Archive for the ‘The Divine Comedy’ Tag

“Ahi, quanto a dir qual era è cosa dura…”: a note on the postmodern Dante

Any visitor curious enough to view the reading that launched March End Prill might have selva oscurabeen in equal parts mystified and amused by my describing Cervantes and Homer as “avant garde, reflexive, or postmodern”. If so, then they’d be equally quizzical  of my describing Dante as postmodern.

I’ve made it a ritual to read through Dante’s Commedia every Easter Week “in real time”, The Inferno Good Friday and Holy Saturday, The Purgatorio Easter Sunday through to Wednesday, and The Paradiso as I will, as, having left the earth, terrestrial time no longer applies to the Pilgrim Dante or, in this case, his reader.

One of the things that makes Dante’s epic a classic is that even returning to it annually in this way, even the most familiar passages give up hitherto unnoticed features and meanings. Such was my experience this year, rereading the opening lines of The Inferno:

Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita
mi ritrovai per una selva oscura,
ché la diritta via era smarrita.
Ahi quanto a dir qual era è cosa dura
esta selva selvaggia e aspra e forte
che nel pensier rinova la paura!
Tant’ è amara che poco è più morte;
ma per trattar del ben ch’i’ vi trovai,
dirò de l’altre cose ch’i’ v’ho scorte.

Midway in the journey of our life
I came to myself in a dark wood,
for the straight way was lost.
Ah, how hard it is to tell
the nature of that wood, savage, dense and harsh —
the very thought of it renews my fear!
It is so bitter death is hardly more so.
But to set forth the good I found
I will recount the other things I saw.

A simpler, more literal rendering of line four would be “Ah, how to say what was is a hard thing…”.

Arguably the most immediate way to take this line is that the Pilgrim-Poet Dante, recounting his experience relives the fear he felt lost in that wild wood (delightfully, in the Italian, esta selva selvaggia), which causes a moment of reflection wherein he (reflexively) writes, not about the wood or his fear, but about his writing about the wood and his fear. That is, “it is difficult to write about so fearful an experience, because writing about it requires I in a way relive that fear”.

But, of course, the persona of the Pilgrim is a mask worn by the poet Dante. Considered from this angle, the poet is writing about writing his poem. This admission of the challenge of the epic task the poet has set for himself and the demands that this project place upon the poet’s talent is a pattern that recurs throughout the Commedia, most immediately and movingly in the next canto, where the Pilgrim questions his worthiness to follow Virgil through Hell and Purgatory and receives so tremendously a moving, eloquent pep talk in reply that, in all sincerity, it never fails to move me to tears. However much such an admission of humility is a rhetorical ornament common in Latin literature, it is no less moving, such is Dante’s genius. It is as if, then, the poet were admitting, “Ah, how hard it is to write this epic poem in this noble style I invented just for this purpose.”

The rich complexity of this line, however, is hardly exhausted in this near cliché example of the “postmodern” text’s referring to itself in however a sly, metapoetic manner. A quick glance back at the English translation of this line and its tercet reveals a curious pattern:  as the tercet progresses the translation becomes more literal. The Italian grammar of the line is, or so I have it on relatively good authority, somewhat counter intuitive to an English speaker, for ‘qual‘ that I translate as ‘what’ is a word that can function as either a relative pronoun or an interrogative, closer to English ‘which’. Moreover, the line conjugates the copula in both the past and present tenses:  “era è“, “was is”. Why various English versions of the line depart from the Italian as the syntactic demands of the remainder of the tercet demand is understandable. But it strikes me, perhaps only because of my depending on English translations and a casual commentary on the Italian grammar, that the line, describing difficulty, is, itself, linguistically difficult, a stylistic device that recurs in The Inferno. Here, then, the artistic awareness of the poet extends into the very syntax of his language.

Nevertheless, there is no small irony in the progression of the tercet. On the one hand, the Pilgrim-Poet admits to the emotional and poetic difficulty of presenting what he wants to present, but that “hard thing” (cosa dura) is, in a sense, dispensed rather too easily with three conjoined adjectives selvaggia e aspra e forte, savage and dense and harsh, followed by the the simple, frank admission that remembering it renews his fear. For something so dura, hard, it is performed with a strikingly easy fluency. On the other hand, though, it could be that the remainder of the canto that deals with the Pilgrim’s encounter with its famous three beasts, the Leopard, Lion, and Wolf, and his being forced by them into darkness and despair is just that “hard thing” whose memory so frightens him (and fear is an important theme in these two cantos and throughout the Inferno), or it might be the Pilgrim-Poet rushes over that memory to pass through it and leave it behind to get to that more heartening good his being lost and finding his way through Hell and Purgatory to Paradise provides.

That Dante’s poem should display such deft and complex linguistic self-consciousness, a metapoetic dimension literary scholars have pegged as characteristic of postmodern literature, really shouldn’t be a surprise, for the work of literature that is at the same time about itself and literature was first theorized and intentionally explored over two centuries ago by the German Early Romantics, die Frühromantiker, in their journal The Athenaeum (1798-1800) and in their criticism, letters, poems and novels. Indeed, the three characteristically “modern” writers for the Jena romantics were Goethe, Shakespeare, and Dante.