Dante’s World

This looks likes a wondrous exhibition. It’s exciting to see the level of engagement and re-elaboration of Dante’s work across media at the moment.

The exhibition of Rachel Owen’s new illustrations of the Inferno at Pembroke College, Oxford, represents another rich addition to this tradition.

RachelOwenFlyer-jpgforwebsite

Part of this must certainly be to do with this particular temporal sweet spot, between the 750th anniversary of Dante’s birth (which we celebrated in 2015) and the 700th anniversary of his death (to come in 2021), but this isn’t the only explanation.

Dante’s have been a source texts for visual, musical and new literary art for centuries, something I’ve written about elsewhere, and it’s rewarding, as a researcher, to see the everliving and developing nature of his artistic legacy.

Ordered Universe

A new exhibition opens in Durham this week, at the Palace Green Library Galleries. Curated by Annalisa Cipollone Dante: Hell, Heaven and Hope – A Journey through Life and the After-Life with Danteopens on Saturday 2nd December 2017, and runs until early March 2018. Following Dante’s poem The Divine Comedy with its tour through Hell, Purgatory and Paradise, the exhibition features rare manuscripts of Dante’s work, printed copies and artistic responses to one of the greatest imaginative achievements of the Middle Ages. 

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A Divine Comedy: adaptations & new (in)versions

I’ve been a bit quiet on here lately, except for a fair few reblogs from the Women and the Canon Conference blog. In my defence, I’ve been writing those too, but it doesn’t quite feel the same!

So, as the dust settles from the Edinburgh fringe, I just wanted to nod to an interesting adaptation of Dante’s Divine Comedy, Mike Maran’s A Divine Comedy, which BroadwayBaby gave ★★★ – one for each realm?

“Dante Alighieri. Lost love. A load of puppets. Whilst that might all seem an odd combination, Mike Maran brings it all together admirably in A Divine Comedy: a stand-up storytelling parody of the immortal works of Dante Alighieri.”

Maran’s sounds like a far more apt adaptation than the forthcoming movie scripted by Dwain Worrell, which, Warner Brothers tell us, sees “Dante [descending] through the nine circles of hell tosave the woman he loves” – a grimly chauvanist inversion of the narrative that I’ve ranted about before, when it formed the crux of a 2010 videogame adaptation of the poem.

Maran’s approach, which I hope he takes on tour, so I get a chance to see it, sounds like its based on a love for the source and a genuine desire to adapt rather than misogynise the text. This approach, along with some of the reporting of the new movie happily demonstrate that at least not everyone is buying into this revisionist claptrap.

Of course, there’s something quite appropriate about revisionist adaptation, as that was one of Dante’s specialties and I talk about one such example in this article on the episode of the Siren in canto XIX on Purgatorio. The gist of the article is that the Siren represents Dante’s past errors of writing and reading which he attempts to revise through the figure of the hag who becomes a siren and then is revealed once more to be hideous. OK, so perhaps the text isn’t entirely non-misogynist itself… In fact, the Comedy buys into plenty of the misogynistic tropes of its day, but it does also do some rather radical things in terms of ascribing full rational agency to its female characters (not a trifling thing for a text of its period to do) and, of course, placing an authoritative women, Beatrice, at the heart of its narrative. Beatrice who teaches Dante about the ways of grace and the heavens, Beatrice who saves Dante, NOT the other way around.

Source: A Divine Comedy: Broadway Baby, Brighter Coverage.

Radio, what’s new?

So, I know I promised to say things about my trip to Leeds, and I certainly will, soon, I promise.
But in the interim… whattaya know? An adaptation of the Divine Comedy is the Classic Serial on BBC Radio 4 at the moment!

It’s got even got John Hurt for Who fans (playing the ‘older Dante’ by which I guess they mean the narratorial voice?)
Either way, it should be interesting and there’s also a short documentary on the making of the recording. They take a delightfully old school, radiophonic workshop approach to sound effects, which is interesting. Look out for the rice pudding!
Now, this isn’t entirely irrelevant to my Leeds Centre for Dante Studies visit, as I tried my hand at a bit of podcasting on a few poets, of which more later.
I will leave you now to have a bit of a listen!

Some excellent cartoons about Dante and such.

Just a quick post to flag up some excellent comics by Julia Caterina Hartley, a fellow Dante fan who also stalks about Proust! Definitely worth a gander:

Julia's re-interpretation of Dante's encounter with Paolo and Francesca in Inferno V.

Julia’s re-interpretation of Dante’s encounter with Paolo and Francesca in Inferno V.

Inferno XV, 115-120 (as ever, from the the Hollander translation):

Then I turned to them again to speak

and I began: ‘Francesca, your torments

make me weep for grief and pity,

‘but tell me, in that season of sweet sighs,

how and by what signs did Love

acquaint you with your hesitant desires?’

