That is the left hand of my father, as he slept earlier this afternoon. He sleeps a lot in these twilight days of his life. His body is betraying him. Three weeks ago, he was getting around with a cane. Would a walker be better? He refused to consider it. Well, for the past week, he’s been using a walker. All my life, I have dreaded the day of my father’s death, but seeing how much pain and misery his exhausted body causes him, I will great it as a day of mercy, despite my tears.
While he napped, I noticed the sunlight from the curtained window striking his hand, which was draped over his right shoulder. I examined that hand, spackled by freckles and worn with age, and thought of all the things it has held in its 79 years, all the things it has fixed, all the things it has broken, all the things it has begun, all the things it has ended, all the things it has guided, all the things it has comforted. My father has always been a man who grounded himself not in what he could think or could believe, but in what he could do. Now, his mind is clear, but his body will let him do nothing. The only parts that work as they should are those hands. Those beautiful old hands, like driftwood that has spent a lifetime tossed and turned in a tumultuous river, and, in its way, turning and tossing the river right back.
As I sat in the chair at the foot of my father’s bed, saying my prayer rope for him, I thought about Cacciaguida and Dante. We have come to the heart of Paradiso, the cantos in which Dante meets his noble ancestor, Cacciaguida, who died gloriously on Crusade, fighting for the Holy Land. We must set aside our modern way of thinking about holy war; to Dante, his ancestor fought in a righteous cause, and died a martyr’s death (if you, like Dante, believe dying in holy war makes one a martyr), unlike the inhabitants of latter-day Italy, who spend themselves fighting each other.
In these three cantos, pilgrim Dante is in the sphere of Mars, the planet named for the god of war. This is the heaven of the Courageous. Here Dante meets a spirit whose approach Dante likens to that of Anchises, the father of Aeneas, “when in Elysium he knew his son” (Aeneid, Book 6). The poet is telegraphing to us that he is about to encounter his father, or at least a father figure. If it was Aeneas’s fate to found a new city, Rome, what will Dante’s be? The poet hints that literature may contain clues that reveal our own purpose in life.
The spirit belongs to Cacciaguida, Dante’s great-great grandfather. It’s interesting that he appears in Paradiso XV, as Brunetto Latini, Dante’s intellectual father, appeared in Inferno XV. Cacciaguida (pron. “catch-ah-GWEE-dah”) recites a long history of Florence, a city defined by a strong sense of family and place. The old man speaks of Florence in the days before its current (that is, in Dante’s era) wealth and power. In Cacciaguida’s telling, it was Edenic:
Florence, within the circle of her ancient walls
from which she still hears tierce and nones,
dwelled then in peace, temperate and chaste.
One thinks of the hortus conclusus, the medieval concept of the closed garden, a symbol of the dwelling place of God. Everything worked well in Florence back then: the Emperor did what the Emperor was supposed to do, and the Pope did what he was supposed to do. There was good order. Cacciaguida describes how Florence’s rising wealth brought in newcomers, made the city boom, made the old families rich and decadent, and set them to fighting with each other. This set into motion the city’s decline — culminating, for Dante, in his expulsion from the Garden, so to speak.
Bill says we see how the factionalism in the family leads to factionalism in the city, and in the nation, and in the empire — and vice versa. The Guelph-Ghibelline fight began with a fight over a Guelph man, Buondelmonte, who jilted his betrothed, a daughter of the powerful Amidei family, who were Ghibellines. The Amidei ambushed Buondelmonte on the Ponte Vecchio, on Easter Sunday, and killed him in revenge. The murder shocked Florence, and caused a much sharper division between the Guelphs and Ghibellines. This, according to Dante, was the crime that started the civil war that destroyed the peace of Florence, and turned it from a great city into a savage wood.
Tellingly, Dante singles out the deed of Buondelmonte, one of his own party, as at fault for running from his wedding, thus beginning the tragic sequence of events. According to the Dante scholars Bill Cook and Ron Herzman, the poet laying blame in part on his own team amounts to his saying that the real problem in the world is factional hatred. Buondelmonte’s divided heart and malicious deed (breaking off the engagement) led the Amidei to commit a brazen murder for the sake of honor, thus deepening the rift between families, and, in time, tearing the city apart. Cook & Herzman say that this illustrates one of the basic themes of the Commedia: that disorder in the individual’s heart leads to disorder in the family, in the city, in the country, in the empire, and in the world — and vice versa. If you want peace on earth, it must begin with you.
Remember that the Commedia is set in the year 1300, before Dante’s exile, but was actually written years later. This section of the poem is when Dante imposes meaning on his suffering by having his noble ancestor, Cacciaguida, prophesy it as divinely ordained. Here are the lines in which he does so:
You shall leave behind all you most dearly love,
and that shall be the arrow
first loosed from exile’s bow.
You shall learn how salt is the taste
of another man’s bread and how hard is the way,
going down and then up another man’s stairs.
These are among the most memorable tercets of the entire poem. They capture the acute pain of exile. In Florence, the custom is not to put salt in one’s bread. Every time he tastes his daily bread, Dante will be reminded that he is not at home. Every time he descends from his bedroom at someone else’s house, then returns at night, he will recall that he is not doing so in his own house. Dante is not going to go home to Florence. This is his fate.
Yet Dante must transcend it. “Cacciaguida” means “guide of the hunt,” which leads Herzman to conclude: “What Cacciaguida has to teach Dante is how to become the hunter rather than the hunted.”
How? He must stand outside of his pain and suffering, create art from the experience, and through it show the world the way to overcome the brokenness that led to his own exile, and, metaphorically, to the sense we all have of being alienated from God, others, and ourselves. Though Cacciaguida’s portrait of old Florence as utopia cannot possibly be true, the Dante scholar Giuseppe Mazzotta says the myth is important because it gives us an ideal by which to measure our descent, and to aspire to for our restoration:
Of course, this myth of a Florence of the past literally disintegrates when seen in contrast with the reality of Dante’s life as an exile, which is going to await him in the future. So, it’s exile that offers a realistic perspective of his being in history. It’s not a punishment, though it induces suffering. It becomes a virtue. Furthermore, in effect, it will become a paradigm in which we can all recognize ourselves.
What does he mean? That in some sense, each one of us lives in exile from the life we would like to have, or perhaps that we think we deserve. In fact, exile is the human condition. Man is a wayfarer and a pilgrim in this world. If you think about it, to desire what one doesn’t have is to be in exile, because you feel the distance between what you want and what you have. To live in time is to be an exile, because nothing lasts; permanence is an illusion. How can we find true peace within ourselves and among others? This is what Dante is learning on his pilgrimage through the afterlife, and this is what he must go back and tell others.
He will have to do it alone. Cacciaguida tells him that dwelling among the party of political exiles from Florence will be a burden. All they will do is plot how to get home and get back in the game. This is futile. In fact, says Cacciaguida, “it shall bring you honor to have made a single party of yourself alone.” Given that Dante has had strong words of condemnation for those who don’t take sides (remember who dwells on the fringes of Hell?), this is a remarkable statement. Dante is saying, through Cacciaguida, that the factional fighting is so tawdry and destructive that refusing to participate in it anymore is something to be proud of.
In this exchange with his ancestor, the pilgrim thanks him for the preparation these prophecies give him:
“Father, well do I see how time attacks,
spurring toward me to deal me such a blow
as falls the hardest on the least prepared;
so, it is good that foresight lend me arms,
thus, should the place most dear to me be lost,
my verse, at least, shall not lose me all others.
The lesson I take from these tercets is that we should never take anything for granted. We should be prudent. Dante indicates here that we should be careful not to hold too tightly to the things of this world, but should guard the things that matter most. I think of the tercet near the beginning of Canto XV:
It is well that endless be his grief who,
for love of things that do not last,
casts off a love that never dies.
Dante loved Florence with all his heart, but if he held too tightly to its memory, it could destroy him through ceaseless lamentation for what he lost. I had a friend once who suffered a series of significant losses, the victim of serious injustices, wrongs that could never be made right, debts that were impossible to repay. When we knew each other, I felt sorry for her at first, but in time, I came to see that she was a total slave to her past. She interpreted everything in the present in terms of the past, and without knowing what she was doing, determined that her future was bound to be miserable. Eventually I quit hanging around her because all she could talk about was herself as a victim. And she was indeed a victim! But she was a sad person who drove people away, because she had come to define herself by her suffering. For whatever reason, she refused to let that wound heal, and declined any help in healing. Thinking back on that tonight, it seems that to let go of her (entirely justified) sense of grievance would have been to lose herself. She is, or was when I knew her, the sort of person Dante would have met in Hell.
