November 10, 2017
Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s blog.
In an attempt to better understand how we orient ourselves in life, I turn to Dante.
In The Divine Comedy, Dante begins nearly every canto by determining his location. This works twofold as it locates the reader as well as the narrator. The reader first meets Dante in a dark wood where he is surprised by a scary and threatening creature. Afraid, he stands and explains, “Midway in the journey of our life I found myself in a dark wood, for the straight way was lost. Ah, how hard it is to tell what that wood was, wild, rugged, harsh…. I cannot rightly say how I entered it, I was so full of sleep at the moment I left the true way”. From the very beginning, the reader understands that this is not the average journey through rugged mountains, but something more existential, something personal and revelatory. This journey which promises to take Dante through Hell, Purgatory and Heaven is a spiritual journey. In other words, Dante’s internal path was lost and this is his attempt to find his better self.
I can absolutely see how, politically speaking, he had lost his way. Born in Florence in 1265, Dante participated in and witnessed the devastating results of political and religious factions that tore apart his community, family, friends and city. The Guelph faction supported the Pope, whereas the Ghibelline faction supported the Holy Roman Emperor. Guelph families tended to be aristocratic or wealthy, whereas the wealth of the Ghibelline party was focused in agriculture. Therefore, Dante was born into a great deal of political strife that ripped apart the seams of Florence, and medieval Italy. In this growing divide, he witnessed all manner of sin, even from those leaders who were sworn to pursue truth. Dante turned his growing disillusionment with politics and religion into The Divine Comedy in which he lambastes all sinners. Many of the people he places in hell are of high religious orders. He spares no one on this journey – himself included.
How does one locate the self within society? How do we find direction that comforts and guides us? Dante clearly relied upon the church – but the moral depravity of some church figures made him question his own leaders. It is in this state of mind that he enters the dark forest. Lucky for Dante, his idol Virgil comes to rescue him. Virgil has been sent, of course by Beatrice. First of all, I love the idea of the reverse fairy tale – Beatrice saves Dante and not the reverse. And second, I love that they physically lead him to Heaven through the use of dialogue and his own two feet. Though he regards Virgil and Beatrice in a highly idealized state, they do, for the most part, make him earn the light.
Of course, this virtual tour of heaven and hell comes with constant reminders about navigation. Dante orients himself by using: stars, terrain, height and depth, light and dark, and of course, Virgil and Beatrice. Location is of great importance to everyone in the work. Dante introduces each figure by understanding what region and family they are from. This technique, of course, would have resonated with his readers. There is a mathematical precision to his work which relies upon place, date, astrology, religion and symbolism.
Sight is of extreme importance in this orientation. Dante seeks approval before approaching shades (in the “Inferno” and “Purgatorio”) and lights (those in “Paradiso”). Both Virgil and Beatrice make eye contact as a way of acceptance or rejection. The juxtaposition of eye contact is made stronger in the Inferno, in which people are often backwards, upside down or sumberged in some pit. In “Paradiso”, Dante always looks to Beatrice for approval and receives it from her glowing eyes. She smiles often, unlike those in the painful regions below. As he reaches the highest realms of Paradise, joy also heightens, reflected in the constant orientation towards light. We see how this light acts as a compass in the following few examples:
“And now the life of that holy light had turned again to the Sun which fills it, as to that Good which is sufficient to all things. Ah, souls deceived and creatures impious, who from such Good turn away your hearts, directing your brows to vanity!
“And lo! Another of those splendors made toward me and by brightening outwardly was signifying its wish to please me. Beatrice’s eyes, fixed on me as before, made me assured of dear assent to my desire.” (Par., Canto IX)
“[F]rom the heart of one of the new lights there came a voice which made me seem as the needle to the star in turning me to where it was” (Par., Canto XII)
“Let him imagine, who would rightly grasp what I now beheld (and, while I speak, let him hold the image firm as a rock), fifteen stars which in different regions vivify the heaven with such great brightness that it overcomes every thickness of the air; let him imagine that Wain for which the bosom of our heaven suffices night and day so that with the turning of the pole it does not disappear; let him imagine the mouth of that Horn which begins at the end of the axle on which the first wheel revolves – all to have made of themselves two signs in the heavens like that which the daughter of Minos made when she felt the chill of death; and one to have its rays within the other, and both to revolve in such manner that one should go first and the other after; and he will have as it were a shadow of the true constellation, and of the double dance, which was circling round the point where I was; for it is as far beyond our experience as the motion of the heaven that outspeeds all the rest is beyond the motion of the Chiana.” (Par., Canto XIII)
This last passage is particularly difficult for the modern reader unfamiliar with astronomy, mythology or medieval Italy. The notes supply the fact that Wain = Big Dipper, the Horn = the last two stars of the hornlike Little Dipper (Ursa Minor); the daughter of Minos was Ariadne whose crown was turned into a constellation; and finally, Chiana is a river in Tuscany.
In this short paragraph alone, we have a number of orientations that may challenge us. I wonder if these navigation points would have challenged Dante’s contemporaries, or only those of us so far removed from the middle ages? In other words, is this work meant to challenge everyone, to unsettle and unseat us, make us uncomfortable with our own knowledge? Regardless of our astrological awareness, I think his point is that, even in connecting with the light, even after visiting with Virgil and Beatrice, forward movement requires a lot of self-evaluation. While it is easy to use GPS in day to day navigation, Dante reminds us how fruitful it can be to focus on points of importance. Our moral compass may depend upon the ways in which we search.
In The Divine Comedy, we are left with the shadow of Dante, much like the shadow of the Argo: “A single moment makes from me greater oblivion than five and twenty centuries have wrought upon the enterprise that made Neptune wonder at the shadow of the Argo. Thus my mind, all rapt, was gazing, fixed, motionless, and intent, ever enkindled by its gazing. In that Light one becomes such that it is impossible he should ever consent to turn himself from it for other sight; for the good, which is the object of the will, is all gathered in it, and outside of it that is defective which is perfect there” (Par., Canto XXXIII).
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