The Apocalyptic Dante
Apocalypse (n.), an unveiling; from Greek apokalupsis, from apokaluptein ‘uncover, reveal.’
“This is your last chance. After this, there is no turning back. You take the blue pill—the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill—you stay in Wonderland, and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes. Remember: all I’m offering is the truth. Nothing more.” — Morpheus, The Matrix
In How Dante Can Save Your Life, and in my talks on it, I focus almost exclusively on the practical, moral aspects of Dante’s Divine Comedy. These are the most immediately graspable and useful elements of the poem. Consequently, I spend very little time in my book on the Paradiso, the third and final book of Dante’s trilogy.
This is not because I think the Paradiso is irrelevant. Far from it; the Paradiso is very, very deep, so deep that I know I will struggle for the rest of my life to fully comprehend it. Dante knows this, and warns the reader in Canto II, at the outset of the journey across the ocean of Being toward full unity with God, thus:
Turn back if you would see your shores again.
Do not set forth upon the deep,
for, losing sight of me, you would be lost.
To experience God as Dante is about to, and as he is about to reveal to his readers, is to be forever changed. Be warned.
Though the lower parts of the journey through the Comedy are chiefly concerned with moral improvement, it would be a gross misreading of the text to construe it as a manual for How To Be Good. If you think that life in Christ is only about believing the right things and behaving in the correct way, you have a very shallow grasp of reality. This is why you can’t really understand the Inferno and the Purgatorio without seeing them through the lens of the Paradiso. (For that matter, the Comedy is Trinitarian: you can’t understand any one book without reference to the other two).
But to enter the text of Paradiso is to plunge into the mystic depths. The best guide I’ve found so far is one that is fairly difficult itself, but one that I also find indispensable: The Metaphysics of Dante’s Comedy, by Christian Moevs (pron. “mayvs”), a Notre Dame scholar who said incredibly nice things about my Dante book yesterday.
Here are some lengthy quotations from Moevs’ book to give you a better idea of what Dante is up to. Keep in mind that this understanding of metaphysics (that is, the structure of all reality) was universal in Christianity until just after the end of Dante’s life, and that as the contemporary Christian theologian David Bentley Hart has argued in his widely praised book The Experience of God, it is still the dominant metaphysical stance outside the West (and that includes in the Christian East). Here is Moevs:
The point of the Comedy is that understanding is practical. It must not be confused with anything that can be thought or taught, with any “doctrine” or “belief.” Understanding-happiness-salvation, for Dante, is not a set of ideas; it is to have experienced the true nature and foundation of reality, to know it as oneself, and thus to live it. This is the foundation of ethics, and of all political and social reform: such experience alone is capable of changing, rather than just temporarily suppressing, human behavior. The Comedy tells us that there is no path to understanding, happiness, or immortality that does not go through self-sacrifice, through the death to blind self-interest that is an awakening to love, to freedom, to the infinite in and as the finite: to Christ.
He’s saying that in Dante, and in classical Christian metaphysics, the point of the pilgrimage is theosis, or mystical union with God. It is not to be present in heaven with a “Supreme Being” — that is, a being like ourselves, except vastly more powerful. No, it is to be absorbed into Being Itself, but not an impersonal being (e.g., “the Force”), but rather a personal one who has made Himself known as Jesus Christ). As D.B. Hart writes in his book:
If God is the unity of infinite being and infinite consciousness, and the reason for the reciprocal transparency of finite being and finite consciousness each to the other, and the ground of all existence and all knowledge, then the journey toward him must also ultimately be a journey toward the deepest source of the Self.
In the Comedy, Dante’s descent into the Inferno is to go into his own heart, to see how very far he is from God. He has made his own heart, his own ego, the deepest source of himself, and this is an illusion caused by his will. After his purification on the mountain of Purgatory does he open himself to the light of God’s grace, and discovers his true self: in a radically transformative relationship with God.
The distinction between the material and the spiritual is a fundamental illusion. Back to Christian Moevs:
The truth is that what has been said of Indian philosophy applies equally to medieval Christian thought: it “believes that reality is ultimately one and ultimately spiritual. If the comedy has a philosophical or theological foundation and ‘message,’ that is it.
To restate: the point of the Comedy is not moral reformation (though that is unquestionably part of the point); the point is to bring people to spiritual regeneration through direct experience of the Divine. More Moevs:
[T]he claim of history, or of a narrative that typologically discloses the meaning of history or human experience, can only be conversion, awakening, becoming what one is revealed to be, which is to conform one’s life to Christ’s. To use another Wittgensteinian phrase, Scripture seeks to prevent understanding unaccompanied by inner change. The phrase applies perfectly also to the Comedy.
In other words, if you read Holy Scripture and are not changed by it, you have not understood it. Same with the Comedy.
Moevs says that in Christian thought, the world cannot be made sense of if taken in itself. Without God, the world is an endless string of zeroes: nothing. God adds a “1” to the zeroes, and through this logos makes everything comprehensible, filled with meaning. All the damned in the Inferno have refused the divine 1, and have instead made themselves the “1” — and have made their lives into nothing, both in the mortal life and for eternity. In other words, if we refuse God, we are already dwelling in the vestibule of Hell.
