I’ve finally finished reading all of Dante’s Divine Comedy—a very strange work indeed. Having read it and, alongside, several commentaries from various times and slants, I am powerfully reminded once again that “culture,” that elusive whatever-I-mean-by-that, is certainly a do-it-yourself enterprise. Having read this vast poetic work, I’m now at least personally acquainted with it. And the commentaries now give me quite another feel. I agree with bits and pieces, here and there. Nothing beats travelling a land yourself.
I’m not about to burden the reader with my take on Dante’s work; I knuckled down to read the work precisely to avoid such hear-say. The Comedy is a cultural phenomenon not a recitation of physical observations where the facts alone communicate something—although I must here note that it is sometimes equally valuable to read people like Newton in the original (or in translation from Latin for ignorami like me). There is nothing quite like the actual voice. Personal encounters often produce surprising outcomes. My views of Conan the Cimmerian abruptly changed when I read Robert E. Howard’s actual stories as they appeared in Weird Tales long ago. Commentaries swirl like clouds around the works of culture. Time and again I’ve discovered that thinkers whom scholarly consensus dismisses have genuine merits—or that lauded greats are muddled, empty, vain, or simply sick. One of my memories, on reading (or is it perhaps better to say trying to read) Plato’s Timaeus was the irritated reaction: God, I wish this man had had some sense for structure! Artistically splendid works sometimes convey loathsome themes. I think of these as beautiful sculptures made of fecal matter; but you might not realize that until you draw near.
In a way it’s maddening that we must do all the work to get some kind of reliable sense of what is out there. Art is long, life is short. The only half-way adequate work-around to this that I’ve discovered is immersion in a culture deeply enough so that you get to know its foibles and prejudices intimately enough to see them sharply. Then, if the culture is rich in values, I can use its dictates as the initial filter to look at the world of cultural creations. In this endeavor relying on multiple cultures is much recommended because, through one lens only, some things will remain more or less invisible. In our time, fortunately, access to multiple cultures is possible.
Alas. To get to a state where the features of the cultural landscape become more or less visible, something must be neglected as your back curls leaning over books. Here the half-broken ceiling of the hall-way closet of my house comes sharply to mind—and my fingers itch to put Home Depot on a to-do-slip. Alas and alack. Sometimes cultural do-it-yourself really must give way to honest to God DIY with sheetrock and plaster and moving all of the coats and hats and shoes and scarves and umbrellas and what-not out of that closet to get at the ceiling, your head hurting as it bumps against the cobwebby but now exposed dark rafters overhead.