Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Tiny Resurrection, For All You RSS Readers

So it's a good thing the internet exists, because I think if I blather on about the Elgin marbles to anyone else within swatting distance, I might be in trouble.


Quick recap: in 1816 or thereabouts, Lord Elgin of Britain got the then-rulers of Greece, the Ottoman Empire, to let him chisel a bunch of marble slabs off the Acropolis in Athens. He also snagged some sculptures and stuff, all ancient, gorgeous marble work. All from the Parthenon. Important: Though they are called the marbles, they are not marbles that you keep in a bag but instead big works of art made of marble.

Now Greece wants them back. Really, really bad. This is a nationalist thing, and having your greatest art treasures stolen by colonial invaders can't be great.

So, in today's installment of IMPRESS YOUR FRIENDS WITH KNOWLEDGE OF ESOTERIC CRAP, here's a summary.

GREECE: Give us back our damn marbles.
BRITAIN: Oh you mean the Elgin marbles?
GREECE: We call them the Parthenon marbles.
BRITAIN: Well, good then, but they're in our lovely British Museum and they're quite happy there. Millions of tourists. Come visit if you like, but wipe your feet.
BRITAIN: It's not as if you have a decent museum to put them in anyway. They'll just sit by in some potty old shed and no-one will ever look at them.
GREECE: Well, you ... hmm. Hold on.

GREECE: OK, how do you like THIS museum?!
BRITAIN: Hm. It's pretty nice actually. I like the glass bits.
BRITAIN: Nope. Can't.
GREECE: I hate you.
BRITAIN: If we give you these, you'll want all the others and then the only thing we will have is that stupid Banksy that he put in here for a joke.
GREECE: I am going to hold my breath until I die unless you give me the marbles.
BRITAIN: But, really, it's just going from one museum to another, so what's the difference?
GREECE: Hey, Egypt, let's go steal Westminster Abbey and see how they like it.

There was an actual demonstration in Athens. A PROTEST. With SIGNS. All about how THEY WANT THEIR ART BACK.

I think that's pretty great.
I don't know what they should do about the marbles, but 1) The British Museum didn't give back works they got that were looted by Nazis, so they won't be swayed by emotional appeal, and 2) The Greeks are being very pointed with their museum -- they use the marbles they have left and fill in the rest with these stark white plaster castings of the real things, with the color distinction yelling "LOOK WHAT SHOULD BE HERE! BOMB BIG BEN."

Monday, April 6, 2009

There's no need to get so angry...

Remember this post from a few months ago about Virginia Heffernan's entirely mean and uncalled-for "review" of Sarah Vowell's latest book? The review that basically read: "Whatever, the book sucks, but OH MY GOD YOU GUYS I HATE SARAH VOWELL SO MUCH. SO MUCH. WITH HER STUPID LIBERAL POLITICS AND HER STUPID ACCENT AND HER STUPID BEING REALLY SUCCESSFUL AND LIKEABLE. FML."

Well, now I think it's clear: Virginia Heffernan needs to go to anger management. Cause she wrote another article — I'm really not sure why the New York Times keeps publishing these rants, but okay — about how much she hates her iPhone.


In other, less obnoxious news, I am sort of thinking about going to grad school a little bit. More on that later.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Well... balls.

"Emory University plans a 40 percent cut in the number of new Ph.D. students it will enroll this fall. Columbia University is planning a 10 percent cut. Brown University has called off a planned increase in Ph.D. enrollments. The University of South Carolina is considering a plan to have some departments that have admitted doctoral students every year shift to an every-other-year system. These cuts are exclusively for Ph.D. programs."


In other news, I think I need to shift my focus from the Iditarod to actual grad school preparation. It's getting to be about that time. Will you still love me if I blog about GRE study and program entrance requirements? That seems so boring. But I don't have enough time to do all these different things.

Damn it.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

I missed this when it was published two weeks ago, but hee!

But Blumenthal is definitely wrong. Madoff would be in the 8th circle, the one punishing fraud.
“It’s not a poem about ‘you did this, you get this,’ ” Mr. [Robert] Pinsky says. “It’s about the mystery of how you hurt yourself. It’s like the Talmud says: the evils others do to me are as nothing compared to the evils I do to myself.”

It's certainly lending Madoff's crimes a grand scale, isn't it?)

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

blogging FAIL

I don't even use Twitter, but this is about where we're at right now:

I've been re-reading a bunch of cantos in the Musa translation, because it makes so much more sense to me. It's time-consuming, though, and hasn't much inspired me to blog.

I've also been talking to people about grad school and trying to do some basic research. I feel so unprepared for all of this. I've heard of people quitting their jobs just to prepare for grad school. Yeah, Things I Absolutely Cannot Do.

I have some neat grad school-related things that I might get to do for my job, though. More on that soon, I hope!

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Post-It: This is ridiculous

Depressing news, in Fiona's ongoing life crisis:
Even a chimpanzee can make a plan for the future. But I can't seem to.

Now that you're depressed, check this out.

Roberto Benigni reads Dante aloud as a performance piece that he's toured around Italy. It will make everything better:


I was going to title my post, "This has officially become ridiculous," but then I saw that Fiona had scheduled a post with the title "This is ridiculous" for the same day, so I guess that's out. No matter.

Let me tell you what is truly ridiculous: I have, on my person, four different translations of the Purgatorio.

I know. This is out of control. But you see, as I mentioned last week, I'm having trouble with Merwin's translation. There are no summaries/arguments at the beginning of the chapter, and the notes are few and terse. I just feel like I'm missing so much.

So I took a lunch break and went to the used bookstore by my office. Now I have the Ciardi translation, because I know for sure I can follow it; the Mandelbaum, because as we all know by now, I like Mandelbaum; and, randomly enough, the Musa, because it's a Penguin edition with excellent notes. (That guy on Amazon seems to like him, too.)

I should not be spending so much money on used books, especially the Purgatorio. No one even likes the Purgatorio! But there's no point reading it, I don't think, if I can't make heads nor tails of it. And we'll be done with translations soon enough.

(The bookstore also had the Palma Inferno, and I took a moment to read some of it, and it was just beautiful. Oh well.)

I'm looking forward to getting a look at these translations and letting you know how it goes. I've made painfully slow progress with Merwin, so I'm hoping I'll be able to read faster now, too.

Monday, March 16, 2009

"Time does not bring relief; you all have lied"

Daylight saving time gets me thinking about clocks and hours and all that business by which I live my life.

Timing is extremely important in the Divine Comedy too. There have been a hundred million commentaries written on the thing, and somewhere along the way people figured out not only the exact dimensions of Hell, but the exact position of the stars in the sky at any given moment. Each canto has a specific time attached -- Dante's journey through the afterlife is meticulously timed.

So I started to

They didn't even have mechanical clocks in Europe until what, 1270? 1280? And the Comedy was written less than 50 years after that, so timekeeping wasn't all that important. They certainly wouldn't have had clocks in houses -- just church bells, set to local noon. Because it didn't matter what time it was anywhere ELSE. Each town just set the clock to noon when the sun was highest and then forgot about it. I think in a lot of the Western World they would still have been using temporal hours* instead of 60-minute hours.

So I asked Robert Hollander about it** and he referenced a passage from Paradiso:
Then, like a clock that calls us at the hour
when the bride of God gets up to sing
matins to her bridegroom, that he should love her still,
when a cog pulls one wheel and drives another,
chiming its ting-ting with notes so sweet
that the willing spirit swells with love,
thus I saw that glorious wheel in motion,
matching voice to voice in harmony
and with sweetness that cannot be known
except where joy becomes eternal.(X.139-148)

He then cited another scholar who claims this is the first literary reference to a mechanical clock. Apparently this scholar (Scott) thinks Dante might have seen one in Milan. Obviously this passage isn't about a clock in a room, since that would be ridiculous. It's probably about a town clock tower.

Another theory I have is about Italian time, which is a system of 24 hours beginning at sunset. Apparently it was useful for people whose day of work needed to end at sunset because they didn't really have access to artificial light. First of all, it was used in Italy until the 1700s, and second -- look at the Comedy! It makes sense! He starts at sunset in the dark wood, near to the time an Italian hour cycle would be starting!

So that's my theory. But really I'm just struck by how odd it is that commentators have been so hung up on the timing in Dante, when exact time mattered so little in the 14th century.

