Why Should We Read Dante’s Divine Comedy? An Animated Video Makes the Case

Dante Alighieri’s 14th-century Divine Comedy is revered for the force of its imagery, its innovative terza rima and bold use of the vernacular, its creative interpretation of medieval Catholic doctrine, its ferocious political satire...

And the poignant autobiography the poet weaves throughout the story. The epic is animated by Dante's own romantic longing and his bitter disillusionment with life. He paints himself in the first stanza as overcome by middle-aged bewilderment. Robert Durling’s translation renders the first lines thus:

In the middle of the journey of our life, I came to
myself in a dark wood, for the straight way was lost.

He is already adrift when Virgil turns up to guide him to the famously inscribed gates of hell—“Abandon all hope ye who enter here.”

The grim descent “sets into motion what is perhaps the greatest love story ever told,” says the TED-Ed video above, scripted by Sheila Marie Orfano and animated by Tomás Pichardo-Espaillat. Dante takes this epic journey with two muses, Virgil, then Beatrice, who guides him through Paradise, a figure drawn from an unrequited obsession the poet harbored for a woman named Beatrice Portinari.

Dante turned his crush into a muse, and transformed desire into chaste religious allegory. He turned his hatred of church and state corruption, however, into gleeful revenge fantasy, torturing a number of people still very much alive at the time of his writing. A member of the White Guelphs, a Florentine faction that pushed back against Roman influence, Dante fought fiercely opposed the Black Guelphs, a group loyal to the Pope. He was eventually exiled from Florence, but not silenced.

“Dishonored and with little hope of return,” he “freely aired his grievances” in the Divine Comedy, writing in Italian, rather than Latin, to ensure “the widest possible audience.” His readers at the time would have picked up on the references. Now, we need hundreds of notes to explain the full context. We should also know some salient facts about the poet: a life of political battle and religious devotion, an imaginative literary love affair with a woman he supposedly met twice; a thwarted desire for justice and vengeance and an obsession with integrity.

We do not need extensive notes and critical essays to feel the force of Dante’s language, just as we do not need to believe in the Divine Comedys religion. Like all great epic poetry, its metaphysical themes amplify profoundly human emotional journeys.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness.

William Burroughs Meets Francis Bacon: See Never-Broadcast Footage (1982)

The writing of William S. Burroughs and the paintings of Francis Bacon take us into often troubling but nevertheless compelling realities we couldn't possibly glimpse any other way. Some of that effect has to do with the inimitable (if often unsuccessfully imitated) styles they developed for themselves, and some with what was going on in their unusual lives as well as the even wilder realms of their minds. And though no scholars have yet turned up a Burroughs monograph on Bacon's art, or Bacon-painted illustrations for a Burroughs novel — just imagine Naked Lunch given that treatment — those minds did meet now and again in life, starting in Morocco six decades ago.

"The two men first met in Tangiers in the 1950s when Burroughs was technically on the run for murdering his wife after a 'shooting accident' during a drunken game of William Tell," writes Dangerous Minds' Paul Gallagher. "Bacon was then in a brutal and near fatal relationship with a violent sadist called Peter Lacey who used to beat him with a leather studded belt." None other than Allen Ginsberg made the introduction between the two men, "as he thought Bacon painted the way Burroughs wrote." But Burroughs saw more differences than similarities: "Bacon and I are at opposite ends of the spectrum," he once said. "He likes middle-aged truck drivers and I like young boys. He sneers at immortality and I think it’s the one thing of importance. Of course we’re associated because of our morbid subject matter."

Bacon and Burroughs reminisce about their first meeting — what they can remember of it, anyway — in an encounter filmed by the BBC for a 1982 documentary on the writer. "Arena followed him to the home and studio of old friend Francis Bacon, where he drops in for a cup of tea and a catch up," says the BBC's site. "This meeting has never been broadcast." But you can see their conversation presented in a ten-minute edit in the video above. Gallagher notes that the camera-shy Burroughs gets into the spirit of things only when the talk turns to his favorite subjects at the time: "Jajouka" — a Moroccan village with a distinct musical tradition — "Mayans, and immortality." Bacon, "waspish, bitchy, gleeful like a naughty schoolboy," throws out barbs left and right about his fellow artists and Burroughs' fellow writers.

