Archive for ‘Dante’


“…with this really ragged notion that you’d return…”

“I don’t much like poetry. Never have.” So declares Rod Dreher on the first page of How Dante Can Save Your Life, a memoir about that least sensational of modern experiences: reading a medieval book. As Dreher works his way through the Divine Comedy, he finds out how wrong he was—about poetry, about his family, about his failure to love as his religion demands. I’m tempted to call this book Dante and the Art of Fanboat Maintenance, but I can’t recall another recent example of a hesitant reader coming to Dante on such quirky and personal terms. People often use medievalism to escape their lives; Dreher looks to a medieval poet to help him find his again.

By his own telling, Dreher reached middle age feeling dreary and lost. After several years as a big-city journalist and pundit, he had moved with his wife and children back to his Louisiana hometown, where he never fit in. In the aftermath of his sister’s death, he butted heads with his family, especially his father, a sportsman and mechanic who loved him but was ill-equipped to have a bookish philosophy geek as a son. Dreher’s homecoming weighed him down with fatigue, depression, and chronic mononucleosis; a long religious journey from “mild, neighborly Methodism” to Catholicism to Eastern Orthodoxy brought little peace.

And then, in 2013, he picked up the Jean and Robert Hollander translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy:

This medieval masterpiece, perhaps the greatest poem ever written, reached me when I thought I was unreachable, and lit the way out of a dark wood of depression, confusion, and a stress-released autoimmune disease that, had it persisted, would have dangerously degraded my health.

Dante helped me understand the mistakes and mistaken beliefs that brought me to this dead end. He showed me that I had the power to change, and revealed to me how to do so. Most important of all, the poet gave me a renewed vision of life.

Like Dante, Dreher recounts his journey so others can find their way out of gloom:

Dante Alighieri wrote a book explaining how to do this—a user’s manual for the soul, you might call it—and cast it into the sea of time. There it remained, bobbing on the currents, until I came across it on a shelf I rarely browse in a bookstore I almost never visit. It was a message in a bottle. It was a sign. It was a gift and a source of grace that redeemed my exile and turned a tragedy that very nearly broke me into my own divina commedia—a story with a happy ending.

Although Dreher delved into scholarship to understand Dante more completely, his approach to the Divine Comedy is academically unfashionable. “This is not a literary analysis, it is a personal view,” he explains. “It’s a self-help book for people who may not read self-help books, but who are curious and delight in journeys of self-discovery along roads not often taken.”

The notion that medieval literature has therapeutic value will strike some readers as strange, but Dreher’s intentions aren’t trivial, nor are they unprecedented: Americans have long looked to Dante for fortitude and hope. In a 1983 issue of Studies of Medievalism devoted to Dante in the modern world, editor Kathleen Verduin explains that many 19th-century Americans saw Dante as a proto-Protestant. The Transcendentalists were beguiled by him; Hawthorne alluded to him; Melville found him “the infernal guide to ever-deepening realms of moral complexity”; Longfellow sought solace in translating him; and Charles Eliot Norton promoted his work at Harvard, founded an academic society around him, and praised him for representing “the mediaeval spirit found in the highest and completest expression”—namely, an ahistorical vision of independence, individualism, and curiosity he hoped would prosper in post-Civil War America.

In No Place of Grace: Antimodernism and the Transformation of American Culture, 1880-1920, T.J. Jackson Lears suggests that 19th-century America craved Dante’s moral certainty:

Nor was fascination with Dante confined to the Brahmin few. The poet was acclaimed and interpreted by critics in the established press, eulogized and imitated by dozens of magazine versifiers. The Dante vogue pointed not only to aestheticism or vaporous romanticism, but to widespread moral and religious concerns . . . By ignoring the scholastic superstructure of the Divine Comedy, commentators were able to join Dante with simpler medieval types. Like the saints and peasants, he became a prophet of spiritual certainty in an uncertain, excessively tolerant age.

After American Protestants dunked Dante in their own ecstatic rivers, Eliot and Pound dwelt largely on his words, adoring him as a poet who wed precision to faith. More recently, the Big D has thrived in a popular culture beguiled by mysticism and the occult. Oh yes: You can pop “Dante’s Inferno Balls” candy while playing the Dante’s Inferno game for XBox or Playstation (with accompanying action figure), or you can also check out how two science-fiction authors Americanized Dante to make his Hell literally escapable.

