Sunday, April 29, 2012

Dante's Divine Comedy

Dante's Commedia, like any other poem that's worth reading is best read in the language it was written in, but that is not always possible and most of us have to make do with translations. This is especially true of Dante's epic but since I (like most of us) cannot read Italian, I have to make do with one of the many excellent translations that can be easily obtained. Poetry, as has often been said, is what gets lost in translation, which is why I don't generally read poetry in other languages than English, but sometimes a poem is so important that you have to read it in any way you can; Dante's poem, like Homer's, is one of these.

The plot line of Dante's poem is easily described: half-way through his life he says (which would have been about 1300 in his case), he lost his way in a dark wood where he would have perished had it not been for his good angel, Beatrice, who sends him a guide, Vergil (author of the Aeneid) to set him on the right path. The right path takes him through hell, purgatory and heaven corresponding to the three books into which the Commedia is divided: Inferno, Purgatorio, Paradisio—a guided tour, in other words of the   (then) known universe. In the first, Dante is shown the inhuman, disgusting and eternal tortures inflicted upon the damned, in all their various categories; in the second the milder forms of penance that everyone must undergo since, as the saying goes, no one is perfect; Paradise is, well, paradise where nothing much happens— though the poetry, I hear, is pretty great.

The ordinary reader (sinners, all of us) will always prefer the Inferno which is dramatic, to the other two books which are not. Part of the drama of the Inferno consists of Dante's human response to God's system of criminal justice: the appalling injustice of torture without end—which he and his readers are relentlessly forced to observe: he weeps for these poor devils and so do we. (What we wonder would Jesus say about all this?) Why does there have to be a hell at all; why not shut it up and send all the sinners to purgatory? These are not the questions that we are supposed (in the divine scheme of things) to be asking and they are certainly not the questions that God in all His omniscience thought he had a right to expect when he sends Dante, the greatest poet of the age, on a guided tour of his penal colony.

Did Dante intend his poem to have these effects? Of course that is a question that cannot be answered; it is a fact however that Dante's poem, like Homer's, necessarily undermines our faith in divine justice; and that both of these poets knew what they were doing—and why. That is to say, Homer and Dante were an important part of the process (historical, philosophical, scientific) that produced the essentially secular societies of the West.

When God failed us—consider all the millions of people who died in our various wars of religion—we put our faith in the rule of law which, having been largely corrupted by money and power, is now failing us as well. Having poisoned the air, water and climate of the world, we are now running out of time.