On the misuse of Dante

Filippo Argenti is down there somewhere.

In an earlier post I commended the analogy made by a First World War airman between the appearance of a battlefield and the geography of Dante’s Inferno. What I particularly liked was its literary precision. It didn’t just use “Dante’s hell” as shorthand for something very bad, but specifically drew a comparison between the tortured landscape he was flying above and the place where punishment was meted out to heretics.

I was thinking of that correct use of Dante recently while reading Sara Gay Forden’s The House of Gucci. In the first of two references to Dante in the book Forden pulls a line from Inferno to shine some light on the “bizarre Florentine or Tuscan spirit,” which is a very literal translation of some words (fiorentino spirito bizarro) used in Canto VIII that are used to describe Filippo Argenti.

That’s all Forden says, and it surprised me a bit because all I could remember of Filippo Argenti is that he was someone Dante (the poet) really hated, and who Dante (the pilgrim) found drowning in the bog of the Styx. I thought the use of the word bizarro probably meant something a little different than “bizarre,” at least as it was being used in the poem. On looking into the notes in Robert and Jean Hollander’s English translation of Inferno I found this:

The word bizarro, explains Boccaccio’s comment to this passage, in Florentine vernacular is used of people who “suddenly and for any reason at all lose their tempers.”

This makes sense in context because the Styx is where the wrathful are being punished. But I don’t think it’s what Forden meant. Especially since in the poem it refers to Argenti going into a kind of fit where he starts biting himself in rage.

The second time Forden mentions Dante made even less sense to me. Talking of the building that Guccio Gucci bought as a workshop, she quickly gives some of its history: “In 1642, the building was acquired by the cardinal and then the archbishop of Florence, Francesco de’Nerli, whom Dante mentions in his Divine Comedy.” How could Dante have mentioned a cardinal who was alive in 1642 in a poem written in the early years of the fourteenth century?

I’m not a Dante scholar. I never studied anything by him at school and I don’t know Italian. I shouldn’t be stumbling over things like this.

Maigret: Maigret’s Patience

I mentioned in my notes on Maigret Defends Himself that it was basically the first of a two-part story arc, which concludes with Maigret’s Patience. The action picks up here a week later, with Maigret still on the trail of a gang of Paris jewel thieves, and re-visiting the Rue des Acacias apartment that’s home to the crippled ex-gangster Manuel Palmari and his saucy girlfriend Aline. Alas, it’s not a happy occasion, as someone has just shot Palmari and it’s up to his old not-quite-friend but not-quite-adversary to find out whodunit.

This turns out to be not much fun. The fact is that in these later Maigret books none of the killers are terribly interesting case studies. Here they are just the same “wild animal” types we met back in Maigret and the Saturday Caller. I even thought I was well on my way to figuring things out ahead of schedule, but then things took a bizarre swerve into a crazy back story and it turns out I was wrong. Though the explanation I was coming up with would have been better. I hate it when that happens in a mystery novel.

Some odds and ends: (1) Champagne is “more or less the only drink that doesn’t tempt” the hard-drinking Maigret. (2) Palmari has a maid in to clean his apartment two hours a day every day, and all morning on Mondays and Saturdays. That seems like a lot of maid service. (3) Maigret, as is often noted in the series, can’t drive, and we’re told here it’s because he has a tendency to let his mind wander into reverie while working on a case. He’s a man who knows his limitations. (4) The concierge in an apartment building is a ubiquitous figure in many of these novels. It’s a job that never seems to have caught on in North America. Given how grumpy they all seem to be in Paris, that may be for the best.

Maigret index

The Marvel Age

Can’t remember this guy’s name. He’s a talking raccoon.

I grew up on Marvel comics, and still have some old favourites stored in my basement. I don’t think they’re worth anything though because they’re not in the best of shape. But despite this background, I was never a huge fan of the way Marvel/Disney took over the movie business in the twenty-first century.

