Feb 112016

Dante Illuminating Florence with his Poem by Domenico di Francesco via Wikipedia

Divine Comedy

1595 Edition


THERE IS A PHRASE coined by the critic Harold Bloom “the anxiety of influence,” which once raised the dust of a herd milling around its allure. Without paying Bloom, a prominent bad-boy, the compliment of either expounding or contradicting the truth of his book The Anxiety of Influence, his phrase “influences” me if only to retort upon it.

I draw my greatest satisfaction as a novelist and a writer of short stories, though the scholarship of others has been a major influence on both my fiction and non-fiction. As a novelist I have written three books that speak to two authors who have drawn the attention of scholarly critics and researchers, Shakespeare and Dante. This perhaps is a form of academic cross-dressing but in the past few months I have returned to think about Dante, since the editor of a literary journal asked me to interview the poet, who has been holed up in his grave for well over half a millennium. As I finished a first draft, I was struck by the coincidence of a note arriving from the wife of the novelist John Barth, saying that she had found my book, Dante Eros and Kabbalah on her husband’s shelf and was reading it. We printed in Fiction Barth’s story of Ulysses setting sail with the princess Nausicca for a new life to the west of Greece, excerpted from Barth’s novel Tidewater Tales. That particular tale was one of those that inspired me in speculating on Dante. Shelley Barth’s curiosity about Dante just as I was returning to the poet was a bit uncanny and it suggested my lecture’s real title.

Dostoyevsky’s Underground Man asks his audience, “But what can a decent man speak of with most pleasure?

“Answer: Of himself.”

What follows is how I came to read Dante as closely as I could and returned to Dante’s Comedy influenced by a 13th century classic, by literary criticism, the scholarship of others and the way a work of literature often embodies the influence of texts that have preceded it, an enthusiastic if mischievous re-reading of texts that precede it. That sounds like a more generous way to put it than Bloom’s “anxiety.” I could call what follows as advertised “The Anxiety of Laughter,” or “The Generosity of Influence,” or but the title, which seems to ring right is, “The Coincidence of Influence.”


I don’t know what the guiding principle of scholarship is but I feel that coincidence is what dictates the novel and the epic poem alike, since it is what sets the direction of the plot. I think that when one is drawn to a writer, a work of literature or scholarship, it is because one senses that coincidence has played its magical part. Your life and the life of the writer become entwined and you exchange identities. Isn’t that what happens when you fall in love? Dante talks about how he met Beatrice at nine years old and then nine years later Beatrice appears before him in a miraculous way; how nine seems to keep reoccurring as a magical number between them. This coincidence he assures us is a sign of Divine intention. And of course three times three makes nine, and the Comedy will be organized in the basis of three—even to its triple rhyme.

I first read Dante in high school. It was the first volume of the Comedy, the Inferno, and it was in John Ciardi’s translation. I read it out of curiosity—I was an omnivorous reader—but although I found it interesting, I did not find myself in it. The world of cruel punishments was repellant. As little boy I was more than once set upon and beaten by juvenile delinquents from the nearby streets of poverty stricken Irish for “killing Jesus” and paraded by canvases of Jesus crucified in the Museum of Fine Arts that made me cringe. The laughter and complexity of the poet descending his Inferno did not bleed through to an adolescent. Dante remained for me through college and graduate school a writer I could admire but not understand. In my mid twenties, however, I received a fellowship to the Breadloaf Writer’s Conference presided over by the poet John Ciardi. Unexpectedly, since the young editor at Simon and Schuster, who procured the fellowship for me, did not like my novel, Thou Work Jacob, Ciardi did; praised it, and wrote several sentences for its publication that still make me blush with gratitude.

Ciardi’s generosity sent me back to Dante. I was now a disciple of Ciardi. He had endorsed me; given me hope that what I wrote would be touched by the poetry of language he said he had found in my first novel. I wanted to be influenced by Dante, the poet to whom Ciardi’s name was so prominently linked. I re-read Ciardi’s translation of Inferno, but decided I ought to read the whole of the Comedy and bought the Modern Library prose version, slowly making my way through Inferno again, then Purgatory and Paradise. The Comedy seemed to be about the three obsessions of my life; sex, politics, and religion, but its drama remained at a distance and though I read with more understanding, I felt no empathy.

