Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Allen Mandelbaum

Half of our life’s way

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Illustration by Gustave Doré for Dante's Inferno

When I had journeyed half of our life’s way,
I found myself within a shadowed forest,
for I had lost the path that does not stray.

—Dante Alighieri, Inferno, translated by Allen Mandelbaum

Seven hundred and fifty years ago, Dante Alighieri was born. We know this because in The Divine Comedy—which explicitly takes place in the year 1300—Dante states that he had traveled “half of our life’s way” at the time of his journey. Based on the Biblical allotment of threescore and seven years, this would make him thirty-five as the poem begins, implying that he was born in 1265. His exact birthday is unknown, although Dante, as usual, leaves a few tantalizing clues for interpreters. He once told a friend that he was born in May, and based on a reference in Paradiso to the constellation of Gemini, which he notes was in the sky “when I first felt the air of Tuscany,” we can narrow it down even further. Commentators have tried ever since to pin down a specific date, most recently on the Paris Review blog, in which Damion Searls makes a convincing case for May 26, based on internal evidence from the rest of the poem. Still, we don’t know for sure. And while I’m aware that this is just wishful thinking, I’d like to believe that it might be May 31. Why? Because that’s my birthday, too.

In fact, I turned thirty-five yesterday, so the fact that this year also marks Dante’s sesquiquincentenary strikes me as personally significant. I’m well aware that there’s nothing more boring than reading someone else’s thoughts on a particular birthday: if you haven’t reached that age yet, you can hardly sympathize, and if you’re older, the last thing you want to hear is someone younger brooding over the meaning of it all. Yet I’ve been more conscious of this particular birthday than usual. Dante has been important to me ever since I read The Divine Comedy in a course taught by Lino Pertile in my freshman year of college, and at the time, his journey felt like the most vivid allegory that I’d ever encountered for my own progress through life. We all feel charged with significance in our late teens and early twenties, and looking back, I can smile a little at how readily I identified myself with one of the two greatest poets the western tradition has produced. But I never quite shook the sense that, like Dante, I was waiting for a Virgil to appear, and that my life would be spent preparing to answer that call when it came. So even if this birthday doesn’t represent the halfway point in my life, on some level, it feels like it does.

Illustration by Gustave Doré for Dante's Inferno

Dante wasn’t thirty-five when he wrote The Divine Comedy, of course: he seems to have begun drafting the poem around 1308, or eight years after the end of its internal narrative, and continued to labor on it for the next twelve years. Placing the journey earlier in his own life was a conscious poetic strategy. As with other works of encyclopedic fiction, setting it in the recent past allows Dante to prophesy accurately about events that have yet to occur within the poem’s timeline, notably his own exile, which lends credibility to the other predictions he makes. As it happened, one big prediction turned out to be wrong: he died at fifty-six, not seventy, which means that he was well past the midpoint of his own lifespan at the time the poem begins. Obviously, there’s no way that he could have known this—although he speaks with such prophetic authority elsewhere that it seems slightly surprising. But it’s also hard for us to imagine him outliving the poem’s completion. More than any other writer I know, Dante is his major work: it’s all but impossible to separate Dante the Pilgrim from the poet who constructs the seven circles of Hell. And when the poem was done, so was he.

Which feels like a lesson for all of us. It can be easy to forget that Dante’s poem was, in part, a reaction to the fact that his life had not gone as he had planned. As Erich Auerbach puts it so unforgettably:

Beyond a doubt [Dante] was the wisest, most resolute man of his time; according to the Platonic principle which is still valid whenever a man is manifestly endowed with the gift of leadership, he was born to rule; however, he did not rule, but led a life of solitary poverty.

The Divine Comedy was an effort to create, in poetry, the kind of order that he sought but failed to find in his own life. All authors do this to some extent; what sets Dante apart was how brilliantly he succeeded. His poem endures as the events of his time have not, and to the extent that we still care at all about the Gulephs, the Ghibellines, and the Florentine politics of that era, it’s because Dante put them in a poem. (Countless figures of that period, both friends and enemies, endure only because he consigned them to a few lines of torment or redemption.) Dante never ruled, at least not in the way he wanted, but he lives for us in a way that no ruler ever will. Whether or not this provided him with any consolation is unclear—but it consoles me. A human life makes a pattern that none of us can predict. And even as we reach the halfway point, its true shape may only be beginning.

