Dante’s Divine Comedy charts an imagined journey through Hell, Purgatory and Heaven. The poem comprises three volumes, or cantiche, each corresponding to a different realm of the afterlife. To read the whole is to be drawn into a world of theological speculation and violent political turmoil, but, above all, into the spiritual journey of the character at the poem’s heart: Dante himself.
I’ve spent the last 12 months reading the Divine Comedy. I entered Hell at Dante’s side in July 2016 and we didn’t reach the heart of Paradise until September of this year. My reading has been irregular and interrupted, but throughout this time Dante has been a constant presence. My parents have taken to asking after him, as if he is a boyfriend or a pet – ‘How are you? How’s Dante?’
Does every reader of the Divine Comedy develop this odd couple relationship with its author-protagonist? Is it normal (let alone healthy) for a dead Florentine poet to join the ranks of your acquaintances? I imagine not, and yet it is hard to conceive how anyone can read a text so imbued with the personality and preoccupations of its author without developing a close (if one-sided) relationship with him.
Dante called his poem Commedia: the ‘Divine’ bit was tacked on later by an admiring Boccaccio. It is a great compliment, but also, somehow, misleading. The Comedy is a deeply religious text, fully engaged with the complexities of medieval theology, and yet at its centre we always find not the divine, but the human. That is what makes it so readable and relatable 700 years later. The human contains the divine and is contained by it, just as Dante’s God surrounds the universe, and yet represents its centre. Paradox is a fundamental force in the Comedy – several sets of opposing forces keep the poem’s elements in equilibrium – and this construction echoes Dante’s vision of the ideal terrestrial organisation, with the twin powers of church and state held in balance.
The plot of the Comedy rests on the paradox of a living soul witnessing the immortal afterlife. Equally, its narration relies on the tension between its two Dantes – Dante the author and Dante the protagonist – which plays right into the hands of the author’s genius for arrogant humility. We also find a tension between the tendency for neat, systematic organisation, and the author’s desire to introduce nuance.
Damnation and salvation are the two magnetic poles of Dante’s afterlife. They seem to leave no room for ambiguity, and yet the characters we meet in all three realms of the afterlife possess a moral subtlety which goes beyond the simple dichotomy of good and evil. The laws governing the afterlife are absolute, and yet Dante’s Comedy is studded with exceptions. The modern reader is faced with one particular tension: the poem is firmly situated within its own historical context but, at times, its message seems to transcend contemporary theology. More broadly, while Dante’s conception of religion is at times profoundly medieval and in many places alien to modern Christianity, he often seems centuries ahead of his time.
The relationship between Dante-as-author and Dante-as-protagonist provides an insight into the author’s self-image and is perhaps the most revealing element of the whole work. Some author-protagonists use the ambiguity of the dual role to obscure themselves (Proust being a notable example), while Dante, deliberately or accidentally, uses it instead to reveal himself. He emerges as a thoughtful writer, preoccupied and rather self-important, but striving towards truth. Occasionally he seems a little ridiculous, putting us in mind of Eliot’s J. Alfred Prufrock: ‘Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse; At times, indeed, almost ridiculous – Almost, at times, the Fool’. This is most evident when Dante-as-author puts his fictional world to the service of his vanity. At several points in the Comedy, Dante-as-protagonist encounters souls who praise his poetry. He takes the compliments graciously, but it is hard not to be amused by the thought that Dante-as-author is the one writing them. Similarly, Dante-as- protagonist often reveals his ignorance about metaphysics, philosophy and theology, and is corrected by his guides (gently, in the case of Virgil – more abruptly in the case of Beatrice). Again, the humility demonstrated in the protagonist’s acceptance of correction becomes ridiculous when we remember that Dante-as-author is having his own ideas and theories repeated back to him from the mouths of saints and spiritual authorities. When he reaches the first terrace of Purgatory, Dante-as-protagonist comments that he anticipates spending a long time there after death, purging himself of the sin of pride. Dante has enough self-awareness to acknowledge his own vanity, but somehow this too becomes a source of smugness.