This fate could have been Dante’s if he chose to give himself over to the politics of the exile community, and to remain in that cycle of vengeance that had ravaged Florence for generations. He refused. Mazzotta says that Dante refused to be bound by the past, and instead looked ahead:
We are oriented to the future, the only real time that we have. We don’t have it yet, but it’s the time of one’s projects, the time in which one can really define oneself. I have some contact with the past, through my memories, but sometimes a catastrophe occurs, and only the future can define me then.
[UPDATE: Look back to what Marco the Lombard told Dante in Canto XVI of Purgatorio: essentially, that he cannot control events or the actions of others, but he can control his reaction to them. What Marco means is basically this: misusing free will got the world into its mess, but you yourself can overcome it by using your free will. What’s past cannot be undone, but you have it within your power to determine your future, by how you react to the past from this point on. You have that power, and you have that responsibility.]
Dante’s ancestor was a Crusader who battled for God with his sword. It falls to Dante to fight for God with his pen, as a poet. Having gone through Hell and Purgatory and met famous figures from Florence and its wars, Dante concludes that he must return to tell people what he’s seen, so they might change. Cacciaguida tells him that some folks will hate what he has to say, but here, in the heaven of Courage, he must gain the inspiration to be a truth-teller above all. The things he will have to say will be “bitter at first taste” to his hearers, but in the end, it will prove nourishing to them.
The pilgrim tells his ancestor:
“Yet should I be a timid friend to truth,
I fear that I shall not live on for those
to whom our times will be the ancient days.”
There it is! Dante’s first father figure, Brunetto Latini, told the pilgrim when he met him in Hell that he should “follow his own constellation,” and write to win fame. Dante now understands that writing for fame — that is, to please the crowd — is the way to be forgotten. Only if you serve the truth, no matter who it offends, do you stand a chance of producing something that lasts. If the work you produce is the fruit of a love of truth, then it will endure. If not, not.
Dante calls nobility of blood “insignificant,” as it surely is from the perspective of eternity, but admits he still glories in the deeds of his ancestors. In this tercet, the poet tells us that our good family name will fade away if we do not honor it by our own noble deeds:
You are indeed a cloak that quickly shrinks,
so that, if we do not add to it day by day,
time trims the edges with its shears.
Herzman said that unlike many Florentines who think their ancestry makes them great, Dante says that noble ancestry matters “only if it’s a spur to one’s own similar deeds.” The pilgrim, then, will honor his great forefather by returning to do battle for truth, and for God, in the realm of poetry and ideas.
Sitting at the foot of my father’s bed today, I thought about how for years, I lived in unhappy exile, always wanting to return to a home that was, I now see, a myth, though mostly an edifying one. Mostly. When I returned to my birthplace in the aftermath of my sister’s death and discovered that I couldn’t really go home, both because the home of my imagination didn’t really exist, and because I was not received for reasons beyond my control, I woke up in a dark wood. Yet as I have been writing here for most of the past year, learning that my exile was permanent, and that there was no Florence to go back to (so to speak), provoked me to go on a pilgrimage deep inside myself, led by Dante.
There I learned that the pain of my own particular exile was a source of virtue, because it compelled me to come face to face with some truths I had concealed from myself. It forced me to face down my own self-deception, and to repent of it, and to be healed by God. It taught me to do war with myself, to draw on the power of love to overcome my own grievance at injustice. It granted me the opportunity to see God’s hand in all these events, leading me, through prayer and counsel, but mostly through the beauty of Dante’s poetry, to turn a tragedy that very nearly broke me into a commedia — a story with a happy ending. Every day now I write the book of that happy ending, grateful to God for every wrong move, because they all led me back to Him, in whose will is our peace.
As many of you have suspected, I will be writing a book about all this. It’s called How Dante Can Save Your Life. I do not yet have permission to disclose the name of the publisher, but the deal has been struck, and the book is definitely going to happen. My gifted father made the future for himself and his family with his hands; I, a man of different gifts, make the future for myself and my family with mine.