Since we're already talking about faith

This is absolutely apropos of nothing, really, but I have a need to vent some spleen here.

A while ago, I started the Hollander translation of Dante's Paradiso. I had read their translation of both Inferno and Purgatorio (both of which I enjoyed), so I thought I would hit the Divine Comedy Hat Trick. There are some books that I love, and will read multiple times. There are some that I would consider reading again, if there were some compelling reason. And then there's Paradiso, the reading of which should count as some sort of penance.

For those of you (understandably) indifferent to what some Snot-nosed Twit has to say about a classic of Western literature, stop now. Everyone else, here are three reasons I totally hated this book:

1) Dante has a cracked-out theology of salvation. Now, for someone like me that rejects eternal damnation as an article of faith, this is probably not surprising on its face. However, Dante's theology is so ad hoc, I have a hard time imagining that even he took it seriously.

While the protagonist is strolling around the sphere of Jupiter, home of the theological virtue of Justice, he asks the assembled souls (in the form of an eagle) about a hypothetical person who lives in far-off India. Poor guy, blameless as can be, dies without ever knowing a thing about Christ. Dante wants to know what's just about condemning him to Hell. The answer is, in a nutshell, "who are you to question God?" While this is essentially the same answer Job gets from God in the Bible when he asks about why he is suffering, at least in the Bible God shows up to give the answer Himself (and does so with pointedly sarcastic gusto).

On the other hand, immediately thereafter Dante meets the saved souls of Trajan and Ripheus. The pagan Trajan, because of the prayers of St. Gregory, was resurrected, converted to Christianity and baptized, and then died again, this time in salvation. Ripheus, a ridiculously minor character in the Aeneid, is somehow saved by believing in Christ before Christ was ever born, because he was just that good. This all somehow makes sense to Dante, regardless of the fact that Virgil, the author of the Aeneid, ends up in Limbo for all eternity, despite the prayers on his behalf of no less a personage than St. Paul. Thankfully, Robert Hollander concedes that Dante's theology makes no sense. Which brings us to...

2) The commentary is way, waaaaaaaaay too dense, and is not geared for the average reader. For both the Inferno and Purgatorio, Hollander's commentary was concise and explanatory. If you wanted to know who all the people being slowly roasted were, he gave you historical context. If you wanted to know the difference between simony and barratry, he informed you. (Memo to Gov. Blagojevich -- you should start your penance now. It ain't pretty, otherwise.)

They have since obviously changed their goals, and clearly set out to produce the Definitive Paradiso. The commentary is now dense, long, and predominantly devoted to discussions on scholarly debate about why one word is chosen in translation over another, and which musty Dante scholar preferred which interpretation of the number of times some character speaks. It is arcane, recondite and airless, and patently not meant for the likes of you. (On the other hand, you can't skip it entirely, because there's far too much allegory and history in the text to go without.) Which brings us to the last, and most fatal flaw...

3) Paradiso is stone boring. In Inferno, there is the grim fascination of seeing what gruesome punishment Dante will devise next. In addition, the characters have depth and a tragic sensibility that makes for compelling reading. In Purgatorio, the characters are all on their way to heaven, so they seem relatively happy with being variously crushed, smoked and flambeed, but there's the same kind of narrative progression.

In Paradiso, the protagonist moves from spheres of bright shining to spheres of shiny brightness. The only way the landscape differs is how illuminated it is, and how beautiful Beatrice gets, often described by Dante as being beyond his mortal powers to convey. Occasionally various saints pop up to hector or quiz him about scholastic theology or rail against the pope (and Dante really, really hates the pope), but that's all you get. The final vision of the Divine is brief, once again indescribable, and calls to mind nothing so much as the Entertainment from David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest.

It's probably not much more fun to read me rant about this book than it was to read the whole thing, so I will stop here. But now I see why nobody reads the Divine Comedy beyond the Inferno unless they are forced to do so.

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