Tag Archives: Dante

Clive’s Dante’s Heaven

Dante Alighieri, The Divine Comedy, Book Three: Heaven, translated by Clive James (Picador 2013)

1447244214I was about 12 when I first met the notion that heaven might be boring. I sneaked the Collected Plays of  George Bernard Shaw from the good china cabinet1 to read Pygmalion, and progressed by way of Saint Joan (including its wonderful Preface) to Man and Superman before it occurred to my parents that Shaw might not be terribly age-appropriate. When a character in that last play (Don Juan, maybe?) argued that hell was preferable to heaven, my orthodox Catholic faith was robust enough to dismiss him as silly, but the fact that I remember it indicates that the idea struck a chord.

I mention this early adventure in transgressive reading because I suspect that if I’d read Dante’s Heaven at that age I wouldn’t have dismissed the idea so easily: Dante’s heaven, at least in Clive James’s translation, is boring. It’s like a prison where the lights are never turned off, except the inhabitants won’t shut up about how happy they are.

In an exhilarating passage at the end of Canto 22, Dante looks down from his vantage point near Gemini in the zodiac and sees the earth:

______ And this paltry world we prize,
This little threshing floor where we have been
Always so fierce, was made plain from its hills
To river mouths, while I was wheeling there
With those eternal Twins. They turn like mills,
And I with them, the universe laid bare.

The thing is, quite a bit of Heaven is preoccupied with just the kind of paltry fierceness that is put in perspective here, and I confess to not finding the subjects of that fierceness all that interesting. I can appreciate Dante’s magisterial erudition and his brilliant poetic skill (as filtered through Clive James’s translation). I have some grasp of the magnitude of his task – creating a literary Italian language, combining classical and Christian frames of reference, wrestling mediaeval scholastic philosophy and theology into elegant verse, exploring the relationship of earthly and divine love, inveighing against corruption in his contemporary church, giving lessons in church and secular history (some of which, impressive though it is, I wouldn’t want unleashed on the young without health warnings), writing fierce political polemic (and putting it in the mouths of blissful souls in heaven), combining elaborate doctrine with ecstatic visionary experience (though it looks to me as if the visionary experience is a laborious, almost geometric construct rather than the report of an actual vision, as in mystics like Julian of Norwich), all while spinning a yarn with enough fantastical invention to keep the less committed punters happy. The book would obviously reward extended study, but reading it as I did with minimal recourse to commentary was all too often like visiting a museum.

Beatrice has replaced Virgil as Dante’s guide. She’s a lot prettier (her eyes become more ineffably beautiful with each new level of heaven, culminating in Canto 30 in a breathtakingly wonderful declaration of the inadequacy of Dante’s words to describe them) but she’s also much more long-winded, and claims God’s authority for everything she says, not exactly a recipe for lively conversation. I imagine her lectures – and those of other garrulous blissful souls – were serious fun for Dante’s contemporaries, as poetic renderings of cool philosophy or science are these days; off the top of my head I think of Kathryn Lomer on sunflowers or Jennifer Maiden on the uses of liquid nitrogen. But 700 years later, these lectures are mostly to be endured rather than enjoyed, and where they are not politically barbed they are almost unbearably abstract.

Clive James’s introduction anticipates this response: ‘What kind of story,’ he asks, ‘has all the action in the first third [that is, in Hell], and then settles back to stage a discussion of obscure spiritual matters?’ He answers his own question:

But the Divine Comedy isn’t just a story, it’s a poem: one of the biggest, most varied and most accomplished poems in all the world. Appreciated at the level of its verse, the thing never stops getting steadily more beautiful as it goes on.

