Persone, personaggi e il dilemma dello scrittore part 2 – Dante, the writer with no grandmother

We have to admit two things with Dante: If he is judgmental, he is that in a funny way, and he is not that harsh with people he knows and admire, even when he is forced to place them in Hell. When he is rude or mean to someone, it is to someone he hates or despises, or it is to himself. I have never seen such a great exaltation of double personality as the one he shows in the Commedia, where he seems to be unable to behave, and he then has himself, the writer, shouting at himself, the character, through Virgil:

“S’i’ ho ben la parola tua intesa”,

rispuose del magnanimo quell’ombra,

“l’anima tua è da viltade offesa;

la qual molte fïate l’omo ingombra

sì che d’onrata impresa lo rivolve,

come falso veder bestia quand’ombra. (Inf. II, 43-48)

E quelli a me: “Oh creature sciocche,

quanta ignoranza è quella che v’offende!

Or vo’ che tu mia sentenza ne ‘mbocche. (Inf. VII, 70-72)

It is simply a wonderful example of genius, madness, and masochism. At the same time, though, he praises himself for his superb writing and his priceless political effort. Again, without even blinking or blushing, through the souls he meets, he speaks his mind about how great he is. As they say in Spanish, this man has no grandmother (see note at the end of the post)!

 Disse: – Beatrice, loda di Dio vera,

ché non soccorri quei che t’amò tanto,

ch’uscì per te de la volgare schiera? (Inf. II, 103-105)

Ed elli a me: “Se tu segui tua stella,

non puoi fallire a glorïoso porto,

se ben m’accorsi ne la vita bella; (Inf. XV, 55-57)

Anyway, once again, Joe’s post made me think, and took me back to my previous post about the relationship between the writer and his characters. Dante talks about countless people who he knows, or has known, personally or by fame, and he talks about their sins, so he is often forced to face a difficult choice: Should he talk about those people, even if their sins will be revealed? He chooses to do it. As a strong believer, he cannot save souls he admires just because he wants to do it; he has to condemn the sinners. However, he also has the power to make that condemn lighter, because every soul has only one desire, they want to be remembered:

Ma quando tu sarai nel dolce mondo,

priegoti ch’a la mente altrui mi rechi:

più non ti dico e più non ti rispondo”. (Inf. VI, 88-90)

Ma dilli chi tu fosti, sì che ‘n vece

d’alcun’ammenda tua fama rinfreschi

nel mondo sù, dove tornar li lece”.

E ‘l tronco: “Sì col dolce dir m’adeschi,

ch’i’ non posso tacere; e voi non gravi

perch’ïo un poco a ragionar m’inveschi. (…)

E se di voi alcun nel mondo riede,

conforti la memoria mia, che giace

ancor del colpo che ‘nvidia le diede”. (Inf. XIII, 52-57 and 76-78)

Sieti raccomandato il mio Tesoro,

nel qual io vivo ancora, e più non cheggio”. (Inf. XV, 119-120)

Però, se campi d’esti luoghi bui

e torni a riveder le belle stelle,

quando ti gioverà dicere “I’ fui”,

fa che di noi a la gente favelle”. (Inf. XVI, 82-85)

Of the few exception, one for sure is Bocca degli Abati:

“Vivo son io, e caro esser ti puote”,

fu mia risposta, “se dimandi fama,

ch’io metta il nome tuo tra l’altre note”.

Ed elli a me: “Del contrario ho io brama.

Lèvati quinci e non mi dar più lagna,

ché mal sai lusingar per questa lama!”. (Inf. XXXII, 91-96)

As we can see from these quotes, he is able to achieve immortality through his writing, and the Commedia is a titanic way to achieve that, but he is generous, and wants to share that luck with the rest. Some of them are perfectly able themselves to gain immortality: Virgil, Aristotle, Latini, and the other famous poets have already gained their immortality thanks to their own masterpieces, but Dante still wants to honour them, to brag about his knowledge, and to thank them for their help in his formation:

“O de li altri poeti onore e lume,

vagliami ‘l lungo studio e ‘l grande amore

che m’ha fatto cercar lo tuo volume.

Tu se’ lo mio maestro e ‘l mio autore,

tu se’ solo colui da cu’ io tolsi

lo bello stilo che m’ha fatto onore. (Inf. I, 82-87)

With some other souls, he is just sympathetic, because he shares something with them, the suffering for love, or the political ostracism are just some of the examples:

più di mille

ombre mostrommi e nominommi a dito,

ch’amor di nostra vita dipartille.

