29 September 2011

Dorothy Sayers

Dorothy Sayers is well-known for several accomplishments, among them a distinctive translation of the first two canticles of The Divine Comedy (Inferno and Purgatorio) into English.  She did not, alas, live long enough to complete her translation, but Barbara Reynolds carried on, completing work on the Paradiso, and their joint effort become the Penguin Classics' Dante.

In her introduction to Inferno, Sayers addresses the question of why contemporary (by which she meant mid 20th century) readers needed as much apparatus as she had attached -- Notes, Commentaries, Glossary, Appendices. She answered with this example: 

"Let us suppose that an Englishman were to write a contemporary Divine Comedy on Dante's model, and that in it, mixed up with a number of scriptural and mythological characters, we were to find, assigned to various circles of Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise... the following assortment of people -- some referred to by their full names, some by Christian name or surname alone, and some indicated only by a witty or allusive phrase: Chamberlain ("him of the orchid"), Chamberlain ("him of the umbrella", [Stewart Houston] Chamerlain, "Brides-in-the-Bath" Smith, "Galloper" Smith, Horatio Bottomsley, Horatio [Lord Nelson], Fox [Charles or George to be inferred from the context], the Man who picked up the Bomb in Jermyn Street, Oscar Wilde, Oscar Slater, Oscar Browning, Spencer, Spenser, Lord Castlereagh, Lord Castlerosse, Lawrence [of Arabia], [D.H.] Lawrence, "Butcher" Heydrich, W.G. Grace, Grace Darling, the Captain of the Jarvis Bay, the Sisters of Haworth, the Woodcutter of Hawarden, the Ladies of Llangollen, the Lady with the Lamp, the Lady-with-the-Lampshade-made-of-Human-Skin, Titus Oakes, Captain Oates, Quisling, the Owner of 'Hermit', the French Bluebeard, Bacon, Roger Bacon, Roger Fry, the Claimant, the Bishop of Zanzibar, Clarence Hatry, the Tolpuddle Martyrs, Brown and Kennedy, the Dean of St Patrick's, the Dean of St Paul's, Dean Farrar, Fred Archer, Mrs Dyer, Lord George Sanger, Lord George Gordon, General Gordon, Ouida, William Joyce, James Joyce, "the Officer in the Tower", Peter the Painter, Jenkins 'of the Ear', Dick Sheppard, Jack Sheppard, and 'the Widow at Windsor'.  Let us further suppose the writer holds strong views on Trade Unionism, the constitution of the UNO, the 'theology of crisis', Freudian psychology, Einsteinian astronomy, and the art of Mr Jacob Epstein.  Let us then suppose that the book is to be read, six hundred years hence, by an intelligeng Portuguese with no particular knowledge of English social history.  Would he not require a few notes...?"

You'll see that I used ellipses to shorten the explanatory mater before and after the list, but I used no ellipses in the list of allusions itself, because I wanted you to get the full over-the-top nature of the example. 

I suspect I am intelligent by most metrics for such things. I am also a raving Anglophile, whose knowledge of "English social history" is probably superior to that of most early 21st century Americans.  I first read the above passage in the 1970s, a lot closer to the date of its construction than our hypothetical Portuguese reader would be.  And yet ... and yet ... I would definitely need notes to understand that hypothetical book.  So she made her poiint, but she also posed me a challenge.

I get the significance of the initials "UNO," even though the "O" has been dropped off over time.  I get the "theology of crisis," i.e. the theology of Karl Barth and others of that ilk.  I recognize the names of the two Fox'. 

But some of these allusions are confusing, and it isn't even very clear now, with the creation of this wonderful internet thing, how one would go about searching.  What did Sayers have in mind by "the Claimant"?  And "Peter the Painter"? Surely she isn't referring to the Ian Dury song, wouldn't that have required psychic powers on Sayers' part?

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Knowledge is warranted belief -- it is the body of belief that we build up because, while living in this world, we've developed good reasons for believing it. What we know, then, is what works -- and it is, necessarily, what has worked for us, each of us individually, as a first approximation. For my other blog, on the struggles for control in the corporate suites, see www.proxypartisans.blogspot.com.