Wednesday, July 29, 2020

If we’re in hell, we might as well read Dante

Dante in the Piazza Santa Croce, Florence.
     John Took’s new book “Dante” is very heavy lifting. From the first sentence — “Exemplary in respect of just about everything coming next on the banks of the Arno over the next few decades was the case of Buondelmonte de’Buondelmonti on the threshold of the thirteenth century.” — it is a waist-deep slog through the muddiest of academic creeks.
     Pressing forward, I grew to hate him. Just for taking something so valuable and rendering it into turgid academic blather. Grew to hate Princeton University Press for foisting this upon a trusting public. Hate the scholars who blurbed it. “A beautiful book that reflects decades of thinking and teaching,” begins literary critic Piero Boitani.
     Maybe he meant the cover. It is indeed a beautiful cover.
     And I grew to hate myself for buying the book, impulsively, because, heck, it has such a nice cover and it is about Dante. For insisting on grimly, joylessly grinding through it, page after page, trying to glean some shred of knowledge from this field of chaff. I blame my own cheapness. I bought the thing, paid, geez, $35 for it. I have to read it. It grew to feel like penance, a hair shirt. Enduring a homebound summer in a brainless era during the reign of an imbecile? Here’s some grist for the mill, perfesser. Chew on this!
     Then on page 333 (ironically, since three is very big in Dante’s Commedia), he makes it all worthwhile. A redemptive Hail Mary pass, fittingly. He’s categorizing the ways the human vessel is deformed in “Inferno”: stuffed into fissures in rocks, soothsayers’ heads twisted backward “in a grim parody of their profession,” barrators sunk in molten pitch, “the most atrocious kind of metamorphosis.”
     Then Took reaches back and unleashes this perfect spiral:

To continue reading, click here.


  1. Had to look up "barrators," but the minute I did, a vision appeared of molten pitch creeping out of the sea and engulfing Mar-a-Lago little by little while hordes of once disappointed litigants cheered and whooped it up on the sidelines.


  2. I must disagree with this nearly negative review. Took's book is a feast of textual and intertextual analysis; and if it requires more work than a standard surface-level chronology, its rewards are that much richer. One could say, "this is for specialists"; but is this logically coherent? The scholar may well be more acquainted with the host of references, prepared to mark or follow them, as well as previous work of a similar cast and narrative methodology; but does this render a book disappointing or impenetrable? No.

    The early history of closely-read, or historiographical exegesis, of Italian poetics that converge and are eclipsed in Dante, is more than worth the price of the book alone. Indeed, Took's work is encyclopedic in its treatment of poetic intuition and construction; but it is also a testament to exegetical chronology and literary history that is twofold: it offers untold new directions for the scholarly world on one hand; on the other, a coherence for the lay readership that such a staggering grasp of Dantean scholarship by no means is obligated or expected to fulfill; the morality of coherence is both subjective and incidental.

    Where and whence if the text is daunting I believe it ought not be dismissed, but rather set aside while one equips oneself for the thorough-going task at hand. Ironically, Took is himself a master guide. Hence, one may well engage this work head-on, as a full-time task, or reconsider Deleuzian doses, Derridean supplements.

    The work demands complete attention, but not because it is obtuse. Rather, perhaps, because it is a life's work, [and] a masterpiece in Dantean scholarship.

    1. As a regular reader of this blog, I find your comments on the book quite interesting.
      Your moniker, however, disappointed me. If you don’t mind my asking, why do you feel the need to be “unknown”?

    2. ToMAYto, ToMAHto, then? ; )

      Personally, I'll be going with Neil's analysis, especially since he has a shelf full of Dante books. While seconding the caption beneath the book cover pictured with the article: "I’m open to the idea it is intended for audiences far smarter than myself." Since I could barely make it through this comment, I think I'd fare pretty poorly with the tome.

      Unrelated to the above, I'm wondering, though. Is the more satisfying "Hail Mary" completion the possibility that writing about this in the paper makes the $35 a business expense? ; )

    3. But is it entertaining?


    4. Because I didn't buy the book for the paper, I can't in good conscious submit the $35 expense since I chose to write about it. That seems bad form, and I try to be scrupulous about expenses. People who post as "unknown" should be aware that I only rarely read "unknown" posts. This poster just got lucky.


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