December 7, 2023

SCHWARZ | Reading Dante’s “The Divine Comedy”

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A great source of pleasure the past year or so has been discovering the joys of The Divine Comedy (begun 1308, finished 1321) by Dante Alighieri (1265-1321) by reading and rereading the erudite three-volume Hollander translation with its wonderful notes (My quotes are from The Divine Comedy. trans. Robert and Jean Hollander with intro. And notes by Robert Hollander. New York: Anchor, 2000-2008; while the notes are Talmudic in their erudition and present diverse interpretations of crucial passages, they are not essential for a first reading. I have also read The Divine Comedy trans John Ciardi. Norton: New York, 1977, and found both translations lucid and vibrant).  Dante’s masterwork is composed of 100 cantos divided into three parts or canticles: Inferno, Purgatorio and Paradiso.

Writing in the vernacular Italian that built on the Tuscan dialect rather than the more literary and refined Latin which only a tiny percentage — the clergy and nobility — could read, Dante more than anyone else laid the groundwork for the modern Italian language. By making his work accessible to a wider audience, Dante was making a  statement of what literature should be.

Written before Gutenberg invented the printing press in 1441, the poem’s rhymed verses in terza rima (the first and third lines rhyme, and the second line rhymes with the first line of the following stanza) made it easy to memorize at least some lines.

Using only the word “Commedia”— the Italian word for Comedy — for the title, Dante evoked classical distinctions in which comedy was a genre with a narrative moving towards a happy ending which of course is the case in Paradiso. Later in 1555 because of its recognition as an important religious work, the title became The Divine Comedy.

What follows are some suggestions for how to approach a 700-year-old work that at first might seem dauntingly illusive, elusive and allusive.

Taking us on an intellectual and spiritual journey, The Divine Comedy is shaped by a strong sense of purpose, namely the discovery by the narrator of God’s geographic and moral plan. The Divine Comedy opens its narrative on Maundy Thursday in April 1300 shortly before dawn of Good Friday and ends the Wednesday after Easter. The narrator — who is both Dante’s surrogate and a character in the imagined world Dante has created — comes out of Hell, into which he descended on Good Friday, at the base of Mount Purgatory at sunrise on Easter Sunday.

The structure of The Divine Comedy focuses on how what we are reading came to be; that is, Dante’s narrator ostensibly takes a retrospective view of his personal physical, moral and spiritual journey: “But to set forth the good I found, I will recount the other things I saw.” Dante dramatizes the evolving narrator on a dynamic journey through space within a clearly defined period.

As a student of narrative, I respond to the epic poem’s dialogue and characterization, especially to Dante’s self-revealing narrator and the narrator’s relationship to Virgil, who serves as his guide-teacher-mentor. But Virgil must leave at the end of Purgatorio because, as a virtuous pagan who lived before Christ, he lives in limbo and thus he cannot enter Paradise: “I have brought you here with intellect and skill/. . . .No longer wait for word or sign from me./ Your will is free, upright, and sound.” Virgil represents reason.  Beatrice, based upon Dante’s idealization of a young woman whom he loved from a distance as a young man, replaces Virgil as the narrator’s guide toward the end of Purgatorio; she represents beatitude and can lead him to heavenly bliss. 

Compelling, too, is the physicality of Dante’s choreography as he traces the steps of his narrator’s challenging descent in Hell and ascent in Purgatory — a journey which gets easier with each level — and finally his arrival in Paradise. In almost cinematic movement, Dante describes the narrator’s harrowing journey with Virgil in Inferno.  In every canto of Inferno and Purgatorio, Dante renders in visual terms historical and mythic figures either in motion or fixed in uncomfortable circumstances.

What we learn with  Dante’s narrator is that punishment reflects the deserts of what those in Hell are there for. An example is canto five of Inferno which takes place in the second circle of Hell. Francesca da Rimini was married in a political alliance to the deformed Giovanni, but she fell in love with Paolo, Giovanni’s handsome younger brother. They are forever together as former lovers but unable to connect physically because they have not had time to repent before being killed by Giovanni after he discovered her adultery. Their perpetual punishment is to be buffeted about by winds because they had been overcome by intemperate passion, self-indulgence and lust. While Paolo weeps, Francesca, somewhat self-justifying, casts the blame on the powers of “Love” (“Amor” in Italian).

