Thursday, October 15, 2015

Book Review: Dante's Paradise Translated by Dorothy Sayers

How do you review a book that describes the indescribable? All I can say is that I reserve 5-star reviews for books that change my life. This gets a 5-star review.

To elaborate, Paradise not always easy, but it's actually easier than Inferno, that most famous member of the trilogy. There's less politics and what's there is more comprehensible. It also focuses on describing beauty rather than torment. Dante's theological questions and issues still resonate today. Maybe these books shouldn't be read till mid-life, as Dante implies in the very first lines of Inferno, and maybe they shouldn't be read unless you have theological interests. Well, I'm that old, and those describe my interests.

Sometimes there are convoluted or what I think are incorrect passages. Dante himself describes changing his mind on points both theological and scientific, so I can imagine him changing his mind again. This isn't a description of Heaven, but a description of Heaven as seen through Dante's eyes and interpreted by his words. Those are two different things, and if you put the author in the center, as both the medievals and postmodernists would, then you see there's little point in arguing with him about theology. The bigger importance is the human experience living in a fallen universe. Dante is reluctant to speak out against the people he speaks out against, but he is encouraged to write by what he sees. It's his vocation. In the end, Dante isn't a self-righteous prig. Dante struggles with himself in all the ways that any artist or author who's trying to represent reality struggles. But he found a way through, with Beatrice (and Virgil, Lucy, and Bernard) as his Beatrice, and the Divine Comedy as his path.

In the end, I was surprised by the cumulative effect of this journey. Even though the translation takes a step down after Canto XX (Sayers' last canto) and the commentary isn't quite up to her standards, the later cantos have the best images and scenes for me. The superposition of images is paramount, and it's important that you descend through Hell and climb Mount Purgatory before you get to the final cantos. But once I did, they had me in tears just like an indescribably beautiful and sad piece of music -- such as Craig Courtney's "Sanctus."

The last three major images, the point of light, the river of light, and the rose of saints, are striking. After climbing through spheres which turn ever faster until they reach the Primum Mobile, which is set in the unmoving Empyrean realm of God's pure light, Dante sees another image of the powers of the universe in which, rather than an infinitely large Empyrean, God is revealed as an infinitely small, still point of piercing light, surrounded by spheres of angelic powers. It seems so perfect to say that God is both at once.

Maybe this isn't the time for you to read all three books. It wouldn't have been a decade ago when I read Inferno. But if you work on creating things, and if you like the big questions, and if you love the good you see around you but struggle with the hate, and especially if you're halfway through life -- try making it through the Divine Comedy, with the assurance that, for me, the higher I climbed the deeper it got.

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