"Love follows knowledge."
"Beauty above all beauty!"
– St. Catherine of Siena

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Blog Note: The Divine Comedy

I have not posted yet on my reading plans for the year, but we do know that at my Goodreads Catholic Though book club we are reading Dante Alighieri’s The Divine Comedy.  If you’ve ever wanted to read it, either make plans to read it along with me or come and join our book club here.  It doesn’t cost anything.

Now The Divine Comedy will be read as a recurring read.  A long, recurring read is one that is too long for the group to read in one straight effort, so it gets broken up into segments. After completing a segment, we move on to other reads, and then return to the next segment, and so on until completed. Since The Divine Comedy naturally breaks up into three segments called canticas, Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradisio, I plan on a cantica for each segment. So then we will start with Inferno.

In the meantime, obtaining a book will require a decision on which translation to select. Before I get to translations, let me give you forewarning that more than likely you will have to get a separate book for each of the canticas. Most editions come with notes and facing original Italian, and so that usually means that the entire Comedia does not fit into a single binding. For the immediate future, Inferno is what you need to obtain.

So which translation? This Wikipedia page lists all the English translations that have ever been published. Good translations try to balance capturing the aesthetic of the author’s writing with precision of translation. This makes it doubly difficult for the Comedia because it is a poetic work, and the poetry is of the most sublime possible, and it incorporates a rhyme scheme that is near impossible in English for a poem of this length (longer than most novels), the terza rima. You can go with a prose translation but that would strip the sublimity out of the poem. You can go with an English attempt at the rhyme scheme or any rhyme scheme, but that would undoubtedly sacrifice precision of translation as a translator has to make many compromises to force a rhyme. What you want is a poetic translation that doesn’t care about the rhyme.

Since I’ve either partly read or completely read a few of these translations, here’s what I recommend in: (1) The Robert and Jean Hollander, (2) Anthony Esolen, or (3) Mark Musa in that order. Both the Hollander and the Esolen translations combine precision with the sublimity of the poetry. I lean toward the Hollander because it provides extensive notes, much more so than Esolen. Think of it this way: the Esolen is more for undergraduates while the Hollander might be more for graduate students. The Musa is also a fine translation, but it doesn’t capture the poeticism as well as the other two. It also has a great section of notes. You can’t go wrong with any of the three but there is an added reason to go with the Hollander. The Hollander and Hollander (husband and wife team) is also online at the Dante Project from Princeton University, here. That Princeton and the Hollanders would put up this great translation free for people to use is a real blessing, and we should provide a prayer of thanks.

More recently the Mandelbaum translation has been popular. I have not read it extensively, so I can’t speak from personal experience. My side by side quick and simple comparison with the Hollander left it lacking for me. But it has become popular.

As to a more detailed reading plan for the Inferno, let me propose the following. First some background terminology as it pertains to the work. As I mentioned above, the whole Divine Comedy – Dante only named it La comedia, the “divinia” part was added later – is divided into three sections, Inferno, Prugatorio, and Paradisio, each referred to as a “cantica.” Each cantica is divided into 33 cantos, which you can think of as chapters. The premise of the Comedia is that Dante is forced to journey through the sections of the afterlife, hell (Inferno), purgqtory (Purgatorio), and heaven (Paradisio). So Dante becomes a character in his own work of fiction, so you will need to keep straight Dante the writer and Dante the character. (Who says that metafiction started in the 20th century?) Dante the writer is writing from having completed the journey and gained wisdom, while we see Dante the character stumble and learn.

The one exception to the 33 cantos per cantica is Inferno, which has an additional one, an introductory canto. So 1 + 33 + 33 + 33 equals 100 Cantos. Numerology is particularly important to the construction of the Comedia, but you don’t need to pick up on the numerology to understand the work. I think of the number links as a pulling together the work into a harmony. 100 is a perfect number and 33 is the age of Christ at His death. Each canto probably averages about 150 lines, which amounts to three or four pages. Each canto is not long but it’s incredibly compact, and you will probably want to peruse the four or five pages of notes that go with each canto.

So for Inferno, we have 34 cantos and if we go with the six week maximum preference for a Catholic Thought read, that divides to six cantos per week for four weeks and five cantos per week for two weeks. So here’s what I’m proposing. This week is set aside to obtain the book. And the following will be reading schedules.

