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Thursday, June 13, 2013

In Purgatory: An Autobiography

As I approach the conclusion of my year in Italy, my family and I have entered into a waiting period as we try and enjoy our last few weeks in Italy and prepare to return to Oklahoma. Existing in this "in-between" state, reminds me of Dante's Purgatorio. 

This blog has been mostly occupied with putting people in Hell, since, as most readers of the Divine Comedy conclude, Dante's Hell is the most fun to read. I think Dante might put it another way, since we are all sinners, Hell is where we all feel most at home!

Purgatorio, on the other hand, is much-less read, but, unlike Paradiso, I believe most modern readers would find it almost as interesting as Inferno. We should all hope to make it into Dante's Purgatory, since residence their promises eventual admission to Heaven while also allowing for us to have "made a few mistakes" in life. Only Saints go straight to heaven, and they spent their lives in hair shirts or gruesomely killed as martyrs (one of my favorites, is St. Lawrence who was burnt on a grill, which explains the name "St. Lawrence" for a grilled cheese sandwich at a pub I used to frequent).

Well, I find myself in Purgatory here in Italy, waiting to move on to the next thing. Dante's Purgatorio echoes with the sound of willing suffering and endured pain. Some of the penitents have to shoulder heavy boulders to cure the sin of Pride. Others have their eyelids sewn shut so as to prevent the envious itch. I know myself well enough to predict that I will spend plenty of time on one particular ledge of Purgatorio: Gluttony.

Here the sinners see abundance around them and, like in the famous story of Tantalus, find satisfaction just out of reach. Here is Dante's description of the punishment of the Gluttons from which Botticelli drew the above.

parvermi i rami gravidi e vivaci24.103the branches of another tree, heavy
d'un altro pomo, e non molto lontaniwith fruit, alive with green, appeared to me
per esser pur allora vòlto in laci.nearby, just past a curve where I had turned.
Vidi gente sott' esso alzar le mani24.106IBeneath the tree I saw shades lifting hands,
e gridar non so che verso le fronde,crying I know not what up toward the branches,
quasi bramosi fantolini e vanilike little eager, empty-headed children,
che pregano, e 'l pregato non risponde,24.109who beg—but he of whom they beg does not
ma, per fare esser ben la voglia acuta,reply, but to provoke their longing, he
tien alto lor disio e nol nasconde.holds high, and does not hide, the thing they want.
Poi si partì sì come ricreduta;24.112Then they departed as if disabused;
e noi venimmo al grande arbore adesso,and we—immediately—reached that great tree,
che tanti prieghi e lagrime rifiuta.which turns aside so many prayers and tears.
The sinners are emaciated from hunger and parched with thirst, and easy and apt punishment for their gluttony. But they are not being punished, they are being trained to understand that physical sustenance, although pleasurable, should not substitute for spiritual sustenance, Love of God, that will bring true joy. Their hunger and thirst is neither mortal nor eternal.

This will certainly be my Purgatorial fate! But my Italian purgatory is nothing like this; in fact, it is the opposite of Tantalus' annoying quandary. In Italy, I have a cornucopia of wonderful food options at every turn. Indeed, instead of suffering from famine, I have been feasting. Indeed, I think I have discovered the new miracle diet!

I have never dieted before, although when I puffed up to over 180 pounds (I am only 5'9) a few years back, I decided to start “watching” what I ate, which translated to not eating an entire carton of ice cream every two days. From the little I know about diets I gather that they have rules about what you can eat. Some of them also regulate when you can eat. Some of them have points that you use to organize your food consumption. Others involve cutting out entire typologies of foods from your diet. Many diets are so complicated that it takes an entire book ($19.99 in paperback, available at to explain.
Well, my miracle diet is doubly-miraculous. Not only is it effective, but it is so easy that I need not write an entire book to explain it. There is one rule to my diet.

