Tag Archives: Dante

Five reasons to read Dante’s Divine Comedy in 2012

  1. It’s the closest you will ever get to being able to quite literally read a cathedral. Medieval cathedrals are gigantic assemblages of Christian theology, philosophy and apologetics in stone. Each surface, angle and cornice is drenched in sign and symbol, from the number of sides to the baptismal font to the number of windows in the nave. Everything works in threes and fours and aligns with the grand intersection of the Cross.
  2. It’s only way short of a Vulcan mind-meld you’ll be able to experience the point of view of one of the greatest of the high medieval intellectuals. Dante’s thought ranges from the apparently profound to the (from a modern perspective) shockingly bigoted and back again via arrogance, piety, humility, horror and every shading in between. And all of it in the most complicated rhyming scheme known to epic poetry. Or most other kinds, come to think of it.
  3. It’s one of the greatest works of speculative fiction known to man. Forget Cyrano de Bergerac or Jules Verne or any of the other pretenders to be the founding father of SF – Dante spun his web of invention on a rock solid (for 14th century Italy) foundation of natural philosophy, optics, astronomy and classical thought. Then took it literally beyond the boundaries of the Heavens.
  4. It’s a work that challenges our ideas of Christianity and makes us look beyond our regular feeble stereotypes of bigoted American baptists and milksop British Anglicans. What we find is full-blooded, ferocious and undeniably at the centre of whatever it is that we call a culture. And I speak as thoroughly heathen individual.
  5. It’s one of the most lovely books ever written. Dante claimed that words failed him as he tried to describe the impact of the most profound experiences death had to offer. Then he went ahead and wrote them down anyway.

You can read – or listen to – the whole thing here in a a quite wonderful translation by the Hollanders. Go on – take a walk on the really wild side for a change. Better than Twilight or your money back.

Virgil, Dante’s “Sweetest Father”

I finally finished Dante’s Purgatory, the second canticle of the Divine Comedy. I suspect many of us get rather stuck with the Inferno and I certainly don’t know of any video games based on Purgatory or Paradise but, much to my surprise, I found the mountain of Purgatory a much more compelling journey than the long descent through Hades.

Initially, its a tougher read. We are in the heart of the medieval Christian mindset here and at some level, one needs to suspend disbelief, as it were, and surrender to the idea that man can only be saved through grace. But Dante’s vision is also an optimistic one – the sins of Purgatory are all sins of love misdirected and demonstrate man’s natural potential to be good. Further, the sinners are there, gladly, to be purged, to be made ready for Paradise. Quite literally, the souls of Purgatory needed only to ask (or ‘knock’, as the Biblical exegetics amongst you might note).

But Dante also realises the relationship between Virgil and the Dante of the poem in a wonderfully subtle way. Virgil, his mentor as a poet and as a man “lost in [the] dark wood” of his middle years struggling towards some kind of maturity, is ever at his elbow – encouraging, cajoling, instructing. For Dante, he becomes the ideal father figure for a man in the doldrums of middle age and as the poet travels through Hell and Purgatory faced with spirits, devils, centaurs, angels, and much else, he grows to depend on Virgil’s firm-minded kindliness and good counsel utterly.

As such, the point in Canto 30 when Virgil silently departs, his mission done, is the most quietly devastatingly moment I’ve encountered in Dante’s poem to date. They have reached the River Lethe, on the borders of Earthly Paradise. After various marvels are revealed to them, Dante realises that, waiting across the stream, is none other than Beatrice, his long lost love, the motivating force for the whole of the journey and the promise – and the threat – of his regeneration. Stricken with awe and a kind of rapturous terror

I turned left – as a little child will do
wide-eyed and running over to its mama
when he’s afraid of something or he’s hurt
To say to Virgil, “Not a drop of blood
runs in my veins that isn’t trembling now
I know the traces of the ancient flame
But Virgil had deprived us of his light
Virgil, the sweetest father, Virgil, he
in whom I trusted that I might be healed*

Virgil has returned to Limbo, the outermost circle of the Inferno, doomed to dwell with the ‘good pagans’ even beyond the resurrection. The author Dante’s treatment of Virgil in the Comedy remains puzzling when the suicide Cato and the later poet Roman Statius are saved. Dante gives Virgil primacy above all other poets and draws on the Aenid again and again. Still, Dante expresses the loss of Virgil as one might feel the loss of a parent and reading these lines again, I think of the loss of my own father. Though the loss in my case is a selfish one, full of might-have- and should-have-beens. But still, there were moments. And there is always that moment on the banks of the Lethe that awaits all of us, Virgil or Dante.

