Tuesday, 4 January 2011

Dark woods

It has been such a miserable, angry and anxious time that I feel desperate to think of something funny. Where are wit and good humour when you need them? Lurking way beneath the seething and boiling emotions, and keeping well out of the way, they are, not to be scattered on the wastelands of life. My mind is full of darkness.

One of my Italian classes has been studying Dante’s L'Inferno, which is not exactly the easiest of works to come to grips with. Apparently Dante is still a fundamental part of Italian education, which makes me admire the Italians even more, for the value they place on their cultural history. Most of us in the class use a dual Italian/English text, lavishly furnished with lovely erudite notes, and explanations of the symbolism, the classical sources, the mythology and the history. I also use the Dorothy L Sayers translation. How I admire Sayers’ erudition and linguistic ability, and the sheer brilliance of her writing.  I also use another Italian edition which is useful, as it gives the modern Italian words for many of the archaic words. Using several translations rather than one provides me with greater understanding, especially in the very complex parts.

Actually after a while you start to get the hang of the language, how the words used to be, and the verb forms, and it gets easier. Not easy, though, just not as difficult. While I am something of a compulsive researcher, I also tend to do it at the last minute and by the seat of my pants. Others conscientiously translate every line and have worked out the entire meaning, but I tend to read and translate it, and then during the class I work out which part I will be required to comment on, and make it up as I go along. Fortunately, I have a couple of (possibly unfair) advantages: I grew up Catholic, know a lot of the theology, and have a good knowledge of the history. We are up to Canto 23 of L’Inferno, and I find it amazing just how many horrors Dante has imagined: truly dreadful and appalling punishments. I keep thinking it can’t get any worse, but of course it can, and does.

Possibly in this day and age, Dante might not have worried about creating great literature and would have gone straight into the creation and realisation of horror movies. (Imagine the Harry Potter films with significant contributions from Dante!) Except that obviously he did care enormously, passionately, hugely about the sins, the wrongs of his time, which he categorised in minute detail: the sinfulness, corruption and evil, particularly those appertaining to the Church, the Papacy, the rulers and the contenders for power of the city states, particularly in Florence, from which he was banished, never to return.

It is such an enormous contrast to the moral relativism, uncertainties and secularism of present western society. I'd rather be alive now than in Dante's time. But while we have gained much, there are also losses. One such loss is that the knowledge and understanding of the past and the accretions of western civilisation have in many respects been diminished.

Our class has a long way to go, as we do only half a canto at each class. But there are lines which never fail to bring tears to my eyes.

Canto 1: the opening lines: (Dorothy L Sayers)

   Midway this way of life we’re bound upon
   I woke to find myself in a dark wood,
   Where the right road was wholly lost and gone.

   Ay me! How hard to speak of it – that rude
   And rough and stubborn forest! The mere breath
   Of memory stirs the old fear in the blood:

   It is so bitter it goes nigh to death:

And then the closing line of L’Inferno:

   E quindi uscimmo a riveder le stelle.

   Now we came out and once more saw the stars.

I wait in hope for the sight of those stars.

1 comment:

Isabelle said...

Well yes, me too. But I don't think I'm going to get the star that I'd like.

Well, maybe the grandbaby, I suppose.

I hope your star emerges a bit sooner than that, though.