It’s hard to overstate just how central these movies have been. Their box office success ensured countless imitators, and the Marvel style became ubiquitous. What this meant, primarily, was: (1) the creation of a totally plastic, CGI “virtual” reality, making nearly every blockbuster movie over into a cartoon and every action star a superhero, and (2) the evolution of franchise filmmaking into various “universes,” given over to an even more assembly-line serial format. This latter development would, in turn, help with the transition away from cinemas to streaming platforms in need of a constant supply of new content. The comic-book form was particularly well-adapted to all of these developments, something the triumph of Marvel clearly underlined.

Meanwhile, the Marvel formula in terms of writing didn’t change much. Scruffy, ordinary-guy heroes with self-deprecating senses of humour and bulging biceps save the universe from supervillains intent on world domination (or world destruction). Lots of A-list talent. Lots of big action. Lots of CGI.

Some of the movies were entertaining, but the formula started to feel played out by the end of the 2010s. This is something I think everyone was aware of. Spinning off into the multi- or metaverse was one attempt at trying to make things new, and it worked to some extent. But my bottom line is that I really don’t want to see any of these movies, even the best of them, again, and I’ve already forgotten some of them completely. I was surprised, when compiling this list, to see that I’d reviewed Ant-Man and the Wasp. What had that been about? I have no idea now.

In any event, here’s the line-up of the Marvel movies (not all of them MCU) that I’ve written notes on over at Alex on Film. I’ll keep this index current with new postings, but I think it’s going to be slow on the Marvel front from here on out.

The Amazing Spider-Man (2012)
The Avengers (2012)
The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (2014)
Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)
Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)
Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)
Ant-Man (2015)
Fantastic Four (2015)
Captain America: Civil War (2016)
Doctor Strange (2016)
Deadpool (2016)
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017)
Thor: Ragnarok (2017)
Ant-Man and the Wasp (2018)
Avengers: Infinity War (2018)
Black Panther (2018)
Deadpool 2 (2018)
Venom (2018)
Avengers: Endgame (2019)
Black Widow (2021)
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (2021)
Venom: Let There be Carnage (2021)
Eternals (2021)
Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness (2022)

Maigret: Maigret Defends Himself

The shoe is on the other foot when Maigret gets called into the principal’s office (that is, the office of the prefect of police) and finds out he’s been accused of getting the niece of a prominent public official drunk and raping her. It’s a #MeToo story circa. 1964, which would be kind of interesting but we all know our hero is being set up and the scheme is so improbable that its complexity is what finally convinces Maigret as to who’s behind it (he knows the villain’s “tendency, when faced with a problem, is to look for the subtlest, most complicated solution”). Add to that the fact that Maigret only becomes “a problem” due to “an almost miraculous combination of circumstances” and we have a very whimsical plot indeed.

I was kept interested, if only because as I got closer to the end I didn’t see how Simenon was going to wrap things up in the few pages remaining (and as it is, the subplot is only resolved in the next book, Maigret’s Patience, so what we have is a rare two-parter). Suffice it to say that Maigret gets some breaks as he begins to grow in weight and density, which is an observable phenomenon with him whenever a case starts to come together.

Things kick off with the Maigrets having dinner with the Pardons. We learn Dr. Pardon has stopped smoking cigarettes at home because his wife is worried about all these nasty rumours of cigs causing lung cancer. So instead he smokes cigars! This was what (some) people thought made sense in 1964.

From there we enter into a discussion of “truly wicked” criminals, whose only motivation is an inherent spite. This is a red herring, as the bad guy in this book has a motive. I like a bit of initial misdirection though, as it’s not often what you’re expecting.

Not to say the villain isn’t wicked enough. His crimes are only briefly outlined at the end, but recalled for me Richard Lloyd Parry’s People Who Eat Darkness. As for the complainant, Nicole, she could simply be dismissed with a muttered “bitch,” but might also be flagged as another example of Maigret’s take on degenerate youth. A student at the Sorbonne, she runs with a fast crowd, comes from a family of privilege, and clearly has little respect for the law or even basic morality. I’ve flagged before how Maigret (like Simenon?) was getting grumpier as the series went along, casting a particularly jaundiced eye on flashy young people. In this book Nicole is only a tool, but it’s a point worth flagging because I don’t think the kids are going to get any better from here on out.