*OK, so you tell time by putting a stick in the ground and watching the shadows it casts based on the position of the sun. When the sun is right overhead, it's noon. So originally the way to divide time into hours was to see how long it took for the shadow to get a certain amount longer. Thing is, at different times of the year, that would take more or less time. That's a temporal hour -- it varies in length depending on the time of year.
**So last week I sent a fangirlish "I just love your Dante translation" e-mail to Robert Hollander, the translator I liked so much. Ever since then we've been corresponding back and forth about Dante -- he's really nice and helpful, and likes the idea of the Iditarod.

Thursday, March 12, 2009


Sometimes I feel like the Melvin of the Literary Iditarod.

Sometimes? Always.

mea culpa

I think I owe John Ciardi an apology. I was all like, "Oh, terza rima, that's original. Focus on the POETRY, John Ciardi." And then I'd get all mad when he'd do that thing where he'd annotate a line by saying, "Yeah, um, this isn't actually in the Italian, but I needed to make a rhyme here, so let's pretend that Dante said this, ok?"

But looking at other translations, it seems like Ciardi didn't change the literal meaning very much, and I... I miss the rhyme. I'd forgotten how much I enjoy structure in poetry. Really, I'm a little ashamed of myself. I memorized "Kubla Khan" when I was twelve because I loved the way it sounded. I am rather fond of Tennyson. Why did I think that I wouldn't want my Dante to be structured?

Let's look at a couple of examples. Here's the canto ending I mentioned liking in Ciardi a while back:
But now the Poet already led the way
to the slope above, saying to me: "Come now:
the sun has touched the very peak of day

above the sea, and night already stands
with one black foot upon Morocco's sands." (IV.136-41)

And here's that same set of lines in W.S. Merwin's translation*:
And already the poet had begun
to climb ahead of me, and he said, "Come now.
See: the meridian is touched by the sun,

and on the shore night has set foot on Morocco." (IV.136-41)

(I believe Esolen's translation of these lines is fairly similar to Merwin's. Perhaps Fiona can give that version in a post or in a comment, just for comparison. What? You don't find translations fascinating? Well, I do.)

Anyway. Don't get me wrong. I like the Merwin translation. There's a certain delicacy, an awareness of diction, that is maybe missing in Ciardi. But there's something about the structure of Ciardi's phrasing, particulary in these canto endings, that Merwin's less formal verse lacks. And I miss it.

One more example. Here's the Pia episode that I quoted last week, in Ciardi:
A third spoke when that second soul had done:
"When you have found your way back to the world,
and found your rest from this long road you run,

oh speak my name again with living breath
to living memory. Pia am I.
Siena gave me birth; Maremma, death.

As he well knows who took me as his wife
with jeweled ring before he took my life." (V. 136-143)

And here are the same lines in Merwin:
"Oh when you are back in the world again
and are rested after the long journey,"
the third spirit followed upon the second,

"pray you, remember me who am La Pia.
Siena made me, Maremma unmade me;
he knows it who, with his ring taking me,

first had me for his wife with his gem." (V.130-136)

Which translation presents Pia in a more poignant, more memorable way?

On the plus side, Merwin has the original poem on the facing pages. I don't know Italian, but I have a decent command of Spanish, so I can piece out a little. Just for fun, here's Pia in Dante's original:
"Deh, quando tu sarai tornato al mondo
e riposato de la lunga via,"
seguitò 'l terzo spirito al secondo,

"ricorditi di me, che son la Pia;
Siena me fé, disfecemi Maremma:
salsi colui che 'nnanellata pria

disposando m'avea con la sua gemma."


*Merwin, W.S., transl. Purgatorio, by Dante Alighieri. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2000.

Monday, March 9, 2009

"Where will it end, Daria? Where will it end?"

I don't even know what to say about these articles anymore. I was raised to believe that I could do anything I wanted -- that I was, yes, a special and unique snowflake. You hear that from a lot of grad students, that you have to be someone who really believes that she can do it.

I just don't know if I can believe that. My parents always told me that I could be anything, and my professors encouraged me to think about grad school. But these days... I don't know. I already felt uncertain, short on confidence, and now things are worse than ever.

I don't want to give up on what I care about, but I don't want to delude myself, either.

I think I need a nap.

Who shall be true to us/ When Daylight Saving Time broke the entire world?

I apologize for my title, which manages to combine the worst elements of not literary and not witty. I blame Daylight Saving Time and its shameless attempts to destroy everything that is good and true in the world, like sleeping in on Sundays.

Here are some fractions and orts of news, a Monday medley of I'm Too Exhausted to Write a Real Post.

1. As Fiona mentioned, we had to return our previous copies of the Commedia, and I now have Merwin for the Purgatorio and Esolen for the Paradiso. For some reason I thought it would be a good idea to try multiple new translators. So far this is turning out to have been dumb, and I miss Ciardi more than I would ever have expected. For one thing, he put little "arguments" at the beginning of each chapter, such as you'll find in Paradise Lost. This is brilliant because Dante can be hard to follow, and it's useful to know what to expect. No such luck with Merwin. He also doesn't explain anything. I know I complained about Ciardi's long, often tedious notes, but Merwin has hardly any notes at all, and there's so much now that I don't understand. I'm even missing Ciardi's rhyme scheme more than I would have expected -- more on the differences between translations later.

2. From IHE today:
Gaps in disciplinary pay are not new to higher education... some humanities disciplines remain stuck with salaries much lower than counterparts across the quad. The median salary for a full professor of English, for example ($79,854, across sectors), is less than the median for an assistant professor of business ($84,025). Instructors in English or in philosophy have median salaries below $40,000 at public institutions, while instructors in law and legal studies earn over $60,000 at public institutions.
What's this you say? English professors are among the very lowest paid? I'm shocked! SHOCKED I tell you!

3. I've mentioned the executive director of the MLA, Rosemary Feal, at least once before. Tomorrow I am going to be attending a meeting with her, as well as with the MLA's president and vice president. With luck I will learn some useful and interesting things. I'd better, since the meeting is scheduled for 8am, so I'll be interrupting my normally rigid 8am plans (hit the snooze button, hit the snooze button again, curse, turn the alarm off, walk blindly into my bedroom door, stub my toe, curse again, trip on the carpet...).


****It has come to my attention that the block quote formatting comes out SUPER weird in Google Reader. Yet another reason to click on our actual blog every single day! That, and to comment on our new format, and maybe offer us your html expertise because we're not very good at this game.

Drop Kick Me, Jesus, Through the Goal Posts of Life

One thing that I think we've both made clear we find difficult to stomach is Virgil's consignment to Limbo. But it's even more infuriating, this damnation by default, when you consider the Harrowing of Hell.

The Harrowing of Hell is a part of Christian Doctrine wherein Jesus went to hell and hung out for a bit and preached the gospel or something after he died. But not, apparently, to convert any sinners. According to Virgil via Dante (in Canto IV), he went down to get some very specific individuals.
"I was a novice in this state,
When I saw hither come a Mighty One,
With sign of victory incoronate.
Hence he drew forth the shade of the First Parent,
And that of his son Abel, and of Noah,
Of Moses the lawgiver, and the obedient
Abraham, patriarch, and David, king,
Israel with his father and his children,
And Rachel, for whose sake he did so much,
And others many, and he made them blessed;
And thou must know, that earlier than these
Never were any human spirits saved."*

So Jesus goes down into Hell to grab some Hebrew forefathers. It's not even clear that Virgil knows exactly what happened here and how roundly he was cheated. Seriously, what makes Noah and Adam more holy than any other righteous person who lives before the birth of Christ? OH RELIGIOUS DOCTRINE, YOU PAIN ME.

It's a good thing I don't subscribe to any of this or I think it would keep me up nights.

But seriously, could he just not carry all the good people up so he just picked the ones who were important in the Bible? SOCRATES WOULD BE A VALUABLE ADDITION TO HEAVEN TOO.

*This is from some random internet translation since I no longer have an actual translation of the Inferno. Stupid library, always wanting their books back. Sorry, baby, I didn't mean that, you know I love you. In other news, we have both switched translations: I grabbed the Anthony Esolen translations of Purgatorio and Paradiso, and Serena has the W.S. Merwin Purgatorio and the Esolen Paradiso. More on that anon.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Oh! And...

So, remember when I was annoyed that Cato, a suicide isn't consigned to the seventh circle of Hell? Turns out there's a reason. First of all, he's just a gate guardian in Purgatory — there's no intimation that he ever actually gets to go to Heaven.