Poscia ch’io ebbi il mio dottore udito

nomar le donne antiche e ’ cavalieri,

pietà mi giunse, e fui quasi smarrito. (…)

Mentre che l’uno spirto questo disse,

l’altro piangea; sì che di pietade

io venni men così com’io morisse.

E caddi come corpo morto cade. (Inf. V, 67-72 and 139-142)

Now, of course, that gift is a weapon that he can use to defend, Brunetto’s example is just one of many, but also to wound, and he likes doing that maybe even more. Exactly as he can give eternal glory, he can condemn to eternal despair and criticism people he doesn’t like:

Ed el gridò: “Se’ tu già costì ritto,

se’ tu già costì ritto, Bonifazio?

Di parecchi anni mi mentì lo scritto.

Se’ tu sì tosto di quell’aver sazio

per lo qual non temesti tòrre a ‘nganno

la bella donna, e poi di farne strazio?”. (Inf. XIX, 52-57)

“Omai”, diss’io, “non vo’ che più favelle,

malvagio traditor; ch’a la tua onta

io porterò di te vere novelle”. (Inf. XXXII, 109-111)

Paraphrasing Mik Everett: If a writer falls in love with you, you can never die; if you are dead, or not, and Dante hates you, you are not going to get away with it!


“To have no grandmother” is a literal translation of the Spanish expression “no tener abuela“, that means “to be full of oneself”. Normally, grandmothers are the ones constantly praising their grandchildren, and if one does it himself it must be because he has no one else to do it for him.

Lost in the dark wood. In response to “Beauty and the beasts: On the beginning of Dante”

I am touched, as always, when I have to deal with Dante and its Commedia. This masterpiece is the cause of suffering for the great majority of Italian students, forced to analyse it word by word for three years before starting university. The Italian education system understood literally the image of the path through Hell and Purgatory to reach Heaven, and so they structured the last three years of high school in the same way: you study one Cantica per year, and you will enter your own heaven, University. In my case, that Heaven has been nothing more than an experimental, chaotic, disappointing course in foreign languages that left me with plenty of memories and friends, but even more with an unstoppable desire for running away and study interpretation somewhere else.

Going back to the Commedia, I am the exception, I loved it, I loved the lessons, I used to look forward to them, and I still keep the memory of wonderful learning hours that could soothe my spirit when I was tired of my scientific studies, which were supposed to be the main subject of my high school preparation. I consider myself neither a scholar nor an expert, but I can say that I know enough about the dantesque Hell that my opinion can be of help or, at least, interesting.

I think Joe’s analysis is very interesting and profound. In some ways, I feel he is sympathetic with Dante and his struggle as a writer. In fact, I am writing this because I found his opinions refreshing, especially when talking about Beatrice. Just one thing before starting, apologies if I keep some of the names in Italian, it is not a translator’s stand about the impossibility of translating some of them or anything of the sort. They are part of my learning process, I have been walking with them through Hell, figuratively and literally, as I have already said, and if you share that with some friends, you cannot depersonalise them by calling them with an English name! Also, apologies for the translations of the verses, they are my doing, and I am not following metric, I just want to make clear what I read in the original. I am not sure of the translated version Joseph used, and I know he is not happy with some of the versions he found, so I prefer not to use any specific one for now.

So, Beatrice. Joseph, you talk about her thinking that she is a woman, but that is not going to work with Dante. It is not going to work with Petrarca either. They represent real women, yes, but who are more symbols than anything else; they are what the poets desire the most. In Petrarca’s case, he wants to be recognised and celebrated as a great poet, and that, in Ancient Rome, was granted by crowning the person with laurels; he want to be laureato, he wants Laura. That is why the graduation is called laurea in Italian. In Dante’s case, he struggles with his faith, he wants to be a good Christian (we will go back to this), he wants to be blessed, beato in Italian; Beatrice, common name in Tuscany, means “She who makes you blessed.” These women are muses, inspired in real people, but not for the physical desire, they are the inspiration that makes the poets’ art possible. Their description is vague, and always full of symbols, as you can see in the Purgatory -SPOILER ALERT- when she is back, and dressed in white, green and red, with laurel on her head. Again, the laurel, but also the colours, symbols of the theological virtues. By the way, unrelated, this is the reason why the Italian flag has those colours, because of Dante, not because we had no idea what to choose and we just took the French flag and swapped the blue! With that in mind, it is obvious how she is treated in the Commedia. By the way, I don’t agree with you when you say she is described as naïve; I don’t think Dante would ever dare talking about her that way, and this is what he says, through Virgil, in the first Canto:

 If you wish to reach them (blessed souls)

There will be a worthier soul than me

And I will leave you with her when we part; (I, 121-123)

While, in the second Canto, Virgil says:

I was among the suspended souls,

And I was called by a woman so blessed and beautiful

That I begged her to command me.

Her eyes shined more than the stars;

She started speaking pleasantly and clearly

With her angelic voice, in her language. (II, 52-57)

She is the muse, she is superior, and not even Virgil can resist the call of a muse. He is not a grown man running errands for a young girl; he is a poet unable to resist beauty and inspiration. Now, I agree, she is not the most loving woman I have ever seen, she is sitting with Rachele in Heaven, and she is not bothered by Dante’s suffering. It has to be the Virgin Mary to ask Santa Lucia to help Dante. The saint, moved by what she sees, begs Beatrice to help Dante in the name of the love he professed for her. She calls him “your faithful servant” and “the man that was able to separate himself from common people thanks to you,” so we can see that, if he is the Sommo Poeta, it is thanks to his muse.

Why doesn’t she go with him all the way? I would like to think that Dante prefers that way because he would be too distracted, and he would be sinning in thoughts all the way to Heaven, so the salvation would be impossible. In fact, I think it is because he wants to honour his Master, Virgil, and because his presence gives Dante a lot more to talk about, to show off we could say. Who could be better than Virgil to accompany Dante in his travels? The same Virgil that “sang about the man and the hero who, by chance, was the first one to reach Lavinia’s shores from Troy?” Then, we have the main reason: The Bible tells us that, once we die, if we go to Heaven, we are happy in God’s grace, we don’t need anything else. Beatrice is worried about Dante (not too much, I repeat myself!), she could go with him, because all the suffering she sees cannot touch her, but she wants to be close to God:

 I am Beatrice, the one who sends you;

I come from a place to where I desire to go back;

Love moved me, and makes me talk. (…)

God made me, in its mercy, so that

Your misery cannot touch me,

And the flames of this fire cannot affect me. (II, 70-72, and 91-93)

Now let’s talk about Virgil, the poor guy who does all the job and still doesn’t earn the salvation. Dante tells us why he cannot enter Heaven, and we go back to the concept of free will in religion, something we already discussed before: Virgil was born before Christ and, therefore, he is not Christian. He is not unfaithful either, so he is not condemned to Hell. The problem is that he was not a believer, so he cannot be saved. Ignorance is not an excuse, people like Abraham and Noah believed anyway, and that is why, when Christ rose from the dead, he went down to the Limbo to take them to Heaven. Of course, who knows, maybe now Virgil as well is in Heaven, Dante admires him and wants to leave the door open for him, so he makes Beatrice say she would have tried to help him:

When I will be in front of my lord,

I will often praise you with him. (II, 73-74)

That’s what she says, but blessed souls tend to forget everything else when they see the light of God, so who knows? We will have to work hard and be there ourselves if we really want to know!

