Reading Dante

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Last week I finally got around to Reading Dante, by Prue Shaw. I've had it on my shelf for years, ever since it came out in paperback. I'm glad I finally took it down and read it. Significantly, I read this nearly 300-page work of expert literary criticism in five days. It's great.

Rather than give a full, detailed review, I want to point out two things that I appreciated about Shaw's book.

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First, she largely lets Dante's own work speak for itself, in its own terms, in the context of its own era. She mines his works, those of his contemporaries, and the commentaries of early Dantisti (like one of Dante's own sons) rather than trying to squeeze Dante into modern literary-critical theoretical molds. Dante is a medieval man, after all, and a medieval Florentine in particular, and while his work never lets you forget that, it's easy, with modern theory, to sand off the angles and edges and make Dante into anything you like. Here's C.S. Lewis, in conversation with Kingsley Amis and Brian Aldiss, on just this sort of thing:

Matthew Arnold made the horrible prophecy that literature would increasingly replace religion. It has, and it’s taken on all the features of bitter persecution, great intolerance, and traffic in relics. All literature becomes a sacred text. A sacred text is always exposed to the most monstrous exegesis; hence we have the spectacle of some wretched scholar taking a pure divertissement written in the seventeenth century and getting the most profound ambiguities and social criticisms out of it, which of course, aren’t there at all. . . . It’s the discovery of the mare’s nest by the pursuit of the red herring. This is going to go on long after my lifetime. You may be able to see the end of it, I shan’t.

Indeed, a lot of modern literary chatters seems primarily interested in turning a given text (always a "text," per postmodernism) into a profoundly political critique or subversion of this or that. It shouldn't take a lot of imagination to conjure up parodies: King Solomon's Mines as critique of imperialism and Victorian masculinity, etc. You can generate that kind of gobbledygook with a bot.

But Shaw gets out of Dante's way and lets him speak to his own times in his own clear and very specific way, and shows how this most topical of poets created a work of universal meaning. It's refreshing.

That's a high, theoretical problem with reading and talking about Dante. There's also a lower interpretive problem, one that affects first-time readers or uninformed discussion, and this is the second thing I appreciate about Shaw's book.

It's easy to read Inferno alone, as many students unfortunately do, thus getting only a third of the picture. Such readers often come away talking about Inferno as if the whole Commedia is nothing but a revenge fantasy fueled by Dante's rage at being removed from power and sent into exile. Couple that with the generally condescending attitude modern people feel toward the medievals ("chronological snobbery" in Lewis's term), whom they view as crudely literal-minded, superstitious, and morbidly religious, and you get a fairly widespread view of Dante as a particularly artful version of those middle school loners who keep enemies lists.

Here's Shaw, in a passage I read several times:

Dante is certainly not, as one sometimes hears said, vindictive, spiteful, sadistic. He is not merely engaged in score settling with old adversaries by assigning them to hell. The punishments in hell are horribly cruel, but the world in which he lived was horribly cruel. He had been sentenced to death both by burning and decapitation. Such sentences were almost routine. We think of the modern world as more civilised than his, but who could seriously argue that this is so, bearing in mind events on the world stage in the twentieth century?

In one elegant paragraph, Shaw not only cuts down the simplified autobiographical reading of Dante and the condescending view of him as a medieval oaf, but also turns those stereotypes back on the reader for some much-needed perspective.

Reading Dante is one of the best books I've ever read about my favorite poet. Pick it up if you have ever enjoyed or would like to know more about Dante's Commedia. I recommend at least a passing familiarity with the poem's content, since Shaw organizes the book topically—Dante's life, friendships, political beliefs, poetic career and technique, and so forth—and moves at will through Dante's life, influences, and work. It's effortless on her part, but a reader should probably go in prepared.