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Friday, May 31, 2013

Sin and Punishment vs. Sickness and Cure

While not reading junk fiction based on Dante, or riding my bike up and down Tuscan hills (and in and around Tuscan thundershowers!), I am also doing some real academic work! My current project is a translation of Giovanni Boccaccio's "Minor" Latin Works, or short odds and end that nobody has translated yet. Most of these texts are Boccaccio's Letters, 24 in total, that he wrote to friends and colleagues. I am now preparing the 3rd drafts of these letters, and I have come back to the XXIst, one of my favorites. Why? Because the entire letter describes, in gory detail, Boccaccio's maladies and the cure for these maladies. Written in 1373, Boccaccio is an old man, 60 years old, living in discomfort in his hometown, really a village, of Certaldo. It makes for fascinating reading.  I provide my translation of Boccaccio's description of his sickness.

"Thus, since the last time that I saw you, whom I always hold in high honor, my life has been like death, afflicted by tediousness and annoying even to me. It has not been vexed by just a single torment. Indeed, first of all I have an incessant and burning itch, a dry rash; to scratch this dry patch and dead skin it takes the constant application of my fingernails both day and night. Add to that the heavy constipation of my bowels, perpetual kidney pain, swollen spleen, conflagration of my bile, panting cough, stuffed up chest, and congested head, and many other maladies, which if I enumerated, you would certainly say that all of my body languishes and my humors are all in discord."

Boccaccio's description of his sickness reminds me of Dante's description of the sin of falsifiers in Canto XXIX:

Passo passo andavam sanza sermone,29.70We journeyed step by step without a word,
guardando e ascoltando li ammalati,watching and listening to those sick souls,
che non potean levar le lor persone.who had not strength enough to lift themselves.
Io vidi due sedere a sé poggiati,29.73I saw two sitting propped against each other-
com' a scaldar si poggia tegghia a tegghia,as pan is propped on pan to heat them up-
dal capo al piè di schianze macolati;and each, from head to foot, spotted with scabs;
e non vidi già mai menare stregghia29.76and I have never seen a stableboy
a ragazzo aspettato dal segnorso,whose master waits for him, or one who stays
né a colui che mal volontier vegghia,awake reluctantly, so ply a horse
come ciascun menava spesso il morso29.79with currycomb, as they assailed themselves
de l'unghie sopra sé per la gran rabbiawith clawing nails-their itching had such force
del pizzicor, che non ha più soccorso;and fury, and there was no other help.
e sì traevan giù l'unghie la scabbia,29.82And so their nails kept scraping off the scabs,
come coltel di scardova le scagliejust as a knife scrapes off the scales of carp
o d'altro pesce che più larghe l'abbia.or of another fish with scales more large.
"O tu che con le dita ti dismaglie,"29.85"O you who use your nails to strip yourself,"
cominciò 'l duca mio a l'un di loro,my guide began to say to one of them,
"e che fai d'esse tal volta tanaglie,"and sometimes have to turn them into pincers,
dinne s'alcun Latino è tra costoro29.88tell us if there are some Italians
che son quinc' entro, se l'unghia ti bastiamong the sinners in this moat-so may
etternalmente a cotesto lavoro."your nails hold out, eternal, at their work."

However, I find Boccaccio's description of his cure much more gory than the description of the sickness itself, which comes across as pathetic. Boccaccio's cure, delivered by a local doctor (Boccaccio does not like doctors, much like his friend and mentor Petrarch), outstrips his description of the sickness.

"The doctor, seeing that fiery stain, a sign of inflammation of the liver, reasoned from that evidence that it was necessary to immediately expurgate the superfluous and harmful material, and that that sickness required swift care; and if that cure were done, health would return on the spot; but if it is put off for a day, within four days certainly I would be dead. I feared, I confess, and I ordered that they carry out the doctor’s order. Without delay, the instruments were prepared for my excoriation, iron and fire. The irons having been reddened, they were repeatedly driven in, extinguished, and removed from my flesh, which had previously been shaved after having been burned in the same place. That skin having been broken by repeated blows, over and over again these hot irons were inflicted on me, not without my great torment. Taking these ill humors out of me was not done without the loss of much blood, indeed, as the doctor asserted, the deadly poisoned came out with the blood: then the doctor said, 'you are healthy.' "

Yikes! As Virgil says in Book 12 of the Aeneid (which Boccaccio certainly knew well) "Aegrescitque medendo," or the cure inflames the malady, or even more colloquial, the cure is worse than the disease. 

Permit me a reflection about the differences between Dante and Boccaccio's representations of physical illness. For Dante, Hell's punishments physically manifest the interior corruption, perversion, or exuberances of the soul. Illness and other physical suffering are allegorical symptoms of spiritual disease: physical disease is punishment for spiritual disease. While in Purgatorio, the diseases are curable, in Hell they are chronic and terminal. But for Boccaccio, here again showing signs of his "Humanism," his disease is only a symptom of old age. Illness keeps him from working, and when healed, albeit with great pain, he picks up the pen and composes the letter describing his ordeal. Writing is a symptom of recuperation, a sign of mental health. Perhaps this is an effect of living through the Black Death, which Boccaccio described most famously in the Introduction to Day One of his Decameron: perhaps their is no explanation for Divine Justice in sickness. 

