Thursday, October 16, 2014

A.N. Wilson's "Dante in Love": Book Review

This English academic turned journalist-novelist combines an explication of Dante's political milieu with an overview of his life and times. While it ranges sometimes so deeply into the endless Guelf-Ghibelline contentions that non-historians may find their attention flagging, Wilson's "Dante in Love" fulfills Wilson's wish: a primer for those needing help before taking on Dante.

Wilson does take some liberty, given that much in Dante's crafting of his Commedia eludes precise documentation. For instance, on pg. 35 Wilson points to Pope Boniface's conniving to literally rake in cash at the altar of St. Peter's at the 1300 Jubilee as a way to profit from the newly formulated doctrine of Purgatory as a place as well as a state, where the souls of the dead might be assisted by donations as well as sacrifices by the living. Wilson then claims this set in Dante's "brain a sequence of inspirations which would create a literary masterpiece, the beginnings of modern literature with human singularity and self-consciousness at the center of it." But where is the proof?

His title repeats that of Harriet Rubin's 2004 attempt in similar fashion to provide an introduction full of guidance and ideas for the doughty reader of Dante, and Wilson wanders from the straight path similarly. It's difficult to follow a chronological presentation integrating Dante's formation as a Papal backer turned imperial supporter, and how this gets embedded into the poem and his earlier texts. So, Wilson in 2011 like Rubin goes on tangents and down byways, like Dante the pilgrim, to indulge his curiosity. Along with the political allegiances and the "allegorical autobiography" Wilson notes in the poem a third concentration, unlike that of Chaucer or Shakespeare: Dante's ambition to further his professional credentials as a poet, given the competition such as Guido Cavalcanti, around Florence.

While Wilson's title promises love, Dante also is "the poet of hate, the poet of vengeance, of implacable resentment and everlasting feuds." (40) Hell fills from "hard cases"; those who binge, addicts who choose desires or ambitions rather than God's plan. While the infernal realm itself gains less evocation in Wilson than one may expect (lots of politics, lots of papal intrigue dominate this narrative), he does show the careful reader how Dante used the text to integrate bits of his own life, a confession of sorts aimed at, as the epic unfolds, "universal application" rather than the Rousseau model of self-promotion. Even as Dante filled Hell with Italians and post-dated it to settle his scores.

Wilson finds Dante veering between tenderness and "Tourette's Syndrome" (280) on his quest, and suddenly lurching from one register to the other; at least it stays animated. As in Rubin, Wilson wisely varies the translations to show the variety of ways English voices try to echo the propulsive line of Dante. Certainly terza rima cannot be duplicated, meaning any word-for-word cadences of the language must give way to English sentence structure and can turn stilted or clunky. Wilson cites how the Commedia increased the stock of written Italian from 60% to 90% with its inventive vocabulary.

As one who had left Christianity as an adult and later returned to an Anglican observance, Wilson discerns hints of proto-Reformation unease in Dante's critiques of the Catholic Church, however hidden for understandable caution. Wilson finds a Catholic innovation of purgatory guided by the Aeneid's example in its sixth section of how souls were hung up on the winds or purged by fire, but he does not elaborate this intriguing claim. While endnotes often do point to sources, not all his readings or assertions are grounded, but the list of works consulted does attest as he says to a life spent studying Dante since his teens and a visit to Florence, as well as learning Italian early on there.

One advantage of this study is while Wilson eschews the step-by-step commentary through the poem, he does spend more time in Paradise than, say, Rubin or many readers. They tend to lose steam after the Inferno, bogging down as they hike up Mount Purgatory. The lack of a single translation of the last cantica by a poet to set along Robert Pinsky, Ciaran Carson, or many other versifiers of Inferno, or the elegant W.S. Merwin rendering of Purgatorio, speaks perhaps to this lack of interest for us. Wilson does not say this straight out. But he recommends that "months" spent in the last section may reward, as the verses can be pondered a very few at a time per day, slowing the pace to allow insight.

"Heaven is crowded, but it draws its citizens one by one." (303) Wilson finds beauty in Dante's difficulty, as he moves from observer in Hell to participant in Purgatory to guest in Heaven. By then, we readers find we have entered the allegory, to join Dante "to be unclothed before the searchlight of heaven." In his chapter on Paradise, Wilson reaches his own heights, and this portion merits acclaim.

He follows with "Dante's Afterlife," a fine tour through the ways mainly how Europeans since have kept Dante's memory buried or alive. We glimpse how Henry Francis Cary's 1814 version excited the Romantics; Gladstone himself immersed himself in Dante, as did many Victorians and Edwardians, later in a Temple Classics bilingual edition. From the troubadours to Ezra Pound, Wilson avers the "great European mainstream" endured in its canon, but that this died with T.S. Eliot and Pound's generation. We are walled off from Pound's "common Kulchur" and in that poet's fumbled attempts, Wilson finds "danger" in how moderns might interpret Dante's obsessions. Wilson rightly regards the attempts of today's readers to tackle the Comedy as a classic akin to starting the Bhagavad-Gita. A classic, but a remote one from Western secular mentality, and full of references we lack nowadays.

Still, Wilson leaves us with two suggestions as to its appeal for our century. Outrage at corrupt institutions, and a quest for a "Good Place" animate the poem. Dante continues to anticipate and to articulate our own unease at the past and the present, and tells us our dreams for a better future. This narrative straddles the Christian tradition and the post-Christian attitude many of us inherit whatever our allegiance, and Wilson fairly strives to show Dante's relevance as each century reinterprets this. (Amazon US 10-12-14; see also Prue Shaw's invaluable thematic 2014 study, Reading Dante)

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