I’m in Portland, Oregon for a work conference. I’m a tech writer by trade. That means I’m a communications specialist surrounded by engineers, and our problems are not the same problems. I get the strong sense that most of the people at the conference have a similar feeling, and deal with it in different ways. That is, except for the developers in the room, who seem to feel a little out of place with all the tech writers.
At times I think of the medieval scribes as the spiritual forebears of my profession. I don’t mean this in a sardonic way, I mean really, there is a kinship.
On the plane yesterday, I was reading an article on Old German literature from the early Middle Ages. One of the earliest important religious poems, called Muspilli, or “Destruction of the World,” comes down to us in garbled form, because the only surviving copy was written by a scribe in the margin of another text – a presentation manuscript of theology dedicated to the Carolingian ruler Louis the Pious.
I’ve been reading Finnegans Wake, and all I can say is that I hope Joyce knew about Muspilli, because he would have loved it. Also, I saw the tomb of Louis the Pious on my honeymoon.
Tonight I am reading a book of essays by the playwright and actor Wallace Shawn in my hotel room, which I bought last night at Portland’s famous book castle, Powell’s. Many of them were written in the early 2000s and deal with 9/11 and the escalating insanity of the US response.
In one essay he writes that we’re minutes away from launching the invasion of Iraq, and I tried to remember my own experience of it, and I couldn’t remember anything. I remember staying up late and seeing live footage of aerial bombardment of Iraq, but that was from the previous invasion, launched not by President Bush, but by President Bush.
It took me a moment to remember that I missed almost all of the action in the 2003 invasion because I was living at a Zen monastery at the time. I was in retreat when the fighting started and didn’t hear anything about it at all for several days. I remember my father telling me about the term “shock and awe” on the telephone.
I found a copy of Heidegger’s Vorträge und Aufsätze at Powell’s for ridiculous cheap. It has a very interesting essay called “Who is Nietzsche’s Zarathustra?” That is a very good question.
And I found Mortimer Wheeler’s books on the Indus Valley civilization, which I’ve been looking for for years. And the out-of-print Bollingen edition of Dante’s Commedia, with the full translation and commentary by Charles Singleton.
Opening to a random page of Paradiso, I get “Already that blessed mirror was enjoying only its own thoughts, and I was tasting mine, tempering the bitter with the sweet, when the lady who was leading me to God said, ‘Change your thought: consider that I am in His presence who lightens the burden of every wrong.'”
When I pause to think about it, it makes me sad that so many people know only Dante’s Inferno. It’s nonsensical to read it in isolation, and doing so horrendously perverts the entire sense of the poem. One scholar once observed it’s like studying New York City and from the bottom up, and stopping with the sewer system.
It’s also worth noting that Purgatorio is better than Inferno, and Paradiso is better still.
I look forward to writing more on Finnegans Wake – I should be finished with it soon.