If you’ve been enjoying my Dante posts, and have been thinking of taking up the Supreme Poet yourself, I recommend supplementing your reading with the new book by Dante scholar Prue Shaw: Reading Dante: From Here To Eternity. It’s a terrific introduction to Dante for the non-specialist reader. I read a review copy late last fall, as I was making my way through the Commedia, and was so grateful for Prof. Shaw’s eloquent insights. The only fault I found with the book was its insufficient treatment of Dante’s theology, but the rest of the book is so strong I still recommend it wholeheartedly. Here’s a passage:
Medieval commentators, uneasy at Dante’s challenge to their certainties, sometimes deal with the problematic nature of the experience recounted in the Commedia by treating the poem as an encyclopedia of sin and virtue. They downplay the narrative aspect of the text — what Dante did on the journey, and experience that profoundly changed him. They emphasise instead the reporting aspect — what Dante saw on the journey. What he saw is an orderly hierarchy of sins and punishments, reflecting an intellectual system which commands our understanding, rather than a psychological experience which engages our emotions. As though to emphasise the point, in many manuscript illustrations Dante and Virgil are a pair of observers who stand passively to the side of the picture and gaze at the spectacle before them, as in the miniatures in the Chantilly manuscript of the Holkham Hall manuscript now in the Bodleian Library. A modern analogy might be a journalist who visits a foreign country merely as an observer to report on what he sees, as compared with one who is profoundly changed by his experience.
True. If the Commedia had been simply a catalog of sin and virtue, as I suspected it would be, it would have been dull, and I doubt very much it would have affected me so profoundly, if at all. It was the experience of the journey, of being at the pilgrim’s side as he is gradually changed by what he sees, hears, and feels, that made the experience of reading the Commedia so alchemical. This is what I hope to capture in the book I’m planning to write, because this experience is available to all who read Dante with an open mind.
I’ve decided to go through Lent blogging on the Purgatorio. One canto per day. There are 33 cantos. For us Orthodox, Lent begins on Monday March 3; for Western Christians, it’s Wednesday March 5. I will begin on that Monday and Tuesday with some preliminary remarks about the Dantean journey to that point, to prepare us to start the journey up Mount Purgatory, which will commence on Ash Wednesday. If you’d like to come along, now would be a good time to order your copy of the Purgatorio. I don’t really care which translation you use. I’ll be using the Mark Musa translation, but this isn’t strictly necessary. If you don’t already have a copy of the book, make sure you get a translation that suits you, and get one that has good notes. If you get Musa’s version in The Portable Dante, you won’t get his notes.
If you’re feeling spendy, you might wish to purchase a copy of Prue Shaw’s book too. It’s fantastic. If you want something far more detailed but still accessible to non-specialists, Reading Dante (yes, same title), which are pretty much course notes by Yale Prof. Giuseppe Mazzotta, is excellent too. Finally, Cook & Herzman’s Great Courses lectures on the Commedia are on massive sale right now. You can own the download for $35. They’re spectacular.