At the start of his journey through the afterlife, Dante wonders why he has been singled out for this honour. He observes ‘Io non Enea, io non Paulo sono’ (I am no Aeneas, no Saint Paul), comparing himself to two other members of the literary canon, who, while still alive, visited hell and heaven respectively. However, these doubts do not last long – by the time we reach the end of the second volume, ‘Purgatorio’, Dante has begun to assert his narrative authority, comfortably correcting scripture as he disagrees with Ezekiel about the number of wings on a mystical animal. There is something endearing and perhaps relatable in Dante’s vanity, although he achieves moments of genius, which is not a claim we can all make.
In the Second and Third cantiche of the poem, ‘Purgatorio’ and ‘Paradiso’, Dante is increasingly confident in his divine mission: he is to become a prophet of sorts, and the account of his journey, the Comedy itself, is intended as a corrective to the sinful on earth. The Comedy is certainly successful as literature – whether it works as doctrine is another matter. The main problem with the poem as sincere religious allegory is the tendency of readers to become overly attached to the sinners and for the saved to leave us rather cold. Blake famously said of Paradise Lost (the Comedy’s literary descendant): ‘The reason Milton wrote in fetters when he wrote of Angels and God, and at liberty when of Devils and Hell, is because he was a true Poet and of the Devil’s party without knowing it.’ There is no such ambiguity in Dante’s treatment of Lucifer, who is to be found at hell’s nadir, his three heads eternally chewing on the souls of Judas Iscariot (Worst Sinner in Hell for his betrayal of Jesus), and Brutus and Cassius (joint holders of the Worst Sinner in Hell for their betrayal of Caesar). No sympathy for the devil, then, and yet it is striking that Virgil, the most sympathetic character in the Comedy, languishes among the damned, while Ulysses, who speaks the poem’s most beautiful verses, is eternally bound inside a double-tongued flame in the penultimate circle of hell.
When Dante reaches Paradise, Virgil, who has acted as his guide through Hell and Purgatory, is replaced by Beatrice, the woman who the poet claimed to have loved since he was nine years old. Her premature death devastated him and their reunion on the threshold of paradise ought to be a moment of great joy. Instead, the reader shares Dante’s grief at the loss of Virgil, banished back to the bleakness of Limbo. Beatrice is one of the blessed of Paradise. She shines with a heavenly glow, and is almost omniscient as she is privileged to gaze into the mind of God. There is very little humanity in Beatrice. Perhaps some readers form an emotional connection to her character, but I did not. By contrast, Dante creates in Virgil a supremely human and tragic figure, one who shares the poet’s own experience of exile. Dante tells us that Virgil died around fifty years before Christ’s crucifixion, and was thus too late to be redeemed by Christ’s sacrifice. Virgil is condemned to spend eternity in Limbo, and as Dante-as-protagonist draws nearer to Paradise and salvation, the moment approaches in which Virgil must return to the underworld. At the start of the poem, Virgil represents Dante’s literary forbear and personal hero. On the journey through Hell, their relationship becomes more filial, as Virgil becomes a literal protector figure, even at one point carrying Dante in his arms. Not only does this supreme affection endear Virgil to the reader, it also makes Dante-as-protagonist more sympathetic. Although he can be a strange and self-important character, the fictional Dante’s affection and deference towards his hero show him at his best, and when I imagine Dante-as-author carefully plotting his fictional interactions with Virgil, it is hard not to be moved by his nerdiness. In writing an epic poem in which his favourite poet refers to him as ‘my son’, Dante may have invented the genre of fan fiction.
Virgil’s presentation throughout the Comedy proves that Dante appreciates the importance of human love as much as divine love. The encounter with Ulysses in ‘Inferno’ shows that Dante is capable of immense generosity of spirit, even towards sinners. In this episode Ulysses recounts his final voyage through the uncharted Southern hemisphere, as far as the mountain of Purgatory. According to Ulysses’ tale, he and his crew went beyond the boundaries of human experience as ordained by God, and are receiving eternal punishment in hell for this excessive ambition. The fictional Virgil appears to disagree with this account, claiming that Ulysses is damned for his deviousness during the Trojan war. Either way, it is clear that Ulysses is a sinner, and yet it is he who speaks the lines: ‘fatti non foste a viver come bruti / ma per seguir virtute e canoscenza’ (You were not made to live as beasts / but to pursue virtue and knowledge). This reassertion of man’s noble qualities, even amid the degradation of hell, is moving in its own right, but to anyone who has read If is is a Man (Primo Levi’s 1947 account of his experiences in Auschwitz), these lines have a particular resonance. In one chapter, Levi recites them to an uncomprehending fellow-prisoner, even as he is subjected to the systematic destruction of his humanity. It is clear that, knowingly or not, Dante is of humanity’s party.