Perhaps that’s why Dante’s Virgil had to leave, was unable to travel further with the man who’d become as a son to him. The hardest thing for a father is to realise that one day his children will have to travel on without him. And that’s a law as immutable as the divine judgement of the God of the Comedy.

The War Against Myth By The East And The West

In Italo Calvino’s essay ‘Jorge Luis Borges’ he describes how in Borges’ poem about ‘Ariosto and the Arabs’, the ousting of the legends of the Medieval West by the legends of the Orient were a kind of revenge for the Crusades of Europe against the Saracens.

There is thus a war between the fantasy worlds of the East and the West which prolongs the historic war between Charlemagne and the Saracens and it is in the later war that the Orient gains its revenge.

Calvino (who died in 1985) was probably writing in the 70s but his aside hits a nerve in a world where yet again the myths of the Crusade have regained currency to the point of cliche in the West whilst equally pernicious myths of blood and martyrdom apparently hold sway in the East. Admittedly, this ignores the fundamentally fictional idea that there are such oppositions as the East and the West, the Occident and the Orient, in the first place.

Calvino also identifies Borges’ idea of literature, or words, as always being the sum total of their possible meanings and cites the ambiguity Borges highlights in Dante’s story of Ugolino where the doomed count, locked in a tower with his sons, either does or does not succumb to the sin of cannibalism. The choice of the meanings in Dante’s text is the reader’s and one of those choices is the decision to not make a choice, to embrace the ambiguity of the text.

It follows that the state of war between the myths of the ‘East’ and ‘West’ (and God knows there are enough idiots happy to assign themselves to either ‘side’ with equal enthusiasm) is in fact no such thing. At a mythical level, the Crusaders of the West and their opposite numbers are at war with their own people and the richness of their cultural inheritance.

There’s a job we have as writers to put the full ambiguity and complexity of these stories (which are no more than the words that make them up, Borges asserts) in front of readers. Readers apply them or do not apply them to their lives. As writers, we have to not so much out-write the Bible, the Koran or the Ramayama as to write from within the traditions and legends and tellings of the treasure houses of story they represent. And I don’t mean clumsy assaults like the Pullman book but to write with an acceptance that these are the mountain ranges and rivers and oceans that delineate our cultural environment and that we need to be attentive. Being an attentive reader is its own reward. Being an attentive writer – not just to our own stories but to the big stories of which they are tributaries – is a civic and human duty in times of war, where the great stories of our shared and overlapping cultures are at risk. Our war as writers, of course, should be against stupidity, ignorance, unquestioning and fanatical acceptance of a nonsensical ‘fate’ and against war itself.

*In Why Read The Classics by Italo Calvino, 1991 (posthumous)

**I use the term advisedly, if clumsily; is it a coincidence that the universal misjustice across the world is misogyny?

Dante, Ugolino and a father’s terrible, terrible loss

Attentive readers will know that I recently began to tackle Dante in easy stages. The idea of Dante had been taunting me for a while and I finally I bought Ciaran Carson’s translation of the Inferno at the London Review Bookshop. The translation had had some good reviews and the conceit of leaning on the tough rhythms of the English of Northern Ireland for what turned out to be a dynamic, compelling rendition appealed. It isn’t perfect and some sections struggle to achieve the (presumed) flow of the original but the pathos, horror and humour of the poem are irresistable.

At the same time, I found my own Virgil in the unexpected form of Jorge Luis Borges’s circular expositions of his lifelong love affair with the Divine Comedy in Seven Nights (which I blogged about earlier in the week). Borges advises us to forget critics, history and linguistics and succumb to the aesthetics and passion of the verse, to enter the Comedy as an emotional experience, Carson’s translation undoubtedly delivers that.

But it isn’t the only one. I’ve started working through Longfellow’s version (which I’m carrying around on my iPhone) and awaiting the conclusion of that effort is a dual language text, the fruits of the massive Princeton Dante Project. The complete text of this translation, by the scholar Robert Hollander and his wife, the poet Jean Hollander, is available on line along with audio readings of the Italian. Borges learned to read the Italian of the original – not to speak Renaissance Italian but to read the Italian of Dante – and I plan, with the aid of all this, to try a little of the same.

But to the poem! The first lines are hypnotic enough:

Midway in the journey of our life
I came to myself in a dark wood,

Or in Longfellow’s edition:

Midway upon the journey of our life
I found myself within a forest dark,
For the straightforward pathway had been lost.

