Why everyone should read The Divine Comedy

Beginning on 8 September, Baylor Honors College, in conjunction with five other schools, will kick off 100 Days of Dante. The objective is to read one canto a day, until finishing on 17 April (the Catholic and Protestant Easter). Though I just reread the Commedia earlier this year, in the Mark Musa translation, I’m really excited to begin all over again.

I got the much-lauded Durling-Martinez translation of Inferno, which is dual-language and has excellent essays and notes. Though I’m pissed that less than 24 hours after I ordered it, the price dropped by five dollars, to $9.95, and I was unable to be refunded despite it not having shipped yet! I’m keeping an eagle eye on the price of Purgatorio and Paradiso. They’re extraordinarily, unacceptably, ridiculously high ($24 and $33), but if they sink to $15 or lower, I’m jumping on them.

If they remain high, I’ll get the Allen Mandelbaum translation for the other two canticles. That’s another edition I’m really eager to read for myself. I really like what I’ve heard of it so far.

So why should everyone, regardless of religion, read the Commedia?

1. It’s one of the greatest works of literature ever written. Right up there with Shakespeare, The Decameron, The Mahabharata, The Odyssey, The Iliad, The Tale of Genji, The Romance of the Three Kingdoms, The Aeneid, Don Quixote, and any other work of classic world literature.

2. You can read it a hundred times and still discover something new each time. This isn’t a one and done book. There are so many delicious layers and nuances, you can’t discern or digest them all with a single reading.

3. It’s a priceless compendium of Medieval history, politics, and religion, as well as Classical Antiquity. There are also a lot of astronomical, geographical, and mathematical references and calculations. This truly was a continuation of Dante’s discontinued encyclopedia Il Convivio. Without Dante serving as the historian of record for many of these people, particularly the women, even hardcore Medieval history scholars wouldn’t know or care about them.

4. Despite being over 700 years old, it feels so modern and relevant, not like a book tied entirely to the Middle Ages. Yes, there are many other great works of Medieval literature with forward-thinking characters (e.g., the awesome Wife of Bath in The Canterbury Tales, many of the women in my belovèd Decameron). However, they ultimately belong to the world in which they were created.

5. The teacher and student relationship between Dante and Virgil is a joy to read and watch developing.

6. The use of language is nothing short of genius. Terza rima is so complex, even in a language with a plethora of rhyming words. Dante had to think so many steps ahead to ensure he stuck to that rhyme scheme through 14,233 lines and found the right words to end each line on. There are also times when he uses repetition of certain letters to evoke things like running water and dried, snarling tree branches.

7. The poetry gets more and more beautiful as the work wears on. Yes, many people do find it more difficult to comprehend or care about as theology comes more and more to the forefront, but don’t let that scare you away from the beautiful language. This is one of many reasons you should read the Commedia in Italian, even if you don’t have fluency!

8. Who hasn’t had an unrequited love like Dante had for Beatrice? Almost everyone can relate to that feeling of longing and grieving for a lost love.

9. There are lots of funny moments to lighten the intense mood.

10. Though most of the souls Dante encounters are men, he also meets a number of women, and they’re no shrinking violets. He gives them moral agency to tell their own stories, and contrary to the prevailing attitudes of his day, his sympathies lie with victims of domestic violence, not their abusers. And you have to love how he flips the trope of a damsel in distress being rescued by a man. Beatrice is the one who saves him.

11. Many of the lessons Dante learns along the way can easily apply to every reader. Yes, he primarily intended it as a story of his redemption and spiritual awakening, but you can find parallels to things in your own faith or life if you don’t share his exact beliefs. It’s just like how Shakespeare’s stories translate so well to other eras and cultures; e.g., Akira Kurosawa’s Ran and Throne of Blood.

12. It’s one of those works of literature which has massively influenced society. So many books, plays, poems, films, TV shows, video games, songs, musical compositions, and works of art directly reference it, were inspired by it, and/or depict events from it. My own Journey Through a Dark Forest and each of its four volumes got their titles from the famous opening lines!

