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The Many Faces of Joker

Joker is one of the greatest villains of the 20th century, but the same things that make Joker such a great villain also make him difficult to portray properly. It has often been thought, since Joker’s primary role in the DC universe is as Batman’s foil, it is impossible to even understand Joker in the absence of Batman. Yet 2019’s Joker does just that, exploring one of Joker’s possible origin stories in a narrative intertwined with Batman’s own. Joker was also the vehicle for Joaquin Phoenix’s interpretation of the character, an interpretation that is ranked the equal of Heath Ledger’s iconic 2008 turn as Joker. Yet it is also undeniable that, while both Phoenix’s and Ledger’s Jokers were — and are — iconic, they are quite different interpretations of Joker. They are also very different than his 20th century film interpretations (Jack Nicholson and Cesar Romero), and both are deeply influenced by Mark Hammill’s portrayal of the character in the 1990s Batman animated series, a portrayal that, like Ledger’s and Phoenix’s, is also considered iconic in its medium. To understand what’s going on here, we have to understand why Joker is a compelling character, and how the character can be explored in compelling — and uncompelling — ways.

Batman’s Foil

Joker is, fundamentally, Batman’s foil. He is the opposite of Batman, and stands for everything Batman is opposed to. While some portrayals of Joker show him as a gangster with significant ties to organized crime (Jack Nicholson’s, in particular, comes to mind), it is worth noting that Batman’s rogues gallery already has a villain with a strong organized-crime shtick (Penguin), and that most portrayals of Joker show him as acting not as the head of a large organized-crime ring but rather as the head of a small and usually extremely loyal group. This is because, while Batman stands for the imposition of order, Joker stands for chaos, and organized crime is, well, a form of order imposed on the underworld by its leaders.

This sense of contrast, between order and chaos, also drives their characters and their backstories. Joker is, unquestionably, insane; the question is the nature of his insanity. Yet his insanity is also precisely of a nature that forces us to question Batman’s own sanity. In more camp portrayals of Batman, such as Romero’s and Nicholson’s (and, yes, in terms of portrayal, Jack Nicholson’s Joker is camp) this distinction is often one of flamboyance vs. somberness; in more serious portrayals of Batman, this contrast is developed through scenes of psychologically tense interaction between hero and villain. Key to this interaction is a sense of control, and one of the things that makes Joker scary is that he is a master of manipulating scenes to remain in control.

How to play Joker well: Heath Ledger

Heath Ledger’s Joker is a film legend. Although not quite true, the urban legend that this role led to his death certainly sounds true enough to be believable. But the key to understanding Heath Ledger’s Joker is through the fine details of his acting. His Joker has a clear goal in mind — although he is an agent of chaos, he, like Littlefinger, is even more a master of manipulating chaos to bring about his own ends. At the beginning of the movie, Joker is a bank robber focusing on mob banks, but as Batman, the Gotham P.D., and Gotham D.A. pull the noose around the city’s organized-crime scene ever tighter, he soon finds himself working to break the noose, in particular by breaking its three primary actors: Batman, Lieutenant (later Commissioner) Jim Gordon, and D.A. Harvey Dent.

Joker in The Dark Knight is a chess grandmaster constantly pulling the strings, and leaving the main characters one step behind. Very little in the movie is not planned beforehand by Ledger’s Joker, and his plans go off without a hitch. By sustaining this manipulation of events, Joker maintains control and gains confidence. We also see this change in his character across the arc of the movie, from a psychopathic but small-time thief at the beginning of the movie, to the Joker at the edge of losing his veneer of control when he first meets the mob — the small tics of insecurity giving away that this is the first time he’s playing with the big boys. By the middle of the movie, when he allows himself to get caught in order to set up his gambit forcing Batman to choose between Harvey and the girl, though, Joker has gained complete control over his interactions. Thus the iconic interrogation scene: no matter how badly Batman beats Joker, Batman will not kill him — and they both know it. Batman is never in control of this interrogation. Joker always is. This plays through to the end, the last significant scene between Batman and Joker, where Batman comes closest to allowing Joker to die.

This, however, is the point. Heath Ledger’s Joker wants to break men, and to break Batman and Harvey Dent in particular. He succeeds in breaking the latter. But the only way to break Batman is forcing Batman to kill. Joker, in The Dark Knight, is a death seeker, constantly trying to goad Batman into killing him. While others have pointed out Heath Ledger’s Joker’s utter control over the situations he finds himself in, his constantly being one step ahead of the Batman-Gordon-Dent triumvirate, his seeming omniscience, it is this — the fact that Joker’s success in his ultimate gambit demands his death, and his complete and utter disregard for human life, even his own, this implies — that makes Heath Ledger’s Joker so scary.

It also calls into question who in The Dark Knight is really sane. Is it Batman? But nearly every serious superhero portrayal points out that there is something fundamentally broken in a masked vigilante’s psyche, that they are, psychologically, closer to the villains they hunt than they admit to themselves, and Christian Bale’s Batman is no different. Is it Harvey Dent, someone who brings up the entirety of Gotham’s underworld on RICO charges in one fell swoop? who has a penchant making important decisions on a coin flip? Is it Jim Gordon, who fakes his own death in an attempt to bring down Joker, something Joker himself seems to have foreseen? There is something said for the suggestion that Joker, whose displays advanced planning capabilities, who never, ever loses control of a situation, who seems to be, from the heroes’ perspective, all but omniscient — is the sanest character in all of The Dark Knight, and it is this knife-edge balance between insanity and hyper-sanity that Ledger gives his Joker.

How to play Joker well: Joaquin Phoenix

If Heath Ledger offers a vision of a fully-realized Joker, one with no clear background (just the way he likes it) and a hyperawareness of control and chaos, then Joaquin Phoenix offers a Joker origin story. In Joker, we find Joker getting his start as the bumbling clown Arthur Fleck, a socially awkward loner on a dozen different medications, one who lives with his housebound mother. Arthur Fleck’s working-class life is despairingly brutal. Yet, as we immerse ourselves into Fleck’s world, we find ourselves believing, as Fleck comes to, that insanity is the only way out of it — and we find there is more to the story than meets the eye. Is Fleck indeed adopted? or is he Thomas Wayne’s natural son, one who he forced Patricia Fleck to sign false adoption papers in order to get out of caring for a bastard, as Patricia goes to her deathbed believing? Joker makes a compelling case, amidst subterfuge and misdirection, that Batman and Joker are, in fact, brothers, a wrinkle that definitely deserves inclusion in the Batman canon.

Joker is a movie of disassociation. One by one, Arthur Fleck’s links to the real world — his job, his social-worker appointments, his standup attempts, his girlfriend — get taken away from him, until he at last snaps and starts killing wantonly. We see, in the birth of Joker, the death of Arthur Fleck, and as Joker takes control, he destroys the last few anchors Fleck may have had to the world. Joker has no identity, no backstory, and in Joker we see him expend efforts to make it that way.

Unlike Heath Ledger, Joaquin Phoenix sought to emphasize the nature of Joker’s madness, a madness that comes across not so much as insanity but as hyper-sanity in The Dark Knight. He does so through brilliant acting — through the contrast between the contortions Fleck makes to fit into day-to-day society and the freedom Joker supplies. Yet this freedom comes with its own darkness. Not only does Fleck find himself increasingly willing to kill, but it is with the freedom that Joker lends him that Fleck falls for Sophie … and it is the realization that his entire relationship with her is a delusion, a figment of his imagination, that makes Fleck at last snap and become Joker.