Secondly, Dante was careful to only put Christian suicides in the seventh circle of hell, on the logic that pagans might not be offending their religions by committing suicide. So it's all okay! You didn't know Jesus anyway!

Anyway, talk of Cato always makes me think of this.*

*There are no time markers, but you want the man near the end making the amazing squinchy face and saying "You have lost Rome!"

Thursday, March 5, 2009

"I always have a quotation for everything. It saves original thinking."

Dorothy Sayers (in her introduction to the Purgatorio) has this to say:
"Persons who pontificate about Dante without making mention of his Purgatory may reasonably be suspected of knowing him only at second hand, or of having at most skimmed through the circles of his Hell in the hope of finding something to be shocked at."

Basically she operates on the theory that the true Dantean scholar will love the Purgatorio most, because it is the glue that binds the Dantean universe together and because only the true Dante scholar can love it. It is not so flashy as its brethren.*

Sorry, Dorothy Sayers. Maybe I am not cut out for this after all. I promise that I did not love the Inferno out of prurience or a wish to appear erudite. It just sang, and the Purgatorio doesn't. I appreciate the structure of it, I do. And I'm still near the beginning. Perhaps it will grow on me.

Maybe it's (surely not) that Hollander is no longer my translator. Much as I loved her introduction, Sayers' translation is certainly harder to parse. Man, she is a badass though. That tattooed man on the Metro yesterday who looked like he ate broken glass for breakfast would cower, COWER in the face of terza rima.

So in conclusion, Dorothy Sayers, I will try harder. Don't be disappointed in me.

*Also, is there some sort of Dante secret society? Maybe the password to the clubhouse is written on the hundredth page of every edition of the Purgatorio, along with instructions for initiation rites. Also, what would such a society be called? All I can think of now is the Dantettes, and that's definitely a girl group.**
**"Stop! At the gates of Dis!
So your sin can be assessed."
Or Francesca da Rimini (lustful denizen of the second circle whose husband murdered her and her lover) could sing "My Husband's Back (and We're Headed Straight for Hell)."

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

"As he well knows who took me as his wife"

Either Dante or Ciardi is great at these memorable canto endings. Here's another one that really gets me, at the end of Canto V (The Late-Repentant, Class Three: Those Who Died by Violence Without Last Rites). The souls here all want Dante to remind their living friends and relatives to pray for them, since the prayers of the devout can shorten their time in ante-Purgatory. (The indolent, you see, who for whatever reason delayed repentance till the end of their life, must wait -- as they made God wait -- before entering Purgatory.)

So anyway, Dante is surrounded by these souls:
A third spoke when that second soul had done:
"When you have found your way back to the world,
and found your rest from this long road you run,

oh speak my name again with living breath
to living memory. Pia am I.
Siena gave me birth; Maremma, death.

As he well knows who took me as his wife
with jeweled ring before he took my life." (V. 136-143)

Effective, right? Ciardi writes that Pia "has been traditionally identified as Pia de' Tomolei of Siena, who married a Guelph leader and was murdered by him. The identification is doubtful, however" (p. 212 note to l. 140).

Whoever she was, wow. What a way to be immortalized.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

little night feet

Dante has this habit of using impossibly convoluted descriptions of the sky and the stars to make points about time, direction or geography. His bombast is nearly impenetrable, and his tenuous grasp of geography makes it all the worse:
The sun already burned at the horizon,
while the high point of its meridian circle
covered Jerusalem, and in opposition

equal Night revolved above the Ganges
bearing the Scales that fall out of her hand
as she grows longer with the season's changes:

thus, where I was, Aurora in her passage
was losing the pale blushes from her cheeks
which turned to orange with increasing age. (II. 1-9)

Ciardi helpfully points out, "The bit of erudite affectation in which Dante indulges here means simply, 'It was dawn' " (p.194, note to II. 1-9).

And just in case you were wondering:

To understand the total figure, one must recall the following essentials of Dante's geography: (1) Jersualem is antipodal to the Mount of Purgatory. Thus it is sunset at Jerusalem when it is sunrise on the mountain. (2) All the land of the earth is contained in one half of the Northern Hemisphere. That is to say, there is no land (except the Mount of Purgatory) anywhere in the Southern Hemisphere and of the total circle of the norther Hemisphere (360 degrees) only half (180 degrees) is land. Jerusalem is at the exact center of this 180 degree arc of land. Spain, 90 degrees to one side, is the West, and India (Ganges), 90 degrees to the other, is the East.
Every fifteen degrees of longitude equals one hour or time. That is to say, it takes the Sun an hour to travel fifteen degrees. Thus at sunset over Jerusalem it is midnight (six hours later) over India, and noon (six hours earlier) over Spain. The journey, moreover, is conceived as taking place during the vernal* equinox, when the days and nights are of the same length. Thus it is "equal Night' (line 4).
Finally, when the Sun is in Aries, midnight is in Libra (the Scales). Thus the night bears the Scales in her hand (i.e., that constellation is visible), but Libra will no longer be the sign of the night as the season changes, and thus it may be said that the Scales will fall from her hand (i.e., will no longer be visible.

That's very helpful, Ciardi... or at least, it would have been if I'd cared at all about what exactly Dante was getting at there. The text is full of similar passages and notes; I won't quote all of them because I know you wouldn't read them. Nor do I blame you.

Ok, maybe one more example. Just trust me that the entire book is filled with these sorts of things:
Virgil was quick to note the start I gave
when I beheld the Chariot of the Sun
driven between me and the North Wind's cave.

"Were Castor and Pollux," he said, "in company
of that bright mirror which sends forth its rays
equally up and down, then you would see

the twelve-toothed cogwheel of the Zodiac
turned till it blazed still closer to the Bears
--unless it were to stray from its fixed path. **

If you wish to understand why this is so,
imagine Zion and this Mount so placed
on earth, the one above, the other below,

that the two have one horizon though they lie
in different hemispheres. Therefore, the path
that Phaethon could not follow in the sky

must necessarily, in passing here
on the one side, pass there upon the other,
as your own reasoning will have made clear."

And I then: "Master, I may truly vow
I never grasped so well the very point
on which my wits were most astray just now:

that the mid-circle of the highest Heaven,
called the Equator, always lies between
the sun and winter, and, for the reason given,

lies as far north of this place at all times
as the Hebrews, when they held Jerusalem
were wont to see it toward the warmer climbs." (IV. 58-84)

I'll spare you Ciardi's notes on all this, because I can't imagine why anyone would care. Suffice to say that they're approximately nine million paragraphs long and contain this hilarious diagram of the earth with Zion, the equator, the path of the ecliptic, Purgatory, and the "celestial horizon of Purgatory and Zion" all carefully marked.

There is, however, at least one of Dante's little digressions on time and geography that I find utterly delightful. At the end of a conversation with the indolent Belacqua in Canto IV (Ante-Purgatory: The First Ledge -- The Late-Repentant -- Class Two: The Indolent) (hell of an ordering system they've got there, eh?), Dante is reminded that he must keep going:
But now the Poet already led the way
to the slope above, saying to me: "Come now:
the sun has touched the very peak of day

above the sea, and night already stands
with one black foot upon Morocco's sands." (IV.136-41)

Ciardi clarifies:
It was now noon at Purgatory. It must therefore be midnight in Jerusalem. Dante believed Morocco to lie exactly 90 degrees west of Jerusalem (in the same longitude as Spain) and 90 degrees west of midnight is six hours earlier. Hence, it is six o'clock there and night would just be beginning. (p. 207, note to ll.136-140)

I love these lines so much! I picture Night wearing a lone black sock, like maybe the other one got eaten by the dryer. Or Night coming "on little cat feet" (this is the first poem I remember learning -- I think we read it in kindergarten). Carl Sandburg, 'fess up. Did you borrow from Dante?

*My edition is old and full of typos; the text here actually reads "venal Equinox." Which is a hilarious image and could be a good name for a band.

**Apparently this line is Dante's idea of what passes for humor. Horrifying.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Post-It: Deep Thoughts

Do you think we could add Transmetropolitan to the booklist so that it'd be ok that I spent the entire bus trip back from New York reading that instead of the Purgatorio?



