Sunday, July 27, 2008

Preliminary notes on reading Dante

I'm reading The Inferno, in the translation by Robert & Jean Hollander. In recent months, when short of time but wanting to read something, I've read the opening verses several times. Not intending to read the whole, but getting a taste, to see what it was like. I read:
Midway in the journey of our life
I came to myself in a dark wood,
for the straight way was lost.

Ah, how hard it is to tell
the nature of that wood, savage, dense and harsh--
the very thought of it renews my fear!

It is so bitter death is hardly more so.
But to set forth the good I found
I will recount the other things I saw.

How I came there I cannot really tell,
I was so full of sleep
when I forsook the one true way.
To my delight, I found I could read it, that I knew, finally, that I really wanted to. Where formerly I'd considered Dante as one of those writers I'd read, if I ever got around to it, only out of some misplaced sense of duty--one ought to read Dante, at least The Inferno--now I knew that I wanted to experience the work for itself.

I kept returning to those opening verses, without feeling the need, yet, to move forward in the narrative. Here was a voice, in time, with a story difficult to relate. "Midway in the journey of our life" - "the straight way was lost" - "I cannot really tell" - "so full of sleep": these were words pulling me in, making me want to read on, though for now I just wanted to stay here.

I read through the first canto. Then I read Robert Hollander's notes following. In verses 32 to 54 of this first canto, the poet encounters three beasts barring his way up the hill--a leopard, a lion, and a she-wolf. In the notes Hollander touches on the discussion surrounding the nature and source of these beasts. Are their sources biblical? Do they represent the mortal sins "lust, pride, and avarice"? Are they emblematic of something Virgil later refers to as "the three dispositions Heaven opposes, incontinence, malice, and mad brutishness"? Do they stand in for different elements of Dante's contemporary political concerns? I read these notes, and the old sense of unease creeps back in. What basis do I have for deciding? In fact, it's worse than that: when I read the verses, to me these beasts are simply beasts. Biblical or classical (or, certainly, political) allusions do not come to mind, because they are unavailable to me. So I worry, again, about reading in the right order, that perhaps now is not a good time to tackle Dante. I should wait till I've read, and no doubt sufficiently understood, Virgil, Ovid, the Bible. And where does it end? How far back does one go before one is justified in simply reading?

But back to the beasts: why can't they be just beasts? And what happened to that voice and my response to it? I return to Hollander's introduction, in which he makes note of the "enormous apparatus that has attached itself to" the poem. Centuries of commentary, line-by-line analysis, interpretive controversies, and so on. He discusses the problem of allegory, which is the problem tripping me up with the three beasts in the first canto. I'm not going to rehearse the points about allegory here, but he says enough to persuade me that allegory is not the key to The Inferno.

And yet, though some brief notes are helpful, each time I read one of these sorts of notes, somewhat longer notes about interpretive controversies and the like, I get distracted, I feel that anxiety, now faint, now stronger, making me doubt my current reading. But do I really think I'm expected to get it all with one reading? When I have thought about reading things in the proper order, reading this to enhance my ability to enhance that, am I not implicitly denying the possibility of re-reading? Doesn't this sort of anxiety return me to the realm of single readings, where I try to cram it all in, read everything? Doesn't seven centuries of controversy and commentary tell me that people have returned to this poem again and again? Do I really expect that line-by-line readings happen with initial readings? Can't these beasts then re-emerge simply as beasts?

Yes, it turns out, they can. I decide to read on, into the poem, beyond the first canto. And that voice is still there, drawing me in.


Anonymous said...

Dante sits on my bookshelf in a similarly intimidating way. Perhaps he could have written a (three volume?) preface to the three volumes and titled it The Inferno Is Hellish.

Richard said...

Yeah, no kidding!

Unknown said...

I felt the same way, then I just said 'to hell with it' (pun intended). Here's what I did, it may help you. I read the Inferno entirely in English, all the way through (it really is a relatively short book).

I am now reading it a second time. First, I read the Italian verse aloud and then the corresponding English verse aloud. Part of the wonder of the comedy is that it is written in verse (!), which is lost when reading it in English.

I understand a little Italian but Dante is to modern Italian what Shakespeare is to modern English. I am enjoying much more this way.

I hope to then (and only then) re-read it again with the notes. My two cents.

Richard said...

Thanks, Marco.

I did read the poem through, finally. Though I did stop and at least skim all of the notes after each canto.

I like your idea of reading the Italian and then English aloud. I don't have Italian, but it might prove an interesting approach on a re-read (my plan is to re-read The Inferno before moving on to the next two parts.