For both Heath Ledger and Joaquin Phoenix, there is more than one side to the Joker, more than one part of his character, and these parts of Joker’s character are at odds with one another. In The Dark Knight’s disappearing-pencil scene, we see Ledger relate the insecurities of someone who’s just been dropped into a very big pond and has to establish dominance over the other big fish there. In Joker, we see Phoenix relate the struggle between the down-on-his-luck clown Arthur Fleck and the chaos-agent Joker he would become. In particular, we see how Joker slowly but surely gains the upper hand by deceiving Arthur Fleck, until by the end of the movie he has abandoned the person he was and has fully committed to the role of Batman’s archnemesis. Both of these performances are masterful, but they are masterful precisely because of the subtleties and ambiguities Ledger and Phoenix bring out of the character. Just tattooing “Damaged” on one’s forehead is not enough to evoke the frightening insanity-that-may-not-even-be-insanity at the heart of Joker’s character.

Learning from Mark Hammill

Prior to Ledger’s breakout 2008 performance, the gold standard for Joker was Mark Hammill’s in the mid-90s Batman animated series. Hammill, whose other iconic role is Star Wars’ Luke Skywalker, In part due to the series’ length, Hammill was able to bring a depth and richness to Joker’s character that earlier filmic portrayals had lacked. Hammill’s Joker is a criminal mastermind, true, but he does not have the mob connections Jack Nicholson’s has. He is shown having to work harder, and be more daring, that most of Gotham’s underworld, a nexus which puts him well and truly in Batman’s crosshairs. (In fact, Hammill’s Joker is almost a workaholic.) It is Hammill’s Joker that most fully explores the character’s charisma, a charisma hinted at in Joker, one which results in his recruitment of psychiatrist and sometimes-girlfriend Harley Quinn. Both Heath Ledger and Joaquin Phoenix took cues from Heath Ledger’s Joker, though in very different ways: as Phoenix’s Joker takes Fleck over, the expressiveness of character Hammill perfected shows through, as does Hammill’s Joker’s strong association with Arkham — indeed, Phoenix’s Joker may well perceive Arkham as his home.

The other major character role Hammill’s Joker perfected is his ability to manipulate, stay one step ahead of, and even control Batman — and it was this sense of manipulation and control that Heath Ledger brought to the table in his performance as Joker. Indeed, one can almost say that Joker’s character greatly matured in the animated Batman’s run, and that Phoenix takes as his inspiration the show’s early days, when Joker was less calculated but more psychotic, while Ledger took as his inspiration the show’s later days, as the character’s role as Batman’s foil led to him becoming involved in more and more intricate plots, and we see Joker’s planning and control abilities take center stage.

Concluding Remarks

Joker is as important to the Batman mythos as Batman himself is. It speaks volumes that Joaquin Phoenix’s turn as Joker focuses on the character in and of himself. Joker’s character succeeds not because he is a gang ringleader or a psychotic nutjob, but because he exudes charisma and forces Batman to confront things about himself that are themselves overly simplistic. It is as this that we see Heath Ledger’s Joker. Yet Joker is a complex character in his own right, as much antihero as villain. In Joker, we find that Arthur Fleck’s descent into madness has sparked social unrest throughout Gotham, social unrest that seems prescient in an era when Americans — especially younger Americans — are finding out just how limited their access to the levers of power really are. Much can be said about the movie, and much more can be said about why Heath Ledger and Joaquin Phoenix are such successful Jokers, how both have captured something of the dominant energies of the 21st century.

But I will sign off with something blunt: Dismissal of Joker is done at one’s own peril. It is easily the best film of its decade and hits the mark at capturing something in the water that is almost certainly going to define the next decade.

Lorelei…

Heinrich Heine’s Lorelei is one of the classic texts of German poetry. However, I am unfamiliar with the rules of German poetics, so let’s take a look at the text to try and figure them out.

Prosodically, German is often described as consistently stressing on the first syllable, which a predictable and consistent stress pattern. Like English, German is a stress-timed language, and as such, we should expect its poetics (as Old Norse’s were) to be driven by the line’s primary stresses, which in turn define the beat.

German does not in fact always stress on the first syllable of the word — take, for example, the past participle of enden (to end up), geendet. If the stress was indeed regularly on the first syllable of the word, we should expect the alternation en-den → ge-en-det, but the ge- prefix only occurs on weak verbs and is supplanted by separable and inseparable prefixes (e.g. the past participle of beenden “break up” is beendet), strongly implying it is not stressed. (Also of note, the English reflex of ge-, y- {which often becomes a- as in e.g. a-like}, is never stressed.) In other words, a better understanding of the rule at hand is that German consistently and predictably stresses the first syllable of the stem: en-den → ge-en-det; be-en-den → be-en-det.

So anyway, let’s dive in and take a look, shall we?

Ich weiss nicht, was soll es bedeuten,
Dass ich so traurig bin;
Ein Märchen aus alten Zeiten,
Das kommt mir nicht aus dem Sinn.

The first thing we find when we look at the piece is that we have a trimeter: there are three beats to the line. The second is that there is no further strict metrical consistency. The first line

Ich wéiss nicht, / was sóll es / be-déu-ten

is, for example, very clearly in amphibrachic trimeter, while the second

Dáss ich / so trau-/-rig bin

clearly reads as iambic trimeter with a leading trochee. The third line continues the trend:

Ein Mär-chen / aus ál-ten / Zéi-ten,

being most easily analyzed as a pair of amphibrachs leading to a final trochee. (Also of note is the bedeuten/Zeiten rhyme here, suggesting a merger of the relevant vowels in Heine’s register.) Finally we have

Das kómmt / mir nícht / aus dem Sínn.

The phrasal pacing implies prosodic stress on nicht in order to meet the trimeter, yielding two iambs. But the final phrase, aus dem Sinn, is clearly treated as an anapest.

The next quatrain reads like this:

Die Luft ist kühl, und es dunkelt,
Und ruhig fliesst der Rhein;
Der Gipfel des Berges funkelt
Im Abendsonnenschein.

Let us note here that Heine has made both of the quatrains we’ve looked at sentential: that is, they are prosodically complete phrases of speech (i.e. sentences) as well as poetic quatrains. Heine is also using a strict ABAB rhyme scheme, and seems to be alternating feminine (bedeuten/Zeiten, dunkelt/funkelt) and masculine (bin/Sinn, Rhein/Abendsonnenschein) rhymes as well. (German is arguably a superior language to English for this sort of alternation.)

In

Die Lúft / ist kühl, / und es dún-kelt,

we find again the pattern of two leading iambs leading to a protracted final beat, either an amphibrach where und es is contracted into und’s, or a third paeon, the natural extension of an anapest for a feminine rhyme. Also of interest is the second line,

Und rúh-/-ig fliésst / der Rhéin;,

which, as with the second line in the first quatrain, is fully iambic. The successive line,

Der Gíp-fel / des Bér-ges / fún-kelt,

strangely enough, prosodically develops like the third line in the first quatrain, that is, as two amphibrachs and a trochee. However, the final line,

Im Á-/-bend-són-/-nen-schéin.,

is, like the quatrain’s second line, fully iambic. (Also for the record: I find Abendsonnenschein, which comes across as “evening sunshine”, one of the more poetic words I’ve encountered.)