Tuesday, February 24, 2009

"If a man does not know what port he is steering for, no wind is favorable to him"

OK, I am waaay behind Serena on starting the Purgatorio, because I had to slog through a 71-page introduction. But I have finished! There are things to say:

Well, really just one thing: I don't know what I'm doing with my life. STOP, this is relevant, I swear. I don't know what I want to do and I don't know how to figure out what I want to do, and I hate it. Because I don't have any goals. I'm good at achieving goals when I have them, but I don't know how to get one, and I can't just assign myself one at random so I'll feel good about having an accomplishment. That'd be like cheating at solitaire or something.

Oh, but I miss achieving goals.

Anyway, so the difference between Purgatory and Hell?

The people in Purgatory have a goal! All their punishments seem light because they've got something they're working toward and they know they'll get through it. Whereas the punishments in hell are both neverending and frustratingly circular. Oh, and everyone in Purgatory is always happily focused on God, while everyone in Hell is self-obsessed.*

So thanks a lot, Dante. Like I wasn't worried enough about drifting through my post-college years, now you have to come along and be like "Hey, that's exactly what Hell is like! Ha!"

In other news, even though this translation is definitely inferior to the Hollander, it'll be nice to read something in terza rima**. Oh, and I am excited for the middle of the story, which is where great epics are made or broken. The second bit of a great trilogy is always best (with a few exceptions), and always most difficult to pull off.

Nora Ephron is wise: "[This story] has a happy ending, but that’s because I insist on happy endings; I would insist on happy beginnings too, but that’s not necessary because all beginnings are intrinsically happy, in my opinion. What about middles, you may ask. Middles are a problem. Middles are perhaps the major problem of contemporary life."***

*Fourth circle: Bloggers.
**And Sayers actually sticks to the terza rima hardcore: rather than ABA CDC she's gone with ABA BCB, if that makes sense.
***It's from Heartburn, which is NOT on the Iditarod but is not without merit either.

Monday, February 23, 2009

from worse to bad?

After that uplifting start to the week, it's back to our regularly scheduled litany of depression.

Today's contenders for the title of Cranky Curmudgeon Ruining My Morning:

1. Thomas H. Benton at the Chronicle, who has written two different pieces about why you should NEVER EVER GO TO GRAD SCHOOL GOD WHAT ARE YOU CRAZY?! The man really seems hell-bent on crushing my fragile hopes and dreams.

2. Tedra Osell at IHE thinks that Benton hasn't done enough to send me into a crisis of anxiety and self-doubt, so she adds her two cents.

Is this one of those situations where I just have to ignore everything everyone tells me?

Neither Benton nor Osell addresses the person who is currently working in the media and thinking about applying to graduate school. These days, going from the media to the academy is only going from the fire into the frying pan, no?

the most relevant photos yet!

Normally we post photos with only the faintest claim to relevance, if any. This is because blogs with no pictures are a bit boring, especially to those of us with very, very short attention spans.

Today, however, it is my pleasure to bring you a most timely set of photographs.

I take my studies ever so seriously. I am as inspired and humbled by Dante as Dante is by Virgil. Or... something.

Note to self: Dante is off the list of Historical Figures with Whom I'd Like to Have a Beer.

I told Fiona we were at Madame Tussauds.*


*Madame Tussauds is breaking this man's heart. It's shocking.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Post It: Dante, If You're Going to Make Rules ...

Speaking of Cato the Younger being in Purgatory (I'm still in the introduction to my version of the Purgatorio, but more on that later when I am not swamped), anyone else think it's odd that Cato is there at all? Since he, you know, COMMITTED SUICIDE?

Just sayin', Dante. Isn't there a circle of hell for inconsistent poets?

Romeo and Juliet it ain't...

Normally I would leave the business of anecdotes to Fiona, since it's really more her domain than mine. But since we've only read translations so far, I can't get into the language as I would otherwise be inclined to do; I can remark on my fondness (or lack thereof) for the work of a certain translator, and guess at the extent to which the translation mirrors the original -- but as I have, you know, small Tuscan and less Greek, I'm reluctant to go too deeply into word choice or sentence structure.

And so! From the opening of the Purgatorio, I bring you an anecdote.

For whatever crazy Dante reason, Cato of Utica is charged with guarding the shores of Purgatory. At first he thinks Virgil and Dante are escapees from hell, so Virgil explains their situation, concluding,
"We do not break the Laws: this man lives yet,
and I am of that Round not ruled by Minos,
with your own Marcia, whose chaste eyes seem set

in endless prayers to you. O blessed breast
to hold her yet your own! for love of her
grant us permission to pursue our quest

across your seven kingdoms. When I go
back to her side I shall bear thanks of you
if you will let me speak your name below." (Canto I, ll. 76-84)

To which Cato replies rather brusquely:
"Marcia was so pleasing in my eyes
there on the other side," he answered then
"that all she asked, I did. Now that she lies

beyond the evil river, no word or prayer
of hers may move me. Such was the Decree
pronounced upon us when I rose from there.

But if, as you have said, a Heavenly Dame
orders your way, there is no need to flatter:
you need but ask it of me in her name." (85-93)

I'm resisting a Brady Bunch joke here because, to be honest, I never watched that show, so it'd seem like too cheap a shot. Instead, let's find out who Marcia was. Ciardi has the goods:
The story of Marcia and of Cato is an extraordinary one. She was the daughter of the consul Philippus and became Cato's second wife, bearing his three children. In 56 B.C., in an unusual transaction approved by her father, Cato released her in order that she might marry his friend Hortensius. (Hence line 87: "that all she asked I did.") After the death of Hortensius, Cato took her back.
In Il Convivio, IV, 28, Dante presents the newly widowed Marcia praying to be taken back in order that she may die the wife of Cato, and that it may be said of her that she was not cast forth from his love. Dante treats that return as an allegory of the return of the strayed soul to God (that it may die "married" to God, and that God's love for it be manifest to all time). Virgil describes Marcia as still praying to Cato. (p. 190, note to l. 78)

I sort of expect Dante to romanticize things, but it sounds like Ciardi might be airbrushing this story a little himself. According to Wikipedia, that bastion of accuracy,

Hortensius was an admirer and friend of Cato’s, and he was eager to be more closely related to Cato and his family. ...[A]n alliance with Cato seems to be the chief reason for Hortensius, nearing 60 years old, to request to be married to Cato’s daughter Porcia, who was only about 20 years old at the time. However, because Porcia was already married to M. Calpurnius Bibulus and the age difference was so great, Cato refused to give his consent. Hortensius immediately suggested that he marry Marcia instead because she had already borne Cato his heirs. Due to Hortensius' ardor, Cato acquiesced, but only on the condition that Marcia's father, L. Marcius Philippus, approve as well. With Phillipus' consent obtained, Cato divorced Marcia, thereby placing her under her father's charge. Hortensius promptly married Marcia, and she bore him an heir. After Hortensius' death in 50 BC, she also inherited much of Hortensius' considerable wealth.

At the outbreak of the civil war in 49, Marcia and her children moved back into Cato’s household. Plutarch asserts that Cato remarried Marcia after Hortensius's death, whereas Appian's histories relate that Cato merely reestablished her in his own household.

Well that's... significantly less romantic than I'd hoped. Facts are always ruining Dante's great stories. (From the way Ciardi put it, I was sort of imagining that Marcia'd married Cato out of, whatever, family reasons, duty, but then cultivated this burning and reciprocal passion for his good friend Hortensius, and Cato, let's say, pulled a Francisco d'Anconia -- oh, yeah, I went there -- and stepped aside out of love for the two of them, then remarried Marcia after Hortensius' death so she wouldn't be lonely/poor. Yeah... no.)

Additional exciting Marcia facts:

--Marie Hamilton* suggests that "during the Middle Ages... Marcia was proverbial for virtue" (362), possibly because in Lucan's Pharsalia "on the occasion of her return to Cato she asks permission to share his anxieties and sorrows" (364).

--This, then, would be why she gets a mention in Chaucer's The Legend of Good Women:

Penalopee, and Marcia Catoun
Mak of your wyfhod no comparisoun.
--Way, way more about Marcia as the figure of an obedient woman here. This article is actually super-interesting, but this post is already sort of out of control.

*Chaucer's "Marcia Catoun." Modern Philology, Vol. 30, No. 4 (May, 1933), pp. 361-364. The University of Chicago Press.

Thursday, February 19, 2009


It might be that I'd already read the Odyssey and the Oresteia, and that Beowulf came across as such a clear precursor of Tolkien that it wasn't exactly new.

