Dante’s Inferno

I was reading an article in the New Yorker last week about the German writer, Erich Auerbach who, while living in exile, wrote the masterpiece, Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature . The author was an assimilated German Jewish professor who, when he saw the hand writing on the wall in the mid 1930’s, fled to Istanbul. Mimesis is considered the bible in the teaching of comparative literature, made all the more remarkable (according to the article) because Auerbach had access only to the relatively modest libraries in Istanbul at the time.

Funny., he doesn't look ...

Funny., he doesn’t look …

A couple of things you should know:  prior to reading this article, I’d never heard of Erich Auerbach or of Mimesis, for that matter.  And…here’s a confession which I feel comfortable admitting because I know this will stay just between you and me (the beauty of having an small elite readership)–I have no idea what the study of comparative literature means.  Our secret, okay?

The article was rife with references to literary classics and their authors with whole sections devoted to analyses of masterworks like Dante’s Inferno,  Milton’s Paradise Lost and an assortment of other works which are just names to me.  (I think I’m being high-minded when I read Philip Roth.)

Whenever I wade through an article like this, I wind up feeling like my formal education was a huge failure; that I’m basically a dunce who doesn’t know much more than a few rules of grammar.   I was complaining talking over lunch with my friend, Nnelg, about this and he reminded me that there’s tons of stuff I know that Auerbach probably never knew.  True, it’s primarily about sports; mostly baseball statistics that I learned as a kid,  but who’s to say whether it’s more a sign of erudition to know about the rhetorical forms of writings of Gregory of Tours or St. Francis of Assisi, than to know that Ted Kluszewski was the first baseman for the 1955 Cincinnati Reds? Or that Ty Cobb’s lifetime batting average is .366?

"Big Klu" certainly doesn't.

“Big Klu” certainly doesn’t.

Of course, knowing these things are not necessarily mutually exclusive…it’s not one or the other. But I think, at this point, my brain is chock full and I’m not sure there’s room to absorb much more.  Almost as if there’s a “Parking Lot Full” sign at its entrance.  Of course, I could discard some of the less important or redundant stuff to make room for information about the classics.  For example, my brain has a special place for the number, 511.  That’s both the number of wins that Cy Young recorded and home runs that Mel Ott hit.  I don’t see why I need to keep both of those pieces of trivia. I could surely trade a Mel Ott statistic for a bit of knowledge about Boccaccio, for example.

Just to be clear, it’s not that I’m completely hopeless when it comes to the classics; I know that Dante’s Inferno is just one of the parts of his epic poem, The Divine Comedy. But I’m confused as to why it’s always referred to as Dante’s Inferno rather than just, Inferno.  Had someone else written a book entitled “Inferno” in the fourteenth century and it’s necessary to distinguish between some hack and Dante?  Or maybe, Dante’s “Inferno” was published just a bit ahead of another writer’s, leaving that poor schmuck lost to obscurity as a fickle result of timing.  Kind of like Larry Doby.  You know, the baseball player who “broke the color line” in the American League when he began playing for the Cleveland Indians merely a few months after Jackie Robinson joined the Brooklyn Dodgers.  Poor Mr. Doby is just a footnote to history.  Maybe just like the guy who wrote Edelstein’s Inferno.

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2 Responses to “Dante’s Inferno”

  1. Leland Fanyat Says:

    Sad thing for me is that I read this article and if I picked it up and read it again tomorrow it would be as if I was reading it for the first time. This is true for me of many New yorker articles. I don’t know why I bother to subscribe. One issue could last a lifetime, espcially with fewer and fewer years left.

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