Wednesday, 15 October 2014

How Not to Read a Catholic Masterpiece

Every year a large number of people read J.R.R. Tolkien's great novel "The Fellowship of the Ring." but they read it in a rather odd way. They pay little, if any, attention to the character development, to the grand flow of the narrative or to the great themes of the work. They instead focus on certain specific episodes: Bilbo's party for example or the first meeting with Strider, and they treat these episodes almost as if they were short stories in their own right, giving little thought to how they fit into the novel as a whole. Having finished the book they consider that to be the end of the matter; some of them are aware that he wrote further books, but they've generally been assured that these are not worth reading. So, having finished 'Fellowship' they considered themselves to have read Tolkien, at least in any worthwhile sense.

Ok, confession time, the above is all false. To the best of my knowledge nobody has actually read Tolkien in this way. It is, however, a popular way of reading a Catholic writer comparable to Tolkien, namely Dante Alihegri. As I assume most readers realise, Dante wrote a great trilogy of narrative poems: The Inferno, The Purgatorio and The Paradisio, collectively known as The Divine Comedy (comedy here being used in a rather different sense than the modern one.) These days, however, Dante is normally thought of as the author of the Inferno, the number of people who have read or want to read the Inferno is far greater than those with any interest in the other two works. I've even heard well instructed Catholics argue that the Inferno is the part worth reading. This, to my mind, is a travesty. The comedy as a whole is not only a literary masterpiece but has a number of profound things to say about morality, free will, happiness, sin, redemption and a wide range of other topics and the Inferno is actually the least rich part of  the whole. As Dorothy Sayers notes, the Inferno necessarily has the least to say about these topics since the people whom Dante meets in hell have lost the good of the intellect.

It is also worth noting as Sayers does, that this preference of readers for the inferno is a product of modernity. There is no evidence of any general preference for the Inferno prior to the nineteenth century. Admittedly, the fact that a view is new does not prove it false, in this case, however, I think it highlights an important point; the preference for the Inferno is a symptom of a cultural inability to appreciate long narrative poems. Our general experience these days is with short poms, by short I don't necessarily mean haikus, for purposes of this discussion, a poem of a few pages length can still be considered short, but we generally do not read or write the epics, the grand narrative poems of lengths equal to a modern novel.

As C.S. Lewis notes in his Preface to Paradise Lost, a great many modern people now attempt to read great narrative poems as if they were short works. This, I think, is what a lot of us try to do with Dante, trying to read each episode as though it were it's own short poem. The Inferno can, in a sense, be read this way, the Paulo and Francesca part or the descriptions of various torturers being visited on various popes can be treated like a story in their own right. Even with the Inferno, however, a lot of what Dante is trying to say will be lost. You cannot, however, read the latter two works like this; the only way to enjoy the Purgatorio, or, still more, the Paradisio is with a focus on the themes of he work as a whole.

This is a pity because the Comedy, the whole thing, is a great work both of Catholic literature and of Catholic theology and philosophy, entirely worthy of comparison with Tolkien and I think a greater familiarity with the work would be an important part of a restored Catholic Culture.

This raises the question of how to get over our culture's bias against long poems. Here's my advice, first, if you are Catholic, read the Comedy, the whole thing. Second, read it in a version with a good commentary, I recommend the Sayers version, which should be available through Penguin. Third, on your first reading, almost try to forget that you are reading a poem, think of it as a novel which just happens to be written in rhyme. Obviously, the Comedy is not a work of prose and reading it as if it were will lose something, but I think a first reading will be more fruitful if done this way.

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