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Posts about Dante
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When we go to Italy (on Tuesday) I will bring with me two books. One is a bilingual edition of Pinsky's translation of the Inferno (not that I can read Italian -- but it seemed like nice to have available for understanding how the poetry should sound); and the other is Dawkins' "The Ancestor's Tale". I got that on an impulse at Coliseum Books yesterday afternoon and have been reading it with enthusiasm ever since. Dawkins is such a great, engaging writer -- the one thing that puts me off about this book is how frequently he feels compelled to point out that evolution is a fact and creationism a bizarre fraud; but I recognize the necessity of his doing so.
I've been thinking about re-reading the Inferno ever since my birthday -- 35 seems like a good age to look at it again. And our trip to Florence will provide a nice context.
posted afternoon of August 20th, 2005: Respond ➳ More posts about Inferno
I was looking through my bookshelf today for something to read, and thinking, I really need something different, a change of pace. Well what caught my eye was the Inferno, which I have been meaning to read for a while -- since 2005, when I bought this translation. I read the book a long time ago, in high school, in a different translation, and maybe again in college; but I think my ear has developed enough since then that I will get a lot out of rereading it now. So here I go!
Reading the Inferno today and I was having a little trouble with figuring out what it should sound like. So I took the obvious path and started reading aloud. And what a revelation! I think I am going to read this whole book aloud -- the sound is lovely and I'm understanding it better. I think I "get" terza rima now, the way it leads you through the canto; Pinsky's introduction was helpful in this regard, but what really made it concrete was to listen to the reading.
My sense of reading poetry aloud has been heavily influenced by Heany's reading (or "declamation"?) of Beowulf, which I've been listening to a lot in the last couple of weeks.
Try reading this aloud:
"My son," said the gentle master, "here are joined The souls of all who die in the wrath of God, From every country, all of them eager to find
Their way across the water -- for the goad Of Divine Justice spurs them so, their fear Is transmuted to desire. Souls who are good
Never pass this way; therefore, if you hear Charon complaining at your presence, consider What that means." Then, the earth of that grim shore
Began to shake: so violently, I shudder And sweat recalling it now. A wind burst up From the tear-soaked ground to erupt red light and batter
My senses -- and so I fell, as though seized by sleep.
-- See how the meter leads you on through the passage. I'm finding it impossible to stop reading in the middle of a canto.
"Pape Satàn, pape Satàn, aleppe!" Plutus began in a gutteral, clicking voice. The courteous sage who knew all reassured me:
"Don't let fear harm you; whatever power he has Cannot prevent us climbing down this rock.
It seems to me like that "Pape Satàn, aleppe!" line was the first thing I ever knew from the Inferno. I think Eliot quotes it somewhere, probably in The Waste Land, and that my researching his quote in high school was the first thing that ever brought Dante to my attention. Could be misremembering though.
It baffles and delights me how Dante, a pious Christian, can sprinkle pagan deities and ideologies throughout his afterlife. He basically has to do it, because all his literary reference points are pre-Christian; I like that he does not seem embarrassed about it.
It occurs to me that I ought to read the rest of the Divine Comedy when I finish the Inferno, then read La Vita Nuova, and then I would probably have enough background to understand and like The New Life. Who knows, maybe I'll do it. I wonder if Dante's other works are available in reputable translations?
Update: Hmm, well seems like given that I like the terza rima, the Dorothy Sayers translation may be the only way to go for Purgatory and Paradise. All the other translations appear to be in prose or blank verse.
...Except Lawrence Binyon, which also has rhyme. Guess I will go to a bookstore and look at some of them side by side.
I've been looking through The Portable Dante -- I must admit I'm kind of bogging down in Inferno, reading it is feeling more like a chore than a pleasure. So I'm rethinking the idea of reading the full Commedia -- I prefer reading for pleasure. I was trying to compose a post about what in Dante is putting me off -- it is something to do with the difference between allegory and pedagogy, and Inferno having too much of the latter and too little of the former, but I'm not sure enough of myself writing about
literary technique to phrase this properly.
Dante's sonnets are nice. I don't think I've read any of them before except "To Guido Cavalcante", which I've seen anthologized in several places. But the niceness of them is more to do with the imagery than with the narrative content, which seems pretty cloying to me.
...nam eorum que sunt omnium soli homini datum est loqui, cum solum sibi necessarium fuerit.
Non angelis, non inferioribus animalibus necessarium fuit loqui, sed nequicquam datum fuisset eis: quod nempe facere natura aborret.
...To man alone of all existing beings was speech given, because to him alone was it necessary. Speech was not necessary for the angels or for the lower animals, but would have been given to them in vain, which nature, as we know, shrinks from doing.
I did a couple of double-takes going back and trying to figure out what "angels" is doing in that second sentence. Still not sure, but it makes for a lovely comic effect.
So my understanding of "allegory" is kind of vague, and I think mostly of examples of allegory rather than of a definition. So e.g.A White Bear was talking about The Phantom Tollbooth and The Wizard of Oz as examples of allegory, and I thought Sure -- ok, these stories tell about the main character being transported into an imaginary parallel reality where human character traits are cartoonishly represented by marvelous creatures, and learning/growing in the course of the experience. That matches up pretty well to my memory of learning the term "allegory" in high school English class.
So here's what I'm wondering about the Commedia: It fits that loose definition pretty well. But something is very different about it. In those books the lecturing about human virtue that is going on is beneath the surface, in the Commedia it is front and center. In those books the "main thing" is the story line and the character development of the main character, while the pedagogy is a side effect; in the Commedia the pedagogy is very much front and center, there hardly is a plot besides as much as there needs to be to keep the book moving. Is this a distinction between modern and classical allegory? Or just between these particular books? The pedagogy in The Phantom Tollbooth strikes me as much more effective than in the Inferno, but then I am not a 14th-C. Catholic.
"Or discendiam qua giù nel cieco mondo," cominciò il poeta tutto smorto. "Io sarò primo, e tu sarai secondo."
'Now let us descend into the blind world down there,' began the poet, gone pale. 'I will be first and you come after.'
In Borges' lecture on the Commedia, he says that his experience of reading the Italian text with a parallel, line-by-line translation taught him that "a translation cannot be a replacement for the original text: the translation may however serve as a means, a stimulus to bring the reader closer to the original." This seems arguable to me as applied to translations in general,* though I'm pretty sympathetic to the thought; but I think there's no arguing with the idea that this is the proper role for a bilingual edition of poetry, to bring the reader closer to the original, foreign text.
Last night Borges' lecture on Nightmares sent me off to review Canto IV of Inferno; I was reading it in the Princeton Dante Project's bilingual edition, and finding to my happy surprise that I could follow the Italian pretty well, using Borges' method of reading a tercet at a time slowly in Italian, then in English, then in Italian... This evening I wanted to take another look at the canto and sat down with Pinsky's translation (which is published as a bilingual edition), and discovered that a poetic translation does not serve the function of a parallel translation. Not recommended -- I am finding it strange that Farrar, Straus & Giroux thought it would be a good idea to print the original and Pinsky's translation side by side. Back to the bare-bones parallel translation for me, thanks. Below the fold is Vittorio Sermonti reading Canto IV -- his reading is slow enough and clear enough that I was able to follow along in the text and have a fair idea which word was which...