The Comedy, in the end, poses a question to us: is the world our home, or is eternity? To recognize something of eternity, of the Divine, within us is to say yes to Christ; to say no, that we will not cross over, Moevs writes, “means we live with Francesca and Ulysses in the flux of the ephemeral, that their world is our world, that we have lost the ‘1’ in front of the world’s string of zeroes.”
In the conclusion of his great book, Moevs talks about how the classical Christian metaphysics of the Comedy align with the discoveries of quantum physics. Excerpts:
Relativity tells us that all spatiotemporal attributes (dimension, mass, and rate of change) are a function of velocity. The speed of light constitutes the limit of motion, and thus the boundary of space-time it is the constant of conversion between matter and energy or electromagnetic radiation. The substance and limits of the physical universe seem in some sense to consist in the nature of light, broadly conceived, and its mysterious convertibility into spatiotemporal form, and thus into gravity. Bonaventure and other propoenents of the “metaphysics of light” would not be surprised; Dante, whose Comedy describes physical reality as the contingent “re-reflection” of the self-subsistent light that is the Empyrean [that is, heaven — RD], might wonder at our long recalcitrance.
What science has not yet probed is the convertibility between light-energy-vacuum (or strings) and consciousness, what Dante calls luce intellettual. This is to be expected: to use Wittgenstein’s image, the visual field does not include the eye itself; what alone is absent from any description of experience is the subject of experience, because nothing can be said about it, it is nothing. One of the most revolutionary developments of modern physics, however, is the realization that every description of reality is simply a picture that is in part determined by the act of observation itself. The observing subject’s point of view as an entity within the world, its frame of reference, and the questions it asks are all factors that determine its picture of the reality it seeks to describe: they are part of that picture The ‘world in itself’ may be approximated and imaged – but never grasped or communicated – by descriptions, concepts, or equations: reality lies beyond, beyond all concept, all description, all thought, all image. That beyond, the architects of quantum physics unanimously concluded, lies in consciousness itself. There is no such things as the world “in itself” autonomous of consciousness.
Our separation from God, from each other, and from Creation is an illusion. That is, we choose to believe the lie that we are separate, and there is and will be consequences for believing that lie. But a lie it is. We are fundamentally one with God, with Being, with Christ. The principle of nonlocality – that information can travel faster than the speed of light; quantum entanglement, or what Einstein referred to as “spooky action at a distance” – tells us, says Moevs, that
reality is ultimately one, and ultimately dimensionless. Dante might say that he tried to awaken us to this experience of reality in the Comedy: consciousness, luce intellectual, is the omnipresent and indivisible reality in which all finite attribute consists, and it is itself unbound by time, space, or motion, because it is extensionless, a point.
All this is very heady, and you know me, I could write acres of discursive prose noodling on it. But I have been flying from South Bend since 5:30 a.m., through Atlanta, and am now briefly on the ground in Baton Rouge, headed to Houston, via Dallas. Whew! I want to get something new posted here, so please try to be satisfied with my incomplete entry here. And by the way, lest you think that Dante is all maximum heaviosity, and are intimidated into staying away from the Commedia, here’s a quote from a five-star review of How Dante Can Save Your Life by a reader, on Amazon.com:
I wasn’t expecting to like this book as much as I did. I enjoyed the author’s last book, an uplifting and complex tribute to his late sister. I wanted to read more by Dreher, but I was nervous about a Dante book because the Great Books can be downers – somber, serious trudges through the oatmeal of the old world’s old literature.
I figured I’d never jump into Dante, because it’s intimidating. So I bought Dreher’s new book as a primer, something I could warm up with, to let me read and appreciate Dante without constantly looking in the endnotes to find my bearings.Well, it worked. Dreher’s new book is fresh and airy. It’s not an academic analysis, but the story of how his own mid-life crisis parallels Dante’s. The text is roughly equal parts Dante and Dreher, but the book overall is unquestionably about the Divine Comedy. The Dreher parts are just illustrative – his story could be replaced with mine or yours, but Dreher’s personal story nicely matches various aspects of Dante’s, and there’s a real flow to the writing. You don’t get the feeling he’s straining to make a point.
The red pill of Dante goes down very easily. But you will never be the same once you’ve swallowed it.
By the way, another reader wrote to remind me of this post on September 29, 2011, when I was still living in Philly, but had recently decided to move later in the year back to Louisiana in the wake of my sister’s passing. Excerpt:
Yesterday I was in the supermarket and spotted an interesting button on the check-out lady. It was a woodcut image of some Renaissance figure. “Who’s that?” I asked.
“Dante Alighieri,” she said. And I thought: how often do you go into the store for milk and bread and run into a check-out lady wearing a Dante button? OK, yes, it was Whole Foods, but the kind of buttons you expect to see on its employees exhort you to Coexist With the Gay Married Whales, and so forth. But this was Dante!
I told her that I had never read the Divine Comedy, and that one of my great regrets about my college education was that I had never taken the famous Dante course taught at LSU by a particular professor. “We’re about to move back to Louisiana,” I said. “I’m going to look him up and see if he’s still teaching. I’ve got to get into that course.”
I looked him up online last night, and it turns out that the great man has retired. My deep loss.
I had completely forgotten about that. It was a sign, perhaps, of what was to come. Spooky action at a distance across time? (I’m kidding, I’m kidding.)
So, Houston, are you coming to see Louis Markos and Your Working Boy tonight? All the cool kids are going: