I’m rereading Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy at the moment as part of a small discussion group headed up by one of my friends. I know it probably sounds completely uncool to say I’m enjoying re-immersing myself in this ambitious, influential work, but then I’ve always embraced being a Book Dork. And reading Dante is a challenge that has consistently challenged me as a reader.
Flashback to the early aughts, where I was taking a Survey of Southern Literature class & one of the assignments was Gail Godwin’s “The Angry Year.” I instantly clicked with the narrator, a jaded young woman at a Southern liberal arts college whose decided to make a reputation with her biting wit & her poisoned pen. She gets caught in a love triangle of sorts between an affluent boy from a Danville textile family (geez, remember when Danville made textiles??) & a cryptic outsider who constantly challenges our narrator to do better. At one point, she’s trying to find a Christmas present for Textile Heir & Mystery Man suggests a copy of the Commedia illustrated by Doré. “He’ll be flattered to think that you would consider him worldly enough to read it. If he doesn’t, at least the pictures are interesting,” says Mystery Man. In short, a poser gift for a poser person.
Maybe it’s because I did understand the narrator’s essential insecurity & defensiveness that blossomed into her frustration & bitterness, her use of language to strike out at those faceless, exclusive crowds around her. Whatever it was, I remember my reaction being, “Fuck you, Mr. Too-Deep-For-The-World, I will read Dante & I will get it & talk about it in witty & captivating ways at cocktail parties.” Because, that’s what you do when you’re an English major, right? You fill the time at fancy dinner parties with bon mots of lit crit?
So, some time later, when I was taking a course on Chaucer & we were discussing Dante’s influence on him, I figured this was the time to dive in, while I had the historical context in mind. I asked around for translation opinions, bought a copy of Dorothy L. Sayers’s Hell and got to work. On one hand, the Sayers translations are fantastic–her footnotes are comprehensive, there are illustrations of specific structures & movements, lengthy historical & poetical context is provided. If you can’t take a class in Dante’s works, these translations are good substitutes for those who are curious but are overwhelmed by the material.
But, I also found that Ms. Sayers had a lot in common with Mystery Man, attitude-wise. In her opening introduction, Sayers sniffs at those who pick up the Comedy because they are curious but stop with Hell, because the titillation is all that got them through the book. If you are going to do this, her words seemed to imply, you’re going to do this right. I rolled my eyes, made sure I bought Purgatory and Paradise, & got to reading. But, the sass didn’t stop there. To paraphrase her introduction for Purgatory, she opens by saying, Let me explain the concept of Purgatory to you, because all you non-Catholics, but particularly the Protestants, are not going to get the poem otherwise.
But even with those emotional associations aside, reading the Comedy is still contentious for me. Maybe it is that argumentative, jaded modern attitude of mine that wants to be prickly & smash limits that seem to be shutting me out. Or maybe it’s the firmness & integrity of Dante’s belief that his vision is correct. Strangely enough, reading Dante now feels a lot like a scene between Millie & Lindsey from Freaks & Geeks, where they argue over whether belief (or unbelief) is the root of happiness. “You live in God’s world!” Millie exclaims & Lindsey just stares at her bewildered, not even on the same page. Reading some–ok, many–of Dante’s stanzas makes me feel like Lindsey.
But that’s ok. Because I’m back here with the book again, working to understand, willing to put that anger & contention to good use instead of flailing it around me without purpose.