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Recapping Dante: Canto 24, or Serpent, Ashes, Rinse, Repeat

April 7, 2014 | by

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Gustave Doré, Canto 24

We’re recapping the Inferno. Read along! This week: a swarm of snakes and a sinner with a sense of privacy.

Let’s begin by addressing the fact that these similes are getting out of hand. In the early parts of his poem, Dante’s similes were often only three lines long. Now—just as he did in the beginning of canto 22, when he describes battlefield scenes while traveling with the demons—he presents us with a long, roving simile about a peasant who sees the snow melt and knows it is time to herd his sheep again.

At the end of canto 23, Virgil realized there was no longer a way to pass from the realm of the lead-cloaked sinners to the next ditch—the bridge is out. This is one of the few indications (like the sinner crucified to the ground in 23) that the geography of hell changes over time. But soon, seeing that Dante is anxious and scared, Virgil devises a plan to get them over to the next area by scaling a few boulders. Dante, daunted and exhausted, admits that “were it not that on this side of the dike the slope were shorter—I cannot speak for him—I would have given up.” This is the sort of phrase that translators and scholars will laugh at, because it’s an example of Dante’s subtle, ironic sense of humor: he announces that he cannot speak for Virgil, and yet has done so for the entire length of the poem so far. Read More »

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Recapping Dante: Canto 23, or Hypocrites Get Heavy

March 31, 2014 | by

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John Flaxman, Hypocrites, 1807

We’re recapping the Inferno. Read along! This week: the hypocrites and their leaden robes.

Canto 23 opens like the thematic climax of a slasher flick. Virgil and Dante—picture a cinematic hero and his love interest—have taken the opportunity to escape the methodical watch of the serial killer. Or killers, in this case: our travelers have fled from a pair of the murderous Malebranche, whose naturally violent tempers have been exacerbated by the loss of their human plaything and two of their fellow demons. Dante and Virgil are trying to calculate their next move. Their cell phones don’t work (hell doesn’t get great reception), they cannot fight back, and so Dante, whose scalp is “taut with fear,” asks Virgil to find them an out.

As the demons begin to descend upon our travelers, Virgil grabs hold of Dante as a mother does her infant, and the two slide down a rock to hide. Dante says, “Never did water … rush down … more swiftly than my master down that bank”; and if you suspend disbelief just a bit, you can imagine that it is a coy way of saying, “Virgil acted so quickly, I didn’t even have time to piss myself from fear.”

Though the two are unable to elude detection, they have made it to the next ditch, where the Malebranche’s jurisdiction ends, and where they are therefore safe from the billhooks and the claws. It seems like a bit of a cop-out—after all, if the demons were willing to disobey the divine law that protected Dante and Virgil, why weren’t they weren’t willing to disobey the divine law that determines the territories of hell? Read More »

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The Weather Men

March 25, 2014 | by

The life, times, and meteorological theories of Josep Pla.

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Josep Pla at his house in Llofriu, 1975.

“I’ve attended the procession of my country with a match in hand. Not an altar candle, not a torch, not a candlestick, but a match.”

Josep Pla (1897–1981) is a controversial figure in Catalan letters, and a well-kept secret of twentieth century European literature. If Barça is more than just a football club, then Pla—a political and cultural journalist, travel writer, biographer, memoirist, essayist, novelist, and foodie, whose collected works clock in at more than thirty-thousand pages and thirty-eight volumes—was more than just a writer.

Now that his deceptively simple, earthy prose and mordant sense of humor are available to American readers, the best way to read Pla is to curl up with a crisp glass of cava and a few spears of white asparagus. It’s impossible to read Josep Pla and not fall in love with his Mediterranean landscape. His native Empordà, with its mushroom-laced winds and its hint of burnt cork, mesmerizes.

Pla’s most important work, The Gray Notebook, is out now in a graceful translation by Peter Bush; the Daily published an excerpt yesterday. In the spirit of a bildungsroman and the form of a diary, the narrative chronicles 1918 and 1919, two crucial years in young Pla’s life. It captures the raucous energy of a precocious country boy who falls on his feet in the city, full of the spit and vinegar of youth. These were ebullient years in turn-of-the-century Barcelona; the city saw the first roiling curls of the belligerence that would lead to the Spanish Civil War, giving The Gray Notebook a tang of dramatic irony. But Pla’s masterpiece wasn’t actually published until 1966, after he had rewritten and reworked the material from his earlier diaries—a process similar to that of Proust, who returned to material written during Swann’s Way to fashion Time Regained. Read More »

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Recapping Dante: Canto 22, or Don’t Play Too Close to the Tar Pits

March 24, 2014 | by

This winter, we’re recapping the Inferno. Read along! This week: demons horse around in canto 22.

Canto XXII

William Blake, Two of the Malebranche quarrelling, Dante’s Inferno Canto XXII, c. 1824-27.

