Midway in the journey of our life, I came to myself in a dark wood…
Yes, I can now truly say that I have been to hell and back, (and yet again, here) because while the rest of you frolicked in the summer sun (not that there was much of THAT in So Cal again this year), I completed a long-sought goal this summer and can now proudly say that I have read, in its entirety, the Divine Comedy.
It all started a few years back when I realized that my kids were far better educated than I could ever hope to be. They’ve been reading Virgil in Latin since middle school. (When I was in middle school, I wore a goofy vest and sat in cheerblock making ridiculous hand motions with the rest of the girls who were raised to think that there was no life beyond Indiana basketball. But that’s another story…)
So I decided it was time to play catch up, and ordered a paperback copy of The Inferno. It was gruesome as all get out, and, being written in the 14th century, is probably responsible for having informed much of our current perception of hell. A rather thorough resource on the subject can be found here: http://www.wolfram.demon.co.uk/rp_dante_hell.html
It was, you might say, a hellish effort, but I slogged through the Inferno and marveled at Dante Alighieri’s mastery of prose, theology and cosmology. He also handily managed to get his jabs in at a corrupt Roman Catholic church and nefarious politicians (nothing new there…), all in perfect terza rima.
Yet, upon completing the Inferno, the Purgatorio loomed large, so I went with the momentum and plodded forward. I was wary, however, because a) how could it trump the Inferno since, after all, it could not feature damned souls with their heads twisted backwards or monsters with serpentine tails. It’s tough to one-up hell – probably why we’ve never seen a sequel to Constantine http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Constantine_(film) (I don’t care what you say, I love Keanu Reeves!)
And in the Purgatorio, we lose Virgil as our guide to be replaced by Beatrice, which clearly suits Dante’s desires but which I found a bit disconcerting. After ALL that, Virgil is consigned right back to hell?
Upon completing the Purgatorio, I decided that Heaven could wait. Nearly two years passed before I felt the itch to to up the Dante (get it?) and complete the divine circle with the Paradiso.
It was rough going. In the forward of the translation I read (Sayres), Barbara Reynolds as much as admits that no one outside of academia reads the Paradiso. When my commitment flagged, I was inspired by Robert P. Baird’s 2007 savvy piece for Slate, entitled “Why doesn’t anyone read Dante’s Paradiso?” http://www.slate.com/id/2178371/
Finally, a few weeks ago, my journey to hell and back was complete. Dante and Beatrice reached the Empyrean and I was right there with them! I can’t necessarily say that I understand it all, but I have read the Divine Comedy in full. And the Paradiso, as it turns out, is sublime – well worth the journey of the reading. In fact, my goal is to re-read one of the three parts again once a year beginning on January 1.
To that end, the ever-thoughtful CE gave a look around the book-a-sphere and made the cyber-acquaintance of the delightful John Letterman at Mnemosyne Books in New Haven, CT. Mr. Letterman knows his Dante like nobody’s business, and convinced the CE to purchase not one, but two sets of the Commedia to keep me busy for years to come.
All I need now is a set with the fabulous illustrations of Gustave Dore…perhaps I will earn it after another reading or two. Something tells me Mr. Letterman will know where to find it.
In the meantime, I have set my sights on joining the Dante Society of America – yes, of course there is one: http://www.dantesociety.org/ It was founded in 1881 by the esteemed Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, James Russell Lowell and Charles Eliot Norton.
Yes, my kids are still and will always be better-educated than me, but I’m doing my best to catch up. Next stop is the Aeneid, and, come Jan. 1, it’s straight back to hell with a re-reading of the Inferno. Anyone want to join me?
“Make strong my tongue that in its words may burn
One single spark of all Thy Glory’s light
For future generations to discern.”
— Paradiso, Canto XXXIII