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Figuring Forth Paradise

I'm sitting in an empty classroom on the 3rd floor of the Hall of Graduate Studies, gazing through the gothic arches of the small-paned leaded windows into the courtyard below with its impossible number of arboreal blossoms in pinks and whites.  I had a Victorian Poetry class last spring that had this same view, and I came here today to write my Dante paper about Canto 23 of Paradiso, a canto filled with floral imagery.  Blooming, flowers, changing seasons, etc. etc. etc.

In this canto, Dante gets to just hang out with Beatrice for a while and even gets little hints of the Virgin Mary!  He has been through a lot of hard learning in the past few heavens, and it's time to take a break. He is finally allowed to see Beatrice's smile because he has gained the strength to endure it, and everybody is just sitting here for a while being compared to blossoming flowers and (this is weird) reclining like contented infants in the arms of their mothers right after a great breastfeeding session.

In the next canto, Dante is immediately put to the test.  A real test.  It's an academic scenario, and he compares himself to a PhD student about to take oral exams to become an official master of his subject. Peter, Paul, and James ask him a bunch of complicated theological questions, and Dante pretty much quotes scripture verbatim and then gives himself a laurel crown because he is such a genius.

The alternating between working, resting, and testing reminds me of 1) myself, and 2) Anna Karenina. I'll start with the latter.  I just finished the book.  The whole time, I have been fascinated how conspicuously absent Tolstoy's typical philosophizing has been.  The narrator doesn't give any opinions, and there are no long academic essays about Truth and history and fate like there are in abundance in War and Peace.  In the last section - maybe the last 40 pages of an 800 page novel - these questions FLOOD the narrative in the internal monologue of Levin, one of the main characters.  Why does he store them all up for the end?

Levin is prone to asking these kinds of questions, but they only anger and confuse him and make him extremely unhappy until he stops reading and goes into the field to do farm work with the peasants.  He is full of frustration - he keeps a rope in his closet in case he ever needs to hang himself - but then the concerns of running his estate and tending to his family completely eclipse all of these questions, while answering them all at the same time.  Levin starts to see that much of the philosophy he reads causes him to think in a way that is "unnatural for people to think."  One afternoon, he takes a rare break from work and just lies down in the long grass by a brook.  The loveliness of the day and the juicy green grass brings about a magnificent epiphany, and in this moment he actually converts to Christianity.

This is the opposite of the tolle lege of Augustine's conversion.  In book 9 of Confessions, Augustine overhears some children in another yard playing a game, in which they repeatedly chant the words "tolle lege," which means "take it and read it."  And so Augustine takes it - the Bible - and reads it, and BAM he is a Christian.  No reading for Levin, though.  It is when he puts down the books that his conversion happens.

I had a funny talk with Greer the other night about finals season, and how whenever you have a lot of work to do you're suddenly filled with envy of anyone who is living a "normal and simple" life.  I look at friends' pictures on Facebook that show nights at home with a dog, or a group of people checks in at some inane restaurant like Applebees, and suddenly I think things like, "They have the best life ever!  Why am I doing this to myself?!"

Are we meant to oscillate?  I keep writing things about being sad to leave Yale, but I have something pretty wonderful to go to when I leave here.  I am getting married!  I'll spend a great 8 weeks at home before the wedding and then I start a completely new life.  I won't be in the classroom, but I have all of my books, an internet connection, and an ample, ample supply of people to get to know and normal life to live.  Behind all of our philosophizing there is always a normal life to live, with all of its complexities and anxieties and victories and pleasures.

Chekov once wrote, "People eat their dinner, just eat their dinner, and all the time their happiness is being established or their lives are being broken up."  That is super Russian and depressing, but I dwell on it here to make the point that there will never be a time when important things are not happening.  And sometimes between the jobs, degree programs, exams, and trials, there are moments of rest that bring about the most important revelations we ever have, summarizing the old chapters and preparing us for the new ones.


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