If that’s so, this translation is – perhaps inevitably – an honourable failure. I’m grateful to James for opting for readability, I love his mastery of the quatrain form, and I read whole passages aloud to my dog as we walked around Marrickville, just for the pleasure of hearing them, but suspect his awareness of his own mortality may have led him to rush things at times. I’m probably not the first to note that at 10:188-189 he has Christ adoring the Church, an error that wouldn’t have survived a Beta reader process.2

I did attempt to deal with my general discontent by paying close attention to a couple of the annoying passages. Here’s one (James 13:69–84; Dante 13:52–66):

———————————Of all truths, this is chief:
That which dies not and that which dies are there
As nothing but the splendour of our Sire’s
Idea, which, loving, he begets. Because
That living light – which, streaming from the fires
Of its bright source, is never, as it pours,
Detached from its first well, nor from the love
Which, with those two, makes three – collects its beams
Through its own goodness, mirrored there above
In nine angelic orders, without seams
Stitched into one forever, it descends
To earthly potencies from act to act,
Becoming such that all things have their ends
In brief contingency, the fleeting fact –
Things generated with, or without, seed –
Produced by movements of the heavens.

If that takes some untangling, it’s partly because Clive James has twisted the language a little to make it rhyme and scan. I looked up the original, and found that the phrase ‘Of all truths, this is chief’ isn’t in Dante, and seems to be there to rhyme with ‘belief’ a few lines earlier; where James has one long, convoluted sentence, ‘Because … heavens’, Dante has two; the confusing stitching metaphor is James’s. But the difficulty is mainly because (I think) the passage deals in mediaeval theology about the Holy Trinity and the nature of Creation. It may have been demanding on Dante’s contemporaries but for us (and I include people like me who have actually studied a bit of Scholastic philosophy), without serious study it will remain incomprehensible, and frankly I don’t care enough to find out. Whatever pizzazz it once had is pretty dead, at least to me. And that’s true of too much of the book as a whole.

The next book I plan to read is Alice Oswald’s Memorial, a translation of The Iliad that leaves out most of the original. Maybe someone should do something of the kind with Dante.
1 We didn’t have a lot of books in my childhood home, and only one or two were kept in the china cabinet – whether because they were particularly precious or to keep them away from young eyes I don’t know.

2 Clive James: ‘the Church, the Bride of Christ, will sing / Matins to its dear bridegroom, that he may /Adore her’. Dante: ‘la sposa di Dio surge / a mattinar lo sposo perché l’ami’. With my limited Italian, I read that literally as ‘the bride of God rises to sing matins to the groom because she loves him’. James seems to have been momentarily distracted from the meaning by the need to make his lines scan.

Clive’s Dante’s Purgatory

Dante Alighieri, The Divine Comedy, Book Two: Purgatory, translated by Clive James (Picador 2013)

1447244214The devil gets all the best lines in Paradise Lost, and the Inferno gets the best press in The Divine Comedy. I don’t know that I’ve ever read anything at all about Purgatorio, so as I began reading it, I was wondering if an obscure sense of duty was a good enough reason to keep going. Was I hoping for any reward beyond being able to say I’d read it?

It turns out I enjoyed it a lot. Partly I think that was because of a weird sense of privilege. Thanks to my pre–Vatican Two Catholic childhood and a young adulthood in a religious order just as things were changing, much of the theology that underpins the Purgatory is as familiar to me as gum trees. I didn’t need footnotes to explain the idea of the living praying for the dead ‘that they may be loosed from their sins’: we offered up our family Rosary each evening ‘for the Pope the poor, the sick, the dying, the suffering souls in Purgatory, for Aunty Hilda and Uncle Jack’s souls’. I recognised most of the Latin hymns that are sung in Purgatory, and can still hum a few bars of some of them. I have a passing acquaintance with the Thomistic philosophy that Virgil explains to Dante, most notably in Canto 17, where the notion contention that all virtue and all sin come from love might otherwise sound like intellectual play for its own sake. Even some fragments of the pervasive Church history/gossip rings a bell. What’s more, thanks to my parents giving me Kingsley’s Heroes and my membership of the Argonauts Club (I was Lebedos 5), not to mention 5 years studying Latin at school and university, not all of the classical allusions pass me by (though, for example, I hadn’t heard the rumours that Julius Caesar was gay until I read Canto 26).

I feel like a privileged dinosaur.