So Lorelei’s prosody is complex. It seems to be trending towards an iambic rhythm, yet at the same time, resisting doing so. Let us see if the trend continues into the third quatrain:

Die schönste Jungfrau sitzet
Dort oben wunderbar,
Ihr goldenes Geschmeide blitzet,
Sie kämmt ihr goldenes Haar.

Our first line,

Die schön-ste / Júng-frau / sít-zet

is now an amphibrach leading two trochees. Let us note also continuation of the feminine/masculine rhyme alternation with sitzet/blitzet and wunderbar/Haar. It leads into

Dórt o-/-ben wún-/-der-bár,

which is metrically identical to Dass ich so traurig bin, and, as I’ve already noted, a leading trochee is a common variant in iambic meter. The pattern is now clear enough that it seems to be a clear rhythmic alternation — Heine, in other words, wants our ear to be drawn to the contrast between the quatrain’s non-iambic first line and its iambic second one.

The third line, then, is again non-iambic:

Ihr gól-de-nes / Ge-schméi-de / blít-zet,.

Here we find a second paeon (or amphibrach if goldenes is realized as two syllables, i.e. gold’nes, which seems to be what Heine actually intends) leading an amphibrach leading a trochee — again, we have a feminine line concluding a trochaic/amphibrachic line, while the quatrain concludes with

Sie kämmt / ihr gól-de-nes Háar.

This line begins with an iamb, but our treatment of its conclusion depends wholly on our prosodic understanding of goldenes. First of all, we can say for certain that ihr gol- is an iamb, but is goldenes Haar a cretic or a choriamb? If we go by what is written here (i.e. that goldenes Haar is a choriamb), sie kämmt ihr goldenes Haar is two iambs followed by an anapest, which links the third quatrain with the first; but, as I pointed out in the preceding line, goldenes scans better as two syllables (i.e. that goldenes Haar is a cretic), yielding the fully iambic conclusion sie kämmt ihr gold’nes Haar.

Also of interest: we have yet to see an umlaut on an unstressed syllable.

Let us now examine the fourth quatrain:

Sie kämmt es mit goldenem Kamme
Und singt ein Lied dabei;
Das hat eine wundersame,
Gewaltige Melodei.

The first line,

Sie kämmt es / mit gól-den-/-em Kám-me,

repeats the pattern we have already ascertained. I have marked it as being metrically identical to the poem’s first line, ich weiss nicht, was soll es bedeuten, rhythmically fitting for the introduction to the poem’s second half, but goldenem has the same basic problem as goldenes and can be interpreted gold’nem for two amphibrachs and a trochee. But this contraction in turn implies the contraction of sie kämmt es into sie kämmt’s, which seems more than a little bit at odds with Heine’s prosodic program thus far, and resolves the whole line as

Sie kämmt’s / mit góld-/-nem Kám-me,

i.e., two iambs leading into an amphibrach, here understood as the feminine-rhyme extension of an iamb. In other words, the line’s apparent prosodic contractions resolve this line into an iambic rhythm when the preceding feminine lines have all been decidedly non-iambic. This in turn suggests what Heine has in mind is a languid line, where the contractions (though present) are ignored in order to rhythmically develop the amphibrachic launch into iambic release we have seen drive the poem’s entire rhythmic pattern thus far.

The second line,

Und síngt / ein Liéd / da-béi;,

is also noticeably quicker than the previous, being (1) fully iambic, and (2) mainly composed of high open sounds, especially on the stresses: /’sɪŋkt/, /’lit/, /da’baɪ/. Hence, unlike the previous line, which seems to have been deliberately composed in such a way as to take some time to develop, this line is not only clearly fully iambic, but has been prosodically arranged to rush to a rhythmic conclusion. Rhythmically speaking, this implies this entire poem has been composed with a slow-quick-slow-quick succession in mind, with the “slow” lines being primarily amphibrachic, and the “quick” ones iambic.

However, as we move to our third line,

Das hát / ei-ne wún-/-der-sám-e,

we find ourselves unavoidably hit with an iamb. Either the iamb occurs on the line’s first foot, or it does on the second. Worse, the alternate foot must be an anapest, which is to be read here as an extended iamb, and implies that the final foot, an amphibrach to make the feminine rhyme, is an iambic extension. In other words, no matter how we scan this line, it has to be of fundamentally iambic shape. This is, we should now note, the first unambiguously-iambic feminine line in the entire poem.

It also segues into

Ge-wál-/-ti-ge Mél-/-o-déi.

The middle foot can be either an anapest (as shown) or an iamb (with the contraction gewalt’ge Melodei). It does not matter either way. This is an iambic line. Interestingly enough, though, unlike the previous masculine line, und singt ein Lied dabei, the stressed vowels are a bit lower and more closed, yielding a somewhat more sedate line.

This quatrain begins a new development of Lorelei‘s main rhythmic motif. With every line having either a potential or unambiguous iambic resolution, the quatrain, as a whole, is itself iambic, and being iambic, is of necessarily quicker pace than the amphibrachic/iambic alternations we had seen in previous quatrains. In particular, the quatrain as a whole has a quickening-fast-fast-slowing pace to it, perhaps echoing a melodic movement in the tune this poem is set to.

Let us now segue to the penultimate quatrain,

Den Schiffer im kleinen Schiffe
Ergreift es mit wildem Weh;
Er schaut nicht die Felsenriffe,
Er schaut nur hinauf in die Höh.

Our first line,

Den Schíf-fer / im kléi-nen / Schíf-fe

(literally, “the skiffer in a little skiff”), follows the same amphibrach-amphibrach-trochee sequence we should by now be familiar with, further signaling a return to the tonic tune from the quickened previous quatrain. It is succeeded by

Er-gréift es / mit wíl-/-dem Wéh;,

which, especially when the first stanza contracts to ergreift’s (hence why I put the foot there), is fully iambic. There’s also a sort of singsong undertone to this part of the poem, with Schiffer and Schiffe being, of course, variants of the same word, and wildem Weh being — something we now first notice in this entire poem — alliterative. It’s almost like Heine is using mnemonics to launch out on a new narrative idea here.

The next line,

Er scháut nicht / die Fél-sen-/-ríf-fe,

echoes, again, the amphibrachic feminine lines which have been a general hallmark of the poem. It is succeeded by

Er scháut / nur hín-auf / in die Höh.

This line is the melodic opposite of das hat eine wundersame, an “iambic” line that does not seem to be particularly iambic. In die Höh is clearly a cohesive anapestic phrase, but the scansion of er schaut nur hinauf is not particularly clear: German’s prosody has been much more strongly phrasal than English’s, with feet flexibly stretching and contracting in order to, in general, match phrasal boundaries, and this means the unclear assignment of nur (or perhaps even that er schaut nur hinauf might be a unitary phrase with two beats) makes it difficult to ascertain whether the foot goes before or after nur. In the end, I went with before, because I wanted to have an actual iamb in our theoretically-iambic masculine line.

There are also two other things to note here: first, that there is a third mnemonic in both of the quatrain’s last two lines starting with er schaut, and second, that Weh and Höh have been made to rhyme, suggesting that, to Heine, their realization was “wuh” and “huh”, respectively. In other words, that the vowels in Weh and Höh may not necessarily have merged, as the ones in bedeuten and Zeiten did, but rather that they were understood to converge, perhaps due to a rhyme that worked in a previous phase of the language but has since broken (like Marlowe’s love/prove).

