Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Reading Dante in Detroit

A few years ago Monique gave me Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran—and just tracing that experience would suffice for a post. For one thing members of my extended family (Ghulf Genes, you might say) include children born of an Iranian woman, hence blood lines connect us back to Persia too. Indeed, whenever a country comes into focus in one or another context, I can trace tendrils of relationship—and strong ones, too, either of blood or spirit. But here my only purpose is to justify the title of this posting, to indicate the same kind of tension between cultures that Nafisi had in mind when she sat down to trace her own experiences as a woman and a teacher.

Yes. I’m reading the Divine Comedy, all of it this time, and slowly, with real attention. This too runs in the family’s spiritual genes. My mother would have done that sort of thing in her advanced years and Monique’s mate, John, is prone to feats like that as well—a kind of heroic determination to achieve the impossible, which is to grasp the entire culture, ancient and near, even if only by a few grand gestures. When I began reading Purgatory, I smiled as I read Dorothy Sayers’ introduction, in the first paragraph of which she says: “Persons who pontificate about Dante without making mention of his Purgatory may reasonably be suspected of knowing him only at second hand, or of having at most skimmed through the circles of his Hell in the hope of finding something to be shocked at.” Or, Sayers may have added, “something to quote.” She should have put that into her general introduction to nudge people on, beyond the Inferno, which is, as its name implies, a very dismal place. And arriving at the base of Mount Purgatory, one is astonished (I was) at the sudden change.

Culture is, ultimately, a system of shared values. Great literature holds these values. Its neglect is therefore either part of cultural change or cultural decay. If the value system continues to be renewed by great new works of art and philosophy, the sliding of the awkwardly dated back into the past is no matter of regret. But if the new has lost its nicotine, as it were, like fake cigarettes intended to wean us of smoking, the loss is genuine.

The cultural process is sharply discernible in the Comedy. In the first two books Dante’s guide is Virgil, the Latin poet famed for his Georgics and Aeneid, the last an epic account of Rome’s founding. The stories and myths in which Dante himself anchors his values are drawn from Graeco-Roman sources and the Bible, his philosophy is based on “moderns,” like Thomas Aquinas, and ancients, like Aristotle. The time distance between Virgil’s death and Dante’s birth is 1284 years. In 2009, we are 688 years from Dante’s death in 1321. Hence, for us, Dante stands closer in time than the towering figure of Virgil stood to him. The speed of change, however, has been so great in modern times that Dante appears to us at least 1300 years back, subjectively, rather than a mere 700.

It’s much more difficult today to get even a feel for the vast extent of human culture. Dante published his Comedy, if you can call it publishing, by having parts of it copied by hand as they were written, entirely in response to the demands of his friends. Printing still lay in the future. Today we can get dozens of translations of the Tao Te Ching, for example, and the best literature of any country we desire to read. And we have languages to master if we really wish to be serious students. I could here write a post titled Reading Goethe in German, for example, or Reading Madács in Hungarian. I’ve done both. Goethe’s name everyone knows, but Madács is known only to Hungarians. He wrote the all-time classic play called The Tragedy of Man. When you expend your energy in projects like that, you haven’t got time left to make money, do you? Anyway, that’s my excuse for failing in the American Way.

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