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Students Had a Divine Time With Dante's Comedy

May 31, 1999|MARY ROURKE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Poet W.S. Merwyn brought his translation of Dante's "Divine Comedy" to a seminar for Claremont College students; they brought their own ethnic diversity, and so it was that a 13th century poem steeped in medieval Christian theology faced the challenge of pluralism.

Dante's tour of eternity takes in all the sites. There is hell for the wicked, purgatory for souls being purified and heaven for the good. In the Inferno, he meets popes he has not admired, but he also meets the prophet Muhammad, the founder of Islam, who is there because only the baptized were allowed in heaven, according to medieval Christian teaching.

"Is that fair?" one Hindu student asked Merwyn.

"Dante could not assign people where he wanted to," Merwyn said. "They are where they are because of church doctrine at the time. If you're not a Christian, and I'm not, it's a very strange idea that everything before a certain point in history gets consigned to an outer darkness."

Merwyn is 71, a Pulitzer Prize winner with 39 books to his credit. He has been rereading Dante's poem since his college days for its literary brilliance, not its theology. The two poets' views about eternity seem far apart.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday June 2, 1999 Home Edition Southern California Living Part E Page 3 View Desk 1 inches; 16 words Type of Material: Correction
Name misspelled--In Monday's Southern California Living section, the name of poet W.S. Merwin was misspelled.

A Presbyterian minister's son, a non-Christian with an affinity for Buddhism, Merwyn's doubts about the medieval idea of afterlife seemed similar to those of the students who met with him and, later, met on their own, to talk about the poem's religious themes.

Hindus, Jews, Buddhists and Muslims, Unitarian Universalists and Christians, most of them freshmen and sophomores, said they did not expect eternity to resemble Dante's vision.

"I'm Catholic, but Catholicism seemed very different in Dante's poem," Geoffrey Pelton said. "Things have changed so much over the centuries. The idea of 'pagans' going to hell and people going to purgatory may still be in the doctrine, but it is not emphasized."

Corrupt Clerics, 196 Years of Violence

Merwyn filled in some historic background.

Thirteenth century Europe was an age of extremes. "The church was at its most powerful and most corrupt," he said. Clerics were relaxed about keeping their vows; they hoarded land, meddled in politics. One pope, Innocent III, launched the Crusades to squelch non-Christians; 196 years of violence followed.

The first war, the Albigensian Crusade of 1209, did personal damage to Dante. It silenced the French Provencal culture that fostered the troubadours, whose romantic love poetry had inspired him. Beatrice, Dante's muse in the "Divine Comedy," had a troubadour's touch.

"Out of that crusade came the Inquisition," Merwyn said. The poet's work was brought up for a hearing by the jury, who judged whether a person's religious practices deserved punishment or death. In the end, Dante's writing was not condemned.

Most of the students said they put religion aside to study his poem.

"I'm estranged to Christian thinking," said Josh Bornstein, who is Jewish. "I read this for the literary value, not as a religious book. It wasn't a conversion experience."

Saba Ahmad's Muslim father told her not to read the poem. "He said it's against Islam," she explained. She kept reading anyway. "Dante was writing a commentary on human nature. I kept my religious beliefs aside."

Some of the students have read texts from Eastern religions as part of a course on world civilizations. They compared Dante's view of Christianity with what they found in the Hindu Bagavad Gita and the Confucian Analects. "For me, the Bagavad Gita felt more [relevant] and the Analects had more advice for living your life," said Wilson Korol, who was raised in the Unitarian Universalist Church.

He and others made a distinction between sacred texts and Dante's poetry, which takes up religious themes. "The Inferno isn't meant as sacred or as doctrine," said Geoffrey Pelton. "It's an examination of human nature and a work of art. It serves a very different purpose."

Ahmad sees Dante as being at a disadvantage in modern society. "There are so many religions practiced in the United States, I would think an artist wants his themes understood by people of all those religions," she said. "To understand Dante's imagery and his thinking, you need to know a lot about his religion." That frustrated her, she said.

Greater Diversity of Religion Today

Cultural diversity may explain why contemporary writers rarely touch upon religious themes, one student suggested. In Dante's time, most of Europe was Roman Catholic. "Religion was more clearly defined back then," said Selena Carsiotis. "Today, it's evolving."

Others put it in terms of social acceptability. "Religion is obsolete, it's not attractive," said Leslie Hotler, a Roman Catholic. "Modern society is more about, 'I'll do my thing, you do yours.' "

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