So, let’s go to Hell, shall we? It is strange that I begin blogging Dante’s Inferno, the first of his Commedia trilogy, here at the last, but as I’ve said, I only thought we would be doing Purgatorio for Lent, and then drop it. I had no idea that Dante blogging would be so popular, much less that I would get a book deal out of it. The book, by the way, is due at the publisher’s on January 15. This is going to be a busy fall and early winter. Because of a quirk of publishing contracts, I can’t yet announce who the publisher is. It’s a major one, though, and this is going to be a big 2015 release for them. I couldn’t be more pleased. I’ve never been more excited about a book project, and never felt the urgency to tell this story like I do with Dante and the Commedia.

Because most of you have been following my Dante blogging for some time, I feel no need to give a lengthy background to the Inferno. This short bit should suffice as a very basic introduction.

Dante Alighieri was born in Florence in the year 1265. He rose to become a first-rate poet and a politician in what was then one of the richest and most powerful cities in Europe. Florence was actually a city-state; Italy didn’t exist as a unified country. Florence was riven by partisan politics, though. The Ghibellines supported the Holy Roman Emperor, and looked to him as a counterweight to the power of the Pope, who was not only the spiritual head of the Roman Catholic Church, but the monarch of central Italy. The Guelphs backed the Pope against the Holy Roman Emperor. The two parties struggled for control of northern Italy. The Dante Society has a more detailed explanation of the longstanding conflict; it’s worth reading to understand how deep and tangled all of this was.

The thing to know is that Dante was a Guelph. After the Guelphs triumphed in Florence, they split into two factions: the Blacks and the Whites. The Whites had been papal supporters, but were more moderate, and pushed back against Pope Boniface VIII’s machinations. The Blacks were all-in for Boniface. Dante sided with the Whites. In 1302, while on a diplomatic mission to Rome, Dante found himself detained by Boniface for several days. Meanwhile, the Blacks took over Florence, tried Dante in absentia on trumped-up charges, and exiled him. This meant that all his property and money was seized, and he couldn’t return to Florence on pain of death. Thus did Dante go into exile. He spent the rest of his life — he died in 1321 — moving from place to place, longing for return to Florence, and for justice. He died in Ravenna, shortly after finishing Paradiso. There you can visit his tomb.

The great love of his life was a Florentine noblewoman, Bice de Portinari, whom he called “Beatrice,” meaning “bearer of blessings.” He first saw her when he was nine years old, and was overcome. They were never together. She refused him, it seems, and married another man. She died young, at 24. Dante never forgot her. In the Commedia, he treats her as the summit of God’s goodness in his life. You’ll remember from our study of Purgatorio that when the pilgrim Dante (the Pilgrim Dante is a character in a poem written by the Poet Dante) meets her at last at the summit of Mount Purgatory, he confesses that his life took a wrong turn when he forgot about her after her death, and dedicated himself to other pursuits. The entire drama of the Commedia is how Beatrice’s chaste love for him, inspired by God’s love for all, caused her to condescend to enter Hell for the sake of saving his soul. Beatrice is an icon of Christ.

Dante’s exile compelled him to take stock of the mess his own life had become, and the mess his world had become. He concludes that the source of all the chaos and misery is disordered desire. If all, including himself, loved as they should love, they would love God more than they love themselves and their passions. To harmonize with the will of God requires us to overcome the passions. The pilgrimage Dante makes in the Commedia tells the story of how we lost God, and how we can regain Him again. Mark Musa, whose translation of the Commedia I recommend to newcomers (I slightly prefer the Hollander translation, but the notes in Musa are far more accessible to the ordinary reader; do not buy The Portable Dante version, which has only a few of Musa’s notes) says that the poem is “the journey of Everyman to God” And:

Dante was in accord with Hugh of Saint Victor, who, in his Didascalia, says: “Contemplating what God has done, we learn what is for us to do. All nature speaks God. All nature teaches man.” Dante, then, with his special kind of allegory, tries to imitate God: the symbolic world he creates in his poem is in principle a mirror of the actual world created by God himself.