Day to day Dante: BBC News – “US agents rescue 360 pitbulls in dog fight raid”

**First of all, a trigger warning, as I discuss the issue of child abuse in this post.**
This is slightly old news now, but this post has been languishing as a draft for quite some time and it’s part of an ongoing trend in day to day language, so I thought I’d polish it up and put it on display! This story (BBC News – US agents rescue 360 pitbulls in dog fight raid) caught my attention because the US Attorney overseeing the case said:

“I believe if Dante were alive today and rewriting the Inferno that the lowest places in hell would be reserved for those who commit cruelty to our animals and to our children.”

Initially, I want to say that I find the direct correlation of child abuse and cruelty to animals to be insensitive and wildly disproportionate. While I do believe that animal cruelty is a significant problem, and that animals should never be put through unnecessary suffering, such cruelty is of a very different order to the abuse of children. I also find it odd that anyone would believe that violence against children would not be punished in Dante’s Inferno, for reasons you’ll see below. I did find this statement to a press conference interesting, though, for a couple of other reasons: firstly for the fact that Dante’s concept of Hell is still such a touchstone for modern conceptions of how evil-doing should be punished (“There’s a special circle in hell reserved for x-offence” is a commonplace); and secondly because it got me wondering about how we would or could apply Dante’s categories for some contemporary crimes.

The Violent in the river Phlegethon (with Centaurs!), from the Manuscript Holkham Misc. 48 in the Bodleian Library

The Violent in the river Phlegethon (with Centaurs!), from the Manuscript Holkham Misc. 48 in the Bodleian Library

Of course, if we’re going to apply Dante’s categories in a modern world, the first challenge is whether we bring his sense of sin up to date too. And if we are updating them, to what? To broadly acceptable modern mores? To the contemporary pronouncements of the Catholic Church?

I think it’s safe to say that it wouldn’t be the latter. While developing his poetic identity as prophetic poet, a teller of divine truths, a decidedly Christian writer, Dante was not shy of kicking against the pricks of many ecclesiastical (and particularly papal) norms. A classic example of his nonconformity is his inclusion of excommunicated souls in Purgatory, souls whom the Church firmly declared were going to hell are granted passage to heaven by dint of personal repentance, despite the statements of the Church.

This isn’t to say that Dante would have been liberal minded. He condemned homosexuality, non-procreative sex and extra-marital sex, any non-Christian religion (or philosophical heresy), forgery, gluttony, un-managed anger, false prophesy, prostitution and pimping, the list goes on… He even put his own teacher in hell (but who hasn’t felt like doing that at least once during their school days?!).

He was innovative though (and might find some common ground with the current pope) as, in Dante’s version of Purgatory, heterosexual and homosexual lust are repented on the same terrace – repented, that is, on the way to heaven. This may not seem like a huge deal, and indeed, it is actively retrograde for a modern context, but in 13th Century Italy, it was kind of a big deal. ‘It doesn’t matter who you get overly steamy with’, Dante essentially tells us, ‘ as long as you repent and turn to God before you die, you’ll get to Heaven’. This isn’t a million miles away from Pope Francis’ statement that ‘If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?’ and, like Dante, this Pope seems liberal in some things and definitely conservative in others (e.g. recent papal pronouncements on abortion).

Anyway, to get back on track, would child and animal abusers find a place in Dante’s Inferno?

Before answering this question it’s worth remembering that, in the Inferno, motivation matters. The why can be as important as the what of a sin. A suicide (usually found in the 7th circle, among the violent against themselves) can be found among the lustful if they killed themselves for love/lust. This is what happens with Dido, who killed herself when her beloved Aeneas left her.

Now, as I mentioned before, it strikes me as odd that a speaker today would assume that violence against children is not covered by the Inferno. When it comes to animal cruelty I think the question make more sense, and while there are huge differences in the magnitude of these crimes, they would, arguably, be punished in the same place and there is already a circle set aside for the perpetrators of such offences. In fact, there might be three.

So, what are these three possible circles?

  1. The fifth circle, Anger: If you are violent towards a child or harm  an animal through uncontrolled anger then you could wind up here, mired in the Styx, where Dante saw the damned souls who ‘struck each other with their hands, / their heads, their chests and feet, / and tore each other with their teeth’. (VII, 112-114)*.
  2. The seventh circle, Violence: In the subsection of the first section of this circle, the sinners are submerged in Phlegethon,
    Dante and Virgil meet the Minotaur, from the Manuscript Holkham Misc. 48 in the Bodleian Library

    Dante and Virgil meet the Minotaur, from the Manuscript Holkham Misc. 48 in the Bodleian Library

    ‘the river of blood that scalds / those who by violence do injury to others’ (XII, 47-48). They’re also watched over by the Minotaur (who looked a little different for a medieval audience than he does for us, as you can seen from the picture on the right) and guarded by an army of centaurs. It contains a space for those who commit sexual violence, ‘violence against nature’, which I think should (and quite possibly would) be reclassified in modern context as sexual assault and child sexual abuse. With the previous caveats that I in no way consider the abuse of children and cruelty to animals to be similar orders of crime, I do think that today the idea of animals as others to whom gratuitous violence is wrongfully done has traction. Even for a medieval christian, the idea that all of creation was sacred could justify the placement of those who are cruel to animals in this particular circle.