We have now arrived at the poem’s final quatrain:

Ich glaube, die Wellen verschlingen
Am Ende Schiffer und Kahn;
Und das hat mit ihrem Singen
Die Lorelei getan.

This is, of course, the darkest quatrain in the whole poem, suggesting that its golden Lorelei (Rhine references to “gold” often alluding to the fabled treasure of the Volsungs in Germanic mythology) was a siren singing boatmen to their doom on the river.

When we look at the first line of this quatrain,

Ich gláu-be, / die Wél-len / ver-schlín-gen,

we find a line that is prosodically identical to the poem’s first, and one that hasn’t been stretched to fit, either. It is followed up by

Am Én-/-de Schíf-fer / und Káhn;,

a line that better resolves with the contraction am Ende Schiff’r und Kahn, but nevertheless retains its iambic shape, and one that slams hard into what is the most metrically opaque line so far:

Und das hat mit ihrem Singen.

We can see that hat and Sing- are two beats, but where is the third? Is it on the leading und, yielding a trochee into a dactyl into an amphibrach: únd das / hát mit ih-/-rem Sín-gen? Or is on ihrem, yielding an anapest into an iamb into an amphibrach: und das hát / mit íh-/-rem Sín-gen? To make things worse, the line’s phrasal prosody — und das hat / mit ihrem Singen — more neatly fits the latter, iambic, approach to the line, while the rhyme scheme and its attendant rhythm more clearly fit the former, more amphibrachic — here clearly trochaic — approach.

While we saw an amphibrachic line resolve iambically earlier, I think, in part because und (“and”) seems better at holding a beat than ihrem (“you(r?)”), and in part because Heine most likely did not wish to do so twice in the same poem, that this line should resolve as a trochee-dactyl-amphibrach (or perhaps ditrochee-third paeon) sequence:

Únd das / hát mit ih-/-rem Sín-gen.

Which brings us to the very easy to resolve, and obviously iambic, final line:

Die Lór-/-e-léi / ge-tán.

Further Thoughts

So what have we learned from this exercise? First, that German remains prosodically qualitative — unlike in English prosody, where beats became intimately tied to expressions of specific feet, in German prosody, both foot and phrase mattered in the compositional process. It is significantly more difficult to compose in e.g. iambic pentameter in German than in English, with structural phrases (e.g. mit einem) stretching across more syllables. German’s intonational stress is also stronger than English’s, allowing its prosodic feet to have one foot, so to speak, in the intervalistic realm of classical poetry, and the other in the phrasal realm of ancient Germanic poetry. (This is in contrast to English’s full embracing of interval-based poetics, and the development of phrasal poetics with the breakdown of available moraic distinctions in the Romance languages.)

Heine’s Lorelei is, in terms of form, a ballad. Unlike in English’s ballad meter, which alternates tetrametric and trimetric lines, Lorelei alternates long prosodic phrases with short ones, a distinction that seems to be best understood as being rooted in an alternation of (loosely) amphibrachic and (loosely) iambic lines, with the rhyme scheme signaling which of these opposed schema we should be looking for in a particular line. In other words, in Lorelei, instead of using an extra beat to begin a phrasal theme, Heine uses longer intervals, and shortens them to end it. It’s quite a different approach than what we commonly find in English poetry.

It’s also worth pointing out that this exercise demonstrates that you can scan a language you do not necessarily intimately know, so long as you know its overarching prosodic rules (providing they are regular, of course). I am nowhere near as familiar with German as I am with the Romance languages, but I know, on a high level, how the language ought to behave prosodically, and with this information I can find a line’s beats.

Terry Pratchett’s “Jingo”

41jhzesnlelThe late Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series is one of my personal favorites — hilariously witty, sardonic, and occasionally accused, justifiably, of literature. The Disc is both world and mirror of worlds, and in this vast and rangy series, Pratchett deep and complex themes in what is above all his fun way of writing.

Discworld is not best tackled as a unified series, but rather as groups of series set within the overarching continuity of the Disc setting. Beyond that, there are three phases to the Discworld novels as a whole: their formative phase, where the setting and parodic humor are substantially more important; the mature phase, where the setting drops into the background and the novels become more character-driven; and the late phase, where themes that slowly developed during the mature phase start to come together into a greater arc spanning the whole of the Disc.

We’ve begun our exploration of the Disc by tackling the Watch novels, the subgroup of eight novels that are one of the Discworld’s two flagship sub-series. Last time we explored Feet of Clay; this time, we will continue the marvelous misadventures of Commander Vimes, Carrot, Colon, Cpl. C. W. St J. “Nobby” Nobbs, Angua, Detritus, and the out-and-proud-of-it (about being female, that is) dwarf Cheery Littlebottom in its sequel, Jingo.

The mysterious island of Leshp has risen from the depths of the Circle Sea! Unfortunately, Ankh-Morpork and Klatchian fishermen were fishing in the vicinity when it appeared, and both have laid claim to the place. As Ankh-Morpork and Klatch — the Circle Sea’s two most dominant states — can best be thought of as being in a state of guarded peace, Leshp’s appearance can only further exacerbate tensions. Calls for war begin to ring out in both Ankh-Morpork and Klatch, and at the heart of it all, Commander Vimes suspects there’s a crime going on.

He’s right.

Said crimes, of course, include “behavior likely to cause a breach of the peace” (because “that’s what warfare is”), “conspiracy to cause an affray, going equipped to commit a crime, obstruction, threatening behavior, loitering with intent, loitering within tent, traveling for the purposes of committing a crime, malicious lingering, and carrying concealed weapons” (p. 403).

But, as the situation deteriorates, Ankh-Morpork’s war hawks prevail on Lord Vetinari to step down, and his replacement, Lord Rust, is … less than competent. To top it all off, Angua’s stowed away on a Klatchian ship a-spying and Carrot, earnest boyfriend that he is, worries something’s happened to her. (He is, of course, right.) With Rust trying to force his will on Vimes’ Watch, Angua missing, and open hostilities right around the corner, Vimes is forced to make tough choices, choices which ultimately lead to the difference between life and death.

He even has a buggy Dis-organizer to tell him exactly that.

In the first three Watch novels, Vimes and Co. were concerned mainly with small crimes, crimes like homicides, which in turn led to much bigger ones (usually conspiracies to unseat Vetinari). Here, Vimes knows in his water the crime is much, much bigger: not just a crime affecting the internal politics of Ankh-Morpork but one affecting the broader international community. Leshp is at the tip of the iceberg; both Ankh-Morpork and Klatch have been jonesing for war for some time now, and the place is mainly an excuse.

But when it comes to warfare, neither side wants to be seen as the aggressor, and so the diplomatic game hinges on creating conditions whether both sides can argue they’re acting in self-defense — one, usually dishonestly. Vimes knows this. And he’s absolutely certain that it’s his own Ankh-Morporkian kith and kin acting in bad faith. Naturally, along the way, he meets his Klatchian counterpart — who, likewise, believes it’s his own kith and kin acting dishonestly. Who is right?

At its core, Jingo is thus a meditation on war, on the causes of war, and on its effects. As Vimes and Co. race to figure out what’s going on before said behavior likely to cause a breach of the peace causes a breach of the peace, he has to figure it out, and fast.

