Divine Comedy

Divine Comedy - Dante Alighieri, Anna Amari-Parker, Gustave Doré, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow I find this among the most amazing works I've ever read--despite that the work is essentially Christian Allegory and I'm an atheist. First and foremost for its structure. Recently I read Moby Dick and though it had powerful passages I found it self-indulgent and bloated and devoutly wished an editor had taken a hatchet to the numerous digressions. There is no such thing as digressions in Dante. I don't think I've ever read a more carefully crafted work. We visit three realms in three Canticas (Hell, Purgatory and Heaven) each of 33 cantos and in a terza rima verse in a triple rhyme scheme. Nothing is incidental or left to chance here. That's not where the structure ends either. Hell has nine levels, Purgatory has seven terraces on its mountain and Heaven nine celestial spheres (so, yes, there is a Seventh Heaven!) All in all, this is an imaginary landscape worthy of Tolkien or Pratchett, both in large ways and small details. I found it fitting how Dante tied both sins and virtues to love--a sin was love misdirected or applied, and the lower you go in hell, the less love there is involved, until at the lowest reaches you find Satan and traitors encased in a lake of ice. Then there are all the striking phrases, plays of ideas and gorgeous imagery that comes through despite translations. This might be Christian Allegory, but unlike say John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress it's far from dry or tedious and is full of real life contemporaries of Dante and historical figures. There are also Dante's guides here. His Virgil is wonderful--and the perfect choice. The great Latin poet of the Aeneid leading the great Italian poet who made his Tuscan dialect the standard with his poetry. Well, guide through Hell and Purgatory until he changes places with Beatrice. Which reminds me of that old joke--Heaven for the climate--Hell for the company. And certainly Hell is what stays most vividly in my mind. I remember still loving the Purgatorio--it's the most human and relatable somehow of the poems and Paradise has its beauties. But I remember the people of Hell best. There's Virgil of course, who must remain in limbo for eternity because he wasn't a Christian. There's Francesca di Rimini and her lover, for their adultery forever condemned to be flung about in an eternal wind so that even Dante pities them. And that, of course, is the flip side of this. Dante's poem embodies the orthodox Roman Catholic Christianity of the 1300s and might give even Christians today pause. Even though I don't count myself a Christian, I get the appeal of hell. In fact, I can remember exactly when I understood it. When once upon a time I felt betrayed, and knew there was no recourse. The person involved would never get their comeuppance upon this Earth. How nice I thought, if there really was a God and a Hell to redress the balance. The virtue of any Hell therefore is justice. These are the words Dante tells us are at hell's entrance. THROUGH ME THE WAY INTO THE SUFFERING CITY, THROUGH ME THE WAY TO THE ETERNAL PAIN, THROUGH ME THE WAY THAT RUNS AMONG THE LOST. JUSTICE URGED ON MY HIGH ARTIFICER; MY MAKER WAS DIVINE AUTHORITY, THE HIGHEST WISDOM, AND THE PRIMAL LOVE. BEFORE ME NOTHING BUT ETERNAL THINGS WERE MADE, AND I ENDURE ETERNALLY. ABANDON EVERY HOPE, WHO ENTER HERE. It's hard to see Dante's vision matching the orthodox doctrine as just however, even when I might agree a particular transgression deserves punishment. Never mind the virtuous and good in limbo because they weren't Christians or unbaptized or in hell because they committed suicide or were homosexual. And poor Cassio and Brutus, condemned to the lowest circle because they conspired to kill a tyrant who was destroying their republic. My biggest problem with hell is that it is eternal. Take all the worst tyrants who murdered millions, make them suffer not only the length of the lifetimes of their victims but all the years they might have had, I doubt if you add it up it comes to the age of the Earth--never mind eternity. Justice taken to extremes is not justice--it's vindictiveness and sadism. Something impossible for me to equate with "the primal love." Yet I loved this work so much upon my first read (I read the Dorothy Sayers translation) I went out and bought two other versions. One by Allen Mandelbaum (primarily because it was a dual language book with the Italian on one page facing the English translation) and a hardcover version translated by Charles Eliot Norton. Finally, before writing up my review and inspired by Matthew Pearl's The Dante Club, I got reacquainted by finding Longfellow's translation online. Of all of them, I greatly prefer Mandelbaum's translation. The others try to keep the rhyming and rhythm of the original and this means a sometimes tortured syntax and use of archaic words and the result is forced and often obscure, making the work much harder to read than it should be.