For someone caught in the thorns and thickets of middle age like myself, it’s an irresistible image and the journey unfolds at breakneck pace from that point onwards.

There are too many marvels and terrors to describe (and a great deal of Florentine politics that Borges wisely advises us to ignore in the first instance) but this is a parenting blog and two of the denizens of the Second Division of the Ninth Circle, the Frozen Lake reserved for Traitors to their Country (Hell is an impressively coordinated bureaucracy, a Dewey Decimal of torture, agony and the thousand and one varieties of the pain of eternal separation from the Divine) particularly caught at my heart.

In Longfellow:

Already we had gone away from him,
When I beheld two frozen in one hole,
So that one head a hood was to the other;

And even as bread through hunger is devoured,
The uppermost on the other set his teeth,
There where the brain is to the nape united. (Canto XXXII)

A man is set frozen into a hole in the icy waste, a hole he shares with another fixed in the ice a little below him. He gnaws savagely and unceasingly on the skull and brains of that other and pauses only to tell Dante his story. His name is Count Ugolino and beneath him rests one Archbishop Ruggieri.

Ruggieri and Ugoline were allies and ‘traitors to their country’ both until they fell out. Ugolini and – in Dante’s account – his young sons were locked in a tower by Ruggieri and his henchmen and starved to death, Ugolino watching them die, one by one, before his death and damnation as both punished and implement of punishment for Ruggieri.

I’ve lost parents, friends, workmates and family but I don’t think it is possible to imagine the pain of losing a child. Like any other parent, I hope I never will and whilst I’m not the praying kind, such prayers as I have are always with those who have have had to live through such a terrible event. Ugolino’s sufferings as a father are surely the equal of anything Hell has to offer and Dante is unstinting:

I saw the three fall, one by one, between
The fifth day and the sixth; whence I betook me,

Already blind, to groping over each,
And three days called them after they were dead;
Then hunger did what sorrow could not do.”

Dante is silent as to whether a greater, more dreadful sin takes place and Borges calls us simply to note his silence. Ugolino’s agony is the point of his story.

The Inferno has survived for seven hundred years because Dante, like Shakespeare after him, relentlessly, tenderly, shows the solipsist in us all what the life of another is like. I suppose that’s why this episode and much else in the text haunts me to such a degree and it is good that it does.

Jorge Luis Borges, “Seven Nights” (1984)

What is it, some kind of saucy…?

STOP! Stop right there. Borges is probably one of the greatest writers – and certainly one of the greatest literary minds – South America and the world has produced.  Seven Nights is a collection of seven essays based on lectures Borges gave in 1977.  They circulated in unofficial form until Borges reviewed and approved a text for publication.

The mind of Borges – and we really are dealing with a man whose output was as pure a distillation of the jumps and bounds and associations the mind is capable of as you are ever likely to encounter – was essentially a library.  And by library, I’m talking The Library of Congress, Alexandria, Unseen University…It’s also the mind of a librarian whose professional life was spent as the Director of the National Public Library in Buenos Aires, a blind man who read voraciously, unendingly and creatively.

Seven Nights, unlike the diamond-like condensation of the stories, is the poet Borges stretching out – avuncular, exploratory, playful and following his nose.  He ranges across Dante, Nightmares, Buddhism, the Kabbalah, the Thousand and One Nights, back to Dante and much, much more, all within a slender volume of just over a hundred pages.

Why should I read this?

You will learn something. Learn a lot, in fact.  I’ve always wanted to read Dante but Borges impelled me to finally run out, buy a random translation of the Inferno and get on with it.  He presents readings of the great and ancient that are those of a reader, not a critic.  Every line is quotable and inspiring.

Truly, fine poetry must be read aloud. A good poem does not allow itself to be read in a low voice or silently

Each man has his own unique face and with him dies thousands of events, thousands of memories, all of them too human.

I would say of the Inferno, that Hell is not a nightmare; it is a torture chamber.

Borges’  stories have sat by my bedside for many years in a variety of editions.  I’ve read them over and over again and find something new each time.  I’d never heard of Seven Nights and ran across it by accident in the marvellous London Review Bookshop near the British Museum.  It’s the nearest I’ll ever come to the presence of the man himself.

No clever stuff. If you care about books, you need everything by Borges. And if you’re curious about Dante, the lodestone through this fabulous and fabular labyrinth of a collection, start here.


You’ll come out the other side dizzy with possibilities and with a reading list a yard long. Actually, that’s not really a downside is it?

Did I mention I love Borges?