Naturally, the Discworld’s version of Julius Caesar or Sun Tzu, General Tacticus, becomes a major theme of this novel. Elsewhere in the series, we learned that Tacticus was the most effective general Ankh-Morpork ever had, one whose effectiveness was in part due to a refusal to play by the same rules numbskulls like Lord Rust liked to, and because of this, when Genua wrote to Ankh-Morpork needing a king, Tacticus was made a duke and sent off, where, naturally, his first action on getting crowned was to assess Genua’s threats, paramount of which was … Ankh-Morpork.

In Jingo, the Librarian lends Vimes a copy of Tacticus before he sets off, and Tacticus quotes come into play several times in the novel, yielding some of Pratchett’s best lines, lines such as: “When a defender occupies an impregnable fortress, see that he stays there”, or “when outmanned, outmaneuvered, and outgunned, don’t have a battle”. As Vimes seeks the truth, we see how badly Rust has ignored Tacticus’ advice — at Jingo’s climax, Rust is about to try to assault the enemy’s impregnable fortress with an outmanned, outmaneuvered, and outgunned army — the question is, in fact, whether Vimes can figure out what’s going on before Rust leads Ankh-Morpork to certain disaster.

So far in the series, Vimes has been antipolitical. Not so much apolitical: he speaks his mind with brutal honesty, and this is a quality that Vetinari prizes in him but also thinks of as a weakness. But in Jingo, we see the next major change in the Watch novels’ tenor — by the end of the novel, Vetinari sees the political value of Vimes’ antipolitical approach to politics, thus setting us up for the next novel, The Fifth Elephant, where Vetinari throws Vimes to the political wolves.

In Jingo, in short, the Watch goes from CSI: Ankh-Morpork to Homeland: Discworld. And as always, Terry Pratchett makes sure we enjoy the ride.

Liu Cixin’s “The Three-Body Problem”

516e9-tjddl._sx329_bo1204203200_The Three-Body Problem is one of the more popular sci-fi works to have come out in recent years. Set in a near-future, slightly cyberpunk universe, the work is fundamentally a first-contact novel — a common sci-fi theme (e.g. Stranger in a Strange Land is also a first-contact novel) — but what makes it different, and interesting, is the mode of contact: through, in a complex way, a video game that introduces the alien culture to an earth audience. The way the game, Three Body, was described in the novel kept making me think of No Man’s Land (not that I’ve ever played it.)

Oh, and that this novel is a Chinese sci-fi novel. I strongly suspect its origin has played an outsize role in its popularity.

In speculative genres like sci-fi, though, the topos of the work is really a commentary on the intellectual and social conditions which inspired its creation, and this is perhaps no more true than in the first-contact genre, where the eventuality of meeting an alien culture for the first time drives questions about one’s own culture. Historically, this genre tended to be quite optimistic — though one can point out that sci-fi in general was quite optimistic before cyberpunk — and Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land, despite its title’s melancholy pathos, was textually an extremely optimistic novel, where humanity freely learnt from the Martians.

The Three-Body Problem is not so optimistic. On the contrary, in fact: It comes across as surprisingly pessimistic, but pessimistic in a way that its first half deliberately veils. Why should this be the case? One can well point out that the megatext a Chinese author responds to is necessarily different than that an American one would: the Cultural Revolution and the modern “capitalism with Chinese characteristics” China both play outsize background roles in its thematic development, yielding a driving theme of ostracism and then isolation among the intellectual elite and characters who’ve been so horrifically broken they’ve become sociopaths … It is in this way that the Three-Body Problem reveals its cyberpunk chops.

It is difficult to further expand on the book without giving spoilers, but suffice it to say that, the more the work develops, the darker it gets. It is by no means a perfect book — I found several characters and situations difficult to believe, and I rather suspect something important in the aesthetics was lost in translation — but, while I disagree with the sociological thesis the novel develops (I am still, in my heart, an optimist, and favor Heinlein’s cautious optimism), I still found it a gripping tale of first contact with immense forward drive.

Rating? Borrow, don’t buy, and be prepared to wait a while for your turn in the hold order.

Homosexuality in the “Divine Comedy”

One of the Divine Comedy‘s most shocking moments, as Anthony Esolen points out in his introduction to Inferno, is when Dante meets his mentor, Brunetto Latini, in the seventh circle of Hell, with those who are sexually violent against God — traditionally given as the Sodomites.

To understand the context of this scene, Brunetto Latini was Dante’s mentor in his youth and adolescence, and at the time, his — Latini’s, that is — Books of the Treasury and its digest, the Tesoretto or “Little Treasury” were both one of Dante’s major sources and, in the mold of Saint Isidore of Seville’s Etymologiaesomething of an encyclopedia of the era. Yet, despite the affection Dante regularly shows Brunetto, he places him in Hell. Why?

The argument has long gone that Brunetto’s place on the Seventh Circle shows him an unrepentant sodomite, and in Dante’s encounter with him, Brunetto points out others like him: “[Pedagogue] Priscian”, “Francis d’Accorso”, and, elliptically, the bishop Andrea da Mozzi, transferred from Florence to Vicenza due to a sodomy scandal. In his notes, Esolen notes that a medieval pedagogue was a teacher of schoolboys — and the third character Brunetto names is a cleric mired in scandal and moved to a new city. (Sound familiar?) The middle doesn’t quite fit as much: d’Accorso was apparently a professor of law during the period — perhaps Dante was aware of certain infidelities?

A reading of just the Inferno raises no questions. But when we read the Purgatorio, we find that, on the seventh circle of the Mount of Purgatory, where sins of lust are cleansed, half of the souls move about the circle clockwise and the other half counterclockwise, depending on, well, whose team one’s lust batted for. In other words, the Purgatorio presents homosexuality as a common affliction of mankind, with perhaps as many as half of all people affected by it.

It goes further, though: high on the Mount of Purgatory, on the terrace of gluttony, Dante meets his old blackguard, close friend, and brother-in-law Forese Donati. A sonnet cycle between Dante and Forese Donati, the Tenzoneexists, one which, if taken as authentic (naturally there’s debate on the topic, but I see no reason why not), greatly informs the interaction between the two in Purgatorio.

Dante and Forese were close, to put it mildly. Very, very close. In Purgatorio, Forese Donati says he owes his position on the terrace of gluttony — far, far higher than, for example, Dante’s slothful friend Farinata (who has yet to make it past so-called “Ante-Purgatory) — to the fervid prayers of his wife, a wife he neglected in life in favor of, ahem, antics with Dante. Why would the closeness between Forese and Dante be contrasted to the chilliness between him and his wife? The contrast seems more than just amicable.

The exchange is further a parallel of the one between Dante and Brunetto back on the Seventh Circle of Hell (as Durling and Martinez point out in their translation). It’s not spelled out, precisely, but the implication is clear: the antics Dante got up to with Forese were of a kind of the antics Brunetto got up to that landed him down on the Seventh Circle. Despite damning Brunetto, thus, Dante needs to believe that homosexuality in itself is a redeemable sin.

Herein lies the problem: the Seventh Circle is beyond the gates of Dis, and in the geography of Inferno, the gates of Dis represent the boundary between venal and mortal sin, where venial sin is redeemable — each terrace of the Mountain of Purgatory is dedicated to the purgation, or cleansing, of a venial sin — while mortal sin is not. Hence Dante is telling us, in Inferno, that sodomy is a mortal sin while at the same time telling us in Purgatorio that homosexuality is a venial sin (and, as a sin of lust, the least “sinful” of sins, so to speak, on top of that).

