Literature: October 2007 Archives

Bewteen Truth and . . .


from Puragatorio
Dante, tr. John Ciardi

[Virgil speaking to Dante]

But save all questions of such consequence
till you meet her who will become your lamp
between the Truth and mere intelligence.

How many aspire to the Truth by means of human reason alone. And I don't refer to the scholastics or their followers but the benighted Dawkinses and Hitchenses of the world who claiming liberation from the hoary old ties that bind, bind us in new and more severe chains, because within these we could easily be cast into the Hell of our own making. Human intelligence is faulty and frankly, in my experience, often not much interested in the Truth so much as in making a display of itself for others to admire.

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At Home (or in Vegas) with Dante


from Purgatorio
Dante, tr. John Ciardi

The loser, when a game of dice is done,
remains behind reviewing every roll
sadly, and sadly wiser, and alone.

The crowd leaves with the winner: one behind
tugs at him, one ahead, one at his side--
all calling their long loyalty to his mind.

Not stopping, he hands out a coin or two
and those he has rewarded let him be.
So he fights off the crowd and pushes through.

Such was I then, turning my face now here,
now there, among that rout and promising
on every hand, till I at last fought clear. . . .

When I had won my way free of that press
of shades whose one prayer was that others pray
and so advance them toward their blessedness. . .

What Dante is promising is to remember those who approach him to those who love them back home and to remind all to pray for the poor souls in purgatory whose progress toward heaven is sped by the prayers of those in a state of grace. As we approach the days in which we recall the Saints and all the dead, Purgatorio is perfect reading--a reminder always to bear in mind those who suffer now for eventual glory. And a reminder to us to cut our suffering hereafter short by living a life that has as its goal an ever nearer approach to God in the life of this world.

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The pre-Blessed Spirits


One of the truly wonderful things about Purgatorio is that Dante over and over again affirms that these souls who arrive on the shore of the island of Purgatory are already blessed. They arrive and proceed through at their own pace, a pace determined by their lives on Earth.

Among those moving very slowly on the shores of the island we meet Manfred:

from Purgatorio
Dante, tr. John Ciardi

My flesh had been twice hacked, and each wound mortal
when, tearfully, I yielded up my soul
to HIm whose pardon gladly waits for all.

Horrible were my sins, but infinite
is the abiding Goodness which hold out
its open arms to all who tun to It. . . .

No man may be so cursed by priest or pope
but what the Eternal Love may still return
while any thread of green lives on in hope.

Those who die contumacious, it is true,
though they repent their feud with Holy Church,
must wait outside here on the bank, as we do,

for thirty times as long as they refused
to be obedient, though by good prayers
in their behalf, that time may be reduced.

I quote this passage for several reasons. One is to give a sense of Dante's vision. Ciardi notes that there seems to be no real significance to 30 as opposed to say 50 or 100. In fact, except that it probably doesn't work in Italian 33 might be more apropos.

Another reason is that reading this one gets the sense of a need for real notes. What's this about twice hacked, what actually went on. In a section I didn't quote there is a mention of him being transported with "tapers quenched" after his death. Good notes are essential to any real understanding of these works. Either that or a fairly thorough understanding of the history of all the kingdom that made up Italy at the time of Dante--an expertise almost none of us command.

Finally I quoted it because it contains a line that I have borne in memory since the eighth or ninth grade when we were called upon to read Robert Penn Warren's All the King's Men. There is either in an epigraph or in a chapter proper, a quotation which, in the book, is a reference to the office set-up of Willie Stark, but which is reflected clearly here

Mentre che la speranza ha fior del verde

which is translated in that book As long as hope still has its bit of green. Here is is translated "while any thread of green lives on in hope."

For whatever reason, that line has stuck with me, and I scoured Dante several times looking for it. And this morning, it just popped out at me as I was reading. God's sheer grace and goodness and perhaps a message for meant for this day.

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Dante's Inferno and Purgatorio


You don't need me to tell you that these are good books to read. Nevertheless, I'm telling you anyway, because if I don't do it, who is there who will.

Inferno read for fun and sheer imagination and for a chilly frisson, particularly in the vast plain of Cocytus. Interestingly, the very last canticle is the only one in which Satan is featured at all and he is mentioned only briefly, and chiefly to talk about the fate of three famous sinners Cassius, Brutus, and Judas. And then he's used as a ladder to climb through the pit of Hell and up to Purgatory.