Now, back to the beginning, to Dante’s struggle. He is living something that, in my eyes, is bigger than the suffering of a writer who wants to save the world: he is a Christian writer who wants to save his own soul. Of course, his personal situation is tightly bound to the situation of the rest of the world (which, in his mind, and by that time, is the Italian peninsula.) He is already trying to save the world in his daily life, he is in constant fight with the Pope who –SPOILER ALERT- he puts in Hell already, even before his death (we will go back to that, one of my favourite passages.) Due to this antagonism, Dante is forced to exile, a period of suffering and starvation for the poet, a period when he also writes one of his most important oeuvres from my point of view: the De vulgari eloquentia. This is an unfinished treatise about Italian languages and dialects, and it starts the debate about which language will become the official one of the peninsula; it is a discussion that will never really end, even if Manzoni settles it for a while fostering the current Italian language. Exactly as Michelangelo with Giulio II, Dante doesn’t bow in front of Pope Bonifacio VIII, he may become homeless, but he doesn’t back up from his political stand, he is trying to save the world from the evil and the corruption of the institutions. The Commedia, instead, is his personal and moral struggle. He is 35 years old, it is Good Friday in 1300, and he is exactly in the middle of his life, considering 70 as the life expectation back then, as he says in other writings, and as the same Bible says. Good Friday is a time of suffering for a Christian, sharing Christ’s passion, and Dante is living this, and going through more moral struggles, and has lost his way. There is an easy way, the hill, but he can’t follow that path, too many sins prevent him from doing that. He needs to see what is expecting him if he doesn’t change his route, and he takes us with him, because we are also sinners, and we have to see to be saved. In my opinion, he doesn’t want to save the world, he wants to save himself, but he doesn’t think he can do it on his own, and he wants us to go with him. To save us is not his main purpose; he wants to save humanity because, otherwise, he cannot be saved. Of course, the beasts don’t kill him, he is repentant, he wants to be better, and God always rewards that. That is why, instead, -SPOILER ALERT- Paolo and Francesca are in Hell: they were killed while committing the sin, and didn’t have time to repent; that is why suicides are all in Hell: their sin is the ultimate action, they cannot repent after.

Dante still has time, and he is going to be shadowed (never better said) by Virgil, allegory of the Reason. That is why he is so silent, it is not because Dante cannot shut up, apart from when he faints, which will happen often, every time he is not able to explain how he passes from one Girone to the other. Virgil is silent because he is the Reason, and human beings don’t use it too often, even if they have it on their side; especially during the first part of the Middle Ages, the reason has not been used, giving too much space to superstition. This is what Dante means when he says:

While I was falling down,

I saw in front of my eyes

Someone who seemed pale due to a long silence. (I, 61-63)

I think now we have some tools to start our trip and be saved along with Dante. I consider myself lost in a dark wood as well, and my reason has been silent for too long, but not everything is lost. After all, “this could be Heaven for everyone!”

Quel traduttore non era una volpe!

È da un po’ che non scrivo qua sul blog, e mi piacerebbe poter dire che il motivo sono gli impegni, ma non è così. L’ispirazione, come sempre succede nelle fasi non positive, si è fatta desiderare. Per fortuna, qualche giorno fa, tra le altre cose, c’è stato anche uno dei bellissimi momenti con Claudia Musio. Per chi non la conoscesse, è un ingegnere elettrico brillante, una scrittrice meravigliosa, un’amica speciale e una persona fantastica. Per quanto riguarda la scrittura, godetevi il suo blog e i suoi libri: Streghe, La sposa di Tutankhamon e il racconto incluso ne La cella di Gaudì.

In realtà, siamo andate in giro per cercare un regalo per me, ma non mi ero neppure accorta del fatto che già quelle ore trascorse insieme fossero un regalo enorme, e qualcosa che mi mancherà immensamente ora che mi trasferirò ancora una volta nella fredda Albione. In ogni caso, dopo una bella ricognizione dei negozi cittadini, ci siamo concesse un dolce pranzo, rilassato nonostante il locale scelto fosse caoticamente pieno di clienti.

Tra un discorso e l’altro, abbiamo parlato anche di traduzione, e l’esperta, grazie al nuovo corso che sta seguendo, era lei, per la serie nunca te acostarás sin saber una cosa más. Non di traduzione in generale, ma di quella della Bibbia, e tutti sappiamo che questa è un’impresa improba. Questo libro è, infatti, non solo il peggiore al mondo a livello stilistico, ma anche pieno di metafore e riferimenti culturali di più di duemila anni fa. Inoltre, le versioni che noi abbiamo vengono dal quella greca, già di per sé una traduzione. Lo stesso Sibaldi, oratore difficile da interpretare ma teologo e scrittore affascinante, parlando della sua criticata traduzione della Bibbia, disse che, in base all’accezione scelta per determinate parole, la versione italiana potrebbe parlare di Gesù o dell’Io come “via, verità e vita”. Non è una cosa da poco, visto che la seconda interpretazione cambierebbe completamente il significato dell’opera e, ovviamente, ribalterebbe i principi stessi su cui si basa la nostra religione.

