton of the plot, but bravely sacrifice all the development I have so far worked out, get a truer understanding of my heroine and let her personality guide the evolution of the story. That would mean cutting out all the things that really interested myself.” What did in fact interest him was “the other characters”; there is actually no plot except what those characters have themselves imposed on the story. The impasse was complete, and the story was eventually scrapped, except in so far as it provides the subject for this revealing work of analysis.

Anybody who reads Writing Aloud will find entertainment in discovering how it was that the “other characters,” rather than J-J, contrived in this manner to run away with the plot. The thing that emerges very clearly is a disruption within the writer’s trinity: his Energy was not subdued to the Idea—or else merely revealed in its working the absence of any really powerful idea to control it—and the consequence is a judgment of chaos.

We will now look at another instructive example of “back-breaking” which Chesterton has observed in Our Mutual Friend:

If the real degradation of Wegg is not very convincing, it is at least immeasurably more convincing than the pretended degradation of Boffin. The passage in which Boffin ”appears as a sort of miser, and then afterwards explains that he only assumed the character for reasons of his own, has something about it highly jerky and unsatisfactory. The truth of the whole matter, I think, almost certainly, is that Dickens did not originally mean Boffin’s lapse to be fictitious. He originally meant Boffin really to be corrupted by wealth, slowly to degenerate and as slowly to repent. But the story went too quickly for this long, double, and difficult process; therefore Dickens at the last moment made a sudden recovery possible by representing that the whole business had been a trick. Consequently, this episode is not an error merely in the sense that we may find many errors Ina great writer like Dickens; it is a mistake patched up with another mistake. It is a case of that ossification which ours round the healing of an actual fracture; the story had broken down and been mended.
G. K. Chesterton: Criticisms and Appreciations of the Works of Charles Dickens.

What happened (if Chesterton is right, as I think he is) was that Dickens “fell in love” with Boffin, with the result that the character “got out of hand” or, in other words, asserted the freedom of its nature. This kind of thing does happen to characters from time to time — never, of course, to the puppet-character, but only to those that have received a full measure of the author’s life — and their escape from control is the measure of their free will. What is particularly interesting here is the method adopted by Dickens to bring plot and character back into co-operation. He took what should have been the right way out of the difficulty, but so clumsily that the result was unconvincing and false.

The character of Boffin had asserted itself to a point at which it literally could not be made to conform with the plot. I doubt whether the speed at which the story was moving accounts sufficiently for the impossibility; what really stood in the way was the intrinsic sweetness and modesty of Mr. Boffin himself. A means had therefore to be found by which the character, developing in conformity with its own nature, could yet bring the plot to the same issue which it would have reached had the character developed according to plan.

The process which I shall now try to explain is something for which the reader must take my word. I cannot easily point to any successful examples in literature, because it is the whole essence of such a process that, if it is successful, nothing in the finished work will betray it. I can only state, as matter of experience, that if the characters and the situation are rightly conceived together, as integral parts of the same unity, then there will be no need to force them to the right solution of that situation. If each is allowed to develop in conformity with its proper nature, all will arrive of their own accord at a point of unity, which will be the same unity that preexisted in the original idea. In language to which we are accustomed in other connections, neither predestination nor free will is everything, but, if the will acts freely in accordance with its true nature, it achieves by grace and not by judgment the eternal will of its maker, though possibly by a process unlike, and longer than, that which might have been imposed upon it by force.

As I have said, it is hard to illustrate this from other men’s work, since, when it has triumphantly happened, the process leaves no trace, and the majority of writers have not left analytical records of their creative activities. I tried once  to analyze a very unimportant experience of my own in this connection — unimportant, that is, (because the work itself was of no great importance except to myself. Here, I will only bring forward an instance, also personally experienced but still more trivial, of this odd coming-together of plot and character. This instance is, in a way, more interesting than the other, because the process occurred without my being at all aware of it, so that I was astonished when I saw the result.

In Gaudy Night, the heroine was left in one of those “gratitude-situations” which (as I have already complained) are so destructive to character and leave the normal person so little disposed to fall into the arms of the benefactor. She had, however, been brought into a fair way of conquering her pride (assisted by a similar approach from the gentleman’s side) and had screwed herself to the point of making a generous gesture and accepting a present from him. The present selected was a set of carved ivory chessmen. In all this, the characters were working out their own development without reference to anything beyond their own spiritual difficulties.

In the meantime, the detective-plot situation was concerned with a woman in whom the emotions had gained control over the reason, and who was carrying on a revenge-campaign of petty destructiveness against certain women who (she felt) were sacrificing the emotional to the rational. Her anger had directed itself against my heroine, with the result that she (and I) were left looking for something belonging to the heroine that she might conveniently destroy. It then occurred to a u-that the chessmen were the obvious victims; their destruction duly took place, and revealed to the heroine that some of her value for them was connected, not with the gift but with the giver.

A reader afterwards said to me: “I realized, the moment they were mentioned, that those chessmen were doomed.” Nothing, when one comes to think of it, could be more obvious from the point of view of plot-structure. I can only affirm (without much hope of being believed) that it was by no means obvious to me. The chessmen were, at first, connected with the character-development, and with that only. But when the plot demanded their destruction, there they were ready. Though I did at that moment realize that this incident clamped the two parts of the story together in a satisfactory and useful manner, it was not until my reader pointed it out to me that I understood the incident to have been, in actual fact, predestined—that is, that plot and character, each running true to its nature, had inevitably united to bring the thing about.

I could add a further example of the same kind of thing. In Murder Must Advertise I undertook (not very successfully) to present a contrast of two “cardboard” worlds, equally fictitious — the world of advertising and tie world of the post-war `Bright Young People.” (It was not very successful, because I knew and cared much more about advertising than about Bright Youth, but that is by the way.) I mentioned this intention to a reader, who instantly replied: “Yes; and Peter Wimsey, who represents reality, never appears in either world except in disguise.” It was perfectly true; and I had never noticed it. With all its defects of realism, there had been some measure of integral truth about the book’s Idea, since it issued, without my conscious connivance, in a true symbolism.

Other writers will probably be able to supply evidence of their own in support of this curious collaboration of free will and predestination wherever plot and character are allowed to develop in obedience to their law of nature. And these considerations bring us face to face with the whole question of miracle.