Bacon also recalls his and Burroughs' "mutual friendship with Jane and Paul Bowles," the famously bohemian married couple known for their writing as well as their expat life in Morocco, "going on to discuss Jane Bowles’ mental decline and the tragedy of her last years being tended to by nuns, a situation which Bacon thought ghastly. Ironically, Bacon died just over a decade later being tended to by nuns after becoming ill in Spain (an asthma attack)." Even the most knowledgable fans of Burroughs, Bacon, and all the illustrious figures in their worldwide circles surely don't know the half of what happened when they got together. And though this ten-minute chat adds little concrete information to the record, it still gets us imagining what all these artistic associations might have been like — firing up our imaginations being the strong suit of creators like Bacon and Burroughs, even decades after they've left us to our own reality.

via Dangerous Minds

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds Becomes a New BBC Miniseries Set in Edwardian England

H.G. Wells began writing the novel that would become The War of the Worlds in the England of the mid-1890s. As a setting for this tale of invasion from outer space, he chose the place he knew best: England of the mid-1890s. Staging spectacles of unfathomable malice and fantastical destruction against such an ordinary backdrop made The War of the Worlds, first as a magazine serial and then as a standalone book, a chillingly compelling experience for its readers. Orson Welles understood the effectiveness of that choice, as evidenced by the fact that in his famously convincing 1938 radio adaptation of Wells' novel, the hostile aliens land in modern-day New Jersey.

Subsequent adaptations have followed the same principle: in 1953, the first War of the Worlds Hollywood film set the action in 1950s Los Angeles; the latest, a Steven Spielberg-directed Tom Cruise vehicle that came out in 2005, set it in the New York and Boston of the 2000s. But now, set to premiere later this year on BBC One, we have a three-part miniseries that returns the story to the place and time in which Wells originally envisioned it — or rather, the place and very nearly the time. Shot in Liverpool, the production recreates not the Victorian England in which The War of the Worlds was first published but the brief Edwardian period, lasting roughly the first decade of the 20th century, that followed it.

In a way, a period War of the Worlds reflects our time as clearly as the previous War of the Worlds adaptations reflect theirs: television viewers of the 2010s have shown a surprisingly hearty appetite for historical drama, and often British historical drama at that. Think of the success earlier this decade of Downton Abbey, whose upstairs-downstairs dynamics proved gripping even for those not steeped in the British class system. This latest War of the Worlds, whose trailer you can watch at the top of the post, uses similar themes, telling the story of a man and woman who dare to be together despite their class differences — and, of course, amid an alien invasion that threatens to destroy the Earth. It remains to be seen whether the miniseries will rise to the central challenge of adapting The War of the Worlds: will the emotions at the center of the story be as convincing as the mayhem surrounding them?

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Hear a Radio Opera Narrated by Kurt Vonnegut, Based on His Adaptation of Igor Stravinsky’s 1918 L’Histoire du Soldat

In the legend of Robert Johnson, American bluesman, a deal with the devil brings instant musical genius, and a brief and troubled life in near obscurity. A two-hundred-year-old Russian folktale has similar events in the opposite order: a soldier hands over his violin, and his musical talent, to the devil in exchange for wealth, and several more adventures and reversals before the final, inevitable path to perdition.

This story struck a chord with Igor Stravinsky, who was maybe ahead of his time in seeing a musical deal with the devil as an archetypal subject for popular song. In the first act of his theater piece, “The Soldier’s Story” (L’Histoire du Soldat)—whose libretto by Charles Ferdinand Ramuz adapts the Russian folktale—the soldier tragically relinquishes his ability to turn sorrow into beauty in the first act, perhaps a poignant statement in 1918, when, as Kurt Vonnegut says, “to be a soldier was really something.”

To have served in a war “in which 65 million persons had been mobilized and 35 million were becoming casualties,” to have witnessed the scarifying beginning of modern warfare, meant bearing the stamp of too much reality. In the folktales, we may see the devil as hardship, loss, or greed personified. These are metaphysical morality plays, far removed from current events. But war was potentially upon us all by 1918, Vonnegut suggests, in a terrifying force that devastated soldiers, mowed down civilians by the thousands, and leveled whole cities.

Asked to narrate the Stravinsky piece, Vonnegut declined. He found Ramuz’s treatment of a soldier’s life “preposterous” and unacceptable. So, George Plimpton challenged him to write his own version. He did, in 1993, but rather than make his soldier a musician (“you know, soldiers get rained on, and a violin wouldn’t have a chance”) or a nameless stock character, he plucked a figure out of history—and out of his own nonfiction book The Execution of Private Slovik, published in 1954.

