Posts Tagged ‘Dante’

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.

Completing the set

“Why seems it so particular with thee?”

Poor Gertrude never could understand. Why is someone else so bothered by something when it doesn’t bother me? We are all like that, if we’re honest with ourselves. Our own hobbyhorses we take seriously, but other peoples’ are … well, they’re a bit silly, aren’t they? There’s our boy getting worked up because he has got the tiniest dent in his trombone. Look, I explain to him, the dent is so small one can hardly see it with the naked eye; and what’s more, it doesn’t affect the sound. Why seems it so particular with thee? Or there’s my wife worrying about some pot plant that, despite all the care and attention and watering it could possibly ask for, seems quite clearly to be on its last legs. It’s only a pot plant, I explain sagely; why seems it so particular with thee? Get another bloody pot plant when this one dies!

Well, actually, no – I don’t say that. I’m not quite the insensitive yob I sometimes make myself out to be. But I’d be lying if I were to say I didn’t think it. However, regardless of what I may or may not have said, my wife knows me well enough by now to know that I was thinking it. And …

But let’s not go there. The point, I think, has been amply demonstrated: if something doesn’t particularly bother us, we think it unreasonable that it should bother anyone else.

When I was a lad, I remember, we – that is, all the other boys in my class, the girls being too sensible for this sort of thing – used to collect football cards. Small packets containing a bit of bubble gum, and three pictures of footballers then playing in the league. And it was vitally important to get the whole set. I remember still the disappointment when I opened a newly purchased packet, and found that I already had the cards it contained. Of course, I could try to swap them for others I didn’t have, but it wasn’t always easy to get the ones I was missing. And my mother, I remember, was a bit nonplussed by all this. “Why seems it so particular with thee?” she asked. Or she would have done had she affected a Shakespearean diction.

Or take what happened to me recently. We were out shopping, when I happened to chance upon a reflection of myself in a shop window, and found, to my horror, that I had a few grey hairs in my moustache all congregated together right under my left nostril, and making it look for all the world as if I had forgotten to blow my nose. And I couldn’t get this thought out of my mind. Passers-by, I imagined, were all staring at me, and, I’m sure, shunning me, not wishing, understandably, to come close to some dirty bugger with semi-liquid snot dribbling all down his moustache. And it is not vanity that made me want to go home immediately and apply the scissors to the offending grey hairs. My wife told me I was being too sensitive, and that no-one was thinking what I thought they were thinking. But I could tell by the look in their eyes that they did. Once again, why seemed it so particular with me?

More recently – to return this post to a suitably literary theme – I reported on my failure to appreciate Dante. Fine, people told me. We can’t all like everything. Shrug your shoulders and move on. But once again, I can’t. Over the years, I have come into contact with many of the major pillars of the Western literary traditions. Shakespeare I guess I’m a bit obsessed with; Cervantes I love; I have a healthy respect and admiration for Homer and for Virgil; and I now need Dante to complete the set. Don’t ask why: I just do.

Well, tomorrow we go to Florence. Tickets are already booked for the Uffizi and the Pitti, the Accademia, San Marco, The Medici Chapel, the Brancacci Chapel, the Duomo museum, the Bargello … each costing a bloody fortune, I know, but it has to be done. And, given many of these places are closed in the afternoons, I think I’ll be spending quite a bit of time sitting in Florentine cafes. And what better place to try once again to get to grips with Dante?

Following some advice after putting up the last post, I have bought myself Prue Shaw’s introduction to the CommediaReading Dante; and I have bought (and thoroughly enjoyed) a witty comic strip rendition of Inferno, illustrated by Hunt Emerson, and with a text by Kevin Jackson. This latter purchase may not, perhaps, have enhanced my understanding as such, but it was a genuine pleasure to encounter erudition so lightly-worn, and such affection and respect displayed without a trace of pomposity or hushed-tone reverence. And as for the former, I have been glued to this all last weekend. Enthusiasm is such an infectious thing! I find myself happy just to see someone’s enthusiasm, even enthusiasms I may happen not to share.


With football cards, I never did get the whole lot. It is now my belief that they used deliberately to withhold a few footballers to encourage kids to spend more pennies trying to complete the set. Bastards. But this is a different matter entirely. Tomorrow morning, we fly to Florence, and damned if I don’t get Dante this time. Why seems it so particular with me? Nay, it is – I know not seems.

Notes on a failure

If one is given to speaking in clichés, I suppose one could say you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, but it’s even worse than that with me: I love my old tricks so much that I see little reason these days to put myself to the trouble of learning new ones. But I do keep trying, really I do.

Until a few years ago, I had not read anything by Dante. Then, feeling (quite rightly) that someone claiming to be interested in literary culture – especially the literary culture of the Western world, in which I live and in which I have grown up – really should have some acquaintance at least with one of the major pillars of that culture, I bought myself Robin Kirkpatrick’s very highly rated translation of the Commedia. It came with copious and scholarly notes (which I read avidly); and it was a dual language edition, so I could look across to the other page and discover for myself at least something of Dante’s verbal music.

