Book reviews, Dante

La Divina Comedia

What am I doing reading the Divine Comedy by Dante at this time of the year?

Divine Comedy has always conjured in me thoughts of a dreadful medieval book, a dry book, a disgusting succession of gory descriptions wrapped in archaic and doctrinal religious tenants irrelevant to me. But lately, that negative view changed to the promise of a lovely poetic cadence in the Italian language (by the little of it I listened to in this language), and the intrigue of a classic I would not know how it is until I finally opened its pages (isn’t that true for all classics?)

With the condition that I would abandon it if I saw it as a threat to my conscience and my integrity (condition I always bring to all my reads), I started this book a few weeks ago.

I’m listening to the book read in Spanish. It’s a first pass. I’m finished with The Inferno, and starting Purgatory.

I say it’s a first pass because, listening to it I am missing the historic references and notes a good annotated edition will have and that enhance the reading. But for my first encounter with Dante, I just want to enjoy the language, the imagery, the book. I’m grasping it at a first level of interest, at the romance stage as Alfred North Whitehead talks about in here.

Reader of my blog, rest in the thought that we are also reading Christmas Carol as a family, 🙂 and Christmas picture books that we love. But I always choose an audio for the times when I’m cooking or cleaning. I find it much more enticing to engage on those activities while my mind is at work and enjoying a good book. After finishing Don Quijote this way, -I transitioned to a beautiful and FREE audio in Spanish, I thought, what next? and I was intrigued about this title that some friends are currently reading too.

Don Quijote was, to me, easier to listen to. With Dante, I miss many of the allusions to historical people, his contemporaries, but I recognize a few, and that gives me immense satisfaction, tee hee. I am amazed at his profound imagery. He reminds me of John in Revelation at times when he describes animals and mythological creatures.

It is difficult to express how classics are NEVER what you read or write about them. They have a uniqueness, true uniqueness, that it’s inimitable. Imagine we have the best in literature from centuries. You never know until you open them, how surprising and different and similar they are.

The Divine Comedy resembles to me Don Quijote, in the sense of a person, Dante, visiting a place, the inferno, and telling us stories about those things and people he sees, and conversing with people too. But it’s oh so different! Don Quijote was travelling through La Mancha, and Dante is visiting a place of torture for those who were despicable in every way conceivable while on earth. The details are different to us, modern people in a highly visual era. I would not want Dante’s images on the big screen, they’d be void of his talk, his conversation, and reduced to gore. Dante’s words make the images indelible, but not macabre for no reason. At one point, Virgil (Dante’s guide) tells Dante (I’m paraphrasing), that he should not pity those he sees in pain, but be glad that they are suffering divine judgment. I know it’s hard for us humans to see others being punished, but harder it would be to have no Divine Authority, no Righteous Judge above who is also patiently waiting for us to come to Him. The Inferno was a hard read in that regard, to find myself not as far away from the attitudes and heart’s condition of many of those depicted there.

(Any scifi writer, or movie maker, will find plenty material in this book, though, as it’s possible many writers after him have gathered inspiration from this full of allegories and descriptions treasure. Yet his descriptions are well thought, every transgression seems to have the best possible direct consequence in the punishment exacted. The degrees of suffering match the degrees of evilness. It just marvels the reader, such a feat of imagination, philosophy, and religion. In my ignorance, I cannot picture another book like this, duh!, IT’S A CLASSIC!).

The Inferno was a prime view of an entourage of sins, sinful people, suffering people, unimaginable tortures, and continuous testimonies they commend to Dante, mythological characters and theirs stories (Aquilles, Odysseus, Hector), ancient writers are there too (Homer, Plato, Aristotle…), warnings for those in the land of the living. Dante must have a prodigious memory, because all whom he encounters and tell him their stories of how they got to be there, ask him to take their stories to their loved ones or the living, and Dante says he is committing that all to memory.

This first read is helping me appreciate his style. I like that he, to describe parts of our body, he mentions them like, “the place we are fed from when we are in the womb -I guess he means our belly button-“, he mentions functions of the body instead of the body parts, which sounds kind of funny -excuse my flippant tone there, and know I take his book seriously. But all great books make you think, and laugh, and shake you out of your comfort zone. Dante invites the christian to grow. It’s such a necessary read for us, who think we are OK because we don’t commit what in our eyes, or worse, in society’s permissiveness’ eyes, constitute big sins. Well, it’s not that I identify myself in full with those men who lived lives fully devoted to evil either, but it is a piercing analysis of the human heart, and it will give you much to think about your own life and the state of your heart.

Dante will not leave me there, I know I have to travel to purgatory and then paradise with him. And, in case you were wondering, no, I don’t believe in purgatory as a real place, but the Divine Comedy is an allegory, and I’m already intrigued about whom I will meet there, and what will their stories be, the same for Paradise.

Dante is not writing to convert us to his religion (although his beliefs and dogmas are there), but to make us think, to learn from others who have lived before us (in this world, or in the poems, legends, and books that precede us), and even in the midst of the horror, he writes to delight us. He is challenging me as a human, inspiring a desire to be less like others, and more like Him. I don’t know what it’ll hold for you, but I’m sure there is something in this book for each of us.


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