Madison Morrison's Web / Sentence of the Gods / Divine / Introduction to Divine by Arvind Thomas

Introduction to Divine

Arvind Thomas

In the middle ages one way of doing penance was to go on a pilgrimage: late medieval pilgrims typically traveled to distant lands, visiting shrines in hopes of mitigating or even expiating their venial sins. With the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215 the Church enjoined all Christians to confess at least once to their parish priests and perform such penances as were imposed upon them. Consequently, pilgrimage enjoyed an unprecedented canonical status: some of the finest literary production of this period bears witness to its enduring popularity as a communal and perambulatory form of penance. Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and Dante’s Divina Commedia are but two of many works located within the specific framework of pilgrimage and the general structure of penance.

Can one speak of a contemporary western equivalent of the late medieval pilgrimage? More specifically, is it possible to write a contemporary epic that incorporates the elements of such epics of pilgrimage as Dante’s Commedia? Can one conceive of a work that embodies and expresses the tensions between hope and despair that Dante’s pilgrim embodies and expresses so consistently in his comic epic? In short, can one possibly write a contemporary comedic pilgrim-centered epic without turning it into something anachronistic, downright crazy or morbidly religious? A quick answer to all these questions is a resounding “YES.” I am not thinking of modernist attempts to recover and refashion the past. For once one need not scurry to Eliot, Pound and Joyce, or, for that matter, Synge. Instead, one need only turn to one of the 26 segments of Madison Morrison’s Sentence of the Gods to find an exemplary Dantesque epic poem in prose, the account of his pilgrimage to Italy, called Divine. Indeed, among contemporary writings that most compellingly engage the canon without capitulating to its terms, MM’s Divine stands out as a striking example. But how exactly is Divine similar to, and yet strikingly different from, its chief medieval prototype, Dante’s Divina Commedia, to which it owes so much: its overall structure, its citations and myriad allusions, its hypertextual imitation of the poeta divina?

One way to address the question of MM’s indebtedness to Dante is to approach his text with little or no canonistic baggage. Unlike works of the modernist writers mentioned above, this text calls for no prior academic orientation on the part of the reader: one need not have studied the literary tradition starting with Dante or Renaissance criticism closely to detect and appreciate how MM’s Divine puts the Commedia to work in strikingly new or modern surroundings. Mere familiarity with the Commedia would suffice. Apart from all else that one needs to appreciate Morrison’s work is a sensibility sufficiently open to discern and enjoy its many internal resonances. Consider the very opening sentences of the text as they adumbrate the chief themes of the Commedia:

Under the Emperor Diocletian, in the early Christian period, a young woman named Agnes, propositioned by an official, rejected him. Stripped naked in the stadium of Domitian as punishment, she survived humiliation when her locks miraculously flourished to cover her shame. A balding man passes, black sunglasses atop his head; on his arm, a woman in red dress, black shoes, red lipstick, a luxurious fur coat draped about her shoulders. (1)

We are at once catapulted into Dante’s Inferno: Agnes, having been found guilty is condemned to suffer shame and humiliation in the world but earns martyrdom as a saint and, presumably, finds in the afterlife the salvation that was denied her on earth. The choice of such themes as I have italicized shows that the text explicitly and implicitly invokes the Christian register of Dante’s Inferno. Here is no simple mimesis but a redeployment of terms distinctive of the culture of shame and guilt that the work evokes only, as we shall later see, to debunk. In keeping with many of the segments — its individual books — that comprise Sentence of the Gods the author’s voice is always and already refracted through the narratives of other texts: here Divine locates itself firmly within the framework of an institutionalized historical record only to rework both the themes contained within and the boundaries constraining them. Agnes’s contemporary — the woman in red dress against whom she is juxtaposed — is no sinner sentenced to suffer torments or everlasting death. Put differently, the finery of the woman in red comes across as strikingly sensuous and haughty when contrasted with the nakedness and shame of Agnes. MM invokes Agnes and by implication her concomitant culture of shame and guilt only to substitute it for one of unfettered sensual expression. Extrapolating from the quotation above, the author’s chief themes emerge as: ancient and modern Rome, ancient and modern femininity, love and its repudiation, shame and punishment. Thus, the author figure who wanders the streets of Rome is no plodding Dante oppressed by the onerous burden of the sins of his past. Instead, he seems to revel in what in Dante’s world (to which Agnes belongs) would undoubtedly be sin, as he wanders from lane to lane, feasting his eyes on God’s sinful plenty. Where, then, are we? Who is this author? And how do we read these invocations of the worlds of late antiquity and the late Middle Ages?


