Mary Jo Bang by Zachary Lazar

Mary Jo 3 Body

Photo by Jessica Baran. Courtesy of Mary Jo Bang.

Mary Jo Bang’s new translation of Dante’s Inferno restores meaning to that old book-blurb cliché, “startlingly original.” I say this because I have tried and failed several times to describe the book to friends. Imagine a contemporary translation of Dante that includes references to Pink Floyd, South Park, Donald Rumsfeld, and Star Trek. Now imagine that this isn’t gimmicky—this is the hardest but most important part to imagine. Imagine instead that the old warhorse is now scary again, and perversely funny, and lyrical and faux-lyrical in a way that sounds sometimes like Auden, sometimes like Nabokov, but always like Mary Jo Bang. Imagine footnotes like those Eliot wrote for The Waste Land, covering everything from Eliot himself, to Virgil and Ovid, Lennon and McCartney, Mad Dog 20/20, and King Lear. Dante chose to write his poem in the Italian of his day, rather than in the dead language of literary Latin. It was an eccentric choice—Latin would have brought him a larger audience. Bang’s new English version honors this eccentricity with a living English that refreshes Dante’s living Italian. It is an audacious 332-page risk that made the poem live for me in a way it never had before. This email exchange developed out of three days we spent together in New Orleans, discussing God, humor, and medieval Florentine politics.

Zachary Lazar It seems to me that hell is something many people experience while still alive, or at least this is the way Dante makes sense to me as a reader in 2012. Metaphorically, his hell makes sense as a description of what life can be like on earth, the sufferings people endure as a consequence of their appetites. This seems very unlike the modern view that we are free, that there’s no one upstairs watching or judging, that we’re in charge of our own lives (or the postmodern view that no one is in charge of anything). The Inferno makes it seem more like we’re fooling ourselves if we think that there’s no one watching or judging. How do you situate yourself inside such a moralistic, judgmental poem in 2012?

Mary Jo Bang I think it’s possible to be judged without necessarily locating that judgment “upstairs” in the form of a godhead. We judge ourselves, we judge others, others judge us. Although we might argue about the details, or point to situational exclusions, we have a collective sense of right behavior and we live according to rules that keep us from indulging in behaviors—or as you say, appetites—that might destroy the fabric of our social group. But we’re not perfect observers of our own rules and we seem to enjoy having literature point out our lapses. It must console us, even though we’re sometimes chastened. We seem especially drawn to moments where the rules get insisted upon and those who violate them are penalized. I think of how much of television is based on crime stories: those weekly time-slot morality plays where the perpetrator always gets a just punishment. That’s not unlike the situation of the Inferno, although a sentence on earth is finite and infernal punishment is eternal.

Dante essentially creates a hierarchy of our most basic flaws and foibles, in descending order from least bad to worst of all. The list is illustrated with examples from medieval Florentine politics, from the medieval Catholic Church, and from Greek and Roman myth. However, deduct Italy, Catholicism, and mythology from the equation, and the examples still work. Farinata, who speaks with a bit of a sneer, is arrogance personified. Geryon, who has the face of an honest man but a serpent’s body, is the fraudster who tries to keep his nefarious design hidden behind an affable front for as long as it takes to earn a victim’s trust. It doesn’t matter that Farinata was a Ghibelline general or that Geryon is a creature from Greek myth. In the Inferno, they do the work that characters do in literature: they mirror us.

ZL What was the impetus for this project? How long did it take you to commit to taking these kinds of stylistic risks?

MJB The project began in 2006 when I read a poem by Caroline Bergvall called “Via (48 Dante Variations).” Bergvall’s poem is composed of forty-seven translations of the first three lines of the Inferno (“Midway in what we call our life, I found myself in a dark wood. The right path had been lost”), followed by the name of the translator and date of publication. Reading it, I was struck by the fact that as simple as the original Italian is, no two translations were exactly alike. Which led me to wonder how else those three lines could be translated, if one were willing to take some liberties that other translators hadn’t taken. I tested out various possibilities, trying to be true to what was said in the original while playing with other aspects of poetry—sound patterning, word choice, figurative language. After finishing the first tercet, I was so engaged by the exercise that I went to the library and found twelve translations so I could keep going. After I finished the first canto, I knew I wanted to do the entire Inferno.

