Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Harriet Rubin's "Dante in Love": Book Review

This popular take on the appeal of the Divine Comedy has been criticized for errors, but it also conveys what Harriet Rubin calls herself in the afterward: an "impressionable reader" ready to learn. Yes, she fumbles on pp. 8-9 the Guelf-Ghibelline definition (although the endnote tries to explain), and she gets wrong T.S. Eliot's tutelage at Harvard, long before he could ever have been taught by the Dantista Charles Singleton. Lord Peter "Whimsey" by translator Dorothy Sayers is another unfortunate blunder. She elsewhere claims--contrary to the norm that suggests 1269-1289, usually 1284/5 by Salvino D'Armate in Italy-that corrective lenses were invented around 1300 but not put into frames until much later for fear of altering nature; this is left as so many of her references dangling or vague, but it does show her diligent passion in recording every fact or literary snippet she comes across that may enliven what after all remains a spirited presentation of the High Middle Ages.

Rubin appears to be as interested in this period, 1290-1322 or so, as Dante. Like Henry Adams, whom she channels in a detailed evocation of Abbot Suger in Paris squaring off against St. Bernard, much of the contents here demonstrate a keen desire to organize a lot of impressions around an aesthetic theme. But like Adams (for all his splendid prose), Rubin can rely on dated sources (Will Durant is cited often) and she seems like Dante the pilgrim himself (whom she elides with the author, against critical common sense) to wander from a direct way. But as with the digressions put into the mouths of many in the afterlife, so in Dante in Love: The World's Greatest Poem and How It Made History (2004, not to be confused with A.N. Wilson's own popular account, from 2013, titled Dante in Love with no grand subtitle): much of the adventure comes off on the byways from the high way.

From early on, Rubin makes claims that don't always get backed up. "There is nothing else like it in literature: a work of genius that explains how it was created." (25) She asserts that troubadours invented the language of love between two people, and that the Romans named Paris as Lutetia which she translates from "lux/light" rather than the usual hunches which find a Celtic root from mice or one from Latin as to a swamp or a marsh. The Romans themselves may have garbled the etymology, confusing it with "lux," but the reality appears to favor, given Paris's location, a far muddier origin.

Back to the main theme, "Dante shows how to turn loss into salvation" (29), but Rubin does not to her credit wander off into making this a self-help book for today as some do. But neither does she ground Dante's poem in its time enough, despite this historical emphasis. She reckons that we enter the realm as does an ant on a Moebius strip, and we see Dante use his medieval memory palace conception to conjure up an interior space turned textual place, through his consciousness. This eludes facile explanation, but "we are in Dante's world as thoroughly as he is in God's." (94)  Rubin strives to get at this core achievement, but at least in summing up Purgatorio, she reminds us of a key factor in its shift away from the Inferno and Paradiso. Dante is no longer an observer but in stage two of his quest, he participates in the process. For, between the eternal states, "time, change, and hope" transform souls undergoing cleansing, and day and night alternate, as in our own earthly world. (187)

She tries to cram in a lot about purgatory's evolution, as she cites Jacques Le Goff, who argued for its "intermediacy" as mathematically consistent, economically sensible (as mercantile interests and a middle class expanded clerical-lay dichotomies) and logically as a second chance by 1300. But this had arguably, as Georges Duby in his own tripartite scheme had suggested, been emerging already. She does, as many commentators do, rush past much of the second and third segments of the Comedy. Like many readers, she finds the first part the most engaging, although her close reading of it is scattered and diffused, for she makes so many detours. And she fumbles how, for instance, the Zohar and the feminine presence of the Shekinah have direct bearing on Beatrice, much as Rubin may wish to connect such suggestive influences. She keeps raising provocative or curious points, but then she drifts away from them. The book needed a stronger editor and another round of revision.

On a brighter note, Rubin varies verse translations, and these, often paired with the Italian text, allow readers to glimpse Dante's craft. I liked Philip Wicksteed's slightly more old-fashioned versions, and W.S. Merwin's from Purgatorio show as do John Ciardi's and Allen Mandelbaum's overall the translator's inability to stick to a word-for-word echo, given compression Dante exerts on his lines. 

By Paradise, which Rubin claims as not the Persian word for "garden", but "par-dheigh" for dough--this again shows her wandering, for in her wish to tie this to manna and famine, she omits the PIE etymology for the latter choice (233). This derivation is much more distant and possibly in medieval times unknown, compared to the Edenic concept which appears more relevant to Dante's conception. But at least Rubin stays on task in medieval terms, to compare Dante as a palimpsest to God as text (226) by the end of the vision, and as in her earlier excitement over Bologna's grey streets and lively university in this period, Pope Boniface's humiliation, Guido Cavalcanti's boasts, and Primo Levi's powerful attempt to recall--so as to teach a French guard some Italian at Auschwitz-- the cantos when Ulysses met Dante, Rubin shares ideas and their origins with energy and enthusiasm.

She even tells how ascetic diverged from athlete by medieval times, and how infant expresses a lack of speech in its meaning, and how company emerged from the corporate entities who boasted bread. In such asides, this book educates. Critics of it may be slightly chastened by the circumstances in which it was completed, for in the acknowledgements, Rubin dedicates it to her late partner, who the year before died of a brain tumor, revealing to them both the infernal, purgatorial, and heavenly nature of the same sort of suffering undergone by mortals whom Dante characterizes so vividly (Amazon US 10-11-14; see also Prue Shaw's invaluable thematic 2014 study, Reading Dante)

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