Why would a Vermont author in his right mind rewrite Dante’s Inferno?

May 25th, 2010

At last I got tired of trying to explain to my friends just what
it was that I saw in Dante’s Comedy. It might have appeared to them
as a harmless obsession, differing from others in which I periodically
indulged – fly fishing, the novels of Henry James and Patrick O’Brien,
certain television series – mainly in that it never went away. Once
very year or so I would read through from the first line of the Inferno
to the last of Paradiso. How to explain the attraction of a late medieval
Catholic vision of the afterlife, however exalted its reputation, for
a very contemporary agnostic-Jewish-Buddhist American?

Usually, my attempts at describing the multi-dimensional vivacity
of the work ended up as lists of various qualities: psychological
acuteness, vivid sensory imagery, powerful spirituality, wicked humor,
exciting plot (at least in the Inferno), intellectual rigor, commitment
to social justice, stunning architectonic force and intricacy, muscular
language, driving prosody, etc. etc. blah blah blah. Or I might try to
focus on one aspect as a way to enter all the others, for example, that
it is a buddy story focused (for its first two-thirds) on the relationship
between a perceptive, emotionally volatile, erring but well-meaning
Dante and his rather strict and demanding but not entirely unplayful
mentor; a love story, centered on a great romance that is requited
only after years and trials, and in ways that neither principal could
have anticipated; a guru story; a philosophical/theological novel in
verse form; a tale of mid-life crisis; a road adventure seven hundred
years before Kerouac; a sci-fi extravaganza so special in its effects that
they’ll never be able to film it successfully. Every time, no matter what
my strategy, the explanation petered out, communicating at most that
this is a strange mishmash which contains reasons why a person might
become obsessed with it…but, still!

No matter how thoroughly I might explicate the poem’s many
allusions and obscurities, no matter how deftly I might analyze its
components and structure, the essence of the thing lies far beyond
those. I have a notion that, like dreams, all poetry is ultimately about
its author. More than any other work of which I am aware, Dante’s
Comedy presents an entire human being in all his fullness, and a brilliant,
infuriating, hilarious, passionate, perceptive, insightful, subtle,
dunder-headed, joyous, compassionate, complex person he is. But
there I go again, with the lists. To say Dante lives in his poem, almost
seven hundred years after his death, sounds like hyperbole and invites
misunderstanding. But he is there. I have met him. The encounter
with him is overwhelming.

At some point I realized that the only way to capture and communicate
all the dimensions, every level of my experience, would be
to write directly about it. I can describe baseball to you by telling you
about all its rules, its history, its equipment, its personalities, its literature,
its fandom. Or I can tell you what it’s like to play the game. The
former method may educate you about baseball, but the latter will put
you inside it. So I undertook to rewrite the Comedy as if it happened
to me; not as a translation,1 or as an adaptation, but as my own experience.
This was not a matter of mere substitution (e.g., the wicked politicians
of my time for the wicked politicians of his), although there
certainly is fun to be had in that exercise. Plus ça change, plus c’est la
même chose. But that is the most trivial of games. Although his Italian
speaks clearly of things that I recognize on Vermont’s streets every
day, what a different cosmos he inhabited. How alien might we find
each other? How mutually incomprehensible! How fascinating to
seek the deeper empathy that comprehends the things in his cosmos
for which I have no ready counterpart. How frightening and rewarding to
know that there are irreconcilable differences between us concerning
matters of the gravest importance that do not disrupt but rather feed
the creative tension which is our bond.

This entry was posted on Tuesday, May 25th, 2010 at 5:40 am and is filed under Why Dante's Inferno. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

One Response to “Why would a Vermont author in his right mind rewrite Dante’s Inferno?”

  1. Joan Price Says:

    I love your book and I love this beautiful website. You said, “I undertook to rewrite the Comedy as if it happened to me; not as a translation, or as an adaptation, but as my own experience.” That’s exactly what makes your book so brilliant. You succeeded in this. It reads as a complete experience — the reader doesn’t have to know Dante to understand and appreciate it (though the literary experience expands for those who do know Dante), and it is fresh and contemporary.

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