LONDON, ONTARIO – “So this guy goes to Hell,” Little Loss told me in our tenth or eleventh winter as we were waiting around for some of the other guys to come out for a game of road hockey. “And the Devil’s showing him around the place and tells him he’s got to choose one of these rooms to live in forever. In one room people are burning up. In another room, they’re all getting whipped and in this other room people are getting chewed up by rats. Then they come to a room where all these guys are standing around in shit up to their necks drinking coffee. ‘Sure, it’s disgusting’ he figures, ‘but at least in here I won’t be in constant pain.’ So that’s the room he chooses and they give him a cup of coffee and in he goes. He’s introducing himself to some of the other guys and asking, ‘Why doesn’t everybody choose this room?’ when the Devil pokes his head in through this little window in the door and says, ‘Okay, boys. Coffee break’s over. Back on your heads’.”
We both thought that joke was pretty high-larious but what I didn’t realize until a couple of years ago when I finally got around to reading The Divine Comedy was that Little Loss was actually channeling Dante Alighieri (1265 – 1321). When Dante’s 750th birthday was recently celebrated in Italy, Pope Francis invited Catholics all over the world to take up and read one of the cornerstone works of Western and Christian civilization as an act of preparation for the extraordinary Holy Year of Mercy. Francis declared that Dante was “a prophet of hope, herald of the possibility of redemption, liberation and the profound transformation of every man and woman, of all humanity.”
Citing the imagery of The Divine Comedy in his remarks and concluding with a quote of the final line of the 100th and final canto, Francis said, “We are able to enrich ourselves with [Dante’s] experience in order to cross the many dark forests still scattered on our earth and to happily complete our pilgrim story, to reach the destination dreamed of and wished for by everyone: ‘The love that moves the sun and other stars’.”
Dante’s great poem is a trilogy, growing out of a vision he experienced in his 35th year. Losing his way in a dark wood, the author/narrator has experienced a crisis of conscience that he is not living his life as he ought to be and after praying for help is taken on a tour of Hell and Purgatory and Heaven over the course of one week. Through Hell and Purgatory he is guided by the pre-Christian era poet, Virgil, whom the narrator esteems as a philosopher who did his best to act in accordance with reason and morality as he was able to discern it from natural law. Being unbaptized, Virgil cannot lead him further and for his tour of Heaven, Dante is guided by Beatrice, a devout woman he knew and loved from afar who died young and was someone he regarded for the rest of his life as the personification of divine philosophy enlightened by revelation.
I’d long intended to read The Divine Comedy but an occasional quick scan of its pages always signaled to me, “Not yet.” This masterwork was situated so far outside my literary comfort zone, that it seemed I was going to have to acquire a passport of some kind to ever get into it. However once you’ve turned 60, the gig is up for this sort of procrastination. At this point you have to start asking, “If not now, then when? In another 20 years when my brain has started to attain the consistency of porridge?” So I stiffened my resolve and took up the Papal challenge.
As someone who unapologetically uses modern commentaries to assist my comprehension of Shakespeare (who wrote 300 years closer to our own time and did so in English, not Italian) I did what I could to prepare the ground by reading studies and essays on Dante by Don A. Hardon (SJ), A.N. Wilson, Dorothy L. Sayers, Barbara Reynolds and T.S. Eliot. By these worthy folk I was persuaded that the challenges of faithfully carrying over the sense, the meaning and the imagery of all those terza rima cantos from one language to another (and one era to another) were daunting enough without also requiring my chosen translator to consistently concoct apposite rhymes as well.
I finally settled on a highly regarded translation by American professor of Medieval and Renaissance studies, Anthony Esolen. Chock-a-block with historical notes (which I badly needed) and reproducing the magnificent engraved plates of 19th century illustrator Gustave Dore (my long enjoyment of these was greatly intensified by finally reading what inspired them), Esolen’s three volumes – Inferno, Purgatory and Paradise – were sequentially published in Random House’s Modern Library series from 2002–04. Recognizing that absolute consistency is the hallmark of an unimaginative mind, Esolen writes in his introduction to Inferno, “If I find a rhyme in my path I will use it, but will not turn things inside out for its sake; some ten percent or more of the lines do rhyme.”
Interestingly, the ratio of rhyming steadily increases in the subsequent two volumes (while Dore’s illustrations become fewer, less detailed and more airy) as the subject matter becomes more conceptual and spiritual, less earthily concrete.
Over the centuries Inferno is the volume that has been most generally read. From the sign posted over the gates of Hades (‘Abandon all hope you who enter here’) to the concept of outer and inner circles of Hell with punishments intensifying as you proceed along the downward spiral, there is much in that volume which still has common currency today. What I wasn’t so prepared for was not just the gruesomeness but the comic grotesqueness (including Little Loss-type references to flatulence and excrement) of some of the punishments meted out in Hell to all sorts of people including a good number of Popes and Kings. Little loss would take particular delight from the punishment doled out to flatterers in Canto 18: “So there we climbed, and in the trench I saw / people plunged deep in just the sort of dung / you dump from privies and latrines”.
While some of the encounters Dante has in Hell carry the suggestion of score-settling (and give the impression that he had been personally familiar with a sizable fraction of the underworld's suffering population), the great poem over all does reinforce the central idea that it is how we conduct ourselves over the course of our earthly lives that determines our eternal destiny. And Dante’s own wrenching experiences of exile and loss profoundly affected his imagination and his capacity to envisage these separate and discrete worlds of Hell, Purgatory and Heaven. It’s far too complex and tangled to go into here, but by aligning himself with the losing side in the churning cauldron of internecine Florentine politics during his young manhood (when there was precious little separation between church and state) Dante was banished from his beloved native city in 1302 and lived in exile until the end of his days. He was never to see his wife again and only renewed contact with three of his adult children towards the end of his life.
My own favourite of the three volumes was Purgatory. This for me – I’m not sure if Pope Francis would concur – is where the ‘mercy’ starts to come flooding in. After long immersion in such an utterly hopeless realm as Inferno, it was so encouraging to finally find oneself in the company of characters who thrived in the knowledge that their prayers had been answered and their forgiveness granted by a merciful God. Paradoxically, Purgatory is a mountain that becomes easier to climb the higher you rise and the closer you come to Paradise. Those laden down at the base of the hill, are practically leaping by the time they approach the top.
The Divine Comedy was a demanding slog for me, punctuated every 20 cantos or so by diving into other more immediately congenial books for relief or perhaps as a sort of literary palate cleanser. But I’m pleased to have finally read it, to have acquired a deeper experience of a masterwork that has shaped so much of our culture and even influenced the jokes of 11 year-old boys. Perhaps its most salutary reward for me has been to serve as a check against any vanity I might be tempted to feel as a reader; making me aware of my inadequacies when it comes to extracting the full meaning from certain texts. Having made it through my inaugural voyage and learned the lay of the land, it’s conceivable that perhaps a decade down the line, I might return for another tour of these richly imagined worlds. Next time, I think I’ll go with the fully rhymed translation by Dorothy L. Sayers whose novels, essays and letters I’ve long revered.
ILLUSTRATION: Gustave Dore, The Divine Comedy, Canto 18: The punishment of the Flatterers [detail]
THE AQUINAS LECTURE
G.K. CHESTERTON AND THE GIFT OF GRATITUDE
Monday, January 28
St. Peter's Seminary
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