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Sunday, 2 October 2011

The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri

Well, where to begin with this one? I'm not sure whether I'll be able to fully express my thoughts about The Divine Comedy for a few reasons. Firstly, it's a huge narrative to get through, so I'd be here all day trying to exhaust all the things that I could possibly say about it. Secondly, it's a classic piece of literature, so there's a certain amount of respect that I feel is its due. Thirdly, because it's medieval literature, there are a few instances of values dissonance, especially regarding the inevitable religious aspects. But, I shall try my darnedest to express my overall impressions.

The Divine Comedy, at its most basic level, is a story about Dante's journey through Hell, Purgatory and Heaven, ultimately culminating in beholding God. That on its own is far too simple a story to review, and is rather misleading as well. Having finally reached the end of The Divine Comedy, my understanding of it is that this is more an essay on religious and political virtues and how people are either rewarded or punished in the afterlife depending on how they lived in comparison to this code of ethics. In particular, it is an essay on Dante's views of religious and political standards that people should live by, hence why there are lots of people that Dante disliked in Hell. The overarching idea that is put forward is that of how a union of the Catholic Church and a God-ordained monarchy will bring virtue back into a world that is being defined more and more by materialism and excess. I think he may have been hoping for a bit much: when in the final circle of Heaven, his lady love and heavenly guide, Beatrice, states that there are only a few places left to fill, implying that the Rapture was imminent, as was this mysterious union of Church and State; fast forward about 700 years and, in Europe and the Americas certainly, we've gone in the complete opposite direction. A classic example of why making prophecies about when the world will end doesn't tend to work. While the overall set of principles that Dante wants mankind to follow are understandable enough, there is a slightly uncomfortable bias towards Judeo-Christian morality, which, while not unexpected given when it was written, makes for awkward reading from a modern perspective. The biggest example would be Dante's opinion on the fate of the prophet Muhammad: he's been sent to the ninth valley of the eighth circle of Hell. Similarly, homosexuals and other 'deviants' are sent to Hell. Considering the time that this was written, I wasn't expecting anything less, but that doesn't make it any less discomforting.
The other main point that comes to mind for discussion would probably be the writing. It is very very good, the translation conveying most of the ideas succinctly and clearly. At times it's difficult to follow the references to contemporary culture of the time, which is where the notes were a huge help. There is one thing that I will mention, that may seem overly picky, but it does bother me somewhat. For me, I found Inferno more interesting than Purgatorio or Paradiso, simply because the description is more vivid and the figures met there are more engaging; I can't be the only one who noticed this either, considering how closely Dante is associated with the Inferno (occasionally being confused with Faust as well, to my annoyance) and how little Purgatorio and Paradiso are depicted in comparison. I suppose for me, there was more variety in the kinds of things were going on in Hell, mainly in the form of highly ironic punishments, which is carried forward a little in Purgatorio although more with a mind to purge souls as opposed to punishing them; when Paradiso started though, everything became extremely homogenous, with the cantos focusing entirely on happy contented souls singing God's praises, with the occasional debate about doctrine or condemnations of the Popes of the time. Don't get me wrong, it's pretty imagery, but there's not really enough to sustain itself for 33 cantos.

This is another of those books that I'm glad I read, but I don't imagine I will be revisiting it in years to come. 3.5/5

Next review: Spring Awakening by Frank Wedekind

Signing off,

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