In June 2007, I had a residency at Bellagio. I mailed the twelve translations to Italy in advance and for a month sat at a desk in the land of Dante. At that point, I began to use an unabridged Italian/English dictionary and became obsessed with accuracy, which meant I had to rein in my impulse to push language to an extreme. Another key moment was when I showed the first five cantos to a friend who is a poetry critic. She pointed out places where she thought I’d gone too far from the original or had been too “cute.” I went back and revised. From that point on, I kept negotiating between accuracy and the desire to make the poem read as if it was part of the present moment instead of an artifact of another era. I wanted the contemporary reader to enjoy the poem’s narrative drama, and I wanted Dante and Virgil to be the well-developed characters they are in the original.

I came home from Italy, bought an excellent Italian/English dictionary, and continued to work on the poem that summer. Then I stopped and for almost two years worked on the poems that would make up The Bride of E. Once I finished that collection, I had to decide whether to go back to the Dante or begin something new. Finally in May of 2009, I decided to translate the first three lines of Canto 9, just as a test to see whether the task was as engaging as I remembered it. And it was. It was so engaging that it became a bit of an obsession. Sometimes I would work all night. And I was still working on it almost up until the moment it went to the printers! What’s interesting, looking back, is that during the two years I didn’t work on it I kept thinking I needed the same ideal circumstances I’d had in Italy but once I came back to it, none of that seemed necessary. I didn’t need, for instance, to have the books spread out on a table. I could just as easily have them in a stack next to my computer.

ZL Your translation is the first one I’ve ever read that actually scares me. You write in your introduction: “What’s the text equivalent of death metal music?” This seems to me a perfect justification of your approach: as time passes, and especially as technology evolves, we don’t get “better” at evoking terror but we do develop new styles that strike us with a new power. Because of this change in styles we can become numb to the old. Music, in the strict sense as well as the poetic sense, changes—it has to change. And not acknowledging this is basically reactionary, no?

MJB Given that language is multivalent, I wonder whether this version of Dante feels scarier to you because today’s language inevitably has today’s fears encoded in it, especially when we talk about bad behavior and its consequences. When we read language that’s been patterned today to sound like it did in the past, the risk is that we’ll read the text as if it only refers to that past moment, and that past moment’s terrors.

Also, by ironing out the syntax, the narrative arc of the Inferno is easier to follow. There’s more of a sense of drama. We’re better able to suspend our disbelief and identify with the characters, especially with the character called Dante whose quest for self-knowledge and salvation presents him with archetypal stand-ins for every possible kind of selfishness and evil.

Of course some people feel quite territorial about the poetry of the past and have a strong negative reaction to seeing it altered. Appropriation literature, which you could argue translation is, inevitably alters a text, and if someone is highly invested in the original, there’s no pleasure in examining the terms of an author’s or a translator’s tampering. The fact is, the original still exists. As a reader you can always go back to that.

ZL In our talk in New Orleans, you pointed out that, though the Inferno is a pious work, Dante is often very funny—bawdy, scatological. I may have gotten it wrong, but I think that part of what you said was that Dante and his poet friends would sometimes try to outdo each other, see who could be dirtiest, not unlike the way rappers do now. I think you said that part of what’s going on in the tar-pit-devil section is Dante showing off for these friends, showing off his virtuosity.

MJB I hesitate to say I know anything about what Dante the poet is thinking since it’s impossible to enter the mind of another, especially another who lived in a very different time and culture. What is true is that the behavior of the tar-pit devils in Canto 21 and 22 is both coarse and comic and commentators have speculated about what might have led Dante to include such burlesque moments in an otherwise serious poem. William Vernon quotes early commentators as saying that Dante intends moments like when the demon captain Malacoda makes “a trumpet of his ass” to show how vile and without honor barratry—what we call political and judicial graft—is. Wallace Fowlie argues that by painting the devils and their victim-sinners the way he has, Dante is showing that he’s lost any sense of pity for these creatures. Robert Hollander points to a possible French source, the fabliau, for the cantos’ farcical elements.

