My Dantean memorization journey

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This is how it all began in March 2021. Initially I only planned to learn the first twelve lines of Canto I of Inferno in the original Italian, to match what I’ve known in English for years. Then I worked on memorizing six lines from Paradiso, and returned to Inferno I in April.

However, I still didn’t intend to memorize the entire 136 lines, just another nine. I felt Line 21 ends on a nice cliffhanger, “The night I had endured with such anguish,” La notte ch’i’ passai con tanta pieta. I also thought it would be really cool to do a video of myself reciting them for National Poetry Month.

You know what they say about the best-laid plans of men and men (and women). Though I finished memorizing those lines by the last day of April, I hadn’t 100% mastered them, and I felt it weren’t enough of a challenge. Why quit so soon into the canto? Go big or go home!

The very next day, I memorized four more lines like lightning. Writing them out longhand was such a huge help, since I was able to mentally picture the words in my own writing when I got stuck. Skimming over the next lines before I began working on them also helped them to come faster when it was time.

Several times along the way, I hit humps and had to spend an extra few days working on tercets, lines, or groups of tercets or lines. It wasn’t so much that the words weren’t sticking, but rather that I was hitting the kind of mental wall many people face when learning new information. Only after you’ve cleared the wall can you continue.

Other times I had difficulty mastering the latest section or tercet because the words seemed too similar too close together. Obviously, not super-common words like che, non, and poi, but like in the above example, di sua vista and ne la sua. Or I just felt overwhelmed by all the lines I had to learn and how many I had to keep fresh in the memory bank while constantly adding new ones. The first half or so of this page was one of my humps, and the first major one since the beginning.

This page, and the end of the previous page, went super-fast, since I already knew those 18 lines in English, when Virgil shows up. Though I only knew up to the end of Virgil’s opening lines, the next few tercets came really quickly by association. I don’t think any other parts of Canto I flew into my personal hard drive that swiftly!

There were a few more humps on this page, by which point I was over the halfway mark. Things were starting to get real by now. I often had the feeling of, “I can’t really keep going, can I? I already know so many lines, and there are so many more yet to learn!”

The final tercets also came very fast, since I’d listened so many times to the overrated Roberto Benigni’s recitation and said what I knew along with him. I was so familiar with the concluding lines, I almost knew them even before I properly learnt them. I also knew the final line long before I reached that point, so the penultimate line was truly the last line I learnt.

Constant practice and repetition made sure every line went from short-term memory to long-term memory to permanent memory. I often said them to myself at night while going to bed, and not infrequently fell asleep in the middle after a certain point. Dante’s words were the last thing in my brain when it switched out of waking consciousness.

I also frequently said them to myself while swimming, or out loud softly while waiting for my sunscreen to set when I was alone at the pool.

Near the end of memorizing Canto I, I decided to go big or go home in an even greater way and learn the entire Commedia. After all, plenty of Italians throughout history have done just that, without even seeing it written down. Many other people have also known many cantos by heart.

The first tercet of Canto II went really fast, but then I hit another wall, and decided to just focus on perfecting my recitation of Canto I before jumping right into another huge challenge. It’s the same reason it’s best to rest for awhile after finishing a long book (either writing or reading) instead of immediately beginning the next. Everyone needs down time between climbing mountains.

This is everything I know to date, the first 45 lines of Canto II. As aforementioned, they came much slower than most of Canto I, since my top priority was ensuring mastery of Canto I for my recitation video on Dante’s 700th Jahrzeit (death anniversary) on 13/14 September.

Now that that’s past, I can finally begin making up for lost time on Canto II. I hope to have it completed and mastered by my birthday (either the English or Hebrew date) in December.

Oh, and if you can’t read my handwriting just because it’s in cursive, that’s a sad indictment of the current educational system.

Reading The Divine Comedy as a non-Christian

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Though Dante intended his magnum opus as primarily the story of his spiritual reformation and redemption, and presumed most of his readers would be Christians or future converts, you truly don’t have to share that religion to enjoy it. Many of the themes and lessons can be interpreted in alternate ways, just as Krishna famously tells Arjuna there are many different names and faces for God, and paths to her/him, but none are wrong, so long as one has a pure, devout heart and soul.

