Links to Robert Pogue Harrison’s essay in the current New York Review of Books are everywhere – why should we be an exception? All the more so, since we wrote about him a few days ago here, celebrating his most recent honor and title, Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres de la République Française, which has a rather pleasant ring to it. His latest review, “Dante: The Most Vivid Version,” considers Mary Jo Bang‘s translation of the Inferno and Clive James‘s translation of The Divine Comedy, as well as Dan Brown‘s Inferno.
I had the privilege of attending Robert’s class on Dante’s masterpiece a year or so ago, and so it’s no surprise to me that his essay focuses on … motion:
… the big difference between the sinners in Dante’s Hell and the penitents in his Purgatory is that the former are going nowhere, while the latter are moving toward a goal, namely the purgation of their sins and their eventual assumption into Paradise. In Purgatory time matters, and motion has a purpose. In Hell, by contrast, no matter how much the souls may be buffeted by storms, or run on burning sands, or carry heavy burdens, motion leads nowhere. In Dante’s vision Hell is a never-ending waste of time.
The great metaphysical doctrine underlying The Divine Comedy is that time is engendered by motion. Like the medieval scholastic tradition in which he was steeped, Dante subscribed to Plato’s notion that time, in its cosmological determinations, is “a moving image of eternity.” He subscribed furthermore to the Platonic and Aristotelian notion that the truest image of eternity in the material world is the circular motions of the heavens. Thus in Dante’s Paradiso, the heavenly spheres revolve in perfect circles around the “unmoved Mover,” namely God.
In the final analysis there are two kinds of motion in the world for Dante: the predetermined orderly motion of the cosmos, which revolves around the Godhead, and the undetermined motion of the human will, which is free to choose where to direct its desire—either toward the self or toward God. Yet be it self-love or love of God (love of neighbor is a declension of the latter), what moves the heavens is the same force that moves both sinners and saints alike, namely amor.
Robert’s familiar music made for wonderful reading last night, but here’s the surprise. He rather likes Bang’s translation. If one one is going to take liberties with the translation – and she does– there should be a payoff, and “the payoff is a highly dynamic phrasing, with imagery and rhythms that intensify the sense of entrapment and disorientation,” he writes. I haven’t followed the reviews for Bang’s translation, let alone read the book, but most of the early critical bouquets were thrown by jazzed-up media types who like their Dante to sound like an addled meth addict. Robert’s reading is more nuanced and intelligent than those hasty reactions … we have waited over a year for it.
Clive James does ring Robert’s bell on occasion – he singles out this passage towards the end of the essay, from the end of the Paradiso:
…but now, just like a wheel
That spins so evenly it measures time
By space, the deepest wish that I could feel
And all my will, were turning with the love
That moves the sun and all the stars above.