At twenty-nine, my mother died. I took up a book that the rabbi at Harvard had given me as a junior or senior, Gershom Scholem’s Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism. At twenty-one I had read three or four pages. It made no sense and I put it down. It was beyond me. Now I read it as a guide to the world beyond, a world to which my mother, abruptly, at fifty-six, and in a startling metamorphosis recovering her beauty as a slim adolescent before her final awful dissolution, had gone. I was left in nightmares and hallucination. Scholem’s lucid scholarship about the Jewish imagination seeking to read the “Other World” led me to the Zohar, the major mystical or Kabbalistic text of Jewish Spain in the 13th century, which Scholem’s volume explicates. Reading the Zohar’s abridged English translation I had just enough understanding of the Biblical world and the Talmud to respond to its flights of wild story telling. Scholem’s warning that there were elements of parody, and deliberate fiction, including the Aramaic, which was an artificial construct of the 13th century, not the 2nd century as it claimed, stimulated my own imagination and its details seeped into my fiction. I became a student of Scholem’s, a group that included I would learn, Harold Bloom and Jorge Luis Borges.

I was unaware what would happen when I tried again to read Dante. Suddenly the poet spoke to me. I had absorbed a language of imagery reading the Zohar, a language that made the barriers of Italian, Aramaic, the world of l3th century Spain and late 13th century Italy, seemingly sealed against each other, fall away as I recognized their common share in neo-Platonic philosophy. Scholem had taught me to hear the laughter in the Zohar as a vast hot spermatic flood burst out of the earth and drowned a hapless world of sex abusers; a world fathoms beyond Melville’s dreams of the White Whale. Now I heard Dante’s bitter self-laughter for the first time but I could not have gone many steps beyond the opening cantos of the Inferno if I had not found myself the beneficiary of coincidence and the generosity of influence. About this time I had several interviews with Professor Harry AustrynWolfson who was described at the time of his death in The NY Times obituary as the world’s greatest scholar. Wolfson’s unexpected friendship extended as a result of some articles I wrote about the Boston Jewish world in the Sunday Globe brought me the gift of his witty, mischievous presence, his extraordinary books, and their insights into the poetry of religious philosophy. In particular just at the moment when I was absorbing Gershom Scholem, I read in Wolfson’s short masterpiece, Religious Philosophy, a startling essay called “Immortality and Resurrection” which viewed the possibilities of the Afterworld from the perspective of the Church Fathers. To my father, Harry Wolfson, his freshman tutor at Harvard, was the final authority on Maimonides, Spinoza, Philo. Wolfson I would realize was also a pre-eminent scholar of the Church Fathers and the Islamic Kalam. An essay of Wolfson put what I believe was the key to Dante’s search for Beatrice in my hands and Wolfson was my guide through Purgatory and Paradise though I could never have turned the lock without the coincidence of reading Scholem roughly at the same time.

