What Would Don Draper Do? Reading Dante in a Secular Age

Many readers of our generation emulate Don Draper, having lost Dante's connections to Christianity or perhaps to any such deity.

"Heaven is a place where nothing ever happens"

-- Talking Heads

Open up a secondhand copy of the entire Divine Comedy. Its first section might be dog-eared and marred, but I bet that as pages turn, those pages become brighter and cleaner. Translations of Inferno not to mention Dan Brown's yarn, abound. Purgatorio sells less, and has garnered only W.S. Merwin's fine version as a recent contribution. By the time readers reach Paradiso, as far as I know, the shelf stands empty of an English-language poet's stand-alone presentation for that final, very elevated, cantica. Up there, Paradise lets a lot of us down. Talking Heads envisioned: "Heaven is a place where nothing ever happens." The band plays "my favorite song" endlessly, the guests leave the party at the same time, the kiss ends only to start all over. Everything we dreamed of comes true, on repeat. This rarified Paradiso hovers high; many who plunge into Inferno never breathe in its heady atmosphere.

On Christmas Eve, 2007, Robert Baird asked in Slate, "Why doesn’t anyone read Dante’s Paradiso?" Baird recounts that in the Inferno, we stand beside Dante as he plays God. We play off the poet's irony. We see who Dante damns, even if at least one particular sad soul had still been alive on Good Friday, 1300. That dawn, pilgrim Dante begins the journey poet Dante narrates as a Commedia. It's a tale with a happy ending, but those who retreat down the circles into deeper hells will never find out why. Stubbornly, many prefer to watch Dante play God. The poet exacts retribution on those who have wronged him. He writes as an exile, under a threat of death by fire if he returned home to Florence.

His enemies join those he damns from the past and his present. A clever and cruel judge, assuming God's justice as his own, he sentences his foes. Dante dramatizes the "natural law" of contrapasso ("suffer the opposite"). This theological process ingeniously makes every punishment fit the crime, by a complementary or opposing action. Dante's contempt chills at hell's bottom as he passes Satan's posterior; in all three cantiche, his revenge boils over. Inferno makes for a harrowing downhill slide before it upends, and tilts upward to light. Its many translations, recently by poets Robert Pinsky, Ciaran Carson, and Mary Jo Bang, attest to the appeal of Dante's first 34 cantos. As Bang told an interviewer, "Translating this poem was like doing an almost endless crossword puzzle of exactly the right level of difficulty ("An American in Dante’s Inferno", by E.C. Belli, Cirdumference It was demanding, but not impossible. Once I decided to single-mindedly devote myself to it for a number of years, it became a rare, intense, and slightly terrifying kind of fun—a bit like being on a roller coaster just as it drops from the high point." Hell, we agree, thrills.

All those Infernos tempt us to forget Dante meant us to struggle on to our heavenly reward. He started his foray into the dark wood. But he never intended for himself or us to stop and sink forever with three-headed Satan immured in ice, where hell freezes over. Dante calls on us, to stay by his side as he ascends.Purgatorio demands repentance. Paradiso awaits penitents as cleansed souls, accepted by saints. Justice endures in his heaven, infused by love. The hatreds Dante the poet and the pilgrim both dramatize so vividly will dissolve. Ecstasy lifts up all spirits. As Dante reaches his destination, he and we learn our limits. Baird observes: "Once we follow him to heaven, it's we who lack the inside information, we who stand on the wrong end of the irony. Previously we judged hell; now heaven judges us." Dante himself grows as a poet and a pilgrim, in two decades spent refining these verses.

Dante as pilgrim must abandon his own confidence. He must assume his own submission to God's plan. After climbing Mount Purgatory to the Earthly Paradise, Dante the poet must also capitulate. He, like all humans in his depiction, must bow to a higher power reigning in an eternal realm. There God, not a mortal creator, directs the circles and welcomes the saved. By the way, Dante bent the rules at the gates, slipping in virtuous pagans to the luxury boxes now and then. The other eternal realm, Inferno, filled with those Dante consigned. He sentenced at least one inhabitant there before God could pass judgment on that miscreant still alive--in body, but no longer possessing a soul. The time-tied transitional state of Purgatorio enabled progress by souls cleansed of sin so as to enter the Beatific Vision. Even if Dante populates Paradiso with his own characters, these have been approved by divine sanction. Here, this great epic soars, and bursts.

