I finally made it through Paradise. I hate to put it that way, but that's more or less how it felt. Back in May of last year I was reading Dante and was most of the way through Purgatory when I needed to switch translations (there was a blog post about that). I decided on Anthony Esolen's. Time passed while I didn't get around to ordering the books. Then I slowly finished Purgatory, and decided that I really ought to have read the Aeneid, which I'd never done and had been meaning to do for years, before Dante. So I stopped for a while and read that, also slowly. I guess it was probably into fall before I got back to Dante. I had intended to read a canto a day, but rarely kept that up.
So here I am, feeling more like I've finished a job than that I've enjoyed a great poem. And yet I'd really like to start immediately with Inferno and read the whole thing again. It's a little like the way I feel sometimes on hearing a complex piece of music for the first time: I don't feel like I got it, I didn't necessarily enjoy it that much, but I was interested in it, would like to hear it again, and suspect I'll grow to like it.
Still, there is a certain frustration about the effort that I can only hope to remove by learning Italian, which is not really feasible. As I said in the post I linked to above, I don't believe poetry can truly be translated. There's some further discussion of that question in the comments on that post. Reading Dante has only confirmed my view. If you know two languages really well, you can read a poem written in one and write a poem conveying the same basic sense--the prose sense--in the other. If you're really gifted, the second poem may be a good one. But simply by virtue of the fact that it uses different words it is a different poem. It's a paraphrase. Sound and Sense is an excellent poetry textbook that's been in use for a couple of generations now, and the title says the essential: good poetry is equal parts sound and sense. A good poem consists of specific and carefully chosen words, and you can't replace them with others, even in the same language, and preserve the poem itself, as such. It's just intrinsically impossible.
Anyone who has a taste for poetry and is a native English speaker should count himself lucky. If we had no poet other than Shakespeare, we would have in him one universally acknowledged as being among the very greatest of any tongue or time. No one reading him in another language is really reading Shakespeare, because he only exists fully in English, and in his exact words. Look what happens when you paraphrase him even in English, and in the same meter:
Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
Life's a shadow that walks, a bad actor
That stalks the stage and fusses for an hour
If you get a buzz from the second and not the first, you have a bad ear. And moreover they don't convey exactly the same sense. Close, but not the same. (I can't think of exact synonyms for "strut" and "fret".) Esolen's Dante translation is good, and it does rise to poetry at times. But I look over on the left page at the Italian and wonder what I'm missing.
Someone mentioned in the comments in the old post that Esolen is sometimes more complex than the other translators. I noticed that, and assumed that he is attempting to be faithful to Dante's intricacies. Occasionally I wasn't sure I was understanding something, and picked up the Sinclair prose translation to check it. That led to reading Sinclair's notes, which are very different from Esolen's, but just as good. By the time I was into the mid-twenties of the cantos, I was reading both Esolen's verse and Sinclair's prose, and the notes of both. And I think that will be my procedure next time I read it, which I definitely intend to do.
My griping aside, I do feel like I have a good sense of Dante's vision, and a very powerful one it is. Much of it is literally vision--that is, it is visual, and not being a very visually-oriented person I sometimes had trouble forming the picture in my mind. Well, not just forming, but making sense of. Esolen's translation has Doré's illustrations, but I don't care much for them. I'd like to have an edition with good detailed illustrations of the key structural elements of Dante's visions. Maybe that's not really possible, at least not in a book--a page would be too small to capture the relationship of scale between the pilgrim(s) and, for instance, the mountain of Purgatory. There are basic diagrams available (Esolen has some), but I could use more. And I'd also like to see some artistic renderings other than Doré's. But a quick search doesn't show me many. There are Blake's, which are interesting but...well, it's Blake. And anyway they're unfinished.
I can see why Paradise is generally considered to be on the dull side in comparison to Inferno especially. It's heavy on theology, and too often Dante has to say "Well, it was really amazing, but there aren't any words for it." But if you believe he was talking about something real, though in not-necessarily-literal ways, it's powerful.
I didn't have all that many moments of being genuinely moved by what I was reading, but, fittingly, the moments that I did have were toward the end, and especially in the last canto. And I was amused that almost up until the very end Dante was still griping about the pope.
P.S. I greatly enjoyed the Aeneid. It was the Fitzgerald translation, and whatever its relationship to Virgil may be it's good, strong, clear verse. I admit I did get a little impatient with the long battle toward the end, as I also did, once upon a time, with much of the Iliad. It sounds callous to say so, but the long series of helmets cloven, armor pierced, and bright blood running into the sand gets...well, monotonous. I found the earlier, more Odyssey-like part of the story better.
I'm always going on about the fact that what we call liberalism or progressivism is in effect a religion. Here, in The American Scholar, is someone who seems to be himself a liberal, but of an older and nobler kind, making a similar observation.
So this is how I’ve come to understand the situation. Selective private colleges have become religious schools. The religion in question is not Methodism or Catholicism but an extreme version of the belief system of the liberal elite: the liberal professional, managerial, and creative classes, which provide a large majority of students enrolled at such places and an even larger majority of faculty and administrators who work at them. To attend those institutions is to be socialized, and not infrequently, indoctrinated into that religion.
Since Trump was elected there's been a lot of talk about his victory bringing us into the world of 1984, and reportedly there's even been a surge in sales of the book. My first thought about that was "What, the Smart People haven't already read it?" My second thought was that those talking about it now seem to be misunderstanding it. As Janet said in a comment on last week's post, it's "... hysterical...that Kellyanne Conway's stupid remark sent the the avid consumers of 21st century newspeak scurrying for 1984." Granting that Conway lied--I don't think it's clear that she did, but assuming it for the sake of argument--there's nothing particularly 1984-ish about a politician telling a lie.
It's been a long time since I read the book, but as I recall the critical point about the government's lies in 1984 is that one is forced to accept them, and not only accept but to believe them, even and especially when they contradict the official line of a week before, and are contrary to the evidence of one's own eyes and mind. If you recall, the great triumph of the Party in the novel was to make people believe that 2+2=5 if the Party says that it does. Anyone discovered to be resistant to the Party's version of the truth will be imprisoned and tortured until he is completely broken and acquiesces, not just externally but internally. He must see that truth is what the Party says it is, so that he no longer sees any contradiction between reality and the Party's word, or between the Party's word of today and that of yesterday. The goal is to make coercion unnecessary. To that end the Party takes control of language itself, redefining and eliminating words so that unsanctioned ideas become literally unthinkable. The boy in the fable of the emperor's clothes will eventually see that he has been mistaken, that the robes are there, and they are beautiful.
For the past year or so Trump has been throwing out falsehoods and distortions wildly, and they are widely and openly denounced as such. It's not even clear that he wants or expects people to believe them. Sometimes it just seems that he enjoys watching the media freakout. This is not what happens in 1984. If you want a real and current example of the 1984 syndrome in action, there's nothing more egregious than the sudden and recent promulgation of "transgender" dogma. More or less overnight it suddenly became, in progressive eyes, an act of bigotry to assert that persons with male genitals are men, and persons with female genitals are women. Millions (I suppose) of otherwise reasonable and intelligent people immediately and freely toed this line. A pseudo-scientific word, "transphobia," purporting to describe something that is both an illness and a moral evil, is now routinely applied to anyone who refuses, for instance, to call Bruce "Caitlyn" Jenner a woman. Public figures who are recalcitrant may be subject to mass vilification similar to the Two Minutes' Hate in 1984. The only think lacking is the government's ability to enforce conformity, and toward the end of his administration Obama was trying to push things in that direction.
Brightening the corner where I am.