Devils in the Details

Sand sculpture inspired by Dante’s Inferno, Jesolo, Italy, 2009.
Sand sculpture inspired by Dante’s Inferno, Jesolo, Italy, 2009.

All recent English-language versions of Dante’s Inferno—of which there are enough to fill a fair-sized ditch in Malebolge—come equipped with notes explaining Dante’s references to transgressors such as Farinata degli Uberti or Archbishop Ruggieri or Vanni Fucci or Michael Scot, this last being an enterprising Scottish philosopher and translator of Aristotle condemned to the eighth circle of Hell for having dabbled in the dark arts of prophecy. Readers of Mary Jo Bang’s bold new version of the poem might worry that Dante himself is now rubbing shoulders until Judgment Day with Scot or the ancient soothsayer Tiresias or Guido Bonatti or Asdente, a cobbler-turned-seer who should have stuck to mending shoes; all were deemed guilty by God, or at least by Dante’s God, of claiming they could see into the future, and accordingly punished by having their heads twisted around on their necks so that their unceasing tears flow down their backs into the cleft between their buttocks.

For Bang’s Inferno bristles not only with Dante’s copious allusions to his numerous enemies—and to the many doomed actual and mythological personages, such as Tiresias, from pre-Christian times—but to figures such as Crazy Rummy (Donald Rumsfeld) and Colonel Qaddafi; to Nazi war criminals like Irma Grese (a particularly vicious warden at Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen nicknamed “the Beautiful Beast”) and Klaus Barbie; to the brutal Serbian commander Dragan Nikolic´ and the Chicago serial killer John Wayne Gacy. Peering into the future, Dante’s pilgrim makes proleptic references to Bob Dylan and John Coltrane, to Velcro and Styrofoam and McMansions, to the Eagles’ “Hotel California” and Fleetwood Mac’s “Man of the World,” to smart cards and escalators and Jell-O and the Beatles, to The Wizard of Oz and Procol Harum’s “A Whiter Shade of Pale.” We even get a reference to FUBAR, a US military acronym meaning “fouled up beyond all recognition”—but no sense that this may be just what these miscellaneous references are doing to Dante’s great poem.

I am all in favor of versions of the classics that cast caution to the winds, tear up the rule book, and go for something radical. By far the best cinematic adaptation, in my opinion, of a Jane Austen novel is Clueless, which updates Emma to a Beverly Hills high school. Such versions tend, though, to elicit a fairly direct response. After our first gasp of wonder at the chutzpah that allows such liberties to be taken, there is only one question we ask of an experiment of this kind: Does it work or not? Hurrah if it does; oh dear if it doesn’t.

Does Mary Jo Bang’s updated version of Dante’s Inferno work? No, it doesn’t—No, in Thunder, it doesn’t, I can’t help adding, in emulation of Bang’s penchant for making use of inapposite quotes on all occasions. The numerous allusions Dante makes mean that reading the Commedia is inevitably a somewhat interrupted process for all but scholars of late-thirteenth- and early-fourteenth-century Italian history, since we find ourselves continually having to refer to the notes to work out who’s who. Bang’s version, however, introduces whole new strata of cross-referencing to a vast range of characters and events that postdate the poem. These gimmicky allusions to all and sundry seem crowbarred into her text mainly in the hope that they will make us admire her cleverness and audacity, and the breadth of her reading.

Take the opening of canto 24, in which Dante develops an elaborate metaphor as a way of representing how he is initially distressed by the angry expression on Virgil’s face when the Roman poet discovers that they have been deceived by the demon Malacoda; but then, when he realizes that Virgil, who is his guide to the mysteries of the underworld, has rapidly recovered his good spirits, Dante in turn cheers up. This fifteen-line metaphor describes a peasant, a villanello, waking up in lateish winter, when the days are nearly as long as the nights, going outside, and seeing the fields all white with snow, or so he thinks, which makes him cross, since it means his sheep will go hungry, for he is low on fodder; back inside he smites his thigh and paces up and down, but when he goes back out again a bit later, the world is no longer white, because it was actually hoarfrost rather than snow; this hoarfrost, snow’s sorella bianca, white sister, has melted, and so he is, after all, able to take his sheep out to pasture.