Maigret index

Making it

An attempt at redirection. (Reuters)

In what may be only the first of many legal shoes to drop, the controversial conspiracy peddler Alex Jones, who operates the fake-news website Infowars, has been ordered to pay more than $4 million in damages to the parents of a child killed in the Sandy Hook school shooting, which Jones claimed to have been a hoax.

The trial served up a lot of highlights and fodder for legal commentators to tear into, including the revelation that Jones’s lawyer had sent a copy of his client’s phone records to the plaintiffs in the suit. But what stood out for me was what one of the plaintiffs had to say when she addressed Jones directly:

“It seems so incredible to me that we have to do this — that we have to implore you, to punish you — to get you to stop lying,” Scarlett Lewis, whose son was killed at Sandy Hook, told Jones.

On the face of it, this does seem incredible. Jones was lying and knew he was lying, yet continued broadcasting his shtick about how the massacre had been a “false flag” operation with “crisis actors” performing in front of a green screen despite being told to stop. Why? The bottom line was that his lying was profitable. Jones apparently made tens of millions of dollars off of such nonsense, mainly through selling supplements and survivalist gear from his Infowars store.

I’m reminded of how Donald Trump, when told about the danger of his joining the marchers on the Capitol on January 6, as he publicly declared he would, excused himself by saying he “didn’t mean it literally.” Jones has since stated that the Sandy Hook massacre was “100% real,” essentially cloaking himself in the same defence. He said things because they were what his audience wanted to hear, not because he thought they were true. He wasn’t a reporter any more than Trump was a president; both were just entertainers, making a buck. To suggest that what they were doing was right or wrong, good or bad, was to be met with a blank stare of incomprehension, as though one were speaking a foreign language.

This link to the world of entertainment also made me think of something I’ve railed about for going on twenty years now. In terms of arts criticism (mainly book and film reviewing) negative voices have been drowned out by what’s been dubbed poptimism: the argument that any book that’s a bestseller, or movie that’s a blockbuster, or TV show with high ratings, is effectively beyond criticism because it has been successful at the only thing that counts, which is making money. Criticism isn’t just superfluous (this has always been the case when dealing with mass entertainment) but wrongheaded. A reviewer literally doesn’t have any right to be critical, the media having given in to what I described in Revolutions as “a sort of celebrity worship wedded to market fundamentalism, one that makes popular/commercial success the only criterion of aesthetic value.”

For “aesthetic value” we can substitute truth or morality. Faced with Lewis’s incredulity, I imagine Jones feeling only bafflement. Any messaging or conduct so profitable, “bought” by so many people, can’t be wrong, can it? There is no other legitimate standard of value. If it makes you money, it can’t be that bad. In becoming rich and famous Alex Jones put himself beyond good and evil, and very nearly above the law.


From Chronicles of a Liquid Society (2016) by Umberto Eco:

A significant transformation came about in the opposition between the religious and secular worlds. For thousands of years, the spirit of religion was associated with a distrust of progress, rejection of the world, doctrinal intransigence. The secular world, on the other hand, looked optimistically upon the transformation of nature, the flexibility of ethical principles, the fond rediscovery of “other” forms of religion and primitive thought.

There were, of course, those believers, such as Teilhard de Chardin, who appealed to “worldly realities,” to history as a march toward redemption, while there were plenty of secular doom merchants, with the negative utopias of Orwell and Huxley, or the kind of science fiction that offered us the horrors of a future dominated by hideous scientific rationality. But it was the task of religion to call us at the final moment, and the task of secularism to sing hymns in praise of locomotives.