Dreher doesn’t singlehandedly rescue Dante from pop-culture hell, but he does re-baptize him—even as he sincerely hopes to intrigue and even assist the secular:

Though the Commedia was written by a faithful Catholic, its message is universal. You don’t have to be a Catholic, or any sort of believer, to love it and to be changed by it. And though mine is a book that’s ultimately about learning to live with God, it is not a book of religious apologetics; it is a book about finding one’s own true path. Like the Commedia it celebrates, this book is for believers who struggle to hold onto their faith when religious institutions have lost credibility. It’s a book for people who have lost faith in love, in other people, in the family, in politics, in their careers, and in the possibility of worldly success. Dante has been there too. He gets it.

Dreher is so moved by the Divine Comedy that he hopes to share Dante’s poem with everyone, but I wonder how many irreligious readers will want to accompany him to Paradiso by way of this book’s many Christian lessons:

The pilgrim Dante’s journey teaches him that the source of all the chaos and misery is disordered desire. If everyone, including himself, loved as they should love, they would love God more than they loved themselves and their passions. To harmonize with the will of God requires us to overcome our passions and our ego, to make room for the transforming love of God.

If the life Dante saves may be your own, then it’s one in which the spiritual, the physical, and the emotional prove inseparable. For that reason, Dreher didn’t trek through the Divine Comedy alone; he leaned on his priest and his therapist, and his attempt to deal with his problems by walking parallel paths shapes the tone and approach of this book. Each chapter ends with a bald recapitulation of the lesson, pithy paragraphs sequestered in a box that make this otherwise beautifully designed hardcover (with a cloth cover from a 1596 edition of Dante, color art on the endpapers, and well-placed Gustave Doré illustrations) look like a mass-market self-help book. Dreher writes clearly and his lessons are plain, so these summations feel superfluous and a little condescending.

Because Dreher is a brainy writer with rich material to draw from, I was disappointed when he sometimes fell back on trite self-help metaphors that poorly serve his profound subject: “What you do with that suffering determines whether or not you remain an earthbound caterpillar or metamorphose into a butterfly”—or: “When you are the captain of your own soul, though, and have cast aside all the maritime charts showing you the safe route through dark waters, navigating only by your own stars, it’s easy to make a shipwreck of your life.”

By contrast, here he is in full force, writing with conviction and insight:

Without quite realizing what was happening to me, I gave myself over completely to Dante, absorbing the personalities of his figures and identifying with them as I considered how my life and my sins were like theirs. Brunetto Latini, that marvelous egotist, reminded me of a favorite professor, charming and vain. Put him in an ice cream suit and give him a bourbon-filled julep cup and Farinata, a bastard of peacock magnificence, could hold court on the front porch of a Feliciana plantation manse. All of these people, these medieval Tuscans the wayfaring poet met on the road, were so alien yet so familiar. At times I felt like the pilgrim standing before the bas-reliefs on the holy mountain, not entirely sure if these figures were living or dead.

Dreher may not be writing a Christian apologia, but he does argue strenuously for a matter of faith I find to be true: that we’re separated from medieval people by fashion and time, but we’re one with them in our comically defective humanity.

How Dante Can Save Your Life is more than a defense and interpretation of a great poem. It’s a memoir of one man trying to find a religion where he feels at home; a record of overcoming physical and spiritual malaise; a compelling account of a subtle but pernicious family conflict; and a candid confession of one man’s failings and sins. It’s an uncomfortably intimate book, but full of surprises: At one point, Dreher even tells an eerie bayou ghost story! It comes out of nowhere, a reminder that real life isn’t as tidy as literature, but rich in mysteries beyond our understanding.

Put off by the self-help angle, a friend asked me if she should skip Dreher’s book and go straight to Dante instead. Readers at ease with medieval thinking should probably do just that, but others who shrink from a gust of obscure names and notions may find this book a worthy prelude. Lucid and accessible, How Dante Can Save Your Life is aimed less at aesthetically minded literary types like me and more at folks like Dreher’s dad—intelligent but reluctant readers who rarely let themselves be moved by art. Fittingly, Dreher uses that gulf in his family to try to bridge a similar chasm in the culture, bringing the Divine Comedy to those who’d never otherwise give it a look. “You will not be the same after reading it,” he insists. “How could you be? All of life is in there.”