However, despite Dante treating righteous non-Christians very respectfully, struggling with his era’s teaching that only baptised Christians could attain Paradise, avoiding antisemitic tropes about Hell, and saving a few so-called pagans, there are certain things which are still a challenge to read. This isn’t a reflection on Dante, but rather my own background. Life gives all of us a different frame of reference based on so many things, religion included.

My family background and my own personal religious history are too complicated and private to get into here, but the most pertinent thing to know is that I’ve been living a Jewish life since I was eighteen, after years of longing to reclaim my spiritual birthright. The religions I feel closest to after my own are Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, and Jainism.

Theologically, Judaism is closest to Islam. They were even closer before Prophet Mohammad got pissed off that more Jews weren’t converting, and changed things like how many times a day one should pray (from three to five). Again theologically speaking, Judaism and Christianity are like oil and water. So many important things radically contradict one another; e.g., Jews don’t believe in Original Sin or the divinity of Jesus.

This is a topic for another post, but suffice it to say, interfaith relations weren’t very good until about 1950. At the heart of the antisemitism which culminated in the Shoah was the deicide charge. And while I’m really glad the only Jews depicted in Inferno are Judas and Caiaphas, thus avoiding grotesque stereotypes and slanders, it’s hard to not be bothered by the deicide charge in Paradiso VII. There’s also this tercet in Paradiso V:

“If evil covetousness cries out to you,
be men, and not foolish sheep,
so that the Jew among you does not laugh!”

YIKES!

Intellectually, I can explain and contextualise these statements to take some of the sting off. Dante cannot be divorced from his time and place, no matter how modern and relevant he feels in many ways. He also believed other things we now know to be false, like the Donation of Constantine and Prophet Mohammad originally being a Christian, since there was no widely-available information debunking these claims.

And compared to many other Medieval writings (e.g., the Prioress’s Tale in The Canterbury Tales, the chilling end of The Song of Roland), this is really tame. Out of 14,233 lines, these comments are a tiny drop in the bucket. Dante also questions why, if Christian doctrine says the Crucifixion was necessary, the Second Temple then had to be destroyed and the Jewish people forced into Diaspora.

But emotionally and personally, it’s really hard to read that, knowing the deicide charge formed the basis of almost 2,000 years of horrific antisemitism in Europe, and that even those few seemingly off-handed comments were part of a much larger picture that really added up.

Judaism and Christianity also radically differ on the subject of the Pharisees, who are mentioned in a negative light in the Commedia. Though all evidence from multiple sources attests to Pharisaic beliefs and practices forming the basis of post-Temple Judaism, and indeed being the very reason we were able to survive the loss of the Second Temple, their reputation in Christianity is far different.

Long story short, each of the four Gospels is successively less Jewish and more Christian in character. As time progressed, the two faiths diverged more and more, and it became obvious there weren’t as many Jewish converts as hoped for. Thus, it was felt necessary to draw strong lines between the two traditions and seek converts from other populations.

Judaism has no concept of Limbo. While there are many conflicting views on the afterlife, who goes where, if very wicked souls stay forever in Hell, whether Gehenna or Sheol is the place for the worst sinners, and what exactly all these places are like, one thing everyone does agree one is that the righteous of all nations have a place in HaOlam HaBa, the World to Come. We don’t believe only our people can attain Paradise.

Dante heavily leans towards this view too, as he struggles all through the poem with the idea that only baptised Christians (plus the righteous people of the Bible) are worthy of Paradise. What about people who live in places like India, where Christianity had no presence, or who lived before Jesus, like his dear Virgil? Indeed, he saves a few so-called pagans (Cato, Trajan, Statius, Ripheus the Trojan), and depicts a few Muslims among the righteous in Limbo.

He also says many people of other faiths, or of no faith, are closer to God than actual baptised Christians.

St. Bernard of Clairvaux’s prayer to Mary, which opens Paradiso XXXIII, is pure beauty, power, emotion, and devotion. Remembering back to Inferno II, Mary is the one who ultimately set Dante’s journey in motion. And given that Dante lost his mother when he was five or six years old, it’s easy to understand why he felt such devotion to Mary.

Despite not being Christian myself, I’m very moved by the image of Mary as a loving, universal mother figure. Many people who lost their mothers are particularly devoted to her for this very reason.