When I read somewhere—and I’m afraid I don’t remember where—that these cantos might also have been a form of Dante’s indulging in a poetic show of virtuosity, that made sense to me. It does seem possible that he’s showing that he can write every form of verse there is, even humorous verse. The argument was especially convincing because I had read elsewhere that when Dante was a young poet, he and his friends would occasionally write sonnets back and forth in an attempt to outdo one another. And yes, there were sometimes bawdy moments in those poems. This is a literary form of play. You get bragging rights in a small group when you outdo one of your fellows. It’s also a way to create intimacy, and solidify one’s sense of poetic identity.

ZL I think you also said that something similar, in terms of competitiveness, could be found beneath the surface of how Dante’s famous muse, Beatrice, operates in his poetry. Beatrice was an actual girl, whom Dante actually knew and probably even loved, but to properly understand her in the poetry, we should see her not as an individual so much as a version of a trope used by other Italian poets of Dante’s time. These poets, influenced by Provençal poets, found it convenient to deploy an idealized muse in order to spin out more and more elaborate tributes to that muse, riffing on love and ideal love as subjects to display their virtuosity.

MJB Sometimes Dante makes me think of Van Gogh’s letters to his art-dealer brother Theo, where the painter says he’s absolutely certain that what he is doing is remarkable and will be appreciated in time and remembered forever. There are artists who are supremely confident that the product of their creativity is singular. It seems clear from the work itself that Dante had a sense of the artistic importance of his work and knew that he was doing something very innovative. The entire Comedy is extremely ambitious. Competition is inherent in ambitious artworks—not only competition with one’s peers but also with the art of the past. That Bloomian “anxiety of influence” is clearly present in Dante. In Canto 25, where he’s describing the almost instantaneous transmutation of a sinner into a reptilian form, he says, let Lucan just hush up about his poem where he does something similar and let Ovid keep quiet about his poem where he does something like this. What I’ve done, neither of those ever did. The implication, of course, is that neither writer had the imaginative reach of Dante.

Henrik Drescher.

Canto XXXIV. Illustration by Henrik Drescher.

ZL How did you find Henrik Drescher, your illustrator?

MJB When I mentioned to Ken Botnick, a Professor at Washington University and Director of the Kranzberg Studio for the Illustrated Book, that I was looking for someone to create a set of illustrations for a translation of the Inferno, and that I especially wanted someone who would represent a timeless hell that would include the present moment, he immediately thought of Drescher. Ken is also a printer and book designer and has a small press called Emdash that publishes illustrated letterpress books. He knew Drescher’s work from the world of book arts. I went to Drescher’s website to see samples of his work and thought his graphic-novel sensibility would create an interesting tension with the text. I emailed him and explained the project, he asked to see the whole manuscript and then quickly expressed interest. I feel very fortunate to have found him.

ZL The conflict between the Guelphs and Ghibellines and the whole history of medieval Italy is central to the poem, but it’s history I’m unfamiliar with outside Dante. Can you see the poem properly if you don’t know this history? How much of Dante’s project is a political statement?

MJB The Inferno is a mirror of human behavior so the poem works, even without knowing the complicated political history. We know what a hypocrite is, regardless of whether we know the circumstances of Catalano and Loderingo, the two friars in Canto 23 who failed to keep the peace in Florence. They, and all the hypocrites, wear leaden coats covered by a thin layer of gilt that obscures the coat’s true nature the same way a hypocrite hides his or her true character. So, yes, political statements are sometimes being made; Dante is assigning blame for real-life political outcomes, including his exile. But more importantly, the real-life men and women, along with the mythical figures, act as “types” that serve as object lessons.

In terms of Dante’s politics, I’ll do my best to condense an extremely long and complicated history. First, the names of the two groups, Guelph and Ghibelline, originated in a rivalry between two German houses, Welf and Waiblingen. One result of that struggle was that, in 1155, Pope Adrian IV crowned Frederick I as Holy Roman Emperor. Frederick tried to exert authority over the Italian city-states and over the papacy itself. His Italian supporters came to be known as Ghibellines (from Waiblingens) and Guelph (from Welfs). In time, the Guelphs became the “church party” because they supported a strong papacy, and the Ghibellines became the “imperial party” because they preferred a dominant secular ruler.

