From Fragments to the Whole: The Difficult Passage
Bainard Cowan, Ph.D.
1. What Globalization Isn’t
For some time the thinkers of the Dallas Institute have been speaking of an age to come that will stand in dramatic contrast to the modern age, the era in which the developed world existed and transacted business for most of the twentieth century. Events of the last decade have clarified this transition to a new age. As Donald Cowan wrote in the seventies: “There is a darkness shadowing technology; there are dark times coming. The transition from one major epoch to another is not to be accomplished handily. But our response to all the ensuing problems must not be to turn against the light–for it is by means of the poetic and technological illumination that human life has been lifted from its enslavement to matter and directed toward the liberty for which it seems destined.” The reading public now generally knows that what is happening is not just a change in politics, although dramatic political events were what first signaled that something was afoot; politics will not show us the dramatic contours of this new form of organization. Similarly, it is not the end of industrialism—a “hyperindustrial” age has instead come about in the time since this false prophecy was uttered. Nor do the terms world government, world order, world market, global culture name this reality. Martin Albrow, author of The Global Age, warns against accepting older or shallower images or terms of this new reality. It is time, he says, for “moving beyond both modernity and postmodernity and recognizing a new reality” (1).
Other factors receiving much of the headlines tell part of the story of this transition. The globalization that we are speaking of is not just rule by world market (although perceptive books—Ulrich Beck, What Is Globalization? Thomas L. Friedman, The Lexus and the Olive Tree—have been written on the enormous implications of this); not just the beginning of the electronic environment; not just biogenetics; not just global climatic change, the “global environmental consequences of aggregate human activities” (Albrow 4); nor is it alone the global destructiveness of weapons and the consequent equal loss of security by all.
Yet all these factors impact on the changed world that we see before us. All, in addition to being parts of the reality, are metaphors of the change whose entirety is so difficult for us to see. We use these metaphors constantly; the net; the web; the global marketplace in the global village; the designer gene;Gaia, the great globe itself, as a living being; global warming; nuclear winter.
2. The Prehistory of the Present
Emerging from the cloud of the Cold War, we now come to see world history in a different light. Big-picture historians such as William J. McNeill have re-envisioned the past in terms of a millennia-long movement toward globalization. We’ve been very fortunate to discover within the past century that the older notion of “diffusion” of civilization seems to be wrong–that civilized orders are not like the branches of a central trunk but rather like grass. Consequently it is less that civilization is a rare line that must be preserved and more that it is self-organizing, so that the more consciousness and creativity we can pour into the process the better.
Studies in comparative civilization and world system history indicate the convergence of the great world civilizations and show the need for their study in a synoptic way. David Wilkinson defends a definition of civilization that is communication-centered, focusing on connectedness rather than uniformity (which would require cultural unity). Cities whose people are interacting continuously–even if in hostility–thereby belong to the same civilization. This means, for instance, that we must regard the Christian, Judaic, and Islamic urban cultures of the Middle Ages as a single civilization, their religio-cultural differences rather to be treated as “provincial idiosyncracies constitutive of a larger social unity” than as demarcation points to be patrolled. By now we should recognize, remarks Wilkinson, that what historian Arnold Toynbee called a “future oecumenical civilization” is “not future but present, and indeed about a century old” (52).
Another consequence, certainly, is that cultures must no longer be studied in purist forms, constantly in danger of Rousseauistic hypostatization as forms of the “noble Other” to evil Western standardization—the noble savage idea. Nor should steering clear of this Charybdis have to require making a sacrifice of other traditions to the Scylla of Western-Culture-only. World cultural traditions must now be studied because they are us—not other—and indeed they have been so for about a century now, as Wilkinson says.
