Dante in Exile

In the silence of Paradise, poetry comes home.
An etching from a scene in Dante’s Purgatorio by Gustave Doré, circa 1868 (PhotoStock-Israel/Alamy Stock Photo)

Here is no abiding city,” reads the Letter to the Hebrews. In 1302, Dante Alighieri was about thirty years old, active in the vicious politics of Florence, but on the wrong side. While he was away on diplomatic business in Rome, the victorious party, in a bitter coup d’état, took the opportunity to exile him from Florence, the city of his birth and the place of his lifelong desire, his “abiding city.” On pain of death he was required to pay an unjust fine, which he couldn’t do because the wherewithal to pay it—his home and property—had already been confiscated. Thereafter for nineteen years, Dante lived as an embittered exile, wandering around northern Italy wherever he could find patrons—in Lucca, Verona, and finally Ravenna—and until the day he died in 1321, his home was “nowhere,” for nowhere else could replace his Florence.

It was from that “nowhere” that in 1308 Dante began to write the poem that he called, simply, “Comedy.” He completed it in 1320 and died the next year, an exile to the end. He was buried in Ravenna, and, despite all the efforts on the part of the Florentines to bring him home, he remains in Ravenna to this day.

Affecting Dante no less intimately was another experience of alienation, another homelessness, that of his native Italian language. It too was abroad in Italy, likewise having “no home.” It was the tongue of a place that was not yet a nation, its people not yet a people, and Dante’s Tuscan vernacular was but one dialect among many. With lovely irony he wrote in his essay De vulgari eloquentia, a Latin prose work on the superior merits for the lyric poet of his native Italian vernacular, that just as he himself is homeless, so too is the language of his birth, the speech he calls the lingua che chiami mamma o babbo, that idiom in which an infant first learns to call upon “mummy and daddy.” In truth, he complains, there is no shared community of which his native Italian is the vernacular: it is indeed a courtly language, but it lacks a court, “it has left its scent in every city but has made its home in none.” Either way, whether as to his language or to his politics, Dante is a poet of exile. Perhaps he is the greatest writer in a genre of homelessness that seems to be the natural and spontaneous idiom of the poet. Poets may indeed write letters home, but they send them only from abroad.

From exile, then, Dante began his Comedy, composed in extraordinarily disciplined vernacular poetic forms. It is a work that in good part invents the poetic language in which it is written, the language of an Italy that will not exist in unified political reality for another 550 years. In his search for a poetic home, he struggles against the rootlessness of intellect that results from his domestic displacement. For intellect too needs a social world in which to be at home. And if his exile is a political and literary reality, it also has a deeper theological meaning. The Comedy is not just a writing composed in exile; exile determines the form of its writing. And as the exiled Dante is a vagrant, so is his theology: the Comedy is the cry from the heart of an uprooted soul in search of an “abiding city.” It is the poetry and theology of that search.

 

Where will the peregrinations of the homeless Dante take him? First, they will take him to Hell. The Comedy’s journey begins in uncertainty, confusion. Before it has even started, he fears where it might lead, and he protests, “Why me? What business of mine is this?” For as the Comedy begins, Dante, “at a mid-point on life’s journey,” is lost on a bare and nameless mountain and threatened by three wild beasts: a lion, a leopard, and a she-wolf. They represent some three vices or other (commentators differ as to which) and they threaten Dante because, lost and without bearings, his is the absolute vulnerability of a person who is faced with pure choice, as it were, “out of nothing.” For on that bare mountain there are no givens that he can count on to stabilize and direct his search. Dante is no hero, unsurprisingly, for he lacks even that minimal sense of self that would ground any possible choices.

He is not in Hell. Not yet. The condemned in Hell are not, like Dante, lost for want of bearings. Hell is home to the ultimate choosers, who think that the ultimate truth is an ultimate choice. But Dante understands that in Hell there are no journeys, no forks in the road, indeed no roads at all, no route maps, only the endlessness of repetitive circles, which, being circles, lead nowhere. Dante, by contrast, has a journey ahead of him, and a journey needs an itinerary and a landscape it will track through. He may not yet have discovered the map of that journey, but there is one, and there is a starting point, and he discovers that any step taken along that route will lead him through Hell, like it or not, from beginning to end. And he recoils: “This is madness” he protests, and it takes the interventions of a pagan Roman poet, Virgil, moved by St. Lucy and ultimately the Virgin Mary herself responding to Beatrice’s prayers, to persuade him to take even a first step forward into Hell.

