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The Love That Moved Berlin And Akhmatova

David Brooks has a lovely and, I think, important column today [1] about a magical night ages ago, in which the philosopher Isaiah Berlin stayed up all night talking with the Russian poet Anna Akhmatova, who had suffered and would continue to suffer terribly from Soviet persecution. The two of them fell in love that night — a love that was not sexual, but that was profoundly intellectual and spiritual. Reading Brooks’s account, I couldn’t help thinking of Dante and Beatrice, and how, for Dante, the love he had for Beatrice ultimately made her an icon through which the light of God streamed forth into his heart, and changed his life, and saved his soul. The analogy with Berlin and Akhmatova is that for each of them, a happenstance communion with the other opened the door to a deeper kind of love. It was, I think, a kind of theophany, an unveiling, a revelation of the divine.

Brooks writes that in our time, when reason is thought as something that can only be instrumental (that is, used to solve problems), that dreamy but sleepless night makes no sense. And yet:

The night Berlin and Akhmatova spent together stands as the beau ideal of a different sort of communication. It’s communication between people who think that the knowledge most worth attending to is not found in data but in the great works of culture, in humanity’s inherited storehouse of moral, emotional and existential wisdom.

Berlin and Akhmatova were from a culture that assumed that, if you want to live a decent life, you have to possess a certain intellectual scope. You have to grapple with the big ideas and the big books that teach you how to experience life in all its richness and make subtle moral and emotional judgments.

Berlin and Akhmatova could experience that sort of life-altering conversation because they had done the reading. They were spiritually ambitious. They had the common language of literature, written by geniuses who understand us better than we understand ourselves.

The night also stands as the beau ideal of a certain sort of bond. This sort of love depends on so many coincidences that it only happens once or twice in a lifetime. Berlin and Akhmatova felt all the pieces fitting amazingly into place. They were the same in many ways. There was such harmony that all the inner defenses fell down in one night.

This is not exactly what happened with Dante and Beatrice. First off, they met when they were children, and she never returned his overwhelming love for her. There was something mystical about their communion; it didn’t depend on them both having done the reading. Still, what their meeting has in common with Berlin and Akhmatova’s night is a life-changing unveiling of reality in communion with another.

I get that. On the night of October 11, 1996, I met the woman I was to marry — and I knew that very quickly. When we met in that bookstore in Austin, Texas, I was overcome. She hadn’t said five words, but somehow, I knew, just knew, that she was the one I had been praying for and waiting for. And as I would soon learn, she felt the same way about me. We began talking via e-mail about marriage several days later. Insane, right? But we knew.

Ours was not simply a Dante-Beatrice struck-by-lightning moment. It had its Berlin-Akhmatova qualities too. I have long been convinced that if not for the three years of living as a Catholic, with all that implies for repentance and ascetic renunciation, my heart would not have been in a condition to receive the grace that stood in front of me that night in the bookstore. I would not have been prepared for it. I would not have done the reading, so to speak, so would have in a very real spiritual sense not been able to perceive the reality I was staring at.

In a similar way, I am convinced that if I had not suffered as I’ve done, and in the particular way that I have done, these past two years, I never would have been able to understand the Commedia as it should be understood: not as merely an aesthetic object, but as a work of art that knew me better than I knew myself, and could reveal to me truths I needed to put my life back together. Had I not been lost in a dark wood early last fall, I would not likely have read past the first canto in the Commedia. But because I was, Dante set the hook in the first lines. I would not trade anything for that experience.

But something else occurred to me late last night, when I received a letter from a Catholic professor to whom I had written for clarification on a matter of metaphysics. I told him that I was reading a book about Dante’s metaphysics, and that all of it made sense to me as an Orthodox Christian — but that I was more than a little puzzled by the fact that I spent 13 years as an adult Catholic, and an intellectually engaged Catholic, yet having no idea that this metaphysic was also held by the Catholic Church. The professor responded that traditional metaphysics collapsed in the West about 1350, and that it became difficult to impossible to talk about the truths known to Aquinas and Dante. All of that became hived off into a category called the “mystical.” But in the Orthodox Church, the tradition has been preserved; the explicit aim of the Christian life is theosis, or a direct and all-consuming communion with the living God — just as it is in the Commedia

Note well that the professor is not saying that the Catholic Church ceased to teach traditional metaphysics, but rather that the West ceased to be able to comprehend them. (This, by the way, is more or less Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart’s book The Experience Of God [2].) Notre Dame’s Christian Moevs, in his book The Metaphysics of Dante’s Comedy [3], writes:

Like Scripture, or Christ, the Comedy understands itself to be a finite form “transparent” to the reality it embodies, a reality that, in those who have eyes to see, can come to recognize and awaken to itself by reading this text.


