Sunday, November 2, 2014

Re-Reading Dante's 'Divine Comedy' (Inferno)

As noted in my earlier post on Reading and Re-Reading Great Works, one of the books I am committed to periodically re-reading throughout my life, both to improve my understanding of it, the world, and my place in it, is Italian poet Dante Alighieri's Divine Comedy. I am only doing so at this time because my friend Brendan Cass has decided to read it for the first time and we agreed that it would be fun and productive for us to study and discuss it together, and I will be posting my comments on it here. 
I think that many people's inclination is to read only Inferno, the first third of the Divine Comedy, for any number of reasons. It is, admittedly, the only one that I have ever read multiple times, although I am fortunate to have devoted a semester to the study of the entire book while at the American University of Paris in 1989-90, and I plan on re-reading it in its entirely now. Much of our understanding of Heaven and Hell, not to mention Purgatory, comes not from the Bible, as many would erroneously assume, but from acanonical books like this one. The Divine Comedy can thus help provide us with a much better sense of where our understanding of these concepts originates. 

There are many translations available and the one a former AUP professor of mine, Dr. Petermichael Von Bawey, recommended was the translation completed by Dorothy L. Sayers between 1949 and 1962. We had to balance that guidance with a number of other factors, an important one for us being something that was available online so that we could more easily discuss and compare notes on it. With those considerations in mind, we decided to go with Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's 1867 translation, which is available through the Project Gutenberg website. Regardless of which version someone opts to read, this is a very complex text with innumerable historical, religious, and cultural references, and it will be almost impossible for most people to get the as much out of it as possible without availing themselves of companion materials (e.g., Wikipedia's "List of Cultural Reference in Divine Comedy"). 

Difficult as it is in some cases, I have also selected one stanza from each canto as a representative favorite, and explained my choice thereafter. 

Canto I
"Midway upon the journey of our life
I found myself within a forest dark,
For the straightforward pathway had been lost."
(These are the opening lines of the book and set the tone for a spiritual crisis that might resonate with almost anyone.)

Canto II
"I entered on the deep and savage way."
(This brief line of the canto is also its last and, I think, most evocative.)

This is perhaps the least interesting of all the cantos in Inferno, as it is simply an explanation for why Virgil will be accompanying Dante on his journey -- crucial, perhaps, but a bit contrived and certainly dry in light of what is to follow. 

"Inferno Canto 1, Departure for the Great Journey" 
and "Inferno Canto 2, Virgil Comforts Dante"

Canto III
"There sighs, complaints, and ululations loud
Resounded through the air without a star,
Whence I, at the beginning, wept thereat."
(I think the passage containing the line "All hope abandon, ye who enter in!" would be the more conventional favorite for this canto, but this appeals to me because of the subtle way it points out that this starless place is an utterly alien environment.)

Canto IV
"And more of honour still, much more, they did me,
In that they made me one of their own band;
So that the sixth was I, 'mid so much wit." 
(Here Dante is pleased to be accepted as the companion of Homer, Horace, Ovid, and Lucan, much as any of us would love to be recognized by the exemplars of whatever it is we do.

In this canto, in which Dante descends into the First Circle of Hell, I could almost sense the poet struggling with the statutory nature of Christianity and the idea that the unbaptized must be condemned to a state of Limbo (not to be confused with Purgatory, as these terms are sometimes used interchangeably.)

"Inferno Canto 3, Charon and the Crossing of the Acheron" 
and "Inferno Canto 4, the Limbos"

Canto V
"Paris I saw, Tristan; and more than a thousand
Shades did he name and point out with his finger,
Whom Love had separated from our life." 
(I enjoyed this line because it suggests that Dante and Virgil were not in any particular hurry and that their journey through Hell took longer that one might have expected. It also points to Virgil's vast knowledge of the historical figures damned for their carnality.)

This canto covers the Second Circle of Hell and makes mention of numerous historical lovers. But is Achilles there because of his affections for Briseis or Patroclus? Considering the contemporary attitude toward "sodomites" and the special place for them somewhat deeper down, one must assume the former ...

Canto VI
"In the third circle am I of the rain
Eternal, maledict, and cold, and heavy;
Its law and quality are never new." 
(This line appealed to me as poignantly summing up the fixed nature, monotony, and gloom of the netherworld.
This Canto describes Dante and Virgil's descent into the Third Circle of Hell, where the gluttonous are torn to pieces by the monstrous Cerberus. While Cerberus is portrayed in Classical myth as a terrible three-headed hound, I was struck to note that Dante gives the beast anthropomorphic qualities here, referring to a black, unctuous beard and clawed hands! One can almost envision a looming, demonic, three-headed werewolf ... It was also interesting to note that Virgil pacifies the beast by throwing handfuls of damp earth into its mouths, which seemed to me as it it were a magical incantation of some sort, as feeding a hungry carnivore mud is not likely to satisfy it or, for that matter, even dissuade it from attacking. 
"Inferno Canto 5, Minos" 
and "Inferno Canto 6, Cerberus"

Canto VII
"'Pape Satan, Pape Satan, Aleppe!'
Thus Plutus with his clucking voice began;
And that benignant Sage, who all things knew ... "

(These opening words to Canto VII seem especially menacing and suffused with evil, invoking as they do the name of Satan, and are all the more ominous in that their precise meaning is unclear.)

In this canto Dante and Virgil pass the infernal being Plutus in their continued descent into the netherworld and, once again, the ancient Roman sage appears to employ divine magic in response to a threat of being impeded, rebuking the dark personage with words that knock it to the ground. They then go on to watch the miserly and the profligate duel each other with great weights, presumably reminiscent of ones that would have been used to measure commodities of various sorts. Virgil gives here a speech about the role of Fortune in the rise and fall of nations (words that ring as true now as when Dante penned them seven centuries ago). 

Canto VIII

"My Guide descended down into the boat,
And then he made me enter after him,
And only when I entered seemed it laden.

Soon as the Guide and I were in the boat,
The antique prow goes on its way, dividing
More of the water than 'tis wont with others."

(I have included two consecutive stanzas here, as they both appear to reflect a rudimentary interests in physics on the part of the author and speak to the physical characteristics of Hell.)

In this canto the two companions pass over the body-filled swamp of the Styx, ferried in a small vessel by infernal boatman Phlegyas. One interesting thing this chapter of the book confirms is that Dante really is in physical peril while in Hell and that Virgil is not just his guide but also his bodyguard. 

"Inferno Canto 7, the Avaricious and the Prodigal" 
and "Inferno Canto 8, the Angry Ones"

Canto IX
Was conjured by that pitiless Erictho, 
"True is it, once before I here below
Who summoned back the shades unto their bodies."

(This revelation by Virgil points to a number of interesting things, including the possibilities of human interaction with spirits and how they might be summoned and constrained to perform various tasks, as well as the way that knowledge of the infernal and celestial planes might be obtained and used by the living.)

This canto picks up at the gates of Dis, entrance to which the companions have been denied and where they are menaced by the three snake-and-cerastes-haired Furies/Erinnys, Megaera, Alecto, and Tisiphone. Virgil summons divine aid at this point and the celestial being that answers his call displays all the alacrity, professionalism, and detachment of a fighter pilot being called in for an airstrike, forcing open the gates and then departing immediately without any extraneous interaction. 

Canto X
"Whence I to him: 'The slaughter and great carnage
Which have with crimson stained the Arbia, cause
Such orisons in our temple to be made.'" 
(This appealed to me as an especially poetic reference to the Battle of Montaperti and the subsequent Guelph vindictiveness toward the Ghibelline party.)

In this canto Dante speaks with the shade of Farinata degli Uberti, a leader of the Ghibelline party, which was opposed to his own Guelph party and brutal in its interactions with it. Here we learn that the damned can obtain glimpses of the future, even though they do not know what is happening at the present time on Earth (although it took reference to a number of secondary sources for me to sort out this revelation and understand it). Farinata also says "But fifty times shall not rekindled be the countenance of the Lady who reigns here, ere thou shalt know how heavy is that art," but I am somewhat confused as to who he is referring to and by "here" whether he means the Inferno or Florence. One fun detail beyond all this is the purpose of the tombs in which the heretics are confined; as these were Epicureans who denied the existence of an afterlife, even in the otherworld they are presented as being especially dead. 

"Inferno Canto 9, the Furies (aka Erinyes)" 
and "Inferno Canto 10, the Heretics"

Canto XI
In this canto the companions rest before descending further into the depths of Hell and Virgil takes the opportunity to describe to Dante the geography and inhabitants of the next three levels they will enter, the Sixth, Seventh, and Eighth Circles. 


"Inferno Canto 11, On the Edge of the Seventh Circle" 
and "Inferno Canto 12, the Minotaur"

A Note On Art
I have decided to illustrate this piece with the series of watercolors that Salvadore Dali began as a commission from the government of Italy in the early 1950s and completed around 1960, and I have identified each of the pieces accordingly. While a series of etchings by Gustave Dore for the Divine Comedy is much more conventional and accessible, I think surrealism lends itself well to the subject of other places of existence. I also own lithographs of six of the Dali images, two from each section of the book, and am thus somewhat partial to them. 