Hell is home to the ultimate choosers, who think that the ultimate truth is an ultimate choice.

We too ask: Why must he go through Hell? Why may he not take note of Hell’s horrors and himself steer clear? It takes little time for Dante to understand the answer, which is that Hell is as much a place in him as it is a place he is in, and if he is ever to overcome its hidden power over him, he needs to expose it, acknowledge the infernal in himself. His journey is not just an optional visit. He must go through it if he is to learn hard truths about himself. As he travels through Hell under Virgil’s guidance, the distinction becomes clear between his telling of what he witnesses there—learning about himself as one passing through—and Hell’s own vernacular as the speech of those sunk forever in its unchangeably infernal conditions. The tensions here are acute. Hell’s vernacular is just wretchedly empty chatter. It is pitiable to hear, since the stories of grown men and women, some formerly fine poets, have, as Courtney Palmbush puts it, the obsessive tedium that other people’s home videos impose upon all but their psychiatrists. In consequence, it is impossible for Dante to respond to them in kind because Hell so drags their narratives down that they fall to the level at which there can be no poetry at all, a level so low it taxes the limits of Dante’s poetic powers to describe them, though he himself is not there as one condemned.

The hells of the condemned are indeed terrible. But there is no true tragedy in the tales the condemned tell in the Inferno. Though Dante does his best in Canto 5 to give voice to the pathos of those two great adulterous lovers of the Middle Ages, Francesca da Rimini and Paolo Malatesta (he faints at the impossibility of responding as sympathetically as he would wish), theirs is not the voice of tragedy. For tragedy is a drama of death’s learning and discovery, and Francesca and Paolo have learned absolutely nothing in Hell. Hell’s outcome is unchangeably the same, a dead end. And if that is so for Francesca and Paolo, it is all the more true of the bragging and unteachable Ulysses in Canto 27, who is the very image of rootless intellectuals and their ambitious quest for a form of knowledge and virtue that owes no loyalties to any wider community. His is the unhinged mentality of the self-enclosed university professor of our times. It is yet truer of Ugolino’s pathetic dumbness at the sight of his children’s starvation in Canto 32, which in degree of horror falls just short of Satan’s own ultimate silence, whose mouth has neither word to utter nor sustaining food to chew. In a cannibalistic inversion of the Eucharist’s perfect integration of bread and word, Satan’s mouth is silent and it serves only to endlessly masticate on the indigestible gristle of his own treacherous progeny, Judas, Brutus, and Cassius.

Therefore, the emptiness of Hell’s silence is ultimate, the opposite of the silences of Paradise: it is possible to read the whole of the Comedy as a demonstration of all that language can articulate, the poetry and the theology, in that space that falls between the dumb silence of Hell at one extreme and the articulate silence of Paradise at the other. In any case, as Dante descends deeper into Hell, its own vernacular is increasingly weighed down by pressures more primitive than any that poetry in its lowest capacity can reach. And when, in his vision of Satan, Dante stands on the edge of the final abyss of meaninglessness that he has been forced to witness, he protests that his poetic resources are wrung dry and he has no language hellish enough to match its depravity.

If I had rhymes that rawly rasped and cackled
(and chimed in keeping with that cacky hole
at which, point down, all other rock rings peak),

I might then squeeze the juices of my thought
more fully out of me. But since I don’t,
not without dread, I bring myself to speak.

It’s not (no kidding) any sort of joke
To form in words the universal bum,
No task for tongues still whimpering ‘Mum!’ and ‘Dad’!