All these intellectual developments are growing in support of the idea that globalization is not simply the culmination of recent capitalist processes, nor of the development of industrialization over several hundred years, but rather emerges from the direction of the whole of human history. William Irwin Thompson is another seer of the big picture in history, presenting a notion of five strata of human organization. In explaining what constitutes the fifth stratum, Thompson employs the term “planetization” to describe the transition to a mentality or frame of consciousness that world society must strive to achieve if it is to avoid the self-destruction of the human race. For him what we call “civilization” refers to a distinct stage of the development of human organization, one made possible by the earlier stage of the agricultural revolution and the sedentarization of our species, but building on the ways of those ancient settled societies by instituting empires, founded on masculine allegiances and centered on the concept of justice–the abstract idea arrived at in the process of mediating between tribal claims in conflict with each other. As Aeschylus portrays in the Oresteia the founding myth of the civilizing order, justice is arrived at by Athena in freeing Orestes from the vengeance of the Furies, who represent the non-negotiable sense of right arising out of the order of blood. In conceiving of the idea of Justice–and along with it, then, the Good, the True, and the Beautiful–the civilizing order discovered the very idea of aspiration. Yet lurking in the linchpin concept of allegiance is the unavoidable notion of stratification and hence of the participation of only the few in this aspiring quest for the transcendent good.
Nonetheless, ironically, at the same time as the first flowering in poetic and legal consciousness of these new hierarchical civilizations, there arose the greatest non-stratifying forces and forms of aspiration the world has ever known–those living beliefs that comparatists call the “world religions,” denoting by that rubric those religions not founded on gods promoted from tribal origins to supertribal status (Greece, India, West Africa, Mesoamerica) but rather on a central moral imperative: do justice to one another; love your neighbor as you would yourself; lead others on the noble path out of spiritual bondage. These creeds first grew rhizomatically, outward in all directions as wild vines grow by putting down their own roots, not by forced implantation. And after growing away from each other over two millennia, these religions are at this moment in the process of encountering each other and sorting out the possibility of rapprochement from the inevitable reflex of conflict.
But although Thompson and other observers have insisted that the world is in the process of changing into a new form, the order of civilization is not the whole story of this older form out of which the world is growing. The industrialization of the Western world brought in its own priorities, overturning and throwing into confusion the unequivocal ideals of the civilizing order and replacing them with the ideals of progress. It is this that academics term the modern epoch: based on factual knowledge, the careful measurement of a mathematically describable reality, government of by and for the people, improvement of the material standard of living. The modern nation state was founded on these ideals that emphasized a simplified definition of the good in order to have the greatest good for the greatest number of people, rather than the clearest and most shining definition of the good to which the people must genuflect.
It is against these “modern” industrial ideals that the recent movements of deconstruction and postmodernism have revolted most explicitly and energetically. In place of the ultimate authority of fact, these recent movements have emphasized the relativity of fact (the dependency of fact upon culture) and the ultimate uncertainty of measurement (here aided by the discoveries of quantum physics), and in place of ultimate trust in majority rule as guide to the general will of the people, they are more concerned with the danger of the tyranny of the majority. Interestingly, not even the postmodernists really want to attack the ideal of improving the material standard of living; although philosophers have questioned the self-interestedness and complacency behind this goal, none have suggested that instead we should all march together in the other direction.
Rather, Thompson says, as we move toward planetization we are moving away from the vicariousformation of identity, in which citizens could be satisfied with government by representation and by the advances of a few great men in society, specialists who were admired with unrestrained adulation—Edison, Carnegie, Roosevelt. In contrast, almost no one remembers the name of the inventor of the television, or of the electronic computer, or of the internet, despite the recent attempt of one fairly well-known political figure to claim that achievement for himself. The strange lust of our time to bring low any figures aspiring to such deification indicates in an inverted way the desire for all to participate fully in the world’s doings and makings.
What are we moving toward? Let me see if I can maintain the parallelism I have been following while stating it my way.
- Individuation and the full realization of human potential;
- self-identification–no longer in terms of contrast and scapegoating non-members of the group;
- a sense of the dependency of all things on context, and as a living sense an understanding of the living, growing, changing nature of organic form in all entities;
- an innate and intuitive understanding of the paradoxical nature of reality, requiring an integration of the spiritual and the physical, the fluid nature of gender;
- and the formation of supra-political collective enterprises, voluntary undertakings for the good–yes, the improvement of the material standard of living, but already it is also the informational standard of living (Give a man a fish and he will eat for a day, but give him a computer and he will be frustrated and discontented for life), and already we have the vaguer term “quality of life” or Q of L, coined in recognition that the exercise of personhood depends on a host of factors not limited to a single quantitative measurement.
