My favourite moments in The Divine Comedy

I can’t stress enough what a world of difference it made to finally read the Commedia in an updated translation. Because of the difficulty of reading the flowery Elizabethan English in Laurence Binyon’s version, I missed so many details and plot points, and only seemed to come away with a big picture and thematic impression. Mark Musa’s translation meanwhile lays everything out in plain, easy to understand language.

These are some of my fave moments and aspects:

1. The beautiful, memorable opening. Who can’t relate to the feeling of finding oneself in a dark forest, no idea how we got there or lost the way so badly? Some people believe this wasn’t mere metaphor or imaginative inciting event either, but that Dante truly was suicidal, even possibly attempted suicide, at that time in his life.

This theory is later borne out in Canto I of Purgatorio, when Virgil tells Cato:

“This man has not yet seen his final hour,
although so close to it his folly brought him
that little time was left to change his ways.”

2. The beautiful ending. I haven’t been outside to see the stars since lockdown started in March 2020, but when I used to look up at the night sky, I would silently recite those lines to myself.

3. The fact that each canticle ends with the sweet, hopeful word “stars.”

4. Every time Virgil is compared to a father or mother. Dante lost his mother at about five years old, and his father when he was a teenager, so one can only imagine his longing for surrogate parental figures. Even more moving, when Dante turns to Virgil but finds he’s gone in Canto XXX of Purgatorio, the word mamma is used.

5. The flipping of the trope of a man saving a damsel in distress. Beatrice is the one who saves Dante, after a conference with the Virgin Mary and St. Lucia.

6. When Dante throws shade at Virgil in Canto XIV of Inferno by reminding him of a previous failure:

“And I: ‘My master, you who overcame
all opposition (except for those tough demons
who came to meet us at the gate of Dis)….”

This made me laugh out loud!

7. When Dante listens to the Medieval version of a rap battle in Canto XXX of Inferno and is presently scolded by Virgil. He probably was reminded of the poems he and his buddy Forese Donati traded, in which they good-naturedly insult one another’s shortcomings.

8. In the opening of Canto XXII of Inferno, right after devil Malacoda, as Longfellow puts it, “made a trumpet of his rump,” Dante reflects on the various battle cries and jousting calls he’s heard,

“but I never saw cavalry or infantry
or ships that sail by landmarks or by stars
signaled to set off by such strange bugling!”

9. Canto XXXII of Inferno, when Dante goes psycho on Bocca degli Abati as Virgil just stands there without saying anything or even giving a disapproving look. He’s usually Mr. Goody-Two-Shoes on the spot!

10. The fact that Dante rightfully calls out Count Ugolino as a dirtbag while recording the names of his innocent sons and grandsons who were forced to die with him.

11. When Virgil washes Dante’s sooty face with dew at the end of Canto I of Purgatorio, then pulls up a reed to gird his waist. Immediately afterwards, a new reed springs up.

12. The radical rewriting of Limbo to include righteous non-Christian adults. Dante even builds a beautiful castle for these lights of Antiquity and the Golden Age of Islam he so admires.

13. Virgil’s character development. He goes from being the steady voice of reason and totally in charge (except that one time he failed!) in Inferno to making more and more mistakes and not knowing what to do in Purgatorio.

14. Canto IX of Purgatorio. It’s jam-packed with beauty, drama, and emotion. This is also the canto where we finally enter Purgatory proper.

15. The surprising inclusion of gay men in Purgatory. Dante’s views on homosexuality are a lot more nuanced and sympathetic than one would expect from that era.

16. Virgil’s final words to Dante, “I crown and mitre you lord of yourself!”

17. Canto XXV of Paradiso, where Dante poignantly imagines returning to Firenze in triumph after his poem wins over the thugs who exiled him, and being crowned with laurels by the font where he was baptised.

18. The end of Canto XIV of Paradiso, where Dante apologises for describing a hymn as the most beautiful thing he’s experienced, since he hasn’t looked at Beatrice yet in this sphere!

19. When Pope Nicholas III mistakes Dante for the evil Pope Boniface VIII in Canto XIX of Inferno, expressing surprise he’s there early.

20. The occasional breaking of the fourth wall to directly address both present and future readers. From the very first line, we’re made to feel like active participants in this journey, not passive observers. Dante doesn’t say “In the middle of the journey of my life” or of life in general, but our life.

21. Dante’s tender farewell prayer to Beatrice in Canto XXXI of ParadisoIt gives me goosebumps and moves me almost to tears.