Dante can gesture to that infernal language, but not from personal experience except insofar as in Hell there is an image of a meaningless abyss discoverable in himself too. Dante fears that in reporting on the pain of the condemned (some of them friends of his) in a manner so objective and detached, he is indirectly admitting to a Hell of his own just as he describes theirs. They do not despair because their condition is eternal; their condition is eternal because they despair, all redeeming conscience having disappeared without a flicker of remorse. Such self-knowledge as they retain is emotionally and morally paralyzing, falsifying all. They falsify all by way of a cynical, empty parody of truth-telling. What the condemned tell Dante of their guilty deeds is true enough, but only in the way that persons trapped within the circles of their own mendacity have become indifferent to the consequences of such truth as they acknowledge. In a perverse way they “know” their sins—they are not deceived as to the fact of them. But, other than in that admission of dead fact, they falsify everything. For “I am a wretched sinner” can be both true and a secret device of a hypocritical, deceitful complacency. That is why there is no way out of Hell. Souls in Hell have disabled even the truth they acknowledge. That is why they have closed its gates permanently upon themselves.

In this way, Hell is a linguistic and theological equivalent of the astronomers’ black hole that sucks all language, perception, and experience into its emptiness, and there devours it forever. Hell corrupts everything, especially truth, for even the truths told in it are lies. It is emptiness as a way of life. It even has its own corrupted mystery, or mystification: the inverse of the higher “unknowing” of the mystical. Whereas the mystical is too full of meaning for creaturely language to contain it, Hell’s emptiness is too complete for any language, even the poet’s, to express the degree of its failure.

For that reason, Dante’s fear that in describing the Hell of the condemned he might be personally submitting to Hell’s power is groundless. That the question arises for him at all answers itself. Dante can reflect truthfully on what he sees there in a way that Hell’s inhabitants cannot because his experience in Hell is purgatorial. Dante can visit Hell, but is not, as the condemned are, entirely and eternally sunk in it. And it is precisely because he is not there as one condemned that Dante is able to speak of it truthfully. Dante in Hell is hovering in that uneasy space created by the constructive fantasy of Inferno, the poetic device that enables him to say that he is at once a visitor there and, by way of that fantasy, is engaged in a real journey of self-discovery. For that reason, Virgil can lead Dante out of Hell. The condemned, who are at no reflective distance from their plight, ultimately fail to grasp the truth of it: Satan is the father of lies. He even lies when he tells the truth. And so it is that Dante and Virgil climb down Satan’s inert body only for Dante to discover that in truth, he is climbing up onto the lower slopes of Mount Purgatory.

Hell is as much a place in Dante as it is a place he is in, and if he is ever to overcome its hidden power over him, he needs to expose it, acknowledge the infernal in himself.

 

Purgatory is the inverse of Hell, and if there are tensions in the poetics of Purgatorio too, they are quite different from those of Inferno. Here again he must learn the local vernacular, Purgatory’s idiom being that of repentant sinners speaking in hope of the salvation they have won but do not yet have the capacity to enjoy. In Purgatory that “baby talk,” the idiom of Dante’s poetry that had no place in Hell, is now exactly appropriate. Purgatory’s vernacular is that of the infant’s longing, of dependence and trust. That’s how to talk in Purgatory, but even at the end of the journey, so close to emerging from Purgatory into Paradise, Beatrice has to sharply rebuke Dante for still speaking in an alien, adult, hellish tongue that has no place there. For Dante, she notes, does not smile. He is all moral grit and no grace. In her sternest rebuke, she tells him that here in Purgatory we learn how to smile, for smiles are heaven’s vernacular.

Thus Dante is told that the speech that he must finally learn is not at all the vernacular of the sinful humanity that is his lingua franca as a mundane author. In Purgatory, Dante is drowned in Lethe’s waters, the waters of forgetting, that purge the mind’s memory of those traces of sin that remain as a burden of guilt unexpurgated. Here Dante “remembers” Purgatory’s vernacular, a language that is rescued from its condition of fallenness and restored as the common tongue not of the misnamed “original” sin, but of the yet more truly original condition of the primary innocence in the earthly paradise. It is the true original speech of Adam and Eve before the Fall, and, in a reversal of the Fall’s history, in Purgatory their primal innocence is now recovered. We do not in our fallen, living condition have this language at our command except in the traces of it that remain in those ineradicable moments of what the Western theological tradition calls synderesis, a primary will for the good, more primitive and more properly human than the “operative” will that can be led astray—and, in consequence of the Fall, often is. Even within our fallen condition, fragmented remnants of a holier will have survived the devastation of the Fall unscathed. It is a primal will that Julian of Norwich was, later in Dante’s century, to say had never consented to sin, and never can. But because of Adam’s sin, these primary traces of conscience are only the broken fragments of that original lost condition. They are the residues of the lost vernacular of Eden’s garden, and in Purgatory Dante must learn to retrieve that grammar and syntax, its poetry and its imagery, as his natural human language, as his true vernacular finally recovered. Hence that complex, mysterious succession of televisual images in Purgatorio’s final canto, reflecting the visions of the book of Revelation, that at once reach out to the final meaning of Paradise but only strangely, elusively, prophetically. For Dante cannot pass out of Purgatory until he has learned to speak this true human vernacular and in it write the poetry of Paradiso.

