Hi all. So, some of you may have followed the events of this thread: http://www.online-literature.com/for...867#post897867 which (as I state in post 89) got me to thinking about forming some sort of discussion of the Divina Commedia. I realized that, though I've done much reading, thinking and writing on Dante, I have never actually had the opportunity to have a formal discussion of the Inferno in a classroom setting as either student or teacher, and I was thinking how fun and interesting it might be to have a conversation about the Commedia with the engaging and intelligent folks of Lit. Net. I'm curious to hear your thoughts and reactions to L'Inferno.
I thought we could just start by looking at Canto 1 and see where that takes us. Depending on our busy schedules, how many have read the Inferno before, and the form of the discussion, we could do anything from discussing one canto per week (bit long term, that plan) to discussing a larger segment at a time.
Anyway, just to get the ball rolling, here's some basic off-the-top-of my head stuff about the first few stanze that I just posted on the thread that got me thinking about this idea. Feel free to use this as a springboard, or bring up your own thoughts about canto one, whatever you want to talk about. I'll look forward to seeing what (if anything!) comes of this.
As ever, the translation of that first line, "nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita" (midway in the journey of our life) doesn't entirely do justice to the power of the original. One clear meaning of that first line is that he is literally writing this as someone midway through his life. It's often remarked that he was about 35 at the time he wrote the Inferno and that, drawing from the biblical authority of psalm 89, which numbers the years of our life as seventy ("Dies annorum nostrorum in ipsis septuaginta anni"), he would thus be in the exact middle of his life according to Medieval and scriptural tradition. However, he does not say the middle of my life, but the middle of our life, thus starting out by placing his journey in a universal context as something that could well apply to all of us. We all will reach the middle of our life. We all may enter into a dark wood.Originally Posted by Dante
The line need not only refer to being literally in the middle years of our life, however. An additional interpretation would be that it refers to any point when we are nell mezzo del cammin di nostra, in the middle of our path. That is, he is referring to any time in our lives when we are in the midst of things, traveling along our life's path of work and relationships and every day activities and concerns, and look around to find ourselves lost and confused in the middle of it all. In the next line the translation then says "I found myself in a dark wood", which is accurate but misses some of the nuance of the original. For example, the word for "dark" is "oscura" which evokes, not just the darkness of the wood, but the way it obscures, hides, and the word for "found" is not simply "trovai" but "ritrovai", which connotes not only finding himelf, but re-finding himself, which highlights the suggestion in the line of a reflection inward. In these two opening lines, Dante is describing a space that intrudes upon all of our paths at some time or another. Sometimes it is a short and passing moment when the awareness of your own mortality washes over you and you feel that brief and restless disconnect between your daily activity and something surrounding and permeating that activity that you don't understand. Sometimes it is that space when you lie in bed at some unreal hour of the morning and can feel some strange mixture of a calm detachment from all that makes up our customary sense of reality and an almost palpable and oppressive fear (perhaps like one form of such a moment that Phillip Larkin describes in his quite different poem "Aubade": "I work all day, and get half-drunk at night./ Waking at four to soundless dark, I stare./ In time the curtain-edges will grow light./Till then I see what's really always there:/ Unresting death, a whole day nearer now..."). Sometimes it is a whole period of a person's life, when they find themselves, in the middle of going through the business of living, thrown completely off track and wandering in the obscurity of the realization that the world does not, in fact, provide many answers combined with an awareness of "what's really always there." This is a space of reflection, of not only facing death, but facing that which "tant e amara che poco e piu morte" (is so bitter that death is hardly more so).
It is from this moment of reflection, of fear, of confronting death and what is scarcely better than death, that the Divine Comedy opens up onto all the many things that crowd a person's mind at such times. Part of what we find with him in the pages that follow are reflections on the events that shape our real-life experience: politics, friendships, those we are tied to by love and those we are tied to by hatred. Another part is a looking back to the past outside our own lives. It is no accident that Virgil is his guide through the inferno. A pagan poet who wrote the great ancient Roman epic, The Aeneid hardly is the most logical choice as a moral guide through the Christian conception of hell, but Dante turns to Virgil as the author of book six of the Aeneid--who has already masterfully described the hero Aeneas' confrontation of death and journey through the pagan underworld-- because he sees in him a voice from the past who has already faced this space of reflection and fear. Dante is trying to grapple with the same things through the lens of his own world, his own religious beliefs, his own personal loves and resentments. He places himself, as an ordinary person like the rest of us facing "nostra vita," "our life" in the position of the mythical epic hero, Aeneas, and it we who now confront the space that in Virgil is braved only by the uncommon and the heroic figure. We turn to Dante as he turned to Virgil, to help us open up the complex boundaries between our own world and that "undiscovered country" we sense pressing in around the ragged edges of our world.