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UVM's Dante-inspired exhibit is one hell of an art show

If we're all going to hell in a handbasket, which circle of damnation do you belong in? More specifically, if you had to choose a canto from Dante's Inferno to read aloud, which would it be? And what would that say about you, given that each canto describes the punishment meted out to a particular type of sinner in a very medieval hell? Would you pick the canto that depicted a sin you were prone to personally, or one that punished a sin you despised?

It was hard to avoid such speculations while watching some of Vermont's public figures read their favorite cantos from the Inferno during a recent "town meeting poetry reading" at the Fletcher Free Library. The hell-raising story hour was organized by University of Vermont English professor Major Jackson with the help of the library's Barbara Shatara. It called attention to an exhibition of prints by Michael Mazur, now on view at UVM's Fleming Museum, that illustrate U.S. Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky's 1994 translation of Dante.

Dante Alighieri finished the Inferno in 1314, while he was living in political exile from his home city of Florence. It's the first part of a triptych, The Divine Comedy, that begins with the narrator lost in the "dark wood" of midlife and seeking spiritual renewal. In the Inferno, classical bard Virgil guides this nameless narrator -- usually referred to as "Dante" or "the pilgrim" -- through the underworld. In Purgatorio, the pilgrim tours Purgatory; in Paradiso, he's reunited with his muse, Beatrice, in heaven.

"Through me you enter into eternal pain," intoned former State Auditor Elizabeth Ready. She was reading the inscription on Dante's gate to hell, better known for its line "Abandon hope all you who enter here." Ready chose to read Canto III, which depicts the punishment of the "indecisive." Unable to choose a side in life, they're rejected by both heaven and hell, and have to tarry forever on the verge of the River Acheron, tormented by flies and hornets. Could this be the punishment for chronic nonvoters?

While Ready, a poet herself, was mournful and dulcet-voiced, Vermont Secretary of State Deb Markowitz was dramatic and lively in her presentation of Canto V. This one's all about Concupiscence, better known as Lust. It's a popular canto for obvious reasons, lust being a slightly more common sin than simony or barratry or betrayal of kin. Markowitz acted out the fear and pity of the pilgrim as he encounters these souls, who are swept round in a whirlwind with "never ease from pain or hope of rest."

Next up was no less a personage than Governor Jim Douglas. Wearing a dark suit and red tie, he read smoothly, with a politician's aplomb. This was Canto X, in which Dante stumbles onto a plain paved with the tombs of the Heretics, who are doomed to burn for eternity. But the canto is less about heresy than politics -- specifically, about the power of partisanship to survive even damnation. One of the heretics Dante encounters is Farinata, a Florentine aristocrat whose proud bearing shows "great scorn for hell." He taunts Dante, whose family belonged to a faction opposing Farinata's, with a prophecy of their defeat in the city's interminable internecine squabbles. It's an odd moment that literary critic Erich Auerbach saw as a small triumph for humanism in the deeply religious poem. Be that as it may, Douglas did justice to Farinata's regal diction.

Despite being brisk and compressed, Pinsky's translation is not exactly easy reading. Vermont Public Radio jazz DJ George Thomas ran into trouble in Canto XXV. When he reached the end of a particularly complex passage, wherein the poet politely asks the reader to "Excuse my pen if it has tangled things," he stopped and murmured, "Boy." Chuckles erupted around the room.

*****

The Inferno is "where politics meets literature," says Major Jackson, explaining the rationale behind the town meeting poetry reading. Noting that Dante was writing about Florence, then something of republic, he adds that it "raises questions about the boundaries of faith-based initiatives in a democracy."

The Dante events here arose from Jackson's friendship with artist Michael Mazur, whom he knew at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown. Dining at the home of Mazur and his wife, Jackson met Pinsky. As Mazur and Pinsky talked about their Dante collaboration, Jackson decided to ask Mazur to bring his traveling exhibit of 41 monoprints to Burlington. "Then the fundraising started," he says. The Kalkin Family Exhibitions Endowment Fund, the UVM Provost's Office, and the Buckham Fund through UVM's English Department all chipped in.

