Book review: Dante’s Paradiso, in translation by Dorothy Sayers

I’ve just finished reading Dante’s Paradiso. As in – literally just finished. I walked into the computer room, book in hand, reading the last few pages of notes, because I couldn’t wait to share the last few lines with you all…

Thither my own wings could not carry me
But that a flash of understanding clove
Whence its desire came to it suddenly

High phantasy lost power and here broke off
Yet, as a wheel moves smoothly, free from jars
My will and my desire were turned by love,

The love that moves the sun and other stars.

Which is to say, there is some absolutely gorgeous poetry in this volume – probably the best poetry in all three volumes. Unfortunately for me, poetry tends to leave me fairly cold – though the section just quoted is glorious, and the part where he bids farewell to Beatrice is gorgeous and wonderful and poignant, and the part where they reach the highest point in the heavens (which is not, incidentally, the seventh but the tenth heaven. The seventh heaven is the Heaven of Saturn, where the Contemplatives hang out. You can say that next time someone tells you they’re in the seventh heaven, and watch their eyes glaze over. My gift to you.), and her beauty is increased beyond Dante’s ability to describe it… and really, the fact that I’m sitting here wanting to type stanza after stanza into this evil livejournal of mine should give you an idea of how gorgeous it all is.

The other thing in which Paradise is amazingly rich is 14th century Italian politics.

Now, don’t get me wrong. Politics is interesting. 14th century Italian politics is also interesting – and I’ll bet that Dante’s lambasting of the Pope and various other political entities (but he really, really had it in for the Pope) was absolutely riveting to contemporaries. In fact, I believe Dorothy Sayers mentioned earlier that the Divine Comedy was both a theological treatise and a Roman à clef, making it very popular indeed with those who were trying to find all their friends – and better still, their enemies – represented there. But to a 21st century person, whose knowledge of 14th century italian politics is about level with her interest in the same – that is, not high – it was pretty heavy going. Barbara Reynolds (who did all the commentary in this volume) does her best to elucidate it in her notes, but there’s not much even she can do to keep this aspect exciting. Keeping track of the allegory, the theology and the politics in this volume is a full-time job – and several Cantos, lasting only 2 1/2 pages in themselves, are followed by five, six or even seven pages of Notes and commentary. I found myself tuning out as a result.

I found Paradise incredibly difficult going for other reasons, too. The poetry is marvellous, and the theology and philosophy fascinating, but complex theological and philosophical arguments can be difficult to follow in prose; having them worked in iambic pentameter and terza rima stanzas does not make this any easier – to give Sayers and Reynolds credit, you do tend to forget that they are writing in verse, by which I mean they certainly don’t twist the sentences around very much at all – but I suspect the sentences started off quite twisty, and with lots and lots of subclauses, and I found myself relying on the Notes to figure out what was being said in a few cases. I suspect that if my knowledge of philosophy was better this might not have been such a problem, but it felt like reading in a foreign language – I kept on setting things to one side in my mind, in the hope that either a later remark would elucidate them, or if absolutely necessary, a dictionary (in this case, the Notes) would help me out.

But… on the other hand, there was some really, really, good stuff in there. Dante’s relationship with, and writing about, Beatrice, was fascinating. When he mixes sheer emotion in with his poetic and allegorical skills, the results are stunning. And Beatrice herself is a strangely vivid character, for someone who spends her whole time explaining how things work to her protegé. I don’t actually know how Dante does that; perhaps it is merely that his love for Beatrice carries through so strongly to the reader (even through a translation, too), that you start to get a very strong feel for her personality, which, while saintly, is not dull or one-sided. She seems more mother-figure than lover in her interactions with Dante, although his responses are alternately that of the adoring child and that of the absolutely smitten adult. And while she has gone to a great deal of effort to get Dante out of the Dark Wood, even going down to Limbo in person to ask Virgil’s help; while she protects Dante from foolishness and explains things clearly, she is not, in fact, at all focused on Dante. She continually turns her eyes back to the glory of God, and Dante seems to be almost a distraction. She loves him as part of a universal charity, she has a special obligation to him, perhaps, by virtue of his love for her and by virtue of the fact that he saw God in her when he was still a child, but this is really a side issue – her true focus and love is God. Indeed, when Dante farewells her at the end in four touching and prayerful and loving stanzas, she, seated on her throne, seems to ‘smile and look on [him] once more, / Then to the eternal fountain turned her head.’ Her farewell is almost abstracted – she’s done her job, he’s out of the woods, and she is glad of it, but she has more important things to focus on. Dante, it must be said, is in complete sympathy with this; I found it both real and uncomfortable.