Wk 1: Jan 7 – 13, Cantos 1 thru 5
Wk 2: Jan 14 – 20, Cantos 6 thru 11
Wk 3: Jan 21 – 27, Cantos 12 thru 17
Wk 4: Jan 28 – Feb 3, Cantos 18 thru 23
Wk 5: Feb 4 – 10, Cantos 24 thru 29
Wk 6: Feb 11 – 17, Cantos 30 thru 34

This way we’ll have five cantos to read on the first and last weeks, and six for each of the four weeks in between. I’ll provide a new folder for each of the weekly group with a little summary.

This will be a great read!

Saturday, January 6, 2018

Rock Crystal by Adalbert Stifter, Part 2

I provided a reading of the expository background in “Part 1,” hereNow I’ll go through the story proper and how it all relates to the themes and instabilities brought out in the exposition.

The narrative begins in my edition (Mayer and Moore translation, New York Review Books Classics) thirty pages into a 75 page story, nearly 40% in:

One winter, the day before Christmas, when in the valley of Gschaid early dawn had broadened into day, a faint clear-weather haze overspread the sky, so that the sun creeping up in the south-east could be seen only as an indistinct reddish ball; furthermore, the air was mild, almost warm in the valley and even in the upper reaches of the sky as indicated by the unchanging forms of the motionless clouds. So the shoemaker’s wife said to the children: “Since it is such a fine day and since it has not rained for a long time and the roads are hard, and since yesterday your father gave you permission, provided it was the right kind of day, you may go over to Millsdorf to see your grandmother; but first you must ask your father again.”
Perhaps one should say something about waiting so long for the narrative to begin.  This was much more prevalent in the 19th century, and actually opposed to the classical notion of storytelling by in medias res, which means to begin in the middle of things.  That means to start the story at a critical point in the narrative, or at least at the beginning of the action, and backfill the exposition.  Homer, Virgil, Dante, Shakespeare, and others do it regularly, but for some reason the 19th century authors weren’t fond f it.  As great a story teller as Dickens was, I don’t recall a work of his where he starts in the middle.  Certainly narrative thrusted at the beginning grabs the reader’s attention, and I would say most times that not it is the best approach to storytelling.  However, here because the themes are more of a hook than the story itself, I think Stifter does well with this extended opening exposition.

 There are two elements to the story that I want to highlight.  After getting their father’s permission to go off to their grandparents, the last thing the mother does is give them a blessing:

The lad slung a calfskin pouch over his shoulder by a strap—a perquisite deftly sewn by his father—and the children went into the next room to bid him farewell. They were soon back, and after their mother had made the sign of the cross over them in blessing, they skipped merrily off down the street.  (p.32)

Secularists might think of the blessing as superstitious, but Stifter doesn’t, as we see with so many of the providential events that lead to the children’s survival.  In a Catholic worldview a blessing endows a physical, spiritual, or supernatural gift upon a person, and while it does not guarantee an outcome (that would be superstition) it links the giver of the blessing and the receiver with the divine.  A blessing is also a sacramental, a sacramental being a sacred sign either abstract like a blessing or physical like holy water that brings us in contact with God.  (Don’t confuse a sacramental with a sacrament, which is a sacred sign implemented by Christ that confers a physical change to the soul.) Sacramentals are not just holy items, but things that are done with God’s love.  That calfskin pouch that Conrad uses is a sacramental since it was put together and given in love.  The mother bundling the children to protect them against the cold is another, and of course the blessing.  The Catholic worldview holds that there is a continuum between the spiritual and the physical, and so we see it in the story.  Notice the sacramentals later when the grandmother provides all sorts of gifts to the children.

Then she [the grandmother] bustled about here and there, packing to overflowing the lad’s calfskin pouch, besides stuffing things into his pockets. She also put divers things into Sanna’s little pockets, gave them each a piece of bread to eat on the way, and in the bag, she told them, were two rolls in case they became very hungry.