Jackson says he came late to reading the Inferno, appreciating it primarily as an artwork. Although his own upbringing was religious, his favorite canto is IV, Limbo, where Dante encounters the shades of the "virtuous pagans" who are denied a chance at heaven. Plato, Aristotle, Horace, Ovid, Virgil himself, and the rest of Dante's classical mentors are all in the same boat here, along with unbaptized babies. Jackson likes T.S. Eliot's view that the canto presents art as a "tradition that you can enter into."

Jackson isn't alone in emphasizing the aesthetic over the ideological appeal of the Inferno. In a Slate article from 2003, Adam Kirsch suggested that we live in the "golden age of Dante translation," with five new editions of the poet's works appearing in that year alone. Still, most people who read Dante today read only the Inferno, which makes up the bulk of those new translations. Is our society just a bit more interested in sin than in redemption? Maybe. But the Inferno also has an enduring artistic power that breaks barriers that might prevent us from enjoying a poem that's basically an explication of way pre-Vatican II Catholic doctrine.

Kirsch thinks that, religious affiliations aside, the Inferno caters to the same "appetite for fantastic violence" that makes us go out and see blockbusters starring CGI monsters that eat people. Indeed, Canto XXV features an extended human-to-beast-and-back transformation sequence that resembles nothing so much as a morph. If Dante were alive today, he might be working for Pixar.

Michael Mazur honors that transformation passage -- and the obvious challenge it presents to an artist -- by devoting three of his prints to it. Although the first versions of these illustrations appeared in Pinsky's translation, the black-and-white etchings on display at the Fleming were completed between 1996 and 2000. Their vision is stark and solemn. Unlike earlier illustrators, who depicted the underworld from a "third-person" standpoint with Dante and Virgil as figures in the image, Mazur has chosen to present it from the pilgrim's perspective. Sometimes he depicts things that Dante's narrator does not actually see but vividly imagines, such as Ulysses' ship being swept off the edge of the world into a whirlpool. (Damned for deception, Homer's hero is telling the story of his last voyage.)

Many of Mazur's images are iconic and indelible, like the cantos from which they come: A Seducer's head rises from a moat of human excrement, his eyes empty holes. Gleeful, cartoon-ish demons impale a Swindler on a pitchfork. A diseased Falsifier munches on his fellow sinner. And Lucifer, hunkered down at the bottom of hell, chows down on the three greatest sinners of all time: Judas, Brutus and Cassius.

The students in Jackson's upper-level creative writing seminar at UVM haven't all seen the exhibit, but they already have powerful impressions of what they've been reading. Junior Frieda Arenos says that the Inferno "makes you really believe in hell, it's so realistic." She points to the especially visceral canto in which the Falsifiers are presented as plague-ridden, scratching itches that can never be soothed. Mike Labita, another junior, suggests that this vivid imagery of hell didn't really exist in religious literature before Dante -- "He created the contemporary view of hell. The fire-pits and so on -- it all came from this one poem."

Needless to say, the vision was influential, and we find its echoes everywhere. Fantasy lit has certainly borrowed from Dante, just as he borrowed from Greek myths. Junior Elizabeth Bull, one of the readers at the town meeting, cites the example of a monster in Dante's hell that reminds her of a similarly terrifying moment in Tolkien.

Several of the students see political resonance in the Inferno -- in which, as Continuing Education student Martha Lang points out, the lowest section of hell is reserved for those who commit fraud. As civic-minded Dante saw it, the abuse of the public trust is worse than lust -- worse even than manslaughter. Even popes are consigned to his hell for their peddling of church offices.

Bull says that the Inferno is about "sin and corruption in people of power. As long as there's been power, there's been corruption. It's definitely relevant to what's going on now."

Nearly 700 years later, on a continent Dante didn't know existed, his work is still food for thought. Jackson calls the Inferno an "excellent piece of art" that's "not a press release for Catholicism." Still, he says, we can't help applying Dante's ethics to ourselves: "We're all sensitive to where we might be in those circles. It's a vehicle for us to think about our journey."

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About The Author

Margot Harrison

Margot Harrison

Bio:
Margot Harrison is the Associate Editor at Seven Days; she coordinates literary and film coverage. In 2005, she won the John D. Donoghue award for arts criticism from the Vermont Press Association.

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