First of all, I read the Inferno. Naturally. And I even wrote a post about it here on this blog, pretending – or, maybe, trying to convince myself – that I got something out of it. Reading that post over, it was a fine attempt: I think I really did manage to convince myself, at least up to a point, that I was getting something of that literary exaltation that I never doubted the Commedia could inspire in its readers. However, that was eight years ago, and only recently have I returned to fulfil that promise I had then made to myself to read the Purgatorio and the Paradiso. And I did so in the hope that in those eight years, I may have matured sufficiently to respond to this work. So once again I picked Robin Kirkpatrick’s translation, once again I pored over those splendid introductory essays and long and detailed notes; once again I glanced across to the Italian text to hear some of Dante’s verbal music. And once again, I am sorry to report, I failed.

Let me make it clear right away that I am not commenting here on Dante, but on myself. I had hoped to raise the intellectual profile of this blog by writing a few posts on the Commedia, but there is little point in pretending I have anything to say about the work that could possibly be of interest to anyone: so I find myself reporting instead on my own failure. I am sure that, even in translation, the Commedia can strike rich, powerful, and resonant chords in the minds of readers. The problem is that I seem to be lacking many of the notes that make up these chords. And I really am curious to know what those notes may be that I am missing. Such knowledge probably won’t, it is true, enhance my appreciation of Dante, but it may perhaps enhance my understanding of myself.

In the meantime, I am wondering how best to spend my reading time. Should I go back to those immense masterworks that are already permanent fixtures in my mind – King Lear, Don Quixote, Anna Karenina, and the like – but where I know there are even greater depths to plumb? Or should I force this old dog to learn a few new tricks, and immerse myself in Dante in the hope that it may eventually penetrate through my thick skull? Or, maybe, I should just say “to hell with it all”, and settle back in my armchair with a warming dram of whisky in one hand, and a volume of the kind of good, creepy ghost stories that I so love in the other. I’d like to do all three, to be honest. The problem is not really finding the time, as such: the problem is striking a reasonable balance.

In the meantime, if there is anyone out there who dearly loves the Commedia, and can give me, not necessarily a scholarly exegesis (there is no shortage on that score), but, better, a personal account of what this great poem means to them, and why, then I shall be extremely grateful. I do know there are, and have been across the ages, a great many extremely intelligent and discerning people for whom Dante’s Commedia is, and has been, life-enhancing. In one of the most moving and unforgettable passages of If This is a Man, Primo Levi tells us how, even in the death camp of Auschwitz, a few lines of Dante suddenly seemed to him to be of inestimable value. And I find myself thinking: whatever it is that admirers get from the Commedia, I want some of it.

Gogol’s “Dead Souls”: a comic inferno

A preamble
I first read Dead Souls when, as a teenager, I developed a mania for 19th century Russian literature, and determined to read everything I could lay my hands on. The version I read then was the work of an anonymous translator, and probably one of the many versions that had been so mercilessly attacked by Nabokov as “worthless”. Nabokov did, however, praise the translation by Bernard Guilbert Guerney, a revised version of which is still available. Since Nabokov’s critique, a good many well-received translations have appeared. I re-read Dead Souls a few years ago in the highly rated modern translation by Robert Maguire published by Penguin Classics. This third and latest reading was in response to a mini-group-read organized by Richard, who blogs in Caravana de Recuerdos, and by Scott, who blogs in Six Words for a Hat. I have, till now, deliberately avoided reading their posts on Dead Souls until I had put my own reactions down on paper – or, at least, on computer screen. I’ll remedy that once I have posted this.

The translation I read this time round was the older version published by Penguin Classics, by David Magarshack. All quoted passages in this post are taken from this translation.


Anyone familiar with 19th century literature will know the landscape. An unutterably dreary, drab little town, somewhere in the provinces, miles from anywhere, riddled with filth and poverty and decay and corruption, and stinking of moral stagnation and decay. It is the place from which any person of sensitivity longs to escape – like Chekhov’s Three Sisters; those who don’t, like Chekhov’s Ionych, become embroiled in the corruption; or, like Dr Ragin in Chekhov’s “Ward 6”, become victims of it. It is this town that forms the grey setting of Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, and it is this town we see collapsing into psychopathic violence and an almost apocalyptic disorder in Dostoyevsky’s Demons; and it is this town also that is revealed in Tolstoy’s Resurrection as containing behind its shallow façades of faux-respectability the most unutterable institutionalised cruelties. Meanwhile in Saltykov-Schedrin’s The Golovlyov Family, this town seems to stand for Hell itself, from which no-one can ultimately escape. This town is as much a landscape of the mind as it is a real landscape, and it looms large in Russian literature.

