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Finding Yourself in Dante

Dante's story is everybody's story. If you get lost in the Divine Comedy, you may just discover yourself

A couple of readers have sent this rave Guardian review of a short new introduction to the work of Dante. Excerpt:

Hainsworth and Robey begin with Ulysses’s speech in “Canto 26” of the Inferno: “Fatti non foste a viver come bruti … ” Or in their translation: “You were not made to live like brute beasts, / but to pursue virtue and knowledge.” As the book reminds us, these lines helped carry Primo Levi (in If This Is a Man) through his darkest times in Auschwitz. They represent the core principles that motivated Dante himself, and yet, Ulysses is speaking as one of the eternally damned: his body is hidden, enveloped in a double-tongued flame, and Dante cannot address him directly. Ulysses’s injunction is freighted with ironies and complications. The business of sending sinners to judgment is not a simple one.

The authors do a great job of alerting us to the many layers of meaning, and of possible interpretation, to Dante’s work without making it sound intimidating; they emphasise its richness and help us grasp why this poem has fascinated readers for seven centuries.

What a terrific thing for the author of the review, Nicholas Lezard, to point out. Before starting with Dante, I always assumed that the Inferno was a simple medieval morality tale. No, no, no. In this canto, Ulysses speaks truth about the greatness of man, but the fact that he is damned, in the circle of the False Counselors, is meant to teach us a lesson about how manipulative people can speak noble truths for selfish, and indeed damnable, ends. Ulysses’s marvelous lines are part of an address he gave to his exhausted crew, trying to convince them to transgress a forbidden boundary — an act that ultimately led to their deaths. That Dante identifies how we can talk ourselves — or others — into doing things that can destroy us, all the while deceiving ourselves into thinking we are doing the right thing, shows how complex Dante’s moral vision is.

More from the review:

There is something almost uncanny about how this book makes the work of a long-dead poet from another culture come alive: it even helps the non-Italian speaker get to grips with the way Dante uses language (he was, like Shakespeare, a great linguistic innovator). “All men desire to know,” as Dante quotes Aristotle in his Convivio; and this book imparts knowledge as well as encouraging us to find it ourselves.

What I hope my book, How Dante Can Save Your Life, does for readers is not only encourage them to find knowledge in the Commedia, but more importantly, to show them how to find themselves in its pages. This morning I’m finishing a magazine piece about Charles Featherstone’s extraordinary memoir, The Love That Matters, and I’m struck by certain parallels between his book and mine. Both of them are about exiles searching for home, and both have injustice, and the inability to deal with it, as a chief obstacle to finding a sense of inner peace.

The more I think about it, the more I realize that this really is the human condition. Very few of us really feel at home, even when we are at home. And very few of us handle injustice well. We either ignore it by force of will, participate in it, fight it hard (though it’s a battle that cannot ever be won), brood over it, and so forth. How do you reconcile your own suffering with a God who loves? Here’s a passage from How Dante, in which I’m going to confession with my priest, who addresses me by my patron saint’s name:

After vespers one warm October night, I took my spiteful passions to Father Matthew in confession.

“I know my anger is wrong, and that’s why I’m in confession,” I said. “I realized, reading Dante this week, that I resented all of them for being happy without us. I know it’s not right, but I can’t get out from under this anger.”

I explained that I felt like I was living the prodigal son parable, but in this telling, the father is not running out to welcome the long-lost son but rather taking the side of the bitter older brother and not letting the younger one come through the gate.

“That’s tough,” Father Matthew said. “So what do you want?”

“I want justice. It’s not fair, the way they do me.”
“You want justice?” he said, chuckling. “What is justice? You have no right to expect justice. It’s nice if you get it, but if you don’t, that doesn’t release you from the commandment to love. The elder brother in the prodigal son story stood on justice, but his father stood on love.”

“Okay, but I think that if I do that, they’re going to win.”

“Win? This is a contest, Benedict?” he said. “I don’t know about you, but from where I sit, it doesn’t look to me like you’re winning much of anything by hanging on to all of this.”

