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Dante: The Most Vivid Version

Dante and Virgil in the eighth circle of Hell, where those guilty of simony—the buying and selling of church offices—were punished; engraving by Gustave Doré

Clive James’s translation has no such élan. His decision to dispense with explanatory notes altogether and to lift the relevant information “out of the basement and put…it on display in the text” comes at a high price with minimal payoff, not only because it obliges him to import into the body of the poem much material that does not properly belong there, but because it invariably blunts the narrative impact of the original. In theory James understands that The Divine Comedy is all about movement (“Dante has a thousand tricks…to keep things moving”), yet in practice his translation tends to obstruct what he calls the “mutually reinforcing balance of tempo and texture.”

In his introduction, James tells us that the seed of his translation of The Divine Comedy was planted in the 1960s when his wife, the distinguished Dante scholar Prue Shaw, drew his attention to the exquisite micropoetics of Inferno 5, “where syllables met each other and generated force.” Here is how James translates the latter portion of Francesca’s famous speech in the circle of lust, where she describes for Dante how she and her brother-in-law Paolo fell into the sin of adultery:

Reading together one day for delight
Of Lancelot, caught up in love’s sweet snare,
We were alone, with no thought of what might
Occur to us, although we stopped to stare
Sometimes at what we read, and even paled.
But then the moment came we turned a page
And all our powers of resistance failed:
When we read of that great knight in a rage
To kiss the smile he so desired, Paolo,
This one so quiet now, made my mouth still—
Which, loosened by those words, had trembled so—
With his mouth. And right then we lost the will—
For love can will will’s loss, as well you know—
To read on. But let that man take a bow
Who wrote the book we called our Galahad,
The reason nothing can divide us now.

James’s translation of The Divine Comedy contains some fine moments, yet this surely is not one of them. One way to gauge the degree to which it bogs down and convolutes the seductive charm of Francesca’s account with awkward phrasing and altogether gratuitous editorializing interpolations is to compare it to Mary Jo Bang’s rendition:

One day, to amuse ourselves, we were reading
The tales of love-struck Lancelot; we were all alone,
And naively unaware of what could happen.

More than once, while reading, we looked up
And saw the other looking back. We’d blush, then pale,
Then look down again. Until a moment did us in.

We were reading about the longed-for kiss
The great lover gives his Guinevere, when that one
From whom I’ll now never be parted,

Trembling, kissed my lips.
That author and his book played the part
Of Gallehault. We read no more that day.

Francesca is the prototype of Emma Bovary, who in her youth devoured the popular romance fiction of her time and modeled her behavior on its female exemplars. Here and earlier in her speech Francesca reveals that she had been a devotee of the amorous poetry and chivalric love stories of her era. In Inferno 5 Dante gives her exactly what she desired most in life, whether she was aware of it or not: to become a great heroine of literature.

With the exception of the souls in Limbo, who are guiltless, all of Dante’s sinners have, like Francesca, followed their bliss into Hell. Despite their wails and lamentations, they are exactly where they want to be, for in Dante’s universe, salvation or damnation depends entirely on the individual’s free will. All the sins punished in Hell proper are opted for by the will of those who enacted them. Unlike his predecessors, who envisioned Hell as a chaotic torture gallery, Dante took great care to devise punishments that reveal in symbolic form what the inner will desires when it commits the corresponding sins (the lustful desire the storm of passion in which they are swept up in Inferno 5; the violent desire the river of blood in which they are immersed, etc.). As the agency of human motivation, the will moves the soul one way or another—either away from God or toward God.

Despite the heavy price the damned pay for their past acts, never do we encounter a penitent soul among their throng. On the contrary, most of the major characters in Dante’s Inferno reenact for the pilgrim—and hence for us—the choices that landed them in Hell in the first place. Francesca repeats in her speech the errors, self-delusions, and romantic mystifications that drew her into her adulterous affair with Paolo. Her self-exculpations and displacement of blame only serve to reindict her. Likewise Farinata is as prideful and partisan as ever in the circle of the heretics. In his ambiguous and duplicitous speech in Inferno 27, Guido da Montefeltro rehearses for Dante the willful self-deception that got him damned. Ulysses restages for us in speech the heroic but tragic hubris that brought on disaster for him and his men.

By reembracing their sins before our eyes (or ears), the sinners track in their soliloquies the psychological or moral motions of the will that led them to their present fates. The pilgrim seizes upon his encounters with these sinners to confront within himself his own wayward dispositions.