The earliest appearance of this town, as far as my admittedly limited reading allows me to judge, is in Gogol’s play The Government Inspector. And it reappears in the novel Dead Souls. In the play, an ordinary man, at a loose end and unable to pay his hotel bill, is mistaken by the corrupt town officials for an inspector, and is larded with all sorts of bribes; by the time the truth is realised, he is away with his gains. And even as we’re laughing, the mayor of the town breaks the invisible fourth wall of the stage to tell us directly, the audience, that we are laughing at ourselves: we all inhabit this Town of the Mind. In Dead Souls, which Gogol referred to as a “poem” rather than as a novel, we once again have a visitor from outside, who causes consternation. But it is not the outsider, Chichikov, who seems at first to be the centre of the reader’s attention: it is the rather eccentric narrator. Chichikov is described, and yet not described, so that we, the reader, get no mental picture of him:

The gentleman in the carriage is neither too fat, nor too thin; he cannot be said to be old, but he was not too young either.

And having given us this piece of non-description, the narrator veers off for no apparent reason to tell us about two peasants speaking about Chichikov’s carriage. What they say is not quite nonsensical, but it doesn’t really seem to make much sense either:

“Lord,” said one of them to the other, “what a wheel! What do you say? Would a wheel like that, if put to it, ever get to Moscow or wouldn’t it?” “It would all right,” replied the other. “But it wouldn’t get to Kazan, would it?” “No, it wouldn’t get to Kazan,”” replied the other. That was the end of the conversation.

The narrator is in no rush to move things along. We are given a leisurely account, seemingly overloaded with utterly irrelevant detail, of the filthy inn, and of the people working there; and then, of the town itself. The details the narrator fixes upon tend towards the eccentric, or even the downright bizarre; much of what he says seems like non-sequiturs. And when the narrator uses a simile or a metaphor, the image takes on a life of its own, quite overwhelming that which it purports to describe:

As he entered the ballroom, Chichikov had for a moment to screw up his eyes, dazzled by the blaze of candles, the lamps, the ladies’ gowns. Everything was flooded in light. Black frock-coats glided and flitted about singly or in swarms here and there like so many flies on a sparkling white sugar-loaf on a hot July day when the old housekeeper chops or breaks it up into glittering lumps in front of an open window, the children gather and look on, watching with interest the movements of her rough hands raising and lowering the hammer, while the aerial squadrons of flies, borne on the light breeze, fly in boldly, just as if they owned the place and, taking advantage of the old woman’s feeble eyesight and the sunshine that dazzles her eyes, cover the dainty lumps in small groups or in swarms.

Whew! But we aren’t finished yet:

Already satiated by the abundant summer, which sets up dainty dishes for them on every step, they fly in…

And so on for another few hundred words, the reality this image has been set up to elucidate by now more or less forgotten. It is fair to say, I think, that I have never come across a narrative voice quite like this one. Dickens too loved eccentricity, and one often wonders about the sanity of some of his characters; but here, one is left wondering about the sanity of the narrator himself.

In the second chapter, Chichikov sets off to visit local landowners. The landowners and their estates are all described by that same affable but seemingly demented narrative voice. And what that voice tells us is just as bizarre as the voice itself. These elements of the bizarre are dropped in as if they were perfectly reasonable and everyday. For instance, Chichikov, having lost his way on a stormy night, and his carriage having overturned, is put up by elderly widow, who sees to his comfort:

“Take the gentleman’s coat and underwear and dry them first in front of the fire as you used to for your late master, and afterwards have them well brushed and beaten.”

“Yes, ma’am,” said Fetinya, spreading a sheet over the featherbed and laying down the pillows.

“Well, here’s your bed all ready for you, sir,” said the old lady. “Good night, sir, sleep well. Are you sure you don’t want anything else? Perhaps you’re used to having your heels tickled for the night. My late husband could not get to sleep without it.”

As the novel progresses, an extraordinarily vivid cast of characters appears – each bizarre and eccentric beyond the bounds of sanity. There’s the impossibly effusive Manilov; the bear-like, deliberate, and somewhat madly methodical Sobakevich; the disgustingly filthy and threadbare Plyushkov, surely the most grotesque and repulsive of all literary misers; and Nozdryov, the colourful braggart, bully and compulsive liar – except, of course, no-one outside a Gogol novel could lie with quite such uninhibited flamboyance and gusto. Chichikov visits these landlords to buy from them, at as cheap a price as he can, serfs (or, not to put too fine a gloss on it, slaves, which is what they were) – serfs who are dead, the “dead souls” of the title, but who are still listed from the last official census as being alive, and for whom, consequently, the landowner is continuing to pay taxes. When Chichikov’s curious business activities are known, the town is in turmoil. All sorts of strange stories start up, and are believed: it becomes common knowledge, for instance, that Chichikov had been planning to elope with the Governor’s daughter (shameless hussy that she is!) A meeting of worthies discuss who Chichikov may be. The postmaster knows: Chichikov is none other than Captain Kopeikin! And who is this Captain Kopeikin? The postmaster launches on a long story – fully reproduced, in all its Gogolian bizarreness – of a Captain Kopeikin who had lost an arm and a leg in the 1812 campaign. Only after the story has progressed through several pages does someone think of mentioning that Chichikov has both arms and both legs. The postmaster admits that he was wrong, and sits down; Kopeikin is not mentioned again. Why the postmaster had thought Kopeikin was Chichikov in the first place is not explained.

