Of things which my Commedia does not mean
-Dante, The Inferno, Canto XXI, Lines 1-3
We tend to look at ancient texts with a certain sort of reverence. It is automatic. As was said in the movie Chinatown – politicians, ugly buildings, and whores all get respectable if they live long enough. It’s a kind of reverence that can blind us to the fact that at one time, the author was a breathing, living person and the work was new and fresh. It’s the kind of reverence that makes us forget that Shakespeare filled his verses with sexual innuendos to please the commercial masses. It’s the kind of reverence that makes us forget that Dante was a f%#*’n potty mouth.
Along with brilliant weavings of theological musings, mythological imagery, horrific reflection, and political commentary – Dante’s great work had its share of irreverent humor and visceral (that’s a fancy way of saying “gross!”) phrases. In some cases it’s just the images that are best described with those short (four letter) words that bring the disgust home.
With shit, you couldn’t tell which one he was”
-Dante, The Inferno, Canto XVIII, Lines 107, 108
In other instances, Dante uses the roaring, laughing demons, to great effect, to offer their irreverent actions and words. In Canto XXI, Dante and Virgil are led by an escort of demons, “And the leader made a trumpet of his ass.”
Now put the two together…the violent action of the demons and the description of the aftermath…and we have a really gross image and a swear word…
And missing its end-piece ever gaped as wide
As the man I saw split open from his chin
Down to the farting-place, and from the splayed
Trunk the spilled entrails dangled between his thighs
I saw his organs, and the sack that makes the bread
We swallow turn to shit.”
-Dante, The Inferno, Canto XXVIII, Lines 22-28
But forget gross for a second. Dante also puts a little humor into some action sequences. Probably the strangest, action packed moment in the epic, happens in Canto XXI. Dante and Virgil are being chased by the angry demons that had earlier, escorted them. The duo reach a hill. With speed and without a word, Virgil picks Dante up, puts him on his back, and then slides down the hill (with Dante using the wraith as a sled) at tremendous speed…escaping the howling demons. And there it is…the strangest chase scene in literary history.
You know…if a modern movie of The Inferno were ever made (God I’d love to write that script), that is the sort of scene that would probably get taken out in the adaptation. The film makers would probably think that this is too goofy…that it was not of a reverent enough tone, to represent Dante, the ancient author. Ironically…that’s the kind of attitude that would take the work away from the author’s original intentions.
I’d keep the sledding scene.
I say write it!
Even though I find great amounts of humour reading Dante (the above mentioned lines were some of the reasons I liked it…), I must regretfully say that the translation we have is just one poet’s interpretation. If you were to read the penguin classic version, not only is it a lot harder to read, but it doesn’t have phrases like “befouled with shit,” “made a trumpet out of his ass,” and “farting-place.” Alas, I wish these were Dante’s true intentions…but I fear that they are just Pinksy’s way of making the story more modern/fun for us. 🙂
Too much interpretation makes things way less fun…Less thinking, I say.
Well, without his interpretation…we wouldn’t have such wonderful things as “farting-place” and “befouled with shit”….so, maybe too much interp isn’t a bad thing at all….
whoops…this is wil…sorry…on the wrong name…whoopsies…
I meant you were overinterpreting the interpretation…oh hell, I’m a scientist, leave me alone and go be literary without me…
Agreed – one is reading one poet’s interpretation. Which is why it’s important to have some understanding of the translation (and poet) being read. A series like Penguin Classics strikes me as the type that would give the more reverent translation…bland and processed in their line of books. I trust Pinsky’s translation. He’s the only one (that I’ve seen) try and get a translation that attempts to stay faithful to Dante’s rhyme scheme (Terza Rima). From what I’ve read, those irreverent bits play a part and stay more in line with what Dante was doing. Actually, with the proper explenation of context (or translation), I think many old texts have more to offer a modern audience than we usually think.
For example…Chaucer’s Canterburry Tales. They are funny in modern english…in fact..the word “cunt” came up in the Miller’s tale 🙂