March 1 to March 31
A Guest Post by Elizabeth MacDonald
A House of Cards
"Journeys of the Imagination: a Locus of Transformation"
If you are interested in participating in Irish Short Story Month, please e mail me.
I first became acquainted with the work of Elizabeth MacDonald when I read her brilliant collection of short stories, A House of Cards. A House of Cards was listed for the Frank O'Connor Prize in 2007. It is a beautiful work set mostly in the Tuscany region of Italy.
Elizabeth MacDonald was born in Dublin, where she studied Italian and Music at UCD. In 2001 she completed the M.Phil in creative and Music at UCD. In 2001 she completed the M.Phil in creative writing at Trinity College, Dublin. She teaches English at the University of Pisa, where she lives with her husband and son. Her translations of the short stories of Liam O'Flaherty were the first in Italy. She has translated the poetry of Dermot Healy, Seamus Heaney, Brendan Kennelly, Dennis O’Driscoll, George Szirtes, Derek Mahon, and Old Irish nature poetry. She has a special interest is the poetry of Mario Luzi. Her translations have appeared in many journals, including Modern Poetry in Translation, Poetry Ireland Review, The Cork Literary Review and Soglie. A House of Cards was first published by Pillar Press in 2006 and a second edition will be published by Portia Publishing later this year.
“This is a tender, understated and beautiful collection of stories that will leave you longing for more. ” Emma Walsh, The Irish Book Review.
Today I am very proud to be able to share with readers of my blog a very illuminating post on contribution of the Irish to theological history and their influence on Dante. I found this fascinating and I think you will also.
"Journeys of the Imagination: a Locus of Transformation'"
by Elizabeth MacDonald
The journey as quest has always exerted a hold over the imagination. World literature is full of tales that take the reader somewhere Other, very often the Otherworld. A modern take on this is the journey to another planet; but while science-fiction continues to have a niche readership, tales of the Otherworld have retained their universal appeal. Our mortality is a reminder, however unpalatable, that the Otherworld is a place we will sooner or later get to see, whatever form it may take.
What awaits one on the other side is indeed the question. In the Middle Ages the Irish added a further dimension to mankind’s understanding of what the Otherworld might be like. This took the form of an original interpretation of Purgatory, and indeed one of these accounts of Purgatory was the medieval equivalent of a bestseller.
The idea of Purgatory is not an Irish invention; an interim place of purification in the afterlife was known in antiquity. But what the Irish did was to turn this shadowy immaterial place into somewhere concrete. They gave Purgatory a physiognomy and location. The journey to the Otherworld recounted in St. Patrick’s Purgatory represents a further instance of the vibrant tradition of Immrama in early Christian Ireland. It was codified into three Latin versions, the first appearing in Chronica Hybernienses, and tells how one day Christ himself led the monk Patrick to a legendary cave, a sort of well which tradition identifies as being located on Lough Derg in Donegal. Passing through it, one can enter the hereafter: “De hoc quoque purgatorio et eius origine quod sequitur tradunt veteres historiae hybernienses”.
The story of the Irish knight, Owain, who ventures into the cavern previously indicated to Patrick, is told by Matteo Paris in his Chronica Maiora in 1153. The same story is also told in Tractatus de Purgatorio sancti Patricii by Hugh of Saltry, written between 1170 and 1185.
Soon this legend spread to Europe, where it was translated into languages such as Middle English, Anglo-Norman, Provençal, Old French and Spanish. They all tell the story of the foundation of Purgatory and the visit made there by Knight Owain. He was attended on his journey by angels dressed in white, and warned of the trials that awaited souls. He was enjoined by the angels to recount his experiences in Purgatory upon his return.
These versions of the legend of St. Patrick’s Purgatory gave rise to the literature on Purgatory. Such widespread popularity may then have influenced the creation of the Second Canticle of La divina commedia. But, paradoxically, it was the less well-known version of the legend by Jocelin of Furness, who located Purgatory on a mountain in Connaught, Croagh Patrick, that seems to have found the greatest amplification in Dante’s Commedia. Dante also sets the Second Canticle of his poem on a towering mountain, which penitent souls must ascend as a rite of purification, rather than venture into an underground cavern more similar to the infernal regions.
The whole story of the Commedia is presented as a journey – a journey with a specific destination and goal. In many respects the story of the traveller heading towards a longed-for destination represents the quintessential European figure of man: Ulysses making his way back to Ithaca, or Aeneas sailing to Latium. Dante takes this figure of the traveller and gives it a Christian and biblical context: life on earth for mankind is a pilgrimage towards the homeland, which is God.
The creative motivational force of the Commedia derives from an exploration of the value of the individual, his place in history, and the gift of freedom. These were not perceived as values worthy of inspiring the highest art in antiquity, but at the beginning of the 14th century Dante superimposes them on the Graeco-Roman cultural legacy with revolutionary power. Christianity predicates redemption, and this redemption hinges on the individual: an individual set in time who, through the choices he makes, will ascend to eternal bliss.
Purgatory exerts its hold on the imagination because it is something we can manage to conceive of. Despite being in the Otherworld, in the eternal, it represents a locus of change, of transformation. The atmosphere is set at the very beginning of the canticle, when Dante emerges from the horror and desolation of the pit of Hell into the pre-dawn sapphire blue of the sky over Mount Purgatory:
“Dolce color d’orïental zaffiro,
che s’accoglieva nel sereno aspetto
del mezzo, puro infino al primo giro,
a li occhi miei ricominciò diletto”
The deep luminous blue of a pre-dawn sky is the first visible manifestation of the new realm of Purgatory. By means of a colour Dante sets the tone of serene hope that permeates this place of redemption, and the very first word, “Dolce” (sweet), indicates the atmosphere of peaceful acceptance in which the redemption is achieved. This is evident in the gestures and words of the many historical individuals he meets there; but also in the language with which he presents this realm of transmutation.