While specifically Christological beliefs do nothing for me and have no parallels in Judaism, most of the poem is a rich, fertile ground for inspiration. Dante intended his magnum opus as a spiritual guidebook, and despite his own strong Catholic faith, he frequently thinks of other kinds of people. Indeed, the penultimate word is l’altre, the other (in plural form). The Love he believes in, which powers everything in existence, includes a vast rainbow of perspectives and experiences, not just one.

Why everyone should read The Divine Comedy

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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 Medieval-style rap battle and a stone woman

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Between about 1283–1308, according to the estimations of scholars, Dante wrote about 102 poems, called the Rime (rhymes). While there are 109 transcribed at the Princeton Dante Project, some of the ones included were written to Dante as part of a poetic correspondence. Among these are three poems by his childhood buddy Forese Donati, seen above behind the rock.

Numbering LXXIII–LXXVIII (73–78) and written between about 1293–96, these are a really fun portion of the Supreme Poet’s literary canon. So many people can only think of him as someone who was very serious all the time, with no lighthearted concerns. Yet in these playfully insulting canzone, the Medieval version of a rap battle, Dante emerges as a fun young man with a great sense of humour.

Translation: Forese sucks in bed, and doesn’t even sleep with his wife that often either.

Tana (Gaetana) and Francesco were Dante’s much-younger halfsiblings.

I love how this fun exchange of jestingly insulting one another’s shortcomings ends with Forese essentially saying, “Let’s call the whole thing off and go down to the pub for a drink.”

These are the kinds of poems which should be used to introduce young people to Dante. So many teachers immediately throw students into the deep end with the densest, most sophisticated and advanced masterworks instead of gradually easing them in with poems and stories that are more lightweight and easier to understand.

A lot of negative first impressions stay with people for years, sometimes forever, and they have no interest in trying to read a book or author again with more mature eyes, nor to check out less intense works. The damage is already done, and you get clowns who leave simplistic, childish 1-star reviews bashing a book because they were forced to read it in school and decided they hated it.

Then we have a whole other cycle of poems painting Dante in a much different light than his popular image—the Rime Petrose (Stone Rhymes), written around 1296. Scholars haven’t figured out if Petra, the woman they’re dedicated to, were an actual woman, a fictional creation, or mere symbolism.

Whomever this Petra may be, Dante’s feelings for her are the cardinal opposite of his feelings for Beatrice. This is no courtly love or tender longing for an immaculate dream denied to him by Fate. There are images and desires in these poems that are quite erotic, sadomasochistic even.

Petra is called the Stone Woman for good reason—her heart is as hard and unrelenting as stone. Indeed, the word petra is used over and over again in these poems, even when describing other things.

Rhyme CIII (103), which closes the cycle, has the most unrelenting language of all. It opens with the line “I want to be as harsh in my speech as this fair stone is in her behaviour,” and only gets stronger from there.

Check out the closing stanzas:

“Once I’d taken in my hand the fair locks
which have become my whip and lash, seizing them
before terce I’d pass through vespers with them
and the evening bell: and I’d not show pity
or courtesy, Oh no, I’d be like a bear at play.
And though Love whips me with them now, I would
take my revenge more than a thousandfold.
Still more, I’d gaze into those eyes
whence come the sparks that inflame my heart,
which is dead within me; I’d gaze into them
close and fixedly, to revenge myself on her
for fleeing from me as she does: and then
with love I would make our peace.

“Song, go straight to that
woman who has wounded my heart and robs me
of what I most hunger for, and drive an arrow
through her heart: for great honour
is gained through taking revenge.”

Obviously, this is in no way representative of Dante’s normal oeuvre or way of expressing himself, but it does show he wasn’t all high-minded philosopher, serious writer, and romantic lover. He’s essentially telling Petra, to quote the chorus of the Nine Inch Nails song “Closer,” “I want to fuck you like an animal.” Those have got to be the most violently, explicitly erotic lines he ever wrote!

You can peruse all the Rime at the Princeton Dante Project, under the Minor Works linked to on the far left. They’re all worth reading, and help to paint a fuller picture of the Supreme Poet.