Let’s be crystal clear: Moevs is not saying that Dante’s poem is on the same level as Christ, or Scripture, but that Dante intends it as a window through which one can see ultimate reality, and react to it. The Commedia, as I’ve said before, is an icon. These lines from Moevs’ book recall Brooks’s observation about how we use reason today only as something instrumental:

Dante himself aimed at a Truth in which all differences are reconciled. There is nothing more intellectually rigorous than Dante’s “mysticism”; there is nothing more “mystical” than his understanding of intellect.

Moevs goes on:

Is Dante’s understanding of reality, as I have sketched it, radical? If it seems so, it is perhaps a sign of how far we are from it. Yet it could be argued that (with brief exceptions) the intuition that Intellect, as Being-in-itself, is the ultimate ontological principle, upon which all else depends, is implicit in some fort on virtually the whole breadth of the Western spiritual and philosophical tradition, from Plato up to the Enlightenment (with many offshoots beyond); it is also implicit or explicit in most Indian and Asian philosophy. (That the contemporary Western world is an exception does not prove that we have understood what others have not; it could as well prove the contrary.)

There’s a great deal of complicated thought behind all this, and it’s not necessary to go into here. The point I want to make is simply that Orthodox Christianity re-oriented me toward an older metaphysics, one that was normative in Dante’s day, but that rapidly dwindled in the West. I can’t help wondering if being Orthodox, and learning to think as an Orthodox Christian, made me far more receptive to the radical nature of Dante’s poem than I would otherwise have been. The poem really and truly is an icon — a finite, created thing that can ultimately lead to a direct experience of God. As an Orthodox Christian, you learn to see the world as an icon, and this, as it turns out, was something that helped me receive Dante’s masterpiece in a way I would not have been able to before.

In his column Brooks, reflecting on the intellectual and spiritual romance of Berlin and Akhmatova, sounds wistful for the way things used to be.

I’m old enough to remember when many people committed themselves to this sort of life and dreamed of this sort of communion — the whole Great Books/Big Ideas thing. I am not sure how many people believe in or aspire to this sort of a life today. I’m not sure how many schools prepare students for this kind of love.

And suddenly, it became clear to me what I have to do with the Dante book I hope to write: use it to inspire readers to want this sort of life, and to grasp how reading Dante can open up doors of the spirit and the imagination they don’t even know are there. I think of many of us today, especially the young, as being like the dwarves in The Hobbit, standing at Lonely Mountain, looking for the secret door that would open the tunnel into the heart of the thing. They were waiting for a ray of sunlight to strike the place at just the right moment, on just the right day, to illuminate the hidden portal. My task, at least for Dante, is to find a way to catch that ray of sunlight, and turn it into a book so my readers can go through the same portal that I’ve gone through, and find a renewed life at the other side.

I cannot think of anything else I would rather be doing with my life right now. A love story, yes. Yes.

24 Comments (Open | Close)

24 Comments To "The Love That Moved Berlin And Akhmatova"

#1 Comment By Charles Featherstone On May 2, 2014 @ 1:00 pm

Amen. Amen!!

#2 Comment By William Dalton On May 2, 2014 @ 1:05 pm

“I’m old enough to remember when many people committed themselves to this sort of life and dreamed of this sort of communion — the whole Great Books/Big Ideas thing. I am not sure how many people believe in or aspire to this sort of a life today. I’m not sure how many schools prepare students for this kind of love.”

I believe the torch that David Brooks yearns to see is still being held high at St. John’s College, in Annapolis and Santa Fe.