Eddie Slovik was one of at least 30,000 deserters at the Battle of the Bulge. 49 were tried, and only Slovik was executed, at the express order of General Eisenhower. “He was the only person to be executed for cowardice in the face of the enemy since the Civil War,” Vonnegut told New York magazine. “Ike signed his death certificate. They stood him up in front of his comrades, and they shot him.” Vonnegut saw particular malice in the act. “Slovik deserves to be kept alive. If his name had been McCoy or Johnson, I don’t think he would have been shot.”

Instead of The Devil, in Vonnegut’s A Soldier’s Story, we have the character of The General. The novelist's replacement of the original text bothered some when his libretto premiered, with Stravinsky’s music, at Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall in 1993. Responding to the New York Times’ critic, Vonnegut said, “Well, it was a desecration. It was a sacred text, and I dared to fool with it. And some people just find that unbearable. That critic—I spoiled his evening.” In other words, he couldn’t have cared less.

Vonnegut’s libretto with Stravinsky’s music was not recorded for international copyright reasons until 2009, but he did record a version—playing The General himself—with music by Dave Soldier (hear it at the top). This recording of “A Soldier’s Story” appeared on the album Ice-9 Ballads, a compilation of lyrics adapted, and narrated, by Vonnegut from his novel Cat’s Cradle, with music by Soldier. Hear that full album here. And purchase a copy An American Soldier’s Tale: Histoire Du Soldat, with text by Kurt Vonnegut, with music by Igor Stravinsky, performed by the American Chamber Winds, and conducted by David A. Waybright. You can hear samples in this playlist.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness.

Hear a Full-Cast Reading of Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments, the Sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale

A good heads up from Metafilter. They write:

Available for a limited time, BBC Radio 4 has a full-cast abridged reading of Margaret Atwood’s new novel, The Testaments. This sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale picks up 15 years after the events in the previous book (very mildly revealing review of The Testaments by Anne Enright). All 14-minute episodes have now been released: The first episode is available until Oct. 15, 2019; the fifteenth and final episode is available until Oct. 30.

Stream it all here. And find more audio books in our collection, 1,000 Free Audio Books: Download Great Books for Free.

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Novelist Cormac McCarthy Gives Writing Advice to Scientists … and Anyone Who Wants to Write Clear, Compelling Prose

As we pointed out back in 2017, Cormac McCarthy, author of such gritty, blood-drenched novels as Blood Meridian, Child of God, The Road, and No Country for Old Men, prefers the company of scientists to fellow writers. Since the mid-nineties, he has maintained a desk at the Santa Fe Institute, an interdisciplinary scientific think tank, and has served as a volunteer copy-editor for several scientists, including Lisa Randall, Harvard’s first female tenured theoretical physicist, and physicist Geoffrey West, author of the popular science book Scale.

One of McCarthy's first such academic collaborations came after a friend, economist W. Brian Arthur, mailed him an article in 1996. McCarthy helped Arthur completely revise it, which sent the editor of the Harvard Business Review into a “slight panic,” the economist remembers. I can’t imagine why, but then I’d rather read any of McCarthy’s novels than most academic papers. Not that I don’t love to be exposed to new ideas, but it’s all about the quality of the writing.

Scholarly writing has, after all, a reputation for obscurity, and obfuscation for a reason, and not only in postmodern philosophy. Scientific papers also rely heavily on jargon, overly long, incomprehensible sentences, and disciplinary formalities that can feel cold and alienating to the non-specialist. McCarthy identified these problems in the work of associates like biologist and ecologist Van Savage, who has “received invaluable editing advice from McCarthy,” notes Nature, “on several science papers published over the past 20 years.”

During “lively weekly lunches” with the author during the winter of 2018, Savage discussed the finer points of McCarthy’s editing advice. Then Savage and evolutionary biologist Pamela Yeh presented the condensed version at Nature for a wider audience. Below, we’ve excerpted some of the most striking of “McCarthy’s words of wisdom.” Find the complete compilation of McCarthy’s advice over at Nature.

