There is nothing like Dante’s Comedy, And since we generally know the stranger thing by comparison with the less strange (a bison is a cow with a hump; Hamlet is like a murder mystery), the incomparable Comedy must remain a world of its own, more disturbingly strange than any sci-fi or Tolkienish reduction of existence and yet somehow of immediate concern to us, Other works of words have tried to sum up for us the fact and metaphysics of existence (not the Bible, which is a surprisingly inconclusive anthology, but Aquinas’s Summa Theologica, for instance). But none has taken us simultaneously through life and beyond it with the thoroughness, coherence, conviction, sustained intensity, and artistic skill of the Comedy. We cannot even set literature aside and say that the Comedy is like life itself; no human life is lived so completely, knowledgeably, and meaningfully as was the brief journey taken during Easter week of 1300 by a pious but sinful Guelph politician soon to be exiled from Florence and family and to live off the charity of various patrons for the rest of his life.
All literature seeks to connect the specific and the general, the ephemeral and the eternal, which is only to say that authors try to tell meaningful stories. But no one has contrived so thorough a structure of meaning as that in which Dante encased his journey from fear to security, from darkness to the Beatific Vision, from Italy to heaven, from ignorance to perfect knowledge—a structure that imitates the very structure of existence itself, as described by the Western world’s foremost thinkers. Not only is the Comedy incomparable, but it is dizzyingly accomplished. Its ordinary readers need extraordinary guides, and this is why C. S. Singleton’s edition and translation of the Comedy is so worthy of celebration.
Dante deals with the most general and abstract of matters, but he is artist enough to ground them often if not always in the here and now. His descriptions of the tripartite afterlife are as vividly specific as their nature permits.(Hell is painfully material, while heaven evaporates into light, air, music, and space.) But his trip away from Italy brings the here and now along with him in another way. By a special dispensation of God he makes contact on his journey not with the nameless millions of dead since Adam and Eve but with the heroes of his culture—mostly Greek, Roman, and Biblical personages— and with hundreds of recently dead and still famous or notorious Italians, French, and Austrians, as sharply individual and specific as the many Dubliners of Ulysses, and often with comparable local accents, All these detailed dead surely brought Dante’s wisdom immediately home to the business and bosom of the Italians who first read the poem or heard it in its quickly traditional public readings—an audience for whom many of these characters needed not even to be named.
But that immediacy must now be recovered through scholarship, and Singleton brings together for our necessary edification the work of dozens of scholars in many languages. In addition he reminds us of what Dante knew that we do not— ranging from theological works to the works of many fading Roman poets—and he reminds us also of what Dante did not know, including the Iliad, the Odyssey, most of Greek literature, and the Greek language itself.(Yet he found that Homer was the world’s greatest poet when he glimpsed the honored bard in Limbo.) Again, much of what Dante knew was different from what we now know: his sciences are not ours, nor his theology, nor his politics, nor even his Bible, since he used the Vulgate, full of surprises for most of us.(“How art thou fallen from heaven, O Lucifer, who didst rise in the morning?”)
Yet Singleton offers us much more than all that, from his general descriptions of structural matters we might well over-look down to many pleasing slighter perceptions: that in hell time is calculated only by nocturnal bodies and Jesus is never mentioned; that throughout the poem the word Cristo(Christ) is rhymed only with itself; that much of the two paradisal cantos dealing with the “two wheels” of the Church, SS. Francis and Dominic, are parallel, line by line (keeping the wheels aligned, as it were); that Dante rose into heaven at noon on April 13, 1300 (that 3 in 1 patterning on which so much of the poem and the world is based); and hundreds more, each enriching some particularity of the text.
The holt of life. We begin our journey into the truth inauspiciously, in the dark wood of human error, midway in our life, threatened by beasts. The emblematic senses of this position are clear: life as a wandering journey through ignorance, threatened by our own animal sinfulness, is quickly intelligible across the centuries. It’s also a marvelously useful beginning because it makes the subsequent trip take place while we are alive and therefore makes that trip a description of our life to come as well as our afterlife. But if a way to the better there be, it exacts a full look at the worst: coming to a sense of ourselves in this dark wood, with no path, with dangers, and with half our life gone, we are tempted to despair. So is Dante, but Beatrice’s love rescues him from that, only to plunge him into hell.