In the most wide-ranging and affirmative book on this subject yet, journalist Robert Wright further re-envisions history as an upward unifying process in Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny. Wright claims “a kind of force–the non-zero-sum dynamic . . . has crucially shaped the unfolding of life on earth so far” (5), and that the unfolding of human history and culture has followed an analogous and related path. Non-zero is the term he uses as a charm to conjure a vision of the future. In zero-sum games, Wright explains, the fortunes of the players are inversely related–there is never enough good fortune for more than half the players, and often there is enough for only one. In non-zero-sum games, however, to quote Wright, “one player’s gain needn’t be bad news for the other(s). Indeed, in highly non-zero-sum games the players’ interests overlap entirely” (5). He then goes on to a well-informed, versatile, charming, and I think quite justified survey of the whole of human history as crucially characterized throughout by just this kind of zero-sum game–a very serious kind of game in which people from unfamiliar and even opposing camps unite in the undertaking to make something good happen. That something good may be simply for the two of them–a kind of traders’ agreement that will help them corner the market, whether in business or not–or it may be for the good in general.
The “core pattern” Wright follows in history he states thus: “New technologies arise that permit or encourage new, richer forms of non-zero-sum interaction; then (for intelligible reasons grounded ultimately in human nature) social structures evolve that realize this rich potential–that convert non-zero-sum situations into positive sums. Thus does social complexity grow in scope and depth” (6). What marks Wright as of such sunny disposition is his insistence that “over the long run, non-zero sum situations produce more mutual benefit than [does] parasitism. As a result, people become embedded in larger and richer webs of interdependence” (6).
Relentlessly optimistic though Wright is, he does recognize that “the current era has the aura of a threshold,” that the “growing turmoil” in the world means “we are indeed approaching a culmination of sorts; our species seems to face a kind of test toward which basic forces of history have been moving us for millennia.” He sees it as “a test of political imagination–of our ability to accept basic, necessary changes in structures of governance–but also a test of moral imagination” (8-9). If I gather rightly, he believes that just recognizing that the immediate future poses such a test of moral imagination is an important step. He continues:
So how will we do on this test? Judging by history, the current turbulence will eventually yield to an era of relative stability, an era when global political, economic, and social structures have largely tamed the new forces of chaos. The world will reach a new equilibrium, at a level of organization higher than any past equilibrium. And the period we are now entering will, in retrospect, look like the storm before the calm.
In this vision of a harmonious future world order, Wright is only reinventing the conclusion to which Donald Cowan came two decades ago in Unbinding Prometheus. Nonetheless, Cowan, Wright, and Thompson all agree that the current era is a decisive one, that the “destiny” which Wright trumpets so gladly can always be refused by a self-preoccupied human race.
3. Challenges and Opportunities
Thomas Friedman’s bestseller book The Lexus and the Olive Tree is a responsible assessment of the dual world that is emerging in all corners as a result of economic developments. On the whole, he is positive about it. The pressure of wealth and the desire for it can do many good things. And above all the global economy wants to survive and grow. It therefore will be
- intolerant of intolerance—too counter-productive
- intolerant of organized thievery—the global economy will require the rule of law where it is to be operative; stealing property, cheating on stocks, and laundering money can no longer be the order of the day; regularized accounting must be established
- intolerant of bureaucracy
These three conditions combine to give the correct impression that the global economy is the liberal state writ large–it will bring the features that liberal states have sought to confer on their citizens: personal liberty and choice, literacy, education, standard of living, disestablishment of religion and progressively of every other distinction not related to work. Friedman’s conclusion, delivered soberly and with lots of evidence, essentially backs up Francis Fukuyama’s earlier book that was so decried by many, The End of History and the Last Man. The global economy will bring the liberal state to every corner of the world. It will be possible to fend it off and keep one’s traditional ways, but at the cost of poverty and the diverting of the flow of the world’s money.
The global economy also:
- leaves cultural questions to national governments–government costs too much; no help and no guns will be provided to local government to fulfill their demands
- requires everyone to learn English: the global economy will require this lingua franca, so to speak. Opportunity will depend on it.