Misquoting Dante

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Imagine my complete mortification and embarrassment when I discovered earlier this year that this famous Dante quote is a 20th century fabrication! Despite always checking alleged Buddha quotes against FakeBuddhaQuotes, I nevertheless took this one at its word and never thought to look up the actual chapter and verse citation.

What makes it more than embarrassing is that I used this quote several times in the books formerly known as The Very First and The Very Next, as the guiding principle of Cinni’s father’s life, a moral imperative which compels him to bring people out of the lions’ den and to the safety of the U.S. before the Nazis devour them. He even has a framed calligraphic print of it in his office.

Finally, I got curious and Googled it, expecting to find a citation so I could see it in full context. Nothing of the sort, only multiple quote sites (and a few other places) trotting it out as a Dante quote. No chapter and verse at all.

First of all, Dante considered betrayal the worst of all possible sins, not neutrality. The Ninth Circle of Hell has four rings, each for a different type of betrayal—Caïna (kinfolk), Antenora (city or country), Ptolomaea (guests and hosts), and Giudecca (benefactor or master). Also, there’s zero fire down here. Instead, the sinners are punished by being frozen in an increasingly more brutal lake of ice.

Neutrality isn’t punished in Hell at all. All three afterlives have rejected such people, and they’re condemned to forever aimlessly run after a banner to nowhere and be constantly stung by wasps and horseflies in Ante-Inferno. The blood from the bites mixes with their tears and drips to their feet, where maggots collect in the pus.

These people took no sides in life, either for good or evil, and just passively drifted whichever way the wind blew, only caring about their own self-interests. Dante is disgusted by them, condemning them as evil and cowardly, in comparison to how he feels pity, respect, sympathy, even love for many of the other souls he meets in Hell.

Over the centuries, many people have seized on this episode in Canto III as support for their various causes, including abolition of slavery; ending nativist, xenophobic immigration quotas in the 1930s and 1940s; the U.S. ending their isolationism policy during early WWII; and the Civil Rights Movement.

By WWI, the fake quote had begun appearing with a slight difference from the modern version. In place of “hottest,” the words “darkest,” “worst,” and “lowest” variously appeared. The first known instance of the “hottest” version appearing in print was 1944, in a book by Henry Powell Spring.

From there, it gradually took on a life of its own, being quoted by politicians, activists, clergy, and laypeople alike. Before long, it came to be believed as fact, despite not appearing in a single English translation of The Divine Comedy, nor any of Dante’s other works.

Rather than doing a second edition of the book formerly known as The Very First and rewriting the pertinent parts of the book formerly known as The Very Next, I included a note about this in the front matter of TVN, concluding by saying Mr. Filliard will tell Cinni in the third book that he was duped by a fake quote, and impressing upon her the importance of always vetting sources.

In addition to fake quotes, there are also quotes taken out of context. This happens with many quotes from many sources, and they’re eaten up by people who care more about quick, easy sources of inspiration than checking the lines before and after. Particularly if a quote comes from a novel, play, or epic poem, you should look up the full context. E.g., is this the author speaking in his/her own voice, or a line of dialogue? Is it a standalone line, or in the middle of other lines which might radically change your interpretation?

And if it’s a translation, is it literal, close to literal, rendered in a forced rhyme scheme, or presented with some creative touches to adhere to blank verse iambic pentameter or sound prettier?

Take the quote “Follow your own star!” This is spoken by Brunetto Latini in Canto XV of Inferno, in the middle of his mutually reverential conversation with Dante. Sure, many lines throughout the poem can apply just as well to all of humanity and readers’ personal situations, but not this one.

The full context:

“And he to me: ‘If you follow your star,
you cannot fail to reach a glorious port,
if I saw clearly in the happy life;

and if I had not died when I did,
seeing that Heaven so favours you,
I would have given you comfort in your work….'”

Given Dante’s belief in astrology and how proud he was of being a Gemini, I’m inclined to believe “star” refers to his Sun sign; indeed, Mark Musa translates it as “constellation.” Thus, a very specific context! It’s not even a standalone line.

People who pass along fake quotes, misquotes, and quotes out of context aren’t deliberately ignorant. In fact, many times they’re very well-meaning and had no reason to doubt the source they found that line in. But just like with urban myths, these quotes become that much harder to debunk when they’re constantly trotted out as factual.