Posts Tagged ‘Divine Comedy’
December 9, 2013 | by Alexander Aciman
There is a circle in hell reserved for the people who stop reading Dante and never make it to canto 10.
If there’s ever been any question as to whether the Inferno is really a great work of art, the answer lies in canto 10. If there is ever any doubt that Dante is worth rereading always—perhaps every year, like the Torah—canto 10 will remind us. If somehow we forget what sorrow, or remorse, or horror, or despair looks like—if we forget that sometimes human beings are at once so callous, and strangely tender, there again is canto 10.
If canto 10 is magnificent, it is perhaps because Dante takes two characters who have fizzled out of history almost entirely—real nobodies, by twenty-first-century standards—and has made them immortal. After Dante, could we ever forget Farinata, the Ghibelline who took Florence from the Guelphs and defended Florence with his own sword as the city was about to be razed? Can we complete the Inferno without remembering Cavalcante de’ Cavalcanti, whose heart breaks right before us? If ever I forget what exactly it is about art that I love—or worse, begin to feel disillusioned by it—canto 10 reminds me.
Imagine that you are walking through a field of sepulchers, lids propped open, and all of the sudden a voice speaks to you in your native dialect. The voice belongs to Farinata. Who are your ancestors, he asks. Dante identifies himself as a Guelph, and the sinner tells Dante with a sort of unabashed pride that he twice chased his ancestors from Florence. Dante retorts that his ancestors returned twice—a skill the Ghibellines had struggled to learn. There’s something charming about this witty Dante—Dante later reminds the reader that there is also a pope and a cardinal in the sepulcher. You’ll see in the Inferno that there are countless bishops, popes, and cardinals in hell; Dante got political with his commentary.
Farinata is interrupted by Cavalcanti, who asks Dante why his son, Guido Cavalcanti, is not with him. Dante responds that he and Virgil are on their way to visit other sinners, some of whom Guido probably “held in scorn.” Cavalcanti bursts out—What? Did you say “he held?” Lives he not still? The moment in which Cavalcanti mourns the death of his son is one of high tragedy—Cavalcanti has, in an instant, lost everything at the hands of something as simple and as pathetic as a verb tense. Dante has broken away for a moment from his lyricism and into a sort of colloquial tone, almost as if he’s trying to elbow us in the rib, lean over, and whispering hey, remember, this is poem second, and it is art first. Of course Guido isn’t dead yet, but Cavalcanti is so overwhelmed by sadness that he falls back. Virgil warned Dante not to feel pity for the sinners, and with the exception of Pier delle Vigne, who will appear in a later canto, Cavalcanti may the easiest sinner to fall for.
But after Cavalcanti falls back, Farinata continues, and responds to Dante with a powerful premonition. Yes, he says, Farinata’s own faction, the Ghibellines, hadn’t yet found a way to get back into Florence, but soon enough, Dante would learn just how hard it really is to figure out such a thing. Dante too would be exiled.
December 2, 2013 | by Alexander Aciman
A coarse, heavy rain pattered against the side of my cap, echoing like the sound of a rhythmic hailstorm pelting the skulls of sinners. The fumes from a black bog forming around the storm drain, not too subtle and very close behind us, obscured everything. I must have had a bewildered sort of look on my face, which my partner—standing just a few feet in front of me—mistook for fear. An instant later he was on his way over, cigarette floating right above his lip like a perfumed bird working the counter at Macy’s, elbows propped up against the etched glass surface.
The job had an attractive ticket, more than twice what we had ever made and with the promise of a nice bonus if we managed to expedite it. I asked Virgil if it would be possible to get into the municipal building at all. He didn’t answer my question and I didn’t press it; soon enough I would have it figured out on my own. Virgil was the only person to have ever made his way past the two secretaries guarding the county clerk’s files, and at the time he must have been new to the job and under the influence of a particular sort of luck that on occasion comes to the assistance of an ill-equipped dick.
November 18, 2013 | by Alexander Aciman
Canto 7 opens with Plutus, the god of wealth, babbling unintelligibly at Dante and Virgil. Pape Satàn, pape Satàn, aleppe!, he shouts, a phrase that has left readers and scholars baffled ever since it was written. Many offer their own interpretations, but there is never enough evidence for any critic to settle definitively on a single meaning. Virgil, however, responds to Plutus as though the cry is somehow intelligible to him; Plutus doesn’t want to let the pair pass because he has been tasked with keeping the living out. Again, Virgil works some Roman magic and is able to pass by.
This canto is one of the first instances in which the sinner’s condition in the afterlife begins to correspond almost unambiguously to the sin committed. Here, Dante and Virgil come across avarice and prodigality. The Hollanders note that the reason the avaricious are shown with their hands closed is as a reminder of their greed. The prodigal have their hair cropped to show inattention to property. Virgil gives Dante a discourse on fortune, and, in brief, explains to Dante that fortune is impartial, and that the unlucky are quick to revile fortune, which Virgil suggests is a misguided aggression since in fact fortune couldn’t care less what people have to say. The two carry on and stop at the Styx.
But let’s see what happens of we break this canto down. Read More »
November 11, 2013 | by Alexander Aciman
As we find ourselves in the midst of Nielsen sweeps month, it seems a good time to consider the facto that can ensure the longevity of certain shows. Yes, critical acclaim is great, but in the end, critics are only a small fraction of a high seven or even eight-figure audience turnout, and critics certainly don’t get a show a spot after the Super Bowl. For this, we rely on the viewers, and this week, it’s their turn to speak.