Perhaps it is best to begin where MM himself begins: at Rome. Let us, like the author, who devotes the entire first section (50 per cent of the book) to the Eternal City, tarry there, with the Italian or Latin form of the word Rome, which he himself cites, and attempt to puzzle out its anagrammatic meanings. The four letters comprising ROMA, as the author himself observes, when their order is inverted, yield “AMOR.” But not only do they yield this meaning, they also yield two other significant principles that underlie Divine: “ORAM” and “MORA.” “ORAM” in the Latin is the accusative not only for “boundary” but also for “people” and “region,” whereas the nominative “MORA” stands for “delay” and “division.” In short, what we have is a reading of ROMA consisting not of vie/cerchi dolorose but of vie/cerchi amorose, topoi that the author need not hurry through like Dante, out of fear or anguish, but may linger with awhile, in hopes of finding joy, however ephemeral. Furthermore, MM, like the Christian precursor whom he emulates, has reliable guidance. In fact, unlike Dante, who for two thirds of his journey has but Vergil, MM from the outset has many guides: a Chinese girl of nubile beauty, a professor at the University of Rome, to say nothing of many of her students: Alessio and his Chinese girlfriend, the two Simonas and Floriana, whom he interviews in the coda to the narrative.

Divine’s parallels to the Commedia go beyond thematic concerns: they find expression at levels of structural organization. Like the Commedia, Divine has a three-fold structure: the three sections of MM’s text appear to be modeled after those of Dante’s poem. Part 1 (which covers the author’s stay in and travels throughout Rome) imitates the Inferno, whereas the other two sections imitate, respectively, the Purgatorio and the Paradiso. However, no sooner does one bring up the issue of imitation than one begins to sense its woeful inadequacy. To what extent and how does Part 1 of Divine imitate the Inferno? One wonders just how “infernal” the Roma that the author explores in the company of his numerous guides is. There are no lacrimae rerum shed over love: instead as the young escort Alessio asserts: “The Italian people do not cry about love” (308). There is, instead of the gloom of Avernus, plentiful sunlight: indeed MM’s Inferno, to all intents and purposes, is a sunny “ORA” resonating with the laughter of men and women delighting in acts that some of Dante’s sinners were having to pay for: there is much talk, by Alessio, of fige and pulzelle; Michelangelo invites comparison with Madonna, the contemporary “material girl”; the pilgrims at one point descend from the Trinità dei Monti into McDonald’s. And so on. Does Part I of Divine imitate the Inferno by consciously departing from its penitential spirit? Is such “imitation” ironic or parodic of the larger scheme of salvation that undergirds Dante’s whole poetic enterprise? Perhaps yes. Perhaps no. One cannot be too sure, for the author, we are told, “tread[s] the pathways trod by Vergil and Ovid” (295), even if the pathways of contemporary Rome and the ancient ways that they cover do not always lead anywhere in particular:

The passageways are vacant, the fountains empty, the trellises bare. The way too is directionless. An alley dead ends at a wall of the palace. (295)

In such images of vacancy, emptiness and bareness one may discern metaphors of the author’s break with the redemptive teleology that informs the movement from Dante’s Inferno through Paradiso. However, as we have already seen, the passageways are not always vacant, the fountains not always empty and the way not always aimless: Part I abounds in images of a Roma pullulating with wanderers tracing the pathways taken by Vergil, Ovid and Dante. Such wanderers like our author and his friends do not see themselves as sinners or lost souls in search of salvation in the vale of darkness. The darkness that envelops them, far from being indicative, as in Dante’s Inferno, of the soul burdened by sin, represents something quintessentially secular and mundane: the extinguishing of morning streetlights, or the obscurity of the ruins of ancient Roman buildings. Dante’s penitent sinners are replaced by visitors with little or no sense of remorse. One may be tempted to view them as indifferent or even disrespectful to the Christian spirit that once animated the ruins that they behold. In Divine one finds a resolute insistence upon the here and the now even as the past is continually disinterred, interrogated and animated. Unlike Professor Speranza, who adopts a reverential and unquestioning attitude toward the Roman past that she claims a privileged knowledge about, the author continually and unabashedly raises questions concerning this past, posing them to his guides (many of whom are not schooled in any academic tradition), and thereby implying that the only way to know the past intimately is to seek answers in the present, from its living inheritors, even if they don’t happen to be academically qualified like Professor Speranza. Thus, the author asks in earnest one such inheritor and inhabitant of the Roman ruins:

“Do you think there was any connection,” the author inquires, “among the great cultures that developed the form of the pyramid?”(287); “Rome,” the author ventures, “is a relatively small city, isn’t it?” (288); “What, may I ask, is your view of Nero?” (291); And, above all, “What about Sapienza [wisdom] in general?” (309)

Alessio, to whom the last question is posed, seizes the occasion to discourse on what he sees as the distinctive characteristic of the Roman spirit, not Sapienza but rather Amore:

More important for the Roman,” Alessio concludes, “is La Vita Amorosa.” The girls have rejoined us, we all four now turning to study the comical, mythical, raunchy expressions of the amatory spirit penned, painted and engraved on the balustrade itself. As we look over the railings to the churches of Rome, another question occurs to the author: “What, then, finally is your view of religion, Alessio?” (309-310)

From Alessio’s reply we glean a sense of what Divine at bottom probably sets out to accomplish: that is, to de-Christianize Dante’s epic and in so doing radically redefine the terms of the immediate epic tradition that Dante had belonged to. Whereas the comic element of the Commedia resides in the joyously sublime religious vision attained to at the very end of the Paradiso, MM’s Divine expresses the joyousness of actual life. Whereas Dante’s terrain in his opening section is the underworld, Morrison’s world is the actuality that we inhabit above ground: there is no aldila: the past and the future are to be found in the transient present, which he and his companions inhabit. Hence, the author never wearies of asking stimulating questions concerning the relevance of other poets: would Shakespeare have enjoyed himself in the Rome of today? Does Michelangelo not live on in Madonna? Does Dante, might one hazard, having shed his Christian anima, not find himself incarnate in the author and in some recondite way guide him towards a temporal rather than eternal salvation? Surely he does, but in a radically unchristian way: for the Dante whom we encounter in Divine is at the helm of all the world’s civilizations, guided not only by Romans but also by someone who has only recently come to Rome, from distant China: MM’s young Chinese friend Qian-hui, who at several points, we might say, serves as the author’s Vergil. Not only that, in Morrison himself we encounter an older, and perhaps more mature, Dante insofar as our twentieth-century scholar, teacher and writer has had the benefit of studying Dante’s travels and travails twice as long as the Dante of the Commedia, when he stumbled upon his journey through the selva oscura. MM does not lose his bearings in any selva oscura: to begin with, his dark forest is rather one that he seems to find himself in; it is, to borrow from a much celebrated metaphor of the modernist poet Baudelaire, a forest of symbols, and sensual ones at that: symbols that appeal to and find their referents in the world of sense experience. The passageways that the author and his guides take, far from leading towards the beatific vision of the multifoliate rose, tend more towards the fulfillment of the senses: the author delights in seeing; his young female guide is drawn every now and then to food; Alessio revels in talking and listening to women. Truly, we are not amidst any selva oscura, but more properly, along the vie amorose. MM’s journey begins not with a wandering but rather with a recovery of his sense of direction: as tourist with an itinerary (however subject to the whims of his winsome guides), he comes to his Dantesque task almost too well equipped to dig into the past in light of the wisdom of sensual youth. In a sense, MM is probably fated to undertake a task similar to that of a skilled archeologist. Like the modernists, he cannot but draw upon an already existing epic tradition, especially as he seeks to write in the epic vein. He cannot but pay homage to those writers who contributed to it the most: Dante, Boccaccio, Tasso and Ariosto: “A pilgrim among pilgrims, he understands and shares their memories of the past and their longing for the future.” (338)

Morrison, however, is not guilty of the sins of his modernist predecessors: incomprehensibility, excessive facticity, and notorious obscurity. For his Divine is no incomprehensible Finnegans Wake, no obscure Waste Land, nor, for that matter, does it imitate the exotic pastiche of the Cantos. Reading it, we are neither befuddled, nor humbled, nor dazzled by the variegated nature of its canvas. Here is no display of erudition for its own sake — though MM certainly displays considerable erudition: despite his long experience of, and respect for, primary, secondary and tertiary epics of the western literary tradition, he takes care not to imitate them slavishly. No, he keeps his distance from Dante enthusiasts like Pertile and Speranza. He has no readymade answers: unlike the scholars, he makes no overt proprietary claims to knowledge about Dante or even about the epic tradition in general. What, then, does he do? Why does he invoke Dante, interweave his in situ observations with segments from a range of works that include Dante criticism? One way of addressing some of these queries is to turn to a telling passage on page 377 in which MM quotes from a critical text that discusses Ariosto’s unique relation to the epic tradition:

“At the outset Ariosto establishes his independence by breaking chronology and beginning anew at a point of his own choosing; in effect he dismantles the Innamorato and incorporates various portions of its narrative into his own, recomposing as he proceeds. What distinguishes him from his predecessors is an ambition to reshape the entire story before completing it. In so doing he introduces a design, as well as a realism, into Boiardo’s rich but shapeless and rather fantastic material.” (377)

What is said of Ariosto can be said with equal justice of MM: he uses his canonical sources as mere hypertexts insofar as they provide rudimentary and highly provisional frames of reference. Located within such a matrix, Professor Morrison and his cortege of young pilgrim-tourist-students traverse the paths that their illustrious forbears had. At the same time, however, the frames of reference provided by these hypertexts are significantly breached and redefined, partly by the professor, partly by the students. MM, we might say, if not himself a rebel is an inciter of rebellion, which he relishes and profits from. One may say that the “past” enshrined in the hypertexts is continually questioned and rendered comprehensible in terms of the immediate present. Arguably, by the very end of Divine it is MM’s distinctive tone of voice that rises above the din of the hypertextual resonances.

Sure enough, Morrison’s characteristic way of taking the past to task involves primarily his strategy of continually juxtaposing multiple narratives set in multiple time frames. Rarely does one get to read a single paragraph cast in one key. Instead the author takes great care to interlard his in situ observations with lines extracted from both primary and secondary literature. Plot summaries, commentaries and translations into English comprise his hypertextual tributes to Vergil, Dante, Tasso and Ariosto. The experience of reading such a work is not very different from the experience of entering a monument in which multiple voices resonate at the same time, and yet one gets a sense of being led onward by a reliable guide.

Apart from Dante, the one writer who seems to have an abiding resonance in all three parts of Divine is Vergil. At the conclusion of Part I, the author interweaves a plot summary of the Aeneid with his account of a pre-designed outing. In Parts II and III one finds quotations in English translation from the Georgics. Within the very in situ narratives of MM’s travels to Rome (Part I); to Siena, Bologna and Ferrara (Part II); and to Venezia, Verona and Firenze (Part III) the spectral presence of Vergil looms large only as the guiding daimon. We flit through the ruins of the urbs that Vergil founded in imagination; we slip in and out of alleys that Vergil had once literally explored. One senses the frisson that the author seems to feel when he enunciates the names of the various streets that he traverses, impressing upon us the feeling that he, like Dante, is following in Vergil’s footsteps: Viale del Monte Oppio, Via del Colosseo, Via di Campo Craleo, and the paths leading in and out of the Foro di Augusto and the Foro della Pace.

But the author is no academic Vergil enthusiast, such as Speranza or Pertile. He does not seem to rely exclusively upon scholars to guide him through Vergil, nor, for that matter, through Dante’s Rome. In fact, the author’s guides have little knowledge of, or interest in, Vergilian scholarship: one wonders if he chose them because of their complete indifference to classical and medieval academic training. His principal guides include those to whom Vergil (or Vergil as he is made out to be in academia) signifies at best an ossified past and at worst nothing at all. His Chinese guide, Qian-hui, has no patience with the likes of Vergil, nor with the monuments that would evoke associations to him. Pigeons and the resplendent midday sun captivate her more. Likewise, Alessio probably sets greater store by the works of Shakespeare and Ovid (given his interest in romantic women) than by those of or about Dante and Vergil; the author himself at places seems to betray an ambivalent attitude to Vergil, juxtaposing scholarly comments on the Aeneid lines with observations about demotic life in an equally demotic (in situ) vein:

And a stern fate, as we shall see presently, awaits Turnus too. We call for the bill. Having pursued the Trojan stragglers, Turnus reenters the scene. When it arrives, author pays it. The opposing forces suspend their struggle, and he and Aeneas fight. Only as he is leaving the restaurant. Aeneas wounds Turnus . . . A man in a yellow Volkswagen bug stops to pick up his wife. (331)

One might in all fairness suspect that Morrison wishes to vie with Vergil for the attention lavished upon him by the western world. Perhaps MM seeks the honor that Vergil has enjoyed as an epic poet. Perhaps, in his choice of multiple registers (signified not least in his use of three kinds of fonts), multiple/racially diverse personae, multiple linguistic references (Chinese, Italian and English), one senses the subtle ways in which MM shows Vergil’s limitations, his cultural provincialism. Thus, by implication, Morrison advances his superior and more tenable claims to global fame. This is not to say that MM is presumptuous. Far from it. Like the Catholic iconodules, he venerates the literary apostle and saints without adoring them. He offers the respect due to them but at the same time feels the obligation to bring to greater fruition their tasks as epic writers: specifically the extension and, if you like, transformation, of the epic to suit a more comprehensive taste, a more diverse audience, a more vibrant and, shall we say, youthful and feminine Rome.

