What’s Wrong with the World

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The Sublime and the Ridiculous

Recommended reading A) for profit and B) for very lowbrow fun. First, for profit:

Dante's Divine Comedy, John D. Sinclair's translation. I've just completed the last canto of the Paradiso in this edition and was confirmed in the estimate I formed more than twelve years ago that it is a very readable, helpful edition and to be highly recommended for the student new to the Comedia, as I was then and still am.

Sinclair's is a prose translation, which some may consider a defect but I consider an advantage.I find reading long prose works to be far easier than reading long works in poetry. (Yes, it is ironic that my special author in graduate school was Edmund Spenser!) Long poems are, for me, exhausting. And Dante is difficult enough for the student that it seems better not to add to the fatigue in the form of a poetic translation. John Ciardi does a good job at a poetic translation, and I have his edition at hand as an additional reference. Sinclair's prose is fairly smooth and very faithful, as far as someone who does not read Italian but knows a smidge of Latin can tell.

One of Sinclair's great virtues is that he moves you through the Comedia. I read the Inferno and the Purgatorio very rapidly this time and only slowed down over the higher metaphysical flights of the Paradiso.

Sinclair's notes have much to be said for them. He does not assume much knowledge on the part of the reader, which is good. He has short endnotes to each canto for the sheer identification of allusions, and these are separate from his longer interpretive notes, one of which occurs at the end of each canto. This seems to me a good scheme, making it easy to find information you need quickly just to read through the canto and saving the speculations and longer explanations to be read afterwards. Sinclair is occasionally a little too distanced from Dante's view of the world. Though in 2007 terms, he is very sympathetic--I shudder to think what a contemporary scholar would be likely to do with the same material--one does get a little tired of the repeated references to "the ideas of Dante's time." Still, most of these come only when one encounters really difficult doctrines like predestination, so they aren't too obtrusive.

The one real lack of the edition is the entire absence of illustrations, maps, or drawn diagrams of any kind. There are merely verbal diagrams--one each--of the schemes of Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven. In this area Ciardi has more material, and I also found some great maps of Dante's universe linked here.

As for the content, there is, of course, too much to be said. One thing that struck me this time through is how very Western Dante's imagination is. For example, there is the repeated insistence that love follows vision, rather than the other way around. Sinclair refers to this question as "meaningless to us." I wish he'd keep me out of it. I tend to think it's a very relevant question, and one on which I (as a good Western rationalist type) side with Dante.

I'm planning to assign the Comedia in Sinclair's translation to my daughter for sophomore English class (yes, yes, I know it wasn't originally written in English) this coming year; I feel confident that Sinclair and I between the two of us, with a little help from additional reference works, can bring her through to her profit.

All right, now for the ridiculous.

Years ago, on a rainy day, I had a bad cold and felt miserable at the thought of going to work in the office of the pallet factory where I then helped to get our living. My dear husband, sympathizing with me most kindly, and despite the fact that it would mean a lost day of much-needed wages, encouraged me to stay home and take care of myself. He then handed me a little paperback for sheerly fun reading. I still associate it with that day--the rain streaming down outside, myself inside and warm, playing hooky from a hated job. Perhaps I shall have to spend some time in the Purgatorial circle of the slothful for it, but it was a great day.

The book is The Face in the Frost, by John Bellairs. I have it in this tacky 1970's edition. Never mind the front cover and the silly comparisons to Tolkien. (Don't all fantasy blurbs do that?) If you have any taste for clean fantasy with a very light touch, or think you might, this book is for you. There's no blood, no gore, and almost no females. But it gets plenty spooky, nonetheless. Prospero and Roger Bacon, wizards, are the main characters, and their friendship gives the book its greatest charm. The stolen names are an example of Bellairs' great fun with time, place, and literary allusion. He deliberately sets the book in a no-where's-land called The South Kingdom, south of The North Kingdom, though England does apparently exist in his world. (Roger Bacon has recently been there.) Prospero lives in a Victorian house full of gadgets and tacky Victorian furniture and has a talking mirror who watches 20th century Chicago Cubs games telepathically. At one point the two wizards travel in an Amish buggy made by casting a spell on a squash. I suspect that some of this topsy-turvy use of anachronism was suggested to Bellairs by T. H. White's Once and Future King, where I seem to recall that Merlin has a similar relationship to time. But Bellairs does it better and is much funnier.

In case this bothers you, I should mention that the book treats religion fairly lightly, though with no malice. Prayer books, for example, are used as sources of quasi-spells to ward off evil things that walk by night, not actually to pray, and one of the things mentioned (which always makes me laugh) on the first page is that Roger and Prospero know all the verses to the Dies Irae.

If you're feeling blue about what's wrong with the world, and if this sounds like the sort of book you might enjoy, I suggest you get a copy out of the library and settle down somewhere comfortable with it. It works best for cheering you up if taken with hot chocolate, though for that you may need to wait until autumn.

Comments (8)

You worked in a pallet factory? No woman should have to suffer that.

And you're trying to get me interested in a book that has "almost no females?"