Saturday, June 7, 2014

Reading and Re-Reading Great Works

There are a number of books that I have decided I need to periodically re-read throughout my life, both to improve my understanding of them, the world, and my place in it. Some I would recommend to everyone and believe that there is hardly anyone who would not be the better for reading them; others I am willing to acknowledge are just a matter of taste and preference. The former include, of course Italian poet Dante Alighieri's Divine Comedy, Machiavelli's The Prince, and Homer's Odyssey. Ones I need to re-read and which I think most people would benefit from but which do not think necessarily need to be re-read periodically include Homer's Iliad and Sun Tsu's Art of War (which should also be kept as a reference). 


Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Welcome 'Radiance' Friends!

Welcome to my personal blog to anyone I met during my recent tour of duty as Destination Lecturer aboard the Royal Caribbean vessel Radiance of the Seas! I met a lot of great people on this cruise and would like to thank everyone who took the time to attend my lectures, ask questions during them, and chat with me at other times during our voyage across the Pacific Ocean from Honolulu, Hawaii, to Sydney, Australia. I have started posting stories about the things I did and saw during and after the cruise and will post links to them here for anyone who is interested. 

The Rocks Ghost Tour: This tour departed from right next to where our ship was berthed and I bumped into three fellow voyagers on it. It explored the gruesome history of one of Sydney's oldest, most colorful, and most haunted neighborhoods. 

On the Trail of the Lord of the Rings: This piece looks at what we experienced on what was most assuredly one of the most popular tours available on the cruise. 

Cruise Log: I have been incrementally posting my log of the cruise, which mentions many of the people I spoke with and got to know, on my TravelBlogue. Only the first five days are up but more will follow directly! Comments pertinent to your own experiences on the cruise are welcome. 

Facebook: This is the best way to keep track of everything I am doing on a regular basis! I am there as "Michael O. Varhola," at, and will accept friend requests from any of you who send them. 

More to come, so keep your eye on this space! 

Sunday, September 22, 2013

(Working) Vacation Reading List

For better or worse, I am not much up for vacations where I don't do anything but goof off, and at the very least like to be writing and publishing about the things I am seeing and enjoying when I am on the road. A good vacation for me is one in which I am energized and inspired to write, edit, create, and publish, and being able to work and read at least a couple of hours a day helps me to achieve that. With all that in mind, I have compiled an appropriate collection of things to read on my current trip, which includes four days in Hawaii, a cruise from Honolulu to French Polynesia, New Zealand, and Australia, and a week in Sydney and the historic coastal town of Port Macquarie. My reading list includes: 

* The Bounty, a non-fiction book by Caroline Alexander about the mutiny on HMS Bounty, which I am shooting to finish reading before we reach the island of Tahiti, where many of its events take place. 

* Noa Noa, a book by artist Paul Gaugin about his experiences in French Polynesia, which I have not yet started reading but also hope to have finished before reaching Tahiti. 

* "Chapter 13: Gauguin and Toulouse-Lautrec," from Promenades of an Impressionist, a 1910 book by art critic James Huneker (which, once again, I want to complete before we get to Tahiti!). 

* Rovings in the Pacific, an 1851 book by "a merchant long resident at Tahiti" (it is an interesting looking book but lowest on my priority list and if I have not had a chance to start it by the time we leave French Polynesia I will skip it, at least for the time being). 

* Twenty-five articles, nine on Polynesian history and culture; eight on the New Zealand film industry and the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit film franchises; three on the history of crime in Sydney; one on the Sydney Opera House; and four tying in with Australian and New Zealand military history. 

* Gygax #1 and Gygax #2, the first two issues of a new gaming magazine featuring articles by friends and family of Gary Gygax, creator of the Dungeons & Dragons role-playing game. I will likely begin delving into them during the long sea days after French Polynesia (and after I have cleared out the above-mentioned books). 

* Sagard the Barbarian #1, #2, #3, and #4, a series of "choose your own adventure" stories co-authored by my friend Ernie Gygax, his father Gary, and author Flint Dille. As with the magazines, I plan on enjoying these during the second week of the cruise. 

I have also discovered in my hotel room in Waikiki, co-equal in the drawer with the Gideon Bible, The Teachings of Buddha, that I have begun reading! There will also presumably be any number of brochures, travel guides, and other itinerary-pertinent materials over the coming weeks. 

