We come once again upon Dante and Virgil, who now find themselves amidst the damned in the Fourth Circle of Hell. Here upon Virgil has some choice words for Dante on the subject of greed and its ill-effects on people and nations alike:
…behold the transient farce
Of goods that are committed unto Fortune,
For which the human race each other buffet…
That she might change at times the empty treasures
From race to race, from one blood to another,
Beyond resistance of all human wisdom.
But before we get into this, I thought I would just ruminate a bit on my love of the Classical world, a love that Dante surely shared with me:
First, some background…
Way back in middle school I took two years of Latin, eagerly learning the roots and progenitors of many a good english word, maxim, or turn of phrase, such as vestis virus facit – “clothes make the man.” Or caveat emptor – “let the buyer beware.” Or good ol’ carpe diem – “seize the day,” et cetera. Oh, and et cetera, which translates as “and the rest.” Though these are commonly presented to the first-year Latin student in an effort to lure him into a brand of tedium that could only be delivered by dead languages, what really stays with me after all these years is the vocabulary, or more specifically how much of it has weaseled it’s way into the English language, ever since the Romans saw fit to invade Britain in the year 43 AD.
One such word is cupiditas, from whence we get the mythical Cupid, and the lesser utilized ‘cupidity’. Like many words found in Latin, cupiditas had several meanings, often commingling in the mouths of the more loquacious Romans, walking about in their jaunty togas, eating figs, drinking wine, fucking each other, etching their much-entitled versions of history into the upturned marbles of the ancient world. In this case, the meaning of cupiditas ranged from noble “ambition” to a most lamentable “avarice” or “greed”. As my Latin teacher had long entreated us to pay special attention to these double meanings, I feel it’s only right to do the same.
I was always struck by the close lineage of these two superficially different concepts: ambition and avarice. I think you’ll agree that ambition is seen by many to be an extremely laudable attribute, for if only one remains ambitious, one can be forgiven for misbehaving in all sorts of ways. As long as you’re white and male, and you’re not a Communist, and you’re over 21, you can easily get away with acting before thinking, treating women like set-pieces, talking foolish talk, suggesting modest proposals of genocide, or fiscal irresponsibility, or withering austerity. Or you can just generally be mediocre and still be regarded as a kind of messiah solely because of your mindless ambition. This is not because humans look up to leaders – rather they are too afraid to look away and glimpse for even a moment the uncertain void that is free will.
On the other hand we have this word avarice, synonymous with greed. Despite what Gordon Gekko, Oliver Stone’s immortal capitalist figure-head would have us believe, greed is an increasingly evil and destructive thing, requiring constant measures to curtail it, one of the most visceral of impulses. This is all to say that while ambition is good, avarice and greed are considered very bad. This begs the question: how can one thing stand for something that is good AND bad? One word, two opposing forces.
Consider John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men (1937), a depressing tale outlining the travails of a pair of migrant workers during the Great Depression, written during a time when both ambition and greed joined hand in hand to bring the United States to its knees. Much has been made of this classic work of literature, a seminal tome that finds itself at home on both stage and screen. This novella and subsequent play is really more of a paean to a much flawed America, bifurcated as is any great work of literature into the rather trivial and the deadly serious. On the one hand you have this deftly spun yarn of two drifters sharing an almost playful, almost enviable brotherhood; and on the other you find this deep, tangled set of doomed archtypes and devastatingly apt metaphors condemning the newfound modernism gripping the post-industrial world.
Consider Lennie, a lovable and oafish man-child who, though unaware of his immense strength, is nonetheless drawn to soft (and therefore fragile) objects. He is incapable of controlling his desire for them, so much so that – spoiler alert – it gets him summarily executed by George, Lennie’s straight faced handler. Though George can, at times, pacify Lennie with an ambitious story of the bucolic future they would someday share on some (imaginary) farm – complete with a cage full of soft, docile rabbits – he nonetheless finds himself incapable of reigning in his companion’s…outbursts. On the surface we have sympathy for Lennie – he’s innocent and essentially gentle. But look more deeply thereupon and you’ll find in him an altogether unquenchable avarice for wealth, power, or anything possessing an assumed scarcity.
Seen together as two halves of a single archetype, Lennie and George present as a fitting metaphor for the modern world and the ill-prepared human beings living in it: Lennie, all consuming and noticeably bloated, too powerful and too stupid for his own good; and George, an onlooker who finds himself ultimately powerless to intervene.
So consider the modern world: greedy by its very design, and newly christened just a decade prior by a disastrous world war, its quest for deeper markets, paradoxical ‘peacekeeping forces,’ and an absolute control of nature, all leading America spiraling into massive default. And yet simultaneously this world learned to tokenize the past (as Lennie does his rabbits), projecting former glories onto the present mediocrity: a wretched cesspool called the Twenty First Century, a time period that Adbusters Magazine has referred to, perhaps prematurely – and without question euphemistically – as the Dead End of Western Civilization. Maybe what Adbusters really meant to say was, ‘raise the white flag: the hipsters won!’ But we all know the truth: greed won. Greed always wins.
