When I had journeyed half of our life’s way,I found myself within a shadowed forest,for I had lost the path that does not stray.
Ah, it is hard to speak of what it was,that savage forest, dense and difficult,
which even in recall renews my fear:
so bitter—death is hardly more severe!
But to retell the good discovered there,
I’ll also tell the other things I saw.
- Dante Alighieri, The Divine Comedy
Yes, I began the new year this morning by preparing to descend into Dante’s “Inferno,” as our small, intrepid band will be discussing this section of The Divine Comedy in less than three weeks. We are reading Allen Mandelbaum’s translation, and he dedicates this first book to “Elisa Jane Mandelbaum and her generation,” with the epigraph: A RIVEDER LE STELLE (“And beheld once again the stars”). My apologies to poet and translator for my difficulties with formating stanzas and indentations.
Eugenio Montale, whose essay introduces the volume, gives a complicated argument concluding, “Dante cannot be repeated.” Who would attempt to refute such a statement? I can’t help wondering, however, if any great writer or artist or work of art can be "repeated." Emulated, borrowed from, etc., but repeated? Surely not. Another question is posed as to whether or not the poem may be considered an epic, though it strays from the epic form by mixing styles and not maintaining a tragic tone throughout, and there are many questions about the historicity of the work. Finally, Montale approaches the possibility of miracles. Might not Beatrice actually have appeared after death to the poet? Might not the work itself constitute a miracle? Montale has no problem allowing these possibilities.
Historical questions are inevitable when dealing with Dante, as they are with Shakespeare My own preference is to meet the work on its own ground, and by “its own ground” I mean not only (but not excluding, either) the ground which gave it forth but also that on which it has lived through the ages and continues to live today, part of a universal human experience, anchored firmly—despite the allegorical title of the entire work and of its three books—in life on this earth, both sensual and cultural, social and individual. Who “of a certain age” has not been metaphorically lost at least once in a shadowed forest, a dark wood?
Our discussion group host has asked each of us to examine the successive rings of the Inferno and determine where we might be currently headed, on the basis of how we have lived and are living our lives--then, how in the coming year we might change course to avoid such a grim fate! This is one question we will be keeping in mind as we read. Another thought assignment is to reflect as we read on why Dante undertook the work. What was his aim?
Another “thick” midwinter book I pulled out for reading at this turning time is Wing-Tsit Chan’s A Source Book in Chinese History, turning first to Mencius (371-289? BCE), many of whose ideas put me in mind of Aristotle, but I'll save reflecting on that for another day.
Before closing, though, can I possibly turn from the old year to the new without Robert Burns? That (ç) was, of course, a rhetorical question, as is this (è): “Should auld acquaintance be forgot,/And never brought to min’?” You know the answer. Nay, lassie, nay, laddie, we’ll no’ forget!
For auld lang syne, my dear,
For auld lang syne,
We’ll tak a cup o’ kindness yet,
For auld lang syne.
My little book of the poems of Robert Burns lost its cover long before it came into my hands. The front hinge is completely destroyed. I wrote the name myself with ballpoint pen on the remains of the front board. A “reading” copy is all it is, i.e., without any value as an object, valuable only for its contents. But oh, what contents! And seriously? I wouldna gie it up for ony bright, new book!