#3 Comment By Liam On May 2, 2014 @ 1:23 pm

So what was going around in Western Europe in the mid-14th century? Hmmm. Well, there was of course the Black Death. But it hit Eastern Europe as well. I believe Western Europe was more hard-hit by the Great Famine of a generation earlier (the first major sign of the advent of the Little Ice Age), which had cascading effects in subsequent generations. There was the Babylonian Captivity of the papacy, too, and Eastern Christianity was most thriving at that point in the Balkans – just for one more generation, until the Turks firmly established themselves (the immediate surrounds of Constantinople being a vestigial thing for another century). Russia was still so beset by the Tatars that significant parts of the former Kievan Rus became part of Lithuania for the next 300 years (and we are still living with the conseqeuences of that, btw). The European states that “thrived” in the 14th century were mainly Hungary, Bohemia, Poland and Lithuania, though there was a messy set of successions almost everywhere. If you make a spreadsheet (as I have done) of dynastic lines, the mid-14th century is remarkable for the pervasive dislocation in succession of sovereign dynasties.

#4 Comment By Carlo On May 2, 2014 @ 1:23 pm

“The professor responded that traditional metaphysics collapsed in the West about 1350”

That’s an exaggeration. Arguably, classical Greek-Christian metaphysics reached one of its highest points with Rosmini in the mid 1800’s, and then again with some of the great French and Italian authors of the 20th century (Maritain, Gilson, Sciacca, Bontadini).

It would probably be fair to say that English-speaking world has been dominated by nominalism since the 1350’s, and during the last half-century has spread its nefarious influence to the rest of the planet…

#5 Comment By Alison On May 2, 2014 @ 3:38 pm

I am all in favor of the Great Books/Big Ideas thing (I am 43), but I do not know many close to me who share my love for this kind of thinking. (My best friends are Christian intellectuals, something that I find to be an increasing rarity–and the I reason I so enjoy reading your blog although I am politically liberal. I also am friends with secular intellectuals as well.) My reading life and interests are not something I share with many others, and I am averse to book clubs because I think they tend to become self-help and social clubs.

Reading great, intellectual books has always been something that those in the minority do, but I think fewer and fewer people these days are engaging with these sorts of works to their detriment.

Great literature can truly inspire in so many ways. One artist I greatly respect is Audrey Assad because she engages with great literature and theology, and this is reflected in her music. She is one of my favorite musicians, and I do not like typical “Christian” music, yet she is more of a sacred artist. If someone was not familiar with great literature, she might miss some of the beauty of Assad’s music (in fact, one of the songs in her latest release out in May is based on some of John Donne’s poetry). Anyway, my whole point with this comment is to say that I agree with everything you say here–and I really appreciated reading this.

#6 Comment By William On May 2, 2014 @ 3:43 pm

My high school taught what it called a “classical curriculum,” where, in addition to math/science classes, we learned Latin and discussed such books as the Inferno, Aeschylus, Plato’s Republic, The Brothers Karamazov, et al. Our discussions centered around trying to find the Truth and Beauty in things.

In college my class discussions (often, but not always) center around how to make everyone and everything equal and how to make sure not to offend anyone. I know that sounds like an exaggeration. It’s not.

#7 Comment By charles cosimano On May 2, 2014 @ 4:10 pm

It is not that the folks of the west were no longer able to comprehend classical metaphysics, it is that we are able to comprehend it well enough to see it as totally worthless except as an antiquarian interest. No one but a dictator of North Korea would take Plato seriously and if you want to see the Philospher King in action, look at North Korea because that is what he must turn into.

Aristotle fairs little better and thus all systems based on Aristotle must be equally discarded. In the end, people who have stood on the Moon have no use for people who piled rocks and the only thing we learn from th past is that those who came before us were wrong.

#8 Comment By charles cosimano On May 2, 2014 @ 4:11 pm

And that should read “fares little better.” Get us an edit function, pretty please with something French on it?

#9 Comment By Erin Manning On May 2, 2014 @ 4:32 pm

Great books? Yes. Dante? Yes. Metaphysics? Yes (and as someone raised and educated in the Catholic tradition I would have to say that my biggest issue in appreciating Dante properly was that by the time I read it in my sophomore year in high school none of the ideas were particularly new to me–this was Christendom, and what it thought).

