Sunday, May 15, 2011

On Dante and Doré and Childhood

A couple of days ago, my daughter Melina, who's a senior in high school, asked me to go with her to the local Barnes and Noble to pick up a Penguin edition of The Divine Comedy by Dante. As you may know from other blog posts, I have what seems to me an almost lifelong history with Dante, and especially Gustave Doré's Divine Comedy illustrations.

Well, not only did we find Melina her Penguin, we also found me a remaindered Divine Comedy (hardcover and only $17!), which is, I'm pretty sure, the same text and illustrations (Doré's, hurray!) that I used to sneak peeks at in my Lolo's sala. Actually, I didn't only "sneak peeks" . . . I used to pore and pore over that book. I was obsessed with it, at probably age 4 or 5.

Those hidden childhood hours with Dante made quite an impression on me. More particularly, the Doré illustrations are deeply imprinted in my memory. Looking through my new find, I quite vividly remembered many of the images &mdash specific ones! — first seen over fifty years ago.

Inferno, Canto 10
Inferno, Canto 19
Inferno, Canto 18

Filipinos have a pretty lively cultural connection with the occult and with death, so I was already well primed for these images. I quite clearly remember the image on the left above, of a grave sundered open and a corpse tottering up to speak. Perhaps my long apprenticeship with such imagery explains my interest in cinematic and literary vampires, zombies, Frankenstein, the aswang. (Remember you can click on an image to see a larger version.)

I also recall quite strongly the image in the center, where the punished are embedded upside down in holes in solid rock, burning. I recall my horror at this specific penance, imagining these people's nostrils filled with whatever noxious fluids feed the flames and smoke writhing around their legs and feet. Worst of all, they are constantly drowning. (Drowning just happens to be one of my greatest fears.)

Dante and Doré may have provided my earliest introduction to the nude female body. There are many examples in the book, but I do remember this image on the right, probably because of the woman's buxom form but also because she is smeared with shit. At that age I could already read quite well and probably easily decoded Dante's language: "filth . . . out of human privies," "so foul with ordure" (in Longfellow's translation).

Inferno, Canto 13
Inferno, Canto 15

Most of the time, it was the particularity of the punishment that got to me. Above left, sinners have been turned into mangled and distorted trees. The talking trees in The Wizard of Oz movie didn't scare me: they were originally trees . . . talking, yes, but still in their own natural forms. These are people who have been changed into trees, obviously not of their own choosing. This specific punishment seemed to me, as a child, quite brutal: trees cannot get up and run away.

On the right, a rain of fire. Yes, I knew about the tongues of fire that descended upon Jesus's disciples after his death. But I imagined those as friendly flames, like soft birds almost. Instead, we've got rain . . . really, rain couldn't give a care about you as it pelts your skin indiscriminately, but here it's made of fire. I distinctly recall imagining what those hundreds of firedrop burns might feel like on your naked skin.

Inferno, Canto 22
Inferno, Canto 24

In the image on the left, I remember surmising that the demon had chased down a misfortunate and thrown him into boiling water or even oil. I knew what jumping bubbles of oil looked like from watching my mom fry up dinner. That had to be boiling oil or worse! What really scared me, though, was the obvious virtuoso flying the demon is doing. That convinced me to avoid going to Hell. There'd be no way to escape from these flyers, with their serrated bat wings, pitchforks, and snakey tails.

Speaking of snakes, in the image on the right . . . what else is there to say? They sic snakes on you! Snakes. Snakes!

Inferno, Canto 28
Inferno, Canto 28
Inferno, Canto 31

The image on the right was (and is) especially troubling to me. Demons slitting your chest . . . so you could pull it open, exposing lungs and innards, the heart, to the sulphurous air of Hell. This particular image has stuck with me over the years. I only recently realized that the central figure here is Mohammed, and I am reminded, alas, of the misguided animosity some Americans currently have towards Islam.

In the center, a man holding up his own severed head and talking. The original talking head, ha ha. I've had a long fascination with this sort of image, later centered upon The Green Knight, Sir Gawain's nemesis. Clearly I had forgotten that that fascination is rooted in this particular image from childhood. An image that was not so much horrific as it was interesting, especially with the perfectly round, collar-like neck of the man.

On the right, a more benevolent context. We see Dante and Virgil being transported by a giant (Antaeus, it turns out, who had fought Hercules and lost). As a child, I was very interested in giants from fairy tales and mythology, Greek and Norse. In this image, I recall being amused by the hero holding on to the giant's beard, afraid of being dropped. Dante, so unheroic, so much like an ordinary Joe.

Inferno, Canto 34
Inferno, Canto 12

I quite clearly remember gazing at the image on the left for long periods: Satan (or perhaps, more correctly, fallen Lucifer), frozen into ice. I was quite surprised to learn that in the deepest pit of Hell Satan would not be on fire but rather on ice. And he really seemed to me quite bored. Supremely so. I mean, he's got four wings and all. And nowhere to go. No way to go. Humpf.

You have to understand: at that age, I thought I was really seeing Hell. That this was what it was like. Not metaphor. Not imagined. But journalism. You sinned, you go to Hell, you're tormented by guys with sharp implements and leathery bat wings. And in the middle of it all, Satan imprisoned in a lake of ice.