Dante is forcing us to draw a contrast between sodomy and homosexuality — one most commentators ignore. If homosexuality is a sin of lust, then most of the homosexuals in Hell should be found in the first circle, just as there are two groups on the seventh terrace of Purgatory, homosexual and heterosexual. By contrast, Dante is accusing Brunetto Latini not of a sin of lust but rather of violence against God. This, Purgatorio tells us, cannot be mere homosexuality. Sodomy is something far worse.

Recalling here who Brunetto was found with — the “pedagogue” Priscian, as Esolen identifies him in his translation, and the disgraced bishop Andrea da Mozzi — and Brunetto’s history with Dante, we can start to divine what it is, exactly, sodomy is. The lustfulness of sodomy is not what makes it mortal and therefore unredeemable; the violence is. The sin being punished on the Seventh Circle is not homosexuality, I would argue, but rape (in particular, pederastic rape).

Brunetto Latini was Dante’s mentor at a very impressionable age, and Latini was among the most well-read men in Florence at the time. He was almost certainly aware of Plato’s dialogues (in translation), and in at least two of these dialogues — the Charmides and Symposium — Plato, through Socrates, defends the Ancient Greek practice of pedagogic pederasty. So why do we find Brunetto in the same circle of Hell with a bishop whose scandal seems all-too-typical in our day and age, and a grammarian obliquely accused of being lustful towards schoolboys? Because Brunetto’s sin — a sin Dante must have been intimately aware of — wasn’t just homosexuality: it was forcing himself upon a minor in his charge.

Dante goes out of his way in Purgatorio to establish that homosexuality is not unnatural, that homosexuality in and of itself is not the same as sodomy, and because of this he is, obliquely, telling us what Brunetto Latini’s real sin is, the sin that damned him to the Seventh Circle of Hell: Brunetto Latini raped boys. Specifically, Dante.

Dante’s “Divine Comedy”

michelino_danteandhispoemOver the last two weeks, we’ve discussed the Divine Comedy’s three major parts: the Inferno, in which Dante goes to Hell; the Purgatorio, in which he emerges on the Mountain of Purgatory and ascends it, eventually broaching the Garden of Eden, and the Paradiso, in which he ascends Heaven and eventually reaches the Godhead.

The Divine Comedy is easily the greatest piece of medieval literature, far more so than any chanson de geste or even that French exploration of psychology The Romance of the Rose (which Dante was possibly — probably? — aware of). Built on the twin models of the Bible and classical — and by “classical”, here we mostly mean Latin — literature, and employing an incessant terza rima rhyme scheme, meant to evoke the Trinity, the Divine Comedy, as Dante himself said, is meant to be readable on four different levels — possibly coincidentally, depending on how well Dante knew Aristotle, associated with the Four Causes theory. These four levels are the same four levels operative in medieval Biblical exegesis, in which commentators sought meanings hidden behind meanings.

As such, Dante approached his poem in much the same way a machinist might approach a piece of round stock, molding its themes, great and small, throughout. The work is massively circular, built not around the jagged mountain-peak plot of modern narrative theory but rather a sense of symmetry, with the main excursus on love — a key theme — occurring right in the middle of the Purgatorio, dead center of the Comedy as a whole: a feat of remarkable workmanship!

It is also a subtly gradated work, suggesting a whole trajectory of human experience (though “experience” is perhaps too limiting a word to describe what Dante seems to be going for here). Early in the work, in the more juvenile Inferno, Dante focuses on human interactions and relationships; as the poet climbs Purgatory, the focus slowly shifts away from the human world to that of the intellectual, becoming more and more philosophical and, in so being, at least by medieval thinking, “divine”.

By the time we’ve passed the middle of the Paradiso, we’ve all but lost all connection with the sense of humans as individuals (an almost driving theme of Dante’s interviews in Inferno) as the human soul — in some sense a fragment of God embedded in flesh, perhaps — returns to the source from whence it came, until at last Dante experiences God, the thing, as Pratchett’s dwarves would say, and the whole of the thing.

Thus we have in the Divine Comedy not just the “literal” chronicle of the poet’s mystical journey through the afterlife, an allegorical understanding of the progression of human experience — what drives it towards or away from its final cause, its ultimate goal, its telos — and from that its moral sense, that we ought to be proceeding towards our final cause (rather than away from it), i.e., anagogically, God. No other writer of any kind, before or since, has attempted to create a work of such supreme Biblical depth as Dante does in the Divine Comedy.

Whether or not one agrees with Dante’s theology is of course besides the point. Certainly no modern would put Mohammed (popularly, and falsely, believed by medieval Christians to be a heretical bishop) deep in the bowels of Hell; nor would we make the damnation of Limbo even a possibility. Dante’s conception of Empire smacks of theocracy, which, with our goal of secular and humanist governance, we are leery of.

What we should instead be admiring is Dante’s vast range and gift, his ability to express vibrant personalities through a handful of strokes of the pen, and then use that same pen to express esoteric philosophical and theological concepts in a poetic treatise à la Pope’s Essays on Criticism and Man, and finally, the ability to develop ideas, themes, and characters over time — Dante’s Virgil is a beautifully-developed character — and subtle understanding not just of excellence but of flaws as well.

Dante’s Virgil, as Durling and Martinez point out in their translation, ultimately damned himself because he turned away from the prophecy he was given (according to Dante, remember); thus, despite knowing Statius for far less time than we know Virgil, the contrast between the two in Purgatorio’s second half is expressive of the full range of Dante’s ability to develop character, one which remains IMO substantially underappreciated, even in modern literature.

The Divine Comedy, at 14,234 lines in all, is of a piece with Homer’s Iliad (15,693 lines) and Odyssey (12,110 lines), but due to its greater complexity takes far longer to read than either of those. To read the whole Comedy, along with a good commentary apparatus, takes about a month! — At least that’s how long it took me.

Dante’s “Paradiso”

250px-paradiso_canto_31Dante goes to Heaven.

Paradiso is the last installment of his Divine Comedy, Dante’s geography of the afterlife, the first major masterpiece of world literature in a vernacular European tongue, and literature’s first “trilogy” as well. Just as Inferno featured the poet’s exploration of Hell, and Purgatorio Purgatory, Paradiso is centered around his exploration of Heaven.

Of the three, Paradiso is the most “scientific” part of the Divine Comedy. Where the Inferno was focused mainly on human relationships, on the characters Dante interviews in Hell, Paradiso is focused mainly on knowledge and esoterica. In it, Dante lays forth his take on Scholastic philosophy — Scholasticism was the principal form of medieval philosophy — as well as his (frankly quaint) understanding of astronomy, among other things.

We see in Paradiso the Ptolemaic Earth-centered Universe, as Dante ascends the spheres ruled by the planets one by one: the Moon, Mercury, Venus, the Sun, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, the Fixed Stars, the Primum Mobile, and at last the Empyrean, the realm of God Himself. Along the way, he meets various souls of the saved, ranging from Dante’s own ancestor Cacciaguida to the theologian saints Thomas Aquinas and Augustine, to the monastic saints Benedict and Francis of Assisi, to, eventually, the founders of the Church itself, such as Saint Peter and Saint John (who, according to Dante’s understanding, wrote the Gospel and the Apocalypse associated with his name).

