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Friday, 31 December 2010

Approaching the Divine Comedy in the 21st Century

Mark Twain once said that a classic is something everybody wants to have read, but nobody wants to read. No doubt we could trace a long list of books fitting under this category, from the Iliad and Don Quijote to War and Peace and Ulysses. Almost everyone is guilty of having read a classic, and certain erudite individuals can boast quite a few more – usually this makes these people insufferable to be around, which may be the reason why Henry Miller (who never succeeded in writing a classic) said that every man with a bellyful of the classics is an enemy to the human race. Classics are, traditionally, very long, very complex, or both at the same time. They are not easy to read, and unless someone gives you a good reason to pick one up, you probably won’t.

In this hypothetical list of books which are simultaneously attractive and repulsive to such uncommon degrees, the Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri deserves a special mention. If fame is half the reason why people read classics, then it needs no further encouragement. Jorge Luis Borges called it ‘the best book in literature’ and TS Eliot used its author as the standard for comparisons with Shakespeare. At the same time, the notion of a seven-hundred-year old tale which appears like a catalogue on what God does and does not want us to do is not the kind of thing which you would imagine to fly off the bookshelves. From Mark Twain’s point of view, Dante’s book is a classic among classics.

It is a shame that all the fame around this ancient volume should also have generated a great deal of false expectations. For, in certain ways, the Divine Comedy hardly belongs in the ranks of its fellow classics. For starters, it is easily one of the shorter books. All three canticles put together make for about 450 pages, against the 800 of the Iliad and Odyssey or the 600 of the Aeneid. If you read the Inferno alone, which is self-contained, it stands at just over 30,000 words – a third of the length of an average novel. It is also remarkably easy to read. It has none of the archaic grandiloquence of Beowulf or Gilgamesh, and none of the intricate linguistic constructions which characterise the modern classics by Joyce or Proust. The narrative is synthetic and adventurous, and the language, while sophisticated, is always functional to the telling of the story.

Even so, the Divine Comedy’s reputation as a classic would not be half as ironic if it weren’t that the poem’s own opening is a metaphor for our relationship with the classics. In the first Canto of the poem, Dante is walking through a forest and meets the spirit of Virgil, the author of the Aeneid – what the middle ages considered to be the classic among classics. Virgil is described as a ‘well-spring / From which such copious floods of eloquence / Have issued’, a line which probably could have been cast on Joyce’s grave with no risk of protestations, and Dante hopes to relate to him yet – ‘avail me the long study and great love / That have impelled me to explore thy volume,’ he says, echoing the plight of any English Literature student who sets out to write an essay on Moby Dick, Don Juan or Paradise Lost.

Obviously, the relationship between Dante and Virgil has a much broader meaning as well – it stands for the relationship between the past and the present, with the Latin master bearing a torch from other times and guiding the (then) modern spirit of Dante. But this also encapsulates the metaphoric register which really gives the poem its own modernity (or, in Eliot’s term, its ‘universality’), and which truly makes it worth reading even seven-hundred years after its writing. Consider, for example, the description of the souls in the fifth Canto, those damned for the sin of lust.

And as the wings of starlings bear them on
In the cold season in large band and full,
So doth that blast the spirits maledict;
It hither, thither, downward, upward, drives them;
No hope doth comfort them for evermore,
Not of repose, but even of lesser pain.
And as the cranes go chanting forth their lays,
Making in air a long line of themselves,
So saw I coming, uttering lamentations,
Shadows borne onward by the aforesaid stress.

The idea that the Divine Comedy should be a collection of cautionary Christian vignettes simply does not hold, for the sin is always a metaphor for the punishment – and the other way round. The above passage doesn’t represent what happens to you after life if you live in lust, but what happens in life – and the souls exemplify this as they are tossed around by the winds of their desires, ‘hither, thither, downward, upward,’ and abandoned in the storm of their appetites, as ‘no hope doth comfort them, not [even] of repose.’ As Dante proceeds deeper into hell, the other torments conform to this vision – the greedy are drowned in the mud of their own squalor, the liars are burning in the double flame of their lies, the murderous are plunged in blood, and so on.

Dante’s Inferno is not the hell of the damned, but the hell of the living – our own hell. As the canvas of the Commedia expands into a monumental metaphor for human history, the journey becomes our own journey through our everyday world, testifying to the suffering of those who live in vice, without apparent punishment, but punished by their own vice. By the time one reaches the Purgatorio and the Paradiso, which are famously less entertaining than the Inferno but equally complex, the modernity of the poem has become self-evident. It is not the castigation that follows evil, but the horror of evil itself, that makes the Inferno such a memorably poignant representation. Similarly the humanity of the other two canticles goes well beyond the sophisticated symbolic parables that they present. If the Divine Comedy is a classic, then the idea itself of the genre must be founded on a paradox – and not just because the poem is easy to read and relatively short. As we opened with a citation on the subject, so shall we close. In the words of Edith Wharton, then: A classic is not a classic because it conforms to certain structural rules, or fits certain definitions (of which its author had quite probably never heard). It is classic because of a certain eternal and irrepressible freshness.

Post-script: A question which comes up frequently is – which translation should I choose? An edition in verse is a must, but the preference between rhyming translations or ones in free/blank verse must remain subjective. By all means take a look at more than one translation – they can be very different from each other! The first Canto is no more than two or three pages long, so reading it a few times to compare different versions is not much of a chore. Some translations retain the rhyme. If those impress you and seem more musical, then stick with one of them. If you find the free-flowing narrative effect that results from less constrictive verse to be most stimulating, then forsake the rhymes and go for that.

Andrea T Judge grew up in Rome and has studied literature in the UK and the Caribbean. He has worked as freelance critic of movies and games, as translator in Germany, and as sports journalist in France (where he made money by dressing up as a cartoon in Disneyland). He has also kept up a blog of rants and cultural criticism at The Rant Machine. He is currently employed on cruise ships in the Caribbean.