Terry Pratchett’s “Feet of Clay”

51lp3gka4glThe 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 Men at Arms; this time, we will continue the marvelous misadventures of Commander Vimes, Captain Carrot, Colon, Cpl. C. W. St J. “Nobby” Nobbs, Angua, and Detritus in its sequel, Feet of Clay.

Feet of Clay begins with a bizarre murder mystery: two harmless old men — one, a religious scholar, the other a dwarf bread aficionado — have been murdered, murdered with neither motive nor any real place to start except some white clay feet found on the premises. Meanwhile, Lord Vetinari is getting poisoned, and the means by which he is are proving to be an utter mystery. And if that wasn’t enough, Vimes has to go see about a coat of arms — one where he learns his family used to have one, but it was stripped from them due to his ancestor Suffer-Not-Injustice “Old Stoneface” Vimes, who beheaded Ankh-Morpork’s last king, Lorenzo the Kind (who was “very fond of children”).

And if that weren’t enough, the Watch is hiring again! This time they’ve brought on a forensic alchemist, who, at this stage is an alchemist putting together the “forensic” part on the fly. Cheery Littlebottom is an Uberwalder dwarf who instantly takes a shine to Angua but is leery of the rumors of a werewolf in the Watch. What follows is a rollicking good adventure in which the two discrete threads — the old historians’ murders and the Patrician’s poisoning — come together in a comic detective novel revealing Terry Pratchett at the height of his powers.

It is impossible to talk about Feet of Clay without talking about golems, one of its main thematic foci. When the novel begins, golems are treated the same way we treat robots: tools, automatons, and Certainly Not Human (TM). But, as the golems’ characters slowly get revealed, mainly through the slaughterhouse golem Dorfl, we realize that this popular conception is — wrong.

In this way, Feet of Clay begins a new iteration on one of the Disc’s oldest themes, the one started with Equal Rites and elaborated on in Men at Arms: the need to treat everyone with the same respect one accords oneself. To further this point, Feet of Clay takes up as a subplot Cheery’s growing femininity against the background of genderless dwarves, and the reactions of power couple Angua and Carrot to both: Angua’s distaste for the golems elevating their station, due to them being even lower than the undead, and Carrot’s (a dwarf, lest we forget) inability to get his head wrapped around the idea that girl dwarves may wish to express themselves differently than male ones.

Kings also make a comeback — one of the great unresolved arcs of the Watch series, and perhaps the main reason Pratchett stopped writing it earlier than other key Discworld subseries, is the tension between the desire for a king and the extreme competence of Ankh-Morpork’s Patrician, Lord Vetinari. Carrot, we understand by the end of Men at Arms (if we haven’t already!) is in fact the true king of Ankh-Morpork, and is aware of at least this as a possibility, but is content to stay in the Watch precisely because he is aware that he could not possibly do a better job of running Ankh-Morpork than Vetinari. Thus, in Feet of Clay, as Vetinari is poisoned and a power vacuum momentarily appears at Ankh-Morpork’s top, a new — different — king candidate is proffered, one who would be a puppet of the aristocracy and Guilds. Naturally, he does not take a shine to the role.

Feet of Clay is probably one of the most underrated Watch novels. I find it better than Men at Arms, and this is in large part because — unlike it — Feet of Clay knows where it stands. As the third Watch novel, Feet of Clay codifies several key themes that strongly characterize the first half of the Watch subseries, including rewarding Vimes at the end, and it also — in a much more rewarding manner than the first two — develops key ethical themes common to the Watch novels as a whole, as well as the political themes which would come to dominate the middle Watch novels — Jingo, The Fifth Elephant, and Thud!, in particular.

The Watch novels are some of Pratchett’s best, and Feet of Clay is their codification — the most typical of the Watch novels, adroitly handling the development of themes common to the whole group.

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Terry Pratchett’s “Men at Arms”

men_at_arms_usThe 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 Guards! Guards!; this time, we will continue the marvelous misadventures of Captain Vimes, Carrot, Colon, and Cpl. C. W. St J. “Nobby” Nobbs in its sequel, Men at Arms.

The Night Watch is — for the first time in anybody’s memory — growing! Various “ethnic” interests have prevailed on Ankh-Morpork’s Patrician that the City Watch should reflect the ethnic makeup of the city, and these new affirmative-action hires have gotten parked in the Night Watch. We have a troll, Detritus; a dwarf, Cuddy; and Angua, a woman with a Secret. And just in the nick of time, too, for somebody’s blown up part of the Assassins’ Guild and nicked something valuable hiding deep inside — while, all the while, the city’s ethnic tensions (particularly between trolls and dwarves) are on the edge of boiling over.

As Vimes and Co. try to investigate the crime — obstructed by everyone and everyone up to and including the Patrician, Lord Vetinari, himself — they must also keep the increasingly-fragile peace in the Disc’s largest and most diverse city.

Oh, and Captain Vimes is getting married to the city’s richest and most eligible bachelorette, Lady Sibyl Ramkin, and retiring from the Watch at the end of the week. Meanwhile, Carrot and Angua start to develop A Thing for each other, which hopefully her Secret won’t get in the way of — but Carrot, too, has a Secret, one which Ankh-Morpork’s recent turmoil is conspiring to get him to reveal.

At the center of all the action is the “gonne”, a dangerous forbidden device created by Leonard of Quirm, one which on a mechanical level uses the Alchemists’ No. 1 powder (usually used for fireworks) to drive a lead pellet at lethal speeds into a target, but which seems to have developed sentience in its own right. Lord Vetinari gave the gonne to the Assassins’ Guild to have it destroyed; instead, they put it on display.

Perhaps moreso than most other Discworld books, Men at Arms suffers somewhat from sequelitis. While it has its moments — the Vimes Theory of Socioeconomic Unfairness and Detritus’ sojourn in the Pork Futures Warehouse come to mind — there’s a sort of in-between-ness to Men at Arms, a sense that the novel is the transition from the rough-around-the-edges Guards! Guards! to the themes developed in later Watch novels. Much of the narrative infrastructure that characterizes Feet of Clay, Jingo, The Fifth Elephant, Night Watch, Thud!, and Snuff gets developed in Men at Arms, but the transition is not particularly smooth.

The gonne does not exactly help here. Technology, in the earlier Discworld novels, is viewed as a dangerous thing, a path for things Outside to rip through the gossamer fabric of reality. This theme is most developed in Moving Pictures, although it also shows up in Reaper Man and Soul Music, and the gonne, a sentient weapon, fits this thematic. Yet at the same time, it contrasts with the themes going forward, those of progress and an increasing momentum of technological change on the Disc.

Some of these themes have been developed as early as The Colour of Magic (the first Discworld novel!) and Equal Rites, and the the wizards/witches dichotomy that formed series’ first major fork is of course a development on the theme of, well, equal rights — the same theme that, in the Night Watch’s hiring of troll, dwarf, and lady officers, Men at Arms again takes up.

In fact, it is in Men at Arms were we see the beginnings of these themes’ development in the Watch sub-series, which would form one of the Watch’s driving themes as well as one of the key themes of the later Discworld. It is also in Men at Arms where we begin to understand how close to a technological revolution the Disc truly is — the gonne, as it turns out, killed the dwarf Hammerhock of its own volition because it was jealous that Hammerhock could replicate it. No wonder that things keep bleeding through!

But then, we could argue that between his experiences in Moving Pictures and Men at Arms, Lord Vetinari developed an understanding of how to deal with technological progress — a theme that would eventually ripen with the penultimate Discworld book and the last one Pratchett finished before his death, Raising Steam.

Terry Pratchett’s “Guards! Guards!”

51jdobsv-yl._sx279_bo1204203200_The 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.

To that end, let us consider Guards! Guards!.

Long thought of as one of the Discworld’s classic must-reads, Guards! Guards! is the story not of heroes or monsters but rather of the city guardsmen who, in most other fantasy novels, show up only as death fodder for the book’s main threat (or, if the writer is particularly lazy, the heroes themselves).