This is a point that cannot be overstated. Dante believed, as all Christians used to believe, that all of Creation was a theophany: a manifestation of God. That is, he saw Creation as iconic: a window into the divine realm through which God manifests himself, more strongly in some forms than in others. To make this point even more strongly, Dante designed the Commedia as a cosmos. As the Dante translator and scholar Andrew Frisardi has written:

The sheer quantity and vitality of detail in the Commedia imitates life: we can never grasp hold of it all. At the same time, the Commedia testifies to the attunement of those details to a transcendent pattern. Just as Dante’s subjective experience, both pleasurable (Beatrice) and painful (exile), is eventually seen in terms of the dolce armonia [sweet harmony] that suffuses and sustains existence—the vision of the One that is the culmination of the poet’s journey—the Commedia itself is an imitation of divine order.

The complex order built into every line of the Commedia is staggering to contemplate. To cite the most obvious example, Dante’s “terza rima” rhyme scheme — aba, bcb, cdc, ded, etc. which he invented to write this poem. Dante suffuses threeness throughout the entire 14,000+ line work, making every verse testify to the life of the Holy Trinity. Note well that he doesn’t just symbolize the Trinity; he represents its dynamic action in sustaining Creation and drawing it forward. Frisardi:

This tripartite structure [of terza rima] does not . . . arise . . . by way of simple addition, but consists of a doubling or halving of a given unit, which then produces a mediating third entity out of itself. This process is reflected in the form of the terza rima: the first rhyming line represents, as it were, the Father and corresponds to the third line, while the second line both divides and unites the other two. . . . Each terza rima, by virtue of its single middle line, demands a further rhyme, just as in Nature each new creation both resolves two opposing forces within itself and at the same time already contains the seed of a new confrontation, and so on ad infinitum. This then is the paradigm for the interlinking of the terza rima, with its inherent allusion to the future and its consequent aura of the prophetic.

You don’t really need to know this to understand the Commedia, and in any case it is not visible in English translations, where, given the limits of the English language, it is impossible to replicate. But it is worth knowing to appreciate both Dante’s genius and his creation of this poem in imitation of God’s creation of all things. The poet is drawing our attention to the presence of God and His order throughout the cosmos.

As we set out on this journey, it’s important to observe that the path through the Inferno spirals down toward the pit of Hell, while the path through Purgatory, as we have seen, spirals upward in the direction of Heaven. There is no spiral in Heaven, because all is perfect and timeless there; if you followed my Paradiso blogging you’ll know that Heaven gave the pilgrim Dante the illusion of progress through concentric spheres so he, within his human limitations, could better understand the lessons being taught to him.

Anyway, the spiral design is purposeful, and ingenious. The poet means for this to symbolize how we fall into the depths of sin, and how we may ascend out of them. Nobody, or almost nobody, loses their soul in a single moment. To become captive to sin typically requires slowly circling around vice, descending a bit more each time, barely perceiving our descent, until finally we arrive at the bottom: circling only around ourselves, prisoners to the ego. Similarly, nobody is immediately delivered from the habits of sin. To be made holy requires a similar journey, slowly circling around virtue, purging ourselves of devotion to our passions and our egos, allowing ourselves to be filled with the healing grace of God. The circles become smaller as they spiral upward, culminating in the soul circling in a concentrated way around God — a progression perfected in Paradise. Andrew Frisardi writes that medieval labyrinths, which are in spiral form, are meant to symbolize how complex the descent into and out of sin is, and how difficult it is to find our way out of the maze without God’s help:

It is possible to see the same symbolism in Dante, in the relationship between the celestial rose [at the summit of Paradiso] and the labyrinth of the Inferno, whereby blind ego consciousness is redeemed in the folds of the rose that germinated in the womb of the Virgin.