Whatever we may think of the possibilities of direct divine intervention in the affairs of the universe, it is quite evident that the writer can — and often does — intervene at any moment in the development of his own story; he is absolute master, able to perform any miracle he likes. I do not mean that he can invent undiscovered planets or people the world with monsters unknown to natural history — that kind of thing is a tale about marvels, not a tale abruptly modified by marvels. I mean simply that he can twist either character or plot from the course of its nature by an exertion of arbitrary power. He can slay inconvenient characters, effect abrupt conversions, or bring about accidents or convulsions of nature to rescue the characters from the consequences of their own conduct. He can, in fact, behave exactly as, in our more egotistical and unenlightened petitions, we try to persuade God to behave. Whether we mock at miracles or demand miracles, this is the kind of miracle we usually mean. We mean that the judgment of natural law is to be abrogated by some power extraneous to the persons and circumstances.

If we by analogy call God “the Creator” we are thereby admitting that it is possible for Him to work miracles; but if we examine more closely the implications of our analogy, we may be driven to ask ourselves how far it is really desirable that He should do anything of the kind. For the example of the writers who indulge in miracle is not altogether encouraging. “Poetic justice” (the name often given to artistic miracle-mongering) may be comforting, but we regretfully recognize that it is very bad art. “Poetic justice” is indeed the wrong name to give it, since it is neither poetry nor justice; there is a true poetic justice, which we know better by the name of “tragic irony,” which is of the nature of judgment and is the most tremendous power in literature as is in life — but in that there is no element of miracle. What we commonly mean by “poetic justice” is a system of rewards and punishments bestowed, like their nursery exemplars, “because you have been good” and because you have been naughty” — or sometimes simply with the object of keeping the children quiet.

Mr. Wilkins Micawber — who is continually the subject of such theurgic displays — is favored by a miracle at the end of David Copperfield. He is a “good” character – that is to say, a character sympathetic to his author – and it is desired to reward him with a “happy ending.” He is therefore packed off to Australia, where, in defiance of his own nature and in defiance of the nature of Australian civic life in the last century, he becomes a prosperous magistrate. However consoling this solution of the Micawber problem, a little thought convinces us that any person less suitable to prosper in these conditions Mr. Micawber can scarcely be imagined. It is just as the sudden appearance of a couple of aged and worthy parents to straighten out lovers’ difficulties in the last act of Molie’re’s L’Ecole des Femmes is miracle. The author, finding that plot and character will not work within their own limitations to produce a tidy result, has cut the Gordian entanglement with the magic sword of Paracelsus. The result is not only to shock us with a sense of incongruity, but also to detract something from the power of Micawber himself. He is so much the less a man for being the minion of so arbitrary a favoritism.

Wilkie Collins, a much lesser writer than Dickens, dealing with a similar problem, shows himself a much more conscientious artist. At the end of No Name he has to dispose of the unscrupulous but strongly sympathetic out-at-elbows scamp, Captain Wragge. He might have worked a moral miracle, by making the Captain repent and live happily in honest poverty; or a physical miracle, by unexpectedly endowing him with a colossal fortune which should remove the need for further rogueries. Either of these methods would destroy the Captain as we know him. Collins does artistically better, by providing him with a way to prosperity fully in accordance with his character:

“What have I been about? Why do I look so remarkably well off? … My dear girl, I have been occupied, since we last saw each other, in slightly modifying my old professional habits…. Formerly I preyed on the public sympathy; now, I prey on the public stomach…. Here I any incredible as it may appear — a man with an income, at last, The founders of my fortune are three in number. Their names are Aloes, Scammony and Gamboge. In plainer words, I am now living — on a Pill. I made a little money (if you remember) by my friendly connection with you. I made a little more, by the happy decease (Requiescat in Pace!) of that female relative of Mrs. Wragge’s, from whom, as I told you, my wife had expectations. Very good, What do you think I did? I invested the whole of my capital, at one fell swoop, in advertisements — and purchased my drugs and my pill-boxes on credit. The result is now before you.”

Here is a happy peripety which we can readily accept. We can believe in the profits of roguery; we can believe in the little legacy (since we were previously told that he married his half-witted wife to obtain it); and we can believe in these acquisitions all the better because, undoubtedly, this is the very way in which Captain Wragge would use them if he got them. It is a happy ending for a sympathetic rascal, which satisfies us because it is no miracle but a judgment of natural law.

But it is not edifying? Well, no, it is not. The making of miracles to edification was as ardently admired by pious Victorians as it was sternly discouraged by Jesus of Nazareth. Not that the Victorians are unique in this respect. Modern writers also indulge in edifying miracles though they generally prefer to use them to procure unhappy endings, by which piece of thaumaturgy they win the title of realists. Thus, in Cronin’s The Citadel it is necessary to edification that his doctor-hero shall be stripped of every personal satisfaction — wealth, reputation, and domestic happiness — in order that he may voluntarily embrace the good he once refused, namely, medical research for unselfish ends. This is right enough, from the point of view of religion and psychology. Of wealth and reputation he is deprived, very properly, by a judgment of natural law, executing itself upon his own professional conduct.

But when it comes to his domestic happiness the author grows impatient. He has already prepared estrangement between husband and wife through the doctor’s behavior; but for no very adequate reason, he suddenly abandons this line of development, and by an arbitrary act, hastily gets rid of the wife by pushing her under a bus. One cannot defend this intervention by saying that virtuous people in real life are frequently killed by road-vehicles. The episode is wholly extraneous to the structural unity of the story; it is an irrelevant miracle. The effect is to falsify the story. The divine hand is thrust into the mechanism obviously and without necessity: nec deus intersit nisi dignus vindice nodus.(“Nor let God intervene unless the difficulty be worthy of his attention”)

The agents of the miraculous which the novelist has at his command are, roughly speaking, conversion and coincidence; either a character or a situation is abruptly changed, not by anything developing out of the essentials of the story, but by the personal divine intervention of the creator. Yet it will not altogether do to say that neither conversion nor coincidence is ever permissible in a story. Both may legitimately be introduced on one condition, that is, that they are an integral part of the Idea. If it is a story about a coincidence or about a conversion, then the Energy that introduces them will be performing the will of the Idea, and the Power will proceed from that unity of purpose. This amounts to saying that, under these circumstances, the will of the creator becomes a character in the story; just as, theologically, all miracles depend on the assumption that God is a character in history. But even so, it is necessary that God should act in conformity with His own character.