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Lectures for Radiance of the Seas (September 23 - October 11)

Following are the eight presentations I will be giving as the cruise lecturer aboard Royal Caribbean International's Radiance of the Seas sailing from Honolulu, Hawaii, to Sydney, Australia, September 23 - October 11! Requirements for my program were more exacting than for any previous cruise for which I had served as a member of the entertainment staff, and required me to explicitly tie presentations in with the ports of Papeete, Bora Bora, Moorea, Wellington, Picton, and Sydney, and to include one focusing on Maori culture. Fortunately, I have researched the history and culture of the region extensively over the years for any number of books, articles, and other projects and thus had a wealth of material to draw upon. 

"Going Off the Beaten Path in Hawaii": Join travel writer Michael O. Varhola in an exploration of the Hawaiian islands that takes visitors to hidden temples, palaces, and other beautiful and mysterious places. (This lecture is adapted from my award-winning travel article "Going Off the Beaten Path in Hawaii," which anyone interested can read on my TravelBlogue.)

"The Painter of Papeete": Join historian Michael O. Varhola as he explores the Papeete of French artist Paul Gaugin and how he was inspired in his painting by the people and geography of the islands of French Polynesia. 

"A History of Bora Bora": Join maritime historian Michael O. Varhola as he explores the history of the French Polynesian island of Bora Bora, from its earliest settlement 1,700 years ago, through its role in World War II, and up to the current era.

"Mysteries of Moorea": Join author Michael O. Varhola as he explores the myths, legends, and mysteries of beautiful Moorea, to include the strange, thousand-year-old pyramid-like sacrificial structures known as marae.

"Xena, Spartacus, and the Lord of the Rings": Author Michael O. Varhola looks at the fantasy film industry that has grown up in and around Wellington and other locations in New Zealand and how it takes advantage of the striking geography of the region. 

"The Maori Pa of Picton": Join author Michael O. Varhola as he examines the history and culture of the indigenous inhabitants of New Zealand, with an emphasis on the centuries-old Maori settlement on the site of modern-day Picton. 

"The Golden Mile": Join true crime author Michael O. Varhola as he investigates the colorful history of crime in Sydney throughout the 20th century, from the gambling houses and brothels of the 1930s through the gangland wars and drug trade of the 1980s.

"ANZAC:" Military historian Michael O. Varhola looks at the role of the Australia and New Zealand Army Corps and the roles played by the military forces of the respective nations in World War I, World War II, the Korean War, and Vietnam. 

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Favorite Quotes

Pretty often I hear someone say something I think is particularly cool, witty, funny, or absurd, or formulate something that I think is a good maxim, but almost as often I neglect to write it down and then only remember that something notable was said but not what it was. With that in mind I have started a post for material of that sort and seeded it with a few things I have heard or said recently.

"What we say about what we do is as important as what we do." — Michael O. Varhola (my own debatably cynical observation on the importance of promoting our own work and efforts if we want others/the public to notice them.)

"I didn't know we were going to be walking."

"We are most inclined to be creative when we are least able to be."

"I should be able to visit my parents without having to die!" — Hayley Waters (Who says so? This was, in any event, my daughter's unhappy reaction to visiting a house full of cats that she is allergic to.)

"When I found inversion it changed my life forever, and I believe it can change yours!" — Dr. Roger Teeter (I actually own a Teeter Hang Ups inversion board and think it is great. What makes this quote amusing to me, however, is that "inversion" was historically used as a synonym for homosexuality, which can make its use hilarious when considered in that context.)

"Watch out for the poop!" — Carter Valentine (This sound advice was given to me by my grandson during a recent walk we took together and can certainly be viewed as a profound allegory for the human condition overall.)

The following interchange occurred between my grandson and wife on Sunday, August 18, 2012:
Diane: "What kind of chicken do you want?" (While carving up a roast chicken we picked up at Costco for dinner.)
Carter: "The chicken nugget kind." (A statement met with laughter and us letting him know this chicken did not have any such parts.)

"Ah, the plot thinnens!" (This clever twist on a common phrase is one that I use whenever appropriate. I heard it for the first time in a movie based on an H.P. Lovecraft story, although the phrase certainly does not actually appear in any of the author's stories.)

"Hideous ... ugly ... freaks!" — Denis Leary/Gil Mars, Small Soldiers (It is amazing how often one is in public that this phrase seems apropos.)

"I'll tell you what!" (This common Texas phrase is used to express agreement with something someone has said, such as an observation about the weather. I noted during a recent trip to the East Coast that, after hearing it, people unfamiliar with this expression will pause and wait for you to "tell them what.")

