Book: Hell from The Divine Comedy - Livre d'Or — LiveJournal

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Book: Hell from The Divine Comedy
Sunday, 27 March 2005 at 11:09 am

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Author: Dante Alighieri

Details: Original text c 1314; translated by Dorothy L Sayers; edition and translation (c) 1949; Pub 1953 Penguin Classics

Verdict: Hell is not exactly fun reading but I'm glad I made the effort. (Link to a more recent edition as the 1953 one I have isn't on Amazon.)

Reasons for reading it: I've been having some discussions touching on Christian mythologies of Hell recently and wanted to feel a bit less ignorant. Plus, it seems like the kind of thing that any civilized person ought to have read.

How it came into my hands: Borrowed from my parents.

I feel a bit embarrassed reviewing one of the foundational works of European literature, but hey. I think as a generalization I'm not really bloodthirsty enough to get very much out of something that leans so heavily on extended descriptions of torture, but Hell is more than just that. I'm also not big on epic poetry; I might have been better off with a prose translation, in some ways, but then this was to hand and besides it's DLS.

Hell does go a long way towards working as a story; there's some kind of plot even if the ending is kind of declared in the opening few cantos. And Dante makes a very sympathetic narrator, his relationship with Virgil really helping to bring him to life as a person. So it's possible to read as a kind of adventure story, as well as being an allegory of Dante's conception of Christian views of sin and punishment. Sayers expounds the journey through Hell as a mirror of Dante's spiritual journey into his own worst nature; I have no idea whether that's a common view in Dante scholarship, but it works for me as a reading.

On a religious education level, I'm still completely alienated by the whole concept of a doctrine of eternal punishment, but I do feel I've gained some insight into how a reasonable person can accept that world view. Partly because Hell gives a very clear sense of the damage done to society and individuals by sin. Then, the idea that people choose their own doom, that the punishment is to some extent intrinsic to the sin itself, is more palatable than the idea that damnation is imposed almost arbitrarily by a sadistic god. Though it's a very fine distinction, and I still find it particularly hard to accept that there are people in the upper circles of Hell who are damned through wrong belief rather than wrong action.

The piece that particularly struck me was a scene where Virgil upbraids Dante for showing pity for the damned:
Here pity, or here piety, must die
If the other lives; who's wickeder than one
That's agonised by God's high equity?
I still don't like it, but it does come across as a plausible philosophical foundation, even if it's one I very much reject. (I am of course aware that Dante had his own particular view of Christianity and that Christian thinking has moved on since the 14th century! So I'm wary of generalizing too much from this, but I feel like it gives me a starting place from which I can try to understand this stuff.)

The translation is a bit odd; it's a strange mixture of rather formal, old-fashioned language with slightly forced colloquialisms. And of course 1940s colloquialisms sound more dated than the more ecclesiastical tone. Sayers says she made a deliberate decision to use the second person singular because she wanted to highlight the occasions when characters address eachother formally as opposed to informally. But to me that distinction doesn't work too well in 20th century English; thou doesn't suggest intimacy or informality to me, even though I know intellectually that that is its function, it suggests over-formality and a deliberate distancing through use of old-fashioned language. That said, there were quite a few occasions where I was taken with the way obsolete terms are revived, either to better convey the double meanings of the original, or to support the metre, or simply to give variety to the language used. Considering that it's several hundred pages of poetry and that the voice is anything but naturalistic, it's surprisingly readable.

I also really liked Sayers' notes. Just the layout is very helpful; it's done with endnotes after each canto. This means that there are no distracting footnotes and the main text of the poem is unmarked, which is a very good thing, it made me feel I was reading for pleasure rather than work. At the same time it's natural to read the clarifying explanations immediately after reading a canto, there's no messing about with having to jump between the text itself and an indigestible glob of infodump at the end of the book. The notes are also helpful with filling in the background and genuinely enlighten, rather than being patronizing or just showing off the translator's scholarship. (There are several long essays in the book, which I kind of skimmed for the stuff about translation issues and ignored the more literary bits, but it's laid out so that it's perfectly possible to read the poem without bothering with all the background.)

Dante's writing is extremely political and very much rooted in current affairs; I suppose this is the kind of attitude one expects of religious writing of the period, religion was very much applicable to real, everyday existence. But this does mean that it's sometimes hard to follow when he's satirizing public figures of contemporary Florence, or bitching about 14th century church politics. I have a slightly better knowledge of both Biblical and Classical background than the notes seem to assume, but never to the extent that the annotations got annoying. Oh, and I found the mappies and diagrams very helpful in understanding the descriptions of the journey.

Also, I have decided that I really like terza rima. I'm really tempted to try my hand at writing some. I had a lot of fun with Sayers' discourse on writing in a metre that really belongs to a different language. Her handling of it I felt was extremely successful and at least in this example the metre feels very natural to me. (I have a really hard time with some of the most traditional English metres; I simply can not write iambic pentameter, and I know in theory why it fits English stress patterns, but I just can't get my head round it.)