It is from these characters he learns the actual way the world works. (Of course, these explanations are quaintly obsolete by modern-day standards.) Much of this understanding has been foreshadowed in the Comedy’s previous parts, most importantly Dante’s understanding of the symbiotic nature of Church and Empire, which the Church providing God’s carrot, as it were, and the Empire His stick — Dante’s politics are inescapable, even here. But it also includes a variety of excursuses, ranging from the “true” nature of the Moon’s spots to the influences of the planets and stars on Man, with the discussions becoming more arid the further up Dante ascends.

Ultimately, in the Primum Mobile, Dante must show his mastery of theology to be permitted to enter the last sphere: the Empyrean. It is here that we see the true nature of Heaven, the souls’ audience of God, and were, at last, Dante experiences the Godhead, a point of mystical sublimity where his pen fails him. And it is with this — at last experiencing God — that Dante’s long journey is complete, and with it his Comedy as well.

I must note that Dante’s Empyrean is a fairly hellish Heaven, in my eyes. For Dante, the ultimate goal of the Universe is subsumption of self in the oneness of God; yet such an end state is unsatisfactory for anyone who values their individual nature (and of course one of the underlying tenets of American society is individualism: is God anti-American?). I frankly greatly favor the vision of the afterlife Borges offers in “The Library of Babel”, or, better still, a realm of perfect learning where I can peruse all the world’s knowledge at my leisure.

That said, Paradiso is not “complete” in the same way Virgil’s Aeneid is not “complete”. As the Hollanders note in the commentary to their translation, Paradiso suffers from a number of subtle contradictions, the biggest one being where the souls in Heaven actually spend their time (Canto II implies the planets are made of congealed — crystallized! — souls, while of course all the souls of Heaven are supposed to be assembled in the Empyrean, as stated in later cantos). According to legend, the Paradiso’s last four cantos were discovered among Dante’s papers after his death. Just like the Aeneid, then, what we have is an advanced draft, but one that likely needed another year or two of editing to bring to a final state of polish.

This is perhaps the way Dante wanted it.

If you read: It’s hard to find a bad Dante translation. Robert Pinsky’s is obviously the best poetic translation, maintaining the terza rima Dante uses, while Anthony Esolen (with commentary from a Christian perspective) and Allen Mandelbaum both proffer competent blank verse (though I object to Esolen’s bad habit of enjambing in prepositional phrases).

The Durling/Martinez and Hollander versions are much more scholarly, revealing the sheer scale of Dante’s system of references and allusions, but Hollander uses free verse, which utterly destroys Dante’s Italian’s taut rhythm, and Durling/Martinez’s translation’s just straight prose (though each tercet is treated as a single paragraph or perhaps line; there are worse prose translations available).

Personally, I would say that Pinsky’s poetics and Durling/Martinez’s commentary apparatus would give you the best possible Divine Comedy reading experience available in English, almost of a piece with a scholarly Italian edition of the epic.

Dante’s “Purgatorio”

interior_dante_divinecomedy_pur_09_1Last time, we reviewed and discussed Dante’s Inferno, the first installment of the OG trilogy, his Divine Comedy. His Inferno ends with Virgil leading Dante out of the very pit of Hell, where Satan resides, trapped in the frozen Cocytus, up the passage of an underground river, and to the base of a mountain on the far side of the world.

Literally. Dante locates his Purgatory at the antipode of Jerusalem. In doing so, he constructs a sacred axis of the earth, a path from the land hemisphere, through Purgation, and on to Heaven. It’s a foretaste of what’s to come, for Dante’s Purgatorio — his ascent of the mountain of Purgatory, is absolutely obsessed with axial relationships.

Where the Inferno is a masterpiece of rapid character development, built around an enduring theme of schadenfreude on its protagonist’s part, the Purgatorio is a masterpiece of “turning”. The text is almost perfectly symmetrically balanced, with Dante and Virgil beginning the work by coming up for air, as it were, on the shores of this distant desert mountain and meeting its genius lociCato the Younger. Here we see souls of the saved deposited at the mountain’s base, and learn from Cato its purpose: it is Purgatory, the place where the saved come to cleanse themselves of the taint of sin before ascending to Heaven.

As we start climbing the mountain, we realize its base is a sort of “Ante-Purgatory”, a region where souls who repented late must wait before entering Purgatory proper. And it is in Ante-Purgatory where we both rekindle themes common to the Comedy as a whole — such as its acerbic political commentary on the affairs of late 13th century Europe, and its ongoing polemic about the decadence of the Church — as well as meet new themes unique to Purgatory. For, in Dante’s meeting Casella in Ante-Purgatory, we find our relationships with others is less about the sheer joy in seeing them meeting their just desserts, as it is in Inferno, and more about reuniting with long-lost friends and colleagues. As Dante ascends the mountain, he finds childhood and early-adulthood friends he was cordial with, and sees how they are being cleansed of their sins’ taint.

Purgatorio itself slowly colors from the personal poem of Inferno, where Dante the protagonist interviews souls of the damned, and where they (both implicitly and explicitly) demonstrate the reasons for their damnation, towards a more intellectual and snobbish poem, especially as they ascend higher and higher on the mountain. On its lower reaches, we get to examine the purgation process in detail, discovering that it is a series of object lessons the saved must work their way through before achieving the summit, but it’s right in the middle where we meet one of the poem’s more colorful characters: Statius.

Statius wrote the Thebaidone of Dante’s source texts, and in Purgatorio he makes him a secretly saved Christian: someone who read Virgil’s fourth Eclogue, and understood, and so was saved, and Statius comes along, not coincidentally, just as Virgil’s knowledge and ability as a guide starts to flag. (For Dante, Virgil was ultimately damned for turning his back on the opportunity for salvation that Eclogue offered). It is with Statius, and his extended discussion on embryology, then, that we realize the poem itself’s turned about its great axis, moving from the themes which animated Inferno and Purgatorio’s first half to those which would dominate Paradiso.

As we move further up the mountain, Virgil’s importance as a guide slowly but surely recedes, replaced by that of Statius, as he, being saved, has a better understanding of the workings of things so close to God. But, just as more intellectual discussions could be found in Inferno, and interviews will continue to be found into Paradiso, we still meet others on Purgatory’s upper terraces, such as Forese and the poet Guido Guinizelli, as they deal with the more venial sins like lust and gluttony.

At last, we reach the top — the Earthly Paradise — the Garden of Eden — a garden whose representation surely owes a debt to The Romance of the Rose and its ilk, and it’s there where Dante at last meets Beatrice and Virgil, who is, after all, damned, trapped in the Elysian Hell that is Limbo, must take his leave.

What is perhaps surprising about meeting Beatrice here, especially given Dante’s idolization of her, a trait we saw in La vita nuova, is the way she so rounds on him when they meet in Eden! She harangues him for straying! And he must admit the guilt of his own sins, his own inner taint! Beatrice here feels less like the Pygmalion’s statue Dante otherwise tends to characterize her as and more like the actual human being he must have known in life.

And at last, in Eden, Dante bears witness to the poem’s largest and most-developed scene of prophetic vision: an apocalyptic procession, hints of a staging of divine forces to right what has gone wrong. It is a powerful vision, one that stretches out over several cantos, and as it ends, Dante is at last ready to take the next and last step in his dream-quest of the afterlife.

