Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

The Educated Reader

I saw A.N. Wilson's Dante in Love, an overview of the world of Dante as it bears on the Divine Comedy, on the new books shelf at the library, and as I could summon up a vague memory of it being mentioned in the WSJ, I thought I'd pick it up. Here's what I encountered in the first pages.
The intelligent reader of the twenty-first century -- that is to say, you -- might or might not have a knowledge of classical mythology and Roman history. Dante expects you to remember who Briareus was, and who Cato, and how Arachne was transformed into a spider, and what was the fate of the Sabine women. On top of this, he expects you to share his knowledge of, and obsession with, contemporary Italian history and politics. Some translations and modern editions of his poem endeavour to 'help' you here by elaborate explanations of the Guelfs and the Ghibellines, which soon have your head spinning. And on top of all that, there is the whole confusing business of medieval philosophy and theology -- what Thomas Aquinas owed to Averroes, or the significance of St Bernard of Clairvaux. 
No wonder that so many readers abandon their reading of Dante's three-part Comedy (Inferno, Purgatorio and Paradiso) long before they get to Purgatory. No wonder that so many who manage to read as far as the Purgatorio find that very little of it has remained in their heads. Such readers are prepared to take on trust that Dante is a great poet, but the leave him as one of the great unreads. And in so doing, they leave unsavoured one of the supreme aesthetic, imaginative, emotional and intellectual experiences on offer. The are like people who have never attended a performance of Mozart's Don Giovanni, or of King Lear, never heard a Beethoven symphony, never visited Paris. Quite definitely, they are missing out. 
If you belong to this category of Dante-reader, or non-reader, then this book is specifically designed for you.
Let's see how I stack up against Wilson's potential reader:

Briareus: not off the top of my head.
Cato: check
Arachne: check
Sabine women: check
Guelfs and Ghibellines: mostly check
Thomas Aquinas and Averroes: check, for the purposes of this discussion
St Bernard of Clairvaux: check
Read all of Purgatorio: check
Mozart's Don Giovanni: check
King Lear: not live, but I did see Ian McKellen's stage version on TV
Beethoven symphony: check
Visited Paris: check

Well, now I'm wondering if I should return this book to the library so it can benefit one of the educationally unwashed. I did nearly fall asleep during Don Giovanni, though, so I'm sure I'm in need of Wilson's benign tutelage.


Brandon said...

I always get Guelphs and Ghibellines mixed up. And I've never seen Don Giovanni or King Lear (I've never actually seen a full opera, although I've heard quite a few performance of operatic arias, and by some remarkable cosmic coincidence, or some mysterious conspiracy of the gods, I've seen Shakespeare's Twelfth Night a jillion times, and it is the only Shakespeare play I've seen except for a high school production of Romeo and Juliet, because everytime I've been able to go to the theater it happens to be the only Shakespeare play being performed -- I saw a Royal Shakespeare Company version of it in Stratford, and have seen several others). Also, never visited Paris. But check on everything else. So I'm among the semi-unwashed masses.

MrsDarwin said...

Brandon, I'm sure you can run circles around Wilson in the Thomas Aquinas department. Dante was a White Guelf; I don't know why that sticks in my memory, but I impart it to you.

I saw Don Giovanni live because when I was 18, my best friend and I decided that we needed to get cultured, so we bought season subscriptions to the Cincinnati Opera. We saw La Boheme and Don Giovanni and one other I can't remember, but the Friday night that Faust was playing, we were so exhausted and opera-ed out that we blew it off and went to see Muppets From Space instead. I make no excuses; we were young and foolish. What I primarily remember from the experiment was that opera singers are not necessarily very good actors. I did see The Merry Widow in Vienna. It has a very beautiful aria about a nymph named Vilya, which for some reason (the opera was in German, so I only understood bits and snatches of what was going on) the soprano sang while rolling around on top of a piano.

I've seen Twelfth Night almost a jillion times because I've teched two different runs -- light board each time, so I watched the whole thing every performance. "O, that record is lively in my soul!" In spite of this, or maybe because of this, it's my favorite Shakespeare.

Matthew Lickona said...

This is me, hating you both and firing up another cat video on YouTube. I think there's one where a cat named Guelf takes on a Rottweiler named Ghibili. Pass the Cheetos.

Brandon said...


You're right; there is no excuse but youthful folly for seeing Muppets from Space.

I've developed a hefty affection for Twelfth Night, too; I think it's a play that bears repeated viewing extremely well. I think in some ways this is because it has a kind of universality and timelessness to it; I've seen it adapted to several different formats -- e.g., the Royal Shakespeare one was highly stripped down and minimalist, while probably the production I thought the most fun was a college production that re-set it in the Prohibition era -- and it has worked well in every single format. I think it's my favorite of the comedies. Of course, I haven't actually seen any of the other comedies performed, either.

My favorite of all the plays is Henry V; I've been able to recite its opening off the top of my head since I first came across the play in high school -- 'O for a Muse of fire that would ascend the brightest heaven of invention, a kingdom for a stage' &c. But Kenneth Branagh is the closest I've ever come to seeing it live.


If the Cheetos are the classic Crunchy Cheetos, I'm right there with you.

MrsDarwin said...

Brandon, the Round Rock library has a great collection of DVDs of the Royal Shakespeare Company (I think) performing just about the entire corpus of Shakespeare. I watched a lot of them two or three summers ago when I was teaching a Shakespeare acting class. I watched a lot of the more obscure histories (couldn't really tell you what they were about now) and Troilus and Cressida (the blind cross-dressing actor who played Thersites was surprisingly effective). Also, you get to see many of Britain's finest strutting their stuff. I really thought that their Much Ado About Nothing was better than Kenneth Branagh's version, if not so lush.

I'm horrified to realize that Muppets from Space came out not when I was 18, but when I was 20. You're right: it was an absolute dog. What can I say? It was opening weekend, and the only review I'd read was from the local paper, which didn't make it sound quite as lousy as it was. Back then I worked on my feet all day at a printing press, doing bindery work (one day I'll write up how I caught my finger in an industrial stapler), and the print chemicals probably impaired my judgment.

I read Twelfth Night aloud to the girls this school year, and we had a great deal of fun. They already knew the scene where Sir Toby and Sir Andrew sing catches, because Darwin and I belt out "Hold thy peace!" at odd intervals. My current song for the baby, now that she's started walking, is "O mistress mine, where are you roaming?"

You guys share the Cheetos. I'm bringing Doritos to the party.