Skip to main content


What a difference a year makes.

Sitting at my desk, as I almost always am when I write these posts, while the gray sky threatens rain and Inferno is opened in front of me.  I've had the sense ever since I moved into this apartment that my time at Yale was going to pass in the blink of an eye, and so far it has.  As I make notes in the margins of my Inferno, I find myself wondering if I'll open the text later in life and wonder what these annotations mean.  Will I forget the hints of Anchises when Dante talks to Ciacco about the future of Florence in Canto 6?  Already, while I am still in its midst, I am trying to fight the inevitable failure of my memory.  This time is so precious to me I already desire to keep it fully present with me always, and I guess I know that will never be possible.

I will be able to keep elements of this year alive if I never let me knowledge of the Divine Comedy grow cold and keep after the text always, but there is no way to know now if that will ever be possible. This study, this desk, this edition, these awarenesses while I read are a one-time-only event.  Maybe this is what drove the deconstructionist theorists to their first thoughts about the way a reader creates an entirely new text each time she or he sits down to read.  Inferno 7 will be different tomorrow morning when we discuss it in class than it was this afternoon on my first reading.

We read Plotinus in my theological aesthetics class last week.  Plotinus describes the soul's need to parcel things out in hypostases, or steps, that emanate out from the One in order for us to understand things.  Since we can't grasp everything at once, we must figure it out in steps.  He makes a comparison to words written out in letters versus hieroglyphs, as in ancient Egypt, where each word has its own picture.  A picture can be grasped all at once while a word written with an alphabet must be put together first in groups of letters, the syllables, then the word, then the concept.

Likewise, we ascend the hypostases one at a time, grouping things together to reveal the Forms, then grouping those together to show the World Soul, then Nous (knowledge, reason, intellect), and then the One.

Plotinus argues that the soul invents time so that we might parcel things out in steps.  Time allows truth to be revealed to us/discovered by us along a narrative.  Time allows us to see all the Forms because we aren't able to see the One all at once, so instead we commit the story of our lives to moving among its various components.  Each step, however, is fully contained within the step above it.

My boarding school had an annual tradition of reading "The Chambered Nautilus" at each year's first all-school assembly.  This Oliver Wendall Holmes poem concludes with these lines:

"Build thee more stately mansions, O my soul,
As the swift seasons roll!
Leave thy low-vaulted past!
Let each new temple, nobler than the last,
Shut thee from heaven with a dome more vast,
Till thou at length art free,
Leaving thine outgrown shell by life's unresting sea!"

I like reading this alongside Plotinus' Neo-Platonic perspective about ascending the hypostases to return to the One.  Our "low-vaulted past" must not be discarded but must be brought into the new phases.  Our second chapter includes every word of our first, and our final chapter includes all those that have come before.  The beauty of the chambered nautilus exists in the way the new chambers spiral around the old ones.  The creature outgrows its small space and builds a bigger one attached to it - without the past chambers, the new ones have nothing to which they can attach.  Only at the end can the shell (a metaphor for the body, of course) be discarded and the soul can run free.  The metaphor gets mixed here - the hypostases have little if anything to do with the body and do not need to be "discarded" at any point - but, though imperfect, you see where this is going.  

I write this to comfort the preemptive nostalgia I feel for the sweetness of my current life.  I know I will miss it, and sometimes this leads me to ache for it while it is still in my grasp.  There is no need.  These first readings of Dante, the stormy days at my desk - all of these will be included in my future, and I would be a fool to discard them.  


  1. So beautiful, Catherine. I find it interesting when very old people vividly remember their youth. It comforts me to think that who we were when we first inhabited those smallest chambers of childhood, is present in our eternal soul, is never lost to us, and was/is always precious to the One - the Great I Am.


Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

The Cocktail Party

I had drinks with a friend after a long seminar tonight, and for the first time in a while, I didn't stagger to my car exhausted and then sit in traffic for 90 minutes (that's right, it takes me 90 minutes to go 11 miles #LosAngeles) and then collapse for an hour and then go back to work for another 3 hours before crawling into bed (I am taking too many classes this quarter).  Instead, I had two glasses of wine and a little dinner, and I got to talk to a great person who is willing to share a lot of knowledge with me as well as some genuine pleasantness.  It reminded me of the olden days when my social life and my academic life were centered around the same place and task, and it lightened the load quite a bit.

That moment of levity at the end of the day.  Ah.  We need it.  No reading.  No striving.  No obligations.  The wine or cocktail is key.  You're always pausing when you have a drink.  You're being a little bad.  You're working against your evening productiv…

I Don't Know

I've noticed a phenomenon in many areas of my verbal life wherein the phrase "I don't know" opens, closes, or rests in the middle of a phrase.  The more I listen for it, the more I am struck by its ubiquity, yet these phrases have nothing to do with the parameters of the speaker's knowledge.

In a seminar:  "I don't know, but I think he's saying..."

Among friends discussing the news: "Um, I don't know, but I feel like this could have been avoided..."

Two girls shopping:  "Is this cute?  Right?  I don't know."

Some guys on a walk: "I mean, I don't know, but was that the best choice..."

High school students in class: "I don't know, but don't you kind of feel like..."

Are we really so tentative?  Is our own knowledge so slippery that we cannot be certain of our opinions?  Do we doubt our own knowledge, we who may spend about 15-20 years of our lives in full-time, formal education or many ho…

Life Craft

Finals weeks are misery for me.  Sometimes I catch a wave of inspiration and weep into my keyboard, but those moments are rare.  I am not having one yet this time around.  I took too many classes this quarter and thus couldn't start my papers until it was too late to wait around for Muses.  And when I say I took too many classes that is not a request for applause at my ambition.  It was a mistake.  A mistake that reflects how desperate I am to be finished with my coursework so I can move on to Dante and do some real thinking that is not geared toward a 3AM slapdash 25 page paper.  And hopefully then this program will become enjoyable for me and not a daily reminder of the huge mistake I made deciding to go here.

As I have been trying to piece together a Boccaccio paper over the past three days, I've spent way more time on the internet than I normally do.  Especially Vogue, a publication I used to read regularly and haven't honestly read in several years.  I watched a bunch…