Purgatorio is an exquisite piece of poetry: complex, thematically dense, readable on multiple levels (as Dante says in his Epistle to Cangrande — a text Hollander points out is authentic early in his Paradiso commentary — the poem is meant to be read, like the Bible, on four different levels). With its complex themes of turning and balance, it is as a middle way between the grotesque of Hell and the inhuman etherialness of Heaven.

If you read: It’s hard to find a bad Dante translation. Robert Pinsky’s is obviously the best poetic translation, maintaining the terza rima Dante uses, while Anthony Esolen (with commentary from a Christian perspective) and Allen Mandelbaum both proffer competent blank verse (though I object to Esolen’s bad habit of enjambing in prepositional phrases).

The Durling/Martinez and Hollander versions are much more scholarly, revealing the sheer scale of Dante’s system of references and allusions, but Hollander uses free verse, which utterly destroys Dante’s Italian’s taut rhythm, and Durling/Martinez’s translation’s just straight prose (though each tercet is treated as a single paragraph or perhaps line; there are worse prose translations available).

Personally, I would say that Pinsky’s poetics and Durling/Martinez’s commentary apparatus would give you the best possible Divine Comedy reading experience available in English, almost of a piece with a scholarly Italian edition of the epic.


Incidentally, Jerusalem’s actual antipode is a blank patch of Pacific blue.

Dante’s “Inferno”

bertram-de-born.jpglargeDante’s Divine Comedy was the first great trilogy in all of literature. In this trilogy, Dante, accompanied by Virgil, Statius, and eventually his beloved Beatrice, descend into the very pit of Hell, ascend the mountain of Purgatory, and finally reach the heavens. At exactly 100 cantos long and as densely packed with allusions as anything by John Milton, including to itself, the Comedy as a whole is one of the fattest, richest, and most impenetrable major works a reader can breach.

Fortunately, it’s divided into three major parts, or “canticles”, of which the Inferno is the first.

We first meet Dante, a despairing poet very near death, in a harsh dark wood below a mountain, confronted by three beasts (representing his principal vices), where none other than the great Virgil, his own Muse of craft, hails him, shoos the beasts away, and tells him his beloved Beatrice has ordained a pilgrimage of the afterlife for him. Just her name exerts a mesmerizing hold on Dante, and he gladly follows his long-gone mentor … straight into the great yawning pit of Hell.

Here the Comedy begins in force. Once we’ve passed the gates of Hell, with their famous inscription ending Abandon All Hope, Ye Who Enter Here, and cross the Acheron, Dante finds himself in Limbo, the pleasantest region of all Hell, what Virgil understood as the Elysian Fields in life, and home to unbaptized babies and virtuous pagans, gentiles, Muslims, and such (Averroes and Saladin, for example, both show up here).

Once we leave Limbo’s Rivendell, we begin to witness the punishments not just of souls who were never blessed to begin with (on account of not being Christian) but were, in fact, damned, damned for living in sin and never repenting. And the deeper into Hell we go, the worse the punishments become.

We begin by witnessing the punishment of those given over to lust, those conquered by the thralldom of erotic love, implying this is the least despicable and hence least severe of the punishments we will witness. From there, we quickly drop through the other fairly common vices (avarice, wrath, and such), until we reach the gates of Dis, the great City of Hell (which prefigured Milton’s Pandemonium).

There, Virgil is stopped by demons who refuse to open the gate — until, that is, an angel descends and forcibly opens the gate for our pilgrims, reminding us that the pilgrims are blessed from on high, and no matter where in the Universe they make their stronghold (though, of course, Milton’s prideful Lucifer would have us believe otherwise), demons are powerless against the will and grace of God. It is then that we pass from the sins of body to those of the heart, the more severe and severely-punished transgressions.

As we descend deeper and deeper into Hell, we find the boneyard wood of the suicides, one of the creepiest settings ever imagined, and then Dante’s own mentor being punished for unnatural sexual transgression (very definitely homosexuality, and one wonders perhaps pederasty even more so). And eventually we find the comical realm of Malebolge (“evil bags”), home of the fraudulent, of those who give false counsel, and so on.

Dante’s passage through Malebolge is the funniest and most entertaining part of the Inferno, where the demons charged with enforcing the sinners’ punishment so often end up just punishing themselves instead, but all good things must come to an end, and as we go deeper into the blank pit of Tartarus we find the chained giants and eventually, at the very center of things, the frozen wasteland of Cocytus, where those guilty of betrayal — first against kin, then nation — are punished.

And in the center, in Judecca, the land of realm of Judas, we find Satan himself, a perverse anti-Trinity constantly chewing on (in Dante’s view) the three greatest betrayers in human history: Brutus and Cassius, who betrayed Caesar, and Judas, who betrayed Christ (one is reminded of the professor who went stark raving mad, announcing he would serve his master Judas in Hell, from Borges’ “Three Visions of Judas”).

This Hell is hardly the fiery furnace featured in most popular depictions of the place. Cocytus is, instead, literally ice-cold, bleakly icy because, at the center of the Earth, it is quite literally the furthest from God one can exist in the cosmos. In fact, shockingly little of Hell features that characteristic fire — Dante excels at imagery and at fitting punishment to the crime, making the punishment a grotesque parody of the crime, and so, for example, the suicide who would wish to efface themself from this Earth finds themself effaced as a tree just beyond the fiery Phlogiston in Hell, or those who sought to deceive with flowery words find themselves stuck, for all eternity, in a pit filled with shit.

Perhaps the biggest reason Inferno has the most staying power of all the Comedy is because of its schadenfreude. The Divine Comedy is an immensely complex work — more than just a tour of the afterlife, a commentary on Dante’s politics and philosophy, and in the Inferno we see deliciously apt punishments dished out to those the great poet thought were destroying Italy. We have Farinata, who disbelieved the soul lived after death, cursed with the weight of his own existence; and just as picturesquely, we have Ruggieri and Ugolino deep in Cocytus’ Antenora region, both betraying the other, both betraying Pisa, both betraying Italy. We have this wealth of stories offered by the damned, almost always stories justifying their actions in life (for, remember, damnation is reserved for the unrepentant) and we have the sheer naked glee Dante takes in their fates, a glee that keeps growing until, late in their pilgrimage through Hell, Virgil checks him, pointing out that taking pleasure from watching a brawl is itself a sin.

Where the Comedy’s later parts become more coolly philosophical, the Inferno revels in the naked reality of humanity, and this revelation forms the thematic core of the work. Perhaps it’s no surprise, then, that the Inferno’s the part of the Comedy most have read.

If you read: It’s hard to find a bad Dante translation. Robert Pinsky’s is obviously the best poetic translation, maintaining the terza rima Dante uses, while Anthony Esolen (with commentary from a Christian perspective) and Allen Mandelbaum both proffer competent blank verse (though I object to Esolen’s bad habit of enjambing in prepositional phrases).

The Durling/Martinez and Hollander versions are much more scholarly, revealing the sheer scale of Dante’s system of references and allusions, but Hollander uses free verse, which utterly destroys Dante’s Italian’s taut rhythm, and Durling/Martinez’s translation’s just straight prose (though each tercet is treated as a single paragraph or perhaps line; there are worse prose translations available).

Personally, I would say that Pinsky’s poetics and Durling/Martinez’s commentary apparatus would give you the best possible Divine Comedy reading experience available in English, almost of a piece with a scholarly Italian edition of the epic.