The pace of the narration is slow – for modern readers, perhaps, too slow for a comedy: but it is in the narrator’s eccentric voice that so much of the comedy resides – a voice apparently gentle and friendly and even reasonable, and yet, we suspect, utterly insane. And for that voice to establish itself, a slowness of pace is required. The narrative, such as it is, unfolds at a leisurely pace, and that leisurely pace may perhaps suggest a certain gentleness: but the sheer bizarre nature of the content, full of mad non-sequiturs and irrelevant and often grotesque details, belies any sense of the gentle. Gogol had seemingly intended this narrative to be the first part of a trilogy that was to reflect Dante’s vision of Inferno, Purgatory and Paradise: what we see here is no less than Gogol’s vision of Inferno itself. The Dead Souls of the title are not merely the dead peasants.

It is hard to imagine how these Dead Souls presented here could be redeemed, as Gogol had intended: it is hard to imagine what Gogol’s Purgatorio and Paradiso may have been like. Gogol never completed his grandiose project. Towards the end of his life (he died when still in his early 40s), he became dangerously insane, developed a sort of religious mania, and seemingly starved himself to death. And, during these last terrible days, he burnt what he had written of the second part of Dead Souls. (There exists a quite horrific painting by Ilya Repin of Gogol burning the manuscript.) Some fragments of this second part have, however, survived, and all modern English editions dutifully include these chapters, but I find them distressingly banal and uninspired. Gogol may have aspired towards redemption, but it seems to me unlikely that his imagination could conceive of anything but the hellish. The rather hellish last days of Gogol’s own life are perhaps not surprising.

What we get in this novel – or this “poem”, as Gogol insisted it to be – is a vision of Hell itself. But things are never simple with Gogol. From our viewpoint, we may think this to be the Hell of a slave-owning society; and yet, Gogol was firmly in favour of serfdom (slavery by another name), and opposed strongly liberal campaigns for emancipation. It is hard, at least for me, to imagine what really went on in that very strange mind of his. I generally try to heed the well-worn advice of “trust the book, not the writer”, but it becomes difficult here to try to put out of mind details of Gogol’s own life and opinions.

In this third reading, the sense of an Inferno seemed more apparent than had previously been the case. It’s a comic Inferno, certainly, but comedy and seriousness are by no means mutually incompatible. Somehow, the comedy renders this Inferno all the more disturbing: as with the farting devils of Dante, the comedy, if anything, intensifies the horror. Here is world that is utterly grotesque, but presented with such vividness and, despite its slow pace, animated with such vitality, that the effect it had on Russian literary culture, and, one suspects, on the Russian mind itself, is tremendous, and can hardly be over-estimated. That drab Gogolian town became for succeeding writers – for Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy and Chekhov, for Saltykov-Schedrin – the very image of Hell itself. I know of nothing quite like this outside Russian literature: in no other literature that I know of has a physical location become so firmly entrenched as also a moral and psychological landscape. But Gogol could not transcend this landscape, much though he longed to, any more than could the characters of Saltykov-Schedrin’s utterly bleak and desolate novel The Golovlyov Family. This is a Hell in which we still remain trapped.

Initial impressions of Dante’s “Inferno”

It is presumptuous to set out to “review” something such as Dante’s Inferno. Even at best, what one reviews is not so much the poem itself, but one’s reactions to the poem. Entire  books can be written – indeed, have been written – about how this poem, or the larger poem of which this is but the first part, has echoed through the arts and literatures of the Western world through the centuries; it is so permanent a fixture in the culture of the Western world that anything other than scholarly exegesis appears pointless. For what can I, a mere novice to this work, encountering it for the first time (and in translation at that) in my 50s, say anything at all that could possibly be of interest to anyone else?

But that is one of the beauties of the internet: one may make the most vapid and thoughtless statements about the most intricate and complex of works, and it can count as a “review”. During my first forays into the cyberworld all those years ago, it used, I remember, to irritate me to read that Hamlet was not too bad once you sort of got into it, or that Anna Karenina had boring patches that really sucked, or that it was really kind of hard to get into Great Expectations, or identify with any of the characters in Madame Bovary, and so on. Nowadays, such comments tend to amuse me, although I still wonder why people who appear to have so little understanding of what literature is should feel the need to pass judgement on public fora on matters that clearly go far above their heads, and be so utterly lacking in humility as to imagine themselves capable of seeing through works that generations of the finest minds have revered to the point of idolatry.

