It's always worth thinking about context and expectation when we encounter books, especially books that our culture has deemed important or great. Reading Dostoevsky is something very different from reading a recipe. But I think reading Dante is even more challenging than Dostoevsky, even than Shakespeare, even than Lucretius or Vergil or Homer. Dante implicates his readers in his journey in a way that few other books do. For me, only the Hebrew Scriptures or the New Testament or the Quran come to mind as books that are as challenging. Like them, Dante doesnt let us off the hook. The Commedia is a mirror we hold up to ourselves as much as it is a pilgrim's journey through the afterlife. In fact, that's precisely why it's a mirror we hold up to ourselves.
So if you'll indulge me, I'll offer a (very) brief rehearsal of my own encounter with Dante because it will help situate my remarks during this Easter season. I was 15 years old when I met David Lat, now a famous blogger on legal matters. At the time, though, he was an alumnus of my high school, and I met him at (of all things) a debate tournament. "Oh, you're a freshman," he said. "You should have Mr. Connelly do the medieval reading group with you." When I asked Mr. Connelly (Robert Imbellis high school classmate!) about this, he raised an eyebrow, asked if I realized what I was getting into, and agreed. Along with five other students, we would meet at 7:30 am on Wednesday mornings. That meant waking up at 5:00 am, getting a train at 6:10, and then getting to Regis High School by about 7:30, a full hour and twenty minutes before homeroom. In addition to our regular work load in our English and history classes, we read the Commedia and the Song of Roland and the Canterbury Tales and others whose names I've forgotten. And truth be told, I remembered little of even the Commedia except for Paolo and Francesca (which piques the interest of a 15-year-old) and Ulysses. I remembered Statius in the Purgatorio and Bernard in the Paradiso. I remembered the stadium and the lights and the picture of love. And I knew that I would have to read it all again outside an academic situation. Each fall at Villanova, I teach one of the parts of the Commedia -- but here I am, almost 20 years after my first encounter with the text, not teaching part of it, but reading the whole thing, and fulfilling a promise I made to myself.
What I offer here, and what I hope to continue to offer, are simply thoughts on certain aspects of the text that strike me as I read. Needless to say, I dont aim to be comprehensive, but I hope to be coherent.
The Inferno is, of course, a deeply sad poem, although whether or not we should find it sad is, I think, a real question. In Canto 3, Dante tells us that the Gates of Hell are marked with the words "Justice moved my maker on high / Divine power made me / Wisdom supreme, and primal love. / Before me nothing was but things eternal / And I endure eternally / Abandon all hope, you who enter here" (Inf. 3:4-9). If primal love and supreme wisdom and divine power have made hell, why should Dante be sad, why should he pity those he meets, why should he be afraid? After all, in what must be some of the most tender lines in the poem, Virgil recounts how Mary asked Lucy to ask Beatrice to ask Virgil to take Dante through Hell and through part of Purgatory (Inf. 2:58-140). Does Dante not trust Virgils words? Could we possibly expect him to?
Dante suspends his sadness and pity and fear temporarily to enjoy the company of Virgil, Homer, Horace, Ovid, and Lucan in Limbo. I have always admired how no matter how afraid Dante is or how awestruck he is by what he sees in the journey, he never lets his audience forget how good of a poet he is. "Of course, the poets of antiquity showed me a greater honor still, / for they made me one of their company, / so that I became a sixth amidst such wisdom" (Inf. 4:100-102). I suppose it ain't braggin if it's true.
And reading the accounts of the lustful in the first circle of Hell and the gluttonous in the second circle of Hell, how could Dantes boast not be true? I mean that sincerely. I don't think you can read the Commedia without recognizing how deeply beautiful it is. In the weeks ahead, we will explore that beauty in its various forms: the language, the similes, the remarks on literature and politics and philosophy and theology. The question for every reader, I think, is: how does one respond to this beauty? And that's another way of asking: given that it is beautiful, what do I do with the parts that are uncomfortable, with the parts that judge me (as they surely do), with the parts that seem so obviously wrong? These are questions that Dante himself seems to anticipate. Paolo and Francesca, remember, are in Hell because they got caught up in reading something beautiful, something about love. The line between the love of Mary and Lucy and Beatrice, and the lust of Paolo and Francesca is razor thin. After Dante hears Francesca's story, he recounts, "While the one spirit said this / The other wept, so that for pity / I swooned as if in death. / And down I fell as a dead body falls" (Inf. 5:139-142). As I read those lines and as I read Ciacco's account of Dante's friends who are in Hell because they were on the wrong side of a political dispute, Dante's words to Virgil become my words to Dante. "Master, for me their meaning is hard" (Inf. 3:12). I'm a year shy of 35, which Dante, following the Psalmist, considered the middle of our (not his) life. But Dante's words are much harder than I realized 19 years ago.
What do you think? I'm sure what interested other people is quite different from what interested me. And I'm eager to hear what others have to say.