“Translating is only a more intense and more demanding form of what we do whenever we read” – JM Coetzee
Coetzee might also have added “whenever we live”. Unless, like the dead, one is perfectly at home in the world, a close reading of one’s environment is required to navigate and negotiate oneself through the day. To reduce the pressure, however, we choose to organise a predictable world. This goes for what we call our leisure time also. If we don’t read the same books, watch the same films or listen to the same music over and over, at least we choose that which offers a guarantee of familiarity – which is what its generic format is anyway – with a façade of newness. There is a primal fear of the new and no amount of pretending to openness changes that. There is, however, at the same time, an incessant desire for the new.
Dante’s Inferno correlates with this condition because, at every turn, as the pilgrim narrator walks through Hell, he finds its inhabitants enduring new and ever more terrible punishments. Horror and fascination merge. It also correlates with our entertainment choices because, unlike normal life, the pilgrim is relatively safe from danger. For example, one of the punishments of the eighth circle features the “barrators” (mercenaries, bribe-takers etc). They have to remain submerged naked in boiling pitch or else demons swoop down, hook them with pincers, carry them to the shore, and then tear them apart.
The pilgrim is very curious about the individuals behind their veils of suffering, and so, albeit reluctantly, the demons allow him to quiz one victim about to be filleted to find out whom he is and with whom he shares his punishment. The shade tells him, then uses the distraction to escape and dive back beneath the surface. The demons are not pleased, so the pilgrim and his guide hurry along unsure whether they are immune to their visceral justice, rather like us slyly putting a book back on the library shelf while using the alibi of knowledge to mitigate to oneself the schadenfreude implicit to reading books about others’ suffering. The pilgrim knows he is implicated in his action so doesn’t become complacent, or if he does is quickly put straight by his guide. Every detail of his journey adds to the overall understanding of his place in the greater scheme of things, where nothing is new under God. His journey is to the end of the new: that is, Heaven.
Inferno is only the first part of The Divine Comedy (called the Commedia by Dante, it gained the addition of “Divine” much later), and is followed by Purgatorio and Paradiso. Yet it is by far the most read of the three. As Peter Hawkins has said, this is “in part because of Dante’s titillatingly gruesome dissection of each fresh horror” but also because, and this perhaps the freshest horror, “we feel most at home here.” Hawkins explains: “in Hell the self is sovereign, cut off, frozen in obsession and monomania, always alone no matter how dense the crowd.” So it seems that rather than Dante showing us what awaits us if we do not obey God’s law, Inferno describes the crises that threaten our everyday lives, one we need to be on the look out to resist by translating, understanding and acting accordingly.
The pilgrim’s own story begins in a state of confusion and imminent breakdown; as newly translated by Michael Palma:
“Midway through the journey of our life, I found
myself in a dark wood, for I had strayed
from the straight pathway to this tangled ground.
How hard it is to tell of, overlaid
with harsh and savage growth, so wild and raw
the thought of it still makes me feel afraid.”
This is both real and allegorical. One needn’t be troubled with sorting the distinction. We sense the fictional space and the existential reality of mental anguish. But why should this particular means of expression be important? Why not just express it more directly? Well, if one is in the depths of despair “direction” is part of the problem; one is torn from all sides. One must seek the straight pathway. Dante’s poem is about how the pilgrim did this; or rather what helped him to do this. As the pilgrim tries the shortest (more direct) routes, he is blocked by three beasts: a leopard, a lion and a she-wolf. He is driven downward to escape evisceration and meets the ghost of Dante’s literary hero, the Roman poet Virgil, hoarse through long silence, waiting to show him the true way. And so begins the long voyage to heaven, guided, once Virgil is left behind in Hell, by Beatrice, the ideal love of Dante’s life.
Perhaps it is this potent mix of the formal and the authentic that has appealed to so many writers over the last century. Not only is it beautiful poetry and an exciting narrative, but for those struggling with their own writing, as so many still do, it offers an example of how to respond to the demands of craftsmanship and tradition while not falling into verbal sterility if one embraces them, or the empty freedom of expressionism if one rejects them. One can write of what is most important, that which seems inaccessible in normal modes of writing, within a strict structure of one’s own devising. A good many of those writers have been some of the greatest poets of that century: TS Eliot, WB Yeats, Eugenio Montale, Osip Mandelstam and Robert Lowell. Peter Hawkins has co-edited The Poets’ Dante, a new collection of essays by these, and many others, that discuss Dante’s influence on their own work.