"Not anti-Christian, nor un-Christian, but most decidedly non-Christian." — Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

"What I do now I do alone. I could not do it well with thee." — Ernest Hemingway, For Whom the Bell Tolls (I often irreverently use this quote, either just the first part or in its entirety, to announce my departure for the bathroom.)

"There is a fine line between being a romantic and being delusional, and I often tend toward the latter" — Michael O. Varhola (my own observation of my tendency to view life as I want it to be, rather than how it really is.)

"Oh, so you want to play the truth game?" — Anonymous (in response to my asking someone why they sometimes deliberately lie to their friends as a device for manipulating them)

We are all so lucky to live in this God-forsaken place." — Anonymous (in response to observing the natural beauty of Canyon Lake, Texas.) 

"Crazy is as crazy does" — Michael O. Varhola (my observation upon already-crazy people who deliberately do things geared toward making them even crazier.)

"You may all go to Hell, and I will go to Texas." — David Crockett

"No one ever died from a gut wound." — Michael O. Varhola (I picked this up from an Army buddy of mine c. 1986-87 and use it a lot. I don't think it's true.)

"Teeheehee! I told you about it!" — Chick in an Activia yogurt commercial

"Och, Hungary! Our dogs are from Hungary!" — Richard Allan (in response to a barmaid at the pub in Paddington Station, London, reveal her country of origin; "Och" is a Scottish word that means "yes," unless you use it in conjunction with "no," in which case it means "really no!")

"I do not presume that other people's problems are harder on me than they are on them." — Michael O. Varhola

"You need to scare kids, not scar them." — Lindsey Valentine

Overheard around 8:15 p.m. near the Hoffman Center 22 cinema in Alexandria, Virginia:
Him: "Damn hippies! I'll hacky their sacks ... " (in response to some kids in shorts and tie-dye shirts crossing the street in front of him)
Her: "Uh, do I need to remind you that you just smoked dope, that you're still in your sleeping shirt, and that it shows people partying on it?"

"That was pretty metal!" — Rico Nardini, Gen Con 2011 (in response to me downing a dirty vodka martini in one sip when he said it was time for us to get going)

"Put the boots to him — medium style." (coopted from Metalocalypse and used by me and friend Jon Reichman as a catchphrase during Gen Con 2011)

"Get the butter." — Marlon Brando/Paul, Last Tango in Paris (this line can be interjected for hilarious effect in any number of circumstances, as my friends Jon Reichman, Chip Cassano, and I have all aptly demonstrated over the years)

"In a respectable household, it's useful to have a weapon." — Gitt Magrini/Jeanne's Mother, Last Tango in Paris

"Fun was had by all." (common phrase brought to my attention when it was applied to a school play in The Simpsons, and used by me since then in writeups of events I have hosted or run)

"This one goes to 11." (coopted from Spinal Tap and applicable more often than you might think; used as one of our group's catchphrases at Comicpalooza 2012)

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Gen Con Indy Paranormal Events

Following are the paranormal panels and seminars I am organizing for the Gen Con 2014 convention, being held August 15-18 at the Indiana Convention Center in Indianapolis, Indiana! 

Ghosthunting Indiana (Thursday, August 15, 4-5 p.m., Crowne Plaza Hotel, Hay Market B Room)
Join local ghosthunters and Michael O. Varhola, author and series editor for the “America’s Haunted Road Trip” travel guides, for this seminar on some of the most interesting haunted sites in Indiana.

Ghosthunting 101: Introduction to Ghosthunting (Friday, August 16, 2-3 p.m., Crowne Plaza Hotel, Victoria Station Room)
Join author Michael O Varhola of “America’s Haunted Road Trip” and a panel of experts for an interactive introduction to ghosthunting. Learn the basics and have your questions answered by experts. 

Ghosthunting 102: Equipment and Investigative Techniques (Saturday, August 17, 3-4 p.m., Crowne Plaza Hotel, Victoria Station Room)
Join paranormal researcher and author Michael O. Varhola and other ghosthunting experts and lean about the equipment and methodology of effective ghosthunters. There are almost as many ways of ghosthunting as there are ghosthunters! This panel discussion with paranormal researcher Michael O. Varhola and other ghosthunting experts looks at everything from “naturalistic” means of ghosthunting, to those based on psychic ability, to ones heavily dependent on equipment like cameras, recorders, EMF meters, digital thermometers, laser grids, and night-vision devices. 

Be sure to also check out the other events being organized by Kettle of Fish Productions this year at Gen Con, including a number of live-action role-playing games using my Skirmisher Publishing LLC's Cthulhu Live rules system.