- will go elsewhere if you shoot minority religious groups. Ethnic cleansing means no investment. War is not cost effective. The global economy takes the attitude that Gibbon said the Roman Empire took in its time: “To the poor all religions were equally true; to the philosophers all religions were equally false; to the magistrates all religions were equally useful.”
The various cultures of the world envision their future, their being, and their relationships in ways incompatible with their future, their being, and their relationships. Gilbert Murray spoke of the inherited cultural conglomerate of the Greeks, referring primarily to Homer and Hesiod. The problem for the future of the globalized world is that the inherited cultural conglomerate is insufficient. The new reality is incompatible with long-held cultural self-perceptions.
Friedman speaks of “the golden straightjacket”—the pressure of money, development, and jobs to make people do it the American way or else. The efficiency aspect of the market will grow, and this means that the rich will get richer and the poor will not. But this does not result in a zero-sum society. He does admit, however that this means most regional cultures will be consigned to the status of museum exhibits.
Friedman’s is the most informed of many writers who have posed the shape of the strange present in which we now live as global versus local. The images of the Lexus and olive tree are an improvement over the earlier book Jihad vs. McWorld; presumably we all would like to have a Lexus and an olive tree, but do not want McDonald’s as far as the eye can see or a jihad—a holy war. Yet none of these images tells more than a partial truth. The beauty of the image of the olive tree masks the point Friedman is making that olive trees are primary things over which blood is shed:
Olive trees . . . represent everything that roots us, anchors us, identifies us and locates us in this world. . . . Conflicts between Serbs and Muslims, Jews and Palestinians, Armenians and Azeris over who owns which olive tree are so venomous precisely because they are about who will be at home and anchored in a local world and who will not be. (27)
Now one must grant that if globalization is carried out in a total absence of love and imagination and a McWorld is produced, we all might want to join the jihad. That seems to be the point of the recent popular movie The Matrix, where the technological control of all has advanced to such a degree that it produces an utterly false reality for billions existing in suspended animation, unable to have experiences at all, and the awakening from that state takes on the character of emerging from Plato’s cave or of Buddhist awakening.
So the global economy brings challenges as well as promises, and we must not refuse to see both. A further set of promises and challenges exists in the promises of the electronic environment, as heralded by writers like Nicholas Negroponte, Being Digital. Most of Negroponte’s examples demonstrate how the digital world of the “post-information age” will be replacing with electronic technology those few non-intimate human contacts that constitute our lives. For all palpable evidence, it will be not creating but supplanting community. “If your early-morning flight to Dallas is delayed, your alarm clock can ring a bit later and the car service automatically notified in accordance with traffic predictions” (212). Gee, that will be handy. “It would really be quite simple to brand your toast in the morning with the closing price of your favorite stock” (213). That might prove to be a bit hard to swallow..
Technophile authors often rely on the dangerous fantasy of a new unfallen generation to carry out their revolutions. “Children will read and write on the Internet to communicate, not just to complete some abstract and artificial exercise,” writes Negroponte. “The Internet provides a new medium for reaching out to find knowledge and meaning” (202). But this vision is for little pint-sized movers and shakers, self-starters, xerox reductions of today’s CEOs–the only audience Negroponte seems to be addressing most of the time.
The author speaks of “the harmonizing effect of being digital”—“digital technology [as] a natural force drawing people into greater world harmony”—which he ultimately attributes to the prospect of “a new generation . . . emerging from the digital landscape free of many of the old prejudices . . . [and] released from the limitation of geographic proximity as the sole basis of friendship, collaboration, play, and neighborhood” (230). Similarly, “the empowering nature of being digital” is again based on neophilia for that just so darn plucky emerging generation of e-kids. “As children appropriate a global information resource, and as they discover that only adults need learner’s permits, we are bound to find new hope and dignity in places where very little existed before” (231). Negroponte, like many other idolizers of the digital but with better prose, has reincarnated that old quixotic delusion, the myth of the golden age.
