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?