“For your mother,” she said, “I am giving you some well-roasted coffee-beans, and in the very tightly wrapped bottle with the stopper is some black coffee extract better than your mother herself usually makes; she can taste some just as it is; it is a veritable tonic, so strong the merest sip warms the stomach so that you cannot feel chilled even on the coldest of winter days. The other things in the bag, in the cardboard box wrapped with paper, you are to take home without opening.”  (p.36)

All these things aid the children in their survival.  All that food was not needed for a normal three hour hike, but it came in handy when they were lost.  Nor would they have received all that food if Conrad didn’t have the bag.  And that coffee allowed them to stay awake and not freeze to death during the overnight rest.  Providence uses the sacramentals to ensure survival.  And let’s not forget the father is a shoemaker who specialized in mountain shoes.  I don’t remember if it was mentioned in the story, but those mountain shoes the children were wearing had to be critical on the climbs and descent on the glacier.  By coordinating the sacramentals for a fortunate outcome, Stifter is presenting a world integrated with the divine.  When the children eat that bread the grandmother puts into Conrad’s bag, it’s most certainly suggestive of the Eucharist, and therefore God’s presence.  In town the priest had postponed high Mass (p. 72) because of the missing children, but the children eat the bread (p. 54) in a thanksgiving, and this happens just when children back in town are supposed to be receiving Christmas gifts (p. 56). 

Another part of the story we need to consider is the landscape and environment.  We see the harshness of nature; we see the spot the baker died and realize the danger is real.  One should begin to think, is this story an allegory?  And if so, what does it mean for the children to pass through a snowstorm unable to cognitively process the signs that would lead home, and all on Christmas Eve, for that matter?  Here is the moment they begin to realize they are lost.

“Will we be at the post soon?” asked Sanna. “I don’t know,” answered her brother. “This time, I can’t make out the trees, or the road because it is so white. We may not see the post at all, because there is so much snow it will be covered up, and hardly a grass-blade or arm of the cross will stick out. But that’s nothing. We’ll just keep straight on; the road leads through the trees and when it gets to the place where the post is, then it will start downhill and we keep right on it and when it comes out of the woods we are in Gschaid meadows; then comes the footbridge, and we’re not far from home.” (p.41)

But obviously they have drifted and are not on the way home. 

However, as they went, they could not tell whether they were going down the mountain or not. They had soon turned downhill to the right but then came to elevations leading up. Often they encountered sheer rises they had to avoid; and a hollow in which they were walking led them around in a curve. They climbed hummocks that became steeper under their feet than they expected; and what they had deemed a descent was level ground or a depression, or went on as an even stretch.

“But where are we, Conrad?” asked the child.

“I don’t know,” he answered. “If only my eyes could make out something and I could get my bearings.”

But on every side was nothing but a blinding whiteness, white everywhere that none the less drew its ever narrowing circle about them, paling beyond into fog that came down in waves, devouring and shrouding everything till there was nothing but the voracious snow.  (p.44)

As the children step through the strange rocks, as they climb up an unfamiliar ascent, as they enter a cave for shelter, the children have entered a new world, a different world.  Physically they are wandering lost in a snowstorm, but allegorically they have entered a world beyond.  Snow is sometimes taken as a symbol for death (winter, frozen, burial, universality as it falls covers everything), and death brings one into a new world.  And the children try to learn about this unfamiliar world.

It was a blessing the snow was dry as sand, so it shook off easily and slid from their feet and little mountain shoes without caking and soaking them.

At last they again came to something with form, immense shapes heaped in gigantic confusion, covered with snow that was sifting everywhere into the crevices; the children had, moreover, almost stumbled on them before they had seen them.  They went close to look. 

Ice—nothing but ice.

There were great slabs lying, covered with snow but on the edges glassy green ice showed; there were mounds of what looked like pushed-up foam, the sides dull but with inward glimmers as if crystals and splinters of precious stones had been jumbled together; there were, besides, great rounded bosses engulfed in snow, slabs and other shapes slanting or upright,--as high as the church steeple or houses in Gschaid.  (p. 48)

Despite the harshness of the weather, the children still get a blessing from the snow.  And it’s no coincidence that the simile for the height of the slabs is the church steeple, for the children have entered a divine world.  And the ice upon the rock slabs glimmers like crystals and precious stones, from which the story gets its title.  When Sanna suggests the ice was made by “a great deal of water,” Conrad disagrees, “No, it wasn’t made by water, it’s ice of the mountain, and always here since God made it so” (p. 48).  It is an amazing world, a world filled with God’s wonder.  Conrad continues,

