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Jason M. BaxterAugust 20, 2021

No other artist has aged as well as Dante Alighieri. He has never really gone out of fashion, except perhaps during the Enlightenment. Just after his death, his Divine Comedy was the subject of heavy-duty theological commentaries in Latin, a level of study generally reserved for works of sacred theology. A century later, during the Renaissance, ambitious designers, whose heads were full of cartography and perspective and new worlds, ambitiously mapped out Dante’s view of the afterlife, as if it were a newly discovered continent (see, for example, Botticelli’s famous map of hell).

After Trent, devout commentators doubled down on Dante and treated his text like a stalwart fortress of Catholic doctrine. After a brief eclipse, he came back in the Romantic Era, was translated in the United States by poets eager to prove they could equal the subtleties of the Old World, and he was even known and his poetry was sung by enslaved people in the United States. And in the 20th century? He became a member of the avant-garde. Now, during the 700th anniversary year of Dante’s death, Pope Francis has written an apostolic letter in his honor, calling him a “prophet of hope” and a “witness to the innate yearning for the infinite present in the human heart.” But Dante’s optimism is not easy.

What is it about Dante that has made him not just immortal, but urgent and modern?

During the optimistic period of the Belle Epoque, when gilded France chuckled at comic operas, sipped absinthe and leveled old neighborhoods to make way for modern avenues, Auguste Rodin was less sanguine. His most famous sculpture, “The Thinker,” was inspired by Dante; it was designed as part of a set of monumental doors called “The Gates of Hell.” The Thinker, positioned at the top of the door, leans over, contemplating the world of pain depicted in the first part of Dante’s poem. All over the doors, souls writhe and fall through air, whirl and scream as they are whipped around in a torrent of despair. Hidden amid the gilded pleasantries of France, then in her wealthiest hour, was loneliness, misery, spiritual blindness, the inability to connect to other people. For Rodin, Dante was the Thinker, willing to contemplate it all and to stare at it without blinking. The modernists loved Dante because he did not hide the truth.

T. S. Eliot, too, saw Dante as the master of pain, who unflinchingly looked into the heart of misery and spoke it plainly. In a passage in “Little Gidding,” one that self-conscientiously echoes Dante, Eliot writes that one of the “gifts reserved for age” is “the conscious impotence of rage/ At human folly, and the laceration/ Of laughter at what ceases to amuse.”

Even Salvador Dalí illustrated the Comedy. He gives us bodies, twisted and blown, wrapped around one another, tumbling around in confusion, unable to find their footing. Dante, the thinker, understood the modern condition.

Dante gives us a narrative world of fallibility, confusion, half-truths and a hundred points of view.

What is it about the master that has made him not just immortal, but relevant, urgent and modern, in a way that “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” or “Everymanor Pilgrim’s Progressare not? Many reasons could be advanced, but I will focus on one: Dante reconceptualized narrative. He gives us a narrative world—especially in Inferno—of fallibility, confusion, half-truths and a hundred points of view, in a way unequaled until William Faulkner or postmodern cinema.

The famous mappability of Inferno, which so enchanted the Renaissance map makers, stands in sharp contrast to the literary experience of reading it, as well as to the pilgrim’s confusion as he wanders throughhell. That is, the intense rationality of the world of moral philosophy (which serves as the architecture of hell) stands in tension with the firsthand experience of the pilgrim who explores hell. As the pilgrim moves through hell, his experience of sin and punishment is made up of a series of fragmented angles and failures of vision, a series of moments in which the moral map being used by Virgil, Dante’s guide on his journey, fails to explain completely what actually stands before him.

And, almost cinematically, the narrator insistently and self-consciously tells us exactly what the pilgrim’s gaze is directed at, how it is then resettled, refocused or readjusted. From the beginning of the poem, we feel the pilgrim’s gaze moving over its object, panning out, focusing in, moving from one face to another (Inferno 20, verses 1-10). We don’t just see; we see the pilgrim seeing.

As the pilgrim moves through hell, his experience of sin and punishment is made up of a series of fragmented angles and failures of vision. 