But now, it seems, I am about to join their ranks: I am about to write what passes on the net as a “review” of a work that, frankly, went over my head, but which has been intensely admired across generations and across cultures by the most refined of tastes and by the most acute of intellects. So yes, Dante’s Inferno really was kind of hard to get into, the boring patches really did suck, it was hard to identify with any of the characters, but, for all that, once you did get into it, it really wasn’t too bad. And if that reads like a poor attempt at satire (which it is), it’s only fair to warn the reader beforehand that what follows is unlikely to be much better. But I did set up this blog to record my thoughts on my reading, and so I might as well get down to it.

The first issue I had to grapple with was how I should take this. Taking it literally was, of course, quite out of the question: indeed, Dante himself used the word “allegory” to describe this poem, although I am not sufficiently knowledgeable about early 14th century Italian culture to know what Dante may have meant by the word. But that still leaves open the question: as a reader in the early 21st century, if I cannot take this work literally, how should I take it? If it is indeed an allegory, what is it an allegory of?

The question remained an open one in the early cantos, in which one is carried along by the sheer vividness of the images: that fearful forest in which the poet is lost half-way through the path of life; the wolf and the lion, and the leopard that allures even as it terrifies; these are all, even at first reading, striking, to say the least. And, famously, the pagan poet Virgil is Dante’s guide. As with every other aspect of this poem, this has been endlessly discussed, but one reason for making Virgil his guide is surely to acknowledge Virgil’s influence. As in Milton’s poetry, the imaginative world of this poem seems at least classical as it is Christian: the Styx, Charon, the Gorgons – all these figures from classical mythology reappear, and the Sixth Book of Virgil’s Aeneid, with its depiction of a journey into the pagan Underworld, never seems too far away.

But somehow, the world medieval Christianity seems more distant to us now than does the classical world. What are we nowadays to make of all these people – many of them real people – assigned by a Christian God to everlasting torment? I think I got a semblance of an answer to this in the famous fifth canto, in which the adulterous Francesca and her lover Paolo, clasped tightly together, whirl aimlessly in the winds. Dante’s reactions are sympathetic: he records that he swoons after hearing Francesca’s story. There is certainly no indication that he approves of the divine punishment meted out to the guilty lovers: and yet, here they are in Hell: no matter how sympathetic Dante may be, God presumably isn’t.

But this does not seem to me so much a critique, nor even a vindication, of God’s judgement: that’s more Milton’s theme than Dante’s. For Francesca’s fate brought to mind another literary adulteress – Emma Bovary: I remembered particularly that scene where she, clasped close in sexual embrace to her lover Léon in a carriage with the blinds drawn down, whirl aimlessly for hour after hour through the streets of Rouen.  And it seemed to me that Dante was depicting in his allegorical manner what Flaubert depicted a few centuries afterwards – the Hell we make for ourselves by our own actions. Sometimes, the Hell we make is made by evil deeds; at other times, as with Francesca da Rimini, or, indeed, with Emma Bovary, the Hell is created by foolishness, by failure to understand things rightly. Some other times, as with Anna Karenina, Hell is created because these people, being who they are, could not do otherwise.

This, I am sure, is far from the only way to read the Inferno. It may not even be the most rewarding way to read it, as it no doubt obscures other equally important approaches. But, at my first reading, it worked for me. Only by relating this poem to literature with which I was already familiar could I make some sense out of it. The sins that have brought these people into this Hell are, to a lesser or greater extent, a betrayal of their potential as humans: Francesca, for instance, did not understand the meaning of love. She speaks the word “amor” often – “amor”, love, has brought her, she says, to this, but, like Flaubert’s Emma, she has but a faint understanding of what the word means. And even out of this is Hell created.

We later meet with characters who have committed deeds far more heinous, but at each instance, they either misunderstood or ignored or pretended not to know the diverse potentials of humanity. I was even reminded at times of Ibsen’s late masterpiece John Gabriel Borkman, in which Ella Rentheim accuses Borkman of that one crime for which, she says, there can be no forgiveness – the killing of love in another person. In their different ways, the inmates of Dante’s Inferno have all killed love – even Francesca, who insists that it was love that had brought her here.

We meet with all sorts of evil here. Shakespeare’s Macbeth had been happy to “skip the life to come”: he had been concerned only with “here, but here, upon this bank and shoal of time”. Lady Macbeth too had been concerned with “here, but here”: she had desired so complete a darkness to descend upon the earth that even her knife should not see the wound it makes. But by the time the play ends, they are both in Hell: existence for Macbeth is a meaningless tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow, this bank and shoal of time no more than a futile eternity, with each day undifferentiated from the day that had preceded it, or the day that will follow; and Lady Macbeth, who had called upon darkness to envelop the world, has to have a light always about her, for her Hell, as she knows, is “murky”. To experience this play is not to take satisfaction of two wicked characters getting their come-uppance: rather, it is to share in the overwhelming horror of the Hell these humans have made. And it is this same sense of overwhelming horror one finds in the Inferno in its most sombre passages. It is the Hell we create when we fail to understand what we, as humans, may be.