We must acknowledge that the Comedy contains many examples of intolerance. Various passages make for uncomfortable reading, expressing as they do ideas that seem misogynistic, homophobic, anti-Semitic, Islamophobic and racist. Any student of medieval literature is accustomed to encountering expressions of outmoded or offensive ideas. What I found so unusual in reading the Comedy was my unwillingness to make the same exceptions for Dante as I have for other authors. There is no point in merely remarking that medieval writings often contain offensive views: one might as well observe that water is wet. And yet, after a year spent reading the Comedy, Dante felt so familiar to me that I started to feel frustrated and disappointed by his occasional lapses into Islamophobia or homophobia. It might seem unrealistic to expect a medieval author to reflect our modern ethical standards, but his moments of intolerance do not tally with the broad-minded and fundamentally liberal philosophy that we see elsewhere in the Comedy.
Dante is more than capable of making radical choices. In ‘Paradiso’, the souls populating the third sphere of heaven include a famous contemporary adulteress and a Biblical character usually interpreted as a sex worker. In Hell, the sin of sodomy is deemed a crime against nature and is punished separately from the sin of lust, but, by the time we reach Purgatory, homosexual lust is acknowledged, but treated equally to heterosexual lust. Perhaps most striking of Dante’s choices is the inclusion of ‘pagans’ in the Castle of Limbo, the most privileged area of Hell, and even in Paradise itself. Before Dante, traditional theology imagined Limbo as the abode of unbaptised children and the righteous of the Old Testament, who dwelled there until they were taken up to Heaven in the Harrowing of Hell. Dante instead imagines a special castle in Limbo populated by the famous sages of Greco- Roman antiquity, the Muslim scholars Averroes and Avicenna and, astonishingly, Saladin, who fought against Christian crusaders in the Middle East. Two more ‘pagan’ souls make it all the way to paradise. While these may seem like small concessions towards tolerance, they are, in context, highly unusual. As Columbia University Dante academic Teodolinda Barolini puts it, ‘the choice of putting adult virtuous pagans in Limbo, the choice of putting saved pagans in paradise, and the choice of exploiting the organizational template of purgatory to showcase the idea that homosexuals can be saved’ are all examples of Dante going ‘counter to his culture’.
Dante used the Comedy to advance his personal vendettas and agendas. He predicts the glory and success of his patrons and the downfall of his enemies. None of this is unusual: much of the great art of the Renaissance is shaped by the necessity of keeping the patron happy. Often, the advancement of Dante’s personal agenda contributes positively to the Comedy – the obvious example being the spectre of banishment which hangs over the entire work, often providing moments of great poignancy. At the time of writing (1308-20), the real Dante had already been ignominiously banished from his native Florence. The Comedy, however, is set at an earlier date and Dante-as-protagonist is unaware of the fate in store for him (although several dark prophecies hint at what is to come.) Near the end of ‘Paradiso’, Dante expresses the hope that his poem might win him sufficient admiration to see him recalled from banishment and crowned with the laurel wreath used in antiquity to honour the greatest poets. Here Dante-as-author is contradicting the timeline which he himself has established: Dante-as-protagonist is only vaguely aware of his impending exile. Here, Dante-as-author is speaking to the reader directly, subverting his own narrative logic in order to give full expression to his desperate hope of return from banishment. That hope was in vain: Dante never returned to Florence in his lifetime, nor was he ever crowned with the laurel, although most artistic representations of the poet show him wearing one. The city of Florence eventually issued a pardon to the poet, but, since this was in 2008, it was somewhat belated.
