Monday, July 27, 2009

Jerusalem Delivered

Most societies first learn their history through epic: these foundational texts serve as a guide to valor, heroism, family, politics, and man's relationship to the natural and supernatural worlds. In the Bhagavad Gita, Arjuna's revelation of the divine is relatively straightforward- his loyal charioteer Krishna reveals his divine appearance containing all other beings in existence- if a bit terrifying. In the Iliad and the Aeneid, the gods take sides and fix fights in favor of their favorites, or more often, against the humans who have angered them. The key to tragedy is that human existence is fragile, knowledge is limited, nature is cruel and capricious, and life is unfair. The question in the Iliad is whether Achilles will overcome his pride; we, and he, know from the beginning that he will die in battle. But will he die with dignity?

A Christian epic is a bit different- God has already picked one side to win and is not particularly capricious (neither is Krishna, incidentally). The risk is that a fair universe makes for a boring story: battle after battle in which the good guys mechanically win. If you've ever read the Book of Mormon, you know how tedious this can become. How do the heroes struggle with their inner characters if they know the universe is basically on their side? And how to keep that struggle interesting?

One easy answer is sex. Torquato Tasso's epic of the Crusades, Gerusalemme liberata, is laced with sexy descriptions and romantic subplots. Admittedly, it can be a bit jarring in a Christian story to read loving descriptions of bared breasts; certainly, many Renaissance readers complained that Tasso should cut the mushy stuff and keep the battles. And he did: Gerusalemme conquistata (1593) was a more stern and somber work with the amorous passages castrated- more like Tasso conquistata. Naturally, nobody reads it today.

Anthony M. Esolen's translation of Gerusalemme liberatata leaves no doubt as to why people still read Tasso or why he is often called the second greatest Italian poet after Dante. It was often hard to understand this in older English translations. Affected phrasing 'twas the usual course/ And strange-ordered words for rhymes to force/ Pompous prose and obscured meaning/ Away from the tome one could run screaming. Esolen preserves the rhymes in verses that are supple, easily read, yet evocative: this should become the standard translation.

Epics are chronicles, poetry, and propaganda. Tasso doesn't entirely escape the occasional dull historical passage: this knight was from here and acted like this, while that knight was from there and acted more like that, and so forth. But his propaganda, when it works, soars: his exemplars are fully-formed human beings. He blends the intimate and the wide-frame, the personal and the political. Even his Saracen hordes are made up of human beings with contested souls- there we don't know which side will win. This makes his writing richer and more interesting than contemporary accounts of military crusades in the Middle East, which tend to keep the propaganda, while losing the poetry and sense of history. This is the other key to tragedy: societies exist in a state of forgetting and must learn its painful lessons with each new generation. Frankly, I'd rather read the book.

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