Completing Dante’s “Commedia”

Dante in the morning, Goethe in the afternoon – that’s the way to do it! You want to be highbrow, you do it properly! No farting around!

It hadn’t been planned like that. I happened to be reading Dante when fellow blogger Tom, of the Wuthering Expectations blog, suggested on Twitter that we have a go at reading together Part 2 of Goethe’s Faust. And since Tom is a reader of vast experience and understanding (he has read, and, more impressively, has taken in what seems at times to be the entire range of western literature), it seemed too good a proposal to turn down. And in any case, I was, I admit, struggling with Dante. I found myself reading very slowly, and not really taking in too much of what I was reading. Not taking in enough to my own satisfaction, that is.

I had started on Dante several years ago now. He is, after all, one of the most monumental figures of western civilization, and I felt I needed to know at least something about him. I wanted to know why so many major poets of the western world, from Shelley to Eliot to Mandelstam, seemed so besotted with him, why they appeared to centre their entire poetic sensibilities around the Commedia.  So I embarked on the Inferno, in the translation by Robin Kirkpatrick. Well, I read it; I read also Kirkpatrick’s excellent introductory essay and his copious notes; and I tried my best to make some sense of it, really I did. My attempts to make sense I recorded here, in what is, in retrospect, an almost comically inadequate post.

I had, obviously, to work harder. I started reading all kinds of secondary literature on Dante: Reading Dante by Prue Shaw, the various essays in the Cambridge Companion to Dante, and so on. There was also a wonderful detailed essay by Eric Griffiths as an introduction to the anthology Dante in English, which traces the influence of Dante on English language poets over the centuries. And let’s not forget also the somewhat irreverent and very amusing comic strip version of the Inferno, by Hunt Emerson and Kevin Jackson. So, armed with all this, I thought to myself: “Come on then, Dante, old boy, I’m ready for you!” I returned to the Inferno (again in Kirkpatrick’s translation), this time not worrying about how a modern secular reader should interpret this account of Hell, but, rather, accepting for what it is – an extraordinarily vivid and colourful depiction of human follies and of vast, endless human suffering. Encouraged by this success, I moved on to the Purgatorio, again in Kirkpatrick’s translation. Here the theme was not so much human suffering, but human aspiration. It lacked something of the vividness and immediacy of Inferno, but I managed this one too. I didn’t, however, blog about it: I felt I hadn’t taken it in enough. I understood what the poem was about because I had read books and essays on what it was about, but were I to try to write about it, I’d end up merely regurgitating what I had taken in from secondary sources rather than what I had actually felt on reading it. For, truth to tell, I hadn’t really felt very much.

On the Paradiso, I hesitated. Even Danteans often say this is more for the specialist rather than for the general reader, and I was, to be honest, a bit intimidated. But I found myself buying Clive James’ translation of the entire Commedia recently (you know what it’s like when you walk into a bookshop and find yourself unable to resist!), and I thought I’d now give the whole thing a shot – Hell, Purgatory, Heaven – the works! And boy, was I right to have been apprehensive! There seemed to me a lack of what I’d call “human interest” – no tales of the lives these souls had led while on earth. And, perhaps rather surprisingly for a poet who had so powerful a visual imagination, neither was there much description, if any, of physical settings: we have, after all, outsoared the mere earth, and are drifting through the solar system into realms of the ethereal: no room for physicality here. Lights of different kinds play a major part, but there’s nothing solid, nothing for an earthy mind like mine to hold on to. I do not doubt its greatness: T. S. Eliot would hardly have been so ecstatic about it had it lacked greatness. But yes, I did find it extremely difficult, and – admit it I must – to my shame, I found my attention wandering.

But now I have read it. As Edmund Hilary famously said after conquering Everest, I’ve knocked the bastard off. At least I now know its contents. And the various bits of secondary literature I have read helps me understand, on a cerebral level, what it is all about. But I was far from feeling it, and poetry needs to be felt.

So, while I was struggling with the final cantos of Paradiso, I received the suggestion from Tom that we should have a go at the second part of Goethe’s Faust, and I accepted with alacrity.  I had read it before, of course, but, once again, hadn’t taken much out of it, but I did remember it possessing a vitality and an energy that the Paradiso seemed to me conspicuously to be lacking.

Now that I have finished both the Dante and the Goethe, I think I had best not blog on Dante (since I have not taken it in adequately); and as for Faust Part Two, I think I had best save that for another post. Not that I claim to have understood Goethe adequately either, but I do at least have a few things of my own to say about it – thoughts other than those gleaned from secondary literature. With Dante, I don’t.

So why did I read these books? In more general terms, why should we struggle with books where enjoyment, if it comes at all (and it doesn’t always), comes only after the expenditure of much effort? The standard answer, if online comments on these matters are anything to go by, is that we read such books merely to “show off”; but in a world in which erudition isn’t in general much valued, the expenditure of such effort to attain something which most people don’t really care about Anyway does seem remarkably pointless. No, I don’t think it’s to “show off” to a non-existent audience; I think, rather, that, having in the past experienced something, at least, of what literature at this level has to offer; and knowing just how stupendous the rewards of such literature can be; we feel that the effort put into works that have garnered so great a reputation across centuries is, to put it crudely, a good bet. These works, we tell ourselves, would hardly have garnered so immense a reputation if they didn’t have something immense to offer. Of course, it is true that we will not be able to take in everything: no-one can take in everything. But there is no reason not to try to take in what we can.