The study of our analogy will lead us perhaps to believe that God will be chary of indulging in irrelevant miracle, and will use it only when it is an integral part of the story. He will not, any more than a good writer, convert His characters without preparing the way for their conversion, and His interferences with space-time will be conditioned by some kind of relationship of power between will and matter. Faith is the condition for the removal of mountains; Lear is converted but not Iago.

Consequences cannot be separated from their causes without a loss of power; and we may ask ourselves how much power would be left in the story of the crucifixion, as a story, if Christ had come down from the cross. That would have been an irrelevant miracle, whereas the story of the resurrection is relevant, leaving the consequences of action and character still in logical connection with their causes. It is, in fact, an outstanding example of the development we have already considered — the leading of the story back, by the new and more powerful way of grace, to the issue demanded by the way of judgment, so that the law of nature is not destroyed but fulfilled.


Introductory Papers On Dante – Dorothy Sayers

February 15, 2011


Wm Blake — The Vestibule of Hell and the Souls Mustering to Cross the Acheron

I could never have approached Dante and the Divine Comedy without Dorothy Sayers. She is one of the most discerning readers I have ever encountered. She radiates all of that and more in this book.  She makes me proud to be Catholic.


The Vestibule Of Hell
Let us, then, begin the journey – the journey of self-knowledge into the possibilities of depravity. We may find the gate anywhere in the dark forest, and there are no bolts upon it. It is, says Dante, “the wide open door,” “the gate whose threshold is denied to none.” We enter; we are in the Vestibule…it is populated by those whom both Heaven and Hell reject: those who were “:neither for God nor for His enemies.” Virgil speaks contemptuously of “this dreary huddle” whose “blind life trails on so low and crass” that it would welcome everlasting death.

No reputation in the world it has,
Mercy and doom hold it alike in scorn:
Let us not speak of these, but look and pass.”

…Here are the people who never come to any decision. Do we despise them? Or do we admire their wide-minded tolerance and their freedom from bigotry and dogmatism? They discuss everything and come to no conclusion. They will commit themselves to no opinion, since there is so much to be said on the other side. Like the Duke in Chesterton’s play, Magic, they never give a subscription to one party without giving one to the opposite party as well. They never abandon themselves wholeheartedly to any pursuit lest they should be missing something: neither to God lest they should bind them; they condemn nothing, for fear of being thought narrow. They chose indecision, and here in Hell they have it; they run forever after a perpetually-shifting banner; the worry and fret that torments them as of old stings them like a swarm of hornets. They sweat blood and tears, but in no purposeful martyrdom: the painful drops fall to the ground and are licked up by worms.

Let us not speak of them – let us at any rate not commend their wavering minds and their twittering little indecisive book. “But surely,” they cry, “all experience is valuable! All good and evil are relative! All religions are the same in essentials! One mustn’t draw hard-and-fast distinctions! One must be free to try everything! Look and pass.

Four Principles To Reading The Comedy
Great Poets mean what they say…And it is Dante himself who has setup the necessary sign-posts, in that Epistle To Can Grande which is now almost unanimously accepted as his and (oddly enough) almost unanimously ignored by his interpreters. He says there:

(1)  that the Divine Comedy is allegory…
(2)  he says that this allegory is to be interpreted at four levels; literal, political, moral and mystical…
(3)  the literal signification (only) is concerned with the state of soul after death…
(4)  the allegorical (i.e. the real and important)  signification is concerned throughout with the behavior of man in this life, “according as by good or ill deserving in the exercise of his free will he comes liable to punishing or rewarding justice.”

These four principles, laid down by the poet, seem to me to be indispensable to any intelligent or enjoyable reading of the Comedy …Dante is a difficult poet, in the sense that he deals with a great subject which is not to be mastered without thought, but he is not a willfully obscure poet…He uses no “private” imagery and preaches no esoteric doctrine; his poem is as public and universal as the Christian Faith itself.

Simile, Metaphor And Allegory
An allegory is a dramatized metaphor. A metaphor is a compressed simile. A simile is the perception of likeness in unlike things, presented in such a way that the understanding of the one helps to understand the other.
For example:

“The leading of a Christian life is sometimes attended with spiritual difficulties inducing sensations of alarm and despondency.” That is as dull and abstract statement as I can manage to produce on this exciting topic. Let us enliven it by a simile: “It is as though a man were fighting against a powerful enemy.” Let us now compress the thing into a metaphor: “The Christian soul is often the arena of a hard battle against alarm and despondency.” That is more vivid; “alarm and despondency” have ceased to be abstractions: they are already half-personified, and the “Christian life” is developing a kind of landscape of its own – there is a territory of undefined extent called “the soul” with a battleground in the middle of it and people fighting there. Now lets us take the final step and fully personify both the Christianity and the enemy: “Then Apollyon straddled quite over the whole breadth of the way, and said, I am void of fear in this matter; prepare thyself to die: for I swear by my infernal den thou shalt go no further : here will I spill thy soul.”

Conventional And Natural Symbols
But there is another kind of symbol, very different from [a conventional symbol] which is called a natural symbol. It is most important not to confuse the two kinds, otherwise we shall be falling into misconceptions, especially when we are exploring the borderland between religion and he arts. A natural symbol is a thing really existing, which by its own nature represents some greater thing of which it is itself an instance. Thus, the arch, maintaining itself as it does by the mutual thrust and pressure of all its parts, is at once an instance and natural symbol to that great dynamic principle of stability in tension of which the physical universe is sustained. Beatrice, a real and beloved woman, is, in the eyes of Dante, an instance and a symbol of all creation glorified by love.

The Incarnate life of God on earth, because it is a fact, is at once the supreme instance and the unique natural symbol of the whole history of man, and the whole nature of God and the relations between them. I lay stress on the last example, because it illustrates the comparision between the two uses of the word “symbol”. When certain people say that the story of the Incarnation is “merely symbolic”, they usually mean that it is not a historic fact. But if it is not historic, then it is either not symbolical at all, or else “merely” a conventional symbol. If on the contrary, it is a historic fact, then it is a natural symbol, and by contemplating it we can really learn something about God and Man. Because that, precisely, is the distinctive mark of the natural symbol; it is itself an instance of what it symbolizes: and therefore, by simple being what it is, it tells us something about the true nature of that greater thing for which it stands.

