Monday, April 15, 2019

'Some of More Intimate Significance'

“[A]ll literary encounters have a certain unceremoniousness about them. We surround ourselves with books so that we can call up Montaigne, or Eckermann, or Virgil, or Andrew Marvell, as the mood takes us or the drift of our interests at the time suggests. There are scores or hundreds of merely casual encounters, and some of more intimate significance.”

I wasn’t planning to read Dante again any time soon. My first encounter was in a high-school English class. We were assigned the Inferno in John Ciardi’s translation. I enjoyed it so much as a sort of Christian adventure story, a more sophisticated (and Catholic, and artful) precursor to Pilgrim’s Progress, that I read the subsequent volumes on my own. A few years later I read Christopher Singleton’s version and the accompanying notes. This time I read more like an amateur scholar. While enjoying the text, I wanted a more solid command of Dante’s thought, the history, philosophy and theology he weaves through his poem. Over the years I periodically returned to Singleton until, about five years ago, I read C.H. Sisson’s translation, first published by Carcanet in 1980. As a poem in English, it is the most successful and has become my default-mode Dante.

The passage quoted at the top is from Sisson’s introduction, “On Translating Dante.” The stance toward books he describes resembles my own approach to reading. No ceremony or plan. Guided by unpremeditated whim and happy serendipity, “the drift of our interests at the time.” The writers he cites – French, German, Roman and English, respectively – represent the national and linguistic tributaries leading to the Sisson River. Were I assembling a similar list, I would have to leave out the German and add the American and Russian.

I don’t know what moved me to read Sisson’s Dante again, apart from a growing distaste for triviality and self-indulgence in writing. Dante is always precise, human and commonsensical. In “Conversation on Dante,” Osip Mandelstam writes: “It is unthinkable to read the cantos of Dante without aiming them in the direction of the present day. They are missiles for capturing the future.” This will make no sense to the unsympathetic.

Today I’m scheduled to enter the hospital for a heart catheterization. If all goes well and the cardiologist clears the way, I will return to the hospital on Friday for spinal surgery. This Friday is Good Friday. From Canto XXI of the Inferno, we know Dante’s attempted escape from the forest begins on the morning of Good Friday 1300, which I didn’t remember when scheduling the surgery.

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