Barbara Reynolds, Dante, The Poet, the Political Thinker, the Man, 2006, book coverI am translating the recent Dante biography by Barbara Reynolds to Hungarian. (Large portions of the original English can be read here, while the Hungarian version will be published for Christmas at the Europe Publisher). It is an excellent book. The author, who studied and translated Dante throughout all her life – on this I want to publish some touching details in a next post – decided at the age of ninety-two to “read all his works again, this time with an independent mind”, and as a consequence “present a portrait of Dante, the poet, the political thinker and the man, which has not been seen before”. She has managed to do so indeed. During the three years of “lectura Dantis” accomplished at the Italian department I did not learn as much about Dante as from this book. This is obviously no great eulogy for anyone who knows the standard of the Italian department in Budapest, but even for them it will be a dazzling qualitative leap that from now on they will have at least one good book to read during the five years.

It is an especially great – and rare – achievement that the book is enjoyable both for experts and non-experts. It gives a brief and clear overview on the hopelessly intricate Italian politics – which deeply influenced the career and writings of Dante –, on the life and ideas of the author, as well as on the almost untraceable path and episodes of the Comedy. Whoever having read this book will embark with easy heart upon the Comedy. He or she will not be frightened away any more by the dark forest of untold names and unnamed events but, having a clear grip of the situation, will be able to completely dedicate himself to the literary and human subtleties of the works, also continuously pointed out by Reynolds. And as a bonus, as Reynolds herself writes, “almost every chapter contains new ideas and fresh insights, some of them radical, many controversial”.

While translating the chapter on the ninth circle of Hell, I believed for a moment that I also might increase the number of new insights. Here Dante and Virgil arrive to the bottom of Hell, the very center of the globe of the earth where the king of demons Lucifer personally tortures the perpetrators of the greatest sin, those who betrayed their benefactors. The three main figures among them are Judas, Brutus and Cassius who betrayed Christ and the Empire ordered by God, respectively, and who are strangled by the very mouth of Lucifer for ever and ever.

Suloni Robertson, A Pokol kilencedik köre, illusztrációSuloni Robertson: The ninth circle of Hell.
Above the four Toscan betrayers contacting Dante,
below the three-faced Lucifer strangling Judas, Brutus and Cassius.

Virgil presents the three figures to Dante like this:

„Quell’anima là sù c’ ha maggior pena”,
disse ’l maestro, „è Giuda Scarïotto,
che ’l capo ha dentro e fuor le gambe mena.
De li altri due c’ hanno il capo di sotto,
quel che pende dal nero ceffo è Bruto:
vedi come si storce, e non fa motto!;
e l’altro è Cassio, che par sì membruto.”

“That upper spirit,
Who hath worse punishment,” so spake my guide,
“Is Judas, he that hath his head within
And plies the feet without. Of th’ other two,
Whose heads are under, from the murky jaw
Who hangs, is Brutus: lo! how he doth writhe
And speaks not! Th’ other Cassius, that appears
So large of limb.”

Reynolds’ British sense of reality cannot refrain from commenting on this description:

Given his [Lucifer’s] enormous height, which from Dante’s indications has been calculated to be over 1,400 feet, and given that about one-half of him is visible above the ice, his three heads area about 700 feet above Dante’s own. There is a conflict here between realistic description and poetic imagination, since from so far below and in such darkness it would be impossible for Dante to see, for instance, that Cassius is sturdy of limb.

I, however, am thrilled with a discovery. A silent Brutus… a fat Cassius… let us wait a moment. Well, Dante did not have to see this at all: he could know it from Plutarch. Is it not in the Parallel Biographies that Julius Caesar says he is not afraid of the merry and fat Cassius, but rather of the silent and sombre Brutus? And if so, then how can it escape the attention of Reynolds that this saying is repeated verbatim in Julius Caesar?

While searching for the volumes of Plutarch and Shakespeare, I am also enlightened by further thoughts. In fact, Plutarch was only discovered at the middle of the 15th century, and he has been translated only since the middle of the 16th century. Shakespeare read him in the novelistic English translation of 1579 by Thomas North that had been prepared on the basis of the verbose French translation by Jacques Amyot (1559). How was it known to Dante? Perhaps through the same prophetic foresight with which he had described, two centuries before the age of discoveries, the Cross of the South to be seen on the southern sky?

This vision melts away in a minute. This quotation of Shakespare sounds correctly like this:

Let me have men about me that are fat;
Sleek-headed men and such as sleep o' nights:
Yond Cassius has a lean and hungry look;
He thinks too much: such men are dangerous.
Would he were fatter! But I fear him not:
Yet if my name were liable to fear,
I do not know the man I should avoid
So soon as that spare Cassius.

There is Cassius and there is fatness, there is silence and soon there will be Brutus as well, but… not in that way.

As in the tricky question, like what is ‘fork’ in German: Gabel, where were the languages confused: Babel, who killed Cain: Abel. Er… I mean…

One of a blog’s greatest advantages in contrast to scientific publication is that one can report in it not only on those discoveries that have proved true, but also on those that have only caused intellectual pleasure, even if for a minute only.

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