The first canto of the Purgatorio concludes with a rite of purification. The sun has lightened the sky at this stage, and Dante can make out the shimmering of the sea. Accompanied by his guide, Virgil, he makes his way down to the empty seashore. There, in the cool morning sea breeze, the dew is still intact and Virgil bathes his hands in it in order to cleanse Dante’s face of the last traces of Hell in the soot and tears that mar it.
The Italian poet Mario Luzi made a successful adaptation of Dante’s Purgatorio in 1990 for the stage, La notte lava la mente: drammaturgia di un’ascensione. This led to a further collaboration with the director Federico Tiezzi resulting in an adaptation of Luzi’s poem Il viaggio terrestre e celeste di Simone Martini (1994). Simone Martini, as he is represented to us in what is essentially a poetic monologue, is another questing traveller, along with Knight Owain and Dante. The play recounts the journey undertaken by this medieval Tuscan painter, from Avignon back to his home town of Siena. The journey has clearly marked-out stages, but the ultimate nature of his personal quest is hazier. While for Dante it is the beatific vision of the Godhead in Paradise, Simone’s aim takes shape while he travels. He makes us a party to his reflections and the roads his memory takes him down, as he covers the pilgrim’s route that, for those want to go there, eventually leads as far as Rome.
The journey represents an interior pilgrimage initially motivated by a sense of nostalgia that never, however, becomes an end in itself; the goal of the journey is both purification and the rediscovery of the world. Starting with the title itself of the play, the whole is a juxtaposition of the heavenly and the earthly; the physical and the transcendental; the artistic and the religious; song and prayer. Il viaggio has its heavenly moments, when Simone crosses the Alps, and when he first catches a glimpse of the magnificent city of Genoa. But there are also moments of hell, as when Simone falls ill in Genoa and is forced to remain there for a long time convalescing. His illness is of a mysterious nature: is it the result of an identity crisis? Depression? A loss of faith in the world? During this illness he is tormented by visions of the journey that his life has been.
And then he recovers. He continues his journey and gets as far as Florence, where he faces his own purgatory. Florence is full of admiration for the new painter Giotto, his work is on everyone’s lips, and Simone Martini succumbs to dark feelings about himself and his own art. He has been superseded. But he resists the temptation to go and look upon the other painter’s work and make sterile comparisons; he resolves to let things be so they can take their natural course.
It is time for the last leg of his journey, from Florence to Siena. The journey has been a return to the origins, an intense experience in which all the senses are used, a supreme attempt to understand what the melancholy flow of time and the vertiginous sense of the eternal mean. Prayerful song or sung prayer?
George Steiner has said, “Purgatory is the natural locus of the arts. Aristotelian katharsis bears on purgation through aesthetic empathy and response. Aesthetics, furthermore, are closely knit to temporality, to the compulsion in the human creator to outstrip time and erasure through death.” Mario Luzi has always admitted his aesthetic debt to Dante, and their attitudes to Purgatory are probably the area where the meeting of these two poetic minds becomes most obvious. Asked once in an interview whether poetry had a specific colour, Luzi responded: “Since I love the colour of hills, that turquoise-blue so redolent of freshness and cleanliness which materialises especially after a storm, I think that this colour is present in my poetry. It is a tonality that speaks not so much of radiance or the morning, perhaps, but rather of depth and profundity. Deep space for me has this colour, which then also becomes that of time. Time and space are inseparable. When I think of time, I think of that colour.”
And so we return, along another trajectory, to the “oriental sapphire-blue” of the opening of the Purgatorio, and all the resonances of cleanliness, hope and serenity that accompany the willing pilgrim on his journey.
In Luzi’s case, this journey also unfolds through the elegiac mysteries of memory. His poetic production represents a sustained conversation with the world – mankind and history - in flux. It represents a bridge between being and becoming, time and eternity, identity and change, the individual and the cosmos. If, as Luzi writes, “night-time cleanses the mind”, then the arduous passage through Purgatory represents the only possibility of transformation. In Luzi it is this recurring image of transformation that opens up the means of redemption, while simultaneously admitting the impossibility of ever defining existence. This is the only way that, free of every dogmatism and ideology, the flow of creation may run free. The journey is not about absolute answers, but asking the right questions.
Purgatory therefore is not necessarily in the Otherworld. Purgatory – understood as purification and transformation – can also be in the here and now, where time and space touch the eternal. Existence in time and space as the inevitable fulcrum of “original sin”, and its corollary, karma.
For karma surely exists: the universe is propelled by laws of cause and effect, and for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. Our redemption takes the form of liberation from karma; it does not mean that karma no longer applies. But if you freely choose to believe in the redeeming power of Jesus Christ, the full rigours of karma will be spared you: the yoke of reincarnation will be broken.
And the realm where this takes place is Purgatory, where transformation unfolds in the full and consoling knowledge of the Divine mercy and plan for each one of us, rendering us, as Dante says of himself at the end of the Purgatorio, “puro e disposto a salire alle stelle.”
 Sweet colour of the Oriental sapphire / gathering in the serene reaches of air as far as the horizon: / once again did my eyes behold delight.
 “cleansed and desirous of ascending to the stars.”
End of Guest Post
I offer my total thanks to Elizabeth MacDonald for this very informative and fascinating post.
End of Guest Post
I offer my total thanks to Elizabeth MacDonald for this very informative and fascinating post.