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The Wonder Of Dante

Robert Pogue Harrison, in the NY Review Of Books:

The mystery of The Divine Comedy has little to do with the encoded games of hide-and-seek that Brown plays with readers in his best-selling mystery thriller. It has to do instead with the poem’s staying power. How is it possible—after so many centuries of manhandling by commentators, translators, and imitators, after so much use and abuse, selling and soliciting—that the Comedy still has not finished saying what it has to say, giving what it has to give, or withholding what it has to withhold? What is the source of its boundless generosity?

It takes Charles Baudelaire to help us understand how a work of art can offer itself to everyone and belong finally to no one. “What is art?” he asks in one of the first notes of Mon coeur mis à nu. His answer: “prostitution,” by which he means indiscriminate giving of the self. The artwork’s prostitution is “sacred,” not profane, for it offers itself freely. Thus art has an essential bond with love, which shares with art the “need to go outside of oneself.” “All love is prostitution,” writes Baudelaire. In that respect both art and love partake of the self-surpassing generosity through which God gives himself to the world: “The most prostituted being of all, the being par excellence, is God, since he is the supreme friend of every individual, since he is the common, inexhaustible reservoir of love.”

One reason why The Divine Comedy remains the most generous work in literary history is because it brings together these three phenomena—God, love, and art—in a first-person story where they flow into and out of one another promiscuously, such that it is impossible finally to distinguish between the Comedy’s art and “the love that moves the sun and the other stars.” Even if one knows nothing about the Christian theology that structures the poem, the love that keeps it moving sweeps the reader up along with it.

In its architectural weight and grandeur The Divine Comedy appears to modern readers as a great Gothic cathedral made of solid verse. One has a sense that, a thousand years from now, its nine circles of Hell and nine heavenly spheres will still be there, while our diminutive modern society, with its fleeting concerns and anxieties, will have long disappeared. Yet strange as it may seem, this monumental poem has one overriding, all-consuming vocation, namely to probe, understand, and represent the nature of motion in its spiritual and cosmic manifestations.

As you know, I’ve been reading the Divine Comedy, and figured I would be blogging about it. I find, though, that it’s such an overwhelming experience that if I started to write about it here, I wouldn’t know where to stop. I shared this above passage with a teacher friend, who responded:

N.D. Wilson in his Notes from the Tilt-a-whirl gives several philosophers’ definitions of art. Chesterton said, for example, that “Art, like morality, consists in drawing the line somewhere.” Wilson went on to give his definition of art: “Art is.” That is to say, God’s artistry is the essence of ontology. Each moment of being is yet a thousand divine paint strokes, musical notes, sonnets, and death-defying sculptures. Dante’s Divine Comedy situates our poetic appetites so that we may see this very happy truth. And yet I hadn’t a single teacher urge me to read it until graduate school. There ought to be a tenth circle of hell made especially for bad educators, though strong arguments could be made that each level holds at least a bit of what it takes to be a bad educator.

I wish I had encountered the Commedia earlier in life, but I am so very, very grateful to have it now, in the middle of my life, when I needed it the most. In confession Saturday night, I told my priest that I was reading a particular canto of the Purgatorio, and realized that the sin being purged in it was a particularly acute sin for me. The Commedia really is a long occasion of examination of conscience, as well as being thrilling and gorgeous. I’ve never read anything like it.

The essay in the NYRB contains this passage, which illuminated a mysterious but fleeting image in To The Wonder:

The great metaphysical doctrine underlying The Divine Comedy is that time is engendered by motion. Like the medieval scholastic tradition in which he was steeped, Dante subscribed to Plato’s notion that time, in its cosmological determinations, is “a moving image of eternity.” He subscribed furthermore to the Platonic and Aristotelian notion that the truest image of eternity in the material world is the circular motions of the heavens. Thus in Dante’s Paradiso, the heavenly spheres revolve in perfect circles around the “unmoved Mover,” namely God.

In the final analysis there are two kinds of motion in the world for Dante: the predetermined orderly motion of the cosmos, which revolves around the Godhead, and the undetermined motion of the human will, which is free to choose where to direct its desire—either toward the self or toward God. Yet be it self-love or love of God (love of neighbor is a declension of the latter), what moves the heavens is the same force that moves both sinners and saints alike, namely amor.

The basic “plot” of The Divine Comedy has to do with the pilgrim’s efforts to complete a long, self-interrogating, and transformative journey at the end of which his inner being—which, like human history, suffers from the perversion of self-love—becomes harmonized with the love that moves the universe. Salvation means nothing more, and nothing less, than such harmonization.

In the Malick film, there is a quick shot of the priest, Father Quintana (Javier Bardem), putting a disassembled clock back together in the presence of Neil (Ben Affleck). I’ve been vexed by that image, wondering what it means. Yesterday in liturgy, I thought, “Father Quintana holds eternity in his hands” — the clock as a Eucharistic symbol. But that didn’t sound quite right.

This passage above makes the symbol clear to me. Fr. Quintana and Neil are both men who have lost the palpable sense of love’s presence (for the priest, divine love; for Neil, the love of his lover). Because Fr. Quintana has his faith as the center of his existence, and orders his life around that, he is moving forward to a goal, even though he is moving through the darkness. Because Neil directs his will to no discernible thing, he is inconstant, his life unstable. Love moves them both forward, but only one of them is moving toward something, towards harmony with something (or rather, Someone), as opposed to moving forward randomly.

Both of these men are lost in a dark wood, but only one of them is on his way through it to the other side. This image from the film shows that Fr. Quintana is ordering time, in this Dantean sense, by moving towards harmony with the Divine, with Love itself. Neil is just observing passively, lost without a guide, drifting.

By the way, Scott Moringiello did blog his way through the Divine Comedy, on Commonweal‘s site. I can’t wait to dive into these.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. He has written and edited for the New York Post, The Dallas Morning News, National Review, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Washington Times, and the Baton Rouge Advocate. Rod’s commentary has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, the Weekly Standard, Beliefnet, and Real Simple, among other publications, and he has appeared on NPR, ABC News, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the BBC. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with his wife Julie and their three children. He has also written four books, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Crunchy Cons, How Dante Can Save Your Life, and The Benedict Option.

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