Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Summer Reading: Inferno (canto 17)

Even to a modern imagination, used to seeing unreal creatures rendered through CGI, this episode is a triumph of the fantastic. At the precipice of the Seventh Circle, Virgil hails a massive demon called Geryon. The size of a barge, it's part man, part serpent, and part scorpion. Virgil & Dante mount the beast and ride it off the cliff into the void! Adding to the tension, Dante thinks of Icarus & Phaeton, two mythic flyers who tumbled to their deaths. But Geryon wheels down to the next ring like a falcon, depositing a terrified Dante safely at Ring #8.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Summer Reading: Inferno (canto 16)

A trio of “sodomites” recognize Dante's Tuscan accent & ask him how the city of Florence fares. Dante must reply that it's riven by political dissent. Sinners like these gay men aren't simply defined by wickedness, even in Hell. They're citizens and partisans, and they reflect some better aspect of Florence than currently (c. 1310) existed, in Dante's opinion. Unlike most poets, he's happy to comment on current events in his work, even though the purpose of his Comedy is to chart an eternal cosmic hierarchy. It makes the book both intimate & relevant to his contemporaries.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Summer Reading: Inferno (canto 15)

Throughout the Inferno, there's a tension between the justice of God's punishment & Dante's pity for the damned (both in his explicit reactions and implicitly through his humane descriptions). For the modern liberal and for Dante, this comes to a head in Canto 15, where men are punished for homosexuality. Dante won't controvert Christian doctrine, so instead he paints a compassionate portrait of Brunetto Latini, a friend & mentor. Dante deliberately elides Brunetto's sin, cites his service to Florence, commends the man's poetry, and ends, “he looked more the winner than the one who trails the field.” Well finessed.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Summer Reading: Inferno (canto 14)

In a desert raining with brimstone, Dante notes that one man ignores the cinders falling like snowflakes upon the damned. It's Capaneus, one of the kings who beseiged Thebes (see Aeschylus' Seven Against Thebes). Capaneus stood against Jove (ie the godhead) & remains blasphemous even in Hades! But back to that desert. Virgil plans to traverse the scorched earth along a stream that connects hell's various rivers. In a flourish of cosmology, Dante explains that the rivers are fed by the wound of a monumental titan beneath Mt. Ida. It's breathtaking how wide the poet's scope & imagination are!

Monday, August 23, 2010

Summer Reading: Inferno (canto 13)

Ready for a horrific image? Further into the seventh circle, harpies patrol a wilderness of thorns. When Virgil snaps a twig off one, it bleeds and screams in pain! Virgil explains that each bush is a soul; when Judgment Day comes, the resurrected bodies of these suicides will hang from their own branches (an echo of the arch-suicide, Judas). The thornbush weezes its tale through its broken stalk—he belonged to the court of Frederick II—but never gives his name. We're meant to deduce it, but the omission also suggests to me that Hell's punishments simultaneously emphasize and annihilate the self.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Summer Reading: Inferno (canto 12)

After last canto's disquisition on sin, Canto 12 picks up the action. Sidling past the Minotaur (I love all the monsters!), Dante & Virgil come to a vast, boiling stream of blood: the River Phlegethon. Centaurs ring the strand, firing arrows at bobbing souls of the violent. Virgil enlists one to ford the river with Dante on its back (remember, Virgil is insubstantial & needs no help). How are the violent distinct from the wrathful of Circle #4, swimming in the Styx? It's more than mere degree: here are tyrants like Alexander and Attila along with career criminals.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Summer Reading: Inferno (canto 11)

Commenting on a ripening stench, Virgil notes they're descending into the seventh circle. The final three rings are a class apart from the first six: here are sins of violence & treachery against others (including God), not merely sins of the mind. The book careful parses the sins in its deepest probe of metaphysics so far. It's hard to comprehend this position from our humanist point-of-view. When Dante shows pity for the hellbound, he's chastized by Virgil. The damned deserve their God-given punishments. But I can't help seeing an ambiguity in Inferno, because it describes them with such humanity.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Summer Reading: Inferno (canto 10)

Where the last canto clanged with action, this one turns inward. Dante takes a moment to chat with Farinata, a Florentine rival whose sin was stoicism—a blasphemous philosophy. Ironically, Farinata strides from his tomb in an echo of Christ's Resurrection. And he earns a complex respect from Dante, since he was a fierce defender of Florence in Italian politics. Dante also shows sympathy for the family's exile, especially once Farinata foresees Dante's own banishment. The damned, it seems, have a prophetic vision that tethers them to the world. The exchange unsettles our narrator, ending the canto on a pensive note.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Summer Reading: Inferno (canto 9)