But it wasn't all horror. I was also glad to see the creatures of mythology were real, and they lived down there. Look here on the right at the centaurs. Aren't they having a good old time? These horsy bro's horsing around with their spears and bows and arrows. As a kid of 5 or 6, I nursed a great interest in archery. The American Indians' versatile short bow. The great longbow of the English. And so on. Fun!

Purgatorio, Canto 12
Paradiso, Canto 12
Paradiso, Canto 31

At that age, I didn't find Purgatorio and Paradiso nearly as interesting as Inferno. (Actually, I still don't.) Purgatorio, even though it still featured punishments, did have a lot of pastoral fields and such. Looking through the book now, the only image I recalled from back then was the one on the left. And it's quite similar to the infernal images. A bunch of guys carting boulders up a mountainside. Like Jesus burdened with the cross, actually. At least it looks like they are having a modicum of success, not the futility one saw again and again in Hell.

Just as I thought Hell was exactly as Doré portrayed it, I thought Heaven was just like he shows in the center and right images above: a lot of synchronized flying by angels making circular shapes and patterns. As a kid, I was very interested in Paradiso as a destination more than as an actual location. And I really wanted to believe that the saved souls would be happy there.

I think I must have remembered the center image because the angels in the upper circle — a "garland" of "sempiternal roses," Dante and Longfellow called it — seemed just like a flying saucer ringed by bright landing lights. At that age, I was crazy about flying saucers. Remember that was the '50s and flying saucers were all over the news, absolutely de rigueur.

And on the right, well, that's some fancy flying, ain't it? Actually, I felt much more religious about it back then. I'm being pretty glib here. Pretty flippant. I remember imagining what a glorious sight that would be if you could be right there on that cloud with Dante. Millions of angels and saints forming a "snow-white rose" of concentric Seraphim and Cherubim and Archangels, with God ensconced in the center. Wow.

I mentioned zombies above, and I'm remembering how I saw the movie Night of the Living Dead as a teenager. Have you seen it? It's a black and white flick. Well, many years later, I was talking to someone and insisting that the movie was in color. Of course, I was wrong, but the important point is that I had "colorized" the movie in my head. I could still see scenes from the movie (as I can now today) but I saw them in color. (Though now that I know better, I remember them in black and white again . . . the imagination is funny that way.)

Well, I've had something similar happen with Doré's Dante illustrations. Here's something I wrote in a blog post three years ago: "I remember vividly the [Doré illustration from Dante] that showed people walking with their heads facing backward, a punishment for the sin of foretelling the future." I looked for that illustration in my new book, and it ain't there. It seems I manufactured that memory, made up a "new" Doré illustration. Amazing.

Anyway, that's all for today. If you've gained an interest in Doré from this blog post, go buy that Divine Comedy that's "bargain priced" at the Barnes and Noble. Or buy it from Amazon (price about the same). Or look at Bruce Johnson's online tribute to Doré. In any event, you won't be disappointed. That Gustave Doré is one hip artist. He had quite a sublime effect on my childhood. He's one cool cat.

All the images above are borrowed from Bruce Johnson's beautiful webpage on Gustave Doré. Mr. Johnson's website on artists and art is an excellent tool to learn about art history. A retired teacher of Latin, he has also created an interesting online guide to historical personages. Check them out.


Victoria Stefani said...

I had a similar experience with exactly the same book at about the same age - when I hear the phrase "coffee table book," that's the one I think of. I don't know if I was even reading yet. The book terrified me and I couldn't stay away from it! I've been a Doré aficionado ever since.

Joe and I were talking yesterday about general conceptions of heaven and hell and how even though the nuns and priests and some Protestant clergy taught us that hell is eternal separation from God, and if they were intellectual about it at all (like the Benedictines at my school) they impressed upon us that we would be shed of our bodies and our reward or punishment would be spiritual, the metaphorical images seem to be what we all remember. And thanks to Dante and Doré, we KNOW hell is physical.

The talking head, yes, that's usually the first of Doré's images I think of, that and all the other assorted dismemberments. Gave me nightmares up through adolescence.

At some point during those years a book of Salvador Dali's paintings replaced Dante on our coffee table - remember "City of Drawers"? Thanks, mom.

kona_lm said...

fasinating article i really enjoyed reading thanks/

Vince Gotera said...

Vickie, thanks for your comment. How interesting that you and I had such similar experiences with the Doré and Dante material. I didn't know the Dalí image offhand, but looked it up: City of Drawers." I can see how this would be a scary image for a young woman.

(Sorry it took me so long to respond! I'll do better next time.)

Vince Gotera said...

kona_lm ... thanks for your generous comment. Come back and read more!

Damon McLaughlin said...

Hey, Vince -- hard not to love the Dante, and those prints are amazing -- thanks for including with the link to Johnson's site.

Emily said...

Hi Vince,

I haven't read all of Dante's Inferno, but I did read excerpts in my high school English class. I remember being really excited when I stumbled upon The Tenth Circle by Jodi Picoult in college. In the story, the father is a comic book artist with a repressed temper; after his daughter is raped he begins illustrating a comic where he is traveling with Vergil into the depths of hell on a quest to save his daughter. The novel is actually broken up by illustrations from his comic book. You might enjoy checking it out.

Emily - the English major from Marquette

Vince Gotera said...

Emily ... thanks so much for the comment and the link. It was great to meet you last week. --Vince

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