It introduces us to Captain Vimes, the Night Watch’s leader, a drunkard who has seen far too many awful things to stay sober for very long; to Sergeant Fred Colon, a retired military officer (sergeant, naturally) who’s found a second home in the Night Watch, the last refuge for the city’s worst misfits; to Corporal “Nobby” Nobbs, another ex-soldier, but one whose skill at ending up on the winning side (whichsoever side he started on notwithstanding) made him the battlefield’s best bellweather, and — the New Guy — Lance-Constable Carrot Ironfoundersson, a dwarf fresh from the mountains.

A six-foot-six dwarf who sports a crown-shaped birthmark, a decidedly nonmagical sword (a feat on the Disc), and a sunny, cheery demeanor wholly devoid of irony. He was adopted, y’see, by dwarves, and his dwarven given name is, roughly, “Head-banger”.

So, naturally, when someone who possesses kingly charisma but total cheerful ignorance of his destiny shows up in town, so, naturally, does a dragon. In fact, the dragon doesn’t just show up out of nowhere: it’s summoned by one of Ankh-Morpork’s many secret societies, one whose Grand Master wishes to orchestrate a coup against the city’s current Patrician, the hypercompetent Lord Vetinari.

This Grand Master has his own candidate for the throne in mind, and it isn’t Carrot, just one of many fresh faces in town. But then he loses control of the dragon, the dragon gets itself crowned king, and having done so, immediately orders the sacrifice of the city’s most eligible bachelorette to itself. That bachelorette is one Sibyl Ramkin, richest woman in town and swamp dragon expert, and someone Vimes has taken quite a shine to.

It’s up to the Watch now to figure out how to kill the dragon and who summoned it, and to do it quickly before Vimes’ love interest gets broiled alive!

Guards! Guards! has quite a lot of early installment weirdness, as far as the Watch novels go. Captain Vimes, far from the intelligent, if unpolished, protagonist he is in later Watch novels, is a drunkard living rather in fear of his own sobriety. Colon comes across as much more competent than he does in later novels, perhaps because the status quo suits him just fine. Vimes has a quiet rivalry with the Palace Guard, which does not reappear in the later books. And so on.

Yet at the same time, Guards! Guards! has several classic Watch tropes. Carrot arrests the dragon, thereby kicking off the theme of anyone, anywhere being capable of being under arrest which reaches its climax when the Watch arrests an entire battlefield and Lord Vetinari himself in Jingo. Carrot, the hidden king of Ankh-Morpork, develops from a naïve copper arresting the head of the Thieves’ Guild near the novel’s beginning to the more experienced one doubting the very existence of a hidden king e.g. himself at its end.

Perhaps moreso than the other Watch novels, and especially moreso than Jingo, The Fifth Elephant, and Thud!, Guards! Guards! is a fast, light, and humorous read that belies its deep themes, in particular the theme of the unlikely hero, of unlikely plot resolutions, and, most of all, the city’s forgotten once again finding their voice — this latter being a key theme not just of Guards! Guards! but also of Men at Arms, Feet of Clay, and Snuff. It is fair to say most (but not all: Ankh-Morpork is still very much an Elizabethan-type city) of the key themes that would drive the Watch are present in Guards! Guards!.

Is it Terry Pratchett at his best? That’s more debatable than Discworld fans like to allow. It’s still quite an early Discworld work, and I would submit that Feet of Clay not only is more representative of the Watch series as a whole but has the most imporant scene in the whole arc, when Vimes refuses the temptation of a bottle of fine whiskey and thereby takes on the arc’s hero role. Is it a good place to start the Watch series? Of course it is; there is an accreting continuity on the Disc, and though it is absent in the early Rincewind novels, it starts to develop in a significant way both here and in Witches Abroad, that other widely-acclaimed Discworld classic.

Next time we will see Vimes & Co.’s adventures continue when they meet the gonne in Men at Arms.

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.