February 28, 2008


The theme at Goat Rope lately is Dante's Divine Comedy. If this is your first visit, please click on earlier entries. You will also find links and comments about current events.

The Divine Comedy is one of a kind. In addition to telling the story of Dante's pilgrimage (and ours), it's also a kind of summary and totalization of what was widely known and believed in medieval Europe. It's a book that contains references to many other books.

The fancy word for that is "intertextuality." (Try whipping that one out at the fire station sometime, but don't blame me if you get beat up.) One example of that from American literature is the first line of Melville's Moby-Dick: "Call me Ishmael," which refers readers back to the book of Genesis. Here are some of the books "contained" in the Comedy:

*Nature. In the ancient and medieval world, nature was widely seen as God's book, which we could read if we had wisdom and grace. Dante gives a tour not just of the afterlife but of the entire physical universe as it was believed to be.

*The Bible. Y'all saw that one coming. Characters and events from the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament and the New figure prominently in it and some have speaking roles.

*The classics. Dante's guide through 2/3rds of his journey is the ancient Roman poet Virgil, author of the epic poem The Aeneid. That classic also refers to Homer's Iliad and Odyssey and a host of Greek and Roman myths.

*Philosophy and theology, especially the works of Aristotle, whom Dante calls "master of all who know," and St. Thomas Aquinas and other theologians.

*St. Augustine. The bishop of Hippo in Carthage (now Tunisia) was a huge influence on the medieval church. Dante's book especially refers to his Confessions.

Can you imagine someone trying to encompass so much in a book today? Me neither. But it works. You don't need to know all those texts to read the Comedy--just get one with a good set of footnotes. And don't feel bad about that: Every reader from the late middle ages on needed footnotes to get through it.

A SEA CHANGE? Here's a review of recent books on the American religious scene by E.J. Dionne and Jim Wallis by way of In These Times.

ON A RELATED NOTE, here's sociologist Alan Wolfe on the (possibly moderate) future of world religion.

TWO ON THE ECONOMY. It's beginning to look a lot like stagflation. And here's another one on the credit crunch.

"PHILANTHROPY" CONTINUED. Here's more on BB&T's promotion of Ayn Rand.

DEFINING TORTURE. Would this qualify?


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