Therefore, whereas Hell’s is a mindlessly grim vernacular—a sort of unreflective grunt language—Dante’s poetry in Purgatory is challenged in a different way. Now he must relearn that characteristically human vernacular that he, along with every human, had lost in the chaos of the Fall. It was sin that had denied him the poetic voice, and his writing of the Comedy is akin to telling the tale of its recovery and the recovery of its place, its “city,” the city of the repentant, the primordial city of our creation, restored. For this reason, the tension between Dante’s poetic sensibility on the one hand, and the experience that challenges his powers of description on the other, requires for its resolution a second, remedial silence—a silence more acute and painful in that it, for the time being, suspends his poetic powers entirely. It is Beatrice herself, the muse, object, and agent of his poetry, who must first reduce him to helpless silence, to the tears of a whimpering baby, to a linguistic point zero, to a baptismal drowning in Lethe’s waters, before he can hope to recover the true voice of the poet, the voice that speaks not only of, but more fundamentally out of, the innocence of the earthly paradise regained.

It is here in Purgatory, then, that Dante learns how to write the Comedy, including even Inferno. Here, in Purgatory, he recovers the discourse of the poet who could write adequately of Hell. It is only because of Dante’s conversion to an entirely new life in Purgatory that he can understand and tell of Hell in a way its inhabitants cannot. For it is in Purgatory that Dante has been baptized into that “justice and primal love” that on the one hand made Hell, but on the other is wholly beyond the reach of those within it.

In Purgatory we learn how to smile, for smiles are heaven’s vernacular.

 

Upon his exit from Purgatory, Dante has yet to learn how to write of and from within Heaven. For in Heaven alone are all Purgatory’s hopes fully and finally met. Only here will Dante arrive at the place wherein he will find a poetic self adequate to the love that Beatrice had called upon him to show her. Only now may he enter heaven.

But is Dante truly in Paradise? Yes, he is. But also, no, he is not. The theological model for the ecstasy with which Paradiso ends, and so the Comedy too—the ecstasy where, Dante says, his alta fantasia, poetry, finally fails—is scriptural. Specifically, Dante’s language recalls that of Paul’s rapture in the opening verses of the Second Letter to the Corinthians. There Paul says he “knows a man” who was once taken up into the “third heaven,” but whether he was in the body or not while being “taken up,” he “does not know.” Paul’s rapture as a theological model for the concluding canto of Paradiso is striking because right from the beginning of it Dante tells you that he is writing out of an overwhelming awareness that he too “does not know.” In Canto 2 he asks his readers to leave the poem alone and not to read beyond the Purgatorio if they must insist upon some peremptory resolution of its mystery. But, he adds, you can write poetry out of that mystery, so long as you don’t expect poetry to resolve it. Indeed, poetry is exactly what you must call upon when faced with mystery’s ultimacy.

One way or another, for Paul it is an eschatological moment. It is an instant of Heaven, brief and exceptional, and he quickly snaps out of it into an unambiguous pre-mortem embodiment. But traces of that rapture—itself beyond all communicable experience—remain with him in their effect upon his mundane condition as the Apostle to the Gentiles. Because of it, Paul was able to write the Second Letter to the Corinthians, and all else that he ever wrote, as if they were halting translations into a worldly vernacular of a celestial experience that is fully expressible only upon death. All Paul can say is that what he saw in that rapture was the whole point of his life, the meaning of his conversion, the source of all his preaching, the cause of his sufferings and persecutions and the power of them, through grace, to redeem; he saw the temporal narrative of a life contained in an instant, the earthly sequence contained in a vision at once momentary in act and timeless in content, life’s long sequences compressed into an eternal “now.” It is the exact antitype of Hell’s empty black hole.