I like to lay the blame at the feet of Robert and Jean Hollander, who translated my Inferno.

Whatever the reason, the Inferno is the first book on the Iditarod that made me sit up and take notice. It felt like something I could study and read for years and always stay interested, and it made me see why all the medievalists I know scoff at just about everyone who isn't a medievalist. You know that contented sigh that comes after you finish a great book, and you see WHY it's great and you feel a tiny connection to the whole of Western history and everyone else who has read and loved and seen the significance of that particular book? I got that. I've never read anything like this -- it's so complex and gorgeous. The only thing it ever made me think of was Donne's poetry. But those are tiny complicated bites, and this is this monster of a book. Imagine what it must be like to sit down and try to do a new translation.

Not to be all middle-school book review ("This was the best book I've ever read!!!"), but go read it, if you haven't.

Oh, and the best part? I don't want to read the Purgatorio and Paradiso, because I have a different translation of those, and I don't want to hate them for not being the Hollander. But I have a feeling I might.

This is Dante, right? This has been around for centuries, no way it's totally ruined even by a dunce of a translator trying too hard to stick to terza rima when all we care about is the suffering and the stars.


Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Post-It: No way, Dante. No. Way.

I finally finished the Inferno. Toward the end there I was pretty sure Dante made it that long so that the reader could experience what it is like actually to be in Hell. Then I took a look at the Purgatorio and the Paradiso and I decided that Dante was just a cruel and spiteful man.

I'm thinking of slipping a lotus into Fiona's drink and telling her we already finished the entire Comedia and we can move on with our lives.

Post-it: A Brilliant Idea

So a local theatre company is currently running a sort of dance theatre version of the Divine Comedy, and I was scheduled to go see it. Let's see how oblique I can be about this: One aspect of my job enables me to see plays for free pretty much whenever I want to. In this particular instance, I had planned to go with another person who has the same job to see Divine Comedy, using his spare free ticket instead of getting one of my own. But then he didn't end up going and therefore I missed the allotted "night of free tickets," and while I could still go, it feels weird to actually pay to see a play.

I might still go.

Anyway, a friend of mine (go read her blog!) did see it. And she said that, while it was intriguing, the actor playing Virgil sounded very similar to Will Arnett.

Meaning she spent the entire production wondering what the Divine Comedy would be like with Gob Bluth leading Dante around. On a Segway. Muttering about his "illusions."

Monday, February 16, 2009

excuses, excuses

It's not clear what Fiona's excuse is. As for me, I have been taking a break from Dante to read my uncle's book, because the guilt of not having done so was really getting to me. The book is basically a super-liberal hippie fantasy of JFK surviving Dallas and using the political capital from doing so to remake America into the country my uncle would like it to be. Imagine MLK as Secretary of State, RFK as VP, the end of conflicts with Cuba and the USSR, etc.

My uncle being who he is, he gets very into the political nitty gritty, so the book doesn't have much of a plot beyond, you know, "Here's how this could be done, and here's how THIS could be done, and...". It's basically a blueprint for fixing America starting in 1963. Luckily, he's a good enough writer that I don't find this as irritating as I'd expect; the book is actually rather gripping. (I knew that I enjoyed his writing, but it's been a while.)

And hey, if I ever run into David Ignatius at a party, we'll have something to talk about.

I've also been distracted by my new computer. There's really no way to rationalize the dent this sucker put in my savings account, but I tried anyway. I'm on my computer a lot, including doing a significant part of my job from home (because I edit the next day's articles every night), and using Dave's old desktop was making me miserable (it dies, inexplicably, two or three times a day). My old iBook lasted a long time (I had a 2004 model that I purchased used in 2005, and it survived into the early part of 2009), and I have every hope that my new MacBook will last me well into graduate school.

Anyway, I'm almost done with Unafraid, so I'll be back to regular blogging shortly. And maybe more frequently, now that using a computer isn't such a damned trial.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Dante was kind of a vindictive little dude

Since we are both ladies who work in the general vicinity of the news, it's nice to sometimes be able to bring you, our devoted and loving readers, something that's topical ... AND somehow related to the Iditarod.

Ta-da! The New York Times took time out from its busy CEO-defending schedule to publish this article, which you should read because it's cool, but which I will summarize here for those of you who are afraid of links: Ahem. The Catholic Church is bringing back indulgences! It's not quite a return to the medieval, because they're not allowed to sell them per se. Rather, donations to charity can earn indulgences for church members.

For those of you rolling your eyes and opening up a Wikipedia tab, here's how it works. Catholics confess their sins, but they still have to do time in Purgatory to make up for all those sins before they can get into Heaven. Indulgences are a thing the church can give you that will reduce your time in purgatory. They come in two varieties: partial, which gets you out of some of your time, and plenary, which gets you straight into Heaven until you commit some other sin. Oh, and you can buy them for dead people too. Well, not buy them. Anyway, apparently a lot of modern Catholics have never heard of them, because THEY HAVE NEVER READ THE INFERNO, APPARENTLY. The church did away with indulgences in the '60s, but they definitely had them in Dante's time. In fact, there is a whole bolgia in the 8th circle of hell for priests who sold them. The practice is called simony ("the more you know!"), and the guys who committed it are in these sort of hellish baptismal fonts, upside down, and when other simoniacs they go in the same fonts and eventually the souls get sort of hammered down into the rock of hell.*

Oh, one thing to know about indulgences: if you go to hell, they don't help you at all.

On another note, Dante was the most creative, sick dude who ever lived. Seriously, he could be a villain in one of those horror movies where the crazed psychokiller thinks of ever more horrible, tortuous ways to do away with his victims.

Actually, that would be kind of a sweet movie.

*Heh. Reality show name?

funny, I don't remember that part of the Odyssey

So Ulysses/Odysseus is in hell, and I think we're all ok with that. According to Ciardi, Circle Eight: Bolgia Eight is for the Evil Counselors. Ciardi describes these as "men of gift who abused their genius, perverting it to wiles and stratagems" (Intro to Canto XXVI, p. 134). "Seeing them in Hell," Ciardi continues, "he [Dante] knows his must be another road: his way shall not be by deception."

Since Fiona's edition seems to say (confusingly enough) that no one's sure what sin is being punished in Bolgia Eight, I'll give you the rest of Ciardi's explanation:
Here the Evil Counselors move about endlessly, hidden from view inside great flames. Their sin was to abuse the gifts of the Almighty, to steal his virtues for low purposes. And as they stole from God in their lives and worked by hidden ways, so are they stolen from sight and hidden in the great flames which are their own guilty consciences. And as, in most instances at least, they sinned by glibness of tongue, so are the flames made into a fiery travesty of tongues.

Now. As for Ulysses. He and Diomede(s) share one "great flame which splits away/ into two great horns" (XXVI.52-3), " 'united in pain as once they were in wrath' " (57), as Virgil explains.

I don't see a problem with Diomede(s) being in hell, either, although for rather unfair reasons. I wrote pages and pages of thesis about what a d-bag he is in Troilus and Cressida, so that's my strongest impression of him, but of course everyone in that play is more or less unbearable; that's sort of the point. And since Dante's Diomede(s) predates Shakespeare's by a couple of centuries, it's obviously unfair to blame the former for the sins of the latter. But I still do a little.

I feel like Diomede(s) was a jerk in Chaucer, too, although it's been a while.

Anyway. Back to Ulysses.

The real surprise is not that he is in hell, but how he got there. Fiona mentioned in her post Monday that he died at sea, which is not how it's supposed to go -- as I recall, it is prophesied in the Odyssey that if he does all his sacrifices and everything right on his final, post-homecoming journey (where he must go deeply inland, "to a race of people who know nothing of the sea"), then he will die "a gentle, painless death, far from the sea...".

Dante tells a very, very different story.

Virgil's Ulysses seems to say that he never went home at all, after Troy. Or maybe he did.:
As if it fought the wind, the greater prong
of the ancient flame began to quiver and hum;
then moving its tip as if it were the tongue

that spoke, gave out a voice above the roar.
"When I left Circe," it said, "who more than a year
detained me near Gaeta long before

Aeneas came and gave the place that name,
not fondness for my son, nor reverence
for my aged father, nor Penelope's claim

to the joys of love, could drive out of my mind
the lust to experience the far-flung world
and the failings and felicities of mankind.
I put out on the high and open sea
with a single ship and only those few souls
who stayed true when the rest deserted me.

