Shallow Thoughts on “The Divine Comedy”

I’ll talk more about the process in my next “Accomplishments Update” post — there are a number of interesting things to say about my thought processes in that one — but suffice it to say I ended up setting time aside to read some of the classic works that I’d had lying around for a while, including the complete works of Lovecraft that I was reading about five or six years ago and the complete works of Shakespeare that I bought at the same time, but I thought I’d start with trying to get through “The Divine Comedy”, especially since I was reminded of it while reading the “Heroes in Hell” series.  Now, the problem that I had always had with it was that it was poetry, and I’m not a huge fan of poetry, and also find it hard to follow a narrative in poetry.  So I had tried reading it once, didn’t care for the stanza structure, and stopped reading it.  I was determined this time to get through it, and succeeded.

I actually found it to be fairly easy to get through.  The structure, at least in the translation, was less poetic than it could have been, and so it didn’t trigger my issues with poetry.  However, given its nature in order to really get the most out of it I would have had to pay far more attention to it than I did, because there are a lot of weighty ideas in it and a lot of things that you need to know or read the notes about to really get.  I was reading it to get through and get the sense of it, but it’s a work that it would be better to study and reference instead of just read for the heck of it (which was not the case for “War and Peace”, for example).  Still, it flowed well enough that I did enjoy reading it and didn’t struggle with it much at all.

However, one of the big problems it has is that Dante focuses far too much on people he knew in Italy.  This is understandable and is likely his intent (he seems to be making some political points with the work, especially given the notes).  However, it means that it doesn’t really have the staying power that it could have had given the universal — at least for Christians — elements of Heaven and Hell that it is exploring.  The work stops far too often for Dante to interrogate and reference people that would be known to Italians which would probably appeal to his audience but who are mostly unknowns to a modern audience, and he often seems to give a bit of a short shrift to more famous people like Caesar.  We don’t really get any real feelings for finding out that some of those people are in Hell or in Purgatory or what level of Heaven they’re in because we have no idea who they are, while people who know them would be interested in finding out where they ended up.

As such, I think I enjoyed Purgatorio the best.  Inferno spends too much time identifying these people and coming up with ironic punishments for them, but people ending up in Purgatory is far less something to feel schadenfreude about and so more time needs to be spent explaining why they ended up there and what that means for the nature of humans and of sin itself.  Paradiso has similar ideas, but Heaven is good no matter what, and good people end up there no matter what, so there are far less philosophical issues to be explored and so it can be difficult to wrap one’s head around why it all matters.  Purgatorio is closer to what most people will experience and yet raises philosophical issues that it is interesting to address.

Still, all of them work in their own way, and were interesting enough and easy enough to get through that I wasn’t bored or annoyed reading it.  I probably should read it more carefully at some point, but I have no idea when I’d get the time to do that.

10 Responses to “Shallow Thoughts on “The Divine Comedy””

  1. malcolmthecynic Says:

    I’m just amused by this review of “The Divine Comedy”. “Yeah, I think the story works. Probably worth your time. It’s got its high points.”

    • verbosestoic Says:

      Well, there IS more to it than that [grin], but that’s the result of my project to engage these classics not as something to be studied but as something to be enjoyed, like I did for “War and Peace” , “Casablanca” and “The Thing”. What can I say at the end of that other than whether I thought them enjoyable or not?

      • malcolmthecynic Says:

        I take your point, but there’s a certain level of notoriety and respect that a book gets where, I think, saying “It is good” or “It is not good” almost misses the point.

        “The Divine Comedy” is almost universally considered by everyone throughout history to be one of the Great works of fiction, an absolute masterpiece and a work of high art. Given that, if I personally don’t find it enjoyable, I consider it more likely to be a defect in my taste rather than a flaw in the work per se.

        Does this mean there’s no point in having a discussion about it? Absolutely not. There is a ton of excellent analysis one could give on “The Divine Comedy”, but whether or not it’s good is, I think, more or less a decided point.

        Similarly, I don’t think Dracula works very well as a full narrative; but I’m not sure saying so is particularly useful. “Dracula” has a story is so engrained within our collective cultural consciousness that it might be more useful to say “What is it about this story that is capturing people, even if it doesn’t capture me?” Certainly it does not have the reputation of “The Divine Comedy” but the question of “Is it worth reading?” is, like the former, kind of already answered. Of course it is; it’s one of the most influential novels ever written. But why? That’s the interesting part.

      • verbosestoic Says:

        I was going to reply to this, but I think my reply is too long for a comment. I’ll make a post about it that will probably come out sometime this week.

      • malcolmthecynic Says:

        Very cool, was hoping you would.

  2. Marc McKenzie Says:

    I’ve only read THE INFERNO, but to be fair that’s the book of the Divine Comedy that most gravitate to. A few years ago there was even a video game based on it…that I actually enjoyed playing. More action-packed in the tradition of GOD OF WAR, but still a blast to play.

    The SF writers Larry Niven and the late Jerry Pournelle wrote a “modern” version with their novel INFERNO which was published in the late 1970s (perhaps after LUCIFER’S HAMMER, but I’m not sure). I only read part of it but hope to read the whole thing someday. They also penned a sequel novel.

    • verbosestoic Says:

      Inferno has the set-up that has the more universal and dramatic appeal, and is probably the most creative of the three. I just found that Dante focused too much on the people he knew there and their fates but had more room to examine the philosophical in the other two, which was more interesting to me.

      “Heroes in Hell” is an entire series that did that around the same time. It’s hit and miss.

  3. Is it Worth Reading? | The Verbose Stoic Says:

    […] on my post talking about my experience reading “The Divine Comedy”, frequent commenter malcolmthecynic expressed amusement with that being my summary of the book, and […]

  4. Accomplishments Update | The Verbose Stoic Says:

    […] the projects time and inserted the classic reading into that time, which allowed me to get through “The Divine Comedy” and make progress on the rest of the complete works of H.P. Lovecraft.  I have the complete works […]

  5. Final Thoughts on “The Complete Works of Shakespeare” | The Verbose Stoic Says:

    […] what I thought worked and didn’t work, even stepping outside of my normal comfort zone with “The Divine Comedy”.  And I think that worked here, as well, given that I can pretty much identify which ones I really […]

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