Written by nevalalee

June 1, 2015 at 10:09 am

Dante, builder of worlds

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During my first semester in college, along with classes on Latin, expository writing, and, for some reason, the literature of science in the English Renaissance, I took a class on Dante. At that point, my knowledge of Dante was very limited: I’d read the Inferno, in the comically inadequate prose translation included in my set of the Great Books of the Western World, but it was easy to see that this was one work where I’d benefit from a more guided approach. The class I took, taught by Professor Lino Pertile, was that and more: it was a transformative experience that set the tone for the next four years of my life. People go to college for all kinds of reasons, but what I wanted, in the most earnest way possible, was to enter a world of ideas. And while it’s always good to be taken by the hand and led through a major work by a talented teacher, at that moment, Dante, in the excellent translation of Allen Mandelbaum, came to represent both the life of the mind that I wanted and an adventure that I alone had survived.

The result, weirdly enough, is that I’ve come to regard the poem that Borges has called “the most justifiable and the most solid book of all literature” as something like my own personal property, and an intimate part of my own life. Some of this is due to the fact that Dante, as far as I can tell, is rarely taught in American public schools, and if he is, students invariably stop at the Inferno, which is only part of the story. But even more important is the conviction, which is hard to explain to anyone who hasn’t read the Comedy, that I somehow lived this story with Dante. You can approach this poem from any number of angles, but the really strange thing is how convincing it all is. I know that Dante is essentially writing fantasy, albeit with a theologically unimpeachable grounding in Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas, but I still sometimes find it hard to believe that the historical Dante Alighieri didn’t actually experience the journey he describes here. Because if you want to talk about world-building, this is by far the greatest example in all of literature.

How does he do it? Dante is a reminder, perhaps the ultimate one, that the greatest philosophical conceptions can be less persuasive than a single well-chosen detail. In some ways, the elaborate architecture of Dante’s afterlife is the least impressive part of the poem: many theologians of Dante’s time, or fantasy writers today, would be capable of constructing the nine circles of hell, but few, if any, would be able to imagine Chiron, the centaur, dividing his shaggy beard with the arrow in his hands before he can talk. (Ruskin called this image “a thing that no mortal would ever have thought of, if he had not seen the centaur do it.”) Dante is full of such astonishing, concrete, mysterious touches, including his poem’s most controversial aspect, the meting out of divine justice after death. Far from simply condemning his enemies and rewarding his friends, Dante uses his choices to convey the incomprehensibility of the divine mind: he punishes men he loved in life, like Brunetto Latini, and elevates Ripheus, a figure who appears in two lines in the Aeneid, to the level of the highest saints, as if to represent how little we can really know about God’s intentions.

Of all the many tributes to Dante, I stumbled across one of the strongest only the other day, in the chapter “Farinata and Cavalcante” in Erich Auerbach’s Mimesis. Auerbach is an unparalleled close reader, with an attention to detail that borders on the absurd (he describes one of Dante’s phrases as “a future clause of adhortative import with an adverbial qualifier”), so it’s all the more powerful when he opens up into unstinting praise:

But if we start from his predecessors, Dante’s language is a well-nigh incomprehensible miracle. There were great poets among them. But, compared with theirs, his style is so immeasurably richer in directness, vigor, and subtlety, he knows and uses such an immeasurably greater stock of forms, he expresses the most varied phenomena and subjects with such immeasurably superior assurance and firmness, that we come to the conclusion that this man used his language to discover the world anew.

This sense of both discovering and building an entire world, like the cycle of dream creation described in Inception, is one that all writers of fantastic fiction have tried to create, but none has done it better than Dante. As a result, even today, when I haven’t read the Comedy in many years, its images still burn in my imagination, as if I’d been to hell and back myself. To an extent that no other work of art has matched, it’s a world made of words. And it’s a journey that every writer needs to take.

Written by nevalalee

February 15, 2012 at 10:46 am

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