Which brings me to my first problem with Paradise as depicted by Dante: it sounds an awful lot like poetry – very beautiful, but ultimately… rather dull. Yes, I know, I’m a philistine. The singing, I have to admit, sounds like fun, and the love everyone has for everyone else is also a wonderful thing, but sitting around on thrones in hierarchical lines, gazing blissfully on God seems to me like something that would get terribly boring after a short space of time. But perhaps I’m missing something in the allegory. Perhaps gazing on the face of God means understanding all there is to understand about the universe. That would be pretty amazing, and would keep me entertained for somewhat longer – but then what?

It will, perhaps, come as no surprise to anyone that I empathise far more strongly with Martha and Leah than with Mary or Rachel – the contemplative life is simply not one that makes any sense to me, even if it is supposed to be superior to the active life.

In passing, one thing I really liked in reading Dante’s work was the distinct feeling I got that he really liked and had a great deal of respect for women – and you’ll recall that one of his reasons for writing in the vernacular was so that women would be able to read his work. There aren’t many women mentioned in Paradise – but then, Dante is told, quite specifically, that there are thousands of people in Paradise who he will not meet. He has been told he must go back and write of his experience, and he is thus introduced to people sufficiently famous that they will be known to his readers… which has the effect of drastically reducing the number of women in the story. It seems to me, however, that he does put women in wherever he can, and in the most important roles. The Virgin Mary is, of course, the ideal of humanity both male and female – wholly human, yet wholly radiant and unexcelled except by God himself; Beatrice, as mentioned, is a very strong personality indeed, who guides Dante through the Heavens and is, in fact his salvation and his personal image of grace. We see more of her than of anyone else save Virgil (and I think she has more to say than Virgil, though it’s hard to tell). It is Mary who sees that Dante is in trouble; she tells Lucy, who tells Beatrice – there is a feeling that the women are the ones who keep an eye, mother-like, on what is going on below. And in the final heaven, it is the women of the Old Testament who are represented as providing the link between Old and New Covenants – symmetrical and biological, perhaps, but there were other images and other ways Dante could have conveyed all this.

I haven’t left myself much room for talking about the actual structure and theology of Dante’s Paradise. But, actually, this to me was the least interesting. Very little of it actually surprised me, and I’m still irritated by the unbaptised babies all being stuck in Limbo. In fact, unbaptised babies are actually worse off after the coming of Christ – prior to that point, their mothers’ faith (expressed by keeping the Jewish Covenant, or simply by faith in the future Christ) was enough to get them into Heaven – but once baptism existed, that became the only route to Paradise. Not entirely unexpected, but still disappointing. To my amusement, however, some of the Virtuous Pagans do get to Heaven after all – because God, being infinitely just, can apparently just give them faith which gets them into heaven (it’s probably impolite to ask why he doesn’t do this for everyone. I’m guessing it’s about free will. Andrew says that none of this is a proper argument. I say you don’t get to say that about Thomas Aquinas. Andrew says you do. I say that isn’t a proper argument, either, it’s a contradiction. And then we end up in dead parrot territory, with the Spanish Inquisition in hot pursuit. Which is kind of on topic, actually.). Or, if you are unfortunate enough to die without grace, there is always necromancy. Because when the pope does it, it’s alright.

No, really, it is. I’m not making this up. I couldn’t make this up. The same man who had the sorcerers wandering around in Hell with their heads on backwards is entirely happy for a pope to pray for a pagan to be resurrected, so that he can be converted, and then die in the faith again an hour later. If you don’t believe, me, check out Canto 20.

See what you get for reading through one of my mammoth reviews? Papal necromancy. Good papal necromancy. Never say I don’t give you anything.

Now I’m going to bed.

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