You will recall the Dantean conclusion of Eliot’s Little Giddingand the final harmony in God:

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Through the unknown, unremembered gate
When the last of earth left to discover
Is that which was the beginning;
At the source of the longest river
The voice of the hidden waterfall
And the children in the apple-tree

Not known, because not looked for
But heard, half-heard, in the stillness
Between two waves of the sea.
Quick now, here, now, always–
A condition of complete simplicity
(Costing not less than everything)
And all shall be well and
All manner of thing shall be well
When the tongues of flames are in-folded
Into the crowned knot of fire
And the fire and the rose are one.

The Commedia is, obviously, a profoundly religious poem, because Dante lived in a profoundly religious age, and was himself a believing Roman Catholic. But you do not have to be a Christian, or even religious, to love and to learn from the Commedia. I commend to you a terrific book by the literary critic Erich Auerbach, Dante: Poet of the Secular World, which is a classic in the field of Dante studies. From the book:

Thus in truth the Comedy is a picture of earthly life. The human world in all its breadth and depth is gathered into the structure of the hereafter and there it stands: complete, unfalsified, yet encompassed in an eternal order; the confusion of earthly affairs is not concealed or attenuated or immaterialized, but preserved in full evidence and grounded in a plan which embraces it and raises it above all contingency. Doctrine and fantasy, history and myth are woven into an almost inextricable skein. … Once one has succeeded in surveying the whole, the hundred cantos, with their radiant terza rima, their perpetual binding and loosing, reveal the dreamlike lightness and remoteness of a perfection that seems to hover over us like a dance of unearthly figures.

To bring this back to earth: what does this have to do with you and your life? Well, let me tell you what it had to do with me and my life. There will be details to come, but for now, let this suffice. I knew very little about Dante until a year ago. The Commedia has always been one of those Great Books I wanted to read in theory, but kind of figured I’d never get around to doing. I am not much of a reader of fiction, and certainly not medieval poetry. It doesn’t come naturally to me.

My own life had been a pilgrimage of sorts. I left my home in south Louisiana at age 16, as something of an exile. Alienated from my school community, where I had been bullied, and estranged in a sense from my family, especially my dad, I went to a public boarding school and found a new life. My post-college career took me far away from home, but I always tendered within my heart a desire to be fully reconciled to my roots. I tried to do that, moving back to Louisiana in 1993, at the age of 26, but learned quickly that life here would have been impossible, because of my difficult relationship with my strong-willed father. (I wrote about a lot of this in The Little Way of Ruthie Leming.) So I left again.

In the ensuing years, I married, started a family, moved again and again, and suffered a crisis of faith that culminated in leaving the Catholic Church, which was, and remains, the most painful experience of my life. My sister Ruthie’s 2011 death from cancer — I mean the astonishing bravery and faith with which she met it — was an occasion of enormous grace, a gift from God that built a bridge back home, over which I and my wife and kids walked three months after we buried her. I wrote Little Way to tell this story. As I penned the final chapter, I learned some shattering news that changed everything. I discovered that I would likely never be able to fully return home, because the rejection that I thought grace had reversed was, to my shock, so deeply rooted within the culture of my family that it was a permanent reality — and there was absolutely nothing I could do about it.

I fell into a deep depression, one that the stress from which made the autoimmune condition (chronic Epstein-Barr, or mononucleosis) from which I suffer much worse. I was sick all the time, and in despair. For months on end I suffered, and saw no way out. So much of what I thought I knew wasn’t true. I was lost and confused, and could not find my way out of this dark wood in which I found myself in the middle of my life. A good thing for which I had longed all my life was now never going to happen; that dream was dead, and I struggled mightily to deal with it. My own depression and sickness was dragging my wife and children down into the pit with me.

In the summer of 2013, I went to see a rheumatologist for extensive testing to see if there were any underlying physiological conditions responsible for my chronic mono. The answer: no, nothing. In such cases, the doctor said, the source of your chronic illness is deep and constant stress. What are you stressed over? he asked.

I told him. His conclusion: You have a choice: leave Louisiana, or resign yourself to destroying your health. 