The person writing this sort of thing knows little about human nature or the generational depth of human experience and community. We who are a little more steeped in nondigital humanity may knit our brows in sympathy for this emerging generation, which will have to repeat the history of the human race in discovering what is wise and what isn’t. Such is the message of literature, and especially of the post-World War II novel, from William Golding’s Lord of the Flies to Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, where a psychic friends network of all children born at the moment India attained its independence begins as the hope of the salvation of the new India and ends in petty and murderous rancor, apathy, and impotence.
And yet Negroponte is mostly right. On the whole the new communications networks will bring people together for peaceful purposes; they will cross national boundaries without even noticing them, so those age-old sources of division and violence will be ignored by those online. He is right when he says, “The true value of a network is less about information and more about community. The information superhighway . . . is creating a totally new global social fabric” (183). The positive character of the new electronic community will eventually emerge since it is designed to be for all people. In the transition era, however, the now, the character of that community will remain in question as long as the net is an insurgent thing, with some included, some excluded, some in the know, and some making end runs around others.
But in any case this new age is upon us now. What Karl Jaspers wrote in 1955 is impressive testimony to a steady development of the age to come since the 1940s:
It was the Second World War which first accorded full weight to the contribution from everywhere, to the globe as a whole. The war in the Far East was just as serious as that in Europe. It was in point of fact the first real world war. World history as a single history of the totality had begun. From now on the interim period of previous history appears as a dispersed field of unconnected ventures, as so many beginnings of human possibilities. Now it is the totality which has become the problem and the task. It ushers in a complete transformation of history. The decisive thing is that there is no more “outside.” The world closes, it is the earth’s unity. New threats and opportunities appear. All essential problems have become world problems, the situation is the situation of humanity. (quoted in Albrow 75)
Once again, here is my sense of the major new aspects of the good order are toward which this new emerging global age is tending:
- The end of mass man. All people demand participation in the life of this global age and will be satisfied with nothing less than full personhood as a participant. How this is to happen is still to be determined, but as a movement it has been underway for a long time. The German essayist Walter Benjamin has traced the prehistory of human liberation in the nineteenth-century origins of consumerism in Paris, in the display windows and the department stores. José Ortega y Gasset, often assumed to lie at the other end of the political spectrum, took exactly the same viewpoint and expressed it in a memorable, easily intuited few lines:
What do I mean by “the revolt of the masses”?
The parks are full of people strolling.
The best doctors’ appointment books are full.
That is all.
- Instantaneousness and its consequences. In the past one always had to reckon with a time-distance ratio between the message and the messenger. Today there is no messenger, just messages, sent and received instantaneously. This means there is no more such thing as distance. It means everyplace is the same place. This is globalization.In the past one always had to reckon with a time-distance ratio between the message and the messenger. Today there is no messenger, just messages, sent and received instantaneously. This means there is no more such thing as distance. It means everyplace is the same place. This is globalization. How can we get away from everyone? Things we as a society have dealt with by suppression will no longer be able to be suppressed.
- Organicism—synergy as an aspect of everything: our technology, our work, ourmedicine, our interaction mith man and nature.
- Openness—becoming—No one is in control.
About these last two points I shall have more to say presently.
4. The Deep Strata
Wordsworth wrote in the 1800 preface to the Lyrical Ballads: “The poet binds together by passion and knowledge the vast empire of human society, as it is spread over the whole earth, and over all time.” Poets have been ahead of us all along, imagining and addressing a global world for some time.
Globalization can be thought of in two ways in the literary tradition: as an instantaneous validity for all places and times, or as a discovery of passages and connections as a combination of cleverness, openness, and luck. We need to think our way into both these modes: they will emerge in the coming century in a slightly different way from the way they seemed in the 20th century, which had its own special traumas to deal with.
The first of these ways of the imagination is the instantaneous. For a scientific analogue we can look to nonlocality and the physics and philosophy of David Bohm. In the literary tradition it is often represented by magic, as in Shakespeare’s The Tempest.
The second way is the way of local connections and passages. For this we must think of the new science of self-organizing systems, and then go on to think about an aesthetics and an ethics for systems that are in the process of making themselves.
