”in every man … a demon lies hidden — the demon of rage, the demon of lustful heat at the screams of the tortured victim, the demon of lawlessness let off the chain. (The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoevsky)”
Dante lived in a time of rapid change, a time when radical new concepts were altering the outlook of man on his world. Measured against the accelerating transformation of our own society, the Renaissance can be seen as a relatively minor cultural revolution in the history of humanity. This view, logical and linear, likely misses its target.
It is said that only poets and artists can synthesize the life of an epoch. In this respect Dante made a great summary statement. Dante’s pilgrimage began at the midpoint of his life, in the first lines of a poem. He called his account a ”comedy”. Later, he was unwilling to accept so modest a title for so great a work, and insisted on adding the ”Divine”, and justly so. There is no modern parallel for Dante and his achievement. The Divine Comedy is one of the supreme imaginative creations in human records. It is the greatest Catholic poem as Paradise Lost is the greatest Protestant poem. In the North American mind, it has colored the common conception of Heaven and Hell, and demons and angels.
Dante Alighieri ( 1265-1321 ) His paternal ancestry was ancient and noble; though of a minor nobility and the mercantile class. Dante’s father was a banker, though to all appearances an unsuccessful money lender. Dante was admitted to the small society of Florentine intelectuals, and worked his way up to hold a number of responsible civic appointments. In 1300, he was elected prior, thus becoming a member of the highest elected body of Florence. However, political winds changed and Dante’s party, ”the whites” which represented the middle class and minor gentry, and hostile to papal claims for domination of Tuscany, lost control of Florence to the ”blacks”.
Dante vigorously opposed the temporal claims of Pope Boniface VIII, and narrowly missed excommunication. He was accused of graft and embezzlement and disturbance of the peace, forcing him to flee. A second sentence was added that if he should ever return to Florence, he would be burned alive. Thenceforth, Dante was an exile without home or property living as a parasite and beggar. He became politically active, and proposed a separation between church and state where the spiritual and temporal powers, both sanctioned from on high, were each to rule contentedly on their own domain. Eventually, Florence offered him amnesty, but with humiliating conditions. He refused them and was again condemned to death.
His last years are obscure. His wanderings came to an end in Ravenna, where he was warmly received by the local despot. He had barely completed the Divine Comedy when he died on September 13, 1321. Who was he? He was ardently religious yet longed for earthly fame and prosperity. He was emotionally charged, and struggled with bouts of melancholy and deep reflection. Furious passion drove him to his convictions and deeds. His love hate relationship with Florence, his admiration and loathing for individuals, and his anger, pride, and humility were so excessive as to be sublime. He was a mass of contradictions, but in his work he could subdue his passion to fit an ordered frame, in careful meter and rhyme. Despite several other important writings,though appealing, the one great book is what Dante called his ”Commedia”. He called his poem a comedy because it begins in adversity and ends happily, and because it is couched in a familiar style; a colloquial language filled with vulgar and comic connotations yet filled with cadences and overtones that permitted the text to rise to sublimity. The Divine Comedy is, first of all, a confession, proceeding from anguish of spirit.Its opening lines:
”At midpoint of the road we mortals tread/I cto myself in a dark wood, for there/the way was lost that leads us straight ahead”
Dante was undergoing a secret spiritual crisis. A mid-life crisis. He was tortured by a conviction of sin, by loss of hope, by a sense of God’s distance or absence; a state familiar in the history of religious experience. The whole of the Divine Comedy is the drama of sin and redemption, the story of the sinner who descends to the lowest depths and rises again through purgation to salvation. It is also the story of the sinner’s cry for help, of the coming of grace and of deliverance by divine love. It is the story of everyone, whatever his faith, who becomes conscious of his abjection and who longs to escape from it, and to sit at that table where the bread of angels is eaten and not the crumbs from the floor. A sense of sin mingled with a desire for release from sin; the poem a profession and proof of faith , and a supplication for immortality in the next world and in this. The Divine Comedy is his own pilgrim’s progess, and an invitation to all to join him in his pilgrimage. Dante’s influence has been enormous:
Allen Ginsberg’s mentor, William Carlos Williams,suggested, in the introduction to ”Howl” that the poem be read as sort of ”Beat Inferno”; evidence that Ginsberg as been through hell, a horrifying experience with the destiny of a doomed and fallen angel.”In this reading, Ginsberg however is not Dante but Virgil. For Dante, his own salvation constitutes the entire justification for the journey described in the Commedia, including the Inferno. Virgil tells him, ‘Thus for your good I think and judge that you shall follow me, and I shall be your guide’ (Inf. 1:112-3; Robert Durling’s translation). Dante is just passing through as at were, is, in a sense, a mere tourist among the torments of hell. But as Williams tells us, Ginsberg is one of the damned themselves, he has ‘partaken’ of the horrors he describes (p. 8), a word which suggests to me a sort of diabolical reversal of II Peter 1:4 (‘that by these ye might be partakers of the divine nature’) and of the act of Communion. Like Virgil, Ginsberg inhabits Hell, but according to Williams he goes further than the Roman poet, he ‘Claims it as his own’ (p. 8).’