And the same moment of ecstasy with which Dante’s Paradiso ends likewise contains the whole of the Comedy in an instant of incommunicable silence. And though it is with that ecstatic moment in the silence of Heaven that the Comedy ends, it is on account of that silence that Dante, like Paul, can write anything of it at all. Now, “midway in life’s journey,” Dante can begin to write that first canto of Inferno. As T. S. Eliot, thinking of Dante, wrote in Four Quartets, “in my end is my beginning.”

Whatever may be the epistemological standing of Dante’s closing rapture, in it is a third and final moment of language’s failure, the antitype of the false speechlessness of Hell. The insufficiency of human language goes beyond even that of the purgatorial vernacular. All that Dante can say of it is that it is a moment of knowledge in perfect harmony with love. And what Dante in the Vita nuova called “love’s knowledge,” the intelletto d’amore, has for him a theological resonance too, recalling a Western tradition that originates in Gregory the Great, who spoke of a love that on its own terms is an understanding, one that surpasses all the knowing of intellect. Gregory said, amor ipse intellectus est: love has its own way of knowing. As Dante puts it, in that final raptus, his will was moved by nothing but “the love that moves the sun and the other stars.”

That’s what you can say about this final ecstasy: Dante’s witness to it in Paradiso is akin to that which Herbert McCabe once described of the young child who for the first time is invited to join in the conversation of her parents and their adult friends in their local pub. There is joy and amazement for the child in the invitation into the adult company, though they drink beer and she only lemonade; and though they share the conversation with her, it is so far above the child’s comprehension that if afterwards you were to ask her what they spoke about, she would be able to report little of it. Still, she knows that at last she has grown up beyond her wildest dreams, that she has been introduced to a new form of life in which she has it all to learn, and that, now and forever after, adult learning has begun. Paradiso describes how Dante finally reaches the place where he may learn the adult tongue, Celestial. This, at last, is the vernacular of the place to which poetry ultimately points, though it infinitely exceeds poetry’s capacity to contain it. Poetry’s fulfillment therefore comes only at the end, in the third silence, that of Paradise. Only here in a final silence does poetry finally come home to its “abiding city.”

The silence in which the Comedy ends is, therefore, filled with a new meaning now fully realized in the beatific vision. That final vision, Dante says, will be experienced as a true homecoming out of exile, for the blessed will recognize it as the place to which they have always belonged, though they had been led astray along many a diverted path in the meantime. It was in God’s eternal knowledge and will that they existed before they were created. And it is to that same place they are to return—to the “mystic rose,” the Church triumphant, a flower in the bloom of a million petals. In consequence, the heavenly vernacular of that vision will at that point be no unrecognizable foreign language. On the contrary, it will give truer expression to what in some way we had always known how to say—as when in our naïve and simplistic early drafts of a poem or a novel we may in an inchoate and stumbling way show signs of what we intended to say, though what we had written didn’t yet say it. In the concluding paragraphs of his earlier Vita nuova Dante said that his vision of Beatrice, retrieved mystically from his earthly loves, had required of him a wholly new way of writing about her significance. That “new writing,” that revisionary narrative, became his Comedy. The Comedy may in that way be wholly new. All the same, Dante may legitimately claim that when at last he got it right he was then able to see that those early writings were already drafts, hints of what he had all along meant to say—and if the Comedy is new, it is old news recovered anew. Now he can rightly claim to have come home to a truth of his own that he hadn’t realized till then he already possessed. That, Dante says, is how it will be in Paradise, a true memory at last restored. It will be the “abiding city” to which, from exile, he has at last come home.

Published in the December 2022 issue: 

Denys Turner is Horace Tracy Pitkin Professor Emeritus of Historical Theology at Yale University. He teaches part time in Princeton University’s department of religion.

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