As far as Morocco and as far as Spain
I saw both shores; and I saw Sardinia
and the other islands of the open main." (XXVI.81-99)

Uh... what? I'm sorry, Dante, you've completely lost me. "When I left Circe," so like immediately, like Ulysses didn't even make a pit stop in Ithaca first? Or more like, "when I left Circe, I was full of wanderlust and all that stuff, so AFTER I stopped by Ithaca to kill all the suitors, THEN I went on another journey."

As far as I can tell, there is no way to tell which he means. And apparently the Hollander translation doesn't clarify that either.*

So leaving aside this little mystery, let's talk about Ulysses' death. He's on this voyage, whenever that took place, and, as Fiona mentioned, he encourages his crew to keep going even though it's clearly unwise to do so:
"With this brief exhortation I made my crew
so eager for the voyage I could hardly
have held them back from it when I was through;

and turning our stern toward morning, our bow toward night,
we bore southwest out of the world of man;
we made wings of our oars for our fool's flight.

That night we raised the other pole ahead
with all its stars, and ours had so declined
it did not rise out of its ocean bed.

Five times since we had dipped our bending oars
beyond the world, the light beneath the moon
had waxed and waned, when dead upon our course

we sighted, dark in space, a peak so tall
I doubted any man had seen the like.
Our cheers were hardly sounded, when a squall

broke hard upon our bow from the new land;
three times it sucked the ship and the sea about
as it pleased Another to order and command.

At the fourth, the poop rose and the bow went down
till the sea closed over us and the light was gone." (XXVI.112-31)

That's a whole lot of confusing, right there. And it doesn't get better, either. Here are a couple of Ciardi's (not very helpful) notes. For line 118, "we raised the other pole ahead," he offers,
i.e., They drove south across the equator, observed the southern stars, and found that the North Star had sunk below the horizon. The altitude of the North Star is the easiest approximation of latitude. Except for a small correction, it is directly overhead at the North Pole, shows an altitude of 45 degrees at North latitude 45, and is on the horizon at the equator. (p. 138)

Thanks for nothing, Ciardi. And here's the last note he gives for this passage, for line 124: "a peak: Purgatory. They sight it after five months of passage. According to Dante's geography, the Northern hemisphere is land and the Southern is all water except for the Mountain of Purgatory which rises above the surface at a point directly opposite Jerusalem."

So... Ulysses and his men... sailed to Purgatory, where their ship sank and they all died.

No, seriously. What?! Dante, did you even read the Cliff's Notes for the Odyssey? You didn't, did you. Oh, I see how it is. Your precious Virgil told you what happens, so you totally didn't even need to read it. You're gonna ace your Homer test, for sure.

Ciardi does have a note that sheds a little light on this, when he explains why Virgil speaks to Ulysses rather than allowing Dante to do so:
Dante knew no Greek, and these sinners might scorn him, first, because he spoke what to them would seem a barbarous tongue, and second, because as an Italian he would seem a descendant of Aeneas and the defeated Trojans. Virgil, on the other hand, appeal to them as a man of virtuous life (who therefore has a power over sin) and as a poet who celebrated their earthly fame. (Prof. MacAllister suggests another meaning as well: that Dante [and his world] had no direct knowledge of the Greeks, knowing their works through Latin intermediaries. Thus Virgil stood between Homer and Dante.) (p. 138, note to 72.)

"No direct knowledge of the Greeks." Why, you don't say.

*yo: so in your version
does it sound like ulysses never went home after the trojan war
or like he set out again?
because mine is very, very ambiguous
Enviado a la(s) 13:27 del martes
Fiona: "not tenderness for a son, nor filial duty toward my aged father, nor the love I owed penelope that would have made her glad, could overcome the fervor that was mine to gain experience of the world and learn about man's vices and his worth"
yo: sooooo
'cause mine says "when i left circe"
Fiona: "and so I set forth on the open deep with but a single ship, with that handful of shipmates who had not deserted me"
yo: but it doesn't say anything
Fiona: dante knows SHIT about ulysses
yo: about whether or not
he want back to ithaca first
so yours is ambiguous too, yeah?
Fiona: oh yeah I have that part too
about circe
but it's like
he totally could have gone home
yo: or not
Fiona: and then his tenderness and whatever couldn't KEEP him there
Fiona: I hate you dante
shipmates that had not deserted him
welll they're all DEAD
yo: haha
Fiona: you should copy this conversation and put it on the blog
yo: ok

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Exciting times in the western world

Since once again we've got a book with a specific date, that sounds like an excuse for a party. According to my text, Dante's journey begins either on March 25 or on April 8.

Let's say March 25, since my little brother will be in town for our medieval Italian adventure.

Invitations to be dispatched shortly.

This is sweet!

Fiona is good at finding things. Check out all this free GRE-related stuff she turned up. I know I shouldn't be afraid of the GRE, since I tend to test well, but I am. I'm terrified of it.

I don't know why. Maybe because they average your scores, so if you screw it up the first time, it will haunt you forever? Or maybe because I just feel so much pressure on the whole topic of grad school?

I don't know. But I'm really glad that there are all these free resources!

Update: There is a ton of stuff on the ETS site as well. I had no idea you could just download all these things.

On the downside, Kaplan's free tests don't include the writing section, rendering them somewhat useless. I mean, I can see how it'd be good to take a practice test under actual test conditions... but then how do I prepare for the writing test??* My life is pain.

*By reading all the free tutorials, you say? Details, details.

Monday, February 9, 2009

He could talk the wings off a demon

Good news: Ulysses is in Hell.

RIGHT? The guy was such an ass in the Odyssey, I'm glad he's there now. With the false advice-givers. Or something. According to one of my notes on the eighth bolgia of Malebolge*, no-one is really sure what sin is being punished here. But one of the guys says something about giving false advice. Does that mean intentionally bad advice? Does that mean evil advice? No-one is sure. Oh well. Anyway, these guys are encased inside flames (which makes me think of this) and their flames sort the talking for them...
As the Sicilian bull that bellowed first
with the cries of him whose instrument
has fashioned it -- and that was only just --
used to bellow with the victim's voice
so that, although the bull was made of brass,
it seemed transfixed by pain,
thus, having first no course or outlet
through the flame, the mournful words
were changed into a language all their own.
But once the words had made their way
up to the tip, making it flicker
as the voice had done when it had formed them,
we heard it say: 'O you at whom I aim my voice...' (XXVII.7-19)

All that stuff in the beginning is about an Italian tyrant, Phalaris, who created a special kind of torture. He had Perillus (heh.) make him a big hollow bull statue in which he basically roasted people alive. And their screams sounded like the bellowing of a bull! Oh, Phalaris, you're so clever. Ahaha. Aha. You sick jerk. Oh, and the first victim was Perillus, just on principle.

The notes are also full of that stuff -- talking about how this or that hellish punishment was based on a real thing they used to do in Florence, crucifying people upside down in holes and then filling in the holes so they suffocated**, or putting them inside giant crucibles with lead capes on so the lead melted onto them. Ugh.

Anyway, back to Ulysses. He talks about his adventures on earth and his death at sea -- and his final rallying cry to his sailors to keep going into unknown waters:
'O brothers,' I said, 'who in the course
of a hundred thousand perils, at last
have reached the west, to such brief wakefulness
of our senses as remains to use,
do not deny yourselves the chance to know --
following the sun -- the world where no-one lives.
Consider how your souls were sown
you were not made to live like brutes or beasts
but to pursue virtue and knowledge.' (XXVI.115-120)

And he won me over. God, I hate Ulysses, and with this one speech I'm thinking WHY IS THIS GUY IN HELL?? LOOK AT THAT SPEECH.

At the very least, you'd think he could sweet-talk God.

*The eighth circle of Hell ... the bolgias are ten ditches, each containing people who committed a different sin, but they're all sins to do with fraud.
**I thought the point of crucifixion was a long, slow death? No? Huh.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

"Useless...useless." Thanks Boston Corbett.

You know, I never understood those people who spent their lives trying to figure out which passenger slept in which stateroom on the Titanic.

But hey, it looks almost useful compared to the apparently large number of people who have tried to figure out the geography of Dante's Hell.

No, seriously. The passages concerning Dante and Virgil turning left or right, or scaling or descending some slope...these have huge notes attached explaining how this scholar or that one figured out the shape of hell from these. I'm sad there's no tiny and detailed map in the front of my book.