“Turn on these theater lights and brighten the darkest skies…”

(Dante in D.C.: solarized Polaroid negative)

Most aspects of medievalism in America don’t baffle me. I understand why we want to lay down European roots through Gothic architecture, I get why the pedigreed chivalry of Charlemagne and King Arthur might appeal to us, and the imaginative pleasures of medieval-ish fantasy are (mostly) self-evident. But Dante? I’ve never grasped what Americans hope to do with him—maybe because the answer turns out to be “everything.”

While Dante helped rally Italian nationalism in the early 19th century, Americans looked to him for different shades of inspiration. Melville saw him as a guide through moral quagmires; Emerson considered him a simple genius; and others longed for his unshakeable certainty in their own supposedly weak-willed and overly tolerant age. Charles Eliot Norton, who promoted the study of Dante at Harvard and established the Dante Society of America, praised the poet for representing “the mediaeval spirit found in the highest and completest expression”—namely, an ahistorical vision of independence, individualism, and curiosity he hoped would prosper in post-Civil War America.

After American Protestants dunked Dante in their own ecstatic rivers, Eliot and Pound dwelt largely on his words, adoring him as a poet who wed precision to faith. More recently, the Big D has thrived in a popular culture beguiled by mysticism and the occult. Oh yes: You can pop “Dante’s Inferno Balls” candy while playing the Dante’s Inferno game for XBox or Playstation (with accompanying action figure). You can imagine the scent of Dante cigars, fondly recall the “Dante’s Inferno” ride at Coney Island, or show off your snazzy Dante earrings. You can also check out how two science-fiction authors Americanized Dante to make his Hell literally escapable.

So is Dante nothing more than a leering cadaver we clothe in our whims? In a blog post about two new Dante books, Cynthia Haven at Stanford suggests that il Poeta has something greater to offer us, a vision as priceless as it is stark:

A more interesting question might be: what does Dante tell us about our world that we do not recognize ourselves? Here’s my take: we live in a time and in a generation that thinks everything is negotiable, and that every psycho-spiritual lock can be jimmied. As W.H. Auden put it, we push away the notion that “the meaning of life [is] something more than a mad camp.” For us, there’s always a second, third, and fourth chance. It’s a strength – but it’s a weakness, too. Maybe that’s why we resist Dante. We don’t realize that some things are for keeps. There’s not always another day. Not all choices can be reversed with every change of heart – and no, our heart isn’t always in the right place. Words unsaid may remain forever unsaid. And perhaps no choice is trivial or innocent: it is the choices that bring us to ourselves, the choices that reveal and work as a fixative for our loves, our priorities, and our direction.

Just before Christmas, I checked out “The Divine Comedy: Heaven, Purgatory and Hell Revisited by Contemporary African Artists” at the SCAD Museum of Art in Savannah. The title was misleading, since the art wasn’t inspired by Dante; the works only echoed his concepts and themes. “The concern here is not with the Divine Comedy or Dante,” explained the curator, “but with something truly universal.” How gloomy, but how unsurprising, that another interpreter of Dante, another artist in search of the timeless, doesn’t discern that they’re one and the same.

“But all the gold won’t heal your soul…”

There’s no more medieval prepared cheese product than Velveeta. That’s the message, I guess, of “Wield the Skillet, Forge the Family Dinner,” a recent ad campaign for Velveeta that stars a manly, quasi-medieval blacksmith.

Although the blacksmith chants his praise of “liquid gold,” orders soccer moms to “smite” noodles—“smite them with the liquid gold until there can be no more smiting!”—and even has his own pointlessly elaborate website, Our Book of Liquid Gold, he’s no Old Spice Guy. The campaign wasn’t funny or distinctive enough to have gone viral, and the brawny mascot’s YouTube playlist hasn’t been updated for months.

So maybe medievalism doesn’t send Velveeta flying off the shelves. The first commercial in a new campaign, rolled out yesterday, features a slackerish broheim who works at the mall. The setting is as current as can be—but the slogan is still gruesomely medieval.

Medieval people associated the consumption of liquid metal with horrific punishments and unbearable pain. In the 12th-century Anglo-Norman Voyage of St. Brendan, the saint discovers Judas on an island, where his unceasing torments include being forced to drink molten lead and copper, which he can’t vomit when subjected to a hellish stench.