I didn't actually intend to finish Hell over the Easter weekend, but it just worked out that way. So, yeah, happy Easter to people reading this who are happy about Easter. Just to complete the excessively appropriate resonances, I'm quite tempted to put Alice Cooper: Go to Hell in the current music field. But I shall refrain.

Moooood: thoughtfulthoughtful
Tuuuuune: Manic Street Preachers: The girl who wanted to be God
Discussion: 8 contributions | Contribute something

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Date:March 27th, 2005 11:29 am (UTC)
10 minutes after journal entry, 02:29 pm (khalidz0r's time)
Hee, I like it when I read about something somewhere and then see it right away somewhere else. I was just reading about Divine Comedy in my Astronomy book minutes ago, in which it went to say that he put Hell in the center of the Earth, and now you're talking about it here. :D
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livredor: teeeeeeeeea
Date:March 27th, 2005 11:38 am (UTC)
20 minutes after journal entry, 11:38 am (livredor's time)
Yay synchronicity! And yeah, Dante's cosmology is completely confused, but he lived seven centuries ago, so he has an excuse.
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ajollypyruvate: Cunning
Date:March 27th, 2005 12:48 pm (UTC)
1 hours after journal entry, 04:48 am (ajollypyruvate's time)

I slogged my way through the Comedy

twice on my own (I left off formal schooling when I was fourteen) and then took a college course centered around the Inferno a few years back. The translation and footnotes were by John Ciardi and a fine job he did, too.

One thing Dante has Virgil say has stuck with me from the first read: In the bolgia of the Falsifiers, Dante becomes rather too engrossed in a fight between two of the damned. Virgil reprimands and then forgives him, ending with an admonition to avoid such pettiness as, "The wish to see such baseness is degrading."

This comes to my mind when I see people sitting gape-jawed in front of a T.V., whether watching the latest contrived drama on the news, reality shows that aren't, Jerry Springer-esqe programs... eh, you get the idea! :) It covers listening to office gossip, waiting for someone to ask for help instead of offering at once; well, all the small acts of petty malice that can be inflicted on each other. Bread and circuses.

Granted, I'm no paragon but that one line has done a lot to keep much of my own small-mindedness to a minimum.

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livredor: bookies
Date:March 27th, 2005 10:17 pm (UTC)
10 hours after journal entry, 10:17 pm (livredor's time)

Re: I slogged my way through the Comedy

In the bolgia of the Falsifiers, Dante becomes rather too engrossed in a fight between two of the damned. Virgil reprimands and then forgives him
Yes, that is a very striking scene. And you're quite right that the reprimand is highly relevant; I almost want to make it up into an anti-drama icon for LJ! The trouble with that is that there's no one translation of Dante that's well known enough that it would be recognized.
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nja: default
Date:March 27th, 2005 12:59 pm (UTC)
1 hours after journal entry
I read all three volumes of the Sayers Dante while revising for exams, and I still think it's one of the best translations. I bought Mark Musa's Inferno some time later and couldn't get along with the blank verse at all, and I occasionally flick through other editions and think that if I am going to read it again I'll go back to Sayers. If I remember correctly, the Musa translation also pinches a lot of Sayers's diagrams and explanation of the structure of hell, but then transposes two of the groups of sins (which Sayers identifies with the three animals who initially block Dante's entrance to hell), without any explanation of why.
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livredor: bookies
Date:March 27th, 2005 10:27 pm (UTC)
11 hours after journal entry, 10:27 pm (livredor's time)
I read all three volumes of the Sayers Dante while revising for exams, and I still think it's one of the best translations.
Interesting. I didn't pick a translation systematically at all, it was just lying around and I'd heard of Sayers.

I bought Mark Musa's Inferno some time later and couldn't get along with the blank verse at all
I should think blank verse would be the worst of both worlds, to be honest. I know when I was in a Virgil phase as a teenager I never found a verse translation I liked, I got on far better with prose versions.

the Musa translation also pinches a lot of Sayers's diagrams and explanation of the structure of hell
I found the diagrams extremely helpful! I'm not a visual person and I find it really hard to get a sense of geography from a description.

the groups of sins (which Sayers identifies with the three animals who initially block Dante's entrance to hell)
I thought that was pretty clever, that bit. Because from the text itself the animals seemed kind of random, but with the explanation it made a lot more sense.
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nolawitch: default
Date:March 27th, 2005 11:03 pm (UTC)
11 hours after journal entry, 05:03 pm (nolawitch's time)

Go ahead and play Alice.

He's the reason I read Dante when I was young. ;)
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beckyzoole: default
Date:March 28th, 2005 01:50 pm (UTC)
1 days after journal entry, 07:50 am (beckyzoole's time)
The Sayers translation is my favorite -- you are so lucky to have happened upon it!

I have only read the Inferno -- some seven times, in several different translations -- and have never gone on to read the rest of The Divine Comedy. I think that's two more books to put on the "must read" list.
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