But really, did people just get bored of studying everything else about the poem and turn to this, which seems so insignificant? Does anyone glean anything new and meaningful from the Inferno simply by knowing that hell is shaped like a bowl (or whatever. It's not shaped like a bowl. Ignore me.)

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

and here it had always been my impression that once you caught the rooster you could stop running

Fiona and I both grew up in what is technically known as "the sticks," but my childhood was rather the more rustic; I lived well outside of town, such as it was, in a crumbling stucco disaster with an overgrown back yard -- and, ok, an overgrown front yard, with an overgrown hedge to match -- full of animals.

Appropriately enough, given the town where we lived, my upbringing combined the hick and the hippie. Highlights of each summer included the solstice party (a long weekend wherein a group of old hippie friends brought their families to camp out in the middle of the woods and partake in hippie activities such as hunting for arrowheads and roasting a wild boar) and the rodeo.

There were actually a number of rodeos in the various crummy outposts of California's rural northwest, but the best was definitely the Orick Rodeo. The highlight -- for me, between the ages of say, five and twelve -- was the Animal Scramble.

The full awesomeness of the Animal Scramble is difficult to convey. Imagine a large, dusty, rectangular arena. On one long side is a row of bleachers crowded with the salt of the Californian earth: hicks, farmers, and cowboys of every description. (And, on at least one memorable occasion, the driver of my elementary school bus.) The other side is backed with giant ads for beer, feed stores, and trucking companies. At one end are the pens into which the broncs and the bulls are crowded, and a small, high box where the announcer sits.

That end was where they would line up the kids. At the other end, the trucks came in. They unloaded chickens, ducks, geese, maybe some other small livestock -- was there occasionally a little goat? -- and always, of course, the greased pig. (I never went after the greased pig. That was for big, strong kids.)

The concept is pretty simple. Let the little kids go, then the big kids a few minutes later. Whatever you caught was yours to keep -- or if you didn't want it, you could sell it at the auction right after. Sometimes only for a dollar, sometimes for more, but it always sold. Imagine all those little kids, squawking poultry cradled to their chests. Like these guys. Whether my mom let us keep the chickens (inevitably chickens: I've always been slow, and I never caught anything exciting) or said we had too many already and made us sell them, it was always a time to savor.

So there you are, clutching your rooster, the sweet taste of victory on your lips.

In Dante's time, apparently, things were a little different.

The Sodomites, for their "violence against nature," run eternally in circles on the burning sand, under a rain of fire. After talking a while with Dante, the scholar and statesman Ser Brunetto Latino returns to his punishment:
...He turned then, and he seemed,
across that plain, like one of those who run

for the green cloth at Verona; and of those
more like the one who wins, than those who lose. (XV.119-22)

Ciardi explains, "On the first Sunday of Lent all the young men of Verona ran a race for the prize of green cloth. The last runner in was given a live rooster and was required to carry it through the town" (p.80, note to l.121).

I think I prefer the Animal Scramble.

"Bad men. Good men. Beautifulest ladies. Snakes. Spiders. Beasts of all natures and descriptions. Pain. Death."

So Hollander is very into the contemporary politics in the Inferno. I didn't really know about these, but it stands to reason. I mean, if you were writing a book about hell, don't you think you would make sure some people you hate got punished roundly? So there are plenty of Florentines Dante would have known/known of in the poem. I mean, Italy was pretty crazy when he was alive (feuds between families, rule by the pope vs. rule by an emperor, etc.), and he had lots of enemies to stick it to.

The best is when the person clearly being castigated in the poem is not identified, as in this passage, from the first circle, which is where the neutrals hang out. These guys didn't really do anything wrong, but they don't get to get into Heaven because they didn't do much GOOD either.:
After I recognized a few of these,
I saw and knew the shade of his
who, through cowardice, made the great refusal.

At once with certainty I understood
this was that worthless crew
hateful alike to God and to his foes.

These wretches, who never were alive,
were naked and beset
by stinging flies and wasps

that made their faces stream with blood,
which, mingled with their tears,
was gathered at their feet by loathsome worms. (III.58-69)

But WHO WAS THAT MASKED MAN? Hollander notes an argument between scholars who think it could be Pope Celestine V (who gave up the position after a very short reign and was succeeded by a Pope Dante hated), but other people think it's Pontius Pilate or Esau. There are so many notes like this, noting the arguments that have been made about these things since the Comedy was published. The sheer number of commentaries on the poem is sort of mind-boggling. There are very few works, classic or not, that have gotten this kind of attention. Much less that have been so lauded from the moment they were published. According to Hollander, at least 10 commentaries on the poem have survived from the first twenty years after Dante's death. TEN. I can't even wrap my mind around that. (Maybe we could trade them for a lost Euripedes play? No? Darn.)

And we come to what is, so far, my favorite passage. He's in limbo, hanging out with Homer, Horace, Ovid, Lucan, and Virgil:
After they conversed a while,
they turned to me with signs of greeting,
and my master smiled at this.

And then they showed me greater honor still,
for they made me one of their company,
so that I became the sixth amidst such wisdom. (IV.97-102)

The notes on this tercet are awesome. Hollander talks a bit about the discomfort people feel with Dante including himself in this group, especially since before the Inferno he hadn't published much of substance (except the Vita Nuova), so he had very little upon which to hang his self-important little Italian hat. To anyone reading it, it's clear that he's a major poet. But I like my authors with a liberal dose of angst and self-hatred. Right, F. Scott?

However, Hollander clearly thinks he belongs in the group of poets in which he places himself, claiming: "It was a dangerous gesture for him to make. It is redeemed by his genius." (n. IV.102)

As William Goldman said (not about Dante, but it seems apropos):
"You had to admire a guy who called his own new book a classic before it was published and anyone else had had a chance to read it. Maybe he figured if he didn't do it, nobody would, or maybe he was just trying to give the reviewers a helping hand."

Monday, February 2, 2009

the worst thing that has ever happened. no, seriously.

I'm not a religious person, what with my dad being a nonpracticing Jew and my mom being a nonpracticing... Protestant? (She's so nonpracticing that I'm not even clear on what it is that she's not practicing, although I'm fairly sure that her family went to church when she was growing up. Uh... Mom?) But I digress.

I know religion often makes no sense to people who aren't religious. Especially old school religion. And we all know that the Catholic church has been associated with its fair share of The Crazy (although I won't say it's cornered the market; Scientology is a stiff competitor). And of course the Inferno was written a bazillion years ago, so I was expecting a lot of bizarre and offensive stuff, like the special place in hell for The Gays. I was braced, let's say. But one story, in particular, keeps coming back to haunt me.

We're in Circle Seven, Round Two: The Violent Against Themselves. This includes the Suicides and the Squanderers and Destroyers of Goods (yeah, Dante has some strange classifications). So we're pretty deep into Hell -- these are big-league sinners.

Ciardi gives these handy little blurbs at the beginning of each canto, outlining what is going to happen (lots of spoilers, but it helps keep me from missing anything). Here's what he has to say about the Suicides:
The souls of the Suicides are encased in thorny trees whose leaves are being eaten by the odious Harpies, the overseers of these damned. When the Harpies feed upon them, damaging their leaves and limbs, the wound bleeds. Only as long as the blood flows are the souls of the trees able to speak. Thus, they who destroyed their own bodies are denied a human form; and just as the supreme expression of their lives was self-destruction, so they are permitted to speak only through that which tears and destroys them. Only through their own blood do they find voice. And to add one more dimension to the symbolism, it is the Harpies -- defilers of all they touch -- who give them their eternally recurring wounds. (Intro to Canto XIII, p. 67)

Pretty brutal punishment, right? Let's meet one of these suicides, Pier delle Vigne. Here's what Ciardi tells us about him (the Wikipedia has a bit, too): "A famous and once-powerful minister of Emporer Frederick II. He enjoyed Frederick's whole confidence until 1247 when he was accused of treachery and was imprisoned and blinded. He committed suicide to escape further torture" (note to XIII.58, p. 69).

Now. Here's what Pier delle Vigne has to say for himself:

"I am he who held both keys to Frederick's heart,
locking, unlocking with so deft a touch
that scarce another soul had any part

in his most secret thoughts. Through every strife
I was so faithful to my glorious office
that for it I gave up both sleep and life.

