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.
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.