Friday, October 12, 2007

i, dante dilettante

Shortly before this past summer began, I began reading Mark Musa's interpretation and commentary of Dante Alighieri's famous La Divina Commedia, beginning with Inferno. To be honest, I've never read any other translation, so I have nothing to compare with Musa's work, yet I still thought it to be excellent and very well presented. Not only does Musa translate the vulgar poetry into English (vulgar here meaning Italian, rather than the ancient Latin which was the lingua franca for major works,) but he brings it to life by explaining the back story of Dante's life and the socio-political backdrop of the feuding criminal classes between which power waned and waxed for the Ghibellines and the Guelphs.

With my Jewish Orthodox upbringing, I could relate to Dante's overall theological theme, although he obviously based it upon the Christian version of events. One technique, or device have you, stands out quite clearly in my mind; that of contropasso, a very key element to interpreting his allegory. In Hebraic terms the principle is known as midah keneged midah, which is to say measure for measure.

Many people like to think that God is a mean old cosmic tyrant who likes to inflict cruelty upon his creation for sport. Far from it, the concept of midah keneged midah is not a petty game of divine retribution, but rather expresses a concept akin to Immanuel Kant's categorical imperative; the maxim that "Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law."

In other words, God is so fair with us, that not only will he not judge us by what he expected from us, but rather according to the very same standards of justice that we ourselves judged to be correct. This is not to say that if one chooses to disobey God that there are no damaging consequences, only that God won't hold one guilty for acting according to the maxims that he or she believed to be universally true.

On Judgement Day God will scroll and scrub through this persons' life and check to see if the persons' actions were motivated according to these principles that he claimed to adhere to and flag those inconsistencies, where the man claims to adhere to moral code x, but acts contrarily to his own belief system. In that case the person is found to be intellectually dishonest, and the purpose of his contropasso is remedy his dysfunction.

One of the more enlightening chapters spoke of Dante's encounter with the level of hell reserved for hypocrites, in which the tormented are marched around bedecked in a friars vestment seemingly made of fine-woven gold. These robes however are lined with lead on the inside, making each step a back-breaking experience for the sinner.

Musa humbly explains that Dante's subtle contropasso here is as follows: The word 'hypocrite' stems from the Greek word ypo'krita, that in Latin would translate to superauratus, both meaning, "that which is covered with gold", implying an inferior non-gold substance constituting the interior portion, a striking simile to the hypocrite who pretends to be of noble stature and hides the ugly nature behind his golden veneer. A double-entendre, if I may call it that is inherent in Dante's ingenious choice of punishment.

Incidentally, I happen to think that the word krita meaning 'gold' is related to both carat and Crete, but I can't find any backup to that. And the root ypo is the opposite of Latin's super, the former like the prefix "hypo" indicating that which lies underneath, and the latter what is above, so I'm not exactly sure of how the word relates to the way Dante wants it to. Super is definitely related to Hebrew's TZa'PEh, which means to coat, or cover with an above layer, although it would have been nice if the Hebrew word for hypocrite would be a gold-coated TZaPUY-ZaHaV, the actual term is a more benign TZVoo'Ee, "the one who is painted", a reference to the same concept expressing that which haves a deceiving outer appearance.

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