The Commedia is a 14,000-word long meditation on exile, on love, and on justice (and other things, but certainly those three are fundamental). Like no other book I ever read, I found myself in its pages — my broken, needy, striving, hurting, lost self. And I found a way to help that guy. Ron Herzman calls How Dante “certainly the book for those who previously have only come across Dante as a name,” and I hope that is true. I think of the book as applied humanities, or, how a Great Book and the story it tells change your life in a way you could not have imagined.

I’m reading right now a fantastic book, The Spirit of Early Christian Thought, by the University of Virginia historian Robert Louis Wilken. I’m preparing to undertake a book about the Benedict Option, and as part of the work, I’m trying to learn everything I can about the early church. This Wilken passage made me nod with recognition:

For early Christian thinkers the Bible, finally, was a book about how to live. Gods Word is not something to be looked at, but acted on. Saint Bernard, the medieval mystic, said ti well: the interpreter must see himself in that which is said. In the early church Gregory the Great stated this spiritual truth more eloquently than anyone else. In Gregory’s life of Saint Benedict he was asked by Peter his interlocutor what it means for Benedict to “live with himself.” Gregory took the phrase to be an interpretation of the words of the prodigal son, who had journeyed to a far country only to squander his inheritance. When the country was ravaged by a great famine he became so hungry that he would gladly have eaten the slop fed to swine. At that point in the parable he realizes how grievously he has sinned against his father and the evangelist says, “He came to himself” (Luke 15:17).

How is it, asks Gregory, that a person who is always with himself can be said to have “come to himself”? The phrase, says Gregory, means “search one’s soul continuously” and see oneself always in the presence of God and attend to one’s life and actions. Job came to himself when he heard the words of God, “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?” (Job 38:4). In the same way, explains Gregory, “it is right for us to be brought back to our own hearts by the things that were said to holy Job. For we understand the words of God more truly when we ‘search out [ourselves] in them.'”

I certainly would not compare Dante’s Commedia to the Bible, though in the end, it is impossible to understand without reference to the Bible, in which its entire vision is based. But Gregory’s point about being able to understand a text better when we “search out [ourselves]” in it is profoundly and thrillingly true about the Commedia. It is hard for me to imagine a single attentive reader, Christian or not, who cannot find himself in Dante’s poem, because the Commedia is such a vivid, vital work about man and his struggles — including our struggles to feel at home in the world, our struggles with injustice, and our struggles with anger over our sense of being outcast.

How Dante is about my own deep, almost lifelong sense of exile, and how I never felt it more acutely than when I came back to the place of my birth to settle. I realized in the writing of it that the people in my family who, in a sense, declined to let me come home fully, were, and are, themselves in a kind of exile. The right order of the world, as they see it, has been upset, and nothing can make it right. First, I, the beloved son, was not like them. Then I moved away from home, which, to them, was a rejection of their love. Then, worst of all, the beloved daughter, in the prime of her life, was struck down by cancer.

It was, it is, unjust. Even when I don’t believe their feeling of injustice really is injustice (for example, I don’t think it is unjust that I was and am not like them all), that doesn’t change the fact that they experience it as unjust, as a disruption in harmony, as a violation of the order of things. In their own way, they were just as lost and exiled and angry as I was. It’s the human condition.

How do we live with that? It is not something we can escape, try though we do. Is it something we must simply endure? Or is there a better way? Is there a way for that suffering to transform us, through love, into a new person? As a Christian, I accepted in theory that transformation is possible, and in fact it is only through suffering that we, like the Son of Man, are “glorified”. But I did not really know what that meant until I walked with Dante through the pits of Hell, climbed with him the mountain of Purgatory, and soared with him through the heights of Paradise, to see the face of God. I came back from the journey changed, and wrote How Dante to tell others what I saw on the pilgrimage, and to urge them to go on the Dante walk themselves, to discover who they are, and to come back changed for the better.

A friend of mine is suffering right now. He has lost nearly everything he held dear. He is flat on his back. Nothing makes sense to him right now. I’m going to go visit him today, and if he is open to listening to me, I’m going to tell him what Dante did for me — or, to be precise, what God did for me through reading Dante. Dante’s story is my story and Charles Featherstone’s story and my woebegone friend’s story. And it is a story that begins as tragedy, but ends as comedy — that is, happily — through the power of Love. I am a witness to the power of this poem to heal and renew. And I apologize to readers who are bored by it all, can’t stop talking about it.



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