Did you know I knew John Ciardi? Yeah. My favorite poem of his? Those Three, which begins:

Miss Myra and Small Ben and John L. -
those three
Grew tired of Mummy, grew tired of me,
Grew tired of manners, of baths, and of bed,
And of having to mind us whatever we said
(Which they never did, where they always
went late,
Which they never took, which were bad when
they ate.)
Which is to say, they meant to be rid
Of a lot of things they never did
(Or never on time, or never right) -
And so they ran away one night.

They left us a note and in it they said:
"Minding and manners and baths and bed
Have ruined our lives. We are running
Goodbye. There is nothing more to say."

Not exactly The Divine Comedy, but the themes are similar (you know, rebellion against rightful authority). :~)

In the _office_ of a pallet factory. Believe me, I avoided the factory part itself as much as possible.

The "office" was a trailer, the windows of which did not open and which was dirty almost beyond belief. Once an animal died under the floor of the trailer and no one would believe me. They all lied and said they couldn't smell it until one morning the window was covered with flies from it. After that there was no more smell...They did make me come up and walk through the factory itself to the office of the plant manager on my last day of work in order to get my final check. All things considered, and compared to what they did to some of the men (especially the truckers) who quit, being made to walk through the loud-n-scary factory for my last check was a fairly mild form of hazing.

I also did payroll for the entire plant, including very large truck drivers who (understandably enough) didn't take it kindly when I made mistakes on their paychecks. I was twenty years old at the time.

I suppose all experience is good for something. If working at Northern Pallet didn't turn me into a raving Marxist, nothing will.

You knew Ciardi! Wow! Here's a thing for you: When I told a lady I know that I'm teaching the Divine Comedy to my daughter next year, she urged me to use Longfellow's translation. She has a bee in her bonnet about Longfellow. Anyway, I said that the only poetic translation I had on hand was Ciardi's, and she went into a long spiel about how Ciardi was a "communist" (was he? somehow I don't take her word to be very reliable on that question) and an atheist, and she couldn't figure out why he'd bothered to translate Dante. I took all of this with a grain of salt. I know virtually nothing about Ciardi as a person. Struggled through _How Does a Poem Mean_ when in my earliest autodidact stage. Come to think of it, right at the time I was working in the office of the pallet factory.


This is an interesting website for all things Dante (in case you weren't already aware of it):


I also enjoy Longfellow's translation, which is completely available on the web:


The internet must be great for home schooling! Good luck with Dante.

Thanks, Jeff, I didn't know about the Princeton site. I'll have to browse it and see all the goodies. The internet makes a huge difference to home schooling. There is lots of good physical curriculum one can get, too, but for teaching research to a high schooler there's nothing like the internet.

Thanks for the recommendations, Lydia.

Anthony Esolen has done a translation of Dante. Anyone know anything about it?

Here's an article exploring, and debunking, the communist charge, which I would have known to be ridiculous anyway. I got the impression (he was around 60 at the time, so about 10 years before his death) of an old time JFK liberal, not a lefty which is what the old liberalism morphed into. He had signed the once-infamous Secular Manifesto, so I assumed he was sceptical about religion, but I don't know that he subscribed to everything in it. I do know that he loved his country. He flew 20 missions as a B-29 gunner over Japan (average lifespan for such fellows: 5-8 missions), and I heard him at one of our writers' conferences get into a shouting match with some hyper-lib (can't remember who) who thought America to be the moral equivalent of a latrine. I remember Ciardi saying at one of those drunken-writer cocktail parties (perhaps the same occasion) that he still believed in America, in its hope for the world and in his for it. He was a brilliant lecturer, his deep bass voice rumbling throughout the hall, his body writhing or gyrating or holding still to emphasize his words, that huge welcoming smile flashing over the audience at just the right instant. He was a natural, clearly loved it, and made a lot of money at it. He considered teaching "planned poverty," even though he did a lot of that too. However liberal his religious inclinations, he was in his poetry a structural formalist, and took exception to the free-form meanderings that were coming into fashion. He believed you had to "earn your spot on the bookshelf", his exact words at a conference when confronted with a bunch of resentful amateur poets who didn't understand the difference between his poetry and theirs.

Ciardi wrote a lot of children's poetry, and I think you can tell a lot about what's at the core of a man by his attitude toward children. He loved them and it showed. I would say, in sum, that once you met him in person, he was impossible to dislike.

I hadn't known about his children's poetry. That's a great portrait of him you give there. He sounds like the kind of person who would have been an ally in today's academic world. One finds in the academy, and in English especially, that anybody sane and sensible with a notion of the beauty and importance of the Western canon, who doesn't try to politicize it, is worth his weight in gold. And usually such a person is called a "conservative" by all his insane colleagues, even if he has never voted Republican in his life. It sounds like Ciardi would have been one of those and would have been "the old guard" in the best of senses.

Yes, I think so. And a correction of my previous comment: that thing he signed was called The Humanist Manifesto.

Here's another page with a brief bio of him written by his biographer: http://www.italianamericanwriters.com/cifelli.html

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