Dante’s Inferno, Canto III.59-60, tells of “those ill spirits both to God displeasing and to His foes.” The internal torment of not feeling decisive tears even the best of us apart, but it is hard to conceive the paralysis of those neutral in a battle between no less than heaven and hell. Dante, for his part, describes their torture thus:
These wretches, who ne’er lived,
Went on in nakedness, and sorely stung
By wasps and hornets, which bedew’d their cheeks
With blood, that, mix’d with tears, dropp’d to their feet,
And by disgustful worms was gather’d there. (III.60-64)
Nearly all of this seems cartoonish. Humiliated, they are always stung, left to bleed and cry and make a disgusting mess wherever they go. However, Dante possesses full command of his art. He can certainly depict quiet regrets concerning lost friends and lovers or the pain of exile from a home for which one fought. Neutrality ultimately centers on self-doubt — “did I truly make a decision?”, “should I have made a decision?”, “can I decide anything?” — which is best conveyed by his statement that these wretches “never lived.” The worry that we’ve lost something essential to life, to living, drives the pain of constant self-questioning.
Dante does recognize one of the shades. I saw / And knew the shade of him, who to base fear / Yielding, abjured his high estate (III.55-57). Tradition holds this to be Celestine V, a Pope who abdicated the papal throne. I move we do not immediately accept “base fear” as an adequate descriptor of someone who willingly rejected being the vicar of Christ on Earth. As I’ve tried to show above, being “neutral” is all too relatable, and those of us who’ve made decisions which have brought forth bad fruit or no result at all wonder if it was better not to decide in the first place. For now, let’s move on to Cavafy’s poem, which focuses on what it means to make such a great decision without the distorting rhetoric of a pagan manliness underlying Christian leadership. The title of the poem is a direct reference to the shade Dante sees:
Che Fece… Il Gran Refiuto (from Poetry) C.P. Cavafy (tr. Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard) For some people the day comes when they have to declare the great Yes or the great No. It’s clear at once who has the Yes ready within him; and saying it, he goes from honor to honor, strong in his conviction. He who refuses does not repent. Asked again, he’d still say no. Yet that no—the right no— drags him down all his life.
For some people the day comes when they have to declare the great Yes or the great No — “for some people” stands awkward. “Great Yes” and “great No” parade not only majesty but universality. Their declaration carries eternal weight; they can permanently decide who one is; how could they possibly be the province of a few? I suspect their declaration does not only belong to saints, philosophers, or kings, but to all of us. The overarching question is why for some what is most sacred stays hidden, as if true belief, knowledge, or revelation cannot be shared, and for others it becomes public.
Regarding publicity, Cavafy makes a very strong claim: It’s clear at once who has the Yes ready within him; and saying it, he goes from honor to honor, strong in his conviction. “The Yes ready within him” is yes to what, exactly? If I say that there are people who try their best to blindly follow what society says or inspires, and that such people are always rewarded, I’m lying. Conventionality often makes human sacrifices of those most dedicated to it. Then again, Cavafy does not say what finally happens to someone who pronounces “the great Yes.” Maybe he eventually does find ill repute and dies miserably. What is clear is that for some, “the great Yes” must be praiseworthy.
“The great No” is unusual. He who refuses does not repent. Asked again, he’d still say no. Yet that no—the right no— drags him down all his life. “He who refuses does not repent” harshly judges — it implies a “not so great Yes or No” where someone eventually decides to lead a wholly conventional life, but with a few doubts. “The great Yes” isn’t truly a conviction, but “the great No,” while difficult to isolate, is the only conviction. It does not admit of repentance; it defines one’s whole life, with willingness given grudgingly at times. Yet something about it is essentially right.
Cavafy has brought us to a very strange place, where deeply held, life-defining belief grounds itself upon nothing except a refusal. “No to all of this,” so to speak. This seems to be some kind of profound nihilism, easily contrasted with the soft nihilism of “the great Yes” and its not so great incarnations. Does it justify neutrality? Only inasmuch neutrality is a deliberate attempt to overthrow the question posed by the world. It lends itself to intense, privately held belief coexisting with a fierce skepticism. One contains heaven and hell within oneself. On that note, it might be thought that the papacy would have to be rejected precisely because of the privacy of one’s conscience. Not that one would reject the papal throne because he didn’t believe, but because belief itself is the fundamental fact of his existence.
Dante, “The divine comedy of Dante Alighieri: Hell, Purgatory, Paradise,” tr. Henry F. Cary from The Harvard Classics, ed. Charles W. Eliot. Vol. 20. New York: P.F. Collier & Son, 1909–14. Accessed via http://www.bartleby.com/20/103