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Of Serifs and Slippery Guides: When Virgil Vanishes and the Way Appears

The anguish of the people

Who are below here in my face depicts

That pity which for terror thou has taken.

— Virgil of Dante’s Inferno

The above words struck me when I first read them, years ago, but not in the way they were intended. Through a seeming coincidence of pronunciation, the literal letter-construct that’s called a serif sounds like seraph, or the seraphim that are guiding angels. While I grew up in a bible-thumping South, my interest in angels is no more than that of any other mythical creature, if not far less, considering the way in which such creatures were portrayed to me as a child. A serif is the name given to the finishing stroke at the tops and bottoms of certain letters and fonts, such as the outer tops of W. Such details help guide the reader’s eyes across the sentence, create clear distinctions between letters, decorate, confuse…like any guide might. The ‘guiding’ serifs are perfectly described in the quote above this paragraph and spoken by one of the most famous guides in literature, Virgil (Gollum/Sméagol might be second). ‘The anguish of the punished people who are below,’ makes me think of the serif-less body of the letter, the lost souls suffering and without any hope of a guide or ascension, confused and lost in a heap. Considering that the Virgil of Dante was nothing but letters, his words couldn’t be more true, since the title that precedes his name is, guide/serif/seraph. Words, words, words…

But Virgil had left us bereft of himself, Virgil sweetest father, Virgil to whom I gave myself for my salvation; nor did all that our ancient mother lost keep my dew-washed cheeks from turning dark again with tears.

— Dante

Perhaps you suddenly noticed the serifs of the words that followed the W in the previous paragraph. Eyes need guides, as surely as birds need wings to fly, but there’s something about the seamless transition from letter to letter, word to word, until pages lead to stories, that make our eyes slip across the text, maybe even take flight. So many characters and stories lack the slipperiness necessary to even think of flying, even with serifs. When Virgil disappears at the flaming divide between the Darkness and Earthly Paradise, Virgil has to go, for reasons beyond his own ‘paganism’. No Entry. Beatrice is at hand and Virgil would only be a distraction for the writer/lead who created the Divine Comedy for a place to worship the real life Beatrice he’d idolized ever since he first saw her, probably more so, since she died young, shortly thereafter. When the guide of Virgil, the serif, vanishes, the crowning telos of Beatrice fills the sudden void with another kind of presence. Beatrice is more of the body of the book that holds the words, the eternal vessel, the beginning and the end. Without the guide, there is no Beatrice, only a wandering Dante through the gloom of Purgatory. Consequently, with the guide present, there is no Beatrice, either. Everything comes at a cost, always.

(Final words: In defense of finding a good guide, in life and literature)

Charon, The Ferryman:

”By other haven shalt thou come to shore,

Not by this passage; thee a nimbler boat

Must carry.”

Then to him thus spake my guide, Virgil:

“Charon! thyself torment not: so ‘t is will’d,

Where will and power are one: ask thou no more.”

Hayden Moore

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