Monday, March 30, 2009

The Divine Comedy: The Only Good Thing to Come Out of Italy in the Last 700 Years. Just Kidding. Sort of.

This is on my other blog as well.

My English professor this semester concludes his syllabus with a potentially scandalous proposal: "I am suggesting that there exists no adequate reading of literature that is not also a reading of life, of your life and of our common lives as human beings." So yeah, this class started well, or appeared to have the potential to do so. We began by working on the Divine Comedy - this is dangerous at a school like UD, where the "reading" of one's own life in Dante might be little more than a moral education. One could easily walk away from the Comedy with a list of "do's" and "do not's," while Dante's education to love, community, and powerlessness - the heart of his education the Mystery - remains background noise. Luckily, such has not been the case, at least not for myself.

I realize Dante has pretty much been done to death in CL what with the whole Italian connection and whatnot - I really don't care. It is my favorite book in the UD core curriculum thus far and I want to write about it. This is not a detraction from the Iliad, the Odyssey, the Aeneid, Sir Gawain, or Beowulf, which we did last semester (although the Aeneid was, in my estimation, a bit of a snooze-fest): the Divine Comedy is just really, really good. Bear in mind that this is not a scholastic analysis of the text - I will be speaking in general terms. If you want to affirm or refute what I am saying, read the book yourself.

It is hard to know where to begin with a book like the Comedia. As I've said, the danger is to read it as a moral education - this is exceptionally true for the Inferno, whose entire focus seems, at face value, to be about the punishment of sinners. What we discover instead in the Comedia is a struggle to understand and to follow. For Dante this begins with simply surviving - he is lost and confronted with "beasts" - companionship, rescue, arrives in Virgil. The beasts being metaphors for various vices (lion = pride, leopard = lust, etc.), the conclusion can become "our companionship saves us from immorality." But we also see that Dante agrees to the education of traveling through the world beyond upon learning that Beatrice's soul impelled Virgil to Dante's aid. To summarize the overarching theme of each canticle: The Inferno is an education to divine justice, the Purgatorio, an education that seeks to better understand divine love and justice, and Paradiso, though muddled with Dante's backwards understanding of physics and astronomy, is an education to love. Inferno he learns that to pity the sinners in hell is to question God's justice, and by Paradiso he understands that God is love, the master of reality.

This all makes for a very boring, sterile encyclical on why God is loving and just: these are things that everyone and their mother knows, recognizes, and tries to attain because "it's the right thing." They might go so deep as to say "evil is the absence of God" or "sin is contrary to human nature" - truisms that with time and repetition become tepid platitudes. This is not where Dante concludes. His education and ours would be a waste of time were it not for the fact that inherent in this discovery of the Mystery is an awakening of man's longing and need - that this education is the most thrilling adventure there is. That Virgil comes to Dante's rescue is a testament to the grace of Another in a reality that appears to foster little more than loneliness, solitude, and alienation.

I need to modify a previous statement - the Divine Comedy does in fact encompass a moral eduaction. But inherent in that moral education is an poignant education to the heart's desire for the Infinite. The sinners in hell did, at the end of the day, sin without repentance - for this they are punished.

Dante's poetry, however, allows for the sin to be conceptualized and thus generalized. Dante characterizes all human action as guided by "love", both good love and bad love. Bad love is, again, not a question of virtues or ethics, but one rather of worthiness. One guilty of bad love directs his or her affection, hope, and expectation - the totality of their desire -toward something unworthy, something that cannot fulfill them. That desire is misdirected such that it destroys that which would educate to the beauty of the Mystery - community - and as Dante enters deeper and deeper into Hell, the sin fosters greater delusion for each sinner. Judas is deepest in Hell - he directly betrayed the fulfillment of man's heart Incarnate, and rather than repent and begin again (as Peter) he despairs and destroys himself, as though the hope Jesus of Nazareth brought meant nothing.

The question of worthiness is intensely provoking. We live for things unworthy of our affection, yet humanity is a creature entirely unworthy of God's love. His mercy resonates through reality, through the encounter with Him in reality - this is not mercy limited to "Oh, alright one more shot, but if you screw up this one...". The fact that it enters human reality through things that touch us and move us - most exceptionally and gratuitously in the presence of His community - makes the work of beginning again an occasion for joy. To begin again is not a moment where God accepts our "yes" resignedly, but an event where, attracted by that which moves us (especially the gratuitous love met in the community), Christ begs for our hearts, begs for us to join him. That this undeserved mercy is won for us by the willing but undeserved crucifixion and death of Jesus of Nazareth is flooring.