13. It’s jam-packed with drama, beauty, intensity, power, and emotion.

14. His views on religious minorities and gay men are lightyears ahead of those of most of his contemporaries.

15. Many times throughout life, we find ourselves lost in a dark forest, no idea how we got there or lost the way so badly, overwhelmed by hopelessness and despairing of ever escaping. And just like Dante, sometimes we have to sink to the lowest, saddest, most hopeless point possible before we can begin slowly rising up to happier, more hopeful, more beautiful places and get back on track with our life. We also can’t do it alone, and need our own Virgil and Beatrice to help and guide us.

And don’t forget to find a translation that works for you, read it carefully instead of mindlessly powering through, and take advantage of extratextual sources.

A hilarious anti-war novel

Book Review: Catch-22 by Joseph Heller | Derrick's Blog

This was originally written for my old Angelfire site in 2003 or 2004. It’s surprisingly a lot shorter and more on-topic than most of the other book reviews I managed to save during frantic cache and archive searches. Most of the edits I’ve made relate to my ninth grade English teacher, whom I still had a chip on my shoulder regarding when I wrote this.

5 stars

This book was awesome! I can’t believe I waited so long to read it, after my ninth grade English teacher never got around to it (as well as several other classics we were supposed to read but never did). And now I know to avoid the movie, which is said to be very dissimilar to the book, such as cutting out important scenes and characters, putting undue importance on minor characters, and inventing scenes that never even took place. It also doesn’t hurt matters any that it was written by a nice Jewish boy and the hero of the novel is a nice Armenian boy!

[June 2021 note: I saw the film not that long after writing this, and it was every ounce as dreadful as I’d been warned about. Had I not read the book, I would’ve had a hard time figuring out what was going on. Terrible, insulting screen adaptation which bears almost no similarity to the source material.]

book cover catch 22 | Follow Desirée Dora Following Desirée Dora Unfollow Desirée Dora | Joseph heller, Book cover, Books

The title is the name of a military (in this case Air Force) rule that says you can’t get out of the service unless you’re crazy, but if you want to get out of service, you’re not crazy, because only a rational mind could come to the conclusion that it’s better to get out now while you’re still alive so you won’t possibly be killed on future missions. In other words, damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

The hero, Yossarian (we don’t get his first name), will do just about anything to get out of the military and go back home so he won’t have to fly any more missions and potentially get killed. He’s seen his friends and comrades die, such as Snowden (the flashbacks to whose death get longer and more graphic as the novel goes on), and the longer the war drags on and the more missions they’re ordered to fly, the more friends get killed in action.

To try to get out of flying more missions, he moves the bomb line on the map, constantly runs in and out of hospital with an alleged liver condition, turns back his flights on minor premises, such as not having a set of earphones, and goes on leave with his buddies to Rome. Unfortunately, Colonel Cathcart keeps raising the number of missions one must fly before going home, and eventually pushes them up to eighty.

A lot of this book gets lost in a film translation, like hilarious wordplay, nonsense of negatives, circular reasoning, and situations and sentences so absurd and ridiculous they’re funny. The characters are also outrageously funny, like the incompetent generals and colonels, Major Major (whose real name is Major Major Major and who was made a major just so people could call him Major Major Major Major), the chaplain who waffles back and forth on the very faith he’s supposed to be sharing with the young men in his outfit, Hungry Joe, Milo Minderbinder, Chief White Halfoat, Flume, and Doc Daneeka.

Reshuffles, Resignations and 'Catch 22' Politics | Ramblings of an Ordinary Man

One of the more absurdly funny parts of the book is when the powers that be in the bombing unit declare Daneeka to be dead because they think he was in a plane that drove into a mountain, even though he’s standing right there shouting at them that he’s not dead!

This is an anti-war novel as well as being satirical and funny. It doesn’t portray war as glamourous and heroic, but instead as Hell, something nobody wants to do, something the hero and most of his friends are trying to get out of every chance they can get. Even the generals and colonels at the top are portrayed as incompetent, absurd, and more concerned about things like parades and feathers in their caps than the lives of the young men they’re in charge of.

Even though it was written about the Italian theatre in WWII and came out in 1961, it’s held up very well and isn’t dated or boring. And I know the view I have of it now is probably vastly different than it would’ve been had I read the novel in ninth grade.

