On the Road to the Great Forest

by Paul Mathers


When I started reading the Harvard Classics, I had decided to not reread the titles in the series that I had read in my previous reading project. Much as I loved Oedipus and Odysseus, I felt as if I had just finished them (even though it is now upwards of two years ago) and that I would return to them in the portion of my life (if any) that will come after this reading project. One exception had to be Inferno because one does not simply skip into Purgatorio. Reading Dante is a monumental reading project and, like so many monumental reading projects, will be a high-watermark in your life of reading if you give it the attention it demands.

I have been through Inferno twice before, once through the Pinsky and once through the Mandelbaum. One of the points that David H. Higgins makes in his introduction is:

“Dante’s aim in writing The Divine Comedy ‘to lead men from a state of wretchedness into one of happiness.”

Which I find to be a noble aspiration in art. I jotted in the margin “How sad that so many only read Inferno today” with the startling realization that I am, up to this moment, numbered among those sad wretches. I do not wish to make more of this than it warrants, but I began to wonder if that might not explain a few things about myself.

I also felt a twinge traitorous, caught a whiff of 9th circle sulfur, when I decided to read the Oxford Classics imprint of The Divine Comedy. The C.H. Sisson translation comes highly recommended for its clarity, and my experience with the Oxford imprint’s notes has been nothing shy of excellent. I am sure Dr. Eliot is past the point of caring if I read as many of the Harvard Classics titles in the Oxford Classics imprint as I please. Or about anything else for that matter.

But back to the weightiness of the project, the introductory material alone compelled me to post on it. It begins, just after the front end-paper, with an illustration of Dante’s geocentric universe:


Especially note how Jerusalem is on the polar opposite side of the globe (yes, globe in the 1300s. We like to overplay the ignorance of our past) from Mount Purgatory. But I feel that this chart especially alerts and prepares the modern eye that we are going to be dealing in heavy allegory.

A proper reading of The Divine Comedy requires good and extensive notes, the introductory material will bear me out here, because while one can still enjoy the piece without it, there is a great deal speaking to specific people and events. Some contemporary paraphrases (I cannot bring myself to, as the covers do, call such versions a translation) have attempted to bridge this gap by translating the figures mentioned specifically in the original to possibly more recognizable contemporary figures. I am not entirely sure why someone would come to a work like Dante and then at the last minute decide to go the intellectually laziest route. If you want to grow fruit, you’re going to have to get some loam under your fingernails. Again, this is where I find the Harvard Classics imprint sorely lacking. They provide a scholarly text (the Cary translation) but I found their footnotes to be a bit anemic. Mine boasts end-notes almost as long as the text itself and of excellent, illuminating quality.

For example, Dante’s bête noire was Boniface VIII, remembered as one of the bad popes (I should get a bête noire! But these days, how does one narrow it down to just one?) Boniface appears in Hell for simony, the same sort of simony that would occasion the Reformation a few centuries later. Indeed, I imagine some Protestants would like to place Dante as a sort of Proto-Reformer for objecting to the big business of salvation. You might find contemporary parallels, which is all well and good, but to really understand Dante one must understand what he was referring to specifically. We don’t have a Boniface VIII today. Such a figure couldn’t exist in the current global climate. But the lessons of history extend far beyond merely transposing lessons onto current geography.

One parallel in the introduction to several recent kitchen conversations with Laurie is that of public duty and arguments for finding personal identity and meaning in social roles. Dante felt that it was damnable to live “without occasion for infamy or praise.” Dante felt that the lukewarm, those who failed to contribute, were not worthy of Heaven or Hell, a condition arguably worse than outright wickedness (note: we are treading on ground outside the borders of generally accepted Christian theology here). To live, to really live, is to participate and contribute. Elsewhere Dante wrote:

“All men whom the higher nature has imbued with a love of truth should feel impelled to work for the benefit of future generations, whom they will thereby enrich just as they themselves have been enriched by the labours of their ancestors. Let there be no doubt in the mind of the man who has benefited from the common heritage but does not trouble to contribute to the common good that he is failing sadly in his duty.”

I was struck by the difference between the Medieval mind and the generally accepted/assumed contemporary worldview vis-à-vis the role of the individual. Lack of purpose, participation, and contribution is not just a source of existential angst, but an offense to the order of the universe to the degree of warranting eternal damnation for the transgressor. Not to be flip, but that does rather light a fire under one’s resolve to get their act together.

Kenelm Foster states that the sins of the damned, in Dante, are crimes that any rational society would condemn. I concur although would add that I feel, in light of that revelation, a creeping unease over my own society’s feelings towards gluttony, lust, skepticism, squandering, blasphemy, usury, and flattery. What are the wounds which such sin inflicts upon the psyche? Is this the forge of neuroses? And is the insidious nature of sin such that it reproduces itself like a virus? For example, if the wounds to the psyche (neuroses) are born of sin nature, often manifestations of said wounds are also sin (fear, anxiety, doubt, et al.). All of which I expect to tackle in the days to come dallying with Dante, and all of which, also in light of what I mentioned about Dante’s stated intention of apokatastasis, makes me wonder if I am not in for something resembling a cure! I had not anticipated a regimen of psychotherapy when I embarked on this project. Sometimes Universe deposits what you need at your doorstep without you even needing to place an order.

Before I conclude, I wanted to at least mention Sisson’s introductory piece on translating Dante. First of all, I found that I like Sisson as a person. He approaches the work with idealism and practicality (those complimentary forces that are crucial to a successful life and a successful world). He also, in a way that I found refreshing, pulls no punches against other translations. He does not pretend that he is contributing his own version even though there are other perfectly good translations out there. He has the nerve to attempt to provide the best translation. I found it encouraging that in the same breath he could not refrain from heavily mentioning T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound in his notes on beginning the process of translating Dante. He writes comparing his endeavor to previous translations:

“Both Binyon and Sayers might have said that the language of their own time did not have the resources for the weight and dignity of Dante’s speech. Maybe; but can one find in such fustian any trace of the acerb Florentine? Did he puff up his lines to impress the post-Victorian market, or to look dignified, like a lord mayor, while he utters nullities?… The first lesson of Dante is that one should write to convey, not to impress. It is admittedly difficult to see why anyone should be impressed, at this time of day, by the model of Binyon and Sayers have followed as an alternative to Dante, but it is the way of the world to attach the word ‘beautiful’ to the second-hand.”

Spoken like a rapper talking smack on his peers. I wish I could have Sisson over for dinner.

Rather, Sisson invokes the spirit of our old friend Dryden, who said of his own endeavors to translate Virgil:

“Taking all the Materials of this divine Author, I have endeavour’d to make Virgil speak such English, as he wou’d himself have spoken, if he had been born in England, and in this present Age.”

Which seems to me to be the ultimate aspiration of a translator.

I cannot express how high my expectations are set for this reading experience. More soon.