That harlot, Envy, who on Caesar's face
keeps fixed forever her adulterous stare,
the common plage and vice of court and palace,

inflamed all minds against me. These inflamed
so inflamed him that all my happy honors
were changed to mourning. Then, unjustly blamed,

my soul, in scorn, and thinking to be free
of scorn in death, made me at last, though just,
unjust to myself. By the new roots of this tree

I swear to you that never in word or spirit
did I break faith to my lord and emperor
who was so worthy of honor in his merit.

If either of you return to the world, speak for me,
to vindicate in the memory of men
one who lies prostrate from the blows of Envy." (XIII. 58-78)

THIS POOR MAN IS IN THE SEVENTH CIRCLE OF HELL. Do you know where Dido is? Yeah, Dido, the SUICIDE. Oh, she's in the second circle, with the Carnal, buffeted eternally by winds. That's it. Because Dante has a soft spot for romantics, and, you know, she died for love.

Look. I like Dido. She made some very, very poor decisions, but Aeneas treated her like shit, and she totally didn't deserve that. I cried when I got to the part in the Aeneid where she kills herself. I cried actual physical tears. It's incredibly sad.

But why the hell is she in the second circle when poor Pier What's-His-Face is down here in the seventh? He was loyal! He died because he was being tortured! All he wants is to clear his name!

That is some bullshit, right there.

Speaking of Dante and religion and all of this being bitterly unjust, here's a little conversation I imagine between Virgil and God:

Virgil: Hey, God, what am I doing here in Hell? I was a pretty good person, right? Not too carnal, not too gluttonous, never betrayed anyone... and I'm only in the first circle after all, which isn't so bad. But seriously, I was virtuous, so why am I here at all?

God: Oh, yeah. You were born too early. No Jesus, no Heaven. Sorry.

Virgil: ...

Sunday, February 1, 2009

in which Cerberus is icky, times three

I have to say, I envy Fiona her Hollander translation (although the name Hollander now reminds me of Roy Den Hollander -- I'm sorry, Robert and Jean Hollander, it's not your fault). I have the John Ciardi translation (mine is the 1977 Norton edition), and I can't say it's doing a whole lot for me. I would have preferred the Palma or the Mandelbaum -- I've mentioned that I enjoyed Mandelbaum's Aeneid -- but we're very limited in which editions we can obtain, since we really can't afford to buy all the books that we're reading, and -- this is sure to shock you -- the DC public library doesn't have a fantastic selection. (At least we still have a number of libraries. I'm looking at you, Philadelphia.)

Leigh recommended the Palma. I'm dying to read it. Meanwhile, here's a sample of what Fiona is reading compared to what I am reading. Let's look at Canto VI of the Inferno, describing Circle Three, the Gluttons.

Here's Hollander, which Fiona has:

With my returning senses that had failed
before the piteous state of those two in-laws,
which had confounded me with grief,

new torments and new souls in torment
I see about me, wherever I may move,
or turn, or set my gaze.

I am in the third circle, of eternal,
hateful rain, cold and leaden,
changeless in its monotony.

Heavy hailstones, filthy water, and snow
pour down through gloomy air.
The ground it falls on reeks.

Cerberus, fierce and monstrous beast,
barks from three gullets like a dog
over the people underneath that muck.

His eyes are red, his beard a greasy black,
his belly swollen. With his taloned hands
he claws the spirits, flays and quarters them.

The rain makes them howl like dogs.
The unholy wretches often turn their bodies,
making of one side a shield for the other.

When Cerberus--that great worm--noticed us,
he opened up his jaws and showed his fangs.
There was no part of him he held in check.

But then my leader opened up his hands,
picked up some earth, and with full fists
tossed soil into the ravenous gullets.

Here, just for the sake of comparison, are the same lines from Mandelbaum (via Google Books, which doesn't have a preview of Palma, sadly):

Upon my mind's reviving--it had closed
on hearing the lament of those two kindred,
since sorrow had confounded me completely--

I see new sufferings, new sufferers
surrounding me on every side, wherever
I move about or turn or set my eyes.

I am in the third circle, filled with cold,
unending, heavy, and accurséd rain;
its measure and its kind are never changed.

Gross hailstones, water gray with filth, and snow
come streaking down across the shadowed air;
the earth, as it receives that shower, stinks.

Over the souls of those submerged beneath
that mess, is an outlandish, vicious beast,
his three throats barking, doglike: Cerberus.

His eyes are bloodred; greasy, black, his beard;
his belly bulges, and his hands are claws;
his talons tear and flay and rend the shades.

That downpour makes the sinners howl like dogs;
they use one of their sides to screen--
those miserable wretches turn and turn.

When Cerberus, the great worm, noticed us,
he opened wide his mouths, showed us his fangs;
there was no part of him that did not twitch.

My guide opened his hands to their full span,
plucked up some earth, and with his fists filled full
he hurled it straight into those famished jaws.

And then here's what I'm reading, the Ciardi translation:

My senses had reeled from me out of pity
for the sorrow of those kinsmen and lost lovers.
Now they return, and waking gradually,

I see new torments and new souls in pain
about me everywhere. Wherever I turn
away from grief I turn to grief again.

I am in the Third Circle of the torments.
Here to all time with neither pause nor change
the frozen rain of Hellen descends in torrents.

Huge hailstones, dirty water, and black snow
pour from the dismal air to putrefy
the putrid slush that waits for them below.

Here monstrous Cerberus, the ravening beast,
howls through his triple throats like a mad dog
over the spirits sunk in that foul paste.

His eyes are red, his beard is greased with phlegm,
his belly is swollen, and his hands are claws
to rip the wretches and flay and mangle them.

And they, too, howl like dogs in the freezing storm,
turning and turning from it as if they thought
one naked side could keep the other warm.

When Cerberus discovered us in that swill
his dragon-jaws yawed wide, his lips drew back
in a grin of fangs. No limb of him was still.

My Guide bent down and seized in either fist
a clod of the stinking dirt that festered there
and flung them down the gullet of the beast.

Look. I appreciate why translators want to maintain something of the rhythm or the rhyme of the original. But when one -- as Ciardi does -- tries so hard to keep exactly to the rhyme (of something, let's remember, written in a different language), I think that the sacrifice in terms of diction, descriptive power, and original meaning is just too great. Not that I know which of these translations sticks most closely to Dante's Tuscan. But I think in terms of the power of its language, the impact upon the reader, Ciardi's translation is at too great a disadvantage. It comes across as flatter, less immediate than the other two. I don't know. I'd rather read good poetry than rhyming poetry, particularly when it's a translation.

(I'm all for stylistic rigor in the right place. The right place is Coleridge.)

If translations are really your thing, here's a cool thing on Amazon where some random guy gives a succinct description of a number of different translations.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

"L'amor che move il sole e l'altre stelle."

Let me first say that I prefer my translations the old-fashioned way: original work on the left, translation on the facing page.* It's especially important with Dante. If you're not looking over every so often and reading the verse out loud in Italian (even if you have no idea what it means), well, there goes approximately 22% of your pleasure in reading Dante.

Really! Italian is like that. I also feel this way about Spanish poetry: it's just not the same unless you say it in the original language. And even if you don't speak Italian, Dante is ridiculously easy to sound out.

And why, class, does Fiona feel comfortable with it?

Well, it is supposedly unfair to claim (as many have) that Dante invented modern Italian. It's a very romantic notion. His real contribution was bringing his dialect (Florentine/Tuscan) of Italian into the literary tradition in such a major way that he rendered all the other dialects of Italy inferior. Italian exists in its modern form largely because Dante was so important. Without him, the Roman or Milanese dialects might have eventually won out when Italy decided "Hey, it's pretty stupid that we don't have a unified language isn't it?"

It's easy to forget what a literary rock star Dante was, even in his own time. Personally, he was kind of a hermit -- but this is not by any means a guy who had to wait till after his death to be recognized. Scholars began writing commentaries on the Commedia pretty much immediately, and they haven't stopped yet. People waited for the last installment, the Paradiso, like it was Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.

I've only just begun reading (he's in the middle of a dark wood and there's a leopard), but I'm excited. If I recall, this is a very political poem, so hopefully there will be lots of Guelph/Ghibelline conflict in the subtext and I'll tell you all about it.

*for the Inferno I am reading the Hollander translation. Once I get to Purgatorio, I'm not sure if I will try to continue with this (i.e. make another library trip) or if I'll switch to the Sayers translation. We'll see.