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All the Lonely People

I have been thinking about loneliness. We assume it is a sorrow that afflicts unlucky people: those who have outlived their friends, who are painfully shy, or who have been abandoned by their families.

Would that it were only so. Central to human existence, says the court decision justifying the alienating of one's unborn children, is the right to determine for oneself the meaning of the universe. "I am myself alone," says the hunchback Richard of York, plotting the overthrow of his own brothers in his quest for a solitary and joyless crown. "From this time on I never will speak word," says Iago. He has accomplished his revenge against his captain, Othello, and now, facing torture and execution, declares himself alienated from the whole human race. "Myself am Hell," says Milton's Satan. That short sentence encapsulates the whole mystery of evil.

Ultimate Alienation

When Dante and Virgil are nearing the end of their first day on the slopes of Purgatory, they wonder how they should use the last hour of daylight to best profit. Dante looks round and sees a soul, all alone, and suggests that they ask him the best path to climb. The soul seems a man of dignity: he remains still, "as a lion / at rest will watch, and never turn his head." But if we suppose he is a solitary fellow, enjoying his separation from the rest of mankind, we are in for a surprise.

Virgil asks him about the road, and the man does not immediately reply, but asks his own question in turn, one whose answer will place the poets in a society: "Where were you from?" Virgil begins with the name of his native city, "Mantua," when the soul suddenly breaks in upon him: "O Mantoano, io son Sordello / della tua terra!" "We share one country, you of Mantua! / I am Sordello!" And the two embrace.

What follows is also remarkable. Dante suspends the narrative, and for the last 76 lines of the canto launches into a bitter invective against the Italian cities of his day, particularly his native Florence. Even in Purgatory, so far away, he says, that soul rose up in joy merely at the name of his native land, while back in the world of the living, people gnaw one another, "and so near / as those united by a wall and ditch!"

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Published: August 21, 2012

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