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

In Dante's Genes: Did Dan Brown's "Inferno" decode Dante's DNA?

In Dante's Genes: Did Dan Brown's "Inferno" decode Dante's DNA?

Phew. Reading Dan Brown reminds me of doing-short interval workouts for track and field: sprint 200 meters than jog 200 meters 40 times over. His pacing is schizophrenic. The action sprints, while the descriptive narrative walks. The novel takes place over one day, but our hero starts in Boston, travels to Florence (where the novel starts) and then on two two other cities ( I won't name them to avoid any spoilers). The action forces the characters to run the equivalent of a day-long double marathon. During this mad dash the narrator is delivering a lecture on all things Dante, Renaissance, Art History, Bioethics, Biology, World Politics, all the while providing "product-placement" commercials for ridiculously expensive gadgets that only the very rich, like a world best-selling author, could ever afford to own. 

All credit to Dan Brown; his books are fun to read. So too is "Inferno,"  if at times painful. Doubly painful for a Dante scholar like me. 

Besides the above, I am not interested in writing about how Dan Brown puts his novel together: it is what it is, brutal but effective. Nor am I going to give a blow by blow account of how Brown reads and , at times, misreads Dante. Why? Because that is already being done by a friend and colleague, Deborah Parker, in a much more systematic fashion. I highly recommend her book for that:

What then is left to say? There is much to say, and I hope that the time and place comes for that (details to follow!)I would like to make two points, one favorable and one unfavorable about Dan Brown's novel. 

First, I admire Dan Brown for taking on the topics that he does, for doing his homework and coming to an understanding of such difficult texts and images, and, most of all, for using the vehicle of his novels to educate his readership. While reading the "Inferno" I could relate with how he stuffs so much contextualizing historical information into the slimmest of narrative spaces. His hero is running for his life, but the narrator has time to explain details of current art historical knowledge about, for example, Florence's Baptistry. It reminds me of the unsettling feeling I get when I realize I have 6 weeks left in the semester to teach that last 6 canti of Purgatorio and Paradiso! How can I rush the reading and still get in all the important facts while preserving the beauty of Dante's vision? Dante seems to have pushed Brown's pedagogical buttons too, transforming his novel into a tour guide. Students coming to my Dante class next Spring having read Dan Brown's novel will be fine.

On the other hand... Dan Brown's Dante does not seem too familiar to me. The ambiance of this novel is unrelentingly dark, even if there are moments that acknowledge Dante's fundamentally hopeful spirit.  The beauty of the poetry, the skill of the author, the message of the importance of knowledge are missing. While Brown has a handle of the historical person of Dante and the importance of his poem in history, he dwells entirely too much on depictions of punishment of the sinners. Virgil's warning to Dante in Canto XXI are appropriate here for Dan Brown:

Quale ne l'arzanà; de' Viniziani21.7As in the arsenal of the Venetians,
bolle l'inverno la tenace peceall winter long a stew of sticky pitch
a rimpalmare i legni lor non sani,boils up to patch their sick and tattered ships
ché navicar non ponno -- in quella vece21.10that cannot sail (instead of voyaging,
chi fa suo legno novo e chi ristoppasome build new keels, some tow and tar the ribs
le coste a quel che più vïaggi fece;of hulls worn out by too much journeying;
chi ribatte da proda e chi da poppa;21.13some hammer at the prow, some at the stern,
altri fa remi e altri volge sarte;and some make oars, and some braid ropes and cords;
chi terzeruolo e artimon rintoppa --:one mends the jib, another, the mainsail);
tal, non per foco ma per divin' arte,21.16so, not by fire but by the art of God,
bollia là giuso una pegola spessa,below there boiled a thick and tarry mass
che 'nviscava la ripa d'ogne parte.that covered all the banks with clamminess.
I' vedea lei, ma non vedëa in essa21.19I saw it, but l could not see within it;
mai che le bolle che 'l bollor levava,no thing was visible but boiling bubbles,
e gonfiar tutta, e riseder compressa.the swelling of the pitch; and then it settled.
Mentr' io là giù fisamente mirava,21.22And while I watched below attentively,
lo duca mio, dicendo "Guarda, guarda!"my guide called out to me: "Take care! Take care!"
mi trasse a sé del loco dov' io stava.And then, from where I stood, he drew me near.
Take care Dan Brown! Don't get too fixed on watching the punishments of the sinners; learn your lesson and move on or you too will fall into the burning pitch!