Dante was politically committed, and uncompromising in his commitment to his ideology. One of his great preoccupations was the division of power between the Church and the State, represented by the Pope and the Emperor respectively. By ‘Emperor’, Dante could be referring to the ruler of the Roman Empire, the Eastern Roman Empire or the Holy Roman Empire – he saw them all as continuations of the same fundamental political authority. While Dante’s political views are formally set out in his work De Monarchia (1312-13), what we see in the Comedy is his search for further theological justification for his opinions, as he attempts to create a consistent narrative linking ancient mythology, the New Testament, the Roman Empire and more recent history. Dante wants to demonstrate the permanent presence of the institution of Empire throughout history, predating the Church. The Trojan hero Aeneas takes on great importance for the Florentine poet: Virgil’s Aeneid casts him as the ancestor of the Roman people, which allows Dante to trace his Rome’s lineage all the way back to ancient Troy. The advent of Rome, seat of the Vatican and the Papacy, but also the heart of the Roman Empire is, to Dante, as important an event as the advent of Christ. Dante’s great reverence of Virgil and his importance in the Comedy stem from this view of the Aeneid as a kind of secular gospel, making Virgil the ‘prophet’ of Rome. Meanwhile, the coming of the Roman Emperor Henry VII is given similarly Messianic treatment. Dante hoped that Henry would unite Italy and restore the correct balance of power between Church and Empire, but, once again, his hopes were in vain.
Dante follows medieval tradition in interpreting Virgil’s fourth Eclogue as a prophecy of the birth of Christ, making him an anachronistic advocate for both Christianity and Empire, although of course this is not enough to save him from damnation. This obsession with justifying the validity and continuity of the Empire may seem tiresome or bizarre – at its lowest point it becomes hypocritical. At one point in ‘Paradiso’, Dante defends the extraordinary argument that since the death of Christ on the cross was part of God’s divine plan, the Roman role in his execution was justified. In the same breath, however, he claims that the destruction of Jerusalem by the Emperor Titus was an act of just revenge against the Jewish people… for their role in the condemnation and execution of Christ. That Dante permits his pet obsession with the Roman Empire to tip over into hypocrisy and anti-Semitism is to me infuriating. We have grown accustomed to an author who hunts out logical inconsistency with the tenacity of a bloodhound, and yet here he lapses into poor logic – simultaneously, our earlier appreciation of Dante’s liberalism is shadowed by this obstinate prejudice.
Reaching the end of a weighty work of literature can feel like a victory. In other cases, it is painful. It can give one a wrench to leave a particularly compelling fictional world or character. For me, the loss of Virgil at the end of Purgatory was greater than the loss of Dante at the end of Paradise. We leave Dante at the moment where he is closest to the presence of God and consequently furthest from the human experience. Throughout ‘Paradiso’, Dante-as- author is tasked with relating experiences that cannot be expressed in human words. We see a proliferation of neologisms: perhaps most famous is trasumanar (to ‘transhumanize’) meaning to transcend the limits of human nature. Most striking, however, is a whole family of verbs, inmiare, intuare, inluiarsi, describing the breaking down of the boundaries between self and other, as souls in heaven become part of an interconnected divine mass. Eventually, however, even invented language proves insufficient, and the Comedy ends as Dante encounters the ultimately indescribable. There is a vague sense of incompleteness: a bracket somewhere has not been closed. The very first lines of the poem establish a frame narrative in which an older version of the narrator, presumably safely returned from Paradise, looks back on his middle-aged transgressions and his rescue from the dark wood by Virgil. The end of the Comedy doesn’t conclude that frame narrative. We don’t catch up with Dante-as-author back on earth, sitting at the desk where he has just traced the last letter of stelle, the final word of each of the Comedy’s three cantiche. Instead, we leave him in Heaven, lost in awed contemplation of the deity that we cannot hope to comprehend.
Will I miss Dante? For me, at least, he is not going anywhere. Reading the Comedy was only a first step – now comes the dissection. Before one is to put on the apparatus of academic analysis, I think it is worth reading the Comedy as Dante’s Adventures in Hell (and Purgatory and Heaven). With that done for me, it is time to take Dante out of the circle of my acquaintances and put him under the microscope. This time next year, I expect I would be willing to sell my soul to Lucifer in exchange for never having to talk or think about Dante ever again, but for now I can look back fondly on our year and the dysfunctional friendship we developed. Only one question haunts me: am I, writing about my imaginary friendship with Dante, as tragic as Dante, writing about his imaginary friendship with Virgil? Perhaps we deserve one another.