I told him I couldn’t do either one. My wife and kids were happy here, and none of us had the desire or the emotional strength to uproot ourselves again. But this health crisis was intolerable. The doctor shrugged.

“All I can tell you is that you had better find some way to get inner peace,” he said.

My physician and my wife told me I had to humble myself and go to therapy, which I had long resisted doing. My priest gave me a demanding contemplative prayer rule, and we began addressing these problems in the confessional. But for me, the most important thing that changed my life was the discovery of Dante.

Shortly after I saw the rheumatologist, I found myself in a Barnes & Noble bookstore in Baton Rouge, killing time. I am not much of a poetry reader, but there I was in the poetry section, browsing. Having discovered in middle age the glories of the Odyssey a year earlier, studying it with my son, I found myself wondering from time to time whether poetry held more beauty and truth accessible to me than I had estimated. Standing there, I pulled a copy of Dante’s Inferno off the shelf, and began thumbing through it. I don’t know whose translation it was; here are the opening lines from Mark Musa’s:

Midway along the journey of our life

I woke to find myself in a dark wood,

for I had wandered off from the straight path.

 

How hard it is to tell what it was like,

this wood of wilderness, savage and stubborn

(the thought of it brings back all my old fears),

 

a bitter place! Death could scarce be bitterer.

But if I would show the good that came of it

I must talk about things other than the good.

That struck me: he’s talking about what we would tritely call a midlife crisis. I read on, through the first two cantos, and was instantly caught up in the drama of the narrative. I was on to something; it was a real Augustinian tolle, lege moment. As I recollect that moment today, sitting in my armchair at home, I don’t think I bought the Inferno that day. I kept thinking about it, unable to get Dante and his journey off of my mind. Finally, I bought a copy and began my own Dantean pilgrimage.

It changed my life. By the time I came out the other end, I had a much greater understanding of the nature of our brokenness, and my participation in it. I had made a breakthrough along the way that allowed me for the first time in my life to feel that God loved me. And I was on the way toward finding a way to live a joyful life in this earthly exile. I told my priest in confession one day that as hard as this walk has been since returning to Louisiana, I thank God for it, because if it had not been for the things he has shown me and the things I have had to confront and to overcome, I would never have done the spiritual and emotional work necessary to find a greater sense of wholeness.

I will tell the story to the best of my ability in my forthcoming book How Dante Can Save Your Life, which will likely be published in the fall/winter of 2015. I have been so indescribably grateful for the gift God gave me through the poetry of Dante that I want to help others who are struggling in their own dark woods find their way to the Commedia, and through it, find their way back to the straight path. Dante himself said the intention of his poem was to lead people from a state of misery to one of happiness. It really works. I can testify to that. When I was a young man of 17, seeing the Chartres cathedral ultimately led to my conversion to Christianity as an adult. When I was a middle-aged man of 47, encountering another work of art of the High Middle Ages, the Divine Comedy, led me to a much deeper conversion.

I am not well-educated, and what I know about art, architecture, and literature could barely fill a pamphlet. But I believe that the light and spirit of God really does fill all things, some more than others. The Commedia is, in this sense, perhaps the most spiritually luminous creation ever produced by a man. Once I opened myself up to it, it illumined me. It can do the same for you, I am convinced.

But the road to divine enlightenment leads first through Hell. In order to find his way out of the dark wood, Dante has to be shown how he got there. Let’s get going.

When Inferno opens, the pilgrim comes to himself, terrified, in the wilderness.

How I came there I cannot really tell,

I was so full of sleep

when I forsook the one true way.

The pilgrim had been sleepwalking through life. He once knew the true way, but in his daze, he stumbled off the path, and did not know how to get back to it. His recovery depends on recognizing that he had made a mess of his life through his own doing, his own inattention. As the Dante translator Anthony Esolen writes in the (excellent) notes to his version of Inferno:

The wilderness, or selva oscura, represents the confusion of choices in a life not obedient to reason and thus not oriented toward man’s happiness. Says Dante [in his Convivio]: “So the youth, who enters into the wandering woods of this life, would never know the right way to go, were it not shown to him by his elders.” Such a forest is made all the rougher for corruption in the papacy and the empire, for then there are no reliable spiritual guides to direct us on the right path and no temporal authorities to check us when we wander from it.