22. The inclusion of a number of women who would otherwise be forgotten by history. Not only that, Dante gives them moral agency to tell their own stories, and shows sympathy for victims of domestic violence instead of taking their abusers’ side. While there are a couple of comments both in the Commedia and other of his works which are undeniably sexist, they pale in comparison to everything else.

23. When Virgil talks Dante through the wall of fire around the Earthly Paradise at the top of Mount Purgatory, encouraging him with visions of Beatrice waiting on the other side.

24. The dramatic midway point of Canto XVI of Purgatorio, when Dante clings to Virgil for protection as they go through a blinding cloud of smoke.

25. The constant blending of Classical Antiquity with Christian theology. Despite being a devout Catholic, Dante continually shows great respect and love for the world which came before, and struggles with the teaching that only baptised Christians can attain Paradise. Righteous people come in all creeds, no matter what the Medieval Church believed.

How to read The Divine Comedy

It seems nothing short of a miracle that I emerged a passionate Dantephile from my first reading of the Commedia in 2004, since my translation, while very good on its own merits, wasn’t the most ideal for a newbie. Because of the speed at which I read, the lack of supplementary notes and essays, the fact that I didn’t read many of the footnotes after returning to the book following a frustrated hiatus of several months, and the fact that I had to mentally translate the flowery Elizabethan language into modern English, there were many things I never understood.

It was a big picture story for me, about a beautiful, poignant unrequited love and the very relatable theme of having to sink to the lowest, saddest, most hopeless point possible before starting to gradually rise up through happier, more hopeful, more beautiful places and ultimately emerge a better person, back on track with one’s life and faith.

And of course, being only 24 years old, my prefrontal cortex wasn’t quite finished developing yet. Thus, my inability to grasp a lot of nuances and exercise emotional control in my negative reactions to things which didn’t agree with my own personal beliefs.

The importance of a good translation cannot be stressed enough! There are over 100 to choose from, but not all are created equal. Unless you’re VERY familiar and comfortable with flowery Elizabethan language, faux-archaisms, and poetic diction and contractions (e.g., maketh, havest, wouldst, wast, wert, doth, dost, thee, thine, ye, thou, o’er, e’er, cometh, lovest), chances are you’ll find that style very distracting and annoying when stretched over 14,233 lines. Many people still regard Longfellow’s 1867 translation as one of the finest, but it’s not ideal for a newbie on account of the language.

Unless you’re doing a lot of outside study, it’s a good idea to choose an edition with copious notes and essays, not just footnotes explaining historical and theological references. Many editions also have illustrations showing the geography of Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise.

And speaking of footnotes, I wouldn’t recommend interrupting your reading by constantly looking down at them. That was a big problem for me when I began reading the Commedia in late 2003, and a reason I ridiculously originally only gave it 4.5 stars. But most people don’t have a wealth of knowledge about Medieval Italian history, Catholic theology, Classical Antiquity, and Dante’s personal life. So what is to be done?

1. Read through the footnotes before reading each canto.

2. Read the footnotes after each canto.

3. Glance down at the most important footnotes as you’re reading, but not in the middle of a sentence.

4. Read the footnotes afterwards, then go back through and read the canto again.

5. Reread the canto and this time read the footnotes as you go along.

Think of it as listening to a song referencing or inspired by actual events or people in the artist’s life. Sure, knowing about these personal details can enhance your enjoyment and understanding, but you shouldn’t need to know about them to like the song and grasp the bigger picture.

This isn’t the kind of book you can race through and understand everything. Many people have been reading the Commedia for decades and still find new details or insights every time. There are also some references and details we may never understand the true meaning of. Just take it one canto at a time instead of forcing yourself to power-read it within a week or month.

A lot of people (esp. ones who only read Inferno) come away with really shallow, superficial, silly interpretations. First and foremost is one I too once bought into, that Dante was getting revenge on his enemies by putting them in Hell. But how can you get revenge on people who are already dead, through their friends and families reading it?

I’ve also seen the ridiculous claims (always from the “Hurr, durr, I was forced to read this in school and hated it!” crowd) that it was the product of drugs, mental illness, or insanity. Are they projecting their own issues, or are they truly admitting they can’t understand complex, sophisticated literature?

I highly recommend doing some outside study as you’re reading. In my next post, I’ll share some of the sources I’ve used (YouTube channels, academic websites, books, etc.). They’ve made me aware of a lot of things I wouldn’t have otherwise picked up on or paid much attention to.

