Sunday, March 15, 2015

The Divine Comedy by Dante

In order to find his way, a poet interviews the departed in three realms of the afterlife

Thirty-five years old, the poet Dante is lost in a dark wood. From its midst, he spies sunshine atop a mountain, but when he attempts to climb he is stopped first by a lion, then by a leopard, then by a wolf. In despair, he sits down but is soon joined by a ghostly stranger who tells Dante that he’s here to help. A lady sent him. The stranger turns out to be the great Roman poet Virgil, Dante’s hero. Ok, Dante says, now we can deal with this wolf over here, but Virgil tells him no man can handle the wolf, but that he, Virgil, will be his teacher and guide on a journey through some “eternal places.” Though Virgil explains he can only take him part way. The pair enter Hell through a gate (ABANDON HOPE ALL YE WHO ENTER) and then meet and interview many damned unrepentant souls. Coincidentally many of the dead hail from Dante’s corrupt violent hometown of Florence. Crude humor (a military squad of farting devils) and horrible punishments (people frozen twisted in ice for an eternity) abound. In the frigid dark center of the earth, three-headed Satan munches on three traitors. Virgil and Dante begin climbing down Satan’s hairy ass, then at Virgil’s instruction, start climbing up Satan’s hairy ass. They have reached the center of the world and gravity has shifted. Eventually they surface on the island mountain of Purgatory. Here the sinners are repentant, chanting hymns and beatitudes while lugging huge rocks (Pride), running round in circles (Sloth) and enduring their eyes sewn shut (Envy). At the top of the mountain is the garden of Eden, where Dante spies his deceased lady love Beatrice, but when he turns to tell Virgil of his utter happiness, Virgil has vanished. Stern Beatrice takes over as guide. By staring into the sun, she and Dante ascend into the heavens, stopping at each planet so Dante can hear more stories, this time from the blessed. In heaven, souls lack earthly form but are depicted as points of light arranging themselves into pictures and words. (Maybe sort of like a heavenly Ice Capades.) At the topmost layer, Dante sees three spinning circles of light, the light eternal, the love that moves the sun and other stars, and understands how he needs to stick to the straight road going forward.

I really enjoyed this. When I read the Comedy as a teenager I found it theoretical and boring. (Perhaps because of the translation?)  The book works on many levels, including as a Jules Verne-like travelogue, a philosophical treatise on how to live your life, score settling with old enemies, a beautiful tribute to a lost love, and is full of energetic metaphors about human nature. The characters are individualized and full of life (especially in Hell). Also the poetry is great. I read the translation by Mark Musa, but also dipped into the Italian, which seems supremely simple and direct, with effective use of repetition.

It was hard for me to believe this was written seven hundred years ago. Human nature must not have appreciably changed in the interim. The dramatic tension in each canto felt modern, although, as might be imagined, Heaven is a significantly duller place than Hell. Purgatorio, where the most realistic humans seem to be, works as moral education. The reader recognizes Virgil as the loyal father figure and teacher. Beatrice is the harsher educator, but Dante’s love for her helps him recognize his love of God. And when she smiles – well – her smile is the competition, or the complement, to Virgil’s reason. The motive in Hell are hate, the motive in Heaven is love. The footnotes, however, were essential in order to figure out Dante’s strong emotions about the separation of church and state, the importance of a strong central government, his fellow quarrelling Tuscans, and his arch enemy, Pope Boniface VIII. Although part of me would really like to have gotten the Signora Alighieri version. What was she up to when Dante rocketed from planet to planet, if not in a lip lock, but definitely an eye lock with the fair Beatrice? Probably something very terrestrial.

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