Greed always wins
Or does it? Upon stepping down into the Fourth Circle, Dante and Virgil found two groups of sinners there who might beg to differ. Though the two are both greedy, one group is classically avaricious, squirreling away wealth and possession, oft becoming miserly and stingy in their old age: the hoarders. The other group is the prodigal, who wasted their wealth in extravagant fashion with little to show for it, also known as the spendthrifts.
Their punishment is typical of Christian allegories of the time: they must continuously push massive weights around in an endless circular rut, working against each other, vacillating in either direction, never to glimpse the futility of their task. In fact, in Gustove Dore’s illustration of the Fourth Circle (seen to the right), he depicts the damned struggling against each other to aimlessly push around massive bags of money. One place in Hell, two opposing forces…
Too obvious, you say? Perhaps…but I myself struggled with how to best represent such a unique spot in Hell.
Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy – I See A Darkness (1999)
Time was, back in days more tired, when still I bought CDs, and read deeply of music publications, and for a time busied myself collecting the works of Will Oldham (also known as Palace, Palace Brothers, Palace Music, and Palace Songs). Along with Viva Lost Blues, Arise, Therefore, and Joya, I came upon the remarkable and groundbreaking I See A Darkness, the first of his albums made under the new and mysterious nom de plume Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy.
The title track is a slow, shoe-gazing tune that Oldham seems to hold uncharacteristically close to the chest, restrained in his delivery, with a more personal revelry than his earlier works did possess (as if he recorded it in your closet, watching you casually undress). So impressive was this song that even country music stalwart Johnny Cash was moved to include a cover of it on his American III: Solitary Man (2000):
Endearing in a way that only the Man in Black could be… But what advice can Oldham’s lyrics give us about avarice and greed?
Well I hope that someday, buddy
We have peace in our lives
Together or apart
Alone or with our wives
That we can stop our whoring
And pull the smiles inside
Not too helpful. But assume for a moment that Oldham is a sort of cross between Walt Whitman and Marty Robbins – a self-styled, Dust Bowl Beck Hanson, if you will. In this context I think it best to offer I See A Darkness less as a companion piece for the Fourth Circle – its inhabitants tussling about with their bags of coin – and more as a remedy for the utter wretchedness we have witnessed up to this point. For all of Oldham’s talk of doomed love affairs, lost lives on sparse plains, veiled references to old time religion, not to mention the dubious pitfalls of boredom-driven homosexuality, the truth is that his words and his voice – pregnant with country-style reckoning – cuts clear through any music industry fatuousness that might plague his contemporaries.
I admit that I’m mystified by Oldham’s songs not by how brilliantly simple they are, but because I know I couldn’t write them. And neither could you. Nor could anyone excepting, perhaps, Jason Molina, whom Oldham collaborated with on 2002’s Amalgamated Sons of Rest:
I See A Darkness is not Oldham’s best album, nor is it the best of his Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy albums (that would be Master and Everyone (2003), which you should listen to). No, I See A Darkness in particular mystifies because it’s almost as if Oldham himself had taken the same supposed path into Hell that Dante trotted centuries prior, singing to himself these songs as he skipped giddily through the gates of Hell, past the grey great fellows of Limbo, remarking casually of those poor folks swirling in the hurricane of Lust, then mounting humbly the rocky passages that skirt the Gluttonous…and all the while remaining this lonely, crazed hermit, foolishly regarding as fait accompli the human misery that litters Dante’s brute landscape.
One gets the impression that Oldham, while looking fixedly into the deep cavern that we all normally regard as black as pitch, can see clear through to a hundred nuanced universes, vignettes of human kindness and cruelty all, strung as they are throughout the spindly miles ahead. Spotting them thus, he regards them as decoration merely.
From “Nomadic Revery”:
instead of seeing monkeys biting
I lay on the ground
while my hectic travelling partner
wandered all around
And from “Today I Was a Wicked One”
The day was spent walking about
And asking questions blindly
And silently and not without
A sense of lapsing dignity
Today I was an evil one
Who suffered dumbly having fun
Tomorrow god will make me good
If I allow her to, she would
I was found again in need
And mostly unprotected
As I had spent good time with greed
And giving was rejected
Pitchfork’s Samir Khan once penned with pre-millenial severity that I See A Darkness “isn’t music. It can’t be. It’s something else…” adding that “it’s the type of record that demands solitary reverence [emphasis added].” High praise indeed from a review website that is normally quite reserved, perhaps even a bit too snarky and acerbic for its own good. And whether I agree or not, his sentiment invokes that word “reverence” with much aplomb. It’s no surprise that the Romans gave us this word – in the form of reverentia – along with centuries of imperialistic tendencies and the occasional hard c. Like our ambivalent friend cupiditas mentioned above, reverentia too had a few meanings, namely fear or respect, depending on the context.
From “Another Full Day of Dread”:
today was another day full of dread
but I never said I was afraid
cause dread and fear should not be confused
by dread I’m inspired, by fear I’m amused