Referring to a parallel situation, Francesca claims that she and Paolo were influenced by reading the romance of Lancelot and Guinevere, including her adultery. Analogy is crucial to Dante’s technique and comes from classical myth and the Bible; the established science and cosmology of the 14th century; the past and recent history of Italy, especially Florence and the Church; and most of all from his personal experience and observation.

Purgatorio is no different from Inferno in that the necessary suffering before ascension to heaven is proportionate to the crime.  In Heaven, as Paradiso makes clear, there are hierarchies of blessedness, represented by Dante’s medieval conception of heaven as a series of concentric circles surrounding the earth, circles which are associated with the angelic hierarchy.

No doubt Dante’s self-dramatization as a wanderer needing direction derives from his years in exile, beginning in 1302 until his death, due to political turmoil in Florence. Dante’s bitterness about his banishment and exile informs his reading of political and clerical history. Advocate of the separation of church and state, Dante supported the White Guelphs who were critical of the current Pope Boniface VIII and earlier corrupt popes. Dante hoped that the Holy Roman Empire would restore order and ethical political leadership to Italy, including in his native Florence where political and religious groups were fighting among themselves, as well as to Europe where the small nation states were bickering with each other.

Dante’s narrator plays two self-conscious roles: that of the pilgrim making his odyssey through Hell, Purgatory and Heaven and that of the poet recalling it. He is very much aware that he is recording a journey about which others will read and that his role is to teach readers of the miracle and omnipresence of God: “O vengeance of God, how much /should you be feared by all who read /what now I saw revealed before my eyes! “

Put another way, Dante’s narrator is examining the significance of his past experience in the present even as he retrospectively narrates a spiritual odyssey which takes us back in time to the amazing week in which he experienced the events he describes in Inferno, Purgatorio and Paradiso. Rendering his experience as a sustained flashback, he tells the story of his past odyssey and explains his understanding of that journey. Thus, the reader has the sense of living simultaneously in two worlds, the then of what happened and the now of the telling.

The Divine Comedy has a polemic and devotional aspect. We need to remember that it is Dante not God who places the characters in their places. Dante’s use of the preterit underlines that the  narrator is recounting his miraculous journey after he has returned to earth. Like Moses, he has brought down from the mountain something he believes we need to know; he wants to share with his audience what he has learned: “Reader, so may God let you gather fruit /from reading this.” Later, in Paradiso when specifically addressing the reader (“lettore” in Italian), he calls attention to his writing down what Beatrice tells him.

The energy of the Inferno derives in part from Dante’s and our fascination with evil. As his narrator gets deeper into the nine circles of Hell, he finds increasingly outrageous behavior generating increasingly horrible tortures. And that calls for a change of language. In Inferno the narrator more and more turns to graphic and even vulgar language to describe the figures he meets. Conversely in Paradiso, as he moves closer to his vision of God, the narrator uses more allegorical and less realistic language. He presents fewer speaking voices and less visual dramatic action.

As we read, we come to appreciate the complexity of Dante’s vision, including his awareness of multiple co-existing realities. Dante stresses the difference between the earthly world, mutable and governed by time, and the heavenly world in which time is irrelevant.

Dante defines characters — even Biblical and mythic figures — by their earthly setting and circumstances. There can be no doubt that he was influenced by contemporary paintings and that his scenes are visually shaped by his knowledge of painting —especially Cimabue (1240-1302), Duccio (1255-1260 to 1318 or 1319) and Giotto (1267-1337) — and to a lesser extent by extant illuminated manuscripts. These sources were an essential means of communication within the Catholic tradition. The Church frescoes were available for illiterate worshippers, while the illuminated manuscripts and devotional paintings were treasures owned by the wealthy. In this culture the Biblical narratives — and particularly the life of Jesus — was a living text which offered the viewers, readers or listeners spiritual and ethical instruction.

Preparing oneself for the birth of the eternal soul upon death by getting close to God was an essential part of earthly life.  Developing an intimate relationship with God by following the righteous past and acknowledging His presence through the Sacraments of the Church — most importantly, Baptism, Confirmation, the Eucharist and Reconciliation — and prayer defined this preparation. As The Divine Comedy makes clear, following the Church’s specified Virtues and avoiding the defined Vices was necessary but not always sufficient if one had not also followed Church Sacraments.

