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 of...do 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.