Tuesday, June 29, 2010


Dante Alighieri

The second volume of the Divine Comedy. I’d read Inferno back six years ago at the end of high school, as part of assigned reading for AP English. At the time and in subsequent years I felt very little drive to read the other two volumes. Partly because my general lack of engagement with the earlier poetry, partly because I felt some reluctance to gong onto the equally judgemental and less sensational and famous portions. There seemed little inherent virtue to entering into Dante’s system of vindicate and absolutist judgement for its own sake, and the lack of much real story inhibited a lot of the qualities of interest thta might drawn me in. Likewise, while the work clearly had valuable tools as an historical document, in its influence upon later literature and its reflection of rich political detail from the time, it wasn’t an era that ended up as myh specialty. Nevertheless, here I am reviewing the second volume some time after reading it. I changed my mind partly because despite the above the idea of rounding out the project has been on my mind for quite sometime. As well, of late I’ve had a bit more interst in exploring poetry as a writing form, and Dante’s pattern is a well known and conceptually vivid form of it. Finally I didn’t want to be one of those people who had just read the Inferno and not the rest of the Divine Comedy, instead aspiring to be one of the few that had read the entire thing.

Where on the tiers of afterlife do you think Dante would place me for that bit of pride?

I found Purgatorio rather engaging, actually. Yes it’s highly judgemental, a bit too drawn out and features little happening except Dante’s characters preaching different forms of his moral notions. Yet despite that it worked, on an literary level, Dante was ultimately a talented enough writer to make his writing engaging and even mesmerizing despite the above. It works as poetry, the form by which meaning is expressed being inseparable from the meaning. Even in translation there’s a clarity and power to the langugae chosen that makes it rather beautiful. As well, while the story is slow and plotless by the standpoint of most novels, as a poem it’s unusually concrete, well anchored and tightly structured. This aspect works to give real balance and sense of certainty to the writing, and helped to make for a directly readable experience more than a lot of classics.

As to the content expressed in the work, it’s not as bad as I expected. In contrast with Inferno it’s not all that vengeful and sadistic in the end, and it helps that Dante expresses a lot of his moral vision in terms of justice and political equity rather than just a condemnation of heathens and exhaltation of believers. In that sense this centuries past work has more moral complexity than a lot of contemporary religious writing. It’s also not just a work about religious, and the meditations on beauty work quite well. Another virtue to this book as a piece of writing involves its centering of place, the way it invents a whole unique geography that directly expresses the story structure and theme of the work. In the end a lot of Dante’s successs lies in the elements that make it somewhat like a proto science fiction account. Not fantasy, science fiction, with the focus on a major metaphysicla world-system that encompases and goes beyond known societies. It’s a vision at once epic and intense, that works to a surprising extent to delivering an enduring classic.

Better than: Inferno by Dante Alighieri
Worse than: Far North by Marcel Theroux

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