Purgatory is interesting for a variety of reasons. The first thing you learn about Purgatory is that people do take some time to get there--they loiter about until the weak will they established on Earth finally manifests itself in a tug toward purgatory. Secondly, there is much suffering in purgatory, but contra Hell, no torment because there is never any doubt about where you will end up.

But the most interesting thing about Purgatory is the person who greets Virgil and Dante as they arrive. Cato, a suicide during the period of chaos involving Pompey and Caesar, is the first guide to purgatory. It is interesting that we have both a pagan and a suicide (who one would think would be in the sixth circle wood of suicides). In fact, Ciardi notes this with a seeming question as to why Cato escapes this fate, while one equally worthy does not. And the end of that matter is that Cato's suicide was not a matter of despair, escape, or hopelessness, but, in a certain sense a blow for freedom and for sensibility. The person whose story is recounted in Inferno commits suicide to escape further torture at the hands of the gentle ministers of Frederick II. Cato, on the other hand, is viewed somewhat like the Buddhist monks who set themselves on fire to protest the war. His action is a positive statement somehow.

Dante is nothing if not partisan, and his partisanship and personal involvement is one of the great delights of the poem. Purgatory, while not as ghastly as Hell, has its share of interesting poetically apropos disciplines. And the ascent of the Mountain in the southern seas, quite opposite the site of Jerusalem in the Northern hemisphere is a journey worth learning about.

Don't think of it as a classic, think of it as an adventure!

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What Can We Learn from Dante?


Reading The Inferno gives one pause at moments. Frequently in fact. It isn't so much the punishments described in Hell as it is a number of factors that stem from that. For example, did Jesus not teach us, "Judge not, lest ye be judged." And yet Dante, with impunity, assigns any number of people to any circle of Hell he chooses. Now, were these living people (at the time of his writing) one could say that this were a cautionary tale; however most of them are dead as of the writing of the work. What then do we adjudge from this seeming infraction of a commandment of love?

Next, we get from the Inferno a God of infernal intellect, delicating designing and manipulating Hell as to be of the most exquisite pain to the sinners assigned there. The lavish and ornate punishments that make up the bulk of hellish existence beggar the imagination. What then was Dante about?

Finally, we have an image of a God of such remarkable sternness, indeed of such profound violence that one is at a loss to figure out what Dante wanted us to understand of God from this.

The last question first. I don't know what Dante wanted us to understand of God, but what one can see of God in this is that the image of God fluctuates in time with the society in which He is seen. In Dante's time a clearly stern judge, devoid of compassion for circumstances, hewing carefully to the letter and not the spirit. In the time of "the enlightenment" a God of watchmakers and mechanists, having set the stars in their courses and the planets in their respective paths, he sits back to observe all and watch it slowly unwind. Today's God, the "Good Buddy Jesus." Everything goes, God is all inclusive, completely open to whatever perversion of justice, thought, or principle we need to feel good about ourselves. The point: none of these are accurate pictures of God. Each shows some feature of God distorted through the lens of the time. Dante's God, is God the Redeemer, picking carefully among the flotsam and jetsam of humanity to select the few, the proud, the elect to ascend into heaven and occupy ornate circles of praise at appropriate distances from divinity. The God of the enlightenment, is God the creator, and only that, an uninterested tinkerer who plays with galaxies and universes and lets them spin away to their natural destruction, never giving another thought to them except perhaps how lovely they are and how nicely they reflect His glory. The God of our times is the Sanctifier, making everything holy and everything whole, compassionate to the point of idiocy, embracing all ideologies and all human choices. Murder? Why not, so long as you don't do it to excess and you have what you think is a good reason for it. Adultery? Well, after all, how can we expect one person to fulfill the needs of an aimless humanity seeking to fill a God-sized hole?

Not one of these images tells us anything useful about God. Dante's comes closest because it is the least distorted--at least His justice is meted out with something approximating the justice devised by the human mind--it is rational and considered and ordered, like everything else about Him. Still, it isn't the complete picture of God. However, looking at Dante's image of God should help counterbalance the lunacy of some of the images suggested by people int he modern world.

