Sunday, September 20, 2015

Book Review: Dante's Purgatory translated by Dorothy Sayers

I don't feel it's my place to review this book in the normal way. But I can say, as someone mid-way through life, I found that Dante's mid-way through life story to be what I needed to hear. Dante's poetry as translated by Sayers is surprisingly vivid and affecting. After reading Charles Williams' The Figure of Beatrice, I could see how the poem works on four levels at once (which Sayers sometimes spells out in her commentary, because she was inspired by Williams too). I still find the history somewhat dry but there seems to be less of it in Purgatory than in Hell, while the philosophical discourses on free will and love are timeless. Dante makes abstract concepts concrete in a way that every teacher can learn from. The medieval science is not as disconcerting as I thought it would be -- really only one passage was different enough that it threw me out of the narrative with its inaccuracies. But on the whole, those tempted to stereotype the Middle Ages as anti-science and pro-blind faith need to read Dante. He assumes that the reader can keep track of complicated astronomy, for instance, which he reproduces accurately. He also castigates the Church for not fulfilling its role in terms that might give Richard Dawkins a few ideas for new invective. I heard Dante's voice across the centuries -- and I found out that I genuinely LIKE him. His path resonates with my path. I found this book fresh and lively, and worth plowing through the occasional thicket for the overall journey.

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