All the same, I confess to reading pages at a time enjoying the verse, the surface level of the narrative, and the imagery, but not having a clue what it all meant. In particular there’s an elaborate procession in the Garden of Eden in the last couple of Cantos, in which various maidens, mythological beasts, birds, trees and vehicles are clearly intended to carry allegorical meanings. Even Clive James’s kind practice of incorporating an occasional explanatory phrase into the text, and Dante himself explicating some of it left me bewildered. At base, for all my familiarity with elements of it, I found this a deeply alien text. To read it properly – to understand it – would take a lot of study, and I guess I’m lazy enough to be content with what I’ve got.

Plot summary (don’t read if you’re worried about spoilers): Guided by the great Roman poet, Virgil, Dante continues his exploration of the afterlife . He climbs the seven circles of Purgatory, each circle inhabited by the souls of dead people expiating one of the seven deadly sins – pride, anger, envy, sloth, lust, gluttony, avarice. At the start Dante has seven Ps branded on his forehead by the touch of an angel’s wing, one of which disappears with each level passed. Virgil and Dante are joined by the poet Statius, whose time in Purgatory is up, but who elects to spend time talking shop with Virgil rather than rushing off to heaven. Finally, they reach a version of the Garden of Eden where the aforementioned allegorical procession happens, Virgil says he can go no further, and Dante’s great love, Beatrice, gives him a piece of her mind. Led by maiden named Matilda, Dante and Statius head for the mountain of heaven under a sky full of stars.

A nice bit of the translation: At the end of Canto 22, in the circle where souls of gluttons are suffering, Clive James has:

As beautiful as gold was the First Age:
Hunger made acorns tasty, thirst made sweet
Nectar of every brook, so you can gauge
How satisfied the Baptist was to eat
The locust and sip honey. Every page
About this in the Gospel shows, therefore,
His greatness and his glory. Less is more.

That sent me hunting the original of those last four lines, which I found at Canto 22, lines 151–154:

Mele e locuste furon le vivande
che nodriro il Batista nel diserto;
per ch’elli è glorioso e tanto grande
quanto per lo Vangelio v’è aperto.

(Honey and locusts were the aliments
That fed the Baptist in the wilderness;
Whence he is glorious, and so magnified
As by the Evangel is revealed to you.)

So James isn’t the most subservient of translators, and isn’t above inserting little anachronisms like ‘Less is more’. Purists would probably object, but it keeps his readers on our toes, and deters us from thinking we’ve actually read the original.

The best bit: I knew that Beatrice replaces Virgil as Dante’s guide in Heaven, because Virgil, having died before Christ, is stuck in Limbo. But I was quite unprepared for the intensity of the scene where Dante and Beatrice meet in Canto 30. She is the great love of his life, and he knows that it is thanks to her that he is being taken on this grand tour of the afterlife. She turns up at a moment when I was feeling that Clive James and I were doing our best to get through some impenetrable mediaeval allegorising with the least possible pain – and everything changes. Dante is thrilled to see her. But instead of embracing him warmly and joyously, she goes for him:

Yet royally, like one with the design
Of holding back the heat her words might mean
While speaking, said this: ‘Look. Look at me well,
For I am Beatrice indeed. How do
You dare approach this mountain. Can you tell?
For man is happy here, yet here are you.’

He responds incoherently, provoking her to increasingly vehement reproach for having fallen away from the paths of virtue after her death. It’s electrifying, and it feels as if all the preceding theology and inventiveness and sheer genius creation exist as scaffolding for this moment when Dante (and Clive James?) writes with authentic passion about the experience of being found deeply wanting by the woman he loves.

There are lots of other good bits, but that’s the one that takes the cake for me.

PS: I’ve just seen that this is my 777th post on this blog – very appropriate, I thought, as I’m about to head off to Heaven.

