Sunday, July 14, 2013

Dante and Me

     Giovanni Boccaccio did not know Dante Alighieri personally. But their lifetimes overlapped; Boccaccio was eight when Dante died. Which makes the brief biography — the first of countless Dante biographies — by the author of the Decameron of great value. He was able to speak to people who actually knew Dante, and could discuss, at least generally, such otherwise lost personal details such as how Dante dressed ("in good clothes, of a fashion appropriate to his years") or how he walked ("his gait was grave and gentle").
      Boccaccio mentions Dante's dark complexion and, as if to back the claim up with documentary proof, unspools this anecdote which, since it neither praises Dante nor makes any grand philosophical point, has a whiff of truth to it:
It happened one day at Verona — when the fame of his works was already widely spread, and especially of that part of his Commedia which he calls the Inferno, and when he was known by many, both men and women — that, passing before a door where many women were sitting, one of them said softly to the others (but not so softly that she was not clearly heard by him and his companion), "Do you see the man who goes to hell, and returns when he pleases, and brings back news of those who are below?" To this one of the others responded naively, "Indeed, you must be speaking the truth. Don't you see how his beard is crisped and his complexion browned by the heat and smoke that is below?" Hearing these words said behind him, and knowing that they came from the women's simple belief, he was pleased, and passed on, smiling a little.
     I like that story because you would think that, being Dante Alighieri would be enough. That having written the greatest work of literature in the Western canon, one that would be continually read, republished, praised and argued over for the next 700 years would instill unshakable self-confidence in a man. That he would not also need to find satisfaction from the attention of random townsfolk encountered in the street.
      But obviously he did. That smile was of pleasure and, no doubt, relief. Dante was still human. As are we all.
     Which softens, a little, the shame of being burdened with a vanity that follows me around, quacking like a pull-toy duck.  If you're going to have an objectionable quality, it helps if it's a common one. Everybody wants to be noticed and appreciated; me, a little more than most.
    When I last appeared on the ABC 7 morning program, "Windy City Live," I was amazed — and gratified — at just how many Chicagoans saw the thing. I got more comments from friends, readers and strangers out-of-the-blue mentioning having seen me on the program than I get from a month's worth of columns.  Everyone must watch it.
    Which also explains why I leaped to agree when asked to appear on the show again — Monday morning, July 15, about 9 a.m. It's worth my catching a train an hour earlier than usual, hotfooting over to State Street, allowing make-up to be smeared all over my face, for the narcotic boost that being on TV — and being recognized as having been on TV — brings. It helps that the host, Ryan Chiaverini, does his homework, and asks interesting questions (co-host Val Warner was on vacation when I first went, but I assume I'll meet her Monday).
    It's nice to go out into the world and encounter readers, in person and electronically, and I've created a new page, at the right side of my blog — "Upcoming events" — so people can learn of pending TV and radio gigs, signings, speeches and the like. Unseemly vanity? Hell yes. But if Dante could succumb to that failing, then so can I.  Now as to whether I will begin cunningly crafting vicious slurs that will stick to my friends long after all other facts about them are lost to history — another habit of Dante's — well, let's just say, time will tell.


  1. I find promoting myself distasteful. I have no idea whether this is a virtue or a vice. Whether this is cool or uncool.

    I find hilarious the modern dating practice of telling the other person everything about oneself in the first ten minutes.

    I value my privacy.

  2. @Jerry -- And yet you continually opine in the public sphere. Is there not an irony there? Or is "Jerry B." a nom de guerre?

  3. Steinberg:

    Your self-described “vanity” is no big deal for me. Furthermore, I would be an ass to frequent your blog merely to criticize you. I posted here to say –“different strokes for different folks.” I like diversity. I would find a world filled with all JerryB’s or all Neil Steinberg’s very boring.

    From day one I privately disclosed my name and address to you. I anonymously opine in the public sphere. But can an anonymous person self-promote? I think not.

    I post to discuss ideas. You discuss ideas. I appreciate your replies. But I wish there was more discussion among commenters.

    1. Nicely said...except the last sentence should be in the subjunctive: "were," not "was."

  4. As a Dante fan myself I enjoyed the story about Mr. Boccaccio -- I'll have to look for that biography.

    That's a cool photo of your book collection. I currently have the Inferno on my shelves along with the Barbara Reynolds book. Mr. Alighieri is one man I would love to talk to some day, if only I had a time machine.

  5. @Jerry -- And I wish they paid. It's an imperfect world.

  6. Neil, you are a public figure. If you don't promote you, then who will? If you start overdoing it, I believe your readers will let you know. For now, you're good. I've never watched "Windy City Live," so if you hadn't mentioned it, I would have missed it. Case closed. DVR programmed.

  7. Thanks Carolyn. I agree with you, but I guess I agree with Jerry a bit too. There's something unseemly about it. And in an ideal world, I wouldn't have to -- there would be minions for that. But there aren't. So I guess that's the way I strike a balance -- plug myself like a carnival barker with a straw hat using his bamboo cane to draw back the heavy canvas and give a glimpse of the false marvels within. But also recognize it. I think awareness salves a multitude of sins.

  8. Please Neil:

    Do NOT give me too much credit.

    First – you do what you have to do to provide for your family.

    Second – I am NOT that pure. I do NOT crave attention from the masses. But I do appreciate recognition from attractive women and smart people. If I “stand up and deliver” -- whether it be trying a case or in a class at NU or the U of C – I appreciate being consider one of the “heavy hitters.”

    BTW: I am happily married but I do appreciate the million dollar smile from an “older type babe."

  9. "...burdened with a vanity that follows me around, quacking like a pull-toy duck." Now THAT is the shite! Nicely turned. I can relate. So you'll be on telly again. I'll be curious if anyone else thinks you look like a young Benny Goodman (now w/beard). Bet you get that a lot. It's a compliment.

  10. No, you're the first. What I get a lot is that I Iook like Steven Spielberg. Which means people see me and think, "Jew with a beard." I don't take it as a particular compliment. I think I look like Harrison Ford only, you know, younger.

    1. My brother once told me I looked like Clint Eastwood. I had to remind him that craggy Clint was (and remains) 10 years older than me.
      My sister occasionally lets me know when you appear on WGN, which I abandoned when it no longer broadcast Sox and Cubs games about the same time it fired Kathy and Judy. I think you and John Williams hit it off pretty well.


  11. A healthy does of pleasure at recognition of a job well done is normal - just that an entrepreneur has to go looking for it - we don't have annual job reviews scheduled for atta boys. I think that you are an entrepreneur and as such NEED to self promote. If we don't believe in ourselves and promote ourselves, who will?

  12. Hmm...Benny Goodman,, I've always thought of a young Burl Ives!


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