I will skip ahead and summarize an important aspect of Paradiso. Those in Paradise rejoice at the entrance of new souls into heaven - the Infinite is not, appropriately, a limited resource. They rejoice at the joy of those who share in Him, because the basis for love of another person, for community - their desire for the Infinite- is present. It is a difficult thing to describe, but the fact that we receive a foretaste of that joy in the Church, in CL, on vacations, in singing together, at School of Community, in presentations, in dinners, in planning weekends - the fact that this actually happened - is astounding. The fact that it can happen again, that He can enter our lives every day, can only be described with an adjective that has not yet been invented in English.


  1. Andrew - thanks for the post. I hope you have even better things to say about it once you read it in Italian. Also, Virgil is not boring at all; he just needs to be read in Latin. And I think it is safe to say "no Virgil no Dante", meaning Dante owes a lot to the Roman poet's fantastic lines.

    I am very interested in what you said about true moral education, which in the end is an education to the mercy of Christ's presence, and nothing else, because nothing else satisfies our infinite desire. Not our projects, not our moral efforts or the fact that we go the Church, or the fact that we are pro-life, or the fact that we promote social justice. These are part of the journey, but incomplete - and I would even say corrosive - tasks, unless there is a true recognition of Christ's mercy.

  2. I am actually taking a seminar now called "Dante and the Modern Reader" and we are right in the middle of Purgatorio. I love that throughout Inferno and Purgatorio (I cannot yet speak for Paradiso), Dante is not afraid to scandalize and condemn what he knows is a corrupt church--as Francis said, even going to church becomes just another task that comes up short without true recognition of the pity He has on us. Also (as the name of the class implies) we have been talking a lot about how the sins and shortcomings of Dante's time have remained with us today, though perhaps in slightly different forms. Likewise, I think it's clear that human need, especially for the companionship, has not changed much either. Like the souls in Purgatory who sing and pray in unison, this is also an integral part of our own journey.

  3. so, in my usual straightforward style: who are you, Andrew? and is UD University of Delaware?

    Dante and the Commedia ARE amazing. I myself took a class of it with Chris Bacich during high school. Unfortunately, I only got up to canto 28 of Purgatorio with him (the rest he did the following year, when I went to college).

    In any case, something interesting you might like to hear is that Chris actually characterized Purgatory as something different from what you said: a place of education to divine love and justice. He said, instead, and I actually find this reading more compelling and engaging, that Purgatory is the place of the New, of the unpredictable action (and ultimately, Mercy) of God that constantly surprises and brings joy to the souls in Purgatory. This can be seen immediately when Dante and Virgil find Cato at the base of mount Purgatory; simply his presence there is a surprise because, after all, he lived without meeting Christ, AND he committed suicide (albeit in the name of justice), so why isn't he in Hell with Pier delle Vigne? The surprise continues when Dante sees the Angel coming with the the new load of souls entering Purgatory. There are a number of other examples of these surprises, but what's great is that all the souls remain always in awe of them. No one is ever afraid of them, but rather always sure they are good and they look to see what new miracle God is performing in their "life."
    This kind of attention actually, I think is what Dante suggests is the truest/best/most human (pick your preferred superlative) position to have in life. To constantly have eyes wide open like a child, sure of reality's goodness because s/he knows who gives it to him/her. And this actually leads into another thing Chris said: that Purgatory is Dante's vision of what the ideal Christian life on Earth would be, whereas Inferno is the anti-ideal of human/Christian life on Earth.

    Needless to say, I LOVED Purgatory exactly for those two things: novelty and openness. I think it's my favorite canto, although I have yet to read Paradise.

    Also, I'm very happy that you bring out the fact that Dante's Commedia is NOT a moral dogma in literary form. I would be interested to hear more about what work you think the Commedia has done for building the consciousness of the West beyond the oh-so-trite fear of Hell's punishment. And this can be answered simply by starting with going deeper in what it has illuminated for you.

    And just for the record, I agree with Francis completely. Virgil's Aeneid is not a snooze-fest at all- in the Latin. He's really a literary genius. I read the English, though, the summer before I took a Latin Aeneid translation class, and I'm guessing you, like me, suffered from reading a bad translation. It's true, though, no Virgil, no Dante (even within the Commedia itself!)

  4. I am Andrew Esherick...I was in GS in DC with Francis. I think I actually stayed at your house in NY one year during the planning weekend for the 2007 summer vacation. And UD is the University of Dallas.