The Negative Power of Silence

Perhaps you have the same reaction that I have.  One of the things that provokes in me the worst sort of anxiety is being told that something is up, but not being told what it is.  For example, you are called by the doctor and told that you have to come in to talk about something.   Of course there are times when care must be taken in the delivery of bad news, as when a surgeon must say that someone didn’t make it, or a military chaplain must bring terrible news to a mother.  You don’t just blurt bad news.  You start with respect, comfort and information.  However, often what might be called “discretion” and “caution” on the part of those in the know, can feels like cruel game-playing on the receiving end.  You are called by the, say, bishop, and told that there is an issue and you need to come “downtown”.  That sort of thing.

Not being told what the nature of the problem is, when you’ve been told that you are in the midst of a problem, is dreadful.

I arrive at my news.  At Crisis there is yet another exploration of an aspect of The Present Crisis using that perennial font of wisdom Dante’s Divina Commedia as our Virgil.  The writer, James Soriano, offers a comment on silence, that is, silence instead of words of comfort.

Let’s have a taste.

The Sin of Silence

In the Inferno, Dante Alighieri, a critic in his day of Church leadership, famously put the souls of at least three popes in hell, as well as countless other clerics who go nameless, their faces blackened beyond recognition. However, one cleric he does meet along the way is Ruggieri degli Ubaldini (d. 1295), the archbishop of Pisa, who notoriously arrested the city’s strongman, Ugolino della Gherardesca (1220-1289), along with several members of his family, and starved them to death in a tower.

[… They are condemned as betrayal, treason…]

They are encased in ice up to their necks. One of them is repeatedly sinking his teeth into the skull of the other, like a dog gnawing a bone. He is startled by Dante’s presence. He takes his mouth from his “savage meal” and wipes his lips on the other’s hair. He introduces himself as Count Ugolino. “And this,” he says of the other, “is the Archbishop Ruggieri.”

[… Ugolino had been walled up with his sons and left to starve.  When his children begged for help, he was silent…]

The children turn to their father for help. Little Gaddo cries, ‘Father, why don’t you help me?’ Ugolino doesn’t answer. He says nothing. He says his heart had turned to stone, a peculiar metaphor as it inverts Christ’s own words: “Which of you, if your son asks for bread, will give him a stone” (Matt. 7:9).

What’s missing from the whole scene is a word from Ugolino to his sons. “Why don’t you help me,” can be taken to mean, Daddy, give me bread, but in the context, it can also be taken as, Daddy, say something. If the father cannot give bread, then he must give words. But Ugolino offers no word of comfort to his sons in their final days. He betrays his office as father and forsakes solidarity with his flock. He lets the horror of the situation speak for itself. To the end, he says not a single word about it.

There’s a special place in hell for fathers who say not one word to their children when they are in distress. It’s on the vast ice lake, the last stop before Satan.

If you have not read Dante you have a great treat before you.  But do it right!

As I have offered in the past, Anthony Esolen translated Dante’s Divine Comedy into English and did a great job of it.

Start with Esolen’s Inferno (US HERE – UK HERE) or perhaps with Dorothy Sayer’s fine version (Inferno, US HERE – UK HERE).

When you make the excellent choice to read the Divine Comedy, here are a couple tips.  First and foremost, make the decision that you will read the whole thing.  Don’t read just the Inferno.  The really great stuff comes in Purgatorio and Paradiso.  Also, read through a canto to get the line of thought and story and then go back over it looking at the notes in your edition.  Dante was, perhaps, the last guy who knew everything (with the possible exception of Erasmus).  Each Canto is dense with references.  You will need notes to help with the history, philosophy, cosmology, poetic theory, politics, theology, etc.  Really.  You will need help.

And, by the by, the most harrowing rendering of Ugolino and his children is in the statuary hall at the Met in New York, a marble by Carpeaux.  There are other renderings of Carpeaux’s masterpiece, for example in the Musée d’ Orsay.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. Imrahil says:

    And, if I may add, choose a translation that rhymes.

    Sure, prose etc. is more exact, but as for those who are scientifically enough into it to need this degree of exactness, they had better learn Italian.

  2. un-ionized says:

    Heart of stone. Ezekiel 36:26.

  3. FrAnt says:

    Fr. Z., Are there notes you would recommend? or will those in the book suffice?

  4. roma247 says:

    Haha, Father Z, when I was reading your first paragraph about being on pins and needles waiting for the bad news to be revealed, I thought that you were referring to the fear and dread of waiting to find what aberrations of teaching and practice will be foisted upon the faithful as a result of this Youth Synod “in a very real, and legally binding sense…”

  5. Elizabeth D says:

    Priests (Fathers) need to hear this about the need to care when their children are crying out, so the parish is not like the ice lake.

  6. Charles E Flynn says:

    The sculpture in the Metropolitan Museum:

  7. ususantiquor says:

    By far the best notes, imho, are in Dorothy Sayers‘ translation (Penguin, 3 Volks). The translation is also first rate. I am a medievalist and sometime teacher of Dante.

  8. NancyP says:

    Today I finished devouring Reading Dante: From Here to Eternity by Prue Shaw. A must-read, even though the author clearly does not subscribe to a Catholic worldview.

    Dr. Esolen’s notes for his translation of Inferno are extremely insightful.

    IMHO, Dante’s masterpiece is incredibly relevant today. We should all be studying it. I pray I can convince my 12th grade students to actually read Inferno, not just Shmoop their way through the assignments.

  9. Malta says:

    This is the translation I studied at the University of Michigan, by a Dante scholar; she learned Italian just so she could read Dante’s original poetry: It’s pricey, but literal line-by-line has the Italian next to the Italian. You can also buy Singleton’s commentary, which is twice as long as the original. I actually like the Paradiso more than the Inferno.

  10. Malta says:

    I couldn’t find Singleton’s translation online, but if you scroll-down you will find this (my favorite line of Dante’s):

    Lo rege per cui questo regno pausa
    in tanto amore e in tanto diletto,
    che nulla volontà è di più ausa,

    Which in my translation says, “The King through whom this realm reposes in such great love and in such great delight that no will dares for more.”

    If you can find Singleton’s side-by-side translation on, say Ebay, you can pick-up a used copy. It’s his poetic skill which really astounds.

  11. Malta says:

    I know I’m going a little off-topic, but it was in reading Dante’s Paradiso that I finally decided to convert to Catholicism.

  12. Hugh says:

    Years ago, I was startled to read in Paul Johnson’s great “Modern Times” that the much ridiculed and vastly underestimated U.S. President Calvin Coolidge translated the “Inferno”, and gave it as a wedding gift to his bride!

    Whenever I, who haven’t so much as read through the Inferno beyond the first dozen cantos, ponder that, I’m yet again humbled.

    Yes, to be learned in history – even a tiny scrap – is (pace J H Newman) to be rightly reminded of my insignificance. There’s despicable me, in awe of Johnson, who’s in awe of Coolidge, who’s in awe of Dante, who’s in awe of Our Lady and the saints and angels, who are in awe of God.

    How aweful this place is!

  13. TomG says:

    Calvin Coolidge was one of our finest presidents. A perusal of his speeches for various occasions is really an eye-opener.

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