Literal And Allegorical Subjects
The literal subject of [The Divine Comedy] is the state of souls after death – of individual souls, or of souls in general. The allegorical subject – that is the real important subject – is Man, the being endowed with free will, in his whole relation with the God who is righteousness…the allegorical subject is wider that the literal subject and includes it….What happens to you and me after death is both an instance, and a natural symbol of the permanent relationship between Man and God, between free will and justice, whether in this life or in the next, whether seen in the individual soul or in the soul of society, whether in the religious or in the secular sphere, or in any section or department of those spheres.

The Story Of The Way Of The Soul
It [The Divine Comedy] is the story of the way of the soul at at all times. It is, for example, the way of the individual soul in this life. At that level of interpretation, the whole landscape (so to call it) of Hell, purgatory and Heaven, is within the soul. The vision of Hell – the profound and hideous pit narrowing from the weak compliance of a mutual indulgence, through abyss after abyss of ever-deepening corruption to that frozen horror of treachery in which every last vestige of truth and mutuality is paralyzed and atrophied – is the vision , deeper that the psycho–analysts plummet ever sounded, of  the possibilities of corruption in you and in me, of the will to death and chaos and of the lie in the self. The figures of Francesca and Farinata, of Thais and Ciampolo, of Master Adam and Ugolino and Judas are the figures of our own weaknesses and pride and greed and falsehood and treachery: their state is the state to which we may bring ourselves – in which it is possible for our free choice to rivet and fix itself, if, having lost Beatrice, who is grace we also lose Virgil, who is Humanity, Art, Accuracy, Decency –whatever it is of light and sanity that remains with us in our worst moments

All that he has to say about wrath is conveyed by the image of its appropriate expiation – the envelopment in a black and pungent smoke which chokes the breath, shuts out the light of the sun and hides each soul from its neighbor. That is what anger is – that blinding stinging smother which comes rolling upon one, so that one cannot see straight or breathe freely or realize what one is doing. That is the thing that has to be purged away – to be realized as a thing external to the self, and so patiently endured as its own punishment until one is quite sure that no taint of inward assent to it remains within the soul. For we shall remember that in the Purgatorio the duration for the soul’s detention upon any cornice is not imposed from without. The soul is its own judge; so soon as it feels itself free from stain it is free, and arises of its own volition to “go up higher.”

The Double Image Of Sin
In the second circle Dante shows us the double image – the sin as it seemed at the time to Paolo and Francesca; the sin seen sub specie aeternitatis for what it really is. He so manages the description,” says Charles Williams, “he so heightens the excuse, that the excuse reveals itself as precisely the sin…it is lussuria, luxury, indulgence, self-yielding which is the sin, and the opening-out of hell. The persistent parleying with the occasion of sin, the sweet prolonged laziness of love.”

Lust is not merely self-indulgence; it is mutual self-indulgence
. It may put on a specious appearance of generosity, even of self-sacrifice, it is an exchange in love, even if it is an exchange of deadly poison. The gradual and inevitable steps by which the perverted mutuality declines into selfish appetite, into mutual grudging, into resentment and sullen hatred: thence into violence and sterility and despair: and so on into the long and melancholy series of frauds and falsehoods by which human beings exploit one another, — those are the steps by which we painfully clamber down the hideous descent from Acheron to Malebolge.

All Truth Is A Shadow…
A great poem is not the perquisite of scholars and critics and historians: it is yours and mine – our freehold and our possession; and what it truly means to us is a real part of its true and eternal meaning…”All truth is shadow except the last truth. But all truth is substance in its own place, though it be but shadow in another place. And the shadow is a true shadow, as the substance is a true substance.”

Approaching The Imagery Of The Comedy
We [modern readers] are accustomed to poetry in which the language is very highly charged with metaphor, so that the fusion between the symbol and the thing symbolized takes place within the very structure of the image itself. Epithets are transferred from the one to the other; the two significations are not juxtaposed but superimposed – as for example T.S. Eliot’s lines:

There are no eyes here
In this valley of dying starts
In this shallow valley
This broken jaw of our lost kingdoms

Or in Dylan Thomas’ fine poem After The Funeral, in which the figure of the simple cottage woman, Ann, is fused with the monumental image which the poet makes of her in his verse:

Her fist of a face died clenched on a round pain,
And sculptured Ann is seventy years of stone.

This kind of writing is like the modern kind of music in which each discord is not immediately resolved, as in classical music, but the transition is made directly from discord to discord, taking the resolution for granted. Now, in the Comedy we find few examples of this kind of writing, but they are very few – so few that when they do occur the effect of them is quite startling. Nobody, I imagine, can read the first canto of the Inferno without being struck by the fused image of “dove il soltace – that place wherein the sun is mute”; or buy its echo in the fifth canto: “loco d’ogni luce muto – a place made dumb of every glimmer of light”, followed immediately by the paradoxical “che mugghia – bellowing like the sea in a storm”. Again, in the Paradiso, we have the wonderful compressed image:

L’altro ternaro, che cosi germoglia
In questa priavera sempiternal,
Che notturno Ariete no dispolgia.

Perpetualemente Osanna sverna
Con tre melode…

“the secondary ternary [of angels] which thus buds forth in this eternal Spring which nightly Aries does not despoil, incessantly unwinters Hosanna with three melodies…” Here the angels are first compared to flowers budding in spring time; then in the same sentence, to the birds which, in the troubadour’s phrase, are said to un-winter themselves” (this is to put off winter) by breaking into spring-time songs: finally, and still in the same sentence the song itself – the “Hosanna” –is made the direct object of the verb. So that in place of a double simile, we have the impacted metaphor: “They who here bud forth un-winter hosanna.”

The rare presence of this kind of writing in the Comedy shows that Dante could quite well do it if he chose, but that, on the whole, he did not choose. And that for a good reason. The Comedy, as T.S. Eliot pointed out , is itself one gigantic metaphor, susceptible, as we saw earlier, of a great variety of interpretation. Its content is complex: and it deals, especially in the Paradiso, with ideas which are difficult enough, even when straightforwardly stated. If Dante had complicated an already complex theme by highly–complex fused imagery, the effect would have been, from the merely artistic pint of view, to irritate and confuse the reader and to impede the swift pace both of narrative and argument.