What we are capable of taking in is determined both by nature and by nurture. We have, each of us, our own individual temperament: my own temperament is such, perhaps, that it relishes more the human comedies of Shakespeare or of Cervantes than the divine comedy of Dante. But that part of our receptivity that is determined by our temperament, our nature, is not an unmovable constant: there is also nurture, and yes, we can most certainly nurture our minds – that is, to train our minds to take in, understand, and even enjoy that which previously we could not. And when we can do this, the enjoyment is immense. Unless, of course, we are to believe that only that which can be grasped immediately can truly be called enjoyment.

This seems to me something that many people I encounter online, who often describe themselves as teachers or as “educators”, seem unable (or unwilling) to understand: an education in literature is not about setting the children that to which they respond immediately: it is about nurturing their minds, so they become capable of responding to that which is more profound, more subtle, more complex – that which, for these very reasons, often resist immediate response, but which, once responded to, enrich our lives more, far more, than might initially have been thought possible. To actually campaign (as many are doing) to deprive children of such possible enrichment is deeply reprehensible. Indeed, it seems to me quite shameful.

And this, I think, is why I read Dante, despite my struggling with much of it, and despite my not getting too much out of it: I wanted to try to nurture my mind to try to get at least something of what so entrances so many other readers – readers whose intellect and whose discernment I respect. In short, I wanted some of what they are having. Even in my advanced years, as the long day wanes, ’tis not too late, I feel, to seek a newer world. I think I succeeded partially with Inferno, less partially with Purgatorio, and, I fear, not at all with Paradiso, but I am glad I made the effort. For if I hadn’t, how would I have known?

Of course, there are times when the best efforts of nurturing don’t quite succeed, and I fear my attempt with Dante is an example of that. Nature is sometimes too strong a force for nurture to overcome. But I’m not repining. When I think of all that I have absorbed (at least, up to a point); all that I have responded to (usually through having to work at it: these things are rarely spontaneous); I can only feel grateful. And grateful particularly to my schoolteachers who were happy to set me works by Shakespeare and by Keats instead of fobbing off with some vapid morality tale more “relevant”, as some ideologues nowadays may insist, to my background.

I may return to Dante some day if, now knowing what’s in the Commedia, I ever feel that I am ready to take it in. But I have the final third or so of Finnegans Wake still to read. Now, there’s a struggle! And of course, I’m continuing with the struggle purely to show off. So there.

6 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by alan on March 19, 2021 at 7:51 pm

    “This seems to me something that many people I encounter online, who often describe themselves as teachers or as “educators”, seem unable (or unwilling) to understand: an education in literature is not about setting the children that to which they respond immediately: it is about nurturing their minds, so they become capable of responding to that which is more profound, more subtle, more complex – that which, for these very reasons, often resist immediate response, but which, once responded to, enrich our lives more, far more, than might initially have been thought possible. To actually campaign (as many are doing) to deprive children of such possible enrichment is deeply reprehensible. Indeed, it seems to me quite shameful.”

    I believe that the conservative philosopher Roger Scruton once said or wrote something to the effect that the purpose of children is to serve knowledge rather than the purpose of knowledge being to serve children.

    I think that he saw the modern fashion as being the latter in replacement of the former and naturally he disapproved of this.

    It’s a straw man or false dichotomy or something like that but I expect you would admire his posture in this matter.

    Reply

    • Since I’m neither a conservative nor a philosopher, I go for the option of education serving the children. And I think teaching children to love literature is an immense service.

      Reply

  2. So kind! I’m going to write up Faust soon, in a couple of days.

    Paradiso is as hard as the devil, if that expression applies. No, it does, I’m sticking with it. Scholasticism mixed with Dante’s Beatrice heresy. It is also an early example of a move towards abstraction. How close can a text that nominally has a story and characters and plot move towards pure Idea? Dante gives it a shot. The result: very difficult.

    It occurs to me that I rarely write about what I feel, so that question becomes moot. To jump down in your essay, I read these books for the same reason I read literature generally: to learn about literature. The rest seems to take care of itself. Although in this case, I first read and loved Inferno when I was let’s say 14, in some antique translation, so Dante is an old friend.

    Reply

    • No doubt it helps if the author is an old friend. Our receptivity does harden as we become older, and it becomes more difficult making an impression. But I’m glad I read it all. One can’t know about western literature without knowing Dante, after all! Feeling it is of course another matter.

      Reply

  3. Posted by Frank Iannarilli on March 21, 2021 at 10:15 pm

    Himadri,
    Thanks for the post. I wonder (only having poked at Inferno) if takes a Christian upbringing (the more ‘conservative’ the denomination the stronger my point) to feel something from Commedia, with that feeling possibly morphing into literary appreciation.

    Reply

    • Hello Frank,
      It is something I often wonder about too. But so much of western art – visual art, music, literature – is religious, that if one were to reject (at least in part) all the works that are religious, one would end up with very little at all. But in any case, I’m not sure whether not oneself being religious makes a significant difference. One of Dante’s greatest admirers, Shelley, was an atheist. And I myself, despite not subscribing to a religious belief, can think of a great many religious works from all branches of the arts to which I respond very deeply. But I am really not sure why this should be. It could be, perhaps, that in art (in all branches of the art) we are open to allegory and to symbolism, and that in religious works we find those big questions addressed that are important to us all, religious or otherwise; and that those of us who aren’t religious can still accept the work in coded or symbolic terms. I have always intended to write a post on this issue, but have refrained from doing so because it isn’t really clear in my mind. But certainly I respond very deeply, say, to Bach’s B minor mass, to Michelangelo’s Pieta, to the religious poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins. It may also be added that even those who are Christian tend nowadays not to believe in the physical reality of Hell or of Purgatory,

      But it certainly is an interesting point, and I wish I knew that answer to this.
      Best wishes,
      Himadri

      Reply

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