Reading over that last paragraph, that final sentence strikes me as too schematic a summary of a work of great complexity. However, complexity cannot be grasped in its entirety – at least, not at first reading; so simplification, sadly, is inevitable. But how can such simplification account for those many passages of crude, knockabout humour and comic-strip horrors that are also apparent here? I wish I knew. For Dante’s Inferno isn’t always sombre, and if some parts make us laugh, it may be reasonable to infer that Dante intended us to laugh.

But if the Hell we make for ourselves is the Hell that comes about when we betray our human potential, then how do we account for the famous Canto of Ulysses? In Canto 26, we meet the great hero of Homer’s Odyssey, and who is also, suitably transformed, the hero of Joyce’s Ulysses. But unlike the other classical figures, he is not in Limbo: he is in Hell. Why? His lines are some of the most magnificent in all literature, and, in a famous chapter in If This is a Man, Primo Levi’s account of his experiences in Auschwitz, Levi relates how, even in the midst of the very real Hell which he had inhabited, these lines had suddenly seemed to him the most important thing in the world:

  “O frati”, dissi “che per cento milia
perigli siete giunti a l’occidente,
a questa tanto picciola vigilia

d’i nostri sensi ch’è del rimanente
non vogliate negar l’esperïenza,
di retro al sol, del mondo sanza gente.

Considerate la vostra semenza:
fatti non foste a viver come bruti,
ma per seguir virtute e canoscenza”.

   “Brothers”, I said, “a hundred thousand
perils have you passed and reached the Occident.
for us, so little time remains to keep

   the vigils of our living sense. Do not
deny your will to win experience,
behind the sun, of worlds where no man dwells.

   hold clear in your thought your seed and origin.
You were not made  to live as mindless brutes,
but go in search of virtue and true knowledge.”

(Translated by Robin Kirkpatrick)

This is the voice of the questing Faust, of Prometheus. It is not hard to see why a passage such as this should have made so great an impact on the Romantics. Here is the origin of one of Tennyson’s most splendid poems, but Tennyson’s view of Ulysses was unambiguously admiring: Dante’s isn’t. His Ulysses, after all, is in Hell.

It is not, I think, that Dante does not see the glory or the heroism of Ulysses’ striving:  were that the case, he couldn’t have given Ulysses lines so magnificent and so heroic. But Dante also knows that Ulysses, in his heroic striving, has broken bonds that should be precious:

né dolcezza di figlio, né la pieta
del vecchio padre, né ‘l debito amore
lo qual dovea Penelopè far lieta,

vincer potero dentro a me l’ardore…

   … no tenderness for son, no duty owed
To ageing fatherhood, no love that should
Have brought my wife Penelope delight, 

   Could overcome in me my long desire… 

(Translated by Robin Kirkpatrick)

This image of the man who sacrifices all for his striving towards an ideal is also familiar to us: he may be heroic, as is Ibsen’s Brand, or Dr Stockmann in An Enemy of the People; but he is also dangerous. By the time this figure appears in The Wild Duck, he is Gregers Werle, a fanatic, a man who is, perhaps, mentally unstable. And all these aspects are in Dante’s Ulysses: the striving is heroic, magnificent, but, as Ibsen was to know, even that can create its own Hell.

In the final canto, Dante and Virgil come face to face with the Devil himself. But this is not, I think, the climactic section of the poem. The Devil here is not like Milton’s Satan: there is nothing about this figure that intrigues of fascinates. Later generations could speak of Milton being on the Devil’s side without knowing it, but such a comment could not be made about Dante. To Dante, evil is unremarkable – mere brute, lumpen stupidity, lacking in any feature that may, even superficially, be considered attractive. The climactic point of Inferno had, I think, come in the previous canto, with its grotesque picture of Count Ugolino and Archbishop Ruggieri in the frozen lake, the former gnawing for all eternity into the latter’s brain. Such an image may be so grotesque as to appear comic, but it there isn’t a trace here even of black comedy, any more than there is of fascination. For Dante, evil wasn’t fascinating: it was merely nauseating, disgusting, a perversion of all that humans are capable of  being.


Given my very limited acquaintance with a work one could spend one’s entire life studying, I really don’t know that I can give anything more than a record of some initial impressions. Having come to this work relatively late in life, I doubt I’ll ever get to know it as well as I should. Certainly, there was much at this first reading that I found puzzling, that went way over my head. But one has to live with that: one can’t give everything the attention they deserve. In the meantime I think I’ll give Dante a bit of a rest before moving on to the Purgatorio. No doubt, there will be much there also that will go over my head, but perhaps a little learning need not be so a dangerous thing when one is aware of how little that learning is!