  3. The ninth circle, Cocytus, treachery: This is the deepest circle, and while it may seem an odd choice for these 21st century sinners, it actually encompasses any breach of trust in a family or against a guest. Dante also explicitly considers violence against family members, specifically children, and guests as a manifestation of this kind of treachery. Count Ugolino is damned for killing and eating his own children when imprisoned with them and starved (XXXIII, 43-75), and Fra Alberigo ends up in the ninth circle for hiring assassins to kill his dinner guests (XXXIII, 118-120). It’s easy to see how other forms of child abuse would fall into this category, especially by family members, teachers, and others in positions of authority and care over children, in loco parentis, is after all in the place of a parent. Again, if we take the crime of cruelty animals, particularly pets,  there is certainly an argument to be made that they are either family or guests in our homes and thus cruelty towards them makes us traitors to the bonds of family or perverters of the role of host.

Dante often makes space for wildly varying levels of criminality (or sin, in his logic) within the same circle of hell and this is what I think we can do in this case. While taking issue with the Attorney’s blithe association of child abuse and animal cruelty, I do think it casts an interesting light on modern models of crime and ‘sin’ and a cultural memory of systematic punishment which seems to have become embodied in Dante’s Inferno.

* All quotations from Dante Alighieri, the Inferno, translated by Robert and Jean Hollander. Anchor Books, 2002.

Dante’s in Portland, OR

Dante's in Portland, OR

This was another one of those coincidental moments* in my travels around the US. Having just come from presenting my work at the Association of American Italian Studies Conference in Eugene, OR, I wandered past this club, Dante’s (Booker T. Jones was playing that night), and was deeply happy to find out they had the warning words from the gates of hell above their doorway:
Lasciate ogne speranza, voi ch’intrate!
(Abandon all hope, you who enter!).

*The grainy photo is courtesy of my phone camera, my proper camera having been lost a week earlier.

Gender-Flipping Dante: what a meme tells us about gamers and poets

This article on the importance of the gender-flipping meme* may seem a little off my stated topics, but gender-flipping, or at least, a gendered role-reversal represents the main problem I have Dante’s Inferno as reinterpreted by Visceral Games.
I have no qualms at all with it becoming a video game, in fact, I think that Dante’s level based hell has been crying out to become a game since games have had level. Sure, there are some problems of interpretation – how do you turn what is essentially a contemplative (if unsettling and potentially terrifying) guided tour through the underworld into something with engaging game play?

The answer? Dante fights his way through the various monsters and reinterpreted damned souls to get to Satan, the ultimate end boss. Obviously, huge liberties have been taken in this department (I don’t remember anything in the text about demon babies), but even this doesn’t send me rushing for the smelling salts, as it seems to be the logical transition from the textual to the game idiom, a sort of media translation.

If I’m happy with all of that, though, what am I griping about? In a word, Beatrice.

Beatrice, Dante’s beloved (in the chaste, courtly sense) and later the agent of his salvation (as she becomes a Christ-like presence in the poet’s life, an intercessor for his sins). I use the term agent intentionally, because if there’s one thing Beatrice doesn’t lack, it’s agency. Yes, she conforms to certain tropes of idealised and inherently patriarchal representation of women in literature, but she doesn’t lack power. And I’m not just talking about the power to grant or deny love (and/or sex).

Beatrice’s power stems from the fact that, after her death, when Dante has gone astray (his ‘diritta via era smarrita’, the straight path was temporarily lost), she takes pity on her earthly admirer and intervenes to save him from himself and from damnation. Virgil, may be Dante’s guide in hell, but don’t forget who sent him:

‘”Set out, and with your polished words

and whatever else is needed for his safety,

go to his aid, that I may be consoled.

I who bid you go am Beatrice.”‘

(Inferno II, 67-70, translation by Robert and Jean Hollander)

In the poem Beatrice is a major player, but in the video game she is reduced to supporting cast. In the Divine Comedy she is instrumental in saving the wayward Dante from his failings, in the game she is the one who has to be rescued. Let’s just pause on that for a second.
In Dante’s text, the only redeeming force more powerful than Beatrice is God himself.
In Visceral’s game she is little more than damsel in distress.
In the game it is Dante’s responsibility to free Beatrice from hell so she can take up her place in Heaven.

And here we get to the gender flipping; understandably Dante is the battling protagonist, but why must he rescue Beatrice? There’s already a narrative thread in the game whereby Dante is trying to absolve himself of some (fairly fictive) sins by fighting his way to Beatrice and out of the underworld. Surely the plot arc would have made more sense if he battled through his Inferno in order to be reunited with Beatrice beyond the bounds of hell (it might even have left easier space for a sequel, but I’m not sure I want to think about what they’d to Purgatorio). So my problem is this: Why does the female rescuer have to become the rescued? Why does the almost lost Dante have to become the dominant force? Are 21st century gamers really more uncomfortable with the idea of salvation by a woman with agency than a 13th century poet was?

I hope not, but I fear that for some it might be true and that’s why the kind of social mirror provided by the meme where this conversation began is so important.

* taking representations of women and applying them directly to representations of men and vice versa to highlight the sexism of imagery, e.g. the Hawkeye initiative.