Medieval writers also believed that the Roman general Crassus had been executed by being forced to drink molten gold. In canto 20 of Purgatorio, Dante hears talk of “the wretchedness of avaricious Midas, resulting from his ravenous request, the consequence that always makes men laugh,” clarifying a few lines later:

and finally, what we cry here is: “Crassus,
tell us, because you know: “How does gold taste?”

In Book III of Troilus and Criseyde, when Chaucer rants about the inability of the greedy to experience true love, he assumes we’ll understand references to the “hoot and stronge” drinks of Crassus and Midas:

As wolde God tho wrecches that dispise
Servise of love hadde erys also longe
As hadde Mida, ful of coveytise,
And therto dronken hadde as hoot and stronge
As Crassus did for his afectis wronge,
To techen hem that they ben in the vice,
And loveres nought, although they holde hem nyce.

Likewise, one anonymous 15th-century English nun associated this same horrible punishment with Purgatory:

and one broʒt myche gold and syluer, and þat was molten and casten in hyr þrote, and þat ran out of hyr stomake. And he seide, “Take þe þis for þ[i] cursed and wikked coueitise…”

The horror of gold-drinking as punishment survived the Middle Ages. It worked its way into Jewish folklore, 16th-century natives reportedly executed a Spaniard in colonial Ecuador with a drink of molten gold, and in John Ford’s early 17th-century play ‘Tis a Pity She’s a Whore (recently staged in Virginia!), Friar Bonaventura warns of the eternal fate that awaits usurers:

There is a place,
List, daughter! in a black and hollow vault,
Where day is never seen; there shines no sun,
But flaming horror of consuming fires,
A lightless sulphur, choak’d with smoky fogs
Of an infected darkness: in this place
Dwell many thousand thousand sundry sorts
Of never-dying deaths: there damned souls
Roar without pity; there are gluttons fed
With toads and adders; there is burning oil
Pour’d down the drunkard’s throat; the usurer
Is forced to sup whole draughts of molten gold…

Amazingly, there’s at least one positive medieval reference to drinking gold. After suffering her husband’s abuse, a 15th-century Spanish visionary named Tecla Servent is whisked away to Heaven, where she marries Jesus Christ and samples a remarkable beverage:

He then brought her up to heaven, where he ordered the angels to dress her as his wife ought to be clothed. The angels arrayed Tecla like the spouse of a great lord in gold and scarlet brocade. Christ thereupon ordered the angels to bring food and drink for her, and they served her precious stones on golden plates to eat and molten gold and pulverized jewels to drink.

The folks at Kraft can’t be expected to know medieval molten-metal drinking lore, but I’m still surprised that a modern focus group thought that consuming gold sounded desirable—and I say this as someone who enjoys a warm bowl of Ro-Tel/Velveeta dip every now and then. When your target demographic inadvertently becomes Judas, usurers, and brides of Christ, it may be time to rethink a creepy metaphor—and find out what a medieval blacksmith really would have known.

“Then she opened up a book of poems and handed it to me…”

“Imagine a contemporary translation of Dante that includes references to Pink Floyd, South Park, Donald Rumsfeld, and Star Trek,” writes Zachary Lazar at BOMB magazine, praising poet Mary Jo Bang’s new version of the Inferno, which debuted on August 7. As Cynthia at the Book Haven points out, Alexander Nazaryan at the New York Daily News also enjoyed the book, while in a long and far less positive piece for the Wichita Eagle, Arlice Davenport argues that we shouldn’t call this sort of adaptation a translation:

As with so many knee-jerk postmodernists, Bang’s poetics hinge on the belief that the “distinction between high culture and popular entertainment has all but ceased to exist.” So she’s free to throw in references to John Coltrane, “South Park,” Emily Dickinson, Andy Warhol, John Wayne Gacy, Stephen Colbert and Woody Allen, whenever it suits her purposes. Her Dante dwells in a pluralist’s paradise, even if he is in Hell.

But to say that contemporary culture no longer recognizes the difference between high and low art is not to say that there is no difference. It simply means that our culture has given up making the effort to sustain the difference. It is (again, ironically) a form of sour grapes.

When they’re done well, I love anachronistic adaptations—like Christopher Logue’s Homer—as long as no one assigns then to beginning students under false pretenses. That’s why I was bemused by this claim in a Vanity Fair blog post by Elissa Schappell:

Bang’s Inferno already has some corduroy-vested academics tugging on their beards with indignation and beetle-browed translators jabbing at their eyes with pencils.