Literature and religion

Well, it had to be done. I have, this week, started to read Dante. Not in the original, of course – I am a very poor linguist – but in Robin Kirkpatrick’s translations, which come with detailed introductions and copious commentaries and notes, invaluable for someone like myself, shamefully ignorant as I am both of the historical and the cultural context of the Commedia. And it is a dual language edition, so I can, at least from time to time, glance across to the Italian text to get at least a feel of what the original sounds like. 

So why Dante? Well, life is too short for anything but the best. And how do I know this ranks among the best? Well, I don’t, of course. But given that one cannot check everything out for one’s own self, one has to rely to a great extent on the judgement of others – one has to go by reputation. Which is not to say that one abnegates one’s own judgement, of course; but one’s judgement can only be applied to what one has already read, and, except in the obvious cases of twaddle that are recognisable from a mere extract or two, this judgement doesn’t take one very far in deciding what to read next from that vast and as yet unknown ocean of literature. One has little choice but to rely on reputation. 

In a recent post, I suggested that the four most significant pillars of Western literature are Homer, Dante, Cervantes and Shakespeare. This is contentious, of course – not for what has been included, but for what has been left out: what about the Greek tragedians, one may ask? Or the Romans? And why stop at the early 18th century? – why not move on to Goethe and Heine and Pushkin, or to Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, or on into modernism? Indeed. This is why trying to compile lists of these things, or attempting to define the criteria of inclusion into a literary canon, is such a fruitless activity. But however we define the literary canon, there is no-one whose place in it is more secure than Dante’s. To anyone with an interest in literature, this is a peak that just has to be scaled. 

But approaching something such as the Commedia leads to a somewhat awkward question: how should we, in our secular and disbelieving age, approach religious literature? And religious art as well, for that matter. And religious music. Of course, I do not mean to suggest that one has to have religious belief to appreciate or even love works with religious content: it should come as no surprise, for instance, to see Richard Dawkins choose Bach’s St Matthew Passion amongst his Desert Island Discs. But the question still remains: do we secularists appreciate such works despite their religious content? Or could it be that, despite our professed disbelief, we love these works because of it? 

I find this an endlessly fascinating question, and I fear there is no way to discuss this question without at least touching on that awkward and potentially embarrassing issue of one’s own religious beliefs, or lack of them. I would prefer not to go into this too deeply here, firstly because I am not at all learned in matters of theology, and secondly because it is an extremely contentious area, and whatever personal view I put forward, I am bound to anger and even alienate at least some of my readers. But if I am to write about literature (which is after all the primary purpose of this blog), then it’s hard to see how I can escape writing about religious literature; and if I am to write about religious literature, my own religious (or irreligious) outlook is far from irrelevant. So, with apologies beforehand to anyone whom I might offend, I might as well take a deep breath and dive in: how do I, who profess no particular religious belief and who usually write “None” when asked to specify my religion on an official form, approach a work as the Commedia which is entirely imbued with Christian thought? Is it possible to take anything at all from the Commedia without, at the very least, a leap of the imagination into this world? And can one be capable of such a leap without having, at the very least, some sort of sympathy with religious belief? 

Before we dive into discussion of such matters, we should, I think, acknowledge that the extreme poles of devout belief and of unconditional disbelief are but that – poles; and that, between these poles, there are almost infinite shades of grey, almost infinite nuances. The very presence of these nuances is often denied by the Dawkinsites, who appear to insist that either one believes or one doesn’t, and that there can be no room for “I don’t believe but…”.  I think this is the first of many points where I part company with the Dawkinsites: far from dismissing this but as intellectual pusillanimity, as they appear to do, it is in this region of but that we find depth and richness: but for this but, our lives, beset as they would be with immutable certainties, would, to my mind, be arid indeed. It is in this region of but that the human imagination, without which there can be no art or music or literature – or even, for that matter, science – flourishes. Far from dismissing this but, let us welcome it, and look into it a bit deeper: but what

My own first tentative steps into this region of but are motivated by certain feelings – feelings of yearning and of awe – that I know I often have, but which I cannot articulate to any degree of precision. Vaguely defined though these feelings may be, I know I experience them when I listen to certain music, or when I read certain lines of poetry. And not just then: there are all sorts of occasions when I know I feel certain things that, for want of a better word, may be described as “transcendent”, since they appear to transcend the mere physicality of the world I inhabit. Now, it may well be that “appear” is the key word here, and that these feelings of transcendence are no more than my synapses synapsing and my neurons doing whatever it is neurons are supposed to do. Yes, perhaps. But do I want to see myself as no more than a collection of neurons and synapses? The answer, for all my professed rationality, is “No, I don’t”. It may well be that I am no more than the sum of my constituent physical parts, but there is a very big part of me – no doubt deeply irrational – that rebels at such an idea. The Dawkinsites will tell me to amputate away that irrational part of myself , but I cannot. And neither, frankly, do I want to. Those who demand that, out of respect for rationality, we deny ourselves these feelings, might as well demand that we deny ourselves feelings of sexual desire, which, after all, are equally irrational. Of course, some have exhorted us to do just that, but they have been no more successful than I think Dawkins & co will be in their exhortations. Irrational or not, there are some aspects of our humanity that we cannot reasonably be expected to part with; and insisting, like some modern Pentheus, that we do so , seems to me unrealistic, and possibly, as Pentheus himself found, dangerous. 