GWTW at 80, Part I (General overview)

One of the greatest films of the greatest year of cinematic history premièred near the very end, 15 December 1939, at Loew’s Grand Theatre in Atlanta. This epic screen adaptation of Margaret Mitchell’s classic sweeping saga of the Old South is one of those films like The Wizard of Oz, so well-known it feels almost pointless to bother giving a recap. Has anyone not seen GWTW at least once?!

On the eve of the Civil War, pretty, popular Southern belle Katie Scarlett O’Hara (Vivien Leigh) lives the life of Riley on her family’s plantation Tara in Clayton County, Georgia. The talk of impending war bores Scarlett terribly, and she abandons her suitors to talk with her father in the fields.

Mr. O’Hara delivers a devastating piece of news—there’s a barbecue coming up at nearby Twelve Oaks to celebrate the engagement of cousins Ashley Wilkes (Leslie Howard) and Melanie Hamilton (Olivia de Havilland). Though many men are competing for her hand, Scarlett only has eyes for the milquetoast Ashley, and is determined to stop this marriage from happening.

On the day of the barbecue, Scarlett insists on wearing a dress with a plunging neckline and refuses to eat the tray of food her Mammy (Hattie McDaniel) gives her. “Respectable” women weren’t allowed to demonstrate real appetites, esp. not in front of men. Thus, Scarlett isn’t supposed to eat anything at the barbecue and “ruin” her figure. (Little wonder so many girls and women have eating disorders!)

Scarlett wins the fight about the dress, but Mammy still makes her eat the food to ruin her appetite and remain unnaturally thin.

At the barbecue, Scarlett flirts with all the single gentlemen, hoping to make Ashley jealous. Then, during the ladies’ nap, Scarlett sneaks away to meet Ashley in the parlour. Her attempts to turn Ashley’s head and get him to jilt Melanie are all in vain.

There’s a long tradition of marriages between Ashley and Melanie’s families, since they’re so well-educated, intellectual, and serious-minded. While Scarlett lives for social life and superficial things, Ashley and Melanie both enjoy discussing ideas, debating politics, and reading great literature.

Though Ashley rebuffs Scarlett’s advances, this doesn’t deter her at all; on the contrary, it makes her even more determined to win his love. Ashley’s wishy-washiness doesn’t help matters, since he admits he’s attracted to Scarlett and kind of leaves the door open for future stolen moments. Scarlett declares she’ll hate him forever, but actions speak louder than words.

Also attending the barbecue is black sheep Charlestonian Captain Rhett Butler (Clark Gable), who’s immediately drawn to Scarlett. He witnessed the row between her and Ashley, and doesn’t understand what such a sassy, feisty woman sees in a guy like that.

The barbecue goes haywire when news of the declaration of war breaks, and all the young men rush off to enlist. Hoping to make Ashley jealous, Scarlett impulsively decides to marry Melanie’s brother Charles. Shortly before this, Charles and Rhett got into a heated argument when Rhett defied popular opinion to declare the North is better-equipped for victory.

Charles was gunning for a duel, but Rhett left the room to diffuse the situation. Though Charles thought Rhett a coward, Ashley told him Rhett is a much better shot and would’ve killed him.

Several months later, Scarlett becomes a widow when Charles dies of the measles (one of those lovely diseases anti-vaxxers giggle off as no big deal). Her mother suggests she move to Atlanta to break her melancholy (which of course isn’t caused by Charles’s death). Scarlett will live with Melanie and Melanie’s spinster aunt Pittypat.

Scarlett eagerly accepts this offer, hoping it’ll provide a chance to see Ashley again.

Scarlett attracts scandal when she attends a fundraiser in 1862 and dares to dance instead of demurely standing off to the side in her widow’s weeds. One of the few people at the charity event who doesn’t disapprove of her behaviour is Rhett, now making a fortune as an arms smuggler.

When Melanie donates her wedding ring to the war effort, Scarlett follows suit. Melanie, always seeing the best in people and unaware of untoward motivations, applauds this noble sacrifice. A dance auction is then held, and Rhett chooses Scarlett as his partner when he wins.

As they dance, Rhett tells Scarlett he wants her to someday say she loves him, and she says that’ll never happen.

By 1863, things aren’t going so well on the Atlanta homefront, and Scarlett and Melanie are forced into nursing work. Scarlett has to shoulder the burden of most of it, since Melanie, now pregnant after a furlough visit from Ashley, isn’t in the best of health.

