David Brooks has a lovely and, I think, important column today about a magical night ages ago, in which the philosopher Isaiah Berlin stayed up all night talking with the Russian poet Anna Akhmatova, who had suffered and would continue to suffer terribly from Soviet persecution. The two of them fell in love that night — a love that was not sexual, but that was profoundly intellectual and spiritual. Reading Brooks’s account, I couldn’t help thinking of Dante and Beatrice, and how, for Dante, the love he had for Beatrice ultimately made her an icon through which the light of God streamed forth into his heart, and changed his life, and saved his soul. The analogy with Berlin and Akhmatova is that for each of them, a happenstance communion with the other opened the door to a deeper kind of love. It was, I think, a kind of theophany, an unveiling, a revelation of the divine.
Brooks writes that in our time, when reason is thought as something that can only be instrumental (that is, used to solve problems), that dreamy but sleepless night makes no sense. And yet:
The night Berlin and Akhmatova spent together stands as the beau ideal of a different sort of communication. It’s communication between people who think that the knowledge most worth attending to is not found in data but in the great works of culture, in humanity’s inherited storehouse of moral, emotional and existential wisdom.
Berlin and Akhmatova were from a culture that assumed that, if you want to live a decent life, you have to possess a certain intellectual scope. You have to grapple with the big ideas and the big books that teach you how to experience life in all its richness and make subtle moral and emotional judgments.
Berlin and Akhmatova could experience that sort of life-altering conversation because they had done the reading. They were spiritually ambitious. They had the common language of literature, written by geniuses who understand us better than we understand ourselves.
The night also stands as the beau ideal of a certain sort of bond. This sort of love depends on so many coincidences that it only happens once or twice in a lifetime. Berlin and Akhmatova felt all the pieces fitting amazingly into place. They were the same in many ways. There was such harmony that all the inner defenses fell down in one night.
This is not exactly what happened with Dante and Beatrice. First off, they met when they were children, and she never returned his overwhelming love for her. There was something mystical about their communion; it didn’t depend on them both having done the reading. Still, what their meeting has in common with Berlin and Akhmatova’s night is a life-changing unveiling of reality in communion with another.
I get that. On the night of October 11, 1996, I met the woman I was to marry — and I knew that very quickly. When we met in that bookstore in Austin, Texas, I was overcome. She hadn’t said five words, but somehow, I knew, just knew, that she was the one I had been praying for and waiting for. And as I would soon learn, she felt the same way about me. We began talking via e-mail about marriage several days later. Insane, right? But we knew.
Ours was not simply a Dante-Beatrice struck-by-lightning moment. It had its Berlin-Akhmatova qualities too. I have long been convinced that if not for the three years of living as a Catholic, with all that implies for repentance and ascetic renunciation, my heart would not have been in a condition to receive the grace that stood in front of me that night in the bookstore. I would not have been prepared for it. I would not have done the reading, so to speak, so would have in a very real spiritual sense not been able to perceive the reality I was staring at.
In a similar way, I am convinced that if I had not suffered as I’ve done, and in the particular way that I have done, these past two years, I never would have been able to understand the Commedia as it should be understood: not as merely an aesthetic object, but as a work of art that knew me better than I knew myself, and could reveal to me truths I needed to put my life back together. Had I not been lost in a dark wood early last fall, I would not likely have read past the first canto in the Commedia. But because I was, Dante set the hook in the first lines. I would not trade anything for that experience.
But something else occurred to me late last night, when I received a letter from a Catholic professor to whom I had written for clarification on a matter of metaphysics. I told him that I was reading a book about Dante’s metaphysics, and that all of it made sense to me as an Orthodox Christian — but that I was more than a little puzzled by the fact that I spent 13 years as an adult Catholic, and an intellectually engaged Catholic, yet having no idea that this metaphysic was also held by the Catholic Church. The professor responded that traditional metaphysics collapsed in the West about 1350, and that it became difficult to impossible to talk about the truths known to Aquinas and Dante. All of that became hived off into a category called the “mystical.” But in the Orthodox Church, the tradition has been preserved; the explicit aim of the Christian life is theosis, or a direct and all-consuming communion with the living God — just as it is in the Commedia!
Note well that the professor is not saying that the Catholic Church ceased to teach traditional metaphysics, but rather that the West ceased to be able to comprehend them. (This, by the way, is more or less Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart’s book The Experience Of God.) Notre Dame’s Christian Moevs, in his book The Metaphysics of Dante’s Comedy, writes:
Like Scripture, or Christ, the Comedy understands itself to be a finite form “transparent” to the reality it embodies, a reality that, in those who have eyes to see, can come to recognize and awaken to itself by reading this text.
Let’s be crystal clear: Moevs is not saying that Dante’s poem is on the same level as Christ, or Scripture, but that Dante intends it as a window through which one can see ultimate reality, and react to it. The Commedia, as I’ve said before, is an icon. These lines from Moevs’ book recall Brooks’s observation about how we use reason today only as something instrumental:
Dante himself aimed at a Truth in which all differences are reconciled. There is nothing more intellectually rigorous than Dante’s “mysticism”; there is nothing more “mystical” than his understanding of intellect.
Moevs goes on:
Is Dante’s understanding of reality, as I have sketched it, radical? If it seems so, it is perhaps a sign of how far we are from it. Yet it could be argued that (with brief exceptions) the intuition that Intellect, as Being-in-itself, is the ultimate ontological principle, upon which all else depends, is implicit in some fort on virtually the whole breadth of the Western spiritual and philosophical tradition, from Plato up to the Enlightenment (with many offshoots beyond); it is also implicit or explicit in most Indian and Asian philosophy. (That the contemporary Western world is an exception does not prove that we have understood what others have not; it could as well prove the contrary.)
There’s a great deal of complicated thought behind all this, and it’s not necessary to go into here. The point I want to make is simply that Orthodox Christianity re-oriented me toward an older metaphysics, one that was normative in Dante’s day, but that rapidly dwindled in the West. I can’t help wondering if being Orthodox, and learning to think as an Orthodox Christian, made me far more receptive to the radical nature of Dante’s poem than I would otherwise have been. The poem really and truly is an icon — a finite, created thing that can ultimately lead to a direct experience of God. As an Orthodox Christian, you learn to see the world as an icon, and this, as it turns out, was something that helped me receive Dante’s masterpiece in a way I would not have been able to before.
In his column Brooks, reflecting on the intellectual and spiritual romance of Berlin and Akhmatova, sounds wistful for the way things used to be.
I’m old enough to remember when many people committed themselves to this sort of life and dreamed of this sort of communion — the whole Great Books/Big Ideas thing. I am not sure how many people believe in or aspire to this sort of a life today. I’m not sure how many schools prepare students for this kind of love.
And suddenly, it became clear to me what I have to do with the Dante book I hope to write: use it to inspire readers to want this sort of life, and to grasp how reading Dante can open up doors of the spirit and the imagination they don’t even know are there. I think of many of us today, especially the young, as being like the dwarves in The Hobbit, standing at Lonely Mountain, looking for the secret door that would open the tunnel into the heart of the thing. They were waiting for a ray of sunlight to strike the place at just the right moment, on just the right day, to illuminate the hidden portal. My task, at least for Dante, is to find a way to catch that ray of sunlight, and turn it into a book so my readers can go through the same portal that I’ve gone through, and find a renewed life at the other side.
I cannot think of anything else I would rather be doing with my life right now. A love story, yes. Yes.