Few books are more entertaining, deftly written, or ingenious in writing about self-organizing systems than Kevin Kelly’s book Out of Control. In it he observes, “It seems that the things we find most interesting in the universe”–now–“are all dwelling near the web end. We have the web of life, the tangle of the economy, the mob of societies, and the jungle of our own minds. . . . The class of systems to which all of the above belong is variously called networks, complex adaptive systems, swarm systems, vivisystems, or collective systems” (21). These systems are also called distributed systems—Kelly finally takes to calling them “distributed being” (Kelly 22). These entities/patterns/collectivities are:
- decentralized—no following imposed control
- autonomous-in each subunit—within the constraints prearranged by the swarm
- connective, exhibiting a high degree of connectivity between subunits
- nonlinear, following an interactive, cycling, feedback-rich type of causality, “peers influencing peers”
Swarm systems, Kelly goes on to enumerate, have the benefits of adaptability, evolvability, resilience, boundlessness, and novelty. The apparent disadvantages are all traits of a vanishing factory age: what a swarm is not is optimal, controllable, predictable, understandable, or immediate. “Nonunderstandable” also means that authority is distributed: no one is in control, but all have a share in its life.
Kelly provides a beginning for the poetic imagining, the intuitive comprehension of our changing world system with this meditation:
The Atom is the icon of 20th century science.
The popular symbol of the Atom is stark: a black dot encircled by the hairline orbits of several other dots. The Atom whirls alone, the epitome of singleness. It is the metaphor for individuality: atomic. It is the irreducible seat of strength. The Atom stands for power and knowledge and certainty. It is as dependable as a circle, as regular as round. . . .
The internal circles of the Atom mirror the cosmos, at once a law-abiding nucleus of energy, and at the same time the concentric heavenly spheres spinning in the galaxy. In the center is the animus, the It, the life force, holding all to their appropriate whirling stations. The symbolic Atoms’ sure orbits and definite interstices represent the understanding of the universe made known. The Atom conveys the naked power of simplicity. (Kelly 25)
But “the Atom is the past”; the “symbol of science for the next century is the dynamical Net”:
The Net icon has no center—it is a bunch of dots connected to other dots—a cobweb of arrows pouring into each other, squirming together like a nest of snakes, the restless image fading at indeterminate edges. The Net is the archetype—always the same picture—displayed to represent all circuits, all intelligence, all interdependence, all things economic and social and ecological, all communications, all democracy, all groups, all large systems. The icon is slippery, ensnaring the unwary in its paradox of no beginning, no end, no center. Or, all beginning, all end, pure center. It is related to the Knot. Buried in its apparent disorder is a winding truth. Unraveling it requires heroism. (Kelly 25-26)
But also: “The network symbol signifies the swamp of psyche, the tangle of life”—Kelly has just referred to Darwin’s “tangled bank” passage—“the mob needed for individuality” (Kelly 26).
On the strength of this train of images, I would like to end with a little exercise that professional scholars of Dante sometimes undertake: a reading of three cantos in concert, one from the Inferno, one from thePurgatorio, and one from the Paradiso. Dante’s architectural and numerological genius makes this exercise sometimes the bearer of surprising rewards. I am going to twist the results to my own end, however, which is not to do Dante justice–an “unaccomplishable work,” to use the language of these cantos—but to help us seekers of poetic truth in the contemporary secular world discern our path a little better—see a little better where we have come from, where we are struggling at present, and what our goal is.
Inferno 26 begins with a sardonic hymn of praise to Florence for having achieved fame in hell for its dazzling feats of theft and treachery. Climbing down the steep descent on his way to the center of hell, Dante the wayfarer sees an infernal landscape dotted with small, bright individual fires. Virgil explains to him that “Within the fires are the spirits; each is wrapped in what is burning him” (47-48; see 41-42). Dante sees a twin flame, however, and is told it contains the spirits of Ulysses and Diomedes, condemned for their treachery against the Trojans. Virgil trades on his respect for having spread Ulysses’ fame favorably in the Aeneid by prompting Ulysses to tell Dante of his final voyage. Ulysses explains that the joys of home and family could not long overcome “the desire I had to gain experience of the world and of the vices and the worth of men.” So he sets out on the Mediterranean, sailing relentlessly westward, beyond Gibraltar, “that narrow pass where Hercules set up his landmarks so that men should not venture beyond” (107-109). He delivers a stirring speech to the crew that he commands to do his will: “O brothers . . . to the brief vigil of our senses which is left, do not deny experience of the unpeopled world to be discovered . . . you were not created to live like brutes, but to seek virtue and knowledge” (112-120). Their “mad flight,” as he calls it, takes them so deep into the Atlantic that they can see a mountain on the horizon, “higher than any I had ever seen.” The implication is that it is Mount Purgatory. But “from the new land a whirlwind arose” and destroyed the ship, drowning Ulysses and his crew.
