Sunday, 22 September 2013

The Divine Comedy, by Dante Alighieri

Why I chose it: Western Canon, numerous other book lists

Podcasts: Sidney Greats Lecture Series, but there are tons of others, especially if you focus only on the Inferno.

Brow: The highest of high. The only way you could get higher-brow than this is if you read it in 14th-century Tuscan.

Summary: Dante gets lost in the woods the night before Good Friday. While he's wandering, he's assailed by beasts and unable to find the trail back to Florence. Eventually he's rescued by the poet Virgil, who takes him through the underworld, starting at the top, where people who didn't do anything in life are stuck in hell's waiting room, to the very bottom, where Satan is torturing Judas Iscariot. Along the way, he happens to notice quite a few of his and his clan's enemies also being punished for their various transgressions. After climbing down Satan's fur, our heroes emerge in Purgatory, which the Catholic church had to invent so that little babies who never had a chance to be baptised wouldn't be roasting alive in hellfire and brimstone for all eternity. Here he finds excommunicated people and those who committed the seven deadly sins, a surprising number of whom are still his enemies. Finally, he's handed over to his ex, Beatrice, who died young. She escorts him into heaven, where he finds exemplars of the seven virtues, oddly including many of his friends. At the very end, he sees god and finally works out how Jesus can be human and divine, and learns to align his soul with god's love. Then on the Wednesday after Easter he gets sent back to earth to write his poem.

What I liked about it: The Inferno is fun, with lots of imagery of the punishments various sinners, including a pope who was involved in an incident in which various nobles couldn't decide who the next pope should be and ended up appointing three, each of whom immediately excommunicated the others. In the Inferno, he's face-down in a hole with his feet being burnt. But just like the bible, it's much more fun to dream up tortures for people than it is to think about how awesome paradise would be. Also, after a few cantos of torture, you've kind of got it. It's hard to imagine anyone who isn't a serious book nerd or a literary historian getting much pleasure out of Purgatory or Paradiso.

What I didn't like about it: I had been led to believe that this is one of THE great works of western literature and if you're serious about reading, you must put this on your list. As a consequence, I expected it to be good, like Faust. Instead, it's a mostly boring list of what happens to Dante's friends and enemies in the afterlife. Unless you're up to date about 14th century Florentine politics or you have a superhuman ability to remember who is a Guelph and who is a Ghibelline and which one Dante is, it's very hard to see why anyone would be interested in vast sections of this book.

No comments:

Post a Comment