Move to Italy.
The rule is so short and simple that there is no need for a fancy name for this diet. It can just be called the “Move to Italy” diet. I have now lived in Italy for a year, and I have lost about 15 pounds. My BMI has gone from 25 to 22.9.
And now the “miracle” part. I eat whatever the hell I want to eat. My breakfast is a sugary feast, with brioches, cookies, yogurt, granola, and sweet and whole-milky cappuccini. I reliably have an 11 am snack with more coffee, pastries or sandwiches. Pasta for lunch, with salad and salami or other cured meats. Afternoon snack? Of course, sometimes including Prosecco!. Dinner? More pasta, and potatoes, and meat. Let’s not forget dessert(s), which does not inlcude the gelato I require daily. All the while I munch on chocolate bars, potato chips, and even the occasional fruit. Oh yes, I have even started drinking regular coke again. I am in the land of Cockaigne!
If I ate this at home in Oklahoma I would see 200 pounds in the rear view mirror, if I could see around my corpulence. But with my new miracle diet, I lose weight. You might object, thinking that living in a Tuscan hill town I walk much more than in the US. Wrong! I walk to work (or bike) everyday in the US. I also am an active recreational biker in the US as well. In Italy, my activity level has actually decreased.
I have no scientific knowledge of how this diet works, indeed, I have very little scientific knowledge at all. My guess is that it has to do with all the chemicals and perservatives Americans eat in their food. I also blame it on High-fructose corn syrup. On the other hand, I am positive it has nothing to do with vaccinations or the lack of NSA spying on my Facebook activity in Italy. But I don’t care. I am 40 years old and eating everything I want in Italy AND losing weight, a miracle indeed.

 But, as I said earlier, Purgatory is not eternal, and moving back to Oklahoma will likely mean that I will need eat more like Tantalus and less like 70s vintage Elvis. And given the Oklahoma heat, that will feel more like Hell than Purgatory.

Please send me some ideas for people to judge by Dante's rules. Who do you want to see placed in Dante's afterworld...and please, no current American politicians, that is just too easy.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Nec Plus Ultra: Italy's Angry UltraS

Italian Ultras giving Fascist (Roman) salute.

This story by Wright Thompson on ESPN is a must read for anybody interested in Italy today. I found it surprisingly good journalism from ESPN.

I think the story has a couple of problems. The author resorts to some easy clichés about Italy. However, he does this to a much lesser extent than most things I have read, and he often uses these clichés in the service of reconsidering a side of Italian culture that gets virtually no coverage in or outside of Italy: the immigrant experience in Italy. Second, I think he could have made more clear the isolated nature of the culture of virulent racism represented by the UltraS, even if Italy, like many countries including the USA, struggles with issue of race and immigration.

Read the article for an excellent description of the phenomenon the Ultras, "super fans of certain soccer clubs, and UltraS, Neo-Fascists who use their fandom as cover for violence and violent speech. The line is not always clear. In the best light, Ultras of all types are still quite scary, using planned choreography and Roman candle pyrotechnics, they 'enliven" soccer matches around Italy and Europe. UltraS promote "Ultra- violence" (to adopt Burgess' neologism from A Clockwork Orange), in the past, against Ultras supporting other teams, but now against other races. They also yell racist chants against players on the field, both on opposing sides and even on their own team.

Where would Dante place the UltraS? For the complexity and contemporaneity of this issue, it is perhaps the hardest question this blog has had to handle. Please e\be patient with the length of this post.

 I think the UltraS go in Hell, Circle 5 of the Wrathful, Canto VIII.

Dante's wrathful (angry) are submerged in a lake of mud, wallowing in the misery of their own uncontrolled hatred. Their anger besmirches their reputation, obscures their humanity, and transforms them into a base nature. Constant conflict marks Dante's passage through the realm of the wrathful. One of the sinners attacks Dante...and Dante attacks him back. Once over the murky waters, perched on high towers and terraces angry fallen angels and wrathful Furies, including perpetually screaming Medusa!, block their entrance to the City of Dis. Dante recoils in fear, proposing to cut short his trip.