But at this stage, the Dawkinsite may ask: “What about the truth? Does that count for nothing?” But, in keeping with their oft-stated dictum that everything must be challenged, I think it is worth challenging, at least as an intellectual exercise, the belief (for it is no more than that) that the importance of truth overrides everything else. Can we be sure of this? What if the truth makes us unhappy? What if the truth diminishes the richness of our lives? This is not to deny the importance of the truth, but if everything should be questioned, then let us, as Ibsen did in play after play, question also the nature of truth itself, and of the human capacity to apprehend it, and also its importance when balanced against other claims. And let us not assume that we are in full possession of the truth in the first place: such  an assumption is, to say the least, highly questionable. 

It is at this point I realise how far I am from being that sceptical, rational creature I like to imagine myself. I’m not. But it doesn’t follow that I must therefore be a credulous, superstitious fool, for, contrary to Dawkinsite doctrine, it’s not merely a case of adhering either to one pole or the other: there are many shades of grey in between, and these shades must be acknowledged. True, I’m not entirely sure on what shade of grey in this in-between I stand on: indeed, I am not even sure I stand at all – our lives are not static, and neither are our frames of mind, even from one moment to the next. It is this constant flux in the unfathomable depths of our minds that gives our lives whatever richness they have: in this sense, uncertainty is not merely to be rejected – it is to be welcomed. 

It is with all this in mind that I approach religious literature. For I know I am not alone in feeling as I do: all human societies, in all parts of the world and in all times, no matter how primitive or how sophisticated, have had a belief in what may be termed– once again, very vaguely, for we have no vocabulary to express these things precisely – “spiritual”, i.e. something other than the physical. This inclines me to suspect that our yearnings towards spirituality, towards transcendence, towards whatever vaguely defined term we care to use, are innate, and cannot, for all the Dawkinsite exhortations, be wished away. And neither, I think, should we wish to wish them away. 

Beyond this, I don’t know that I am prepared to speculate. If I were asked if I believe in a personal God, I’d answer I probably don’t – “probably”, because I don’t know what shade of grey I may be on at any given moment. But despite my agnosticism, possibly leaning towards (but no more than possibly leaning towards) atheism, I do often find in religious writing – or in religious music, or in religious art – an expression of something which I cannot adequately describe, but which I know is far from alien to my sensibilities. That towards which we yearn may well be illusory for all I know, but the yearning itself isn’t. So, when I find myself in a state of rapture when listening, say, to Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis; or when I find myself responding to the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins describing a world charged with the grandeur of God; or when I am moved by Rubens’ Descent From the Cross; I rather suspect I am affected because of, and not despite, the religious content of these works. 

So, onwards and upwards, as they say: Dante. Given its reputation, it’s a bit daunting, but there’s no point merely sticking in an apprehensive toe into the water: one just has to dive in, and hope for the best. And of course, one cannot read something like the Commedia without knowing the Bible. My own knowledge of the Bible has mostly been absorbed from secondary sources: until, say, a couple or so years ago, I had read very little of the Bible.  Oh, of course, I paid lip service to it: it’s a pillar of Western civilisation; our entire culture, the norms of the society we live in, all flow from the book; the King James version is among the great literary miracles of the world; and so on, and so forth. It was far easier paying this lip service than actually reading the thing. So, after I finished my reading of all the Shakespeare plays about a couple of years ago, I decided that I really had to get to know the Bible at first hand. Since then, I have been reading through it, book by book (it’s not a volume that should be rushed through) – for, of course, the Bible is not a single book, but an entire library. And soon, I shall be tackling the Book of Psalms, which, a friend of mine (who I hope is reading this, and from whom I’ve nicked without permission quite a bit of the contents of this post – I’m sure he knows what I’m talking about) once described to me as “food for the soul”.  Well, in for a penny, in for a pound, as they say – not only will I be diving into Dante, I plan also to dive into the Book of Psalms, with the aid only of the renowned Tyndale Old Testament commentaries by Derek Kidner. And, depending on how my reading progresses, and how much I can take in, I hope to be reporting on those one hundred and fifty psalms, one by one, on this blog. For whoever may be interested. 

No more boasting like a fool – this deed I’ll do before the purpose cool.