In the twenty-sixth canto of Dante’s Inferno, the pilgrim and his guide come across two figures encased in flame. Virgil reveals to Dante that within this single fire dwells Diomedes and Ulysses, grieving over the horse that penetrated Troy. They approach the flame and converse with Ulysses, who reveals that his sins, characterized by guile and betrayal, involved abandoning his home in Ithaca almost immediately after having reached it:
When I escaped / From Cire, who beyond a circling year / Had held me near Caieta by her charms, Ere thus Aeneas yet had named the short; / nor fondness for my son, nor reverence / Of my old father, nor return of love, / That should have crown’d Penelope with joy, / Could overcome in me the zeal I had / To explore the world, and search the ways of life / Man’s evil and his virtue. Forth I sail’d / Into the deep illimitable main (Canto XXVI.89–100, trans. H. F. Cary).
Convincing his world-weary sailors to again join him in adventure, Ulysses and his men are ultimately destroyed by a whirlwind arising from the new land they are approaching.
As it happens, this is not an account of Ulysses’s life as it appears in Homer’s Odyssey. In fact, it’s not entirely clear from what Dante is drawing in giving this account, and some believe that he invented it. Regardless of the literary allusion that is being made, the point is clear: Ulysses’s sin was a failure to rest content with the rootedness of his homeland. He rapaciously desired the unknown and was willing to charm his men into following him into likely destruction. One can see in this a parallel to the Trojan horse, moreover, in that both involve the use of guile to penetrate the unknown, resulting in destruction and death. Ulysses is a destroyer of bonds, a betrayer unable to love that which is close at hand and so doomed to an exile of his own making.
Similar literary figures are frequent. Consider, for example, the character of Tomas in Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being. The novel circles thematically around the themes of lightness and weight, with the former understood as a lack of attachment to people or place, existence without responsibility or love, and the latter understood as the bearing of precisely such attachments. Tomas is caught between two women who each embody one of these themes. On the one hand, Tereza desires commitment and stability from Tomas, that he should abandon his womanizing ways. On the other hand, Sabina seeks nothing from him; she floats above the world unfettered by any attachment, by any weight. She regularly changes lovers and locales, systematically cutting herself off from everything that could impinge upon her “freedom.”
Tomas is in many ways a male counterpart to Sabina, although his “lightness” primarily takes the form of promiscuity. He is unable to commit to any one women because he is obsessed with the novelty of sexual encounter. He seeks endlessly to discover that which is unique in new women, the mystery of their sexual being. In the moment of uncovering their nakedness and vulnerability, Tomas finds the “small part that is unimaginable,” the part of the person that cannot be logically inferred from previous experience, for it is entirely unique.
As the title of the book suggests, Kundera ultimately sees this state of weightlessness as an atrocity and Sabina’s existence as tragic:
When we want to give expression to a dramatic situation in our lives, we tend to use metaphors of heaviness. We say that something has become a great burden to us. We either bear the burden or fail and go down with it, we struggle with it, win or lose. And Sabina—what had come over her? Nothing. She had left a man because she felt like leaving him. Had he persecuted her? Had he tried to take revenge on her? No. Her drama was a drama not of heaviness but of lightness. . . . Sabina felt emptiness all around her. What if that emptiness was the goal of all her betrayals?
Tomas’s existence, too, is one of tragedy and contradiction. Obsessed with discovering the uniqueness of the women he undresses, he is unable to acquire any long-standing, meaningful connection with that uniqueness. His appetite is for novelty itself, and particular women are ultimately of no importance beyond the ability to sate that appetite. It is a contradiction because that which he longs to discover is ultimately made valueless by his actions, his perpetual cutting away of all attachment. The womanizing in which Tomas so frequently engages is in essence the same as the restlessness of Ulysses, and even as the violation of Troy understood in a certain way.
Both seek to pierce the unknown, to break down the barriers and discover what lies hidden at the far reaches of experience, beyond the walls of women’s clothes and unknown cities. These actions take place within different spheres of being, but at their core they are alike. And neither Ulysses nor Tomas (until much later) are able to value what is discovered, for their lust is for discovery itself, for the pleasure of the moment of revelation with no thought to what is revealed. Such a lust is self-negating, and in the end only emptiness is left, a vast whirlwind that swallows one whole.
