Dante Alighieri wasn’t a political exile – he was a criminal one. He was found guilty of corruption, extortion, and misuse of funds during his two-month term as city prior in 1300. The charge was based on little more than hearsay, and the sentence of permanent exile was irrevocable. He lost more than home and citizenship – he lost his good name. And that’s the sore that itches throughout the Divine Comedy. As Robert Pogue Harrison eloquently writes in “Dante on Trial,” in the current New York Review of Books, ”every reader of the Commedia, however naive or learned, hears the cry of this poem loudly and clearly. Its idiom may be medieval and alien, yet its clamor has the universal accent of a wronged individual shouting back at the world—a world that has the power to crush him but not to silence him. There is in each of us a stifled, potential, or inarticulate cry of this sort. The reason we read the Commedia is because no one in the history of literature has given it such a cosmic reach and sublime form.” (Read the whole essay here.)
The story behind this anguish and this cry is told in Justin Steinberg‘s Dante and the Limits of the Law (University of Chicago Press), and Robert calls it the best book on Dante to appear in years.
Steinberg claims that, to a great extent, the Commedia’s “poetics are meant to rectify [Dante’s] damaged reputation.” One of the ways it does this is by dramatizing how wrong public opinion can be when it comes to a person’s moral character. Dante shocked his contemporary readers time and again by placing some of the most respected citizens of Florence in Hell (Farinata degli Uberti, Tegghiaio Aldobrandini, Arrigo di Cascia, Iacopo Rusticucci, Mosca de’ Lamberti, to name a few that Dante himself considered among the most “worthy”). By the same token he saves various souls who had been publicly condemned or excommunicated—people who, as Steinberg writes, “would have been considered infamous ‘instantaneously,’ ipso jure, without a trial or sentence.”
So the upstanding Florentines go down, down, down to one or another of the horrible circles, and things are looking up for some of the much-maligned. In short, the moral of the story (or one of them) is told when, in Heaven, the great eagle in Paradiso 20 declares: “And you mortals, hold back from judging, for we, who see God, do not yet know all the elect.”
But wait, there’s a hitch:
Hold back from judging. Fair enough. But where does that leave the Commedia? Either we believe that the poem had a superhuman authorship (that Heaven set its hand on it, as Dante claims in Paradiso 25), in which case we are free to believe that its vision represents God’s true moral order; or else we believe that it had a strictly human authorship—that Dante Alighieri, the historical individual, created its poetry of Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven—in which case we must assume that Dante was the arbiter who saved or damned the souls his wayfarer meets on the journey.
This is not the first time Robert has taken issue with Dante – I’ve heard him lecture, and he’s deeply troubled by Dante’s harsh pronouncements of damnation. If, as he writes above, we attribute “superhuman authorship,” as Dante himself claims, we’re left with a bitter and judgmental man, vengefully dishing out punishments to his foes (and a few of his friends, such as Brunetto Latini, too). As Robert put it very bluntly, “Dante was virtually certain that upon his death he would be going to Purgatory and not to Hell. In Purgatorio he predicts that he will be spending significant time on the terrace of pride, but not much time on the terrace of envy, before ascending into Heaven to join the saints. If I were Dante, I would not have been so sanguine about my prospects. No one could write a canticle like Inferno without possessing a great deal of infernal powers, and considerable malice.”
He notes that Prue Shaw, author of the other book he considers in his essay, Reading Dante: From Here to Eternity (Liveright) calls Dante a very “human” individual, always noting his own propensity to the sins he condemns (and indeed, he succumbs to them in the course of the drama). “The Commedia would be unreadable if Dante presumed even the slightest moral superiority over his readers. The only virtue he claims for himself in abundance is hope. Indeed, the reason Dante remained certain that he was destined for Heaven was not because of self-righteousness but because he had a profusion of hope.”
So was it “superhuman authorship,” or the long, grief-stricken exhalation of a lot of bitterness and shame? My answer: why not both? I’ll credit those who say the Florentine poet was greatly changed by his experiences – and some even claimed that his beard was singed by his infernal journey. In the first canto of the Inferno, he says he “came to” in a dark wood, which suggests some sort of altered experience that would change his life forever. However, that doesn’t mean that the vision wasn’t mixed up with his own subjectivity; visions always are. Look at all those seers who saw the Virgin Mary speaking in Croatian or speaking in Japanese and wearing a kimono. Look at all those Jeremiahs who predicted the end of a world that hasn’t ended yet, and, since I last checked, is still spinning like a top. Even trying to be as pure and as objective as can, we can’t get it right, we can’t get out of our own skins. We stand in our own light. That’s the human condition, too.
A more interesting question might be: what does Dante tell us about our world that we do not recognize ourselves? Here’s my take: we live in a time and in a generation that thinks everything is negotiable, and that every psycho-spiritual lock can be jimmied. As W.H. Auden put it, we push away the notion that “the meaning of life [is] something more than a mad camp.” For us, there’s always a second, third, and fourth chance. It’s a strength – but it’s a weakness, too. Maybe that’s why we resist Dante. We don’t realize that some things are for keeps. There’s not always another day. Not all choices can be reversed with every change of heart – and no, our heart isn’t always in the right place. Words unsaid may remain forever unsaid. And perhaps no choice is trivial or innocent: it is the choices that bring us to ourselves, the choices that reveal and work as a fixative for our loves, our priorities, and our direction.
Speaking of unsaid words … I hope all of you have done your Valentine’s Day correspondence – for the day is a celebration of agape, even more than eros. No shirking, and no complaints that one is “alone.” If there’s any lesson to draw from Dante, it’s that we are never truly alone. Certainly I’m not. So consider this my Valentine to Dante, with gratitude, and thanks to all my faithful Book Haven readers, too. From the bottom of my cheesy little Florentine heart. Mwwwaaa!