Inferno 26 may be read, indeed it has been read by Dante critics, as a kind of critique of the modern ageavant la lettre by a poet who could see the signs of its beginnings. From the Medieval view, the modern age issues from the ambitions of the man of pride; the rise of technology is his means to the realization of his ambitions, and the myth of progress and expansion was perhaps no more than a cover story to justify the enormousness of his appetite for preeminence. According to Martin Albrow, “the story of modernity was of a project to extend human control over space, time, nature and society” (7). “The impulse to overthrow, the energy of resistance, the determination to explore beyond known territories were key characteristics of modernity” (57). Dante’s lucid poetic vision transforms Ulysses into a premonition of the conquistador of two hundred years later, a conquistador whose daring leads him to attempt to add the Afterlife to his conquests. His oratory is based on the greatness of man and his difference from the animals, but in the end it is a whirlwind, a bit of nature out of control, that ends his ambitious project forever.
The dazzling, high-relief scene of Inferno 26 stands in sheer contrast to Purgatorio 26, where one is struck by the image of the net and is caught up in conversations between shadowy bodies (corpo fittizio, 12), all commenting on Dante the new arrival, like a new visitor to a chat room in which a conversation has been going on; they are amazed that he, unlike them, has not been caught in death’s net (24); Dante is an anonymous visitor, uncertain whether to reveal his name; he observes the shadowy bodies’ brief greeting to each other, “making haste and kissing one another, without stopping, content with brief greeting” (32-33); he compares this to the communication network of ants: “thus within their dark band one ant touches muzzles with another, perhaps to spy out their way and their fortune” (34-36). What we see very little of in hell is communication; there is virtually none of it that is done outside of the specially arranged conversations with Dante the visitor. Often it is physically painful to speak in hell, as it is for Pier delle Vigne; always it is new pain, new humiliation, an annoying distraction from eternal negative self-absorption. Hell is full of modern atoms. In Purgatorio communication is everywhere; shadowy conversations are being whispered all around the traveler. The souls here are freed of the body to an extent, yet they still occupy positionally the space of the body. Bodies exist in this virtual world to the extent that one can affect another. Dante, though still fully enfleshed so that his shape stops the rays of the sun, gets into the same spirit and says “when I had fed my sight on him.” It seems to take entering this shadow world to get the work of love in the world to overcome the massive hold of self-interest on earthly souls. But these have lost the robustness of the pagan world; they look with great curiosity and much flutter of talk on any novelty; they are a community, but they are also on the move, though none so quickly as Dante; they are nodes in a network, a living organism in a shadowy way, the vivisystem of an ant colony; their life is a common life. These souls have particular need of separation from the body, for their incarnate experience of desire was their source of sin in life: these are the sexual sinners. And here no favoring is made between heterosexuals—here called “hermaphrodite,” as if the pair made one body—and same-sex lovers; they are just moving on different channels.
This is of course the poets’ canto, and Dante establishes a network of poets, meeting and thanking Guido Guinizelli for being the “father” of those who use the “sweet and gracious rhymes of love.” Guido in turn points him to Arnaut Daniel, who he says famously is the better craftsman, il miglior fabbro. The net has become a relay of gratitude. There is also the network of prayers, for Dante is entreated to “say a paternoster for me” when he reaches heaven. Arnaut–“for his name my desire was making ready a grateful place.” Arnaut replies in Provencal, the only other contemporary language used in the Commedia.Thus begins a theme enlarged on when Dante meets Adam later: namely the progress of human history as the proliferation of languages; the names for things being always changeable in human knowing; but language itself being a cause of rejoicing, the moreso for its variety and the multiplicity of its associations. Shortness of time; need for transformation. The time of transition—the coming century.