The recent gathering of enthusiastic young papal groupies show us the transformation that has taken place under the reign of Pope John Paul II. A mass of youngsters who accept the Catholic faith but, judging from the answers they recently gave in interviews, are far distant from neurotic fundamentalism, are willing to make compromises over premarital relationships, contraceptives, even drugs, and certainly when it comes to clubbing; meanwhile, the secular world moans about noise pollution and a New Age spirit that seems to unite neo-revolutionaries, followers of Monsignor Milingo, and sybarites devoted to Oriental massage.

From On Decline: Stagnation, Nostalgia, and Why Every Year is the Worst One Ever (2021) by Andrew Potter:

For well over half a century, it’s been an article of faith, agreed to by all sides, that the right was the side of rules, order, tradition, and circumspection, while the left was the part of rebellion, individualism, freedom, and transgression. Now the political valences have reversed themselves, with the right setting itself up as the true countercultural opposition to the left’s restrictiveness and enforced conformity.


From After the Fact?: The Truth About Fake News (2020) by Marcus Gilroy-Ware:

Intolerable boredom, loneliness, precariousness and the disappearance of the future that is endemic to postmodernism, combined with a heavy emphasis on aspiration reduced to increasingly economistic terms, all produced widespread malaise that is hard to describe in specific terms for those that suffer it but is often demotivating or debilitating. The result is that we try to compensate, through the trappings of consumerism that have arisen to sell compensatory pleasure itself – the most obvious being the soaring popularity of delivery food, the seeming addictiveness of social media or gaming, or the quiet success of the sugar industry.

Maigret: Maigret and the Ghost

Inspector Luckless (that would be Lognon) gets shot in the gut while on a stakeout he’d been conducting so discreetly none of his fellow officers even knew what he was up to. So as the Paris police department’s resident sad sack fights for life in hospital it’s up to Maigret to find out what went down on the Avenue Junot.

One way that you can expect a series like this to go after so long a run is for it to become sillier. There are a lot of familiar elements in this one – Janvier had been shot in Maigret Takes a Room, a nosy neighbour played a key role in The Judge’s House, the dirty deeds done behind the façade of a great house is a staple – but they get rolled together here into a whimsical plot involving forged artwork, gangsters, and another ill-matched couple.

“You’ll find it hard to believe me because you’re not a collector,” the collector says as he tried to explain himself to Maigret. To which the detective chief inspector replies “I collect people . . .” His readers may be tempted to add, “I collect books . . .” This is what it’s sort of come to by this point.

Maigret index


Doing my part.

It’s been brought home to me by the online community that taking bins to the curb is a civic ritual in places ranging from Gateshead to New Hampshire. Even small villages in Scotland have blue recycling bins for cardboard, cans, bottles, and old film reviews that are occasionally reposted as “new” content.

Just remember that “reduce” comes before “reuse” and “recycle.” It’s a hierarchy, and your goal should always be to make do with less.

Squeezing the tube

A year or so ago I picked up a half-dozen tubes of my favourite toothpaste when it was on sale. I tend to buy in bulk like this when I find something I want at a good price that I know I’m not likely to ever get any cheaper and that doesn’t have an expiry date. Like certain articles of clothing, or water-softener salt. I just stock up.

I’m down to my last couple of these bargain toothpaste buys though and realizing that they do indeed have an expiry date stamped on them. This surprised me. Can toothpaste go bad?

I did some research and the answer is “Sort of.” It doesn’t go off to the point where it’s bad for you, but fluoride does break down over time. So it’s not harmful, just not as beneficial.

The shelf-life for toothpaste is about two years. But what I couldn’t determine was whether this holds true if the tube has never been opened. All the stuff I read had to do with finding an old tube of toothpaste that had been left in a suitcase or something after having been taken on vacation a year earlier. If I haven’t opened the toothpaste, does it still break down at the same rate?

I’m going to finish up using the toothpaste I have anyway, but I’m curious. I guess if my teeth fall out I’ll have an answer.