See how contemporary Dante is? He has made a shipwreck of his life in a time in which the ministers of the Church could not be trusted as reliable spiritual guides, and politics had become so corrupt and faction-ridden that they too cannot be looked upon as guides to goodness. What was Dante’s own sin that led him off the straight path? It’s not entirely clear from the Commedia, but pride seems to have had a lot to do with it, and perhaps lust. What we can say for sure, because this is what the pilgrim himself confesses in Purgatorio, is that he lost his way because he took his eyes off of God, and began to see other things — political power, literary success, and so forth — as end in themselves. They became his idols, which, in the end, means that his sovereign self became his true God.

Now that Dante has awakened to his condition, he wants to escape it — and sees beyond the valley the Sun, which “leads men straight, no matter what their road.” The Sun here is a symbol of God, or of divine grace. He knows that if he follows the Sun, he will make it back. We, the reader, know in advance that he does find his way home, because he has told us in the third tercet of the poem. This is why it’s called the “comedy” (as opposed to “tragedy”): because it has a happy ending.

So, the rising of the Sun will surely illuminate the way forward, right? It calms Dante to think that he will be able to see his way free and clear. But he’s wrong. Giuseppe Mazzotta notes that Dante’s language switches from speaking of the mind to speaking of the body. He begins to climb the slope out of the valley, only to find three wild beasts blocking his way. There is a leopard (an allegory of Lust), a lion (Pride) and a Wolf (Greed). They frighten the pilgrim so much that he retreats back to a dark place, and loses hope of ever being rescued from this shipwreck.

There are other interpretations of what these wild beasts represent (e.g., Incontinence, Malice, Mad Brutishness). The point is this: Dante’s sinful inclinations are so powerful, and so paralyzing, that he cannot hope to overcome them on his own. He thought earlier that his self-delivery from the dark wood was a matter of seeing the way out. Now he learns that knowledge isn’t enough; the will has to be involved as well — and his will is too weak to walk the way to freedom.

This really hits home with me. For most of my life, I’ve thought that the solution to all my theological and philosophical concerns depended on reading the right book, or getting the correct arguments sorted in my mind. If I could just know the way forward, then I would surely take it. It took many years for me to recognize that I had been lying to myself, for the most part: I didn’t actually want to know anything that conflicted with my will — that is, with what I wanted to do. This was because my will was unconverted. I thought of myself as a brave searcher of truth, but it was more truthful to say that I was looking for a truth that suited my preferences. My saving grace is that I was usually honest enough with myself to know that this was a sham, that I wanted the psychological comfort of knowing the truth without the difficulty of having to conform my will and my actions with what that truth dictated.

Usually. But the mind is very good at concealing things from itself. What the poet is telling us here is that our restoration is not simply a matter of intellection. It involves the conversion of our whole selves, body, mind, and soul. Knowing the right thing to do is one thing, but it cannot make you righteous. Only aligning the will with righteousness can do that.

Suddenly, in the valley of the shadow of death, a ghost appears.

When I saw him in that vast desert,

‘Have mercy on me, whatever you are,’

I cried, ‘whether shade or living man.’

Notice this response: a plea for mercy. The very first words the pilgrim speaks in the poem are, “Have mercy on me.” Such is the depth of his despair, all he can do is ask for mercy. This is the plea of King David in Psalm 51. The beginning of all enlightenment and restoration begins with absolute humility: a plea for mercy.

