This month’s Harper’s Magazine includes an in-depth, beautiful picture of the Dante Marathon of Firenze – a collective effort of Florentine Who’s Whos, international academics and common Dante enthusiasts to read aloud the entirety of La divina commedia – as presented by Elif Batuman, “writer-in-residence at Koc University.” Batuman’s ability to place Alighieri in a sweeping historical context of medieval demonology, contemporary politics, forensic anthropology and even wine production is remarkably natural (at one point she uses the word “douchebags” to describe a subset of la commedia’s cast of characters). Attached you can find a PDF of the essay; also below, links and images to some of its most striking details.
In a move Feurbachian in technique, Batuman flips the notion of figuration, “a mode of analysis originally devised to reconcile the Old and New Testaments,” into a secular humanist historical device for explaining Dante’s modern legacy. She writes, “The meaning of Dante’s existence is revealed not by his place in the chorus of Paradise but by the fate of his corpse and his corpus in this world.” It’s a nice way of capturing – and negating – the pull religion continues to have on thought (for many) today. Maybe you’re blessed not to have dealt with Catholics growing up, so I will remind you that their lives often are – even if it’s simply in the nagging guilt of, say, sloppy pre-marital boning (“oh my!”) – guided by the notion that their actions in this world can take meaning only in the posthumous judgment of God. Incidentally, it was just in last month’s Harper’s that Vince Passaro, in his excellent review of Scorsese’s unique voice (the working class Italian-American worldview in Hollywood), quoted “America’s last tragedian” thus:
For a Catholic, nothing is too important to discuss or think about, because he’s raised with the idea that he will die any minute now and that if he doesn’t live his life in a certain way this death is simply an introduction to an eternity of pain. This removes a hesitation that a writer might otherwise feel when he’s approaching important subjects, eternal subjects.
[“Scorsese on the Cross: America’s last tragedian” by Vince Passaro]
Compare this alongside Dante’s description of Ugolino – He raised his mouth from his atrocious meal, that sinner, and wiped it on the hair of the very head he had been ravaging – and we have the graphic literary vernacular of Dante as a figura of Scorsese’s cinematic perspective.