The Origin Of Hell
“And if anyone causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to be thrown into the sea with a large millstone tied around his neck. If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life maimed than with two hands to go into hell, where the fire never goes out. And if your foot causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life crippled than to have two feet and be thrown into hell. And if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into hell, where

” ‘their worm does not die,
and the fire is not quenched.’ “

The doctrine of Hell is not “medieval”: it is Christ’s [as the quotation from Mark 9:43-8 above]. It is not a device of medieval priestcraft for frightening people into giving money to the Church: it is Christ’s deliberate judgment on sin. The imagery of the undying worm and the unquenchable fire derives, not from medieval superstition, but originally from the Prophet Isaiah, and it was Christ who emphatically used it. If we are Christians, very well, we dare not not take the doctrine of Hell seriously, for we have it from Him whom we acknowledge as God and Truth Incarnate…that is what Christ taught. It confronts us in the oldest and least “edited” of the gospels [Mark]…one cannot get rid of it without tearing the New Testament to tatters. We cannot repudiate Hell without repudiating Christ.

The Nature Of Heaven — Unconditioned Reality
God in Heaven is the only unconditioned reality. All other reality is derived from God, being either immediately created by Him, as engendered or evolved or manufactured by the mediation of His creatures, interacting among themselves. If we ask why God created a universe of beings, we have to acknowledge that:

[His primal] Why
Lies so deep hid, no wit can wade so far

Nevertheless, knowing by revelation that God is all-goodness and all-love, the Christian may meditate upon the matter: and the best conclusions of Catholic thought have never been more nobly summed up than in the passage in the 29th canto of the Paradiso:

Not that he might acquire any gain for Himself,
For that cannot be;
But in order that His splendor [i.e. the reflection of His glory from His creation] might,
Shining back to Him,
Declare “I am.”,
Therefore in His eternity
Beyond all time,
Beyond all limitation,
According to His good pleasure,
The Eternal Love unfolded Himself into new loves.

The Reason For Heaven
The reason Dante says, was generosity. God…as Plato had written…is not jealous; He wanted and wants to share his reality. He did not want to gain anything for Himself: that is impossible; for all things come from Him, and He could no more add anything to Himself by making a universe than a poet can add anything to himself by writing a poem. But he desired that there should be others, derived from Himself but distinguishable from Him, and with a dependent but genuine reality of their own, having each a true selfhood, which should reflect back to Him the joy and beauty and goodness that they received from Him….God is the light: the derived radiance of the creature is the splendore, the splendor. The right end of every creature is to shine back to God with that splendor, and to be able to say, thus shining (risplendendo): “I am subsisto.

That is a key passage to Dante’s thought and indeed to Catholic thought…For the Gnostic and Oriental religions…the outflowing of the One into the Many is a disaster. “The true end of the Many is to lose the derived self and be reabsorbed into the One…for the Christian the derived self is the glory of the creature and the multiplicity and otherness of the universe it its joy.

When we come to Angels, or “intelligences” in Dante’s phrase, they are thought of as possessing such super-personalities that the Schoolmen refused to think of them as being merely so many members of a species; they said that every angel was a separate species all to himself…the intention is clear; an angel is so triumphantly and perfectly himself that one of these blessed beings differs from another not as one man from another but as one class of terrestrial beings from another.

The Beatific Vision
In the definition of the Schoolmen: Heaven is the seeing of God in his essence.” That is the beatific vision, the true goal of every desire: that is the realization in which the true self of all spiritual beings is made real: behind all the tumultuous images of poet and musician and painter there lies that little dry abstract phrase. The images exist only to bring the significance of that phrase home to us. …”To know a thing in its essence meant to understand its inmost being as to se how all its manifestations and effects necessarily flow from it because they are involved in it.”

To human or angelic nature it is, in itself, impossible to be or to become deiform [“ingodded”, in Dante’s phrase], but to God all things are possible and by impressing His very self, essentially, upon the created spirit e can so transfuse it with the “light of glory” [lumen gloriae] that “in that light it can see the light”. For when assimilated to the essential being of God it can, up the measure of the initial capacity divinely bestowed, see God as He sees Himself. That, we may remember, is what St. Paul says “Then shall I know, even as I am known.”…”Up to its measure” for the infinite must remain in infinite excess of the finite. But the assimilation within that measure may be perfect and may constitute, to that spirit, the absolute fulfillment of its longing for perfect vision and for perfect blessedness…It will be the direct vision of perfect power, wisdom , love; of perfect goodness, truth, beauty; not as abstractions or ideals of our minds, but as the very Being of God, who is Being’s self….Eternity is not an unmeaning stretch of endless time: it is all times and all places known perfectly in one deathless and ecstatic present.

God’s Anger And Pity
Although the unity of Christ’s mystical body is such that the blessed dead are deeply concerned with the living whether to help, pity, pray for them, or feel indignation at their sins, yet in Heaven the powers of anger and pity are experienced pure, and not bound up with a whole complex of confused personal feelings. When God and His Saints are angry, anger does not tear them to pieces, distort their judgment and poison their lives: they pity, but pity does not ravage them with helpless torments and put them at the mercy of the blackmailing egotism which thrives by exploiting and playing up on the feelings of the tender-hearted; in C.S. Lewis’s admirable phrase: “The action of pity will live forever, but the passion of pity will not.”

Self Imagined Other Than God
Taking the situation as the theology of creation gives it to us, we see that the mere existence of a “self” that can in a real sense know itself as “other than” God, offers the possibility for the self to imagine itself independent of God, and instead of wheeling its will and desire about Him, to try and find its true end in itself and to revolve about that. This is the fall into illusion, which is Hell. The creature denies, or rebels against, its creaturely statue, and at once plunges itself into a situation which is bound to be full of frustration and misery, because it is at variance with the facts…Hell is a refusal of assent to reality.. a lack of humility in the face of the facts.

The Fall Of Man
The fall of man happens differently from [the fall of Angels] because man is not a pure intelligence, but partly material, and it is his nature to develop in time and space and grow gradually into the life of Heaven. Therefore his knowledge cannot be purely intellectual, but has to be gained by experience. He is created good, in a good world; but Satan suggest to him that there is a different way of knowing reality – it can be known not only as good, but also as evil. God says Satan, knows it both ways; if Adam and Eve eat the forbidden fruit, they also will know like God. Satan however, carefully omits to point out that God can know evil purely as an intellectual possibility, without experiencing it or calling it into existence; but that Man, if he is to know it at all, must know it, as he knows everything else, by experience. Adam and Eve, intoxicated by the idea of being  “as Gods”, disregard all warnings and eat; they have their desire, and know evil.

