Go, Wash in the Pool of Siloam Print
By Anthony Esolen   
Wednesday, 25 April 2012

I had the gratifying experience, at a recent conference on Dante, of being on a winning team. Those who took Dante at his word, and read The Divine Comedy as the artistic expression of a profound and intellectually satisfying Christian faith, were pitted against a few scholars, Straussian by training, who believed that the poem was an elaborate ruse concealing a secular view of man. 

My lecture was on the motif of the face in Dante’s poetry, particularly the faces of Beatrice, Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, Mary, and Christ. When I finished, to the applause of my compeers in the faith, and addressed questions, it struck me that there were some in the audience who had simply never considered what I was saying. 

It’s not that they interpreted passages in different ways. Instead, passages that fill me with such awe and gratitude as to draw tears – for example, Dante’s image of the pilgrim from Croatia who travels to Rome to view the “veronica,” the cloth that wiped the face of Jesus on his terrible path to Calvary, and says, in astonishment, “And did you look like this, was this your face, / O Jesus Christ my Lord and very God?” (Paradise 31) – had apparently evaded their attention entirely. They were thunderstruck by the omission, and a bit abashed.

At dinner a question arose, cordially, that has been on my mind ever since. “To what extent does one have to accept the views or the faith of a poet to enter into the work of art?” 

Let me attempt here what I could not do then: to venture an answer to that question. Here are the last few sentences of an old introduction to Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale, a play of Christian redemption and resurrection:

All truths . . . are related to the Truth; all good stories will have – to use the term of Erich Auerbach – a “figural” quality. The Winter’s Tale, like many other stories, deals with sin and forgiveness, and with the triumph of time – also a Christian theme. But we value it not for some hidden truth, but for its power to realize experience, to show something of life that could be shown only by the intense activity of intellect and imagination in the medium of a theatrical form. It is not a great allegory or a great argument, but a great play.

Those words, by the great literary critic Frank Kermode, very likely could not be written today. At least, such words are not often written. They lead us too dangerously close to what Sophocles called the “more than man,” and therefore resist any reduction to narrow political or sociological concerns. 

The Winter’s Tale is a great play because it is a great allegory, but it’s clear to me that, whatever Professor Kermode held to be true in his own mind, in his heart and his imagination he knew what it was to hear the call of the prophets and of Christ, when Paulina addresses the “statue” of the dead Hermione in the final scene, but is actually addressing her repentant husband Leontes and all of us sinners in the audience:

                              Music, awake her: strike.
         ‘Tis time; descend; be stone no more; approach;
          Strike all that look upon with marvel; come;
          I’ll fill your grave up. Stir; nay, come away;
          Bequeath to death your numbness, for from him
          Dear life redeems you.

Be stone no more: “And I will give you a new heart, and put a new spirit within you: and I will take away the stony heart out of your flesh, and will give you a heart of flesh” (Ez. 36:26). Bequeath to death your numbness, for “when this mortal hath put on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written: Death is swallowed up in victory” (1 Cor. 15:54).

An imaginative entry: that is what is required, at the least. Initially this requires what Keats called “negative capability,” the self-emptying submission to another world, so that we can stand in the place of someone or something we are not, and provisionally believe what we do not believe. 

This self-emptying is then completed by love. I see no way around this. I can, provisionally, put myself in the place of a Muslim beholding the Dome of the Rock, and appreciate its grandeur. But if that appreciation does not give birth to love – I am not necessarily speaking yet of religious conversion – then it will remain, at least partly, extrinsic to me, outside my heart, and therefore unknown. I may say many true things about the work, but will not plumb its truth.

To return to The Winter’s Tale: if I exercise that humility, I may come to hear the strains of the theme, which Shakespeare repeats in many variations, that we must die to live again. But without love, there is much that will escape me, since only love reveals the heart. 

For example, late in the play, the once-jealous sinner Leontes, now sixteen years older, sees before him the son of the friend he once suspected of committing adultery with his wife. With that lad is a beautiful young woman, who is his own long-lost daughter, though no one on stage knows this yet. 

As they stand there, hand in hand, Leontes suddenly “sees” in their youthful faces his old friend and his deceased wife – the pair he wrongly saw as adulterers. So much the humble critic notices. But only the lover can be stirred to wonder; a wonder that will remind him of the words that unless we become like little children, we shall not enter the kingdom of heaven.

The dutiful critic, then, may get many things right, but remains outside the feast, occasionally glancing through a window. The lover enters in, and beholds the guests as they feast. And they who believe? What they see, they alone must report to the rest.

Anthony Esolen is a lecturer, translator, and writer. His latest book is Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child. He teaches at Providence College.
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