…is reading books. Whenever I’m writing a book, I tend to complain about not having the time to read ‘normal’ books – books, that is, whose reading is not strictly necessary for my writing. Currently there is an ever-growing pile of unread tomes from David Grossman’s The End of the Land to Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns, from Gabriel Josipovici’s Whatever Happened to Modernism? to VS Ramachandran’s The Tell-tale Brain, a pile into which I can only plunge once my writing is finished (which probably won’t be till the autumn).
Yet, frustrating though it is to be so restricted in my reading, one of the real pleasures of writing a book is, paradoxically, having the time to read books. For most of the books I ‘have’ to read are also ones I wish to read, or wish to read again. Books that, had I not been writing a book, I may not not have picked up for a long time, or ever. Over the past six months I’ve had the chance, and the pleasure, to reread a host of classical texts (and, indeed, to read some for the first time) – Homer’s Iliad, Aeschylus’ Oresteia, Herodotus’ Histories, Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, Plato’s Republic, Virgil’s Aeneid, Plutarch’s On Sparta, Cicero’s On Fate, Diogenes’ Lives of Eminent Philosophers, Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, Seneca’s Essays, Augustine’s Confessions, Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy.
Right now, I am writing a chapter on the seismic shift from the medieval to the early modern world, the rise of humanism, the development of a more secular world view and the ethical changes all this entailed. And it has provided a great excuse to pick up once again two works I have not delved into for a long time. Two works that are both the greatest poems in the Christian tradition and among the most important texts in the emergence of a secular literary world.
‘Through me the way into the city of woe:
Through me the way into eternal pain:
Through me the way among the lost.
Justice moved my maker on high
Divine power made me,
Wisdom supreme, and primeval Love.
Before me nothing was but things eternal
And eternal I endure.
Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.’
These words, dark in hue, I saw inscribed
Over an archway. And then I said:
‘Master, for me their meaning is hard.’
And he, as one who understood:
‘Here you must banish all distrust,
Here must all cowardice be slain.
We have come to where I said
You would see the miserable sinners
Who have lost the good of the intellect.’
And after he had put his hand on mine
With a reassuring look that gave me comfort,
He led me toward things unknown to man.
Now sighs, loud wailing, lamentation
Resounded through the starless air,
So that I too began to weep.
Unfamiliar tongues, horrendous accents,
Words of suffering, cries of rage, voices
Loud and faint, the sound of slapping hands –
All these made a tumult, always whirling
In that black and timeless air,
As sand is swirled in a whirlwind.
And I, my head encircled by error, said:
‘Master, what is this I hear, and what people
Are these so overcome by pain?’
And Milton’s Paradise Lost:
Who first seduc’d them to that foul revolt?
Th’ infernal Serpent; he it was, whose guile
Stird up with Envy and Revenge, deceiv’d
The Mother of Mankind, what time his Pride
Had cast him out from Heav’n, with all his Host
Of Rebel Angels, by whose aid aspiring
To set himself in Glory above his Peers,
He trusted to have equal’d the most High,
If he oppos’d; and with ambitious aim
Against the Throne and Monarchy of God
Rais’d impious War in Heav’n and Battel proud
With vain attempt. Him the Almighty Power
Hurld headlong flaming from th’ Ethereal Skie
With hideous ruine and combustion down
To bottomless perdition, there to dwell
In Adamantine Chains and penal Fire,
Who durst defie th’ Omnipotent to Arms.
Nine times the Space that measures Day and Night
To mortal men, he with his horrid crew
Lay vanquisht, rowling in the fiery Gulfe
Confounded though immortal: But his doom
Reserv’d him to more wrath; for now the thought
Both of lost happiness and lasting pain
Torments him; round he throws his baleful eyes
That witness’d huge affliction and dismay
Mixt with obdurate pride and stedfast hate:
At once as far as Angels kenn he views
The dismal Situation waste and wilde,
A Dungeon horrible, on all sides round
As one great Furnace flam’d, yet from those flames
No light, but rather darkness visible
What better companions can one have on the road to Hell?