Hell And Purgatory
It is the deliberate choosing to remain in illusion and to see God and the universe as hostile to one’s ego that is of the every essence of Hell. The dreadful moods when we hug our hatred and misery and are too proud to let them go are foretastes in times of what Hell eternally is. So long as we are in time and space, we can still, by God’s grace and our own will’s assenting, repent of Hell and come out of it. But if we cay that determination and that choice through the gates of death into the state in which there is, literally, no time, what then? Death, which was the bitter penalty attached to man’s knowledge of evil, is also man’s privilege and opportunity. He is not allowed just to slip away easily, body and soul, into eternity, as the early Fathers imagined he might have done if he had never lost his innocence.

In knowing evil, Man had to know death as a crisis – the sharp sundering of mortal and immortal – and in the crisis he sees his choice between reality and illusion. As it passes out of the flesh the soul sees God and sees its own sin. This crisis and confrontation are technically known as the Particular Judgment. If, in the very moment of that crisis, the true self is still alive, however feebly; if deep down beneath all perversities of self-will, the absolute will is still set towards God’s reality, and the soul can find it in itself, even at that last moment, to accept judgment – to fling away the whole miserable illusion and throw itself upon truth, then it is safe. It will have to do in Purgatory, with incredible toil and without the assistance of the body, the training which it should have done on earth: but in the end it will get to where it truly wants to be. There is no power in this world or the next that can keep a soul from God if God is what it really desires…Hell is the perfect and simultaneous possession of one’s own will forever.

Hell And Heaven
Hell, in a manner, is Heaven in reverse; it is Reality seen as evil and seen so far more perfectly than it can ever be in this world. At the bottom of hell is the Miserific Vision, as the Beatific Vision is a the height of Heaven: and as the Beatific Vision is the knowing of God in his essence, so Hell is the knowing of Sin in its essence…the intimate analogy between the sin and the penalty shows that the suffering of Hell is punishment only in the sense that a stomach-ache and not a beating, is ”punishment” for greed.

What has gone is the glamour; gluttony loses its accompaniments of the bright lights and holiday atmosphere, and is known it its essence as a cold wallowing in dirt, a helpless prey to ravenous appetites. Covetousness and squandering are no longer dignified by names like: ”the economy of thrift and the economy of conspicuous waste” – they are known as meaningless squabble about a huge weight of nonsense; usury and sodomy – however we may like the world to segregate them in the very different spheres of high finance and high aesthetics – are lumped together on the same scorched earth – sterility left to scratch in its own dust-bowl.

The platform rhetoric, the propaganda, the sloppy romanticism, the endless stream of words, words, words dishonestly used to debase language and extinguish right judgment – it all pours down to the ditch of the Second Bolgia where the flatterers wallow in their own excreted filth. The schism that divides the Body of Christ, the sedition that splits the State, the malice that breaks up homes for the pleasure of making mischief, are experienced in the self…

The Subject Of The Purgatorio
The poet who writes of Satan and Hell …must show sin as attractive and yet as damned. If sin were not attractive nobody would fall into it; and because pride is its very root, it will always present itself as an act of noble rebellion. It is only too easy, especially in an age when order and hierarchy are perverted or discredited, to persuade one’s self that rebellion, as such, is magnanimous, that all control is tyranny, the under-dog is in the right because he is vanquished, and that evil is to be pitied the moment it ceases to be successful. But it is not true; “Here pity, or here piety, must die if the other lives.” [Infxx. 28-29]. The poet’s business is to show both the brilliant façade of sin and the squalor hidden beneath it; his task is to persuade us to accept judgment. Purgation is what happens to the soul which, accepting judgment moves out of illusion into reality, and this is the subject of the Purgatorio.

A Foretaste Of Beatitude Or Damnation
Both Heaven and Hell….have certain aspects in common, as direct opposites always must have. Both are eternal states – “absolutely elsewhere” as regards our familiar time-space continuum. Both have that finality and absoluteness which our “climate of opinion” finds so uncongenial. Both can be experienced in this life, if at all, only in moods and moments which, while giving as it were a foretaste of the quality of beatitude or damnation, are other than and discontinuous with, the pattern of daily life. Mystics intensely and many other people less intensely, know these moments of vision which open a window upon a different mode of existence.

Thomas Aquinas On Sin And Purgatory
Two things may be considered in sin: the guilty act and the consequent stain. Now it is evident that in all actual sins, when the act of sin has ceased the guilt remains; for the act of sin makes man deserving of punishment, in so far as he transgresses the order of divine justice, to which he cannot return except that he pay some sort of penal compensation which restores him to the equality of justice. Hence, according to the order of divine justice, he who has been too indulgent to his will, by transgressing God’s commandment, suffers, either willingly or unwillingly, something contrary to what he would wish. The restoration for the equality of justice by penal compensation is also to be observed in injuries done to ones’ fellowmen. Consequently, it is evident that when the sinful or injurious act has ceased, there still remains the debt of punishment.

But if we speak of the removal of sin as to the stain, it is evident that the stain of sin cannot be removed from the soul without the soul being united to God, since it was through being separated from Him that it suffered the loss of its splendor, in which the stain consists…Now man is united to God by his will. Therefore the stain of sin cannot be removed from man unless his will accepts the order of divine justice; that is to say, unless either of his own accord he take upon himself the punishment of his past sin, or bear patiently the punishment which God inflicts upon him; and in both ways of punishment has the character of satisfaction.

Now when punishment is satisfactory, it loses somewhat of the nature of punishment, for the nature of punishment is to be against the will: and although satisfactory punishment, absolutely speaking, is against the will, nevertheless, in this particular case and for this particular purpose, it is voluntary…We must therefore say that, when the stain of sin has been removed, there may remain a debt of punishment, not indeed of punishment absolutely, but of satisfactory punishment.

The Soul Is Self-Regulating
The only way the soul can injure or grieve God is by injuring itself; and the only thing it can restore to God is itself. It can only restore itself and purge the stain, which is separation from God, by accepting judgment and gladly submitting to have the stain scoured off it by any means, however painful; and this “cleansing of the filth” as Dante puts it, is itself the making of the satisfaction….Divine justice so goads that the fear is changed into desire….Nobody comes to release the soul; it is its own judge and when it feels that it is clean, it gets up and goes. It knows itself is clean because it is free to follow its will.