Aunt Pittypat soon leaves to avoid the constant sound of artillery, compelling Scarlett into the role of mistress of the house. Her only help, slave Prissy (Butterfly McQueen), isn’t much help at all, esp. when Melanie goes into labour.

As Atlanta burns, the ladies escape back to Tara, with help from Rhett, the only person Scarlett knows who can get them to safety. Once they’re outside city limits, Rhett announces his plans to enlist and leaves them to journey the rest of the way alone.

Rhett professes his love before he leaves, which greatly angers Scarlett.

Their harrowing journey ends at a plundered, devastated Tara and a burnt Twelve Oaks. Even worse, Scarlett’s dad has gone half-mad since the recent death of his wife, and only two slaves are left, Mammy and Pork. All the other servants and slaves ran away or joined the Union Army.

Part I ends as Scarlett stands in the desolated fields, famously swearing, “As God is my witness, I’ll never be hungry again!”

To be continued.

My lace anniversary with ATMP

I’d planned to review and discuss Who’s Next (which turns 45 this year) for Friday’s post, but then I remembered 1 July is my anniversary with the one and only All Things Must Pass. I need no excuse to talk about such a special, special, special album or how much George’s music means to me!

When I was younger, my parents played ATMP on tapes in the car on a fairly regular basis, but I can’t recall if I ever heard it all the way through until 1 July 2003. I do remember my mother saying she particularly loved “If Not for You.”

This album is so, so special, beautiful, moving, and amazing. This is one of those quintessentially perfect albums like Plastic Ono Band, Colour by Numbers, Rio, Empty Glass, and Who’s Next, against which all of an artist or band’s other albums are measured forevermore. It’s that good and perfect, this yardstick which is impossible to top.

From the very first note, I’m unfailingly drawn in. The lyrics and music perfectly set the note for the personal, spiritual journey which is about to follow. “Let me in here/I know I’ve been here/Let me into your heart….”

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I honestly consider George one of my spiritual mentors. He had such a beautiful, powerful, deep, sincere belief in the Divine and the power of humanity to positively transform ourselves and the world. He understood there are many different names and faces for the Divine, and that none of them are wrong, so long as the person has a sincere heart and belief. I don’t get the allegation that certain of his songs are “preachy.” To me, they’re just expressing his own beliefs, not telling everyone we have to believe exactly the same way or that we’re going to Hell if we don’t fall in line.

His message of love and spirituality stayed with him his entire life, even until his beautiful final words, “Everything else can wait, but the search for God cannot wait, and love one another.” I often think of this final message he left to humanity.

After I bought the 2000 reissue on MP3 for my second trip to Israel in February 2008, I made a playlist of just the first 18 original tracks. I left off the bonus tracks and jam sessions. To me, the album properly ends at “Hear Me Lord,” and doesn’t contain any bonus tracks interrupting the journey, nor is it ruined by extraneous material coming after the assumed end.

George Harrison through the years.

Now that I think of it, it’s kind of like one of my favourite Rap Critic reviews, “Every Girl,” by Young Money. After he roasted this terrible song and seemingly ended the review, there came an unexpected fourth verse. He didn’t know if it were an outro or another verse, since they’d already had three verses and could end the song.

George had a wealth of excellent material, after years of having to fight to be thrown a bone or two every album. I know this is a rather infelicitous metaphor, but he compared it to having diarrhea for years and being unable to get to the toilet, and then he finally was able to let it all out.

This album is so, so perfect, and has more than earned its place as my #2 album, ranking only after Quadrophenia. It really helped to set the stage for George becoming my favourite solo Beatle. Words can’t express just how very, very, very much George and his music mean to me.

Track listing:

“I’d Have You Anytime”
“My Sweet Lord”
“Wah-Wah”
“Isn’t It a Pity”
“What Is Life”
“If Not for You”
“Behind That Locked Door”
“Let It Down”
“Run of the Mill”
“Beware of Darkness”
“Apple Scruffs” (a throwaway, in my opinion)
“Ballad of Sir Frankie Crisp (Let It Roll)”
“Awaiting on You All”
“All Things Must Pass”
“I Dig Love” (also approaches throwaway territory for me)
“Art of Dying”
“Isn’t It a Pity” (Version Two)
“Hear Me Lord”

There are also five tracks on what was originally the third LP, four endless, pointless, meandering jam sessions and a brief nonsense song, which I never listen to anymore:

“Out of the Blue”
“It’s Johnny’s Birthday” (the song)
“Plug Me In”
“I Remember Jeep”
“Thanks for the Pepperoni”

The 2000 remaster has one new song, “I Live for You,” plus alternate versions of “My Sweet Lord,” “Beware of Darkness,” “Let It Down,” and “What Is Life.”