The shade, of course, is the Roman poet Virgil, author of The Aeneid, on which the Commedia is heavily based. The Aeneid is the epic story of Aeneas, who flees the ruins of Troy and sets out in his exile on a journey around the Mediterranean, and ends up founding the city of Rome. Out of Aeneas’s personal catastrophe came new life. Dante the poet clearly wants us to see how the same happened to him. What he also wants us to see is themes in the lives of literary, scriptural, and mythical figures can be seen in ordinary human life right here, right now — a radical innovation in literature. And the poet wants us to understand that literature can serve as an allegory for our own interior lives. Stories matter. They aren’t merely to entertain us, though they should. They should also imprint themselves on our imagination, and cause us to change our lives.

It’s important to observe how Virgil introduces himself. He never mentions his name, only identifies himself by the place his mother and father are from (Mantua), where he was born (Rome), and when (“under good Augustus, in an age of false and lying gods”). And then he identifies himself by his work: “I was a poet and I sang the just son of Anchises come from Troy, after proud Ilium was put to flame.”

“Are you then Virgil?” Dante asks. Indeed, this is Virgil. Why do you suppose that the older man did not identify himself straightforwardly? Because, I think, he is trying to show Dante how our identities are related to our time, our place, and the work we do. A great them of the Commedia is relationship: how all people and all things exist in a chain of being. Similarly, the pilgrim will learn that the Truth — which is to say, Love, the spirit of God — comes to us mediated through created things: people, poetry, and so forth.

Overwhelmed by the sight of the great poet in front of him, Dante praises him as “my teacher and my author.” What does it mean to call a poet “my author”? It means that Virgil “wrote” Dante in the sense that through Virgil’s poetry, Dante came to understand himself, and to make himself into the man and the artist he ought to have been. These passages establish Virgil’s authority over Dante. Dante knows he can trust Virgil, because he has trusted Virgil before, on the page. In a much more minor way, when I first came to Dante, I knew that he would be a trustworthy guide, because his wisdom and art is still esteemed 700 years later. It has stood the test of time.

The pilgrim begs for Virgil’s help to escape the wild beasts and get on the path out of the dark wood:

“It is another path that you must follow,”

he answered, when he saw me weeping,

“If you would flee this wild and savage place…”

Virgil explains that these beasts are deadly, and will kill him if he tries to fight them.

“Therefore, for your sake, I think it wise

you follow me: I will be your guide,

leading you, from here, through an eternal place

 

“where you shall hear despairing cries

and see those ancient souls in pain

as they bewail their second death.”

Hell, he means — the second death is the eternal torment of the afterlife without God.

“Then you shall see the ones who are content

to burn because they hope to come,

whenever it may be, among the blessed.

 

“Should you desire to ascend to these,

you’ll find a soul more fit to lead than I:

I’ll leave you in her care when I depart.”

He means Purgatory, and Beatrice. Virgil tells Dante that he may not follow, because he, Virgil, “was a rebel to His law.”

Dante throws himself on Virgil’s mercy, begging him to lead the way forward. Says Dante, “Then he set out and I came on behind him.”

Because you have probably read with me through Purgatorio, and maybe even Paradiso, you know that Virgil stands for the pinnacle of Reason. He will take Dante as far as he can go toward full restoration in God — but he cannot complete the journey, because human reason, unaided by divine revelation, cannot do so. Beatrice is Revelation.

Nevertheless, Dante the poet makes a vitally important point by using Virgil and The Aeneid in his own epic journey. He wants us to know that God can use anything to bring us back to Himself. Had God sent a saint or an angel to Dante in the dark wood, perhaps he wouldn’t have followed him. Virgil, though, that’s a man that the lost and frightened Dante could trust. The light of the same God who is everywhere present and fills all things is also present in some real sense in Virgil, and in The Aeneid. Truth, after all, is One. The divine light as it shines through Virgil may be the only light that Dante, in his current spiritual state, is capable of seeing.

But as we see, it will be enough. The road to heaven starts with that first step. The path to the Light begins with a single spark.

UPDATE: It’s interesting to think about how this first canto epitomizes the first three steps of Alcoholics Anonymous’s Twelve Steps:

  • admitting that one cannot control one’s addiction or compulsion;

  • recognizing a higher power that can give strength;

  • examining past errors with the help of a sponsor (experienced member)

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