First of all, this will be a long post. Secondly, I know that it’s July, but I felt like writing it now.
Way back in the 1980’s, I was a student at a small, slightly prestigious university studying Computer Science and Mathematics. It was the second semester of my senior year, so I’m almost done. Not only that, but I had a very high GPA. In fact, I had the highest GPA of my class, of which I was moderately but not that exceedingly proud (my graduating class had like maybe 400 students, so we’re not exactly talking Harvard here).
It was a liberal arts university. Therefore, over my time there I took a number of courses outside of my two disciplines. I took a number of English, Philosophy, History, Psychology courses and such. In the later years, I was pretty much exclusively taking Computer Science and Math courses. Being a liberal arts university, they wanted to make sure that you had as much exposure to other disciplines as possible. Therefore, in your senior year, it was required that you take a 400 level course outside of your discipline.
Not really knowing what else to do, I signed up for a 400 level English course. I don’t even remember the title of it, probably something like Comparative Literature. I remember walking into class the first day. There were maybe ten students in the class, all hard core English majors. The professor was almost a caricature of an English professor. He wore a tweed jacket with elbow patches, he spoke in a rich tone that seemed to almost have a trace of a Boston Brahmin to it, and he even smelled of pipe smoke when he lectured in front of you.
I knew right away that I was in over my head. The first work studied was a poem named Death By Water. This was a little nine line extract from T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland. It’s about the death of a Phoenician named Phlebas. I thought, it’s nine lines long. How complex can it be?
Well, the class took two weeks dissecting that nine line poem. What does the water mean? Why was his bone picked in whispers? What’s with the call out to both Gentiles and Jews?
Part of the grade was classroom participation. I didn’t say a word that entire two week period. I had absolutely nothing to say. At the end of that two week period, I thought that I was seriously fucked. Forget about that glittering #1 rated GPA, I was wondering if I could actually pass this class. I was in my last semester and this class was fulfilling a core requirement. Dropping it or failing it would mean that I wouldn’t graduate on time, which at that time seemed a fate worse than death.
Finally, after the end of the second week, we moved on to the next piece. We were going to study Dante’s Inferno. This freaked me out even more. A thirteenth century Italian epic poem about a Greek poet leading the narrator through Hell? How high brow is this going to be? How inaccessible will this be to a twentieth century software geek from a lower middle class part of town affectionately known as Rat City? With a heavy heart, I began to read.
And much to my shock, I loved it!
First of all, it has a disciplined structure. The number three (for the holy trinity) echoes throughout the entire work, so math geek was interested in unearthing the places that it’s hidden.
Secondly, I had a great annotated version of it. I found it to be a great author’s conceit. Dante led a pretty turbulent life, where he was associated with various political factions in Florence and rose and fell along with the faction’s fortunes. Ultimately, he ended up on the wrong side of history and was exiled from his beloved Florence. During this tumultuous time, he made a lot of enemies. In a great fit of author’s revenge, he took his enemies and flung them into various depths of Hell, including but not limited to an actual still living Pope. The annotation told the story of each person that he condemned to Hell, to much humorous effect (at least to me as I could imagine the grim satisfaction that Dante took in consigning his enemies to their fate).
Finally, it’s just crudely funny. There are devils who parody the march of soldiers. Instead of blowing bugles, they would bend over and fart. There was a woman condemned to a vat of filth that took out chunks of shit and flung it at Dante. I was so used to thinking about literature as this highly refined medium that I was shocked to see such coarse humor in such an acknowledged classic.
Somehow, this changed something in me. I was no longer intimidated. I understood that literature, for the most part, had to have been, first of all, readable, to even begin to attain its exalted status. I could read the literature, think about how I felt about it, and could start to form opinions about it. I began to participate in class and ultimately, got my A so that I could preserve my own personal exalted status.
That was the short term gain, but the long term gain is still reverberating thirty years later. Dante was basically a gateway drug. I still really don’t consider myself a serious reader, but I do read way more than average, and I do try to read and to this day often find myself enjoying classic literature.
For instance, I enjoy going to Ashland (as I’ve just been writing about last week) to attend Shakespearean plays. I’ve now seen Hamlet twice there, seen the Olivier and Branagh movies, and have probably read it now half a dozen times. It enriches me every time I encounter it.
None of this would have happened if my little liberal arts university didn’t make me take advanced courses out of the science track that I was stuck in and if Dante hadn’t come along to give me the self-confidence and sheer enjoyment of reading. Much of the pleasure that I’ve received in my life can be traced back to that very event.
So, fast forward, I don’t know, probably about ten years. It’s somewhere in the early to mid 90’s.
My then wife and I went on a tour of Italy. We went to Rome, Madrid, Venice, and Florence. Being the birthplace of Dante, I really looked forward to Florence. Sure enough, there was a museum located literally at the house where Dante was born. It contains a copy of the Divine Comedy from the fourteenth century. Mind blown! It gave me chills to know that I was quite literally on the spot (if not the actual building) where Dante was born and was raised.
On our last day in Italy, we were in Rome. We had adjusted to the Italian way of eating and we had our dinner somewhere around ten that night. Afterward, we were walking back to our hotel. We passed a little street fair taking place. There were a number of stalls selling various knick knacks that you’d normally see at such a fair. In the midst of this there was one stall selling antiquarian books, because Italy, I guess. I poked through them and saw a nineteenth century edition of the Divine Comedy, in the original Italian (or Tuscan, for you purists out there). How cool would it be to pick up an old copy of the Divine Comedy in the mother tongue in the mother country?
However, it was by now very late. This was the last night of our trip, so I had very little Italian currency (Lira, may it rest in peace). Being in the mid 90’s, there weren’t a whole lot of universal ATM’s available. Being a little stall, there was no way that they’d take plastic. So, I’d have to walk to the hotel, change money, and walk back. It would have taken way over an hour, I was tired, and there was no guarantee that the stall would still be there. Anyway, I still had to pack for the trip home the next morning.
So, I decided to forget about it. We went back to the hotel, packed up, and went to sleep. The next morning, we headed off to the airport. On the plane, as we were taking off, I turned to my wife and told her that I wished that I’d bought the Divine Comedy when I had the chance.
She didn’t say anything, but when she got home she got to work. This was definitely before Google, and eBay, if it existed, was very much in its infancy. Through I don’t know what gyrations, she found a Boston bookseller that had a nineteenth century copy of the Divine Comedy, in the original Italian. She gave it to me that Christmas.
When I opened it, I was absolutely gobsmacked. I had completely forgotten about the little stall in Rome. Opening it, I had a Proustian wave of memories flood through me of all the joy and wonder that reading classic books had provided me. For a book geek, it is easily the most important and thoughtful gift that I’ve ever received.
Even though we are no longer together, those three little volumes are still in a special place of honor on my bookshelves and hold a special place in my heart.