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26 august 2013

If this isn't quite literally the damndest thing that could appear on the bookshelf at the corner Kroger's: the late Allen Mandelbaum's translation of Dante's Inferno, complete with ornate commentary by the translator, intricate footnotes, and Barry Moser's stylish drawings, all for $6.95, mass-market paperback.

Of course I bought one. And of course I left Dan Brown's Inferno, the reason Dante was at the Kroger's, firmly on the shelf. I love my little paperback Dante, and carried it all over Europe this summer, reading a canto a day, some of them in places the poet mentions. Among other things, there is nothing like reading about people who are having a really bad time to brighten one's mood. I suspect this has been part of the appeal of Dante for the past 700 years.

Mandelbaum's translation stresses the principle, deeply humanist and deeply spiritual at once (though perhaps only arguably Dantescan), that Hell is a matter of not enjoying life enough. The twisted souls (often literally contorted in their quasi-bodies) that populate the Inferno are just carrying on the improper attitude toward existence that made their lives so awful. "Perché nostra colpa sì ne scipa," asks Dante (Canto VII, line 21): "Why do we let our guilt consume us so?" (p. 59). The damned are in Dante's Hell, suggests Mandelbaum, because they find whining, backbiting, squabbling, and other passive-aggressive forms of rejecting the good life preferable to actual bliss. They're addicted to their own suffering.

So of course, for Dante as for his readers, the most impressive characters in Hell are those who not only prefer to be there, but who couldn't give a damn about God or his notions of justice. The really evil characters are locked in ice at the bottom of the Inferno; they're too malicious to enjoy the place. But Farinata, who holds Hell in great disdain; Brunetto Latini, who seems to be keeping up with the latest scholarship even as he runs around for all eternity on burning sand; Ulysses, who can't stop the quest for knowledge even if respite would mean salvation: these are the people the poet goes to Hell to see, and these are the people we want him to tell us about.

Dante frequently gets the damned talking with a promise to bring them fame back on earth. They have nothing to look forward to, so they look to the vanity of earthly glory as one of the few consolations for the denial of the Beatific Vision. But they too get what they want, just as the most famous of all the damned, Paolo and Francesca, get to be together forever. It's a whirlwind romance, for sure, but it beats eternity on separate clouds with his-and-hers harps.

Dante spends a remarkable amount of time in the Inferno describing the local geography of Hell. It's one of the pervasive difficulties in reading Dante. He wants the reader to visualize a landscape that is fantastic and allegorical, to do so precisely (directions, distances, and orientations keep being emphasized), and once you've done so, it's on to the next ring of Hell and none of it seems to matter very much. Sometimes, the physical descriptions of Hell turn out to be excuses to describe Italian landscapes in the guise of similes for infernal ones, as in Canto XII:

Qual è quella ruina che nel fianco
di qua da Trento l'Adice percosse …
cotal di quel burrato era la scesa (ll. 4-5, 10)

[Just like that toppled mass of rock that struck …
the Adige on its flank, this side of Trent …
such was the passage down to that ravine.] (p. 105)
Such comparisons interilluminate the features of the world Dante knew and those of the world he imagined. Driving on the autostrada along the Adige near Trent, the day after I read those lines, I suddenly understood some of Dante's concept of Hell the better for looking on the barren, ravaged mountainsides. (Though Dante had no notion of the Hell that is autostrada traffic on the first weekend in August. )

But at other times, the insistence on topography seems gratuitous. Here's a very typical passage, taken nearly at random from mid-Inferno:

Ma perché Malebolge inver' la porta
del bassissimo pozzo tutta pende,
lo sito di ciascuna valle porta

che l'una costa surge e l'altra scende;
no pur venimmo al fine in su la punta
onde l'ultima pietra si scoscende. (Canto XXIV, ll. 37-42)

[But since Malebolge
runs right into the mouth of its last well,
the placement of each valley means it must
have one bank high and have the other short;
and so we reached, at length, the jutting where
the last stone of the ruined bridge breaks off. (p. 219)
Other readers may be better at visualizing from verbal directions than I am (I notoriously never ask for directions not just because I'm a guy, but because I can't follow them). But I just can't picture what Dante's talking about here, and the translation just blurs the image further. Nor do I sense any allegorical significance to the layout of Hell, except for big obvious things like lower = worse, and the important borders between ante-hell, limbo, the sins of incontinence, and the sins of malice. Everything else is just Ordnance-Survey level of detail.

Yet the physical features of Hell are an important part of Dante's writing: even if they don't do much for the reader, they somehow were very important to the writer as he placed the character "Dante" on the downward path toward ultimate evil.

Dante Alighieri. The Divine Comedy of Dante Alighieri: Inferno. Translated by Allen Mandelbaum. Illustrated by Barry Moser. 1980. New York: Bantam [Random House], 2004.