Thursday, October 28, 2004

One Dante simile

2601 students: Here’s what I’ve written for tomorrow—

Reading through today's cantos, I found myself paying more and more attention to Dante’s similes. I was most struck by the extended comparison at the beginning of Canto XXI, in which Dante describes a scene at the Arsenal at Venice to convey to his reader the reality of the “tarry mass” (17) of the fifth pouch of the Malebolge.

This simile sparks my thinking in a number of ways. Like Homer (and Virgil), Dante turns to the simile to make an unfamiliar (and, here, supernatural) reality vivid and intelligible. His simile brings this infernal scene up, not down, to earth by invoking a familiar scene from Italian life. (I’d assume that any contemporary of Dante’s in a position to read the Comedy would likely have seen the Arsenal at Venice.)

Like Homer’s most elaborate similes, Dante’s simile grows into a separate narrative moment within the poem. We’re still in hell, but it’s as if we’ve suddenly been transported to a shipyard, as we survey, camera-like, eight different scenes of labor. Notice how much extra “stuff” there is: the simile could simply read “As in the Arsenal of the Venetians, / all winter long a stew of sticky pitch / boils up to patch their sick and tattered ships / that cannot sail,” “so, not by fire but by the art of God,” and so on (7-10, 16), cutting the simile’s length by almost half.

The extended nature of this simile is even more noticeable in the Italian text: Allen Mandelbaum encloses the description of work in parentheses, but in the Italian, it’s set off by dashes as a more marked interruption. The simile really does take on a life of its own, shifting away from the image of boiling pitch (its ostensible focus) to these varied forms of human labor.

Dante may be doing something else that’s remarkable in this simile: he seems to be commenting on the dangerous way in which the extended simile takes both reader and poet away from what’s immediately present. After the simile concludes, Dante continues to stare and stare at the bubbling tar, until Virgil, his master, says “‘Take care! Take care!’” (23). Perhaps that repeated caution is a reminder to Dante (and the reader) that the simile is, in a sense, a daydream, a moment of imaginative reverie that can take over one’s consciousness. I imagine Dante here looking at the tar and, in these terrifying circumstances, beginning to think of a more congenial scene. A similar nostalgia for the ordinary aboveground world appears in a more powerful way at the beginning of Canto XXIV, with its beautiful scene of a shepherd in winter.

Such moments of poetic reverie might help to explain how it is that Dante can suddenly find himself lost at the beginning of the poem. It’s the voice of reason and conscience, his master’s voice, that makes Dante snap back to his present circumstances. Take care!

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