Now several figures step out of the shadows with their books and thoughts. For long before I met John Ciardi and decided to solve for myself the mystery of Dante’s authority, I was prepared by one of the two professors at Harvard who are responsible for my career. This was the critic, Albert Guerard, who wrote the first important critical study of Andre Gide in English, and is still an authority on Conrad. It was Albert who announced to me in his workshop that I was an important writer, who chastised, encouraged, drew me close, smacked me down. He shared his paranoia and his dreams, and I slowly assimilated his critical perspectives. Both as a teacher and in my three books on Shakespeare and Dante I find myself working out Albert’s dictum that one can always find the writer in his or her work. (A former City College chairperson, who wrote a single book on Shakespeare talking about the difference between the Folio and Quarto versions of plays, dismissed the first of mine, The Absent Shakespeare as “a book for the Humanities,” implying that it had nothing of scholarly value though I had found some value in his.) With the insights of Scholem, Albert Guerard, Wolfson in hand I went searching for Dante in the Comedy. I determined to try to read him in Italian encouraged by another coincidence. Speaking about my thoughts on Dante in Paris during a sabbatical to Andre Le Vot, who was a professor of American Literature at the Sorbonne on my way to Italy he urged me to try to read Dante in Italian. I protested that I knew no Italian. He asked if I could Chaucer in Middle English. “Yes, easily, ” I laughed and added that when I was required to basically memorize the whole of Troilus and The Canterbury Tales I found myself dreaming in Middle English. “Then you will be able to hear Dante in Italian,” Le Vot insisted. I had been sketching to him, the possibility of a radical revision of what I considered the “pious view” of the mass of critical literature on the poet. The text that suggested this to me was Max Frisch’s William Tell, in which the Swiss novelist using footnotes as his sly knife in the back lacerated the Swiss myth of William Tell as a hero, We had published Frisch’s William Tell in the magazine I edit Fiction. I was and remain in awe of Frisch and I decided to draw on his tactics writing about Dante. Max, his wife Marianne and I were seated in a sunny window of a restaurant outside Zurich, where I was his guest. Frisch smiled faintly when I outlined my project and that was enough of a blessing to continue.


I found myself in Florence and above it in the Tuscan countryside at Bernard Berenson’s villa months later, with a copy of the Sinclair translation that has the Italian facing it on the other side of the page, walking with Dante. I began to understand him, hear him though I had the echoes of the Russian poet Osip Mandelstam’s essay whistling in my ears, and Howard Nemerov’s (who had been as generous as Ciardi to me), thoughts on the Comedy as well. Albert Guerard showed a first draft to one of the deans of Dante studies in America, John Freccero who wrote that I was “the Philip Roth” of Dante scholarship, that I had treated Saint Augustine, shamefully, but that he would have loved to have me in his graduate seminar. Closer to home it was City College’s Renaissance scholar, Frederick Goldin, who confirmed that I was indeed on the “la diritta via,” Dante’s “right track.” I had become the director of the M.A. in Literature and Creative Writing at the college. After hearing a lecture by Professor Goldin I asked to sit in on his class on medieval romance. As he translated at will from the Provencal poets who had brought the neo-platonic notion of love into the vulgar languages and created the literature of Provence, Italy, France and Germany—I recognized the laughter and dreams that underlay Dante’s Comedy. Indeed Dante himself acknowledges the debt, but to feel it alive, leaping from one world to another, that would have been difficult without the aura of Frederick Goldin’s class in which scholarship made vivid the French Arthurian romances, the German Parsifal, their radical implications, texts that as he taught them became what one might call with sly appropriation, the true, the blissful “magical realism.” Frederick in one sentence about Dante confirmed an intuition that I felt but had not dared to give words to. At every turning in his descent through the tortures of Hell, Dante sees the punishment of his own sins. My own sins often coincided with Dante’s and this gave me a sense of how pride, covetousness, deception, if truly recognized has to haunt us all at some level of consciousness not to mention the deep sexual riddles to which our bodies seem to consign us regardless of human will. Dante keeps asking these questions in the Purgatory, and in Paradise, something that many readers do not recognize.