Last canto ended on a cliffhanger, with Dante & Virgil barred from the City of Dis. Now, Virgil reports that reinforcements are on their way. Then he mentions his first trip from Limbo into Hell, back when he was newly late (thus filling in the backstory since his death in 19 BC). His anecdote's interrupted, however, by an attack from the Furies & Medusa (described only via sound—Dante doesn't see her, of course)! Then a heavenly angel appears, scattering the damned & storming the gates. It's thrilling! Inside, Circle #6: a traditional hellscape burns the souls of heretics.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Summer Reading: Inferno (canto 8)

Dante notices that the Stygian ferry only draws water when he's aboard—a subtle reminder that Virgil's an insubstantial spirit like the rest of the damned. They're represented this canto by an arrogant Florentine, Filippo Argenti, who gets singled out for abuse—first verbally by Dante, who knew the guy personally, and then physically (spiritually?) by the skiff's crew! It docks at Dis, the great city of the Fallen Angels of Hell. From the parapets, they jeer at Dante for risking his still-living spirit and move to bar the gates. For the first time, Virgil seems worried…

Monday, August 16, 2010

Summer Reading: Inferno (canto 7)

Another fiend guards the fourth ring: Plutus, Roman God of Wealth. Before him, in a display of pointlessness that reminds me of Sisyphus, a mob of avaricious & prodigal shove heavy casques in circles, some clockwise & some counter-, reversing direction when they collide. Most of the greedy ones are clerics, who've rejected the asceticism of Christ. Virgil (maybe in response to Canto 6's report on Florence?) waxes allegorical on Fortune, who lifts some people & nations while dashing others. And then, at the River Styx, the wrathful wrestle among themselves, holding each other under the brackish water.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Summer Reading: Inferno (canto 6)

Dante, preoccupied, finds himself in a fetid downpour, facing three-headed Cerberus. FYI, if you encounter Cerberus, toss dirt in its mouth. Now in the third circle, Dante stops to chat with one Ciacco (the nickname means 'pig', the sin is gluttony), who's the first contemporary Florentine he's met. Caccio has some dire prophecies for the city, riven by factionalism that had recently sent Dante into exile. Even more spooked, Dante asks Virgil about the metaphysics of damnation. After the Day of Judgment, punishments will be greater, and so the damned will be closer to perfection.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Summer Reading: Inferno (canto 5)

At the second circle, we meet Minos, Judge of the Damned. In an echo of confession, the dead recite their sins; Minos coils his tail to signal which ring of the Underworld they belong in. Descending past him, we come upon a vivid sight: the lustful—Cleopatra, Tristan, Dido—are tossed in the air by a black squall, cursing God (and not themselves). One, “Francesca”, floats down to describe her sin: she and her lover were inspired to adultery over an epic romance about Lancelot. She's a powerful character, easy to sympathize with. But note the ironic dangers of reading!

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Summer Reading: Inferno (canto 4)

Canto 4
Into the Abyss! The Inferno's a giant pit with populated rings (“circles”) around the edges. Circle #1 is quiet & still: Limbo. It's Virgil's home turf, with the other pagans unlucky enough to be born before Christ's sacrifice. There's regret in Virgil's voice when he tells us that only once has anyone gone from Limbo to Heaven: the Judaic prophets, paroled by Jesus Himself. Dante & Virgil talk shop with Homer, Horace, & Ovid—Dante's got chutzpah classing himself with them! Then there's a Homeric list of Limbo's denizens, mythic (Hector), historical (Socrates), even a Muslim (Averroes).

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Summer Reading: Inferno

Canto 3
We pass under the famous archway inscribed “Abandon All Hope…” into Hell—or its vestibule, at least. Before the River Acheron, a mob of 'neutrals' mingle with the angels who took neither side during Satan's Rebellion. Neither dead nor alive, they're ignored by Heaven, Hell, mortals, & even Virgil. Their indeterminate identity even extends to their allegorical emblem: a blank standard. At the river, an old man whose eyes glow like coals snarls at Dante, confused by his living body. It's Charon, the ferryman of Greek myth. Dante faints at the sight, so he's unconscious when he enters Hell itself.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Theater: Title Bout (August 9)

Every week, I compose listings on the week's new plays for Metromix NY. I'm often disappointed by the titles that playwrights choose for their work, so I'm reviewing their titles now. Not the shows (I haven't seen them yet) just the titles. To read about the content of each show, click through its link to my listings on Metromix NY.

