Sunday, November 19, 2017

Inferno XXII: The Falling Man.

Inferno XXII: Ciampolo and the Malebranche
Ink on paper, 2016
22 x 15”

Their tour of the eighth circle continues in Canto XXII, and Dante and Virgil attempt to stall the brutal mauling of a sinner, plucked from the tarry pitch below, by asking questions about his background. While Virgil quizzes him, the antagonistic demons cut bits of flesh from the pitiful soul, but he ultimately escapes their escalating torture when he distracts them sufficiently—leaping from the cliffs to the black goo below. The scene is summed up at the end of the canto:
The Navarrese chose his time well;
He planted his feet on the ground, and in an instant
He leapt and escaped their designs.

*    *    *

I remember having dreams as a kid in which I was hiding from something—a monster or some other menace (Blacula, or Charles Manson, glaring with his coal black eyes as he did in news photographs, were perennial threats). In these dreams I was always wedged in the triangle of space behind an open door, looking through the crack on the hinged side. While safe for the moment, the threat was imminent and I was terrified of being discovered, and then God-knows-what. The primal instinct to flee overpowered the rational need to remain in hiding and the decisive moment always came. As the perp came closer I would leap from my hiding place, arms and limbs flailing in self-defense, screaming like mad to scare him off. I would then find myself awake.

The last bit of Canto XXII of L'Inferno evoked immediately a now famous image from 9-11 known as The Falling Man. Having lingo ago reached meme status, I'm a little sheepish about my exploitation of it for this drawing, but it remains potent to me so I wanted to refer to it. The image is that of a man plummeting head first from the World Trade Center tower, his arms to his sides, his left leg elegantly crooked to lend graceful proportion. The beauty of the image belies its horrific narrative. Moments before, the man was on the ledge of the building, undoubtedly agonizing in the face of a terrifying decision: jump or suffer an excruciating death by incineration. 

I like illustrating most when I am able to anticipate the visual literacy shared by most people and yet leave a few secrets to be discovered in the process of deciphering an image. Depending on this for dialogue with a viewer's memory and expecting their semiotic response system to engage, enabling them to answer the questions I am posing, can be deeply gratifying. This image unfolded that way, and—despite its tedious making—I really enjoyed all phases of its development.

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Inferno XXI: "He made a trumpet of his rump."

Inferno XXI: The Malebranche
Ink on paper, 2016
22 x 15”

In the fifth ditch (or malebolgia) of the eighth circle of Inferno, Dante and Virgil are immersed in tarry darkness, which—while unnerving—provides cover from a comically furious band of nine demons known as the Malebranche. Hidden behind the rocks, Dante is eventually revealed when Virgil addresses the rowdy brood. They threaten to attack but are stopped by Malacoda, their leader, as he engages Virgil in conversation, and even offers to accompany our heroes on the next leg of their journey. Much excitement ensues and their leader releases an explosive burst of gas from his butt or, in Dante's words, "ed elli avea del cul fatto trombetta" (he made a trumpet of his rump):

Per l’argine sinistro volta dienno;
ma prima avea ciascun la lingua stretta
coi denti, verso lor duca, per cenno;
ed elli avea del cul fatto trombetta.

They wheeled about along the left dike,
but not before each had thrust his tongue between 
his teeth in signal to their leader;
and he made a trumpet of his rump.

*    *    *

I grew up in a politically liberal yet sexually repressive household. My father and mother were born in 1918 and 1920, respectively, and I never saw them display affection with enjoyment or abandon. My father would arrive home from work at 5:00pm, and meet my mother in the kitchen. She would greet him cheerfully, and as their lips would touch, his gaze would meet mine with a furtive look of embarrassment, or even panic. When we watched the Jackie Gleason Show, with its sexy chorus girls in skimpy costumes, my dad would mutter "nothing but bums, all of them." He was fearful and disdainful of all things carnal, as was my mother, who was raised in a superstitious, Irish-Catholic household in Boston, with the remnants of 19th century moral codes guiding her conscience ("Marguerite, you know that the Blessed Mother frowns on little girls who whistle"). She squelched my own sexual expression early on in life (without revealing too much here's a snapshot: little boy, boner, bed) with a fierce glare.