Eliot discusses the problems of translating the rhyming scheme Dante invented for the Commedia: the famous Terza Rima. “A different meter is a different mode of thought” he writes, and therefore demands a translation faithful to the scheme to achieve the same “thought-form”. This is what Michael Palma has attempted, that is, rhyming in English aba/bcb/cdc. As I don’t understand Italian, I won’t comment on the quality of the translation, except to say in comparison with others it is unobtrusive. This is a good thing, as Eliot describes how before reading a translation in terza rima he is “always worried in anticipation, by the inevitable shifts and twists which I know the translator will be obliged to make, in order to fit Dante’s words into English rhyme.” Apart from “Meo the pixilated” for what others translate as “Bedazzled” in Canto 29, nothing much jarred. Indeed, the rhymes were very quiet. In that respect, it is like the original according to Eliot: “extremely easy to read”. As an edition, however, I still prefer Robert Pinksy’s perfect FSG paperback of 1996.
In one of the best books on Dante, The Undivine Comedy, Teodolina Barolini concurs with Eliot’s belief in the importance of the rhyming scheme because, she says, the terza rima “mimics the voyage of life by providing both unceasing forward motion and recurrent backward glances” thereby “imitating the genealogical flow of human history, in which the creation of each new identity requires the grafting of alterity onto a previous identity.”
Unfortunately, only half of the essays in The Poets’ Dante bring out this dynamic in the development of each individual poet or provide something else of interest. In the rest, either there is too much reverential bowing or too much sub-academic analysis (or plain nonsense in the case of WB Yeats). Osip Mandelstam’s long, sometimes caustic “Conversation about Dante” is, with Eliot’s contribution, an exception, and that’s probably because the Stalinist maelstrom into which he eventually disappeared gave his reading extra existential presence. However, my favourite writer in the collection is not really a great poet, although he did write poems: Jorge Luis Borges’ fame derives from his super-compressed stories, and as Eliot cites Dante’s “force of compression” as a major quality, it suggests there is a closer affinity between him and Dante than any of the other essayists. His love of the poem goes as far as any other of the contributors:
“I believe that the apex of literature, of all literatures, is the Commedia. This does not imply that I agree with its theology, or with its mythology, which is a combination of Christianity and pagan myth. What it means is that no book has given me such intense aesthetic emotions. And I am a hedonistic reader; I look for emotion in books.”
Borges’ deceptively light stories have a similar quality for the hedonist. They also give off the whiff of ancient libraries holding the arcane works of the Middle Ages when, Borges says “the idea of a text capable of multiple meanings” was predominant. It was a time that “gave us Gothic architecture, the Icelandic sagas, and the Scholastic philosophy in which everything is discussed.” It is perhaps the multiple meanings that provides the intensity of emotion, similar itself to the engagement of translating the world.
Borges accounts for our otherwise strange attraction to the Commedia by comparing it to the novel, and justifies this by pointing out that the origin of poetry is the epic narrative, and that Dante’s poem is, like the novel, sustained by narrative. (If this is the case, another collection called, this time, The Novelists’ Dante, would be very welcome.) “A contemporary novel,” Borges says, “requires five or six hundred pages to make us know somebody, if it ever does. For Dante, a single moment is enough.”
This seemed to haunt Borges. Elsewhere he writes: “Everyone is defined forever in a single instant of their lives, a moment in which a man encounters his self for always.” Perhaps this is the crisis that Borges recognised in the origins of the Commedia; the fear of being defined in this way, trapped for eternity in a frantic, and ultimately futile, pursuit of the new. Borges didn’t write another Commedia of course; he recognised there is a threat of anachronism in an excessive respect for tradition. For Borges, his Virgil was literature itself, while his Beatrice was, in the end, oblivion.