Modern Times at 80, Part III (What it means to me)

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Though I love each of the big four silent clowns (Chaplin, Keaton, Lloyd, Arbuckle) for different reasons, on different levels, I think Chaplin wins it for me on the personal level. Though I was never as poor as he was growing up, I have very deep working-class roots on both sides of my family, and am really proud to be a member of the proletariat. Honestly, I’ve never had any desire to be part of the bourgeoisie. To me, the bourgeois lifestyle and class represent things that are completely alien to my personality, interests, and background. That’s just not who I am. I’d be quite happy to spend my entire life in a respectably working-class existence, hopefully an upper-working-class existence.

The story of Modern Times resonates so very, very deeply with me because I remember all too well what it was like to grow up without a lot of money, with parents who weren’t always in the greatest or most steady jobs. My parents were on welfare when I was born, and two months later went on unemployment insurance. They didn’t have $10,000 in the bank at one time till I was about fifteen. They didn’t own their own house till I was perhaps 19 or 20. Until then, we’d rented apartments and houses.

I have never, ever forgotten how much it stung when my parents couldn’t afford to buy me a rocking horse, talking doll Cricket, or a beautiful redheaded baby doll I named Apricot. I enjoyed simple toys like marbles and toy cars, but I really would’ve liked those other toys. If I’m ever blessed with kids, I never want them to grow up lacking what I did. Samuel will have a rocking horse, no matter how much money I have to spend.

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I don’t like to discuss my political views on this blog, since I want to keep my posts focused on writing and topics related to history (silent and early sound film, people and places I’ve written about, classic rock and pop, antique cars, etc.). I also don’t want to risk alienating readers who may hold much differently, for the same reason I wouldn’t start a very political conversation at the dinner table and just assume everyone present shares my views exactly.

However, this is one of those times when the topic of my political views is pertinent to the discussion. Though I don’t like to put one label on my beliefs, and there’s a very long story behind my political awakening and evolution, the TLDR story is that I’m a very left-wing Democrat, a classical liberal (NOT to be confused with what’s been termed the regressive Left; i.e., SJWs whose minds are so open their brains fell out). I do have a couple of more conservative views, like my support of the death penalty, and I’m more old-fashioned in my personal life, but politically speaking, in most aspects, I’m a Socialist who registered Democrat.

Now that I’ve lived a little longer and am no longer as far Left as I was in my teens and very early twenties, I understand there are many different ways to hold politically. We all need to respect and understand one another. If I’d been born into more money, in a different geographical location, in a different era, as a man, etc., I might very well be much more conservative or middle of the road, or manifest my leftist views in a different way.

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Modern Times speaks to me because it’s the story of two exploited people from the underclass, living from hand to mouth, going through a series of menial jobs, not having a secure home, never knowing if they’ll have enough money to get through the week. As the opening image illustrates, they’re the black sheep among the indistinguishable flock mindlessly going along with the crowd. It’s not just a story of man vs. machine or trying to make a living during the Great Depression, but a story for all time. This is the story of the proletariat, a story I’ve been steeped in my entire life.

No matter how hard the Tramp and the Gamin try, it’s just not good enough in the harsh, cruel world they live in. They dream of having a respectable home, a modern kitchen, good food on the table, modern furniture, nice clothes, all the good things in life, but they just can’t grasp that carrot. They don’t enjoy being poor, living this itinerant existence, and being seen as impersonal cogs in a huge machine.

modern-times-1936

The life of the proletariat in the machine age isn’t all gloom and doom, though. The Tramp and the Gamin determinedly pick back up and try again, instead of letting themselves be relegated to a degraded state. Eventually, they’ll find their big break, and be able to create a happy little home. It might not be the type of home or working life the bourgeoisie or upper-classes aspire to, but to people in their world, it’s a beautiful paradise.