I am always impressed and a little surprised when I encounter Canto XXI of L'Inferno, wherein the pious Dante delivers with gusto the imagery from the passage above. His delight in vulgarity is infectious, even if he disguises it by presenting it as the shameful product of a marauding band of demons. The plain truth is that Dante periodically indulges in vulgar bits of narrative, just as Chaucer did several decades later in The Canterbury Tales. Here's an excerpt from The Miller's Tale:

This Nicholas just then let fly a fart
As loud as it had been a thunder-clap,
And well-nigh blinded Absalom, poor chap;
But he was ready with his iron hot

And Nicholas right in the arse he got.

It's a dirty shame that things which come naturally to us as a species—the smelly, comically sonic marvels of flatulence, the unbridled enjoyment of animalistic sexual encounter, naughty delight in a dirty joke, unbridled promiscuity, empowerment to identify our own gender and sexual orientation —are arbitrarily relegated to the shadows of sin. Less than 500 years ago our carnal nature was factual. It was expected of us. We reveled in it. Michel Foucault wrote extensively on the subject of changing sexual mores and the first volume of his History of Sexuality begins with a bang: 

“At the beginning of the seventeenth century a certain frankness was still common, it would seem. Sexual practices had little need of secrecy; words were said without undue reticence, and things were done without too much concealment; one had a tolerant familiarity with the illicit. Codes regulating the coarse, the obscene, and the indecent were quite lax compared to those of the nineteenth century. It was a time of direct gestures, shameless discourse, and open transgressions, when anatomies were shown and intermingled at will, and knowing children hung about amid the laughter of adults: it was a period when bodies “made a display of themselves.”

Reading Dante offers a glimpse of humanity's relationship with the illicit in medieval times, underscoring the notion that, whatever our proclivities or indulgences, we were born this way.

Thursday, November 9, 2017

Inferno XX: The Diviners.

Inferno XX: The Diviners
Ink on paper, 2016
22 x 15”

Dante arrives at a chasm which is "bathed in tears of agony," and beholds a gloomy, glacial procession of sinners. These are the diviners: magicians, soothsayers, fortune tellers, and military strategists who dared predict the future. Their perverse punishment is to possess a single mode of expression—incessant tears—while walking backwards with their heads twisted around.

*    *    *

We live where our attention is. When we direct our attention fully to the present moment, we are fully alive. —Eknath Easwaran 

The medieval church considered divination a form of heresy, usurping the omniscience of God as the sole author of fate. Dante's diviners are an absurd brood, weeping in an excruciatingly slow procession while walking backwards, with their heads twisted 180ยบ to enable them to see where they are going.

I'm the least qualified person to discourse on present mindfulness. A consummate worrier, I've nevertheless made an effort, but failed, to "live in the present" over the years. Sure, I believe that the future is not yet a reality and the past cannot be changed, but I spend a lot of time wondering how the consequences of my past idiocy will haunt me in the future.

For years I had a couple of anxiety dreams about the future. One dream was so exquisitely metaphorical that I actually cherished it when it recurred several times, even though it terrified me when it inhabited my sleep. It involved a tornado on the distant horizon, a sure sign of impending doom and destruction. Sometimes I was in a car, and other times I was in some sort of structure—a glass skyscraper, a house, looking out a kitchen window. In each instance I was engrossed in some conversation or some other activity involving other people when my attention would be drawn to the window. Looking out, I would catch sight of the ominous ribbon of black dust and debris, always on the horizon (it had to remain there—otherwise it would be about the present). I would always wake before it tore my life apart.

The second dream was also a recurring narrative that haunted my sleep. It was much more disturbing than the tornado dream, and seemed to be as much about the past as it was about the future. I would find myself in a deep pit somewhere, unable to get out and eventually made aware that I was in the grave with someone I had killed, albeit accidentally. Panic would inevitably ensue when I realized that the body would soon be buried by others, whose voices I could hear approaching from the landscape above. I would soon be discovered and punished, a victim of my own transgressions.

I haven't had either of these dreams for many years, and I do think they stopped around the time that I came out to my kids and separated from the wonderful woman to whom I was married for 20 years. No more fear of consequences for that horrific, unintended crime (which was a metaphor for the secrets I was keeping, I'm sure). To this day, when I reflect on the realism of that dream, I have to remind myself that I'd never harm a fly, and that my future no longer includes fear of being outed as a metaphorical murderer.