Thus, it is striking and effective when Dante (frequently) resorts to the technique of “blinding” the pilgrim, letting the pilgrim’s sight blank out so that he is enveloped in sound, analogous to a film that blacks out while the sound continues. In Inferno, sound often precedes or overwhelms sight. The pilgrim hears the roar of falling water before he sees Geryon (16.103-05), and he later hears a horn blast in “murky” air (31.10). The pilgrim’s first impressions of hell are overwhelming because he is immersed in a world of sound without recourse to sight. He breaks down in tears, terrified by “a tumult” (3.28) of inarticulate sighs and lamentations and shouts, all swirling around in the dark (3.23).

There are moments in which the pilgrim drops the first-person narration and provides a description of the noise itself, which he captures in the shrill assonance of sharp vowels (“Diverse lingue, orribili favelle,/ Parole di dolore, accenti d’ira...”) (3.25.27), allowing the reader to experience being immersed firsthand in chaos. Later, when he approaches the brink of the “dolorous abyss,” the pilgrim does not see but hears an “infinite number of laments” (4.9). He can only hear because it is so “dark and deep and cloudy” that he cannot reach, with his gaze, to the bottom (4.10-11).

In Canto 5, Dante can hear “sorrowful notes” (5.25), although the place is “mute of light” (5.28). And then, in Canto 17, the pilgrim experiences free fall, with every “view extinguished.” In this amazing passage, the narration of the flight begins in the past tense and in the first person (“I saw that I was...”), but then switches into the present (“and [the beast] moves, swimming, slowly slowly, he wheels and descends”) in a phrase that makes no reference to the pilgrim, thus creating again a brief space for the reader to “look” through the pilgrim’s eyes, to feel the rocking motion of the descent as if he were there.

Nothing makes you crave mercy quite like Dante’s avant-garde, modernist poem of pain and human failure.

Thus, the failure of vision becomes a major theme in Inferno. At times the pilgrim’s eyes are said to be dazed (26.145), intoxicated (29.2), deceived by distance (31.25), distracted (32.16-24). He catches mere glimpses of faces he once knew (6.45; 18.40) and fails to recognize old companions (15.22-30). In other parts of hell, the pilgrim’s vision is obscured by mist (31.25-35), he has trouble making out a signal (8.6), and he is found crawling up a tunnel that cannot be found by sight (34.129). Often his sight is completely blotted out—for example, on account of the danger of Medusa (9.55) or because of darkness (18.109-110; 21.6; 29.38-39; 34.5).

Just as often we read of the failed vision of the sinners of hell: Ciacco’s eyes roll back up into his head (6.91); the violent are up to their eyebrows in blood (11.103-05); the eyes of the sullen are blinded by mud (7.118-120); Farinata admits he sees in a bad light (10.100); some sodomites gaze intently like people at sunset (15.16); while other sodomites have to endure a fragmented vision because they are spinning in a wheel like wrestlers (16.25). Sinners are fixated on what is up close (17.46), avoid eye contact (18.48), cannot see because they are stuffed into holes (19.53), are tormented by hallucinations (30.70), go blind with grief like Ugolino (33.73) or are blinded by frozen tears (33.94).

In other words, hell is a world of broken vision, fragmented vistas and myopias. It is, as the sinners never tire of pointing out, the “cieco mondo” (the “blind world”). The medieval expectations for the efficacy of sight are constantly overturned, as sight in Inferno constantly fails, is thwarted or is found insufficient to get at the depth of an experience. This canticle must have had a gripping phenomenological and psychological power for its first readers that is difficult for us even to imagine.

The point: In contrast to the imminent mappability of Inferno, whose moral and intellectual boundaries are meant to be so perspicuous, the pilgrim is often immersed in spatial conditions in which no clear perception of boundary is possible. It is a tour de force, emotionally overwhelming and aesthetically exhausting. Dante thought it would make the reader want to weep, groan and ask God if he wanted to start over with the plague-ridden, divisive human race.

In short, nothing makes you crave mercy, thirst for it with a dry mouth, quite like Dante’s avant-garde, modernist poem of pain and human failure. And I think this is what has motivated the pope to turn literary critic! At the heart of Dante’s poem is a fragmented vision. But paradoxically, it was precisely because Dante’s human plans failed him that he, purged of mere earthly longing, could emerge as the poet of hope and desire and mercy.

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