Friday, December 01, 2006


I haven't felt like posting here much recently. The only events which I felt like blogging about were recent deaths of notables like Milton Friedman, but for some reason I hesitated.

I like obituaries though. I know some of the reasons why I do.

  • They are faintly morbid. I like gentle reminders that none of us will be around forever.
  • They allow new information about familiar people to emerge. Sometimes the truth about someone only starts to emerge when they are gone. Who they were related to, or who their enemies were. How they got to be that person in the first place.
  • I like the sense of a person being parcelled up and summarised. Or the vain attempt to do it, at least. It's like dipping into Aubrey's Brief Lives.
  • Very often I only find out about someone, or why they mattered in the grand scheme of things, when they die and their lives are put in context.

I don't like it when you have to read the same boring business about someone again and again - obits have to be fresh and readable, with a bit of new gossip in there.

I don't like pretending that you liked someone after all. I do like finding out that you cared for someone more than you realised. For instance, I'm a bit of a grump about the BBC, but was sorry to hear about Nick Clarke. He seemed a nice gent.

There's a book out for sickos like me who like obituaries. It's an area I'd like to find out more about although I wouldn't want to join the society of obituarists that it apparently talks about.

If I can find a way of blogging about obits which isn't just a rehash of the same material presented elsewhere, I will try to blog about them more in future.

Not just the Inferno

The Economist has a new translation of Dante's Divine Comedy and considers why it's a work that has lasted.

Dante speaks to us in an impassioned human voice that is often aggrieved and vengeful. He wanders through a mysterious world of arcane theology. But many of the monsters who wallow in the depths of his imaginative creation are ones we recognise. They are like us. Which may be why we still cleave to his great poem.

But the book is not just about recognisable monsters. The monsters only occur in the Inferno.

Not being a proper book reviewer, I can only take a very rough approach as to why the Divine Comedy has survived.

It is like a complete upload of Dante's brain. He put the contents of his head into a poem, a poem written in a form of his own devising, as the perfect container for it.

Dante's brain had a lot of basic knowledge of humanity in it, as well as a great knowledge of his times, and the philosophy and theology behind his times.

He used ground-breaking artistry to put it down permanently in a form that would be accessible for the ages.

Many modern readers will have one key problem in finishing the book. Once you get past the monsters and gripping horrors of the Inferno, there's one primary reason to keep reading, and that is the revelation of religious truth as Dante understood it. Which would have been a life and death matter to him and his original readers.

If you have a modern scepticism about Christianity (whether our version of it or Dante's), you will be sceptical about the profound truths that Dante is gradually unfolding, as he treks on through Purgatory and into Paradise.

You have less incentive to turn the pages. Your life is not at stake in the same way. It's impossible not to realise what league Dante was in, though.

As an aside, I wondered if Dante made it seem like a good idea for poetry to pile up a crust of obscure details, given that he was admired by Eliot and Pound. (The edition I read was the one given the thumbs up by Hugh Kenner.)