One specific critique illustrates Brown's mistaken fixedness on Hell. Brown's antihero uses Dante's Inferno as a symbol for suffering, citing over and over the 7 deadly sins. However, as all students of Dante understand, the 7 deadly sins are not part of the Inferno, but rather the Purgatorio. The categorization of sin and punishment in Hell are Aristotelean, not Christian, and are divided into passion, violence, and fraud. Brown's antihero, as smart as he is, would have understood this. Indeed, I think Brown has missed an opportunity (many opportunities, in fact). The book is not about punishment but about possible redemption. It is not about past sins but about avoiding future disasters. Indeed, the theme of "Transhumance" is indebted to Dante, who first coined the verb "trasumanar" in the Paradiso. 

Nel suo aspetto tal dentro mi fei,1.67In watching her, within me I was changed
qual si fé Glauco nel gustar de l'erbaas Glaucus changed, tasting the herb that made
che 'l fé consorto in mar de li altri dèi.him a companion of the other sea gods.
Trasumanar significar per verba1.70Passing beyond the human cannot be
non si poria; però l'essemplo bastiworded: let Glaucus serve as simile—
a cui esperïenza grazia serba.until grace grant you the experience.

But, Brown seems to be in a dark mood throughout this book, and Inferno fits his mood better, I guess. It turns out that selling billions of books and making billions of dollars won't make you happy (not to mention all of those neat gadgets)!

And of course, everybody reads Dante's "Inferno," and nobody reads the Purgatorio or Paradiso. 

On the other hand, I am really excited to read this book linked below, recommended to me by an Italian friend and avid reader. It has a paleographer (a student of manuscripts and the handwriting contained in manuscripts) as a hero. I fear that not too far in the future people will laugh mockingly when some refers to themselves as a paleographer, much like we do now at Robert Langdon's title of Symbologist, thinking that title to be an impossible fiction.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Westboro Baptist "Church" uses Oklahoma Tornado: Straight to Hell!

Westboro Baptist "Church" uses Oklahoma Tornado: Straight to Hell!

I have had some misgivings about playing God, and thus have tried to hedge me condemnations on this blog. Indeed, I have tried make my posts rather light, less serious, in hopes of not making my judgments seem either too moralistic or too political. 

Well, after the terrible tornado in Oklahoma last week that took lives, houses, property, and pets of friends and fellow citizens of Oklahoma, less than 10 miles from my home (when not in Italy, I live in Norman, Oklahoma), here comes news of the arrival of Fred Phelps and Westboro Baptist Church to use this tragedy for his disgusting beliefs.

Taking the "charisma" right out charismatic preacher, this woeful creature and his deranged, inbred, ignorant followers travel from tragedy to tragedy (military funerals, funerals for victims of school shootings, natural disasters), to protest these funerals, claiming that acceptance of homosexuality by society explains and justifies these deaths. This extreme brand of evangelical christianity shows a dark side of American religion.

Well, they threatened to come to Oklahoma in the wake of the Tornado emergency in Moore last week. Of course, they did not show up (they can count cowardice among their many vices), but used the occasion to generate publicity. I am well aware that I am fueling their fire with this post, but I think that educating my European readership (which is more than half of my readers, according to the stats) merits this discussion.

On the other hand, so many people have responded with kindness and generosity to the Oklahoma tornados last week, for some examples see this blog.

As for Dante and his swift condemnation. I feel quite confident that they belong in Inf. XXVIII, the bolgia of the schismatics. Not only is their faith deviant from any form of Christianity, and we have many in Oklahoma!, but their main purpose is dividing people through religion and politics. Indeed, Dante puts a condemned heretic from his own day in this pit, Fra Dolcino, mostly because his apostasy was as much political and anti-papal than theological. And like Fred Phelps, Fra Dolcino used religion to attack others. People can hold odious beliefs; they can even practice these beliefs in their encounters, but these "people" broadcast their beliefs with the intent of creating social division and strife.

Dante dreams up his most gruesome punishment for these sinners. They are split in half by sword-weilding demons. As they walk the circuit they recompose, only to be split again.

e qual forato suo membro e qual mozzo28.19and then, were one to show his limb pierced through
mostrasse, d'aequar sarebbe nullaand one his limb hacked off, that would not match
il modo de la nona bolgia sozzo.the hideousness of the ninth abyss.
Già veggia, per mezzul perdere o lulla,28.22No barrel, even though it's lost a hoop
com' io vidi un, così non si pertugia,or end-piece, ever gapes as one whom I
rotto dal mento infin dove si trulla.saw ripped right from his chin to where we fart:
Tra le gambe pendevan le minugia;28.25his bowels hung between his legs, one saw
la corata pareva e 'l tristo saccohis vitals and the miserable sack
che merda fa di quel che si trangugia.that makes of what we swallow excrement.
Mentre che tutto in lui veder m'attacco,28.28While I was all intent on watching him,
guardommi e con le man s'aperse il petto,he looked at me, and with his hands he spread
dicendo: "Or vedi com' io mi dilacco!his chest and said: "See how I split myself!

A foul punishment for a disgusting sin. Fred Phelps and the Westboro Baptist Church can go straight to Hell!