We don't know exactly when Dante Alighieri was born. June 1, 1265 is the commonly given date, but scholars say late May, early June. Around now.
Like countless others, I have an enduring admiration and interest in Dante. I was reading Justin Steinberg's "Dante and the Limits of the Law" and thought, "Retirement won't be so bad; I'll just read books about Dante and the years will roll by."
It's a hard fixation to explain; you kinda have to be there. But I gave it a go five years ago, ironically, when an Inferno video game came out.
There is another way. Your cherished beliefs being mangled can also be a "teachable moment." Take a TV commercial running during Sunday's Super Bowl -- no, not the pro-life ad. I mean the 30-second spot for EA's new video game, "Dante's Inferno."
Ahem. Yes, liberties were taken with the 700-year-old poem. The character of Dante —his gaunt visage, scowling as if he had actually seen the souls in hell — is rendered into your basic, bland, buff superhero, mowing down demons with a scythe. His great love, Beatrice, is no demure Florentine lady, but a sultry blond bimbo in a white strap dress who looks like a Dallas Cowboys cheerleader on date night.
My reaction—the reaction of anyone who loves Dante and pauses first to think—is "Hooray!" Thanks, EA. How many people were introduced to great art through what were once called "low culture"—comic books and cartoons and games? How many first heard opera on "Bugs Bunny"? Or cut their literary teeth on "Classics Illustrated" comics? I did.
So welcome, thumb-twiddling teens. I won't pretend many of you will shift from the video game to the 100-canto poem. But some will. They've reissued Longfellow's translation of the Inferno with a video game cover, and it's doing far better on Amazon than previous editions. A few kids will wonder what the real thing is about. It's simple.
DANTE IN 666 WORDS
Many facts are known about Dante Alighieri—as opposed to his only equal in literature, William Shakespeare, about whose life we know almost nothing for certain.
Two facts about Dante are particularly important: 1) At age 9, he saw Beatrice Portinari, 8, in the street and fell madly in unrequited love. 2) In adulthood, Dante, accused of the unpoetic (but rather Cook County-ish) crime of skimming funds intended for municipal road repairs, was exiled from Florence.
In exile, Dante wrote The Divine Comedy, a poem divided into three major sections: Inferno, Purgatorio and Paradiso.
The Inferno is the most fun, since souls suffering endless torment in hell are a lot more interesting than souls humbly ascending purgatory's mountain or souls whirling around the complex golden landscape of heaven.
The plot is outlined in the famous first sentence: "Midway through our life's journey, I found myself lost in a dark wood. . . ." Dante wanders into hell, where he meets the Roman poet Virgil, there at Beatrice's request to guide Dante to her in heaven. They take the long route.
The two emotions that drive the Inferno are love and revenge. Dante's hell is a meticulously crafted vengeance upon everyone who did him wrong, populated with real Florentine political figures. "Come get Filippo Argenti!" filth-spattered souls cry "crazed with rage" as they mangle Dante's enemy.
The love in the Inferno is not so much for Beatrice — that comes later — as for his lost Florence in general and for a certain Florentine in particular: Dante himself.
The Inferno is the first modern piece of fiction (it's so vivid, you have to remind yourself that he's making all this up; our concept of hell today, with pitchfork-wielding demons and lakes of fire, is all Dante). Modernism is about the rise of the individual, and Dante is not writing about heroes or gods, but himself. He's the hero, and his participation in the story is stunningly contemporary—as many plays as Shakespeare wrote, no character named Will Shakespeare ever shows up on stage and talks about how great he is. Dante does that. He brags like a rap star.
Dante also wrote in Italian, something new at the time. Thus the Inferno has to be translated every generation to keep it fresh -- it's a shame the kids are being served stale Longfellow because Robert Pinsky's 1994 translation is much better.
Compare Longfellow in the 9th Circle: "Then I beheld a thousand faces, made/Purple with cold; whence o'er me comes a shudder/And evermore will come, at frozen ponds" to Pinsky: "I saw a thousand faces after that/All purple as a dog's lips from the frost/I still shiver, and always will, at the sight."
POETS ON COMPUTERS
I couldn't resist checking in with Pinsky, the former poet laureate of the United States, to learn his take on this newest interpretation of Dante.
"I love games (and Dante)," he e-mailed back. "And when a publication, in advance, asked me to go online to play this one, I tried, with an open and maybe even receptive mind. But after a while I noticed that I was having trouble staying awake." He found the game "tired, cornball and dull."
Not something that could be said about the Inferno. To enjoy it, keep Dante's life in mind, the relentless way he goes after his foes (unable to put Pope Boniface VIII in hell, since he had not yet died by Easter 1300, when the tale takes place, Dante pauses to admire the hole waiting for Boniface as soon as he arrives).
"Bitter is the taste of another man's bread," Dante writes, "and weary the way up and down another man's stairs." You remember that this is a disappointed, middle-age exile who didn't get the girl and never got to return home. A message that won't resonate with many teens. But as the years go by, it might, and that gaudy video game edition will still be on their shelves, ready when they need it.
-- Originally published in the Chicago Sun-Times, Feb. 7, 2010