Much of the fascination of the Inferno revolves around Dante’s probing of the covert psychic recesses of his characters’ inner will. The sinners’ great soliloquies are self-serving and fraught with irony. One cannot take them at their word. One must bring to bear on their speeches a “hermeneutics of suspicion” that is alert to the discrepancy between what they tell us and what they show us. Oftentimes the characters themselves are unaware of the way they are masking their true motivations, which makes it all the more imperative that the reader adopt an analytic distance from their self-presentations. In sum, the Inferno educates the reader in the ways of deception and self-deception, and in that respect remains one of the great archives of human psychology.

This is one lesson that Dan Brown, for all his admiration of Dante, did not learn from the Inferno. Brown’s Inferno shares in common with its namesake the generic imperative of moving the story along, of keeping it projected toward a conclusive outcome, yet this is where the affinities end. An abyss separates the monodimensional crudeness of Brown’s narrative devices from the multidimensional complexity of Dante’s. Brown’s novel has a cast of characters, to be sure, yet it has no interest in tracking the inner motions of their souls or probing the muddled sources of their motivation. His characters are so thoroughly vapid and cartoonish that one suspects that Brown deliberately refrained from giving them any psychological density for fear that this would merely create friction on the high-speed rails on which his thriller races along. The good news, for readers who go along for the ride, is that the novel reaches its destination quickly.

In her last words to Professor Robert Langdon before she boards a C-130 plane in Turkey, Sienna, the main female character in Brown’s Inferno, attempts to say something meaningful. “‘Thank you, Robert,’ she said, as the tears began to flow. ‘I finally feel like I have a purpose.’” Does this mean that Sienna is moving from an infernal to a purgatorial state of being (she is, after all, about to ascend)? Nothing in the book encourages such a speculation, yet we should note nonetheless that the big difference between the sinners in Dante’s Hell and the penitents in his Purgatory is that the former are going nowhere, while the latter are moving toward a goal, namely the purgation of their sins and their eventual assumption into Paradise. In Purgatory time matters, and motion has a purpose. In Hell, by contrast, no matter how much the souls may be buffeted by storms, or run on burning sands, or carry heavy burdens, motion leads nowhere. In Dante’s vision Hell is a never-ending waste of time.

The great metaphysical doctrine underlying The Divine Comedy is that time is engendered by motion. Like the medieval scholastic tradition in which he was steeped, Dante subscribed to Plato’s notion that time, in its cosmological determinations, is “a moving image of eternity.” He subscribed furthermore to the Platonic and Aristotelian notion that the truest image of eternity in the material world is the circular motions of the heavens. Thus in Dante’s Paradiso, the heavenly spheres revolve in perfect circles around the “unmoved Mover,” namely God.

In the final analysis there are two kinds of motion in the world for Dante: the predetermined orderly motion of the cosmos, which revolves around the Godhead, and the undetermined motion of the human will, which is free to choose where to direct its desire—either toward the self or toward God. Yet be it self-love or love of God (love of neighbor is a declension of the latter), what moves the heavens is the same force that moves both sinners and saints alike, namely amor.

The basic “plot” of The Divine Comedy has to do with the pilgrim’s efforts to complete a long, self-interrogating, and transformative journey at the end of which his inner being—which, like human history, suffers from the perversion of self-love—becomes harmonized with the love that moves the universe. Salvation means nothing more, and nothing less, than such harmonization. It is not until the very last lines of Paradiso that the Comedy’s story reaches its conclusion. In those lines we read that, thanks to a special act of grace, the pilgrim’s inner self turns like a wheel:

ma già volgeva il mio disio e ’l velle,
sì come rota ch’igualmente è mossa,
l’amor che move il sole e le altre stelle.

Clive James, who is at his best in Paradiso, gives a particularly good translation of these verses, despite his compulsion to editorialize them, as he does with much of the rest of Dante’s poem:

…but now, just like a wheel
That spins so evenly it measures time
By space, the deepest wish that I could feel
And all my will, were turning with the love
That moves the sun and all the stars above.

This final integration of the pilgrim’s will with the turning motion of the universe represents a dramatic conclusion to a dramatic poem—a conclusion that takes on its full scope of meaning only after the reader has undertaken the effort to accompany Dante on his laborious journey from its very inception in the dark wood of Inferno 1. “In my beginning is my end,” wrote T.S. Eliot at the beginning of “East Coker,” which ends with that statement’s inversion: “In my end is my beginning.” So it is with the Comedy. Or as Beatrice puts it when she descends into Limbo to enlist Virgil to rescue Dante from his impasse in the dark wood: “Amor mi mosse, che mi fa parlare,” “love has moved me, and makes me speak.”


Oy! November 21, 2013

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