Finding the essay by Cecil Roth on Emannuel Ha-Romi the Italian-Jewish poet of the Renaissance who wrote a parody in Hebrew of the Comedy led me to think about a series of poems that Roth discussed. Dante’s contemporary and friend Cino da Pistoia, in an exchange with Bosone da Gubbio, put both Emmanuel and Dante in the same circle of hell with Alessio Unterminei, a truly filthy one where the condemned sit under caps of shit for using their talent as writers to seduce young women. That lit up the character of Dante, as seen by his contemporaries and it was an element of biography ignored by almost all conventional Dante scholars. It was funny and cruel and yet Dante and Emmanuel might have had a good laugh at their contemporaries’ exchange—one at least gave them hope of an escape from Hell. Another precious contribution came from a scholar at NYU who invited me to join a seminar on medieval philosophy, Professor Alfred Ivry. His lucid article on the degree to which Maimonides was influenced by the Shiite doctrine of concealment, was another proof for me that Dante too was concealing secrets. El-Farabi’s dictum, on which Leo Strauss built his remarkable book, Persecution and the Art of Writing, posits that poets in a society in which freedom of speech is not allowed, particularly doubt about a faith that the State endorses, learn to leave their real meaning concealed from the vulgar eye. Three times Gershom Scholem, whom I met in Jerusalem, then in Zurich, then again in Jerusalem, —not knowing anything about my manuscript on Dante asked me if I had read Strauss’s book When I finally read Strauss a shiver passed through me as if the master of Jewish mystical doctrine, Scholem, had read my secret. The coincidence was uncanny so was the Dante I found in the Comedy whose burning question to Beatrice was—what body will I find you with here in Heaven? Will I experience you in the body you had on earth. Isn’t that the question I had to ask my mother in the dreams that came after her death? Isn’t the hope of some extraordinary coincidence or its defeat what drives one great novel after another? The Dante I fell in love with was a poet who had secrets to whisper to those who could read between the lines and I found many, unconventional scholars, few of them however among the guardians of Dante as a Catholic puritan, willing to assist me. The footnotes of Dante, Eros and Kabbalah are crowded with such voices.

I was asked last year if I would interview Dante and the idea renewed my curiosity in associating anew with the poet. I tried through a fiction to make contact with him again, to hear his voice, and in pursuit of that took up the bi-lingual pages of the Hollanders, which some said had displaced the Sinclair as the best edition in that regard. I had a painful disagreement with Robert Hollander when I was invited by his wife Jean to their home in Princeton. I had no idea that Robert was a preeminent Dante scholar, but reading his notes on the Inferno now I understand how deep I put my foot in my mouth at supper suggesting that Dante had slept with Beatrice. The company laughed but Professor Hollander at the head of the table turned to ice and the atmosphere became glacial. Despite extraordinarily learned and witty notes on Dante’s Comedy, the poet’s sources and influences, Robert Hollander insists there that Dante has no real sympathy for the tormented. His Dante is a resolute Puritan, while mine is a laughing sinner. And yet my deeper quarrel now is with his wife, Jean’s translation, which however talented I feel misses the art of Dante in ignoring the frequent repetitions of words. And to introduce the uncanny into this story, I must add the coincidence of my friend, the Biblical scholar, Edward Greenstein’s lecture on the campus just a few weeks ago, which reacquainted me with his essay on Biblical translation. For Edward’s definition of “literal” translation, which he redefines as “literary” translation, is in fact the summation both of the rationale of my work on Dante, to lose myself in the Comedy, or rather, to find myself by finding Dante. Not to understand the “meaning” of the Comedy, which must finally be elusive, but to find oneself in the Comedy itself. To do that, however, one must enter the Comedy, enter its words, its associations, and I think every serious writer understands that this requires as literal an understanding as possible. I am going to quote Edward Greenstein at some length in this regard.

The novelist Vladimir Nabokov . . . translated Pushkin “into a rigorously literal and consequently rather ugly English version” because he felt that only in this manner could one lead the reader to the poem itself . . . John Berryman, the lyric poet employed a fairly literal style of rendering the Book of Job into English, contending that such a translation would be “truer.” The early Twentieth century German poet Rainer Maria Rilke expressed a clear preference for a more literal translation of the Mesopotamian Gilgamesh Epic over a more recent but less literal one. It is hardly coincidental that many Biblicists, as well as some serious amateurs, who devote themselves to the literary analysis of Scripture tend toward the more literal styles of translation. A work of literary art is essentially an arrangement of words, as music comprises tones and silences and as sculpture comprises matter and space. If one loses the words, one loses the art, just as one loses the music if one loses the tones or the silences. But aside from a purist’s devotion to words, there are two other foundations supporting more literal translation. The one is stylistic. The meaning of a biblical passage may hinge on the repetition of a word or an allusion. For example, in 2 Samuel 7 the word bayit house’ interweaves three themes: King David had already established his kingship and was dwelling in a royal house: the Lord, his god, was then dwelling in a tent-shrine, not in stable house: David will build for the Lord a house and the Lord will assure the enduring prosperity of David’s dynasty, which is expressed in Hebrew by “bayit house.”: The more literal rendering of the King James (or Authorized) Version (KJV) of 1611 translates bayit consistently as ‘house’ so that the literary device of verbal repetition reaches the English reader. The more idiomatic rendering of the British New English Bible (NEB) of 1970 translates bayit as “house” when it refers to the king’s palace or the future temple but as ‘family’ when it refers to David’s dynasty. The super-idiomatic Today’s English Version (TEV, entitled the Good News Bible) of the American Bible Society (I976) renders bayit as “palace,” “temple,” and “dynasty” in its respective references, completely obliterating the thematic connections of the original.

