Dante’s Divine Comedy: the book was too long, the video too short

This article from BBC Culture reviews the enormous contribution Dante made with his Divine Comedy, not just in terms of literature and religion but the development and adoption of the Italian language too. It does include this irreverent passage though:

Dante and The Divine Comedy: He took us on a tour of Hell
… Right there that suggests this view of the afterlife is coloured by authorial wish-fulfillment: Dante gets a personal tour from his father-figure of a literary hero and the woman on whom he had a crush. In the parlance of contemporary genre writing, Dante’s version of himself in The Divine Comedy is a Mary Sue, a character written to be who the author wishes he could be, having experiences he wishes he could have. Sandra Newman, author of How Not to Write a Novel, has said that “The Divine Comedy is really a typical science fiction trilogy. Book one, a classic. Book two, less exciting version of book one. Book three, totally bonkers, unwanted insights into author’s sexuality, Mary Sue’s mask slipping in every scene.”

I guess I must agree. I want to say I read The Divine Comedy as a sixth former, but it’s more accurate to say I read Inferno and just briefly skimmed the rest, like everyone else.

And I loved Peter Greenaway’s video version, A TV Dante, though it was frustratingly too short, only covering the first eight cantos of the first book.

Dante_El Infierno, “A_T.V. Dante” ( Peter greenaway & Tom phillips_1993) subtitulado en español

The illustrations that tend to go along with the books are wonderful, and I’m sure they have contributed to the ongoing appeal of this massive Medieval poem.

A digital archive of the earliest illustrated editions of Dante’s Divine Comedy
These images, from Columbia’s Rare Book and Manuscript Library, represent a 1497 woodcut edition, at the top, with a number of hand-colored pages; an edition from 1544, above, with almost 90 circular and traditionally-composed scenes, all of them probably hand-colored in the 19th century; and a 1568 edition with three engraved maps, one for each book.

As evocative and helpful as they are, that typical cone shape never really worked for me, though, as it doesn’t feel underground-y enough. In this version below, it looks like a vast plain or the map of a pleasant stroll through the North York Moors.

a-wide-open-hell

It needs more ceilings, like in As Above, So Below, a film dealing with similar geography, but with added claustrophobia.

as-above-so-below-ceiling

(I must admit I haven’t seen this film, however. Rather than having to sit through all these kinds of films, I get all I need from the FoundFlix YouTube channel these days. Much quicker.)

Watching music

Or: Why listening to music makes me think of art gallery gift shop postcards and running down steep hills

Mr @robertbrook has an e-mail newsletter and he recently shared with us a Michael Nyman Band youtube video, Chasing Sheep is Best Left to Shepherds.

I think Michael Nyman’s stuff for Peter Greenaway’s just brilliant, so resonant and immediate. The first thing I heard of his was the soundtrack to the first Greenaway film I saw, The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover (the whole thing’s on youtube!), with Memorial making a big impression. Apparently, “edits of Memorial appear throughout the film, with the entire twelve minute movement accompanying the final scene and end credits”. And then there’s the music from The Belly of an Architect, but that’s Wim Mertens. But anyway, here’s another one of his, Time Lapse, from A Zed & Two Noughts.

Those clips are just wonderful, but they got me thinking. About how I think about listening to classical music without seeing it, without having the benefit of seeing the musicians create this stuff, these sounds, out of thin air. It reminds me of art gallery gift shops and seeing all those fabulous, majestic paintings reduced to little postcard-sized rectangles of card. Actual postcards, really.

If you see a postcard of a Pollock or a Hockney or something, it’s pretty obvious that you’re not getting the full “picture”. You might be looking at a faithful, full colour reproduction, and it may well serve as a great reminder of the picture you’ve been staring at for about 20 minutes, but a ton of stuff has been lost. Not just in the scale, but in not being aware of the physicality of the painting anymore. You can’t see the brush strokes, you lose that direct link with the artist. (I love looking at brush strokes and pen marks, seeing that the artist was just there, his hand must have been just actually there, the same place, just a different time. Sometimes I even put my hand in the same place, the actual same place in space, relative to the canvas, obviously. I think I may have well have shouted out a little “Ah ha! Gotcha!” when staring at that Pollock and seeing where he had gone back over those strokes to touch them up and improve them. Random, my arse.) Anyway, you don’t get the impact of the original’s presence, or force, with a tiny little postcard.

And I think it’s the same with listening to classical music, especially orchestral. (Well, not just orchestras, it’s exactly the same with things like string quartets. I loved watching the Tippet Quartet thrash out that Piazolla piece, not Libertango but something else. Can’t find it now, but it was that evening they were playing music inspired by Hitchcock and Herrman, including some of these. It was fantastic watching the music bounce from one player to the next, whirling round and back again, quicker than your eyes could follow.) If you’re only listening to it, you’re not fully experiencing it, you’re missing out on all this. If you can’t see all the performers really going for it, busting a gut to get all their notes in, exactly in tune, exactly in time with the conductor and the other players (do you remember as a kid running down steep hills, going so fast you were sure you were going to fall arse over heels, but you couldn’t stop, all you could do was keep going, all of your energy and determination going into just trying to keep up with your legs, taking all of your strength to maintain control whilst your legs independently propel you forward faster than you thought possible, the crash only ever moments away, but you manage to keep in control, keep it together till you get to the end? Speaking as a complete non-musician, I imagine playing Bizet’s L’Arlesienne might feel a little like that. I certainly feel like roaring “Come on, come on, you can do it!” towards the end at them, and jumping up “Yeeaah!” when they finally get to the end, like some desperate football fan at someone who’s just been sprinting up the wing, full pelt, to bang it in the net), if you can’t see all that rush and energy, you’re missing out on loads of stuff. You’re only seeing half the picture.