The hole of life. The morass of suffering into which we plunge is again all too intelligible, but there are two aspects of it that stick in almost every modern reader’s craw. The idea that punishment and reward are psychological matters is so ingrained in us that the material fleshiness of hell’s punishments can be a stumbling block: such physical suffering, though it makes for vivid literature, can seem a limitation of Dante’s imaginative understanding. But consider: it comes to him from Aristotle by way of Aquinas, the notion that “the soul, as part of human nature, has its natural perfection only as united to the human body,” This nice point of doctrine, often neglected nowadays, emphasizes the essential oneness of psychosomatic existence. It is an idea not to be sneezed at; in life, surely, we punish ourselves physically for moral short-comings, and Dante’s choices of punishment make clear how thoroughly he understands our psyhosomatic illnesses and mythic landscapes, by means of which we can create a hell for ourselves even here on the green earth.
That understanding lies beneath the second objectionable aspect of his hell: his assertion that the whole vast and horrible pit of misery was created and is maintained by love! Yet he can persuade us that it is, as we travel down the funnel with him—and not only negatively, in the sense that love of goodness requires hatred of evil, and that the sinners’ absence of love for God has evacuated goodness from their world; but even positively, The sinners love their sins; moment by moment they re-condemn themselves, having learned nothing, The hypocrites will hide under their gilded but leaden cloaks, just as in life; the angry are angry still, while the sullen sulk under their boiling mud just as in life they shunned the sweet light. If we tend to sentimentalize the sinners at first, as Dante also does, we do not at the last, nor does he; and it is to our credit that we are merely disgusted by the bestial caricatures at the bottom of the pit. By then we have distanced ourselves not only from despair but from sin; hell is a noisome place to visit, and we don’t want to live there.
The haul of life. Encountering a Florentine glutton in the snowy rain of hell’s third circle, the exiled Dante asks what has happened to “Farinata and Tegghaio, who were so worthy, Jacopo Rusticucci, Arrigo, and Mosca, and the others who set their minds on doing good.” The answer is a shock: “They are among the blackest souls.” We can count no man happy until his whole life has been lived and judged: momentary repentance and even years of good living will not suffice. We must raise ourselves permanently above ourselves, willingly punishing all our impulses to wrong-doing and wrong-loving. And so we slowly haul ourselves up the mountain of purgatory. In a sense we are retracing our steps and climbing out of hell; but the eye altering alters all, and what we do willingly creates a better world.
There are few hymns in hell—though Dante quotes one about God’s banners advancing, to painfully ironic effect, in describing the fixed and frozen sinners of the Judecca—but the ascent of purgatory and the flight through the heavens are repeatedly set to music—and for reasons analogous to those that explain Ann Beattie’s fine use of popular music in her Chilly Scenes of Winter: one can find an appropriate musical commentary, an aesthetic celebration, for almost any meaningful event. So Dante’s self-purging sinners rise and his exhilarated spirits whirl to musical accompaniment, a holy Musak of exhortation and ecstasy. Like Beattie, Dante assumes that we know the words; a phrase or two will be enough to set us singing, he assumes. Luckily Singleton is there, passing the lyrics on to us, invaluable as always.
What’s it like, raising yourself by your own bootstraps into the Earthly Paradise? Surprising, for one thing. After looking forward eagerly through hell and purgatory to a reunion with his beloved Beatrice, Dante finally joins her on top of the mountain—only to become the startled and abashed victim of a harsh scolding for his waywardness. For another thing, the achievement of blessedness is what most of us have always suspected: it’s as ritualistic and complicated as joining a fraternity (with all kinds of arcane wisdom to be learned, most of it embellished and emblematic); it’s not actually a goal after all (there is heaven yet to come, and the Beatific Vision); and the bright clean colorful decorative meaningful perfectly good unreality of the Earthly Paradise evokes a world as impersonal and unnatural as Disneyland, similarly filled with meaningful monsters and interminable Rose Bowl processions.