I could go on and on here but my subject is Dante not the Bible. There are two more quotes, from Greenstein, however, relevant to my conclusion.

Walter Benjamin (d. 1940), in his “unequalled” essay on “The Task of the Translator,” insisted that “a literary work” does not in any essential way tell anything or impart information! It does, it is. In the “literary” view it is perhaps more crucial to convey the rhetorical features of the text and the manifold connotations of its words than it is to convey the denoted or ideational message of the text. Philological translation endeavors to pin down meaning while literary translation seeks, as in literary analysis, to proliferate meaning . . .

As the German Romantic Friedrich Schleiermacher put it, in his epoch-making essay “On the Different Methods of Translation”: “Either the translator leaves the author in peace, as much as possible, and moves the reader towards him; or he leaves the reader in peace, as much as possible, and moves the author towards him.”


That is what the novelist or poet, reading Dante most often wants to do, on the one hand to “proliferate meaning”; on the other to “move towards” the author. I found myself frantic reading Jean Hollander’s translation as I watched her ignore the repetition of words in Dante’s Inferno in order to convey the different shades of meaning she thought they had in the varying context of specific cantos. In doing so, the subtle associations intended by Dante in repeating a word were lost. Long ago at Harvard I learned the tenets of New Criticism under Reuben Brower and Richard Poirier—one could decipher a work though the repetitions of key words by an author. (Shakespeare’s hammering at “nothing” in King Lear, as it is flung in her father’s face by Cordelia then by the Fool, taken up by Lear, Kent, Edmund, Edgar — echoed over and over in the action, Lear crying “the thick rotundity of the world” to “be struck flat” to nothing, and looking for a breath of life in the play’s last moments where there is no life, nothing). Jean Hollander by changing Dante’s deliberate repetition of a keyword was making it impossible to trace Dante’s intentions. Even her husband Robert became uneasy at this as I found when I read his notes to Jean’s translation — particularly in regard to one word that had caught my attention.[1] It was the word on which the whole of my book Dante, Eros and Kabbalah depended, smarrita or smarrito—which can be translated as I do “bewildered” but also “confused,” or “lost,” and which provided me with the understanding of what was happening throughout the Comedy as Dante groped his way down and up through the windings of the Other World. The way at the beginning is not so much “lost” as “confused” for the poet is, “bewildered” in life. Preparing these remarks, I wondered—could it be there at the very end of Paradise? I had not asked that question in my book. If Dante began with human bewilderment, however, surely before the final overwhelming vision of the Unknown in the whirling geometry of the Heavens “bewildered” would show up but in a very different context. Coincidence, the Divine laughing coincidence of plot assured me that the great poet would spin bewilderment into his resolution. Finding it there, I laughed with glee.

I think that from the keenness that I suffered
Of the living light that I would have been smarrito, bewildered
If my eye had been turned from it.

Paradise, 33, 76-78

This is the true laughter of the Comedy. Dante turns his confusion “smarrito,” upside down in a volley of geometrical fireworks. His verse implies that while once bewildered, lost, etc., and yet would be if he looked away, now absorbed in a vision, he never will be.

