Paul J. Contino

How many Catholics have read the greatest literary work in their tradition? Many begin Dante’s Divine Comedy but never quite make it out of hell. They never breathe the bracing air of Mount Purgatory or hear the music in Paradise’s luminous, communal beatitude. As A. N. Wilson puts it, “Such readers are prepared to take on trust that Dante is a great poet, but they leave him as one of the great unreads. And in so doing, they leave unsavoured one of the supreme aesthetic, imaginative, emotional, and intellectual experiences on offer.” In his latest book, the prolific British biographer and novelist has written a work “specifically designed” for these readers. As one who teaches the Commedia and shares Wilson’s love for the Divine Comedy, I judge his effort a success. His intermittent emphasis on the centrality of love for Dante will invite any reader who wishes to join the poet on a pilgrimage meant to end in heaven. For Dante’s journey is not just his but ours; his poem is “for everybody and about everybody.”

Granted, Dante’s medieval context can feel pretty distant, but Wilson relates the biographical and historical background with clarity and brio. In 1265, Dante was born in Florence, a city violently divided between two factions, the “new money,” pro-papal Guelfs and the aristocratic, pro-empire Ghibellines. But even these parties were divided: Dante, politically ambitious, was a member of the White Guelfs, who resisted Pope Boniface VIII’s increasing consolidation of political power. Politically ambitious, Dante was elected a member of the city’s priory in 1300 and chose to vote against the pope’s request for Florentine military assistance, thus inspiring the pope’s enmity. By 1302, Dante was exiled from Florence and family, and remained dependent upon the hospitality of patrons until his death in Ravenna in 1321.

But without Dante’s exile we would not have the Commedia, to which Dante dedicated the last part of his life. True, even in his youth, Dante was an accomplished poet, crafting sonnets “perfectly made, like wonderfully carpentered furniture.” In these early works, Dante “cut his teeth” on the courtly love tradition. In an intriguing if sometimes puzzling chapter, Wilson links the frustrated eros of courtly love—in which the lover venerates and serves his married lady from a distance—with the Catharite heresy and its ascetic abhorrence of the flesh. Wilson rightly clams that “the mature Dante” rejects the angelism implicit in this rejection, and observes that when Dante recalls and dreams of Beatrice—the Florentine girl with whom he fell in love and who becomes his guide in Paradise—he is “aware of the body beneath the dress.”

Wilson’s emphasis upon the incarnational in Dante is accurate, but it sometimes leads him to questionable readings. For example, in Inferno’s circle of the wind-blown lustful, Francesca describes her love affair, the catalyst for which is the love poetry she reads with Paolo, her infernal companion. Wilson describes this passage as “the most subversive of the very doctrine of hell” as it “venture[s] the possibility that in loving a woman, a man is not turning away from God but towards Him; that the meaning of Incarnation was that men and women, in the flesh as well as in the spirit, became like Christ.” Dante’s incarnational art does affirm this possibility—but not through adultery. The pilgrim’s swooning sympathy for the lovers is critiqued by Dante the poet.

Wilson confesses his admiration for an earlier commentator on Dante, Charles Williams, “who believed the Church was still not ready” for a Dante “who believed that what he felt for this Italian teenager [Beatrice] was part of, or identifiable with, the Love which moved the stars.” But it is not as if Williams does not have company in the Catholic tradition. As Pope Benedict XVI’s first encyclical, “Deus Caritas Est,” makes clear, eros and agape are joined in the Christian experience of love.

Wilson’s love for the poet does not restrain him from noting his faults. Dante’s hatreds could lead him into theological blunders: why is the still-living Branco d’Oria freezing in the pit of hell? Dante’s political enthusiasms could verge on madness: Holy Roman Emperor Henry VII would never redeem the Holy Roman Empire, despite Dante’s counsel. Wilson is especially harsh in his judgment of Dante’s treatment of his best friend and poetic mentor, Guido Cavalcanti. In 1300, at the height of Dante’s political power, he voted to have Guido exiled, which led to his death by malaria. “It is extraordinary [that] by the time Dante reaches Purgatory...he presents Guido purely as a rival to be supplanted, not as a friend to be mourned.”