Thus, unlike the male Dante who follows his male mentor sheepishly, MM adopts a quasi ironic — one might almost say critical — attitude towards the figure of Vergil. MM’s Vergil, as I have already mentioned, is no disembodied soul and certainly no avuncular male figure. More often than not he is cast in the personae of the young women and men in whose company he traverses the streets of Rome, with whom he visits the holy shrines and observes his fellow tourists. Such Vergilian figures include young women like the sixteen-year-old Chinese Qian-hui, whose name signifies a thousand wisdoms. At one point it is she who decides where to lead the author to lunch:

At the foot of the stairs we must thread our way through a choir-like arrangement of black-jacketed youth. Qian-hui takes a seat on the lowest step to consult her guidebook. For lunch she has chosen McDonald’s. (315)

Qian-hui is left alone for the most part. She flits about with such a nonchalant attitude to the Roman ruins that one wonders if she has seen them all in another life, if she has always and already been here. At times, it may seem that she is a figure from the Commedia: perhaps playing Beatrice to MM’s Dante. In using the collective “we” to speak of their perambulations, MM deliberately dismantles the hierarchical relationship that governs Vergil and Dante’s respective positions, showing yet again that the contemporary epic writer need be no respecter of rank based on age or sex.

Just as Morrison’s epic attempts to privilege the authority of the young over the old, the living over the dead, the female over the male, so he ensures that his tourists include those least likely to be associated with Dante’s pilgrims: Asians. Most significantly, there is a strong Japanese presence amongst the people whom he represents. Everywhere that we travel we seem to encounter these pilgrims, notably in Venice and Florence. Likewise, MM seems to learn about Rome more often than not from the perspective of those who are themselves visitors to its ruin:

Of the nine members of the causal touring brigade that the author has become a part of, the other eight are all Japanese. He takes a seat before the House of the Vestal Virgins, within which the two girls continue to chatter. Arising he joins them in the inner court, lined with statues of grim-faced Roman maidens in various states of disrepair…. (300)

Clearly, Morrison sees Rome from perspectives that neither Vergil nor Dante could have conceived of. The medieval pilgrim in Dante’s time would probably have encountered fellow Europeans but rarely, if ever, people from the East. In a sense, the contemporary tourist, surpassing the pilgrim, is the one best equipped to help advance the frontiers of the epic tradition.

With tourists come many tongues: if the Commedia may be said to rest firmly on Italian foundations, then Divine clearly has other foundations reinforcing it, principally English and Chinese. Toward the close of Part III, the conversation that MM has with three Italian women-students represents a subtle juxtaposition of Italian against its more global counterpart, English. With English, the canvas necessarily broadens: Professor Morrison and the students find themselves discussing other cultures: Japanese and Chinese, Irish and Spanish. And, not surprisingly, Ancient Roman history and the Italian Classics: Dante, Petrarch and Boccaccio, Ariosto and Tasso. The young Floriana has no qualms about pronouncing upon them all, being perhaps a trifle dismissive in her view of Ariosto and Tasso.

In the last analysis, Morrison’s Divine embodies a curiously populist mimesis of Dante’s Commedia in particular and of the epic tradition in general. Populist, because Divine is such a reader-friendly text: anyone with little or no knowledge of Dante and his world can easily inhabit it. This is because, as we have already pointed out, the text incorporates the scholarly data that a reader may need to read it critically. Written in English and incorporating many styles, Divine cannot but appeal to an audience that includes a largely non-Roman component. From the point of view of the audience, the key question that Divine explores may be well be: “How do or how can any youth of today anywhere in the world respond to the vision of the Commedia?” What we see is at once an updating and emendation of the Commedia: the pilgrim mutates into the tourist; divine love/caritas into human love/eros; age into youth; the Roman into a more global or universal inhabitant. Interestingly, this Dante is American, or is he? Just as Dante, though Florentine, makes of himself a universal Italian or European, so MM has further aggrandized himself in his up-to-date version of the Comedy.

Arvind Thomas