On the first question--how Dante assigns to Hell with impunity--we get at the core of the question of Allegory. Dante and Virgil couldn't very well walk through an empty inferno. Nor would it perfectly suit the purpose to invent people to populate the place--it would require enormous work and lengthen the tale to the point of losing the train of thought. Instead Dante says something like--if the tendencies shown in this life went unrepented to the grave, this person, whom you all know, would be exemplary of this class of sins, which is punished in just such a way. This would also help us to better understand the mythological figures who intrude from time to time. While a great many philosophers and poets are in the limbo of the righteous pagan, we meet an awful lot of the classical crew on our journey through Hell. Are we to think that Dante thought that Jason really existed, much less Zeus or Hera or Aphrodite--offenses against whom are being punished in this very Hell? Or rather, he took the figures of well known stories and said, you know what these guys did, well, this is where they would be under the circumstances. The judgment is allegorical. Dante may have believed or even in some cases hoped for his vision of assignments, but their purpose is instructive, to latch on to a universal that can propel the reader through the poem.

And the second point was more or less addressed implicitly in the discussion of the third. Above all else, Dante's vision of God is that of the Person who wrests order from chaos, who delicately balances the tendency toward destruction with the tendency toward elevation. He has ordered the cosmos, down to and including the elaborate, ornate, and poetically apt structure of Hell itself--giving rise to the whole term poetic justice.

There is much more to be learned from Dante, much more. But these were questions that have surfaced for me nearly every time Ihave read The Inferno and I thought I'd take a stab at answering them for those who follow asking similar questions.

And follow you all should--a good version of Dante, with acceptable notes and good typesetting takes very little time to read. I prefer Ciardi's translation because the notes proved most helpful to me. Additionally the set-up in terza rima breaks gives some sense of rhythm to the eye. Others have faulted him for being too free in his translation. Truth is, a translation is a translation, and poetry can only come so close any way because there is always much lost in the course of translation. So you pick the version you will read best and then read it. But by all means, please go to the effort to acquaint, or reacquaint yourself with at least the first division of this great work. By all means, read all three. But at a minimum The Inferno.

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From the Wood of Suicides


I am certainly glad that understanding of the human condition has improved through time and the scene in the Wood of Suicides that results in the mark below would be viewed with greater compassion today. Nevertheless, it is interesting what Dante has the suicide say, and it is interesting how far this applies to all the ways we can choose to sin--for any sin of the flesh is, in some way, throwing away a great gift.

from The Inferno
Dante (tr. John Ciardi)

Like the rest, we shall go for our husks on Judgment Day,
but not that we may wear them, for it is not just
that a man be given what he throws away.

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What Makes "Great Books" Great


For one thing, continued relevance through time. I can't imagine the novels of Philip Roth, or even Saul Bellow surviving much beyond our present age, though I've been wrong in a great many things and perhaps do not have the breadth of vision required to see them lasting. (I think of John Gould Cozzens, and other such writers so lauded during their own times--but then Bellow already has his academic cultus who may see to his literary survival.)

But on great books, to wit:

from The Inferno
Dante (tr. John Ciardi)

As one who unwills what he wills, will stay
strong purposes with feeble second thoughts
until he spells all his first zeal away--

so I hung back and balked on that dim coast
till thinking had worn out my enterprise,
so stout at starting and so early lost.

A moment, a lingering second in the second canto of The Divine Comedy, but a telling one. I know I can sympathize with one who starts out with vigorous purpose and think himself into absolute stasis if not retrograde motion. And he captures it perfectly. I often pelt myself with all that could go wrong, with all that is imperfect in my suggested enterprise, with all that is folly about it, and with the limited expectations I have put together for it.

Sheer foolishness--but human foolishness, and a foolishness with which the reader can readily empathize.

Of course, it isn't universality of situation that keeps a book in the canon of great books--also required are depth of insight, range of vision, and to some extent ultimate intent.

However you may judge is, Dante's Divine Comedy has these things and many, many more. If for some reason you have missed the opportunity to read it, take the time now--get a good edition with good notes to help you through the more difficult references--you'll be glad you did so. Perhaps then, you can say with Virgil:

"so welcome is your command that to my sense,
were it already fulfilled, it would yet seem tardy."

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About this Archive

This page is a archive of entries in the Literature category from October 2007.

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