What a lovely phrase―must be Shakespeare! Yep, it's from Othello & it refers to lunacy. I'm a sucker for allusions to Shakespeare, even the same tired quotes (eg Infinite Jest). Here, an ambiguity: the moon may be the cause of human error, or the moon itself acts against nature. What does the phrase suggest about the show? Madness, mutability, & a writer with a good ear for poetry.

What a lot of utilitarian words. “Fringe Festival” is as inseparable a phrase here as “New York City”, cluing us as to what to expect―fringe theater is almost a genre unto itself. In press materials, the unwieldy title is shortened to FringeNYC, which isn't great but it presents the same info with slightly more flourish.

A smart bit of poetry. The Ps play off each other well, and the seesaw of long & short vowels add swing. There's a ironic whimsy to the phrase, especially since the poorhouse is literally debtor's prison.

Ibsen came up with a bunch of good titles, from Pillars of the Community to When We Dead Awaken. Hedda is one of the few where he follows the convention of naming the play after its protagonist. But (spoiler alert?!) in the play, she's Hedda Tesman; 'Gabler' is her maiden name. It's a subtle twist aimed at the attentive viewer.

A phrase that hangs between boxing idiom and cliché (according to Google, it's a spell in World of Warcraft). Still, “The Punishing Blow” is a good phrase and a good title.

Summer Reading: Inferno

Canto 2
After invoking a muse, Dante describes his first action: a display of cowardice, though couched in humility. He reminds Virgil that he's no Aeneas or Paul, who both harrowed Hell. One founded Rome, the other Christianity; by extension, the Comedy is just as important! Virgil bucks Dante up by telling him that Beatrice appointed him to guide Dante thru the Inferno. Beatrice is luminous, a heavenly emanation fixed in a hierarchy of holy women (Mary Herself sent a virgin martyr to point Dante's crisis out to Bea), too refined to descend into Hell.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Summer Reading: Inferno

Canto 1
Dante, 36 years old (my age!), has experienced a life crisis; as a poet, he's compelled to write about his recovery. It takes the narrative form of getting lost in an eerie valley and threatened by wild beasts—a vivid metaphor that rings true to anyone who's struggled with depression. But his description, despite its precision and liveliness, has the tone of a dream, especially the way his hero, the Roman poet Virgil, appears from nowhere to guide him to safety.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Summer Reading: Inferno (intro)

Why Dante's Inferno? Lady Hotspur & I plan to visit Florence in October. And I enjoy laying a foundation for trips by exploring the literature of my destination. So it seems like the perfect excuse to read the masterpiece, written c. 1305-20, at the dawn of Florence's Renaissance heyday. I'll be reading and reporting on a canto each day for the next month, at about a 100 words per entry. But first, an introduction.

Narrative poems have a push-pull rhythm that combines the momentum of storytelling with the careful parsing of poetry. The rhyme scheme of The Divine Comedy mirrors this rhythm: ABA BCB CDC DED EFE…. Dante introduces a third rhyme then moves back to resolve the second. The content also shifts constantly between realistic observations, vivid metaphors, emotional self-reflection, mythic/historical allusion, Christian allegory, metaphysical inquiry, & Florentine current events. It makes for an incredibly dense epic, but it's also remarkably accessible.

FYI, I'm reading the Hollander translation,  published in 2000 AD. It prints the original Italian on the left leaf & the English translation on the right. I like the option of breaking down Dante's phrasing to compare it with the translation, and my knowledge of Latin languages is just good enough to recognize some word roots. The Hollanders don't bother to rhyme their translation (I approve, as English isn't nearly as good as Italian for rhyming).

What else should you know? Cantos are about 110-150 lines long, the perfect length for one a day. The Hollanders include notes at the end of each canto rather than at the foot of the page. I read the canto then skim the endnotes for the allusions & political references. Inferno has 34 cantos; the subsequent volumes are 33 cantos, making The Comedy an even 100 cantos.

I hope you enjoy playing Dante to my Virgil as I guide you through the Inferno! See you tomorrow!