Appreciating Dante
To appreciate Dante it is not, of course, necessary to believe what he believed, but it is, I think, necessary to understand what he believed, and to realize that it is a belief which a mature mind can take seriously. The widespread disinclination today to take Hell and Heaven seriously results, very largely, from a refusal to take this world seriously. If we are materialists, we look upon man’s life as an event so trifling compared to the cosmic process that our acts and decisions have no importance beyond the little space-time frame in which we find ourselves. If we take what is often vaguely called “a more spiritual attitude to life,” we find that we are postulating some large and lazy cosmic benevolence which ensures that, no matter how we behave, it will all somehow or other come out right in the long run. But here Christianity says “No. What you do and what you are matters, and matters intensely. It matters now and it matters eternally; it matters to you and it matters so much to God that it was for Him literally a matter of life and death.”

Julian of Norwich Quotes
To me was shewed no harder hell than sin.

In every soul that shall be saved is a godly will that never assented to sink, nor ever shall…Though the soul be healed, its wounds are seen before God – not as wounds but as worships.

Whatever praises Dante the pilgrim, speaking in character may address to Virgil, Dante the poet knew and intended from the beginning that Virgil and his Humanism were inadequate to salvation. The action of the story tells us so. From the very beginning Humanism is presented to us as damned. In its own strength, it can never rise higher than Limbo; in its own wisdom it can only show us Hell. Grace sends it on its errand of salvation; even as far as Purgatory it can come only in company with a soul in grace, and here it does not of itself know the way and is subject to this authority of all the Ministers of Grace. The spiritual signification resides in the action and the development of the story as whole.

The Active Life And The Church
There is a fundamental error about the Church’s attitude to the Active Life – a persistent assumption that Catholic Christianity, like any Oriental Gnosticism, despises the flesh and enjoins a complete detachment for all secular activities. Such a view is altogether heretical. No religion that centers about a Divine Incarnation can take up such an attitude as that. What the Church enjoins is quite different: namely, that all the good things of this world are to be loved because God loves them, as God loves them, for the love of God, and for no other reason. That is the right ordering of love, about which so much is said in the Purgatorio. A full Active Life, rightly ordered, is therefore in no way incompatible with holiness or even with a rich Contemplative Life. Indeed many of the greatest Contemplatives have been masterly men and women of business – one need only instance St. Augustine of Hippo, St Theresa of Avila, or St Gregory the Great.

The Ways Corruption Is Reached And The Ways Of Restoration
We find it fairly easy to recognize the various stages by which the deep of corruption is reached. Futility; lack of living faith; the drift into loose morality, greedy consumption, financial irresponsibility, and uncontrolled bad temper; a self opinionated and obstinate individualism; violence, sterility, and lack of reverence for life and property including ones’ own the exploitation of sex, the debasing of language by advertisement and propaganda, the commercializing of religion, the pandering to superstition and the conditioning of people’s minds by mass-hysteria and “spell-binding” of all kinds, venality and string-pulling in public affairs, hypocrisy, dishonesty in material things, intellectual dishonesty, the fomenting of discord (class against class, nation against nation) for what one can get out of it, the falsification and destruction of all the means of communication; the exploitation of the lowest and stupidest means of mass-emotions; treachery even to the fundamentals of kinship, country, the chosen friend, and the sworn allegiance: these are the all-too-recognizable extinguishing of all civilized relations….

For Dante the restoration of society must come from within and not from without: the change of heart must precede the establishment of right institutions…The evil loves that have to be purged are the pride that seeks domination and cannot bear to see another person, class, or nation enjoying equal or superior privileges  the envy that is terrified of any sort of competition, lest another’s gain should be one’s own loss  the anger that exacts vindictive reparations and cannot forgive past injuries.

Then there is sloth, which may take the forms either of indifference, delay or despair. Then come the disordered love for things right in themselves but wrong when they are made and end in themselves (a) avarice, which is the love of money, whether in the sense of grudging thrift or conspicuous waste, and the lust for that power which money gives (b) the greed of a high standard of living; and (c) the lussuria which is the exaltation of emotional and personal relationships above all other loyalties, human or divine.

A Story of Conversion
The story of the Commedia is the story of a conversion, and the stages of the process are those which the accounts of many such experiences in real life have made familiar to us. Peculiar to Dante is the part played by Virgil. The sinner, who has fallen so far that he can no longer hear the call of religion, is reached, through the grace of God, at the rational level. He realizes, one may say, that he is on the point of betraying even the ordinary human decencies; and this salutary shock opens his eyes to his condition and starts him on the road to repentance.

This recognition of the cooperation of Nature with Grace is characteristically Catholic…Heaven like Hell is within the soul – it has to choose which possibility to embrace, and, having chosen Heaven, it must die to sin with Christ and make free its will so that it may become one with the will of Christ within it…if love is rightly ordered…it will keep the Law because it wants to keep it and find its freedom in that service.


A Highly Personal Lesson In God’s Providence And Will

February 7, 2011

Nutritional scientists, I’m given to understand, have always been intrigued by the enteric nervous system, composed as it is of some 500 million nerve cells, “as many as there are in a cat’s brain” it said in a recent WSJ article. I have a couple of the latter running around the apartment here and I can attest that a cat’s brain, Siamese anyways, while it more than qualifies to be called brainless is also endlessly interesting and complex — something like a woman’s, but I digress.

For the human, the enteric nervous system helps to control muscular contractions in the gut as well as the secretions of glands and cells. More intriguing still, those glands and cells help balance hunger to satiety and communicate those states to the big brain:

“In the quest to balance hunger and satiety, the gut brain and big brain communicate via neural signals. When food enters the stomach, the stomach stretches, and the gut brain sends a neural message to the big brain. The gut brain also knows when there are nutrients in the gastrointestinal tract, stimulating the release of peptides into the blood and resulting in another message to the brain. A peptide release is also part of the “ileal brake” mechanism. The ileum is the lower part of the small intestine. Fat penetrates there when there’s too much for the body to process, triggering an “I’m full” message to the big brain.