Gli esempi che abbiamo discusso con Claudia sono, senza dubbio, meno pericolosi a livello religioso (non si rischierebbe una scomunica, come probabilmente nel caso precedente) ma, sicuramente, interessanti dal punto di vista sia storico‑culturale sia traduttivo. Si parla di animali, da sempre usati, nella religione e nella letteratura, come simboli di caratteristiche tipiche della natura umana. Non dimentichiamo, per esempio, le tre bestie, simbolo rispettivamente di lussuria, cupidigia e superbia, incontrate da Dante all’inizio del proprio peregrinare:

“Ed ecco, quasi al cominciar de l’erta,
una lonza leggera e presta molto,
che di pel macolato era coverta;
e non mi si partia dinanzi al volto,
anzi ’mpediva tanto il mio cammino,
ch’i’ fui per ritornar più volte vòlto.” (Inferno, 31-36)

E ancora:

“la vista che m’apparve d’un leone.
Questi parea che contra me venisse
con la test’alta e con rabbiosa fame,
sì che parea che l’aere ne tremesse.
Ed una lupa, che di tutte brame
sembiava carca ne la sua magrezza,
e molte genti fé già viver grame,
questa mi porse tanto di gravezza
con la paura ch’uscia di sua vista,
ch’io perdei la speranza de l’altezza.” (Inferno, 45-54)

 Il problema è che non sempre le diverse culture associano lo stesso simbolo a un animale. Molte neppure conoscono determinati tipi o razze. Era questo il ragionamento che seguí Nida quando trasformò l’“agnello di Dio” nella “foca di Dio” al tradurre la Bibbia per i popoli eschimesi che, non conoscendo gli agnelli, usavano la foca per indicare la purezza. A quanto pare, neppure gli ebrei avevano la stessa opinione che abbiamo noi di alcuni animali. Nel caso di cui abbiamo discusso, e che voglio riproporvi, si parla della volpe. Per noi, per esempio, la volpe è simbolo di astuzia e, spesso, slealtà; al tempo di Gesù, invece, questo animale rappresentava la stupidità, la nullità. Ecco che, quindi, il messaggio originale è molto diverso da quello che noi riceviamo quando il vangelo dice:

“In quel momento vennero alcuni farisei a dirgli: «Parti di qui, allontanati , perché Erode ti vuole uccidere». Rispose loro: «Andate , dite a quella volpe: Io scaccio demoni e opero guarigioni oggi e domani, e il terzo giorno sarò alla mia fine. Ma bisogna che io cammini oggi, domani e l’altro giorno ancora, perché non è conveniente che un profeta muoia fuori di Gerusalemme.»” (Lc.13, 31‑33)

Il problema, in questo caso, viene ancora una volta da due fattori importanti: la traduzione di un testo che è già, di per sé, una traduzione, e la mancanza di conoscenza della cultura di partenza. È facile, infatti, inciampare in errori come questi, in cui la simbologia sembra trasparente, ma non sempre lo è.

Per chiudere, vi lascio qua la storia con due volpi come protagoniste, l’ho intitolata Goppai mraxani. Mio padre la raccontava spesso, e gliel’ho chiesta ancora una volta per includerla in questo post. La scrivo in italiano, ma raccontata in sardo ha tutto un’altro brio, soprattutto grazie all’eterna rivalità fra i paesi del circondario:

 Goppai mraxani

C’era una volta una volpe serrentese, e si trovò di fronte una volpe di Samatzai che aveva appena rubato un succulento agnello da un gregge. Gelosa e furba, la volpe serrentese decise di gabbare l’altra e di rubarle la preda. Quindi, chiese: “Salve, compare volpe, da dove viene?” L’altra volpe, ignara, rispose: “Da Samatzai”, ma lo disse spavalda, spalancando la bocca e lasciando cadere l’agnello. La prima non si fece sfuggire l’occasione e, con un balzo, rubò il cibo. L’animale imbrogliato non volle darsi per vinto, e decise di giocare la stessa carta, chiedendo a sua volta: “E lei, compare, da dove viene?” La volpe serrentese, cosciente della situazione, rispose: “Da Serrenti”, ma lo fece a denti stretti, senza cadere nella trappola e tenendosi la preda guadagnata con l’inganno.

Come potete vedere, non solo Esopo parlava dei vizi e le virtù degli animali come specchio dell’animo umano nelle sue favole. La tradizione sarda non è da meno, e da questa storia si può imparare che le volpi saranno pure furbe, ma ci sono quelle che lo sono più di altre!