In his essay, “Why Read the Classics?,” collected in the eponymous volume, Italo Calvino argues that “… it is no use reading the classics out of a sense of duty or respect, we should only read them for love.” He adds, “It is only during unenforced reading that you will come across the book which will become ‘your’ book” (p. 6). I began reading Dante out of curiosity, but then I fell in love with an imaginative vision that dared what few authors have dared–and what no writer today would even consider.
While I was planning for my recent trip to Italy, I took some time to think about what I should read. One of the great things about traveling is that you have lots of time to read. Long flights, long waits in airports, train trips, evenings in hotels: it’s amazing how much you can read in even a week free from the weight of daily obligations. And what goes better with new and beautiful scenery than new and beautiful writing?
I’ve been working my way through the Greco-Roman classics this year. I’m in the middle of Ovid right now, so I considered continuing with the Metamorphoses. Somehow, however, that didn’t feel satisfactory. I’ve wanted to read at least the Inferno for some time, so I decided, why not now? I was hooked within the first ten lines:
When I had journeyed half of our life’s way,
I found myself in within a shadowed forest,
for I had lost the path that does not stray.
Ah it is hard to speak of what it was,
that savage forest, dense and difficult,
which even now renews my fear:
so bitter–death is hardly more severe!
But to retell the good discovered there,
I’ll also tell the other things I saw.
(all quotes from the Divine Comedy translated by Allen Mandelbaum)
Who hasn’t found themselves in that forest? Or if they haven’t yet, who won’t? I read somewhere that the only way to read the Divine Comedy was straight through–from the beginning Inferno to the beatific vision that concludes Paradiso–and I instantly saw why. The Divine Comedy, in a very literal fashion, fits one of Calvino’s definitions of a classic–“A classic is the term given to any book which comes to represent the whole universe …” (p. 6). It depicts the entirety of the moral universe of medieval Catholicism, but that isn’t what it’s really about. At its most basic level, the Divine Comedy is the story of one human’s redemption, and it starts with him realizing he’s lost his way.
You can’t find yourself until you admit you’re lost. Then where do you go? Where do you go when you find, as Dante does, that the way upward in this world is blocked? That all of your fondest ambitions and aspirations are unachievable or, worse, meaningless? There really is only one place to go, straight through Hell, and that’s what Dante does, with the aid of Virgil–in the poem the personification of reason.
What makes the Divine Comedy so enjoyable is its imaginative power. Dante’s symbolism is at times too allegorical for modern tastes, and his references to contemporary Italian events are often wasted on us–even with extensive commentary. Even more difficult for a modern reader are the times when his morality and ours are irreconcilably opposed, However, when he loses himself in the description of what he sees and feels on his journey through the spiritual universe, none of that matters. The power and beauty of his imagination compel you to travel with him.
When he sees Satan, trapped in ice at the core of the Earth–the center and lowest point of the universe in Dante’s cosmology:
O reader, do not ask of me how I
grew faint and frozen then–I cannot write it:
all words would fall far short of what it was.
I did not die, and I was not alive;
think for yourself, if you have any wit,
what I became, deprived of life and death.
The emperor of the despondent kingdom
so towered from the ice, up from the midchest,
that I match better with a giant’s breadth
than giants match the measure of his arms …
Or even more, when he leaves Hell and climbs back to the Earth’s surface:
There is a place below, the limit of
that cave, its farthest point from Beelzebub,
a place one cannot see: it is discovered
by ear–there is a sounding stream that flows
along the hollow of a rock eroded
by winding waters, and the slope is easy.
My guide and I came on that hidden road
to make our way back into the bright world;
and with no care for any rest we climbed–
he first, I following–until I saw,
through a round opening, some of those things
of beauty Heaven bears. It was from there
that we emerged to see–once more–the stars.
You feel his horror and his relief, the relief of one who has passed through darkness and oppression of Hell and come again into the open air beneath the starry sky.
When English-speakers read Dante today, they mostly read the Inferno. The Purgatorio and Paradiso are largely forgotten. This is a shame. It obscures the fact that this is not a tour of inspection but a journey of salvation and conceals the reality that Dante’s imagined world is extremely astronomical. It’s no coincidence that the final word of the Inferno, the Purgatorio, and the Paradiso is stelle “stars.” Hell, situated in a deep “valley” that reaches to the center of the Earth, is so situated because that places it as far from the Empyrean–the highest heaven–as possible. In Purgatorio, Dante climbs the mountain of Purgatory. As his sins are purified, he comes closer to the top of the mountain–the Garden of Eden–where he undergoes a final purification so that:
From that most holy wave I now returned
to Beatrice; remade, as new trees are
renewed when they bring forth new boughs, I was
pure and prepared to climb unto the stars.
Now with the companionship Beatrice–the personification of love, since reason cannot carry you to the Heavens–Dante ascends to Heaven, which in the Divine Comedy is located in the physical heavens: in the planets, among and beyond the stars. They ascend through the Ptolemaic scheme of the universe, Dante learning more and more about the divine virtues, until, beyond the sphere of fixed stars, in the Divine Empyrean, Dante is brought face to face with God. He spends more than a hundred lines attempting–in vain, as he openly admits–to capture that experience in verse, but the last lines of the Divine Comedy can serve as both his apology and the mark of his success:
and my own wings were far too weak for that.
But then my mind was struck by light that flashed
and, with that light, received what it had asked.
Here force failed my high fantasy; but my
desire and will were moved already–like
a wheel revolving uniformly–by
the Love that moves the sun and the other stars.
Another of Italo Calvino’s definitions of a classic is: “‘Your’ classic is a book to which you cannot remain indifferent, and which helps you define yourself in relation or even in opposition to it” (p. 7). I had the good fortune to find such a book in the Divine Comedy. It speaks to me in many ways, and I want to close by discussing one of them. Part of what draws me to this book is the ridiculous boldness necessary to attempt not only to encapsulate the spiritual world in one poem, not only to depict the whole of human failure and redemption and triumph, but to go so far as to to depict the vision of God Himself. I think we are too timid nowadays, as writers, artists, and thinkers. None of us would dare what Dante dared, but all of the greatest authors keep encouraging us to do just that. Ray Bradbury said of Thomas Wolfe that he “ate the world and vomited lava” (Zen in the Art of Writing p. 8). William Faulkner judged writers by the “splendor of our failures”–and incidentally, praised Wolfe for “… trying to put the whole history of the human heart on the head of a pin …” (Faulkner at the University, pp. 206, 144). It’s time to let go of the fear that it’s no longer possible to write and create with conviction and courage. It’s time we dared to wrangle meaning from life and write it back into the world.