“And down where the snow ends, you see all manner of colors if you look hard,—green, blue, and a whitish color—that is the ice that looks so small from down below because you are so far away, and that, as Father said, is going to be there as long as the world lasts.  And then I’ve often noticed that the blue color keeps on below the ice,—probably stones, I’ve thought, or maybe ploughed ground and pastures, and then come the pine woods that go down and down, and all kinds of rocks in between, then the green meadows, then the woods with leaves....”  (p.48-49)

Finally the children enter a cavern with a canopy of ice above them and a most intense color of blue: “But the whole cavern was blue, bluer than anything on earth, a blue deeper and finer than the vault of heaven itself, blue as azure grass with a faint light inside” (p. 50).  Why blue?  Blue, the color of the Virgin Mary, the color of heaven, here I believe is supposed to suggest harmony and order and the unity with the divine.  Providence led the children to a safe spot with no ice and enclosed from the elements just as it got dark.  Stifter is I think reaching for the theology of creation, where God’s handiwork of nature blesses humanity with goodness.

The children spend that holy night of Christmas safe and fed with the sacramentals from their parents and grandparents under an “arch of heaven [that] was an even blue, so dark it was almost black, spangled with stars blazing in countless array” (p. 57).  That arch of heaven, which gets elaborated several pages later (p. 61), suggests the rainbow as a sign from God in Genesis.

And so when the children on Christmas Day see a flame (representing Christ) coming toward them, it turns out to be the flag of a rescue team, and the first words from Philip the herdsman is “Praise be to God!” (p. 68).  When the children are led back to town to their anxious parents, the mother sees them first,

“Sebastian, they are here,” cried his wife.

Speechless and trembling, he ran toward them.  His lips moved as if to say something but no words came, he pressed the children to his heart, holding them close and long.  Then he turned to his wife and locked her in his arms, crying “Sanna, Sanna.” (p.70-71)

And then the father turns to the rescuers and says, “Neighbors, friends, I thank you” (p. 71).  So because of the children’s safe passage through the dangerous, divine world, we see then the resolution of the discords set out in the exposition.  The father does love his children, and the wife is now convinced of it; the grandparents are brought over and become unified with their daughter’s family; the wife is now embraced and become part of her new home town of Gschaid.  We see a unity of family, a unity of town, and a unity of the universe under God’s arch of heaven.  Having rescued the children, the town turns to go to church where the postponed Mass can now resume.

What a beautiful story.  This is how life should be!

Monday, January 1, 2018

Matthew Monday: My Little Drummer Boy

I’ve mentioned that Matthew is in the children’s choir at our parish, St. Rita’s Church, and there has been a tradition that the choir performs a little children’s concert on Christmas Eve, and in the past the choir has performed “Little Drummer Boy” with one boy playing the drums.  Well that boy has graduated and Matthew is the only boy in the children’s choir, and he so desired to take the mantle of the drummer for the song.

So you would think the choir would practice this at least a few times before the performance?  The music director planned to practice it twice, but she forgot the drum sticks for the first practice, and so all that was left was one practice.  As it turned out I went early to pick Matthew up at that practice and heard his first attempts.  Matthew kept screwing up. He's supposed to keep time for most of the song but his impulse is to go with the rum-pum-pum pum rhythm of the choir. And to make it more complicated on the third verse he is supposed to shift and join the rum-pum-pum pum, and then return to the slow beat for conclusion. Yikes, that's a bit much for an eight year old, and he only practiced it once. So we practiced it all weekend at home.

He had three performances altogether: The Christmas Eve concert with the children’s choir, with the adult choir at the 10:30 Christmas Day Mass as the communion hymn, and at the 12:30 Christmas Day Mass back with the children’s choir again during the communion hymn.  I videoed the first and third performances, and as it turned out the one I didn’t video was the flawless one.  Though I he played slightly better for the third performance, I think the video of the first came out better, so that’s the one I’ll post.

So here’s Matthew on the drums with the children’s choir on “Little Drummer Boy.”

I have to admit, I love that song, even though it’s kind of schmaltzy.  I always choke up on the first time I hear it during each Christmas season.  The thought of having nothing to give Jesus but one’s talent as best as one can perform is very touching.

After the third performance, the pastor mentioned Matthew by name and he got a round of applause. 

By the way, our altar was beautifully decorated with a new nativity set, I decided to take a picture. 

It’s a small, humble church, but we’re proud of it.