But this is to speak from the viewpoint of the unregenerate. To those cleansed of sin, crowned and mitered kings over themselves as Dante now is, the interests of existence are totally objective. Knowledge and piety are enough for those who have lost the self in the whole. Innocent now of envy, boredom, irony, and pride, they are beyond the limitations imposed by taste, beauty, and self-fulfillment. . .although we unredeemed are in some need, after the long haul, of Singleton’s explanations of the potential bliss involved in this summit meeting at the peak of our life’s long climb.
The holy life. Dante begins his account of the flight into paradise by warning us that he will be unsatisfactory; his intellect has perceived more in ascending to God than his memory could retain, and he remembers more than he has skill to report. Then he locates himself in time for us: “The lamp of the world rises to mortals through different passages; but through that which joins four circles with three crosses it issues with a better course and conjoined with better stars, and stamps the wax of the world more after its own fashion.” Some Timex! Paradise, we quickly realize, is not to be a place merely of harps and wings, soft clouds and a soft life. Indeed, by the second canto Dante is warning us to turn back: “O you that are in your little bark, eager to hear, following behind my ship that singing makes her way, turn back to see again your shores. Do not commit yourself to the open sea, for per-chance, if you lost me, you would remain astray.” Lost already among the mystic meanings of circles and crosses, of 3 and 4, and of astrological imprintings, we might well turn back, if it were not for Singleton, remembering an early description of our perplexing author: “This Dante, because of his learning, was somewhat presumptuous, haughty, and disdainful, and being rude, as philosophers are, knew not how to speak with the unlearned.”
Dante’s manners and morals having been rectified down below, he is now free to cram his intellect; and he does so. As Singleton notes, “the journey through Paradise is much more of an intellectual journey than was the journey through either Purgatory or Inferno.” Even Beatrice’s many heavenly explications of love may remind the reader of Dante’s first poem back in his Vita Nuova— a poem that begins, one now realizes, almost with a pun: “Ladies who have intelligence of love.” (Donne, ch’avete intelletto d’amore.) In paradise love is brightly intellectualized, from the sweet surrender of the mildest among the blessed (“in His will is our peace”) to the vigorous force with which the Comedy closes: “the Love that moves the sun and the other stars.”
In all this high seriousness there is little room for humor, even the sly humor of character that occasionally brightens the Purgatorio (though amusingly one of Dante’s ancestors remains proud—it runs in the family—even in heaven). Though there are many puns in the Paradiso, there may be only one joke: Thomas Aquinas, the greatest Catholic theologian and a Dominican friar, describes himself to Dante as one “of the lambs of the holy flock which Dominic leads on the path where there is good fattening if they do not stray.” It’s rather an in-joke: Aquinas, Dominic’s best pupil, was enormously fat.
Well, it’s not exactly Woody Allen—but then heaven might be defined as the absence of Woody Allen.
The whole of life. It may seem strange to be seeking humor in paradise, yet the Comedy encourages such interests. (Dante called it a comedy—the closest he came to giving the poem a title—not because of its humor but because it is written in Italian rather than Latin and uses low diction and common imagery as well as properly high-class styles.”Comedy” indicates the genre of the poem, then, including its happy ending.) More and more thoroughly than any other work of literature in the Western world, the Comedy attempts to see life steadily and see it whole, and sub specie aeternatis as well. One of Samuel Beckett’s minor characters comments that in Dante’s purgatory the sinners seem to face the wrong way, as it were: “There all sigh, I was, I was. It’s like a knell . . .one would rather have expected, I shall be. No?” Their predilection is fortunate, from our point of view. Eternity, if there is such a thing, seems totally detached from our quotidian mortal state, and we can be interested in it only if it is made relevant to our present concerns. And Dante does this, over and over. Once out of nature he sings, like Yeats’s golden bird, of what is past, and passing, and to come, and reminds us that Blake and Shelley were right: Eternity is in love with the productions of Time.
We can agree to this easily; after all, we are prejudiced. To turn the idea around is the difficulty. But that dark wood still lies in wait for us, over one hill or another. Some day, when to live in the moment like a hedonist is behind you, and to live in the moment like a saint is still beyond, you may well find yourself taking down these valuable volumes as if your life depended upon them. Buy them now, so they’ll be there when you reach for them.