12 January 2008

The Divine Tragicomedy

I don't normally like new age music but the first time I heard Dante's Prayer by Loreena McKennitt, I couldn't resist, not least because I was studying Dante at the time in my Italian translation class. Also, the verse

Though we share this humble path, alone
How fragile is the heart
Oh give these clay feet wings to fly
To touch the face of the stars

struck a chord as my heart was feeling pretty fragile. I brought the song along to one of my supervisions and the Prof and I spent a happy twenty minutes pulling out all of the Dante references of which there are many, from the opening, "When the dark wood fell before me /And all the paths were overgrown",  mirroring closely Dante's opening lines, to references to "the mountain" (of Purgatory) and the "fountain of forgiveness" and so on. It's a pretty song regardless of the Dante references; one of the few of my favourite songs that doesn't involve a catchy guitar riff, upbeat pace and moany and/or shouty lyrics.

The Divine Comedy is so-called because of the tendency of the Greeks and Romans to divide poetry into two categories: comedies (of the "Low" style, on everyday subjects and with generally happy endings) and tragedies ("High"poems, which were about more serious matters (i.e. divinity). Perhaps this is slightly inaccurate because The DC actually transcends both styles, from the vulgar, graphic, comic descriptions of the punishments of the sinners in Hell, to the depictions of the divine, righteous love Dante the pilgrim finds in Paradise, and everything in between. You can pick pretty much any canto and it will crammed full of references, from classical literature to (then) contemporary figures. The same with events.

Perhaps it is fitting, then, that a work of such great scope that references everything should be referenced so much in contemporary (and popular) culture. This Wikipedia page reminded me of a few I had forgotten and recommended some more to try to get my Dante fix, including:

1. Clerks. I love this film (as does, presumably, everyone who has worked in the service industry) whose structure is based (very loosely) around the circles of Dante's Inferno.

2. American Psycho. The book (which opens with the lines "abandon all hope..." as per the gates of Hell) is one of my favourites, and any film with Christian Bale can't go too far wrong. WoW references this quotation too.

3. Rachmaninoff's opera Francesca da Rimini based on the star-crossed lovers, Francesca and Paolo.

4. Thom Yorke apparently used Dante's work for inspiration in creating music (but then, anyone could say that really, given the breadth of the poem).

5. Se7en, another favourite film of mine is bursting at the seams with Dante in-jokes.

There's also a film of Inferno coming out this year, although I can't imagine it being any good. The whole point of The DC is the amazing language and the poem is so vast that capturing the essence in a two-hour film has to be bloody difficult. I am glad that the latest film version of one of the other 14th century Italian greats (Boccaccio's (hilarious) Decameron, from which Chaucer pinched most of his best ideas), starring Mischa Barton, of all people, keeps getting shelved. The film has also changed names so many times, from The Decameron: Angels & Virgins to Virgin Territory (via several others). It's bound to be truly awful, which is a shame as the book is outrageously funny and clever.

It strikes me that this blog is Dante-like in the scope of the content: I am too easily distracted by new, different things to write only about one subject but I hope that there is some cohesion. While I try to keep any divine argumentation out of it, there is definitely a mix of high and low here. Here and in most other blogs in the known universe... Whatever would Dante think?

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