  • Use minimalism to achieve clarity…. Remove extra words or commas whenever you can.
  • Decide on your paper’s theme and two or three points you want every reader to remember…. If something isn’t needed to help the reader to understand the main theme, omit it.
  • Limit each paragraph to a single message.
  • Keep sentences short, simply constructed and direct.
  • Try to avoid jargon, buzzwords or overly technical language. And don’t use the same word repeatedly—it’s boring.
  • Don’t over-elaborate. Only use an adjective if it’s relevant…. Don’t say the same thing in three different ways in any single section.
  • Choose concrete language and examples.
  • When you think you’re done, read your work aloud to yourself or a friend. Find a good editor you can trust and who will spend real time and thought on your work.
  • Finally, try to write the best version of your paper—the one that you like. You can’t please an anonymous reader, but you should be able to please yourself.
  • When you make your writing more lively and easier to understand, people will want to invest their time in reading your work.

As Kottke points out, “most of this is good advice for writing in general.” This is hardly a surprise given the source, though, as McCarthy’s primary body of work demonstrates, literary writers are free to tread all over these guidelines as long as they can get away with it. Still, his straightforward advice is an invitation for writers of all kinds—academic, popular, aspiring, and professional—to remind themselves of the fundamental principles of clear, compelling communicative prose.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

A New Kurt Vonnegut Museum Opens in Indianapolis … Right in Time for Banned Books Week

“All my jokes are Indianapolis,” Kurt Vonnegut once said. “All my attitudes are Indianapolis. My adenoids are Indianapolis. If I ever severed myself from Indianapolis, I would be out of business. What people like about me is Indianapolis.” He delivered those words to a high-school audience in his hometown of Indianapolis in 1986, and a decade later he made his feelings even clearer in a commencement speech at Butler University: "If I had to do it all over, I would choose to be born again in a hospital in Indianapolis. I would choose to spend my childhood again at 4365 North Illinois Street, about 10 blocks from here, and to again be a product of that city’s public schools." Now, at 543 Indiana Avenue, we can experience the legacy of the man who wrote Slaughterhouse-FiveCat's Cradle, and Breakfast of Champions at the newly permanent Kurt Vonnegut Museum and Library.

The museum's founder and CEO Julia Whitehead "conceived the idea for a Vonnegut museum in November of 2008, a year and a half after the author’s death, writes Atlas Obscura's Susan Salaz. "The physical museum opened in a donated storefront in 2011, displaying items donated by friends or on loan from the Vonnegut family" — his Pall Malls, his drawings, a replica of his typewriter, his Purple Heart.

But the collection "has been homeless since January 2019." A fundraising campaign this past spring raised $1.5 million in donations, putting the museum in a position to purchase the Indiana Avenue building, one capacious enough for visitors to, according to the museum's about page, "view photos from family, friends, and fans that reveal Vonnegut as he lived; "ponder rejection letters Vonnegut received from editors"; and "rest a spell and listen to what friends and colleagues have to say about Vonnegut and his work."

The newly re-opened Kurt Vonnegut Museum and Library will also pay tribute to the jazz-loving, censorship-loathing veteran of the Second World War with an outdoor tunnel playing the music of Wes Montgomery and other Indianapolis jazz greats, a "freedom of expression exhibition" that Salaz describes as featuring "the 100 books most frequently banned in libraries and schools across the nation," and veteran-oriented book clubs, writing workshops, and art exhibitions. In the museum's period of absence, Vonnegut pilgrims in Indianapolis had no place to go (apart from the town landmarks designed by the writer's architect father and grandfather), but the 38-foot-tall mural on Massachusetts Avenue by artist Pamela Bliss. Having known nothing of Vonnegut's work before, she fell in love with it after first visiting the museum herself, she'll soon use its Indiana Avenue building as a canvas on which to triple the city's number of Vonnegut murals.

You can see more of the new Kurt Vonnegut Museum and Library, which opened its doors for a sneak preview this past Banned Books Week, in the video at the top of the post, as well as in this four-part local news report. Though Vonnegut expressed appreciation for Indianapolis all throughout his life, he also left the place forever when he headed east to Cornell. He also satirically repurposed it as Midland City, the surreally flat and prosaic Midwestern setting of Breakfast of Champions whose citizens only speak seriously of "money or structures or travel or machinery," their imaginations "flywheels on the ramshackle machinery of awful truth." I happen to be planning a great American road trip that will take me through Indianapolis, and what with the presence of an institution like the Kurt Vonnegut Museum and Library — as well as all the cultural spots revealed by the Indianapolis-based The Art Assignment — it has become one of the cities I'm most excited to visit. Vonnegut, of all Indianapolitans, would surely appreciate the irony.

via Smithsonian.com

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

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