Bang takes this complex metaphor forcefully by the scruff of the neck, and wants you to know it:

Early in the year when one has a mind of winter,
And the sun sets its curls under Aquarius,
And the length of a night is nearly half a day,

And frost prints out a picture of its sister
As Emily in a White Dress
With ink that soon vanishes,

A worker wakes late for work . . .

Bang’s notes refer us to Wallace Stevens’s “The Snow Man” for “a mind of winter,” and to Emily Dickinson’s one surviving white dress that is on display in the Dickinson Homestead in Amherst. Are such references pertinent, or do they merely distract us from the matter at hand? The only principle I can discern behind these and numerous other spurious comparisons and allusions is one deriving from Allen Ginsberg’s compositional mantra of “First thought, best thought”; this method may indeed produce interesting results for a bardic type sitting down to a bit of peyote-inspired spontaneous bop prosody, but is simply crazy as an approach to translating Dante.

It’s the gratuitous, self-congratulatory aspect of these references that proves so irksome. “Look what I’ve come up with!” each one almost proclaims. But they don’t get us anywhere beyond a snapshot of the literary and cultural stuff that happens to be in the translator’s mind; a bit of Stevens or Dylan or Plath or Berryman, or a picture by Edward Hopper or a film by Woody Allen or a comment by Andy Warhol, gets triggered by a line or image in Dante, and then gets used to impress us with her devil-may-care attitude toward the original.

Of course, none of this would matter if the translation resulted in a version of the poem that was beautiful and interesting and absorbing rather than one that is ugly and boring and irritating. The relentless accretion of extraneous references doesn’t, however, prevent much of her Inferno from registering as somewhat impoverished. Here’s the rest of the metaphor that opens canto 24, which transforms Dante’s villanello into a late-rising worker: He

goes out

To find the street covered with white,
And chews his lip;

He goes back in, grumbles a bit,
Like we do when we don’t know what to do,
Then goes out again—and now

There’s hope where it wasn’t before,
Because that fast the world has changed its face;
And now he gets in the car and goes.

Certain lines evoke the kind of colloquial blank verse pioneered by Robert Frost (“Like we do when we don’t know what to do”—a very Frostian pentameter), while others go for William Carlos Williams–ish clarity and ordinariness (“He goes back in, grumbles a bit”). While I wouldn’t argue that these lines should be criticized for refusing to attempt to rival the astonishing grace and music and beauty of the original, they are, I think, vulnerable to the charge of not really delivering much. We tend to accept the pulled punch in contemporary poetry, because it best accords both with our sense of poetry’s lost prestige and our distrust of attempts to make poetry do what it used to. If Bang is right to suggest in her introductory note that she has translated the Inferno into “the dominant music of contemporary poetry,” then the gap between the resources available to contemporary poetry and those available to the medieval Dante begins to seem dispiritingly large.

Still, as Bang also points out, there are dozens of other versions of the Inferno out there. Eric Griffiths and Matthew Reynolds include in their wonderful Dante in English (2005) one hundred examples of translations of Dante and of Dante-inspired poems by poets from Chaucer to Robin Robertson—the number of their selection thus equaling the one hundred cantos of the Commedia. And while Bang’s version, which includes drawings of mind-boggling hideousness and crudity by Henrik Drescher, couldn’t be said to convey much of the Dantean experience, one does learn a lot from the notes about, say, where “Hotel California” ranked on Rolling Stone’s “500 Greatest Songs of All Time” list: forty-ninth, a thought to make one shudder almost as deeply as any punishment inflicted in the Inferno. That puts it fifty-two places above the Rolling Stones’ “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” which furnishes a phrase for the centaur Nessus’s opening speech in canto 12. “Are you two coming down / to get your fair share of abuse?” he mockingly calls to Dante and Virgil as they descend the steep slope into the seventh circle of Hell. Marketed as hip and daring, this version will no doubt attract its fair share of admirers, but others will find it blows their fifty-amp fuse.

Mark Ford’s anthology London: A History in Verse (Belknap Press) has just been published.