Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Inferno I

Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita
mi ritrovai per una selva oscura

Midway upon the journey of our life
I found myself within a forest dark

Italians study Dante the way English people study Shakespeare: reverently, and mandatorily. My father, who attended a vocational school for artisans before starting work at 14, was nonetheless taught about him, and would sometimes recite a few of those classic rote-learned facts. For instance, that the Divine Comedy is a ‘didactic allegory’.

When my turn came to attend a far more academic high school, forty years later, the study of Dante spanned three whole grades. At sixteen we studied the Inferno; at seventeen, the Purgatory; at eighteen, Paradise. Throughout the year, typically at the rate of one hour a week. It was an ambitious programme, befitting the archaic, pre-war design of our school system. When the country became a Republic, in 1946, it did not create new and more democratic schools. Instead, it opened the doors of the schools for the children of doctors and lawyers – the licei – to the children of factory workers and farmers. At least in theory. In practice, the prospect of spending three years studying a medieval didactic allegory, or five years learning Latin and/or Greek, acted as an implicit socioeconomic barrier. Households such as mine – working class, but full of books – were not in the majority.

School was, sometimes, our forest dark: an impenetrable thicket of arcane knowledge and arbitrary tasks, designed to select us and prepare us – although it wasn’t clear exactly for what.

First plate of the Comedy illustrated by Gustave Doré
Dante wrote the Divine Comedy from 1308 to 1321, while in exile from his native Florence. The action however is set in the year 1300, the year of the first Catholic Jubilee. ‘Midway upon the journey of our life’ means at the age of thirty-five, based on the conventional belief – stated by Dante in the Convivio – that placed the duration of life at seventy. (Dante was born in 1265.) The journey of Dante spans one hundred cantos but only seven days, and begins either on the 25th of March – the day of the death of Jesus on the cross – or on the 7th of April, its lunar anniversary in the year 1300. In other words, Easter Friday.

The dark forest represents moral confusion and sin, That’s the first allegory, right in the poem’s opening tercet. There are over fourteen thousand of these tercets in the poem, each comprising three lines of eleven syllables each with alternate interlocking rhymes (ABA BCB CDC and so forth). Think about that design for a moment, and the almost superhuman effort that erecting such an edifice of words might require. And then, to match the formal audacity, a subject matter to rival and surpass ancient tales of journeys into the Afterlife. For while it’s true that Aeneas and Odysseus had walked among the dead, those pantheistic religions were a great deal more accommodating of such fantasies. For a Christian poet to imagine an equivalent journey, not only through Hades but to Heaven as well, would have come dangerously close to heresy.

Placing three Popes in Hell – two of whom were not even dead yet – was pretty gutsy as well.

The first page of Aldus Manutius' 1502 edition
But I’m running ahead of myself. Dante has barely walked out of the forest and begun to climb a rather promising-looking hill that a leopard, a lion and a wolf jump out before him, forcing him to retreat. The word ‘fear’ appears five times in this opening canto, but nowhere more memorably than in the 53rd line: con la paura che uscia di sua vista, which Longfellow translates as ‘the fright that from her aspect came’. But it’s a pallid echo of Dante’s image, in which fear seems to physically radiate from the appearance of the ravenous wolf: as if to give origin to the expression ‘a frightful sight’.

It is then, just as he is about to turn back towards the forest, that Dante spots the figure of a man che per lungo silenzio parea fioco. Both of my annotated editions of the Divine Comedy interpret fioco as meaning hoarse, therefore ‘someone whose long silence had almost deprived of his voice’. That’s the word Longfellow uses in his classic nineteenth century translation, suggesting this interpretation reflects an age-old consensus.

I’m sure that the scholars are correct but frankly it has never made any sense to me. Dante at this point hasn’t heard the man speak yet. How could his voice sound hoarse ? The standard Italian meaning of fioco is dim, as in ‘a dim light’. I prefer to read the line therefore as a classic Dantean synaesthesia. After all, haven’t we just been told that in the forest ‘the sun was silent’, meaning that the place was dark? Fioco offers a perfect call-back to that image: Dante failed to see the man because he stood in motionless silence.

William Blake, The Mission of Virgil
No matter. What does matter is the identity of this man, who finally reveals himself. He was born sub iulio – at the time of Caesar – and lived in Rome in the era degli dei falsi e bugiardi, ‘of the false and lying gods’. (I get false, but how do you lie by not existing?) His parents both hailed from Lombardy. He was a poet, and sang of the just son of Anchises, that is to say Aeneas.

He could have just said ‘Hey there, I’m the ancient poet Virgil’, but that wouldn’t quite cut it, poetically speaking.

Dante is ecstatic: this is the author whom he most reveres, and to whose example he feels he owes his style and his fame. A short prophecy later (a man will come who will vanquish the beasts – though none of the commentators can quite agree on whom it might have been), Virgil explains that he will guide Dante first through Hell, then through Purgatory. Once they get to the Gates of Saint Peter’s, however, Dante will have to find another guide, for Heaven has a strict ‘no Pagans allowed’ code.

The canto ends in typical fashion, which is to say dynamically, as a springboard to the next one.

Allor si mosse, e io li tenni dietro. 
Then he moved, and I followed behind.

Gustave Doré, plate V: end of the first canto
The Divine Comedy is an extraordinary compendium of medieval European culture, and one of the high points of human civilisation. It is also a supreme joy to read, and a reason in itself for learning Italian, as indeed many people have – for instance Ann Goldstein, who went on to become the translator of Elena Ferrante and Primo Levi. I’m not sure it should be parcelled and served as homework to sixteen year olds, but then it’s hard to find a time in life to read a long medieval poem that doubles as an encyclopaedia to a lost world. Perhaps there is no good time. Which is the same thing as saying that it’s always the best possible time.