As we turn directly to Paradiso 26 we are aware of the environment of light that characterizes so much of Dante’s heaven. Here the pilgrim’s eyesight is temporarily dazzled by his attempt to look at the brilliant light approaching him which is John the Evangelist: he was curious to know whether, as legend had it, John ascended bodily to heaven like Jesus and Mary. The voice of John issues from the light and instructs him: “Until you have again the sense of sight which you have consumed in me, it is well that you compensate it by discourse” (4-6). Dante, who has learned considerably during his long journey, responds, “The good which satisfies this Court is Alpha and Omega of all the scripture which Love reads to me” (16-18).
In the three cantos together we see the pattern of, first, light, then shadow, then light, for representing the souls who dwell there. John’s heavenly light is not the consuming fire of Ulysses but a fire so pure it consumes the sight of the curious.
The heaven of this poem also bears a strong resemblance to a university, however. Dante knows he is to be examined on love, the last of his three entrance examinations to the university of heaven after being examined earlier on faith and hope. John, his examiner, wants to know, “tell me also if you feel other cords draw you toward Him, so that you declare with how many teeth this love grips you” (49-51). And Dante responds in kind: “All those things whose bite can make the heart turn to God have wrought together in my love [and] have drawn me from the sea of perverse [torto, twisted] love and placed me on the shore of right love” (55-57, 62-63). This response merits his passing grade—and this being the last of his exams, he is given a general pass, signaled by Beatrice singing along with the heavenly court, “Santo, santo, santo!” (69).
It turns out, once his sight is restored, that he can see that one of the distinguished examiners who remained silent during his interrogation is Adam, “the first soul which the First Power ever created” (83-84). Adam is to be compared to Ulysses, for both in Dante’s language have “transgressed the bounds,” Adam by his sin, Ulysses by sailing in his final voyage beyond the straits of Gibraltar. A good and gratifying student, Dante has a question—four questions, actually—which out of curiosity he would like Adam to answer for him, and he says humbly, “you see my wish, and that I may hear you sooner I do not tell it” (95-96). Adam is gratified as any senior professor would be, and Dante notes “how joyously [that first soul] came to do as I pleased” (100-102). Adam repeats this theme of the unspoken communication, saying, “‘Without its being told to me by you, I discern your wish better than you whatever is most certain to you, for I see it in the truthful Mirror which makes of Itself a reflection of all else” (103-107). These include such questions as we might want to ask the first man: how long ago he lived—that is, the age of the human race; and what language it was he spoke. This last question receives perhaps the most interesting answer:
The tongue which I spoke was all extinct before the people of Nimrod attempted their unaccomplishable work; for never was any product of reason durable forever, because of human liking, which alters, following the heavens. (124-29)
The inquiry turns to the Tower of Babel, its construction project having been presided over by Nimrod in Genesis. Babel often stands for the human project of building a supercivilization (I don’t think I’m giving away any of Dan Russ’s lecture later in this series). Adam glosses the Babel project by reminding Dante of the impermanence of human liking.
The canto in the Paradiso no longer emphasizes human works and process but rather the inner acts needed to grasp the whole of things. Despite the university format, they turn out to be acts of the soul rather than of the mind. The pilgrim receives an appropriate punishment of temporary blindness for attempting to grasp souls through mere curiosity, to know the truth about John, himself a sacred text, by turning him into a fact. We, likewise, cannot recover our sight about the future globalized world until we stop trying to know cleverly the lore of all the fascinating things before us and seek to understand it through love. Significantly, our pilgrim has to seek to know through discourse as long as he remains blinded.
This canto, then, is characterized by revealing the blindness of the attempt to know the facts without honoring the soul; by knowing that discourse is what one resorts to in the asbence of perfect vision; and by a vision of love, in which it is specifically stressed how many agents act together to draw one person toward the supreme love. Here the net is transformed, and we are to take this revelation to heart as a reminder of what all nets of desire are for, ultimately–to draw us from the sea of twisted love–consumerphilia, electronic fetishism, information worship, and the hybris of imagining oneself lord and master over an increasing empire of e-servants–and to place us on the shore of right love.
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