Friday, December 01, 2006

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.)

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