Monday, May 2, 2011

Smile: Dante, C.S. Lewis, Roxy Music

Three connected moments from Dante's Paradiso: (1) Beatrice warns Dante not to make an idol out of her beauty: "My eyes are not the only Paradise," she says in Canto 18 with a smile; (2) Three cantos later, she stops smiling, lest Dante find himself converted to ashes; (3) Beatrice smiles again.  What's happened to make this possible?  The triumph of Christ, as told by Canto 23.  Now Dante can bear the smile.

What smile is this?  Il santo riso, Dante says, the "holy smile."  True holiness and the joy expressed by a smile—these things somehow belong together.  In the holy smile they become one.  Were I a founding type, I would be tempted to found "The Church of the Holy Smile."  (Or so I told my students, as if they needed further grounds for suspecting that their instructor might be slightly mad.)

"The most valuable thing the Psalms do for me is to express that same delight in God which made David dance," says C.S. Lewis in his Reflections on the Psalms.  You can smile without dancing, but you can't dance without a smile.  As David danced, some hint of the holy smile crossed his face.  Or so I should think. 

Another splendid expression of the delight of which Lewis speaks: the last four minutes or so of Roxy Music's 1973 "Psalm."  Some say the song goes on too long.  But I think it's a great build-up, the perfect closer of Stranded's first side.  Just let yourself get into it, as you wonder whether he's ironic, serious, or both.  Though I would ultimately recommend the studio version, featuring the London Welsh Male Voice Choir, the live version (posted below) is quite worthy.

When Bryan Ferry picks up that harmonica at 4:42, you too may want to smile.  Or dance.  Or read the Psalms.  Or all three.


  1. Love this....and it does make me smile!

  2. (A) Loved the song!
    (B) Is the blog subtitle a Levinas joke?

  3. Glad you liked the song. Be sure to check out the studio version at some point!

    The subtitle's not a Levinas joke, at least not consciously, since Levinas has always been the other to me. (That *was* a Levinas joke.)

  4. Hilaire Belloc did write a book called "This and That and the Other." But I didn't know that when I created the blog. The phrase must be proverbial.

  5. Ah, I was only wondering because Brock recently told me about paper he heard entitled, "Haecceitas, Quidditas, Levinas: This, That, and the Other"

  6. Can such a paper possibly live up to the promise of its title?