Sunday, January 19, 2014

Prue Shaw's "Reading Dante": Book Review

This veteran expert on Dante guides us through thematic chapters rather than a chronological commentary through the Commedia or a critical biography introducing us to the highlights of his life. The results can be challenging, but if you can keep the Guelphs from the Ghibellines straight--and this Cambridge professor makes sure we do--this study may reward those new to Dante, or those, like myself, looking for a broader overview of his career, and his influences, than a footnoted edition of The Divine Comedy might provide.

Dr. Shaw appears to have spent half a century examining Dante. Therefore, she knows every facet of the poet's considerable erudition, his complicated political entanglements (we are reminded he faced torture and death for his allegiance), and the dramatic achievement that made the vernacular, after the poet had his way with Tuscan dialect and his own nimble invention of so many more words that he recorded in his verse, the standard for the emerging language of Italian, from an era when regional variations proliferated. None, as Shaw shows, as good as Dante's own, as he agrees in a show-off comparison he set down to display his own Florentine expertise. This type of confidence, growing as Dante took on more challenging models after 1300, resulted in those famed hundred masterful cantos.

Reading Dante progresses by chapters on friendship, power, his life, love, time, numbers, and words. I found to my surprise those on time and numbers as engrossing as those on love and words. For, Shaw sharpens her gaze when delving into the textual acumen that displays Dante's talents at their best. You come away convinced that the more Dante took on--the journey down to hell, up past purgatory, and to the Beatific Vision and that surpassing expression itself on a human plane--the more he rose to the occasion and found language worthy of the subject, certainly one to humble any one.

A few highlights from Shaw's take on Dante: he's a "good Catholic but an independent thinker," and humanity's place in the cosmos and the individual's place in society occupy his center stage. His journey downward and upward is also "the story of becoming capable of writing the poem about the journey." In examining for me the unexpected presence of public non-believers in medieval Florence, condemned to suffer infernally, we note Dante's typical symmetry, the punishments he often invents that match or invert the crime perpetrated above on earth. "Those who thought life ended in the grave are destined to spend eternity in a tomb."

However, the Commedia isn't a political tract any more than it is a sermon, for Shaw promotes Dante's primary concern within the "power of words" to chastise his contemporaries and to correct the many flaws of his troubled city and a compromised Church. The vanity of Pope Boniface VIII gains special note, for his massive statue as a memorial--shown in one of the helpful illustrations throughout this volume (although on a Kindle I had to enlarge many to make out their detail, as in the delicate Botticelli line drawings of the cantos)--finds few admirers today, certainly. Shaw contrasts this with a statue of Dante she glimpsed in New York City behind shrubbery. Elsewhere she brings in Catholic schoolgirls in 1950s Australia, UN sanctions, and Siena-Florence soccer rivalries as apropos. She connects the controversies of Dante's era, often in the political realm ones that feel very distant from our own, by revealing a poet who strives to fix his society's woes by honest poetic craft.

While his masterpiece may also appear arcane, Shaw notes how it's "not an account of a dream" as were other visions of the time, "but of something that happened when the poet woke up" at the start of the cantos, intriguingly. We are charmed by some of those whom Dante and Virgil meet in hell, but the moral scrutiny persists. Ulysses or Francesca may inspire our sympathy, but we must keep our guard, for Dante presents an ethical strategy that keeps ambiguity alive along with dispassionate judgment, reflecting after all divine justice as well as human frailty.

The epic spirals down into earth, where Satan burrowed after he fell from heaven, only to claw itself up the slope of the soil displaces from the center of the earth, as purgatory carries Dante to its summit. And, since the cantos end with the heavenly light, and language must stop trying to capture this scene, it's a poignant "dream that one cannot recall on waking" which "leaves a trace of the emotions experienced in it. Snow melting in sunlight retains a faint tracing of an imprint on it. The oracles of the Sibyl are lost on the winds that blow away the pages they were written on."

Thus, referring to dazzling images employed by Dante in his writings, Shaw leaves us with our own wonder at Dante's bold ambition and the courage taken to put down honestly his revulsion against so much corruption clerical, personal, and political around him. He also undertakes a redemptive task, to make his everyday language, enhanced by his talent and coinages, capable of taking on the next world, not to mention this one. From Here to Eternity is her aptly chosen subtitle for this study.

Supplemented by notes and a very extensive bibliography, told in scholarly but engaging language, Shaw's survey of Dante should reward anyone wanting to learn more about him and his times. She makes a strong case for his linguistic range and his dogged ambition, and one will close her own book more convinced than ever, most likely, that Dante's legacy deserves to sustain its lofty power.
(Amazon US 2-6-14)

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