Say what? As I said at the Book Haven, it’s maddening that in 2012, Vanity Fair can’t provide us with a simple link so we know which “corduroy-vested academics” are supposedly “tugging on their beards with indignation” and which “beetle-browed translators” are “jabbing at their eyes with pencils.” It’s summer, and Bang’s Inferno was out for a only week when the Vanity Fair blog post went live. Few academics, and certainly not the stereotypes who stumbled into Schappell’s imagination from early 1950s New England, have even read the book yet.

(The only time I can remember an angry academic reaction to a mass-market translation was the mid-1990s, when Anglo-Saxonists grumbled about Seamus Heaney’s Beowulf—not necessarily because Heaney took liberties, but because his version was set to replace a more literal translation in the Norton Anthology.)

Dante scholars are, in fact, the medievalists most accustomed to seeing “their” poet made over to reflect the look of the day. In a 1983 issue of Studies of Medievalism devoted to Dante in the modern world, editor Kathleen Verduin explains that in addition to being a rallying point for 19th-century Italian nationalism, Dante was big in France and hugely popular in Victorian England. According to Werner Friederich’s Dante’s Fame Abroad, 1350-1850, Dante’s ghost was suited to every English season:

Robert Browning admired Dante for “the endurance that stood him in such good stead during his happy life.” For Carlyle, Dante was “the hero as poet.” Yet Carlyle also saw in the Florentine a spirit certainly reminiscent of the Scotsman’s Calvinist ancestors . . . Macauley’s Dante, rather like himself, was a public figure, born in great times. [page references removed]

Verduin adds that many Americans saw Dante as a proto-Protestant. The Transcendentalists were beguiled by him; Hawthorne alluded to him; Melville found him “the infernal guide to ever-deepening realms of moral complexity”; Longfellow sought solace in translating him; Charles Eliot Norton founded an academic society around him; and James Russell Lowell considered the Divine Comedy a cathedral in poetic form.

In No Place of Grace: Antimodernism and the Transformation of American Culture, 1880-1920, T.J. Jackson Lears suggests that 19th-century America craved his moral certainty:

Nor was fascination with Dante confined to the Brahmin few. The poet was acclaimed and interpreted by critics in the established press, eulogized and imitated by dozens of magazine versifiers. The Dante vogue pointed not only to aestheticism or vaporous romanticism, but to widespread moral and religious concerns . . . By ignoring the scholastic superstructure of the Divine Comedy, commentators were able to join Dante with simpler medieval types. Like the saints and peasants, he became a prophet of spiritual certainty in an uncertain, excessively tolerant age.

At least three statues of the Big D here in Washington, the most prominent one in a park, attest to a literary wave that has since saturated the culture. Oh yes: You can pop “Dante’s Inferno Balls” candy while playing the Dante’s Inferno game for XBox or Playstation (with accompanying action figure). You can imagine the scent of Dante cigars, fondly recall the “Dante’s Inferno” ride at Coney Island, or show off your snazzy Dante earrings. You can also check out how science-fiction authors Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle Americanized Dante to make his Hell literally escapable.

“As a figure in the modern imagination, he has been all things to all men,” writes Kathleen Verduin, “enduring repeated reinterpretation according to the tastes and prejudice of the times; but he also unites us, commanding the common respect for the achievement of his art, and the endurance of his vision.” Whether ill-wrought or wonderful, Mary Jo Bang’s Inferno is the latest step in a dance between Dante and his American admirers. Contrary to Vanity Fair, scholars know the tune, too.

“Walking in the park, dreaming of a spark…”

On a dull day in Washington, when the weather is dangerously hot, what better way to pass the afternoon than to look for medieval people at Meridian Hill Park, one of the city’s grandest public places?

Climb to the source of the waterfall, and there she is, disarmed but not discouraged: la pucelle d’Orleans.

The pedestal sports a rather enthusiastic inscription:

“A most bodacious soldier and general, Miss Of Arc totally rousted the English from France. Then she turned this dude, the dauphin, into a king. And all this by the time she was seventeen!”

Wander into another corner of the park, and—non mi sembra vero!

It’s the Big D himself.

But wait…who’s that personage of historical significance seated behind those trees?

Aha! It’s that indispensable touchstone for all medievalists…

President James Buchanan!