The opening lines of canto 22 have a two-sided brilliance to them. First, there’s the way Dante—who is, along with Virgil, now in the company of demons—breathlessly describes the movements of a cavalry unit, the way soldiers will tousle hand-to-hand on the battlefield with war horns sounding through the air. It’s a nice lyrical passage that sounds like a nineteenth-century Romantic poet trying to modernize Homer’s battlefield passages. But then, absurdly, Dante juxtaposes those battle scenes with this “savage” band of demons; “as they say,” Dante writes, “in church with the saints, with guzzlers in the taverns.” It’s his polite way of saying that one must behave differently in the presence of demons who make farting sounds with their mouths and gather to the less-than-noble sounds of an anus trumpet. (See canto 21.)

As in the last canto, Dante is spellbound by a pool of pitch, where, now and then, he will see a sinner expose his back above the boiling liquid to relieve his suffering for a brief moment before diving back down. If the sinner stays above the surface for too long, a demon swoops down and tears him apart. Suddenly, Dante sees an overzealous sinner who has taken an irresponsibly long coffee break above the surface. Almost instantly, one of the demons grabs a billhook and prepares his talons so he can swoop down and shred the sinner to pieces. Dante has Virgil stop the massacre in order to learn a bit more about the sinner—he is from Navarre and accepted bribes when he worked for the king. Just as the sinner is about to be attacked, Virgil asks if there are any other Italians in the pitch. And who are we kidding? Of course there are going to be a ton of Italians in a place reserved for barrators. The sinner announces that he was just hanging out under the pitch with another Italian. Read More »

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A Vitreous Vault

March 24, 2014 | by

In 1918, when Josep Pla was in Barcelona studying law, the Spanish flu broke out, the university shut down, and Pla went home to his parents in coastal Palafrugell, Spain. Aspiring to be a writer, not a lawyer, he resolved to hone his style by keeping a journal. In it he wrote about his family, local characters, visits to cafés; the quips, quarrels, ambitions, and amours of his friends; writers he liked and writers he didn’t; and the long contemplative walks he would take in the countryside under magnificent skies. Nearly fifty years later, Pla published his youthful journal as The Gray Notebook, the first volume and capstone of the great Catalan writer’s collected works.

"Aigua Xelida (Palafrugell, Girona)" by Asier Sarasua Aranberri

Aigua Xelida (Palafrugell, Girona). Photo: Asier Sarasua Aranberri, via Flickr.

3 November 1918, Sunday. Spent with friends. Piera the tailor, Bonany, et cetera. I walk up to Sant Sebastià. A beautiful afternoon. The sinuous ribbon of road draws the loveliest afternoon light. I hear someone chopping wood in the distance. A donkey brays in a remote spot. A black-and-white magpie jumps over the green alfalfa. When I walk past Ros, I think, as I always do: I wish I owned Ros, the vineyard and the pinewood. By the hermitage, total solitude. Opposite Calella, boats—bobbing like walnuts—fish for squid. Two brigs appear on the Italian horizon, driven by a northeasterly wind. The sea is purple-edged beneath the hermitage terrace. Far out at sea, opposite Tamariu, another sailing ship is returning. A crabbing boat sails slowly by Cape Begur. An empty steamer passes arrogantly by, very close to land, spitting large mouthfuls of water overboard in fits and starts—like a dog barking. The water on the horizon turns deep violet; the water by the strip of land darkens. We circle the hermitage, marveling, awestruck. The afternoon seems in limbo, abstracted from time—a creation of the mind. If I could imagine or create another world, it would be a world like this.

We return at dusk. The road is thronged by the shadows of hunters and mushroom pickers; we hear the hum of invisible people conversing. As I stand on En Casaca bridge, I remember the frog that sang there in summer. The evening dissolves into a delicate gauze, a misty haze floating and shimmering above the land. The sky is very clear and the starlight cold and metallic. Read More »

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Bull City Redux

March 20, 2014 | by

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Kate Joyce, Pressbox, April 2013.

On view as part of the New York Public Library’s recent exhibition “Play Things”—on prints and photographs that deal in some way with games and recreation—was a series of nine baseball cards made in 1975 by artist Mike Mandel. Originally packaged with sticks of Topps gum, the cards feature some heavy hitters at bat, pitching, and fielding: Joel Meyerowitz (2), who prefers Kodachrome film; Aaron Siskind (66), whose favorite developer is Mircodol-X; and Betty Hahn (54), who likes to shoot with a Nikon. Oh, didn’t I mention—they’re photographer trading cards.

Mandel made them (there are 134 in all) in order to satirize, and frustrate, the commercial art market: the only way to collect all the cards is by making trades. Mandel’s link between photography and baseball is apt for another reason: baseball, a famously uneventful sport, is a game in which players and fans spend a lot of time observing—each other, the stands, the field, the sky—and what is photography if not the art of observing? Read More »

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