Nestle has run some early-stage experiments on foods using its artificial gut model. In a paper published in the journal Food Biophysics last year , Dr. Watzke and colleagues described one such experiment using olive oil. They first measured how long it took an artificial (laboratory) gut to digest olive oil at the natural rate. Then, they added a compound called monoglyceride, which formed a protective coat around the oil molecules, making it harder for the gut’s juices to break through and digest the oil.

The Nestle scientists monitored the oil’s progress as it gradually went through the system. They found it took eight times longer for the machine to “digest” the olive oil-monoglyceride combination compared with the olive oil alone. This resulted in more undigested oil reaching the small intestine. In the human body, this could lead to a stronger ileal brake signal of fullness to the big brain.”
Gautam Naik Vevey, Hungry? Your Stomach Really Does Have a Mind of Its Own, WSJ article January 25, 2011

The sense of being full is the operative thought to take away and consider here because I can’t think of anything greater that contributes to our sense of well-being more and the lack of which contributes to an inability to be generous. Generosity becomes lacking when we are in pain – not just pain-pain as in toothache or backache (that, too) but the low rent versions thereof, the gnawing back-of-the-mind stuff that says “God I’m so exhausted, I ache all over. I don’t want to move.” or “If I only had a few more hours of sleep I could deal with whatever.”

Now these scientists have relabeled the enteric nervous system as the “gut brain” and although I have no scientific background whatsoever (Do my 18 months of computer science courses qualify?), I would volunteer the gut brain for not only food related urges but sex as well. Women have always accused men of thinking below their waists and now we appear to have a good culprit to step up and take the blame for our splendid penises here. Recently PBS ran a diet series that featured it and even Steven Colbert gave it a send up recently.

Although many of our modern sins (booze, drugs) didn’t make Dante’s levels or cornices of the mountain of purgatory the seven that did (pride, envy, anger, sloth, avarice, gluttony, and lust), are emblematic of the principal manifestations of Sin. As he entered the purgation process, Dante received the mark of seven “P’s” on his forehead, a sign of the seven deadly peccata (sins), meant to reveal that our sins are much more visible to others than to ourselves, as plain as the letters on Dante’s forehead.

Yet another reason for why loving our enemies makes perfect sense, by the way: their hatred for us is the mirror in which we can see our own dysfunction. Never ask how someone knows you’re a fraud and an asshole, it precedes you’re revealing anything – sort of a gut-to-gut communication as it were. When you become a sex addict you LOOK like a lounge lizard and gluttons are fat slobs. A drunk can never fool another drunk. There is no way to dodge it. Ask your enemy, the person who hates you, they know and are usually more than happy to let you know.

So imagine my horror when I became a glutton. Most of my life I had been a well muscled lounge lizard, overly proud of my physique on which I had devotedly spent countless hours exercising in the gym. As diabetes became my Original Sin (the one you can’t overcome on your own) I was laid low by the incessant urge to feed my depression, medicating what I couldn’t control. I’m reminded here by a Dorothy Sayer’s anecdote about immorality:

To the majority of people the word “immorality” has come to mean one thing and one thing only…A man may be greedy and selfish; spiteful, cruel, jealous and unjust; violent and brutal; grasping, unscrupulous and a liar; stubborn and arrogant; stupid, morose and dead to every noble instinct – and still we are ready to say of him that he is not an immoral man. I am reminded of a young man who once said to me with perfect simplicity:’ I did not know there were seven deadly sins (lust, gluttony, greed, pride, sloth, wrath, envy): please tell me the names of the other six.
Dorothy Sayers

Much like that young man, on becoming Catholic, I thought the only sin was lust so I got my ladies act together by seeking chastity. However I found my core lack of temperance expressed itself in whack-a-mole fashion as food, specifically a sugar addiction. As a body builder I knew how to diet, so after tipping the scales at 300 I dieted by way back to 240 in six months – everyone marveled and I strutted. Along the way the blood sugars came down and I no longer needed the medications that had brought them under control in the first place.

But then something disastrous happened. As a true wise-guy I began to use the medications as a way to over-eat again. I could sneak back to 280 whatever and use the metformin (a glucophage that helps to control the amount of glucose (sugar) in your blood) to both anaesthetize the depression of diabetes and have my Ben & Jerry excesses at the same time. But at some point the gut brain kicks in and controls your life and the medicine no longer works. Like a drunk who hides the bottles, I always had cake, cookies, whatever, in one of the cupboards. I couldn’t get out of the store without carting all the crap that was ruining my life.

I would beg the nutritionist to help me with what I saw as an addiction but all they did was go back to counting calories. I watched “Intervention” on TV, understanding how the various addicts were ruining themselves. I saw a program on PBS about the enteric system or “gut brain.” It amazed me that all this research was being conducted at Mass General Hospital, who knows, perhaps a few floors above where the nutritionist and I used to sit going over menu choices but no one I spoke to seemed to have a clue about it. So I quit the nutritionist and even the doctor.

Would God save the poor souls on Intervention or me, I wondered. I prayed for deliverance. Wouldn’t some TV crew descend on me and whisk me away to the Berkshires and some spa treatment for my addiction. It didn’t happen because it wasn’t meant to happen. Somethings I think God lets us work out on your own without TV crews or therapists like Dr. Phil.

And as if to parody my despair and that last sentence, it WAS Dr. Phil who featured several months ago a company called Bistro MD. It belongs to a group of fast growing recession companies called gourmet meal home delivery companies. I googled the term when I heard about it on a business report and it turned out to be EXACTLY what I needed. No more food shopping outside of buying a few items like coffee or fruit or fresh veggies. Everything is delivered and it’s all frozen.

I quickly discovered this is not microwave stuff like in the supermarket. These are meals a gourmet chef put together. There sure as hell isn’t a lot of it but all I needed was something that tasted good that I could look forward to. I’m back to my five small meals (three + two snacks) a day and the weight is melting off again. And the blood sugars are magically coming down also.

I can’t tell you how many start-and-stop failures I had following the nutritionists at MGH. All that sacrifice following diets that didn’t work and lacking the will power to walk by delis and take outs near my job in downtown Boston. Getting laid off solved that problem and Bistro MD has taken care of the supermarket while eating at home now.

It has taken me nine years of suffering to finally find the key on this and it is God’s providence and will that accomplished it. My inability to listen to that is a reflection on how bad a spiritual Catholic I am but hopefully the lessons get easier. Will I ever learn?


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