Above all, don’t think of it as a long revenge fantasy, a boring Medieval history lesson, or a stern theological lecture. Many books from the Middle Ages are intrinsically wedded to that era, but the Commedia transcends time and feels remarkably relevant and modern over 700 years later.

Gay men in The Divine Comedy

When I first read the Commedia at 24, I wasn’t exactly happy to see gay men depicted in Hell. But now that my prefrontal cortex is fully developed, and because I’ve done a lot of supplemental study, I’m able to see this aspect of the poem in a markedly different light. Dante’s views on homosexuality are quite nuanced and sympathetic for someone born in 1265.

Yes, he does depict his dear teacher and mentor Brunetto Latini in the Third Ring of the Seventh Circle of Hell, where so-called sodomites are punished, but this part of Hell more generally is for those who’ve been violent against Nature, God, and art. Some modern scholars believe the real reason Brunetto shows up there is because he was violent against his native tongue by writing a book (Li Livres dou Trésor) in French. While Dante himself wrote a number of books in Latin, that was Europe’s lingua franca. It would be some centuries until French eclipsed Latin in that regard.

Panel about monkey from the bestiary section of Li Livres dou Trésor

Other scholars feel Brunetto was placed there to show how even the greatest of people may be guilty of private sins (whatever they may be). After all, Brunetto is treated more lovingly and respectfully than almost anyone else in Inferno (apart from Virgil), and there was an obvious bond of love and intellectual kinship between Dante and Brunetto in real life. Brunetto is also the only person in Inferno with whom Dante uses voi, the formal form of you.

In recent years, a love poem some believe Brunetto sent to poet Bondie Dietaiuti was discovered, but the intent may be open to interpretation. After all, many close friends in bygone eras expressed their love for one another (both physically and in words) in ways that suggest romantic or sexual feelings to modern people, but weren’t seen as such historically, let alone considered in that way by the friends themselves.

For obvious reasons, it’s often difficult to definitively prove historical figures were gay or lesbian, and Brunetto is no exception. We have nothing but this poem (whatever its true intentions), rumours of the time, and his inclusion in a part of Hell which punishes more than just so-called sodomites.

We also need to be careful about applying modern definitions and concepts to historical figures. Of course gays, lesbians, and bisexuals have always existed, but our modern conception of sexual orientation is relatively recent. E.g., many adult men slept with teen boys in Ancient Greece because that was held as an important coming-of-age ritual, education, and mentorship, not because they considered themselves same-sex attracted.

Even the very word “homosexual” didn’t exist till 1869. The word “sodomite” was used because of a false connection with the sin of Sodom and Gomorrah. In contrast, the Jewish teaching has always been very clear that their sin was lack of hospitality and had nothing to do with sexual behaviour.

But wait, there’s more!

In the very next canto, Dante meets three more so-called sodomites, who are also fellow Florentines, Jacopo Rusticucci, Guido Guerra, and Tegghiaio Aldobrandini. After they introduce themselves, Dante says:

“If I could have been sheltered from the fire,
I would have thrown myself below with them,
and I think my guide would have allowed me to;

but, as I knew I would be burnt and seared,
my fear won over my first good intention
that made me want to put my arms around them.

And then I spoke: ‘Repulsion, no, but grief
for your condition spread throughout my heart
(and years will pass before it fades away)….'”

At first glance, this doesn’t seem any different than his sympathy for other people he’s encountered, like Francesca da Rimini and Ciacco dell’Anguillaia. But when he takes pity on someone, it’s because their conduct reminds him of his own behaviour. E.g., he’s so moved by Francesca’s story of indulging forbidden love because he himself loved a woman who wasn’t his wife, a married woman no less.

An essay in the Durling-Martinez translation (considered by many to be the current gold standard) suggests this is Dante’s way of admitting he’s had sexual desires for other men, but fought not to satisfy this curiosity.

In stark contrast to most other depictions of Hell in that era, and indeed into the modern era, there are no sexualised tortures (of either women or men) in Inferno. The closest we get is the scene of thief Agnèl being turned into a snake in Canto XXV.

Then something very curious happens in Canto XXVI of Purgatorio, on the Seventh Terrace. Here, where the lustful purify themselves, are equal numbers of gay and straight men. Everyone in Purgatory is guaranteed eventual entrance to Paradise, so Dante clearly didn’t think homosexuality or bisexuality were truly a sin. In fact, many of the souls in Purgatory committed similar acts to those punished in Hell. The difference is that souls in Purgatory admit their wrong instead of dying without remorse or blaming other people.