Dante in Love is sumptuously illustrated with color plates, some of them works by Giotto, Dante’s fellow Florentine. Their friendship was fruitful: “Dante saw that what Giotto had done in paint could also be done in literature. The great drama of Christian theology could be peopled with [persons] he had known, just as Giotto used contemporary models for his Biblical figures.” In a later chapter, Wilson notes Dante’s affinity with St. Augustine: as an autobiographer, he tells the story of his life for its “universal application”; as a mystic, he knows “that the heart will find no rest until it rests in God.”

In his conclusion, Wilson makes a case that Dante’s prophetic critique of fractured 14th-century Europe holds relevance as we reflect on our own fragmented culture. Certainly, Wilson’s emphasis upon Dante’s incarnational vision makes for timely reading during the Christmas and Epiphany seasons. His book will be a worthy addition to any pilgrim’s pack—that is, to any reader determined to go the distance with Dante, and willing to be moved by “the Love that moves the sun and other stars.”

Paul J. Contino is the Blanche E. Seaver professor of humanities at Pepperdine University, California. He has recently written the introduction to Burton Raffel’s new translation of The Divine Comedy (Northwestern Un

Comments

Anthony Esolen | 1/17/2012 - 6:32pm

Eliot once said that Shakespeare and Dante divided the world between them; there was no third. I'm inclined to agree with that. Sometimes the obvious thing is the hardest to see. As deeply as I admire Virgil, and as astonishing as I find his Latin verses, he is still doing a Roman version of what had already been done by Homer. And Milton - thousands of whose lines I've memorized - still employs in Paradise Lost all the machinery of the old epics. He does it to wonderful effect: compare the opening of Satan's first speech with what Aeneas says when he sees the bloody body of Hector in a dream. Milton intended to write the epic to end all epics, but he did not invent a completely different kind of poem, as Dante did. The same holds true, in a different way, of the romance epics written by Ariosto, Tasso, and Camoens; they stem from the Virgilian tradition and from the popular chivalric romances of Charlemagne and his confreres.

Dante invented a wholly new way of writing poetry - nothing of the sort had been done before. In that sense he's a lot like other medieval artists, who were a great deal more original (though they did not value originality) than their Renaissance descendants are credited with being. His politics aside, the Divine Comedy is immensely rewarding, for its complexity, its beauty, and its profound spiritual insights. He wastes nary a line; one can never come to an end of finding gold in his lines. Augustine, Aquinas, Bonaventure, Anselm, Boethius, Richard and Hugh of Saint Victor, Bernard, Albert, Denis, Gratian, Peter Damian, Benedict - they're all there, along with his great predecessors in poetry, yet Dante makes them all his own.

Two quibbles: Francesca's problem was not so much physical as metaphysical. Dante explicitly says that she and the other souls made their reason subject to their appetites. They acted as if they had no freedom in the matter, and for that inversion of the human intellect they are punished by a whirlwind "flinging them here and there and up and down." So when Francesca says, "Love that allows no loved one not to love / Seized me with such a sweet delight in him," etc., she is tempting Dante to accept a lie - the inevitability and irresistibility of sexual passion. She is, in other words, repeating the same sin that put her there in the first place. Her words then, sweet as they sound, have a sinister import, because they would undermine Dante's capacity to learn anything from her situation.

Second quibble: Dante is at pains to restore the reputation of his friend Guido in the Purgatory. He transposes a wonderful poem by Guido into earthly paradise, as if Guido had been writing the same kind of spiritual allegory that Dante was writing, if rightly interpreted. Dante didn't have to do that.
LEONARD VILLA | 1/13/2012 - 10:37am
The Confessions and the DC are two different types of literature. They are not in competition in that sense. I still prefer the Dorothy Sayers translation of the DC. Her notes are magnificent. There is now the Estolen translation as well but am not familiar with it as yet. Lots of great names weighed in on the DC: Charles Williams, Romano Guardini, Dorothy Sayers, and I believe Etienne Gilson.
Amy Ho-Ohn | 1/12/2012 - 5:40pm
@David, I guess I agree that the DC is the greatest work of the Catholic literary tradition, in the sense that it is not only an immortal work of art, but a tremendous spiritual resource as well. But I am not an expert on literature or theology, only a commonplace, not-very-devout pew occupant. All of my academic degrees are in science and engineering, and I do not know Italian, so I read the Ciardi translation.

