Mirror of Justice

A blog dedicated to the development of Catholic legal theory.
Affiliated with the Program on Church, State & Society at Notre Dame Law School.

Saturday, December 31, 2005

Paradise Found, Limbo Lost

New York Times
January 1, 2006

Op-Ed Columnist
Paradise Found, Limbo Lost

New Haven

I feel both personal and literary regrets that, if Pope Benedict XVI gets his way, in perhaps a year or so Limbo will be in limbo (as it were). The issue spurs a reminiscence. Walking down Broadway on a chilly Upper West Side morning in 1972, I bumped into my good acquaintance, the novelist Anthony Burgess, and at his request I resigned to him the bottle of Fundador I had just purchased at a nearby liquor store. Standing in a tattered robe and blinking in the sun, after a night devoted to composition, Burgess required immediate medication.

Besides, he had introduced me to this invigorating Spanish brandy only a few weeks before, so I urged him to retain the bottle after he had absorbed two prodigious swigs outdoors. As I wended back to the liquor shop, he called out after me: "The debt shall be paid, Bloom! When you arrive in Limbo, I will await you there with a bottle of Fundador."

A lapsed Roman Catholic (like his idol, James Joyce), Burgess was being unduly optimistic about our reunion on the Other Shore, since neither of us qualified for Limbo, a state that the church, largely at the prodding of Thomas Aquinas, designated for unbaptized babies and the Hebrew patriarchs who preceded Jesus.

Dante, of course, in Canto IV of "The Inferno," went beyond Aquinas, and thronged Limbo with the philosophers and poets of the ancient world; primarily his beloved guide, Virgil, but also Homer, Horace, Ovid and others, and even literary characters like Hector and Aeneas. Rather surprisingly, Dante also admitted three Muslims: the warrior Saladin and the philosophers Avicenna and Averroes.

Limbo has a rich literary history, in honor of which I hope the pope and his International Theological Commission will refrain from exiling this amiably ambiguous realm. Hell, Purgatory and Heaven may seem rather strictly demarcated and limited destinations, without Limbo as an interesting outrider. In the Italian Renaissance poet Luduvico Ariosto's "Orlando Furioso," the knight Astolfo visits the moon's Limbo and discovers there all of earth's wastages: talents locked up in named vases, bribes hanging on gold hooks, and much besides.

In "Henry VIII," Shakespeare uses the "Limbo of the Fathers" as a synonym for prison, while John Milton in "Paradise Lost" gives us the Paradise of Fools as a "limbo large and broad," where winds blow about Roman Catholic cowls, hoods, habits, relics, beads, indulgences, pardons and Papal Bulls.

The 18th-century satirical poet Alexander Pope expands on Ariosto and Milton in "The Rape of the Lock," where the lunar Limbo contains "the smiles of harlots and the tears of heirs." Much more somber is the "Limbo" of the Romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, most famous for "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" and "Kubla Khan." Coleridge's Limbo is not on the moon, nor on Hell's borders, but on the phantasmagoric line between what is and what is not, the waking nightmares of an opium addict: "The sole true Something - This! In Limbo's Den/It frightens Ghosts, as here Ghosts frighten men."

The Vatican's motives for changing its theology doubtless are benign: worried African and Asian converts whose babies die before baptism will be reassured that Paradise, not Limbo, awaits the lost infants. And in any case, non-Catholics like myself need not mix in matters relevant only to the faithful. Still, a few days ago I received an anonymous phone call from a woman who assured me that my most recent book certainly would send me to Hell. I would prefer Limbo, if only to share Fundador again with Anthony Burgess.

Harold Bloom is the author, most recently, of "Jesus and Yahweh: The Names Divine."


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