The Little Man

Beatrice tells Virgil to go rescue Dante from the labyrinth of his own sin, by Gustave Dore.

I keep coming back to this passage I found (briefly and at random) inside The Golden Bough, which I have not read but mean to read—

As the savage commonly explains the processes of inanimate nature by supposing that they are produced by living beings working in or behind the phenomena, so he explains the phenomena of life itself. If an animal lives and moves, it can only be, he thinks, because there is a little animal inside which moves it: if a man lives and moves, it can only be because he has a little man or animal inside who moves him. The animal inside the animal, the man inside the man, is the soul.

Doesn’t this cut to the core of even the most refined, philosophical, and modern conceptions of the soul? We can’t explain how life exists, so there must be something invisible inside beneath it all, like the man working feverishly at his machinery behind the (easily removed) curtain in The Wizard of Oz, or the diminutive alien pushing the levers of his bipedal robot in Men In Black. This most primal, fundamental, and widespread idea, is as common to Frazer’s savage as it is to a Poet-of-Poets like Dante—

And, as the soul within your clay
diffuses itself through differing members
suited for different functions,

So the intelligence
spreads its goodness multiplied by the stars,
itself revolving on its unity.
Paradiso, II 133-138

This is in the midst of a spectacular scene, when Beatrice, representing divine revelation, explains that the heavenly spheres surrounding the Earth are pushed along by the muscles and minds of the angels, who themselves were created before Man and are far closer in their conception and realization to God.

Platonism and Gnosticism are at work here as well: being closer to God, the angels are far more perfect than men, who are kept at a distance beneath the spheres, as they walk upon the Earth and find themselves rather unfortunately composed of clay. But the instincts of the soul within all people are directed, like fire, toward heaven; Beatrice herself mentions earlier, when she humiliates Dante in front of a panoply of angels in the Garden of Eden, itself situated on the peak of the Mountain of Purgatory (that lies in the endless Austral Ocean in the undiscovered Southern Hemisphere), “Never did nature or art offer such delight / as the fair members in which I was once enclosed / and which are now in dust and scattered”, (Purgatorio XXXI 49-51) though her “beauty and virtue had increased” in her when she “had risen from flesh to spirit”. (Purgatorio XXX 127-129)

The little man inside us is therefore a more perfect realization of ourselves than our corrupt and mutable bodies, closer to God, through the hierarchy of heavenly spheres, but still more or less identifiable with the primum mobile, or first mover, which began the universe and all things.

These themes are echoed and re-echoed in innumerable forms by countless poets and philosophers, and the same question that led to this answer—how and why do things work the way they do?—is also the inspiration of modern science, which endeavors as much as possible to dance around the seemingly simplistic explanation that there is just a little man inside each of us (or a little tree inside a tree, a spirit inside a mountain) pulling the strings, or a tower of infinite tortoises supporting the Earth.

Science dances around this answer, but still wants to find it: how wonderful would it be if, through experiment, we could discover why things are, and how exactly the little man at the heart of the universe has written his tantalizing (to Stephen Hawking) quantum theory of gravity. Conversely, in Otomo’s Akira we learn (to great disappointment) that there’s nothing inside of us beyond a collection of dead organs, a fragmentation of what we wanted to be true, fearful as we all seem to be that there is actually no reason of any kind that we exist and that nobody would really care if we ceased to be.

There are so many layers surrounding this idea over the centuries, which is fascinating because in this historical composition they realize the idea in itself: that to find the truth, we must look inside at what is hidden, and peel away what is in between, like the proverbial skins of an onion.

And Frazer did just that.

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