Love at first sight? Um…

My mom “knew” the instant she saw my dad that she would marry him. We heard the story hundreds of times. With the result that it became pretty much impossible for me to meet any single male Catholics without that context in my mind. So that it actually took quite a few meetings before I thought I might agree to date the man who became my husband, let alone that I might marry him. 🙂

Which is just to point out that while the ideals of Beatrice and Dante are lovely, as are many similar stories in histories big and small, no one should lead their children to believe that they will instantly recognize their future spouse, because some children might and others won’t, and it has little to do with how many Great Ideas they’ve pondered or how deep their faith is or how much they’ve suffered, etc., and everything to do with God’s own timing and His own way for each couple, which is not always Love At First Sight.

I’m just saying.

[NFR: Oh, no, no, no. I would never counsel people to expect love at first sight. I didn’t even believe such a thing existed … until it happened to me. I’m talking here about that deep communion that reveals things otherwise unseen and inaccessible. — RD]

#10 Comment By Erin Manning On May 2, 2014 @ 5:10 pm

Sorry; it was my junior year in HS that I read Dante, not my sophomore year. I do remember being interested in the various political jabs Dante laces the work with, as I hadn’t known much about Italian politics before reading The Divine Comedy. Students today have that sort of thing much easier, though; I had to rely on the translator’s footnotes for most of the explanations of the political stuff.

Rod, it does occur to me that this might be one of those cradle/convert differences, though; I really wasn’t surprised at all by Dante’s theology or mysticism. It was an echo of similar thoughts in the writings of various saints and Church Fathers and even Catholic historians whose works I had read by late high school (Christopher Dawson in particular, whose earlier works were just starting to be reprinted when I was in high school).

Here’s a small sample of Dawson’s writing that Crisis magazine reprinted back in 2011 (you may have seen it then):


Now, I might not agree with everything Dawson wrote there. But I believe it was originally published in the 1930s, and as Dawson was an Englishman it’s impossible to read this and not recognize the thoughts of people like Chesterton and Tolkien as well.

One of the reason Big Ideas and Great Books are important is that they are so very interconnected, so very universal–so very catholic, so to speak.

#11 Comment By HeartRight On May 2, 2014 @ 5:21 pm

I’m bored with the intellectual emptiness of the contemporary Anglophone world. The last book from those parts, the last book that truly engaged me was Hofstader’s Godel Escher Bach.

Compare this with, say, the Italian zone: leaving the Dantes and the Ecos in the past – surely someone among the millions should be able to match Massimeno for historical novels?

‘ it is that we are able to comprehend it well enough to see it as totally worthless except as an antiquarian interest.’

I would buy that line If Only someone, somewhere, had the guts to shout out that Socrates had it coming, and that the Athenians were absolutely RIGHT in forcing him to commit suicide.

#12 Comment By Erin Manning On May 2, 2014 @ 5:37 pm

Not to spam this comment thread, Rod, but this particular bit of that Dawson essay seemed particularly connected to the conclusion of your post here:

“The ideal of the bourgeois culture is to maintain a respectable average standard. Its maxims are: “Honesty is the best policy,” “Do as you would be done by,” “The greatest happiness of the greatest number.” But the baroque spirit lives in and for the triumphant moment of creative ecstasy. It will have all or nothing. Its maxims are: “All for love and the world well lost,” “Nada, nada, nada, ” “What dost thou seek for, O my soul? All is thine, all is for thee, do not take less, nor rest with the crumbs that fall from the table of thy Father. Go forth, and exult in thy glory, hide thyself in it and rejoice, and thou shalt obtain all the desires of thy heart. ””

Could it be that what we have lost, and must regain, is joy?

#13 Comment By Ian Reid On May 2, 2014 @ 5:40 pm

A wonderful article. Thank you very much. I presume to offer one comment. You wrote, ” I can’t help wondering if being Orthodox, and learning to think as an Orthodox Christian, made me far more receptive to the radical nature of Dante’s poem than I would otherwise have been.” That seems nonsensible to me. you are the individual you are in part because of the path you have taken. The ‘otherwise have been’ entity is strictly a creature in your imagination and can be anything you can imagine him to be. [It’s called “head-tripping”]

One more thing while I’m here. You think of yourself as a “Christian individual” — and it’s true. You’ve been conditioned to think that way. You can get over that if you want to. I recommend it. Your humanity preceded your Christianity and you can get back to that — if you want to. [Try starting with this: “I’m an individual who became a practicing Christian.”]

