More Thoughts On Dante

This is more or less what was supposed to be in Friday’s post.

In my reading of The Divine Comedy, the poets have reached Purgatory. It’s really a relief to get out of Hell (I mean, you wouldn’t think so, but…). I’d forgotten how effective Dante is at making the Inferno more and more unbearable as you go through it, and how vividly awful his descriptions are. About the time you reach the very bottom of the pit, you’re feeling the cold and misery and are very ready to get out of it.

What is standing out to me this time are the warm human emotions at work here; Virgil’s paternal protectiveness and guidance (spiced by his rare moments of uncertainty and misdirection), the pity for the hopeless sinners in the upper reaches of Hell, and then, when they start the ascent of Purgatory, Dante’s delight and relief at meeting people he knew.

So far my favorite of these is the meeting with Belacqua, an old friend who had been known as the laziest man in Florence. Dante has just finished the grueling first ascent of Purgatory, and upon dragging himself to the ledge notices a bunch of people sitting on the ground. He comments on one of them, who answers with a sarcastic retort, and Dante can’t resist going over to him, tired at he is, to exclaim in relief at finding him there and to needle him one last time about his laziness.

One of many reasons Dante deserves the crown he prophetically describes Homer and co. bestowing on him.

On another note, the interesting thing is that of the three who divide the world between them – Homer, Dante, and Shakespeare – none of them are what we would call technically perfect. They commit all kinds of storytelling no-nos, from the odd post-script to The Odyssey, to characters making abrupt 180s in many of Shakespeare’s plays (e.g. Oliver’s turn from villain to best friend in As You Like It), to Dante’s obscure diatribes and occassionnal inconsistencies (e.g. describing Virgil as breathing as they climb down Satan’s flank). Somehow, this doesn’t seem to matter as much in their cases. Or maybe it’s just that when a story fails to achieve anything really spectacular, the fact that it couldn’t even manage ordinary technical matters stands out all the more, while if it does rise to such heights, slips and dents can’t really count.

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