There are other epic poets who rival Dante for pure artistic merit; Milton, for example, and
Pushkin, arguably Vergil, but none of them were Catholic. And all of them hide behind the voice of the omniscient narrator. Nobody in the entire canon is as generous with the private contents of his brain as Dante. I find Dante's personal style extremely helpful (though sometimes a little disconcerting) for the purpose of understanding Catholic interior life: how to doubt and how to set doubt aside, how to hate and how to supress hatred, how to be afraid and how to function in the midst of fear, and so forth. At every crossroad of my spiritual life, Dante provides me with names for the internal states in my head, images that facilitate analysis of abstract concepts, reassurance that at least one other Christian soul has thought the things I think and thus hope that each spiritual plateau is transcendable. Better than anybody I know, Dante can teach one how not to sound like a complete idiot in the confessional.

Secondly, Dante is the best teacher I know of the art of thinking allegorically. A Catholic is supposed to try to learn to understand that God creates the Universe like a really great artist creates art, and nobody creates poetry so much like God creates the Universe as Dante. I find this invaluable when explaining or defending the Faith, especially for making Scripture comprehensible. Where the literal meaning of Scripture is preposterous, and the ostensible moral intepretation is appalling, one must fall back on allegory. The DC is the most comprehensive collection of examples of incisive, plausible, unforced and incomparably beautiful allegory extant. (Bunyan is extremely useful too.) Reading Dante is essential preparation for when one doesn't want to sound like an idiot at a lectern.

Finally, Dante's vast and profound frame of reference aligns almost perfectly with what a modern Christian needs. Biblical narrative, classical literature, pre-Tridentine theology, Aristotelian and medieval philosophical structures; all these are easier to remember and process in relation to one another with the assistance of the imagery and voices Dante supplies. I am occasionally shocked by his primitiveness, and confused by his interest in those of his contemporaries who did not make the history books, but Dante is like the ideal conversation companion I can never hope to meet. Probably nobody can teach one how not to sound like an idiot in comboxes, but Dante comes closest.

As to Augustine, I am not sure what to say about him. I know Latin, so no translator comes between us. In fact, I admire his style immensely and study it obsessively in the hope of improving my own. He is a brilliant interpreter of Scripture, and unlike most modern people, I do not find his sexual attitudes repugnant. But somehow he seems very typically clerical to me: I'm put off by his fascination with his own interior life, his disinterest in the external world, his unshakable confidence that his thoughts are God's thoughts, his barely disguised contempt for the non-clerical 99% of humanity. He just seems to be a lesser human being than Dante IMHO. It's probably just a matter of taste and temperament.
david power | 1/9/2012 - 5:17pm
Dear Walter thanks for taking the time to respond.
I disagree with people on two main firmly held points  of view.
The first is "Don't compare".We could all no longer go without comparing for twenty minutes than breathing.It is a good thing to do when given the right dose of context and always attached to the fact that it is just my "view".
The second is "Don't Generalise".Later on that one.
I know so many people who namedrop  the Divine Comedy in a conversation but cannot recount anything apart from "Virgin Mary,daughter of your son" which is admittedly  brilliant but I am not sure that it as a work of christian literature can even hope to compete with the Confessions.Confessions has shown millenia how to be devout.How to approach God, how to examine oneself .  
Dante is playing to the audience and wearing his learning very heavily whereas Augustine throws caution to the wind and invents existentialist writing about 15 centuries before Kierkegaard scratched his head.Anyway , I am sure you could teach me a thing or two on what yo love.
As for St Peter's?Spent many a night all alone in the square with just the Italian police for company.Often watched the Pope's bedroom lights go out.It is a letdown to me.Nothing on the Pantheon or the Mormon Church in America or ....

Rant over ,thanks again Walter. 
C Walter Mattingly | 1/9/2012 - 9:45am
Hard to compare, David. Confessions ushered into literature a new genre, an astounding accomplishment; the Comedia perfected a system of the High Middle Ages and anticipated a new one, also an astounding accomplishment. Whether the Ur work of the confessional novel, from the 4th century to Lolita, or the high water mark of the Christian epic (Miltonists might dissent, but they would be wrong), what is the necessity for comparison? Is Chartres greater than St Peter's? (OK, bad example!).
david power | 1/8/2012 - 1:42pm
Greatest??That is subjective.I rate the Confessions of Augustine as a superior work and would be interested in hearing what anybody has to say to the contrary.I spent two years reading the Divine Comedy and roughly the same with Confessions which I carried everywhere with me.If I have to give a gift I always give confessions as it never fails to impress whereas the DC is hit and miss.