On the work front, I’m in the midst of delicate negotiations involving two subcontractors who don’t get along with one another. I have another contract I have to sign by tomorrow afternoon. I have five books to read by Thursday for this quarter’s LBC selection. I’m pretty much totally unprepared to leave for China in two weeks.
Fortunately, many years of balancing competing priorities have prepared me well for this moment. What am I doing? I’m reading Dante, of course.
(My choice has nothing to do with Beckett’s upcoming anniversary, though I think he’d approve.)
You know, this volume, La Vita Nuova (1292), is a nutty little book. It’s a collection of poems wrapped in a memoir. The title is usually translated as “The New Life,” but as Paolo Milano helpfully suggests in the introduction to the volume I’m reading, “nuovo” has several meanings in Italian, so that the book might also be dubbed simply, “Youth.” (The translation I’m reading is Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s classic 1861 version.)
If the book had a subtitle, it might be: “How I loved and wrote.” A man in his 20’s tells the story of his love for the beautiful Beatrice. They first meet when she is eight years old and he is nine. He doesn’t see her again for nine years. Then, on May Day 1283, he’s out and about in his native city (Florence) and boom — he runs into her on the street. She gives him a “sweet salutation.” After that he’s Love’s slave. He writes some poems. He works up the nerve to go to a gathering where she’s present, but when he sees her he practically faints, almost, but not quite, knocking a painting off the wall in the process. Everyone laughs. He has to go home immediately and write a poem. Later, he runs into a couple of women from the gathering and they say, how are you going to love Beatrice when you can’t even stand up in her presence? They laugh. He writes some more poems. Then Beatrice’s father dies. He goes to the funeral. Then, suddenly, Beatrice dies. Poems result. He meets another “gracious lady” but can’t stop thinking about Beatrice. He writes some more poems. The end. I’m leaving some things out.
As you can probably tell, I’m finding this book quite amusing. First, our hero seems almost more interested in writing than he is in his beloved. Every chapter veers off into “here’s how I wrote about it.” After he gives you the poem, then he has to explain it to you. The explanation is often longer than the poem:
All I encounter in my mind dies,
when I come to gaze on you, sweet joy:
and when I am near you, I feel Love
who says: ‘Run, if you care about dying’.
The face shows the colour of the heart,
that, fainting, leans for support:
and in the vast intoxicating tremor
the stones beneath me cry: Death, death.
They commit a sin who see me then,
if they do not comfort my bewildered soul,
if only by showing that they care for me,
through pity, which your mocking killed,
that is descried in the dying vision
of eyes that have wished for death.
This sonetto is divided in two parts: in the first I give the reason why I do not hold myself from going near to this lady: in the second I say what happens to me from going near her: and this second part begins with: ‘e quandi’o vi son presso: and when I am near you.’ And also this second part can be divided in five, according to the five differing subjects: in the first I say what Love, counselled by reason, says to me when I am near her: in the second I show the state of my heart revealed in my face: in the third I say how I come to lose all confidence: in the fourth I say what sin they commit who do not show pity for me, since it would be some comfort to me: in the last I say why others should have pity, and that is because of the pitiful look that fills my eyes: this pitiful look is destroyed, that is does not appear to others, by this lady’s mockery, which draws to similar action those who perhaps might well see that piteousness. The second part begins with: ‘Lo viso mostra: the face shows’: the third with: ‘e per la ebrieta : and in the vast intoxicating’: the fourth with: ‘Peccato face: They commit a sin’: the fifth: ‘per la pieta : through pity’.
(In Chapter XXVI he gives us a break, saying, in effect, “this one’s self-explanatory.”)
I suppose approaching Dante this way may seem to you the height of ignorance, but I disagree. In fact, I recommend “finding something to laugh at” as a useful first step when approaching the classics, or, truthfully, any serious book. In this, once again, I follow Johnson:
When at Oxford, I took up Law’s Serious Call to a Holy Life, expecting to find it a dull book (as such books generally are), and perhaps to laugh at it. But I found Law quite an overmatch for me; and this was the first occasion of my thinking in earnest of religion, after I became capable of rational inquiry.