Unlike Ulysses (or Sabina), however, Tomas is able to submit to weight and find happiness with Tereza. He is set free from the unbearable lightness, from the flame that encases Ulysses and Diomedes. He is, at last, able to put down roots and establish a home, to reorder his being to a central attachment whereby life may be filled with meaning and the ever-deepening mystery of a permanent love may give substance to his existence. For the love of novelty itself is never truly able to uncover the unimaginable in others. What Tomas found was, at best, superficial. Only in the long hours of encounter that occur through commitment, through home, are the depths reached.
Let us take a final literary figure: Mrs. Jellyby from perhaps Dickens’s greatest novel, Bleak House. She is described as forever looking towards the most distant of African villagers, furiously writing letters to better their lot while neglecting the care of her children and the indigent that flood the London streets where she lives and works. Her home is in disrepair; her many children are strangers to her; her husband despairs. Whatever good she may do for those in Africa, her disregard for those near at hand represents a failure of attachment. She looks to the farthest of spheres, where she can have little to no influence in the end, while shunning that which ought to be most pressing, most intimate.
Mrs. Jellyby’s sins are in some respects very different from those of Ulysses and Tomas, yet they belong to the same order for they ultimately stem from an unwillingness to establish genuine roots or any real knowledge of love. We each inhabit a world of increasingly broad concentric circles in which we form the center. Our love, when properly ordered, ought to find its first and deepest object in those circles that are nearest: the family, the community, the nation, and so on. As one’s power of love increases, pouring out into ever wider rings, that which is far may be increasingly incorporated into one’s ever-greater capacity to love, integrated into a holistic and interconnected flow. The ends of this process are, perhaps, infinite, and only the saints know to what extent love of the most foreign, the most distant, may ultimately reach.
The rest of us, however, must strive to submit ourselves to the tutelage of love by caring for what is near at hand, learning to love properly that which is most immediately lovable for ourselves. It is only in this way that we may grow and encompass more. Mrs. Jellyby’s Herculean efforts for the people of Africa, however laudable in themselves, thus reveal themselves not as the outpouring of a vastly abundant agape but as a complex method of avoidance. For can a person unable to love and care for her own children truly love and care for those on another continent, whom she has never seen and likely never will?
Each of these characters, then, reveals to us a disorder in the structures of their attachments, and this disorder leads to a failure in their capacity to love. Ulysses abandons his wife and child for no reason other than for the lust of unknown countries. Tomas nearly floats into the abyss of meaninglessness through an unwillingness to give up his womanizing, born of a desire for a glimpse at human novelty. Mrs. Jellyby allows her family to sink into chaos out of a false compassion for a doomed charitable project aimed at the most distant reaches of the earth. They long for that which is farthest afield and neglect that which is closest at hand.
One encounters such people all the time, and there is often a sense that they are running away from something, often from themselves. For, in the end, it is the self that lies at the very center of one’s concentric rings. And at the root of the self, “more interior than my innermost self,” as Augustine put it, is the mysterious presence of God. To be always looking to that which is distant may thus be an attempt to flee from the God of love, who would make us his own, change us into the love that he is, and direct that love in ever-widening arcs beyond the self to the cosmos reflecting in every crevice and crack his glory.
For God pours out his love, his very self, from the innermost to the outermost, from the blissful unity of the Trinity to the lowest abysses of the cosmos. Unlike our love, which is constantly stumbling and failing to properly acknowledge what is close at hand, God’s love is infinite and embraces all in one endless and undiminished stream. And we are made to be like him, to become ourselves mirrors of this light, fountains of this love, and must begin with the proper ordering, with the growing of proper roots.
[…] “Concentric Roots.” Benjamin Woollard examines a set of fictional characters whose disordered loves reveal the dangers of detachment: “They long for that which is farthest afield and neglect that which is closest at hand.” […]