On Intellectual Hedonism (3/15)

Perhaps after having invested months of care and doting attention to a half-dozen or so translations and various commentaries on Dante’s Commedia, I have earned the right to make a few tentative criticisms of Dante scholarship as a complex, ongoing enterprise.

I will begin by expressing my gratitude and heartfelt appreciation for the contributions made by serious scholars and commentators—reference materials, insightful textual analyses, and historical-biographical studies that help to open up this difficult text to the modern reader. Without their conscientious efforts, Dante’s great poem would have been practically opaque and impenetrable to me. With this level or realm of scholarly knowledge and information I have no quarrel—only heartfelt gratitude.

My direct acquaintance with the (albeit translated) works of Dante reveals an extraordinary mind that is vast and subtle, profound and superbly artful.   The same claims, alas, cannot be made for the majority of the Dantisti, the professional and amateur scholars who, over the centuries, have devoted themselves to unlocking and exploring this justly revered text. At times, when I am reading Hollander’s or Durling’s impeccably detailed and well-researched notes on a minor figure from the Inferno or on a much-disputed tercet from the Purgatorio, I get the queasy feeling that I am listening to treble-voiced Lilliputians ‘holding forth’ about Gulliver, whom they believe they have managed to tie down and bind with oodles and oodles of twine. All too often, the sense of who Dante genuinely was and of what he has bequeathed to the world in his great poem is flattened out and watered down by these diligent scholarly laborers—reduced, that is, to the modest, bite-sized terms that they and their fellow Dantisti can more or less comfortably fit into their encyclopedic, information-processing noggins. Again, I am not trying here to disparage the service these scholars are providing—as far as that service extends. I merely wish to suggest that perhaps only a mind as subtle and comprehensive as Dante’s is in a position to fully appreciate what he’s accomplished and how he pulled this off.

In defense of these modern-day Dante scholars, it must at once be admitted that, as moderns, they inhabit a very different cultural-spiritual context (or worldview) than Dante woke up to each morning of his sublimely thoughtful, thoroughly engaged life. The modern mind enters Dante’s poem, with its very different—and now obsolete—cultural-spiritual context, like a fidgety hand fits into an expertly tailored glove. As a necessary consequence of this fact, we modern students of Dante’s poem are at an enormous disadvantage—the very real conditions of which must be taken thoroughly into account if we aim, in our reading, to establish a functional bridge between Dante’s ‘world’ and our own very different one. Otherwise, all we will be confronting there will be an impenetrable, archaic relic from an earlier, strange stage of our cultural history. As such, this relic—regardless of how interesting or curious it happens to be as a mere fossil from the past—will remain dumb to us or as stumpingly ambiguous as the murky mutterings of a writhing, spittle-spewing priestess at Delphi. For those who are content with this arrangement—to stand on one bank of a river while Dante’s world remains fixed in place on the other bank, with no real bridge in between—then what I am suggesting here about a deeper way of reading Dante will make little appeal. For what I want is to be able to cross that river and get to Dante—or conversely, to have Dante’s transcultural, supra-historical insights stretch across that river (of elapsed time) to my imaginatively receptive soul. Such bridging, while it may be significantly assisted by fine scholarship, transcends merely academic or scholarly aims and concerns.

Reading Dante along with copious notes and commentary has helped me to better understand what sort of reader I am no longer content to be. This gradual realization—a transforming attitude towards reading that is still being negotiated—coincides with my changing attitude towards all intellectual activity, per se. I no longer view intellectual activity for its own sake (or the self-delighting play of the intellect) as ‘above suspicion.’ In fact, I am more inclined than ever before to classify such intellectual playfulness (and the pleasure it yields) as a species of highbrow entertainment. I have not become quite so austere that I am ready to dispense with all forms of entertainment on principle, but neither do I fail to recognize that a ‘susceptible’ fellow like me can easily overindulge such playfulness. It may turn out to be true that the highest—or, if you prefer, the deepest—perspective of which I am capable is imbued with a ‘divine levity.’ Such a perspective would be devoid of the grim sternness that shuns playfulness and light-hearted nonchalance. It is my strong suspicion that true centeredness transcends both undesirable extremes: frothy-frivolous, puerile levity and dense, somber, senex-gravity. Centeredness, I reckon, is beyond all such states, attitudes, moods, and postures. Because it comprehends and transcends all stances, it is—as it were—a non-stance.

But let us be honest: A person whose life is fanatically devoted to the quest for exquisite intellectual and aesthetic pleasures is every bit as much a ‘hedonist’ as the person whose chief love is for sensual pleasures—say, of a gastronomic, bibulous, or erogenous sort. We see here a distinction merely of grade or subtlety, but not of kind, since the attainment of a pleasure-state (of one type or another) is the shared, defining goal of all hedonistic pursuits. It is true, of course, that rare and exquisite pleasures require some degree of care and cultivation—and this entails a measure of effort and application on the part of the devoted hedonist. Nevertheless, such effort is deemed an acceptable price to pay for the refined and subtle delights for which only the connoisseur or cognoscente is eligible. There is usually a considerable bit of vanity or self-congratulatory snootiness mixed in with the hedonism in such cases—so that the pleasure-seeker experiences a delight bonus (in whatever he happens to be pursuing for pleasure) in the pleasant acknowledgement of his superiority over all those ‘beneath him’) who have not yet attained his choosy and exacting standards!

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