—Mark Jay Mirsky


Mark Jay Mirsky

Mark Jay Mirsky was born in Boston in 1939. He attended the Boston Public Latin School, Harvard College and earned an M.A. in Creative Writing at Stanford University. He has published fourteen books, six of them novels. The first, Thou Worm Jacob was a Best Seller in Boston; his third, Blue Hill Avenue, was listed by The Boston Globe thirty-seven years after its publication in 2009, as one of the 100 essential books about New England. Among his academic books are My Search for the Messiah, The Absent Shakespeare, Dante, Eros and Kabbalah, and The Drama in Shakespeare’s Sonnets, A Satire on Decay. He edited the English language edition of the Diaries of Robert Musil, and co-edited Rabbinic Fantasies, and The Jews of Pinsk, Volumes 1 & 2, as well as various shorter pamphlets, among them one of the poet, Robert Creeley. His play Mother Hubbard’s Cupboard was performed at the NYC Fringe Festival in 2007. His latest novel, Puddingstone, can be found on Amazon Books, both in digital and print-on-demand editions.

He founded the journal Fiction, in 1972 with Donald Barthelme, Max and Marianne Frisch, Jane Delynn and has served since then as its editor-in-chief. Fiction was the first American journal to publish excerpts in English from the Diaries of Robert Musil. Subsequently it has published translations of plays and other materials of Musil.

Mark Jay Mirsky is a Professor of English at The City College of New York.


Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. See page 201, of The Inferno, A Verse Translation by Robert Hollander and Jean Hollander, Anchor Books, 2002, where Robert Hollander does acknowledge that Jean’s translation cannot convey the associations of “ “The word used by Virgil to describe Dante’s difficulty is smarrito, a word that has been associated with the protagonist’s initial lost and perilous condition (Inf I.3) and then occurs again (Inf XV.50) with specific reference to his lostness at the outset of the journey for the last time in the poem It is also used in such a way as to remind us of his initial situation in Inf. II, 64, V.72 and XIII.24; in the last two of these scenes the protagonist is feeling pity for sinners, emotion that the poet fairly clearly considers inappropriate.”

    I do not have the space here to challenge that remark about “pity” where Robert Hollander assumes (as he does throughout his notes) the role of Inquisitor who will not allow Dante or his readers to feel any sympathy for sinners against Catholic doctrine. I do however want to acknowledge Jean’s brilliance in her translating e sanza alcun sospetto, as “without the least misgiving” in the Fifth Canto and her catching the deadfall at the end of this canto (which a much praised translation by another contemporary poet makes a complete hash of) by exchanging the hard c’s of the Italian for the d’s of English, “E caddi come corpo morto cade, And down I fell as a dead body falls.” To return to smarrito, in line 72, in this Fifth Canto, where Dante earlier writes, pieta mi giunse, e fui quasi smarrito” and Jean translates, “pity over came me/ and I almost lost my senses.” Robert remarks (p. 105) “The repetition of the word smarrito to describe Dante’s distraught condition, also recalls the first tercet of the poem Here we can see his reuse of key words from previous contexts in order to enhance the significance of a current situation in the poem.” Yet how does “lost my senses” signify to the reader that the key word “smarrito” has been repeated. Even Robert’s “my distraught condition” is closer to the “bewildered” that I choose in my translation.

    Of course the reason for the Hollanders’ joint choices in translation are revealed in this note (as in others), “69-72 di nostra vita. The echo of the first line of the poem is probably not coincidental. Dante was lost “midway in the journey of our life,” and we will later learn, some of his most besetting problems arose from misplaced affection.” (p. 105) The Hollanders’ Dante is an author who is in their view, not Dante, the character; a character who is a benighted “lost” soul. This is not my Dante; a Dante who on the contrary as the author, chooses to reveal himself in the fiction of his character Dante, a Dante who is bewildered at the beginning but not at the end of the whole Comedy; not bewildered “smarrito” in the final canto, because he does feel sympathy, pity, throughout his journey, and because his affection was never “misplaced” but rather the source and rationale and end of his journey which brings him to its final laughing revelation.

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