Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Sweet and Forthcoming, Part Two

Another hot read on the new book beat isn't so new. Joan Acocella has a fine review of Jean and Robert Hollander's new translation of Dante's Paradiso ("Cloud Nine," The New Yorker), which completes their version of the trilogy.

Acocella's writing is so smart that it makes what even the Hollanders admit might be the most boring book in the canon sound fascinating. For example, she draws out a great metaphor Dante uses for the pilgrim's vision of God (which she calls "the most stunning [Dante] ever made"):

My memory of that moment is more lost
than five and twenty centuries make dim that enterprise
when, in wonder, Neptune at the Argo’s shadow stared.

Thus all my mind, absorbed, was gazing . . .

Never mind what the image has been brought in to describe. (Scholars are still arguing about that.) Focus only on the image. Jason and the Argonauts, in the first ship ever made, are sailing across the ocean on a dangerous mission, to capture the Golden Fleece. Neptune, the god of the ocean, looks up from the seafloor. Through the fathomless depths, he sees a shadow—the boat—and stares at it in wonder. Though he is a god, he has never seen anything like this. Because of the context, we know that Dante is asking us to consider his amazement as he approaches the Godhead. But clearly something else, too, is going on here: Dante thinks he is cause for amazement. Like the Argo, the pilgrim is travelling across vast blue depths (Heaven) on a mission that no one has undertaken before. Similarly, no poet has ever made so ambitious a journey of the imagination as the Divine Comedy represents. Could Dante be suggesting that, like the ancient god seeing the little boat, the Christian God might be astonished to behold the poet’s flight? Such a thought is blasphemous—God isn’t surprised by anything, he foreordained it all—but Dante was an exceedingly confident artist. In any case, this may be the most wonderful act of wonder in Western poetry.

Acocella also includes some no-nonsense advice: if you want to read the Inferno, buy this translation, but the copious notes aren't for beginners. Also, compared to the cinematic concreteness of the Inferno, Paradiso is well, kind of dull -- an exercise in systematic theology. But as Acocella shows, it is also (like the rest of the Commedia) a great work of poetry, with blindingly brilliant moments of insight and lyrical wonder. Yum.

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