The narrator is aware that the earthly world in which humans live their lives — and in particular the world of Italy and Florence populated by humans with strengths and failings — is changing and cannot be fully understood, no matter how much he would like to believe in — and revert to — a vision of life as a simple vertical progression containing Hell, Purgatory and Heaven.  Such a vision is exemplified in his description of Beatrice towards the climax of Paradiso: “The beauty that I saw transcends/ all thought of beauty, and I must believe/ that only its maker may savor it all.”

In addition to its allegorical component, Dante’s narrative has an often quite modern realistic component.  What Dante makes clear is that he is interested in his characters’ grammar of motives and the ensuing complexities of where to consign his characters.  He ponders how to judge behavior of ambiguous intent and what weight should be given to the effects of a characters’ behavior on others. These grey areas take us modern secular readers into novelistic space where we not only draw a circumference of judgment around the presentation of Dante’s narrator, including  questioning and even resisting where in Hell and Purgatory he places characters. Should, we might ask, Ulysses, hero of the Odyssey, be consigned to the eighth circle of hell for giving false counsel?  We also ask ourselves: What are the psychological and historical determinants of the behavior of the characters whom we meet and often hear from?

For believing Christians Dante becomes their Virgil and Beatrice, teaching them how to get to Heaven and love God. After rebuking the narrator for pursuing the wrong path, Virgil says to him: “I think it wise. You follow me/I will be your guide.” These lines echo what Christ said to Peter, “Come, follow me.”

Dante speaks not just to those who accept his theology but to all of us. Dante implicitly says “Come, follow me” and we respond. Simply put, to return to the first canto of Inferno, if we have “lost” our way and are in a “wood, savage, dense and harsh,” we need to follow where he leads. What Virgil and later Beatrice are to him — guides and teachers— Dante is to us.

We modern readers of The Divine Comedy who are not believing Christians and specifically Catholics are still caught up with Dante’s narrator in his human situation of wanting a major change in his life. At times are not all of us in the metaphorical dark woods of anxiety, self-doubt and depression as well as other emotional cruxes brought on by disappointments, illness and loss of loved ones? Our contemporary experiences that roughly parallel those of the narrator include overcoming depression and trauma as well as showing resilience, resourcefulness and resolve in the face of terrible setbacks. Do we not seek a way past detours in our search for ethical purpose in life as well as a worthy goal shaped by human decency which might but not necessarily include a spiritual aspect? 

As Dante’s narrator ascends toward Heaven, he loses his human imperfections. Paradiso is about knowing, but a particular kind of knowing that eschews reason and logic. What is learned by the narrator cannot, when he returns to the human world, be completely retained or transformed perfectly into words.  His knowledge is  based on medieval Catholic theology, namely the four cardinal virtues (prudence, justice, fortitude, temperance) and the three theological virtues (faith, hope, charity).

In Paradiso chronological time is suspended. Heaven’s inhabitants, as well as for a time the visiting narrator, live in kairos or significant time rather than chronos, the tick-tock of passing time, which is suspended. Even for those of us who are skeptics and unbelievers, the ending is like the terrifying sublime of a Beethoven or Mozart symphony in which time stops and we are aware of being present in a different world than the one we live in; indeed, it is a world in which we want to stay.

What I want to stress in my closing is the joy of discovering masterworks, in my case one that is quoted in the newspapers almost every day and may be the major text in Western Literature. Such reading experiences bring insight and pleasure to each day and far more than repay the time invested. Reading complex literary works becomes the poetry of life when we lose ourselves in imagined worlds of other times and other places. And that is what major art does, making us aware, as the American poet Wallace Stevens puts it in “The Idea of Order at Key West,” of

Words of the fragrant portals, dimly-starred, 
And of ourselves and of our origins,
In ghostlier demarcations, keener sounds.

Daniel R. Schwarz is the Frederic J. Whiton Professor of English Literature and Stephen H. Weiss Presidential Fellow in the College of Arts & Sciences. He is The Cornell Daily Sun’s 2023 visiting columnist. He can be reached at [email protected].

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