“You have to learn to listen to the silence.”
Has there ever been a more frenzied age in human civilization than ours? Entitled Opinions host Robert Pogue Harrison doubts it. In this monologue, he suggests: “This restlessness of ours has a lot to do with the historic disintegration of certain — how should I call them? — psychosocial structures that once directed and regulated human desire.”
“We no longer have an image or concept of an ultimate endpoint of desire” — like, for example, Dante did when he reached the Empyrean at the end of his Paradiso. “Desire today desires more of itself or more of its own self-propelling dynamic. The spiritual condition of our age could be characterized as a whirlwind wherein those of us who were swept up in its turbulence are at once driven and aimless.”
In this monologue, Harrison sees Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso as emblematic of our age. In Ariosto’s knights we recognize ourselves in a way that we cannot in Dante’s medieval Christian pilgrims. “Dante’s pilgrim seeks beatitude in a vertical ascent through the celestial spheres; Ariosto’s paladins wondered the earth laterally in search of action and distraction,” Harrison says. “In the world of the Furioso, desire is a principal of motion, just as it is in Dante’s Comedy. Yet the difference is that desire here does not have a master plan nor does it have a final destination. It merely desires more of its own excitation, more of its own intoxication, more of its own swirling energies.”
Michel Foucault called his approach to history “genealogical” — that is, he looked at the past with a view to the present as he reevaluated history. By contrast, Harrison looks to the past for visionary foreshadowings of the historical present. “To put it simply, I believe that certain literary works from prior epochs understand our present age better than it understands itself – they see into its covert passions of the times,” he said. “I am much less interested in how literary works belong to their age than I am in how they speak the fate of our present from their outposts in the past.”
“If there’s one oracle that won’t let you down, it’s literature. But to understand its dictums, you have to learn to listen to the silence.”
“If there’s one oracle that won’t let you down, it’s literature.