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Dante's Inferno translated and illustrated by Tom Phillips (Thames & Hudson: $39.95; 311 pp.)

November 24, 1985|John Freccero | Freccero is professor of Italian at Stanford University. Harvard University Press will publish a collection of his essays on Dante this spring. and

The "Divine Comedy" has been canonized among the classics of world literature for so many centuries that there would seem to be little more to be said about it. Generations of learned commentaries and respectful translations have left the text embedded--not to say embalmed--in a distant time and a distant place, so that a first-time reading is as much a work of archeology as it is of interpretation.

Unaccountably, however, Dante's vitality sometimes breaks through the most pedestrian commentaries and translations and manages to present us, at least in the "Inferno," with a phantasmagoric other-world as though it were there. This quality of presence seems to demand illustration, not so much as a supplement (never was there a text that required less illustration, in the pedagogic sense) as by way of tribute, a celebration of the visual immediacy of the poem, emerging from the encrustation of time. Inevitably, these illustrations--those by Botticelli and Blake, as well as Dore and Dali--become in turn dated and take their place in the historical tradition surrounding the work, from which they had been originally designed to rescue it.

There is no doubt that Tom Phillips, an English painter and composer, has captured Dante for our time. His prodigious achievement is not so much illustration as it is visual commentary, a fidelity to Dante's spirit at the occasional expense of the literal action of the poem. Collage, photo montage, sketches, poster art, magazine and comic book illustration, film strips, computer graphics, even traffic signs and the Shroud of Turin are usedto "translate" Dante's imagery into our own visual vocabulary. The 138 illustrations are all stunningly reproduced by laser technique and are never merely idiosyncratic--Phillips seems to change his medium and technique to fit the poem, rather than employing Dante's text merely as a vehicle for his own artistic achievement. The result is what every teacher of the poem should be striving for: seeing the perennial classic in our own time, in spite of the footnotes.

A few examples will suffice to give some idea of Phillips' ingenuity and, in some instances, genius. Where Dante and Virgil find their way barred at the gates of the infernal city, the artist provides an image of the most strident of traffic signs: the international red disk crossed with a horizontal white bar signifying "no entry." The next illustration, however, after the pilgrims have entered the city, shows the same sign in now muted colors, broken by a vertical opening that crosses the horizontal bar to create a sign of the Cross, through which Christ's image from the Shroud of Turin can just be made out. It would be difficult to find a more succinct illustration of St. Paul's reference to the "stumbling block" of the Cross, or a more apposite citation at this point in Dante's descent. Again, when Dante and Virgil engage in slapstick lower down in Hell, in an episode that Luigi Pirandello called "the comedy of the devils," Phillips illustrates with a partially burned film strip of Laurel and Hardy. In a letter replying to a reviewer in the Times Literary Supplement (Aug. 9), Phillips was somewhat defensive about this use of modern characters; to this reviewer, the comic relief seems exactly right. The suggestion of the cinematographic is entirely true to Dante's own technical concerns. In the Purgatorio, Dante in fact describes moving images very like cinema and refers to them as "visual speech."

Images are used as words in Phillips' illustrations, and words are used as images. The words are drawn from a Victorian novel, W. H. Mallock's "A Human Document," which is "plundered" in much the same way that Virgil's text was mined in the Middle Ages in order to find meanings never dreamt of by the author. Thus, Phillips "quotes" other artists (Michelangelo and the inevitable Dore) and "reproduces" other texts. His visual wit, reminiscent of Max Ernst, seems continually at the service of his text.

The translation itself is readable, mostly accurate (although it obscures several difficulties, as reviewers in England were quick to point out) and serviceable. Curiously, it suffers from a too great respect for critical cliches about the poem: The famous obscure prophecy about the"Five Hundred Ten and Five (DXV)," is assumed to be an anagram for "DUX"--"Duke" or "leader," a gloss that was particularly popular in Italy under the reign of the "Duce," Mussolini. The best scholars in this country no longer take that seriously. Unfortunately, Phillips chose to illustrate that critical cliche--"D-V-X"--in his frontispiece, rather than what Dante says: "D-X-V." He would have been better advised in his translation to follow his own genius rather than bow to a received tradition, especially since its academic representatives do not appreciate his work anyway (see Times Literary Supplement, July 26).

The notes are enjoyable for what they say about the images, but not for the scholarship they cite. At one point, Phillips chides Dante for mistaking an emperor, Anastasius, for a pope--and illustrates the mistake in a beautiful illustration. Yet, he himself commits a similar howler when he refers to Pope "Constantine" rather than "Celestine." Again, no serious Danteist in this country any longer believes that his allegorical leopard represents lust. In subsequent editions, of which there should be many, Phillips would be well advised to "take his own genius as his guide" in his translation as well as his illustrations.

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