As is always the case with factions, the positions reflected self-interest. The Guelphs, made up primarily of wealthy mercantile families, relied on the Church to ensure expansion of the cities. Conversely, the Ghibellines were noblemen who looked to the emperor to protect their ownership of vast tracts of land. This isn’t unlike the situation we have today where urbanites might favor one political party because it represents their interests, while in outlying agricultural areas, people might have different interests that lead them to support a different party.

Within Italy, the two groups were intermittently at war, with various cities lining up behind the group that best represented their interests. Plus family feuds sometimes highlighted the divisions. The animosity was extremely fierce in Florence. In 1266, a year after Dante’s birth, the Ghibellines were defeated and exiled. But by then the Guelph party itself had already broken into two factions, the Blacks and the Whites. Robert Hollander gives a very succinct history of all this in Dante: A Life in Works. Dante had been born into a White Guelf family, which was, according to Hollander, “more devoted to a republican notion of governance.” The Blacks, he says, were “more authoritarian in their attitudes.” He also says that Dante, upon rereading the Latin classics around 1306, developed a new political vision that was more imperialist. He says that in spite of that position, he rejected the Ghibelline position because it lacked a necessary religious framework. Of course I’m ventriloquizing all of this!

ZL A passage in Canto 31 of your translation reads, “This man can give you what all the dead want … He can still make you famous in the world.” In the Inferno, Dante is memorializing the villains of his time, though unlike Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, et al., they are very distant to us now. Then, in the last ring of Hell, in Satan’s mouth, we find Judas, Brutus, and Cassius—I was surprised by the latter two. Do you think this might say something about Dante’s politics?

MJB In Dante’s vision, the Holy Roman Empire can be traced back to Caesar’s Roman Republic, to a time when Italy was united. He saw this as part of God’s perfect plan to establish Rome as the eventual seat of the Roman Catholic Church. Politically, his tracing Italian history and Church history back to the moment of Caeser’s betrayal by Cassius and Brutus is a reflection of Dante’s belief that an ideal ruler would someday unify Italy, and that that ruler would work in tandem with the Catholic Church and both would presumably keep the other in check.

ZL One of my favorite sections of the Inferno is Canto 33, about the traitors Ugolino and Ruggieri. In this canto, hell is not only having your head eaten but also eating someone else’s head. Ugolino is the one we hear complaining here (the eater, not the eaten). Dante seems to be saying that an eternity of sadistically preying on someone else is at least as much a form of hell as being the victim of this violence. This is a very sophisticated moral vision, I’d say, and a very modern one, no?

MJB In Dante’s hell, the souls of those who acted without scruples on earth are often literally turned into animals. It’s as if he’s saying, You want to act like an animal? Fine, see how you like it now, being an animal and having to eternally suffer that degradation. Dante presents the animals as lacking any sympathy for one another. The sufferers are also eternally trapped in a mental state, whether it’s fury or hunger or humiliation; one of the definitive conditions of Hell is the inability to escape one’s interiority.

In the case of Ugolino and Ruggieri, they are turned into savage animals, the one forever injured, the other forever injuring. Nobody wins. Although in this case, there’s at least hope that when Dante returns to earth and tells this story, history will treat Ugolino with more sympathy. Dante is continually trying to right wrongs in the way he feels history has represented someone, and to ensure that those he feels were in the wrong will suffer the humiliation of their deeds throughout time.

In terms of the present moment, we have all the types Dante encounters in his nine-circled Hell: religious hypocrites, despotic rulers, grafters and thieves, hoarders and wasters, self-important divas. All of these are people whose self-interest limits their empathy. The lasting appeal of this amazing poetic catalogue is that it is an accurate portrayal of our failure to embody the saintly, and unattainable, ideal. Dante’s thinking is morally and psychologically sophisticated indeed, and he has very high ideals for himself and for others.

ZL Will you do a Purgatory? A Paradiso?

MJB That remains to be seen. I worry that before I have a chance to make a clear-eyed decision about whether I want to devote more years to Dante, I’ll just wake up one day and find I’ve succumbed the temptation to begin the next book. I think if I do begin, I’m not going to publicly admit that I’m working on it until I have ten cantos done—that way I can turn back if I find a way to free myself from this obsession.

Read an excerpt from Mary Jo Bang’s Inferno in BOMB 119.