My Blog List

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

In Dante's Genes: Did Dan Brown's "Inferno" decode Dante's DNA?

In Dante's Genes: Did Dan Brown's "Inferno" decode Dante's DNA?

Phew. Reading Dan Brown reminds me of doing-short interval workouts for track and field: sprint 200 meters than jog 200 meters 40 times over. His pacing is schizophrenic. The action sprints, while the descriptive narrative walks. The novel takes place over one day, but our hero starts in Boston, travels to Florence (where the novel starts) and then on two two other cities ( I won't name them to avoid any spoilers). The action forces the characters to run the equivalent of a day-long double marathon. During this mad dash the narrator is delivering a lecture on all things Dante, Renaissance, Art History, Bioethics, Biology, World Politics, all the while providing "product-placement" commercials for ridiculously expensive gadgets that only the very rich, like a world best-selling author, could ever afford to own. 

All credit to Dan Brown; his books are fun to read. So too is "Inferno,"  if at times painful. Doubly painful for a Dante scholar like me. 

Besides the above, I am not interested in writing about how Dan Brown puts his novel together: it is what it is, brutal but effective. Nor am I going to give a blow by blow account of how Brown reads and , at times, misreads Dante. Why? Because that is already being done by a friend and colleague, Deborah Parker, in a much more systematic fashion. I highly recommend her book for that:

What then is left to say? There is much to say, and I hope that the time and place comes for that (details to follow!)I would like to make two points, one favorable and one unfavorable about Dan Brown's novel. 

First, I admire Dan Brown for taking on the topics that he does, for doing his homework and coming to an understanding of such difficult texts and images, and, most of all, for using the vehicle of his novels to educate his readership. While reading the "Inferno" I could relate with how he stuffs so much contextualizing historical information into the slimmest of narrative spaces. His hero is running for his life, but the narrator has time to explain details of current art historical knowledge about, for example, Florence's Baptistry. It reminds me of the unsettling feeling I get when I realize I have 6 weeks left in the semester to teach that last 6 canti of Purgatorio and Paradiso! How can I rush the reading and still get in all the important facts while preserving the beauty of Dante's vision? Dante seems to have pushed Brown's pedagogical buttons too, transforming his novel into a tour guide. Students coming to my Dante class next Spring having read Dan Brown's novel will be fine.

On the other hand... Dan Brown's Dante does not seem too familiar to me. The ambiance of this novel is unrelentingly dark, even if there are moments that acknowledge Dante's fundamentally hopeful spirit.  The beauty of the poetry, the skill of the author, the message of the importance of knowledge are missing. While Brown has a handle of the historical person of Dante and the importance of his poem in history, he dwells entirely too much on depictions of punishment of the sinners. Virgil's warning to Dante in Canto XXI are appropriate here for Dan Brown:

Quale ne l'arzanà; de' Viniziani21.7As in the arsenal of the Venetians,
bolle l'inverno la tenace peceall winter long a stew of sticky pitch
a rimpalmare i legni lor non sani,boils up to patch their sick and tattered ships
ché navicar non ponno -- in quella vece21.10that cannot sail (instead of voyaging,
chi fa suo legno novo e chi ristoppasome build new keels, some tow and tar the ribs
le coste a quel che più vïaggi fece;of hulls worn out by too much journeying;
chi ribatte da proda e chi da poppa;21.13some hammer at the prow, some at the stern,
altri fa remi e altri volge sarte;and some make oars, and some braid ropes and cords;
chi terzeruolo e artimon rintoppa --:one mends the jib, another, the mainsail);
tal, non per foco ma per divin' arte,21.16so, not by fire but by the art of God,
bollia là giuso una pegola spessa,below there boiled a thick and tarry mass
che 'nviscava la ripa d'ogne parte.that covered all the banks with clamminess.
I' vedea lei, ma non vedëa in essa21.19I saw it, but l could not see within it;
mai che le bolle che 'l bollor levava,no thing was visible but boiling bubbles,
e gonfiar tutta, e riseder compressa.the swelling of the pitch; and then it settled.
Mentr' io là giù fisamente mirava,21.22And while I watched below attentively,
lo duca mio, dicendo "Guarda, guarda!"my guide called out to me: "Take care! Take care!"
mi trasse a sé del loco dov' io stava.And then, from where I stood, he drew me near.
Take care Dan Brown! Don't get too fixed on watching the punishments of the sinners; learn your lesson and move on or you too will fall into the burning pitch!

One specific critique illustrates Brown's mistaken fixedness on Hell. Brown's antihero uses Dante's Inferno as a symbol for suffering, citing over and over the 7 deadly sins. However, as all students of Dante understand, the 7 deadly sins are not part of the Inferno, but rather the Purgatorio. The categorization of sin and punishment in Hell are Aristotelean, not Christian, and are divided into passion, violence, and fraud. Brown's antihero, as smart as he is, would have understood this. Indeed, I think Brown has missed an opportunity (many opportunities, in fact). The book is not about punishment but about possible redemption. It is not about past sins but about avoiding future disasters. Indeed, the theme of "Transhumance" is indebted to Dante, who first coined the verb "trasumanar" in the Paradiso. 

Nel suo aspetto tal dentro mi fei,1.67In watching her, within me I was changed
qual si fé Glauco nel gustar de l'erbaas Glaucus changed, tasting the herb that made
che 'l fé consorto in mar de li altri dèi.him a companion of the other sea gods.
Trasumanar significar per verba1.70Passing beyond the human cannot be
non si poria; però l'essemplo bastiworded: let Glaucus serve as simile—
a cui esperïenza grazia serba.until grace grant you the experience.

But, Brown seems to be in a dark mood throughout this book, and Inferno fits his mood better, I guess. It turns out that selling billions of books and making billions of dollars won't make you happy (not to mention all of those neat gadgets)!

And of course, everybody reads Dante's "Inferno," and nobody reads the Purgatorio or Paradiso. 

On the other hand, I am really excited to read this book linked below, recommended to me by an Italian friend and avid reader. It has a paleographer (a student of manuscripts and the handwriting contained in manuscripts) as a hero. I fear that not too far in the future people will laugh mockingly when some refers to themselves as a paleographer, much like we do now at Robert Langdon's title of Symbologist, thinking that title to be an impossible fiction.

1 comment:

  1. I liked the novel more than I expected and am glad he just didn't toy with idea of contrapasso. Langdon's art guides as he's whizzing around Florence on a vespa are a bit much.