‘To begin with, I would suggest that we read Part I, the catalogue of sometimes depraved, sometimes theurgic and mystical acts in which the Beats have engaged, as a parallel to the recounting of the acts of the Saints in Hebrews 11:32-8. Compare Ginsberg’s ‘starving hysterical naked’ (p. 9) with St Paul’s ‘destitute, afflicted, tormented’ (Heb. 11:37). For Ginsberg, the ‘best minds of my generation’, although destroyed, are not men tragically lost to society, they are men ‘of whom the world was not worthy’ (Heb. 11:38). Furthermore, the prominent references to God, Heaven, and the angels, particularly in ll. 3 and 5, point us toward this celestial reading of Part I. The Beats are ‘angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo’ (imagery which recalls the sight that greets Dante after he emerges from Hell in Inf. 34:136-9),
”Also, the experiences that are presumably considered ‘hellish’ by the average reader—one thinks especially of the ‘waking nightmares’ (p. 10), the ‘junk-withdrawal’ (p. 11), the wrist-cutting (p. 16) and the statement that ‘they threw up groaning into the bloody toilet’ (p. 17)—are right there side-by-side with the ecstatic ones. Often they are one and the same. Many ordinary readers, for instance, will likely be ‘horrified’ by the references to sodomy and fellatio, but where we see low-life bikers and sailors, Ginsberg sees ‘saintly motorcyclists’ and ‘human seraphim…caresses of Atlantic and Caribbean love’ (p. 13), the tender epithets contrasting sharply with the crude language in which the poet describes the sexual acts themselves.”
There is also the relationship between Joseph Conrad’s ”Heart of Darkness” and Dante’s Inferno, given the many allusion to Dante’s work. Conrad’s novel draws parallel conclusions as to the nature and evil potential of the human personality.The reaction is not one of forthcoming illumination, but rather of profound terror. In Darkness, Marlow’s overriding response to his journey is that it has taken him into “some lightless region of subtle horrors” It is striking to note, in culminating passages of Heart of Darkness , how Conrad makes reference to an existing body of imagery to intensify the record of individual experiences. The world is created, in fact clearly and intentionally aligned as narratives with the earlier literary voyage of Dante’s underworld journey through Hell in The Divine Comedy.The descent into primitive savagery is linked, therefore, to the complete breakdown of an inner spiritual code. Deprived entirely of his moral dimension, Conrad implies, man’s regression into murderous violence and complete sexual debauch becomes a real possibility.
Dante’s purpose was to save the world. He would reveal the reasons for the perversion of virtue and would offer a heavenly vision of man’s possible ultimate bliss. He presented a revelation, but a serviceable revelation, an attainable ideal for all times. He claimed his ”Comedia” contained four senses; the literal,allegorical, moral and analogical, or mystical revelation of spiritual truth. It all proceeded from Dante’s basic creed and view of moral existence as a testing, a preparation of the soul for its possible bliss. This leads to his hell/purgatory/paradise equation. The substance of Divine Comedy is a series of Q and A; questions about the nature of sin, punishment and beatitude, which he answers himself with concrete but symbolic judgements of special cases.
His great discovery, and that of enduring importance to Western literature and art was the construction and device of turning intellectual speculation into a fictional narrative by using the simple and ancient device of the journey.Dante assumes the role of the accidental tourist/journalist who is an awkward comic figure in the lower world, but as he climbs upward his figure and his words take on a proper enrichment. For his journey, Dante needed companions to serve as guides and interlocutors. Virgil, or Reason, is the guide through Hell and Purgatory, followed by Beatrice and Saint Bernard. Reason, Revelation, and Intuition are our three successive guides in the search for God.
Dante’s blending of pictorial imagination, dramatic power and moral fervor has drawn more readers to the ”Inferno” than the placid beauties of the upper world. The descent to hell, through a scale of increasing and deliberate will to evil; vices to due to passions perverted and converted by an act of will into deeds has tempted innumerable artists from Botticelli to Dali, Ginberg and beyond who have mined the infernal imagery of a poetic expression of an ever increasing enmity towards fellow humans.Even Hell has its good and bad neighborhoods. The first five levels are the homes of sinners by incontinence; those possessed by lust, gluttony, avarice and anger. The lower five levels, the ghetto of utmost agony, are inhabited by sinners of fraud and treachery.
The theme in the final section, “Paradiso” is the human soul’s approach to God. The human soul yearning to return to the first loving essence, to die into eternal life; the sinking of will and identity in divine love, which moves the sun and the other stars.Again, Dante takes up the thorny issue of trying to resolve predestination and free will. He seems to sustain free-will with the caveat that one is forced to celebrate the mystery of predestination nonetheless.
Dante invented his own poetic form, the ”terra rima” with triple rhymes interlinked, so that an entire canto locks together. It is a poetry to be felt, not explained. In addition to the poetry of pictures, lines and phrases, there is also the poetry of structure, with its turbulent beginning and termination in celestial peace and tranquility. Thus, the Divine Comedy can be read as a strange, almost science fiction tale, as poetry, and as instruction; a lesson of faith for the unfaithful.
Though the Freudian diagnosis of ”guilt complex” is prevalent, it has not effaced ”sin”, merely given it a more pleasing label, though in a more devalued form. The sins of the modern world are far more gigantic and evil than Dante could have imagined. Dante’s revelation of man at odds with the world and with himself, conscious of sin and longing for salvation remain, despite his contentions based on junk science and a literal heaven and hell. To Dante, sin, prompted by jealous Satan himself, is our perpetual temptation.
Dante’s message, is then, a warning. a timely warning against sin. The ”Inferno” is the picture of sin’s loathsome consequences. The ”Purgatorio” shows us how, by our own effort and with divine aid, we may escape from sin. The ”Paradiso” is a promise of our envelopment in eternal love.