When I saw promos for The Inferno, I thought to myself “wow, what an incredibly awesome sounding name for a show.” And then when I learned it was about hell I thought it would be full of action and adventure, and because Virgil and Dante were traveling together, I even assumed it would be some sort of buddy cop series. It turns out I was wrong. So far, in Canto III and in Canto V, Dante has fainted. TWICE. Get out of the kitchen if you can’t stand the heat. And somehow, after fainting, at the beginning of the next Canto Dante mysteriously ends up somewhere new, probably because Virgil had to carry him. If I were Virgil I would slap some sense into Dante, or ditch him next time he passes out. And on top of that Virgil is clearly the best character but we don’t get enough of him. Maybe there will be some sort of Virgil spinoff.
October 28, 2013 | by Alexander Aciman
Full disclosure: canto 4, despite the ominous nature of canto 3’s ending and the fact that 4 is meant to open in hell, is not that scary. There is a distinct shortage of zombie/ghost-chase/door-gag montage scenes in this segment, and almost no haunted houses. So, we are probably meant to assume that Dante decided to take this holiday episode in a slightly more cerebral direction—he’s skipped right over the cheap scares, and has decided to hit us with a sort of theological horror show. Indeed, as Dante awakens from his spell, and walks beside Virgil, he notices that his guide’s face is stricken with a fearful pallor. When Dante inquires, Virgil informs him that it is not fear, but pity, that has altered his expression; the pair are entering limbo, where those who might have been able to enter paradise, had they lived in the time of Christ, are instead forever confined. Which is to say, no matter how saintly you are, if you had the misfortune of being born during one of the richest cultural eras in human history (like Virgil himself), you’re still out of luck, if not in hell proper.
Dante asks Virgil if anyone has ever made it out, and in the slightly embittered tone of someone who has watched countless coworkers get promoted above him, Virgil tells Dante of Moses, Noah, and a few others who were “plucked” from limbo and taken upward by some mysterious stranger. (Jesus, obviously, but how could Virgil know that?)
At this point, Dante and Virgil come across a band of poets—Homer, Horace, Ovid, and Lucan. The poets join our travelers to help them solve the mystery of how two unvaccinated poets are going to make it safely through hell. The poets also make Dante part of their poets club. It’s probably no coincidence that seeing these great writers animated lends them a sense of immortality (both in body and in their work), and that anyone who should join them may also be graced with a similar literary significance; after all, Dante writes that “their honorable fame … echoes” in his life on earth. It’s also difficult to tell whether Dante is nerding out and imagining what it would be like to hang out with his heroes, or if he’s pulling some sort of lyrical power move and trying to assert himself as one of the greatest poets of history (again, only time will tell).
Dante briefly describes their conversation by saying that they spoke “of things that here are best unsaid, just as there it was fitting to express them.” This can be interpreted more or less as “We were talking about poet stuff … you wouldn’t probably get it.”
As the band of six approaches a haunted castle (ruh roh) with a giant river, they walk across the water without difficulty. A clue! It looks like the river is meant to keep the less than great or those who aren’t poets or philosophers or the out of this beautiful pastoral scene in Limbo. Time to investigate.
Dante names the shades he sees inside—Socrates, Plato, Diogenes, Cicero, Seneca, and, roaming all alone, Saladin. (Hollander points out that the moderns in limbo, though Dante considered them infidels, are “representatives of … Islamic culture”). But there’s one shade that Dante does not call by a name, and refers to only as the “master.” It’s old man Aristotle!
But Dante and Virgil, having come this far escorted by the four poets, must go on alone. Dante writes “The company of six falls off to two,” which we all know really just means he’s really just saying “Let’s split up, gang!” Poet stuff.
October 7, 2013 | by Alexander Aciman
Really, this is how you want to begin? With a trope? And do you really think that we’ll let you get away with it because you decided to double down, fold it over on itself, and begin not only in medias res but in the middle of your life, too? We see what you’ve done there. Very fancy; but couldn’t you have at least started at the end, like Sunset Boulevard?
“Midway in the journey of our life”—the cascade of allusions, and all in a single line, creating some sort of referential trifecta, or fourfecta, or whatever the highest number of fectas is. Is it meant to alert a reader that this probably isn’t an airport book—to chase away the ill-suited, like the opening sequence of 8½?
So far this character has no name, but for the sake of it, let’s call him Dante I. He finds himself in a dark wood, and that he isn’t quite able to remember how he got there feels a bit like an easy, preemptive fix to a plothole. Nevertheless, he goes on his “firm foot always lower than the other” (watch out for phrases like these; it’s safe to assume that whenever any piece of satellite or even self-explanatory information is given, it is probably a giant X telling the savvy reader to dig in that spot).
Suddenly our character is accosted by a leopard, or lonza (a lion-leopard superbeast), and obviously he’s a bit disoriented and doesn’t want to deal with it, so he walks away. But then, a lion appears, and then a she-wolf, and it’s by now such a strange mix of creatures (do they even have leopards in Italy?) that we are left to assume either Dante blacked out and came to in a zoo, is witnessing an ecological disaster miracle, or that these three beasts have some sort of metaphorical significance as well. There’s a chance the beasts each represent a sin, but that feels like a bit of a stretch, so let’s just say that the leopard is Florence; the lion, France; and the she-wolf, the papacy. (Dante, though a Florentine, was in the middle of a battle between two warring houses, and so even at home there were enemy forces out to get him.)
Dante takes off. As he flees, he comes across a figure, and Dante speaks to it. Have mercy, he says, but the English subtitles obscure the fact that Dante is in fact saying this as Miserere, in Latin, and this is when things start to get out of hand. Read More »