There’s also a distinction between the motivation and manifestation of these same acts. E.g., souls in the Second Circle of Hell conducted illicit love affairs, but people on the Seventh Terrace of Purgatory just loved too intensely and didn’t channel their natural sexual desires (for the same or opposite sex) through the best channels. It’s not about the act itself, but how one chooses to pursue it, and why.

Given the attitudes of his era, Dante could’ve easily left gay men out of Purgatory, meted out sexual tortures to the ones in Hell (which would’ve been entirely in line with contrapasso, a punishment reminding the souls of their sins), and castigated them as perverts, deviants, degenerates, etc. Yet he treats them with great respect and even feels sympathy for them.

Least-favorite Decameron stories, Part III

I’m reblogging this old post because I recently retitled it and added several new introductory paragraphs explaining my change of heart regarding this story. I am well and truly disgusted I ever came to see such an awful story as one of my favorites. The toxic influence of my ex was responsible.

Welcome to My Magick Theatre

May 2021 update: This post was originally published 7 January 2012 (though written a few years earlier on MySpace) and entitled “Favorite Decameron stories, Part VII.” I disavow everything I wrote, and can’t believe I wrote any of this with a straight face. I’m absolutely horrified I ever saw such a disturbing story in a positive light. It’s so obvious I only began thinking that way due to the toxic influence of my now-ex and our dysfunctional relationship.

Obviously, it’s not cool to lead anyone on, but two wrongs don’t make a right. It seems much more likely Elena just wanted rid of this creepy older guy who wouldn’t take no for an answer and thought he’d finally leave her alone and get the message after that night in the snow. What Rinieri does to her in return is much more cruel.

It’s absolutely bizarre how I thought this was…

View original post 1,209 more words

A to Z Reflections 2021

This was my tenth year doing the A to Z Challenge, and my eighth with two blogs. For the third year running, I didn’t begin writing my posts till March. In years past, I researched, wrote, and edited my posts many months in advance.

I did the posts on my main blog first, since I knew they’d take more time and effort than the short and to the point posts for my names blog.

I began putting my list of topics for this theme together in March 2016, knowing I had five more years to prepare for it. Fittingly, in March 2016 I was finishing up writing and editing A to Z posts about names from The Divine Comedy for my secondary blog. I suppose I could’ve saved that theme for Dante’s 700th Jahrzeit (death anniversary) year, so both my blogs’ themes in 2021 would directly relate to him, but it is what it is. My names blog featured Medieval Tuscan and Italian names this year, which is relation enough.

Topics I considered but opted against included Purgatory, Quaestio de Aqua et Terra, Riccardo Zandonai, the Dante Society of America (which I’m a member of), and Eclogues. My choice of topics was somewhat more limited, since my theme was so specific, and Italian doesn’t have certain letters.

Luckily, I found art, music, and concepts related to Dante for some of the trickier letters.

For whatever reason, I’ve tended to have bad luck when clicking on links in the master A to Z list the last few years. Many bloggers gave up early or never started, and I even found one without a link. The theme sounded great, but there was no way to check it out from a hyperlink!

Also annoying are blogs without the option to comment or where we have to sign up with a unique-to-the-blogger commenting service, or a really uncommon commenting interface.

As other people have been noticing, participation does seem down in recent years. Then again, the medium of blogging itself has undergone a lot of changes over the past decade. Many of the bloggers I knew 5–10 years ago have entirely stopped blogging or moved to a much more infrequent schedule.

Post recap:

Dante Alighieri
Beatrice Portinari
The Battle of Campaldino
The Divine Comedy
Empyrean
Florence (Firenze), Italy
The Guelphs and the Ghibellines
Hell
Italian language
Jacopo Alighieri
Auguste Rodin’s The Kiss
Brunetto Latini
De Monarchia
Prince Guido Novello II da Polenta
Ovid
Pietro Alighieri
Quartan fever
Ravenna, Italy
A Symphony to Dante’s Divine Comedy
Terza rima
Count Ugolino della Gherardesca
Virgil
The Wood of the Self-Murderers
Xenia
Yesterdays
Zealotry

Since this is Dante’s 700th Jahrzeit year, I’ve got a bunch more thematic posts on tap for the upcoming months. I’m also working very hard on memorizing all 136 lines of Canto I of Inferno (up to the first 43 lines as of 11 May), in both Italian and English, and if I master them in time, I’m going to make a video of myself reciting them on Dante’s Jahrzeit.

I have at least seven more future A to Z themes on tap for my main blog, and I hope I can eventually resume more research-heavy themes on my names blog.