So goes the received wisdom. You can find it repeated by many seeking solace and inspiration. But part three, like a blockbuster's second sequel, disappoints quite a few in the audience today. Maybe it always did. In his lifetime, the Inferno made Dante's reputation; the Florentine exile's darkened countenance, passersby gossiped, came from his sooty travails down under. Paradiso, by definition, transcends in form and content the contempt and torment percolating in previous verses. It adds the calmer confidence asserted by Purgatorio's sufferers, as they inched toward mystical reward.

Accompanying these souls as they reach the goal Dante insisted is ours, too, we as readers return after the summit of the earthly mountain of purgation (pushed up from Satan's fall from heaven) to a second eternal state in part three. But chastened by pride, we may hesitate to take pleasure from the sight of the damned. We are humbled by Dante's progress from aghast observer of the low life in Satan's grasp to penitent participant as a sinner marked for rehabilitation. It's a long climb up out of hell into the light. Beatific stasis beckoned, as a repetition of heavenly joy appealed to readers with often grim lives. His audience may accept Dante's dramatization of sin, penitence, and purification through “confirmation bias” directed by faith or by critical consensus, agreeing that those Dante whom castigates merit God's damnation. Those Dante acclaims earn purification. But, under divine, endless scrutiny, is this Paradiso less a haven than an eternal Panopticon?

What Did Don Draper Do?

Rod Dreher asked a year ago at the American Conservative, ""Can an atheist really get Dante?" Denying a non-believer can, Dreher cites an expert on otherworldly visions and afterlife accounts, Carol Zaleski. She not only gives a shout-out to Mad Men's Don Draper, as he opens John Ciardi's paperback translation in Hawai'i, but she sums up its challenge. "If Draper reads beyond the Inferno, what will he make of the promise of salvation, the joy of the penitents, the beatific vision?"

Zaleski quotes the very same tagline I was going to include at this point. It comes by way of Prue Shaw, concluding her preface to a deft thematic introduction issued this spring in paperback, Reading Dante: From Here to Eternity. Shaw translates, as Zaleski phrases it via Dreher's column, "one possible answer with a line from a sonnet on Dante by the ardently anti-Christian Italian poet Giosuè Carducci: 'Muor Giove, e l’inno del poeta resta' ('Jove dies, and the poet’s hymn remains')." Shaw does not credit Carducci, and she substitutes "God" for "Jove". This adds intrigue, for Shaw tries to explain Dante to us, even as her translation abandons the Roman deity of Carducci's original cited by Zaleski and substitutes its Christian replacement. Many readers of our generation emulate Don Draper, having lost Dante's connections to Christianity or perhaps to any such deity.

Shaw reminds us how Dante damned his nemesis, Pope Boniface. Dante excoriated those who rushed in, during the first flush of capitalism and global markets as the bankers and merchants took control. As he phrased it, his age watched the rush of la gente nuova e i subiti guadagni ("the new people and the instant profits"). During his career, Dante hedged his bets between the papacy and its imperial rival. Losing, he despised clerical despots as bitterly as he did tyrants among the rapacious Florentines who expelled Dante. As we set aside theological discourse, Dreher's preferences recede. This may displease critics attached to Dante's Catholic origins, but in her presentation of his themes, Shaw emphasizes a secular context. This reminds contemporary readers, who may expect a poem full of piety, how Dante fumed as often as he praised. He perfected his epic to work through what post-Mad Men shrinks might call his "issues". Self-improvement looms large. As poet and as pilgrim, these two Dantes long for perfection.

Reading Dante

Shaw has taught Dante for decades at Cambridge, but as a forthright Australian, she cuts through whatever gloss or gunk obscures our view of his text. She guides us through thematic chapters rather than a chronological commentary through the Commedia or a critical biography introducing us to the highlights of his life. The results can be challenging, But if you can keep the Guelphs from the Ghibellines straight -- and Shaw makes sure we do -- this study may reward those new to Dante, or those, like myself, looking for a broader overview of his career, and his influences. It goes deeper than what common translations can provide by line-by-line annotation. While Guy P. Raffa's primer presents a useful commentary to allusions and characters through study questions and cross-referenced glossary (excerpted at his Danteworlds website), that will satisfy beginning students. As a topical treatment which departs from canto-by-canto presentation, and which investigates Dante's epic within its historical and cultural origins, Shaw gives us the guide inquiring readers need.