Clive’s Dante’s Hell

Dante Alighieri, The Divine Comedy, Book One: Hell, translated by Clive James (Picador 2013)

1447244214My rudimentary Italian isn’t up to reading the Divine Comedy in the original. I have started out on a couple of translations, Dorothy Sayers’ being the one I remember, but each time after a couple of pages it started to feel pointless: I mean, he’s in a wood, when a leopard blocks his path, or maybe it’s a wolf, a lion and a leopard, and the evening star rises, then Virgil appears – as they say on the Internet, WTF! Apart from my ignorance of 13th Century Italian terms of reference, it was clear the prose translations were missing something crucial. I haven’t had any more joy with verse translations, in spite of having been fascinated by terza rima, the Divine Comedy‘s verse form, since I read John Manifold’s ‘The Tomb of Lt John Learmonth, AIF’ as a teenager. So it’s no small thing when I say that Clive James’s version, in rhyming quatrains, is readable. The narrative hums along, the action is mostly clear, and even some of the references are glossed (that leopard, for example, seems much less arbitrary thanks to a little parenthesis: ‘was this the leopard, Lechery?’).

One other thing helped me approach the book as something other than an exhibit in the Travelling Museum of Great Literature. I’d heard the late Peter Porter in one of his turbo-charged radio conversations with Clive James describe Dante’s Inferno as repellent because of its mean-spirited punitiveness. ‘Oh,’ I thought, ‘so I don’t have to read it on bended knee.’ That and the romantic circumstances of the translation: Clive James’s wife is a leading Dante scholar; he has terminal cancer and they are estranged; it’s hard not to see this huge labour as a deathbed love offering.

So, the book itself? Dante is having a midlife crisis when the Roman poet Virgil appears and takes him on a tour of the mediaeval Christian afterlife (for reasons that remain obscure to me, but that’s just quibbling). The tour takes 100 cantos, of which the set-up takes one and Hell, Purgatory and Heaven in that order take 33 each. I intend to read the whole work, but I expect I’ll have different responses to each of the books, so Hell has its own blog entry.

As I said, the narrative hums along, with so much ingenious, graphically-described hideous suffering it’s surprising a video game hasn’t been made of it. There are lots of allusions, to Classical mythology, to the politics of Dante’s time and place, to Italian history, to Arthurian legend, to scandals in the Papacy. No doubt if you knew your Guelphs from your Ghibellines and your Boniface from your Celestine you’d get more out of the poem than I did, and I can see how someone could devote their professional life to studying it. But for instance, I’ve read Virgil’s epic, the Aeneid, and know that Dante’s journey into hell refers to the section where Aeneas, like Odysseus in the Odyssey, visits the Underworld and has the shades of the dead speak to him. But knowing this doesn’t make all that much difference to how the story works.

Deeper levels of meaning resonate, of course. I dare to disagree with Peter Porter. Rather than being mean-spirited and punitive, I read Dante as challenging the orthodox doctrine of eternal damnation: over and again, his character feels pity for the suffering souls he encounters, which creates an undertow of implication that God is less compassionate than humans. I have no idea of course if such a challenge was in Dante’s mind, but there’s definitely a tension between an emerging humanist sensibility and a mediaeval doctrinal view. The mixture of classical and Christian references is another marker of that tension.

Less portentously, there’s a strong element of crowd-pleasing satire. Public figures who lied or murdered or allowed evil to triumph by standing by and doing nothing are all punished in gruesomely appropriate ways (and forget what I just said about compassion). Splitters are split; muckrakers drown permanently in muck; and so on. The idea of eternal damnation may be abhorrent to a modern sensibility – I remember fondly the Marist Brother who said to us in 1969, ‘I believe in hell because it is a dogma of the church, but I don’t have to believe that any human has ever been sent there by a merciful God’. Even in my traditional Catholic childhood we were told that none of us could know if any individual had been damned: even Judas may have repented as the rope tightened around his neck. But as I read Dante via James, atavistic vengeful impulses surfaced: I wondered what punishment should be meted out to those Labor Party MPs who undermined Julia Gillard’s Prime Ministership and so gave the government of Australia to the current ruthless gang, and I wondered about the immortal souls of ostentatiously Christian political leaders who equivocate and plunder and gloss over deaths that happen on their watch. Satirists these days can do little more than mock and reproach: Dante could threaten the objects of his rage with eternal suffering.

Now, having passed through the knot at the centre of the earth and climbed back up to see the stars again, it’s time to move on. I’ll write again after Purgatory