#14 Comment By KD On May 2, 2014 @ 5:54 pm

Nominalism, Reductivism, and Utility:

All that exists are individuals. Explain the part and you explain the whole. You explain the part by dissecting it into its parts.

The good is subjective (it is good because the individual says so), and everyone should pursue and maximize their own good, and because the good is subjective, who am I to impose my sense of good on you?

We take these three ideas, and we can ask what kind of political and economic forms do they dictate (not that forms exist, of course). These ideas have political, economic and culture consequences, because these ideas say one kind of thing is important, and another is so unimportant it does not even really exist.

I believe this thought experiment gives us a sense of what needs to change politically and economically before we can better understand Dante.

(Cartesianism and Materialism: DesCartes exorcised the soul from the physical universe, and materialism just cut the cord.)

#15 Comment By HeartRight On May 2, 2014 @ 6:06 pm

[Manfredi, not Massimeno]

#16 Comment By J On May 2, 2014 @ 6:43 pm

It’s only surprising if you forgot, or never were aware, that religion arises from mystic lives and experiences in the first place. Organized religion is necessarily an imitation, a substitute, a popularization to those who by definition are spiritually relatively unsuccessful.

These days the compromise that organized religion represents between the mystical and non-mystical is fraying, obviously, and increasingly perceived as unsatisfactory. Not worth the upkeep.

This book you’re about to write is clearly a response to this condition, is a trying to negotiate a new compromise. A renewed fandom for classical religious mystics is certainly an attempt to get closer to the motivation, to the experiences, to their certainties. But the classical mystics are not terribly appreciative of the great bulk of their many imitators and fans, if you actually read them, who they felt to finally be frauds for the most part. Rilke gets to the bottom line in the famous final stanza of ‘The Archaic Torso of Apollo”- all these sorts of accomplishments of the past are quite sublime and glorious, significantly captured in art: but living (and suffering) the real thing itself is superior.

[NFR: Yes: “You must change your life.” In Christian Moevs’ book about Dante’s metaphysics, he says everything points toward an encounter with the living God, not just ideas about God (or Ultimate Reality, whatever). If it’s not about changing your life, it’s worthless. — RD]

#17 Comment By Kit Stolz On May 2, 2014 @ 8:31 pm

Feel I am present at the creation of your book on Dante and it’s a little bit unfair — I’m reading it without having to buy it. (But perhaps it’s part of your process.)

Thought this was a particularly enlightening post. It reminded me of a profile I wrote on a nearby Orthodox monastery. Mother Victoria explained her faith’s mysticism in similar terms, and her sisters spoke of the healing it offered. Helped me understand.

In case you might want another example in print(yes, for the curious, discussion of the Orthodox faith can be found in journalistic discourse):


#18 Comment By KSS On May 2, 2014 @ 8:57 pm

I went to a pretty good college where there were a decent number of people interested in the Classics. Problem was, that group of people who were interested in them was (with a handful of exceptions) an exceptionally nerdy group whose social skills pretty much collapsed when trying to discuss anything other than the Classics. I’m sure some of them will make lovely Classics professors, but there just aren’t many people who work “normal” jobs who are also interested in meaningful intellectual debate. The Classics have become a specialized field for high-minded philosophizing, not a component of a well-rounded life. It’s unfortunate, but I guess that makes the connections that much stronger when they do happen. (Quite a few of the people who do think this way seem to wander on to this blog.)

I’m trying to think of any books I’ve read recently that made Classics relevant and accessible. One with the obvious purpose was “All Things Shining” by Harvard philosophy professors Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Kelly. It’s probably a bit narrower than what you’re trying to write, Rod, and its perspective is a secular one, but at least it tried, and was reasonably successful. Another that was genuinely enlightening, even moving, for me was Rollo May’s “Love and Will,” which is a work of psychoanalysis that draws extensively from Greek insights. I suppose Joseph Campbell might also qualify, after a fashion–not classics, exactly, but certainly historical wisdom. The aforementioned Godel Escher Bach also would count, though my math-challenged brain struggled with it. Anyone else have good suggestions?