Io vidi più di mille in su le porte8.82About the gates I saw more than a thousand-
da ciel piovuti, che stizzosamentewho once had rained from Heaven-and they cried
dicean: "Chi è costui che sanza mortein anger: "Who is this who, without death,
va per lo regno de la morta gente?"8.85can journey through the kingdom of the dead?"
'l savio mio maestro fece segnoAnd my wise master made a sign that said
di voler lor parlar segretamente.he wanted to speak secretly to them.
Allor chiusero un poco il gran disdegno8.88Then they suppressed-somewhat-their great disdain
e disser: "Vien tu solo, e quei sen vadaand said: "You come alone; let him be gone
che sì ardito intrò per questo regno.for he was reckless, entering this realm.
Sol si ritorni per la folle strada:8.91Let him return alone on his mad road
pruovi, se sa; ché tu qui rimarrai,or try to, if he can, since you, his guide
che li ha' iscorta sì buia contrada."across so dark a land, you are to stay."
Pensa, lettor, se io mi sconfortai8.94Consider, reader, my dismay before
nel suon de le parole maladette,the sound of those abominable words:
ché non credetti ritornarci mai.returning here seemed so impossible.
"O caro duca mio, che più di sette8.97"O my dear guide, who more than seven times
volte m'hai sicurtà renduta e trattohas given back to me my confidence
d'alto periglio che 'ncontra mi stette,and snatched me from deep danger that had menaced,
non mi lasciar," diss' io, "così disfatto;8.100do not desert me when I'm so undone;
e se 'l passar più oltre ci è negato,and if they will not let us pass beyond,
ritroviam l'orme nostre insieme ratto."let us retrace our steps together, quickly."

Today's UltraS belong here most obviously because of their manifest, and manifestly public, anger towards those they believe do not belong in Italy. Like the Furies standing guard on their terrace, the UltraS represent themselves as protectors of their city, culture, heritage, and race from outsiders. UltraS are only UltraS when they are in groups with an militaristic leadership structure, since their effect depends on display.  The Furies are protecting the evil dead. The UltraS? Perhaps they protect an idea of Italy that is as mythical as the founding myths of Rome itself. Their ideology is directly linked to fascist ideology of Italy as the master of the the Mediterranean Sea, or Mare Nostrum (our Sea). This ideology found voice in Mussolini who, from his own balcony in Piazza Venezia in Rome, persuaded Italians to support his mad folly of colony and belligerence. The UltraS are angry and they are as fearful as they are deluded.

The UltraS name itself recalls this isolationist ideology. As the title of this post alludes, Nec Plus Ultra were the words that Hercules carved on his Pillars placed on Western Extreme of the Mediterranean to serve as a warning from the Gods not to " go beyond" Europe. For the UltraS, this reclusion works reciprocally, as a Do Not Enter sign: Nec Plus Intra. With their violence the UltraS forcefully declare their entitlement to their anger, and seek to instill fear in others.

Dante's stance on these issues is complex. At times, Dante adopts the rhetoric of exclusion (I am not calling Dante a racist!), specifically in Paradiso XVI, at other times, Dante also fears what is beyond his world. Indeed, his fear in this canto is about what is beyond "oltre" or "ultra" the walls of the city of Dis. But, like Ulysses in Canto XXVI of Hell, he ultimately chooses to go beyond the Pillars of Hercules, to open himself up to the dangers of experience of the unknown. For this, Dante and Italy has been rewarded with his voice ringing out in the eternal discussion of virtue and knowledge (virtute e canoscenza) that defines culture. 

Fortunately, these UltraS only represent a far-right fringe on Italian belief, and for their angry words and deeds let them swim in the muck.

Monday, June 3, 2013

Dante Plays The Game of Thrones: A Red Wedding in Hell

***Spoliers Alert**** Info about June 2nd Game of Thrones episode and the end of Dante's "Inferno!"

The penultimate episode of Game of Thrones season 3 (don't ask me how I am keeping up with the HBO series in Italy) ended with a bloodbath that few viewers will forget. The viewer has been encouraged to root for the Stark family in the current battle for dominance in this fantasy world, but this episode ended any hope for a quick win for Ned Stark's brood.