After half a century of scrutiny, Shaw knows every facet of the poet's considerable erudition. She charts his complicated political entanglements (we are reminded he faced torture and death for his allegiance). She elucidates the dramatic achievement that made the vernacular, after the poet experimented with Tuscan dialect and added many more neologisms, the standard for the emerging language of Italian. Many regional variations proliferated. None, as Shaw shows, endured as long as Dante's own (at least in print), as he asserted in typically arrogant form. He concocted a show-off comparison to flaunt his native Florentine expertise. This linguistic and poetic confidence, increasing as Dante took on more challenging models after 1300, produced over 13,000 lines, as a hundred masterful cantos.

Reading Dante progresses by chapters on friendship, power, his life, love, time, numbers, and words. I found to my surprise those on time and numbers as engrossing as those on love and words. Shaw sharpens her gaze when delving into the textual acumen that displays Dante's talents at their best. You come away convinced that the more Dante took on -- the journey down to hell, up past purgatory, and to the Beatific Vision and that surpassing expression itself on a human plane -- the more he rose to the occasion and found language worthy of the subject, certainly a topic meant to humble anyone.

A few highlights from Shaw's take on Dante: he's a "good Catholic but an independent thinker", and humanity's place in the cosmos and the individual's place in society occupy his center stage. His journey downward and upward is also "the story of becoming capable of writing the poem about the journey". In examining the unexpected presence of public nonbelievers in medieval Florence, condemned to suffer infernally, she notes Dante's typical symmetry, the punishments he often invents that match or invert the crime perpetrated above on earth. "Those who thought life ended in the grave are destined to spend eternity in a tomb." Ponder this, and Dreher's question rises again, nagging us.

However, Shaw's Commedia isn't a political tract any more than it is a sermon, for she promotes Dante's primary concern within the "power of words" to chastise his contemporaries and to correct the many flaws of his troubled city and a compromised Church. The vanity of Pope Boniface VIII gains special note. His massive statue as a memorial -- shown in one of the helpful illustrations throughout this volume (although on a Kindle I had to enlarge many to make out their detail, as in the delicate Sandro Botticelli line drawings of the cantos) -- finds few admirers today. Shaw contrasts his monument with a statue of Dante she glimpsed in New York City, behind Central Park's shrubbery. Elsewhere she refers to Catholic schoolgirls in '50s Sydney, UN sanctions, and Siena vs. Florence soccer taunts. She connects the controversies of Dante's era, often as political bickering which feels distant from our concerns, by revealing an exiled poet who strives to fix his society's woes by honest poetic craft. Shaw wants to broaden the approaches through which contemporary readers meet Dante.

His masterpiece may appear arcane. Shaw notes how it's "not an account of a dream" as were other visions of the time, "but of something that happened when the poet woke up" at the start of the cantos. We are charmed by some of those whom Dante and Virgil meet in hell, but the moral scrutiny persists. Bold Ulysses or seduced Francesca may inspire our sympathy. We must stay wary. Dante presents an alert ethical strategy that keeps ambiguity alive along with dispassionate judgment, reflecting divine justice despite human frailty. Ulysses erred by his foolhardiness, Francesca by her refusal to account for her actions. God runs this non-stop show.

The epic spirals down into earth, where Satan burrowed after he fell from heaven, only to claw itself up the slope of the soil displaced from the center of the earth, as purgatory carries Dante to its summit. Since the cantos end with the heavenly light, language must stop trying to capture this scene at Paradiso's limit. In Shaw’s phrasing, it's a poignant "dream that one cannot recall on waking" which "leaves a trace of the emotions experienced in it. Snow melting in sunlight retains a faint tracing of an imprint on it. The oracles of the Sibyl are lost on the winds that blow away the pages they were written on."

Thus, referring to dazzling images employed by Dante as Paradiso culminates, Shaw leaves us with our own wonder at Dante's bold ambition and the courage taken to record his frank revulsion against abundant clerical, personal, and political corruption around him. He also undertakes a redemptive task. He makes his everyday language, enhanced by his talent and coinages, capable of taking on the next world, along with this one. From Here to Eternity is her aptly chosen subtitle.

Supplemented by notes and a very extensive bibliography, told in scholarly but engaging language, Shaw's survey of Dante should reward anyone wanting to learn more about him and his times. She makes a strong case for his linguistic range and his dogged ambition. One will close her own book likely convinced that Dante's legacy deserves to sustain its lofty power.

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