#19 Comment By Jason On May 2, 2014 @ 10:37 pm

To alluude to what Erin Manning wrote above, it seems that you are doing what the late Catholic British historian Christopher Dawson strongly advocated for restoring the West: reclaiming Christian culture in order to better understand and live out the drama of Christianity in this secular, utilitarian, post-modern world. Obviously your challenge is communicating this vision in a way that readers can relate to, at a time when references to myths and Greek and Roman historical figures do not effortlessly slide off people’s tongues the way they did during Dante’s age, when Americans ride around in their SUVs and see McDonalds and WalMart and Starbucks rather than frozen music while walking down the via-this or the rue-that in Europe. Still, I think there is a real appetite for what you propose, especially in the psyches of educated young people, for whom “success” and “making it” and developing a great financial portfolio so that they can live in some great McMansion with their 1.7 kids and get hitched to their thirty-something spouses in “merger”-marriages, may not have the saliency it once had.
Concerning Beatrice, it might be interesting to deal with the charge that I’m sure you’re familiar with, of Dante being the biggest beta in all of history in the way he put his beloved on a pedestal and idealized her to the nth degree. After all, Dante did actually have a wife when he wrote the Comedy, who he doesn’t appear to have had much concern or love for. (Admittedly, this is hardly surprising considering the way marriages were transactions between various factions in the brutal arena of Florentine politics, but still.) I wonder if Dante—through his making of Beatrice an icon of God’s divine love (and let’s be honest here: one does not have to be a Freudian to admit that there was a strong aspect of sublimated lust here on Dante’s part), had to sacrifice for his vision a more realistic, carnal, earthly type of love for women. Or maybe this charge is too harsh, too 21st century, and you can raise it in your book and then decisively smash it.

[NFR: Dante was married, to Gemma Donati. — RD]

#20 Comment By Josh McGee On May 3, 2014 @ 10:06 am

It is impossible to read too much Christopher Dawson.

#21 Comment By Renee On May 3, 2014 @ 9:57 pm

NFR: Yes: “You must change your life.”

Or as Ciardi wrote: “Love should intend realities.”

#22 Comment By Darth Thulhu On May 4, 2014 @ 12:25 am

People are deathly afraid of change they can’t control. An encounter with God is the definition of change that one can’t control, so it is unsurprising that religions evolved to orient around magnifying one’s personal grip on power drain all the marrow out of modern spirituality.

I’m also not sure there are actually “fewer” Deep Books oriented people. Even if the percentage is only a third of what it once was, the actual population is over tenfold larger. It can be a smaller force in the overall culture … while still being deeply integrated into the lives of far more people, overall.

#23 Comment By Peter Eng On May 4, 2014 @ 5:46 pm

I like what Mr. Brooks wrote, but there’s a slight disconnect between his memories and reality.

Reality is, people who read the Great Books are the people who have the time to read the Great Books and think about the Big Ideas.

He is one of those people. The majority of the world is made of people too concerned about surviving to reach for the heights.

If we want people to be able to see farther, we must find a way to remove the weight of earthly concerns from all, so that everybody can fly high enough to see the horizon.

#24 Comment By Pat Nichols On May 24, 2014 @ 2:23 pm

Man, did this posting elicit some interest! Evidence that more share the intellectual ideal Brooks attributes to Berlin and Akhmatova than he imagined.

There is, it seems to me, a delicious irony in the fact that a piece motivated by Isaiah Berlin leads Dehrer to endorse (per Moevs) Dante’s search for a “Truth in which all differences are reconciled.” Many believe that the central contribution of Berlin is his eloquent argument that no idea in history has proven more pernicious than the notion that all truth, particularly as to values, can be reconciled. This idea he finds intellectually unsustainable but, far worse, almost necessarily linked to the oppression of competing values and ideas.

I imagine he would react with lesser, but significant, discomfiture to the jumbling of subject and object in the claim that intellect can be treated as “being-in-itself.”

All of that said, he would equally dissent from Cusimano’s claim that “In the end, people who have stood on the Moon have no use for people who piled rocks and the only thing we learn from the past is that those who came before us were wrong.” He would, rather, relish the debate and applaud Dehrer’s ambition to understand the intellectual history behind the ideas he discusses.

Berlin would model for us the ability to step into the world view of the medieval metaphysicians and, by identifying with their zeitgeist, embrace their views from the inside out. Having done that he would step outside the ideas to identify, in prose too beautiful to belong to an academic philosopher, their historical and intellectual value and shortcomings.