What caught my attention was the double betrayal that brought about the gory end to Robb Stark, his mother, and his wife and unborn child. The episode was skillful in emphasizing the seething anger that the spurned lord Walder Frey had for the Stark family, has Robb had broken his promise to take on Frey's daughters as a wife, a political marriage that would have brought Frey's descendants into direct lineage to the kingship. Frey repays this betrayal of a political deal with a more nefarious deed. He welcomes the Stark family to his castle and agrees to marry his daughter to a lesser lord, all the while having planned to massacre his guests after the nuptial celebrations. Shockingly for a tv drama, this all happens before our eyes and agape jaws.

Lord Frey, a crusty old curmudgeon, losses his wife in the events. But, as he says, he can get another.

As with everything on HBO, Dante has been here before...and done it better.

In Canto XXII-XXXIII of Hell we meet and hear from a certain Count Ugolino, who is punished together with another person, Archbishop Ruggieri, who was part of a double-treachery similar to the Stark-Frey dyad. Let's hear how Dante presents these two sinners:

Noi eravam partiti già da ello,32.124We had already taken leave of him,
ch'io vidi due ghiacciati in una buca,when I saw two shades frozen in one hole,
sì che l'un capo a l'altro era cappello;so that one's head served as the other's cap;
e come 'l pan per fame si manduca,32.127and just as he who's hungry chews his bread,
così 'l sovran li denti a l'altro poseone sinner dug his teeth into the other
là 've 'l cervel s'aggiugne con la nuca:right at the place where brain is joined to nape:
non altrimenti Tidëo si rose32.130no differently had Tydeus gnawed the temples
le tempie a Menalippo per disdegno,of Menalippus, out of indignation,
che quei faceva il teschio e l'altre cose.than this one chewed the skull and other parts.

Ugolino spends eternity gnawing on Ruggieri's skull and other parts, by which I understand his BRAIN!

The story of Ugolino and Ruggieri is complicated, even more complicated than the meandering Game of Thrones plot and the names are just a tricky. But, to shorten it a bit, Ugolino betrayed his side in a political feud (the Guelphs) to join with Ruggieri to gain his own power. Ruggieri, not trusting the proven traitor Ugolino, accuses him of being a double-agent against Ruggieri's party (Ghibellines) and imprisons him, along with his sons, and starves them to death. Dante's poem leaves purposefully ambiguous whether Ugolino, imprisoned with his sons, eats them as a sort of mistaken Eucharistic offering to put off his own eventual and inevitable death.

Here we have a double-betrayal, but where one party Ruggieri receives worse punishment because his betrayal includes innocents, Ugolino's family. Ugolini is not blameless, but he "gets to be on top," so to distinguish the slightly lesser nature of his was just politics, while Ruggieri exacts revenge on an entire family.

The Game of Thrones picks up on this by having Robb Stark's betrayal, the spurning of a promise to a political marriage, massively overshadowed by Frey's revenge, which takes the blood of the innocent (unborn child) as well as the guilty. Frey's sin, in Dante's language, becomes more grave when we consider that he A. Kills his guest (Ptolomea for Dante) and his lord (Judecca for Dante).

So, let's imagine Robb Stark and Frey together in Dante's Hell. Stark's sin is lesser but still a political betrayal, so he gets to be on top. While starvation was a key for Ugolini and Ruggieri, in The Game of Thrones we have a nuptial feast. What punishment fits here? Stark cutting up Frey only to feed him to himself, since marriage seeks to use one's own fleshly product (a child) to further one's own power?

What do you think would be a good punishment? Am I too harsh to say Dante would put Robb Stark in Hell as a political traitor? Maybe his sin is lust? Use the comments button to make your suggestion.