The question I'm asked so much of my first novel, The Dante Club, is: Why Dante? What's your obsession?
Must you be obsessed with a topic to spend years working on a manuscript without any reason to think it could get published, while you're supposed to be studying law (as I was)? Maybe. Maybe more so than for your second or third or fourth novels, when at least you can justify it by saying it's your job. Obsessions die hard, too. I'm quite sure there will be Dante-centric fiction in my future, though for now my lips are sealed on that topic.
There will never be another Dante. This is not only because Dante Alighieri, a 13th century Florentine poet whose masterwork is known as The Divine Comedy (by him, it was just called The Comedy), was a unique talent, but also because modern conditions probably would not allow for a new Dante. Let us think about Dante’s personality, which from the little we know was probably pretty abrasive, truth be told.
He was quite sure he was right – about everything. He was certain in his idiosyncratic Catholic theology and value system, which differed enough from the official Vatican dictates that some of his writings were later banned. He was certain enough in his grasp on religious matters to describe an uncharted landscape in purgatory and tell us what the holy trinity would look like... he was sure enough that competing religions were quite wrong to put their leaders in hell, including the founding prophets of Islam (something that's won a medieval fresco depicting those scenes the distinction of being potential terrorist targets). Oh, and Dante felt strongly that we the people must have two rulers, a universal emperor and the pope, to govern all humanity. Yep, that would include America, too, if he had known about us. All this allowed Dante to write the Divine Comedy because it permitted him to design hell, purgatory and heaven and all their residents and to describe his own journey through them. Think of distributing your friends, family members and some popes to specific places in the afterlife. You cannot write a poem like that without being very sure of yourself and your worldview. Couldn't do it without being obsessed, just a little.
Remember, in Dante’s era (he likely began his masterwork in 1307 and finished around 1317) knowledge was finite. One person could know everything, more or less. That is, a single prodigious student of the world, like Dante, could reasonably believe he or she possessed all the knowledge known to the world about history, math, science, literature, religion, politics, literature and art. Maybe that's enviable, certainly I can remember that fearing as a college freshman, walking into the momentous library building, how little knowledge I'd ever be able to pick up.
As the years wore on, and bodies of knowledge and mainstream belief systems multiplied, Dante’s poem, with its inflexible perspectives, had a pretty rough journey. Spain was the earliest country outside of Italy to read and translate Dante. However, the Inquisition, reacting against burgeoning cultural differentiation, also recoiled at Dante’s condemnation of various Catholic dogmas. This helped delay widespread exposure of Dante in Europe for centuries. Eighteenth century trendsetters in France like Voltaire, seeing Dante’s description of infernal punishments as barbaric, further buried Dante under disapproval. Through the nineteenth century Dante’s theology and ideology continued to be the primary reasons that prevented or permitted the reading of his poem. In the twentieth century, Russian poet Osip Mandelstam brings his copy of Dante to political prison, and Primo Levi perceives Dante in a similar fashion while in a concentration camp, but to these moving accounts of Dante as a fellow prisoner in an infernal prison, we must add an acknowledgment that in Dante’s case the poet created the prison himself. He was an exile, but he also exiled himself instead of ever admitting he was wrong.
If someone today were to be as confident as Dante had to be in order to write his great poem, what would we say of him? In a post-World War II environment, I'm pretty certain we'd call him a demagogue, an extremist. If he were a political leader (as Dante had been for a time in Florence), we would call him a dictator or tyrant. We would probably say he was dangerous, and probably we would be right.
Yet, now Dante is more popular around the world than perhaps any time in history. This, more than seven hundred years after he began his poem while in exile from his homeland of Florence. What is it we continue to find in Dante?
Dante genuinely hoped that his poem would change the world (maybe all writers secretly do, at different levels). But it did not do so they way he wanted it to.
He hoped it would bring a strong unity – theologically, culturally, and linguistically – to Italy, Europe and beyond. As cultures have increasingly embraced differences, somehow, Dante’s poem seems to become more potent and relevant to readers. Boy, am I not the reader Dante would have imagined (Jewish, for one). But as we gain distance from Dante’s rigid sense of reality, the reality he has meticulously invented in the Comedy becomes more accessible to all of us. It is almost as though in a world that has diversified into so many religions, sects and cultures, Dante’s vision can finally be shared by all of us – that is, because it is owned by none of us (not even Catholics today can find too much in common in Dante with their present-day theology).
Why Dante for me? I remember thinking vaguely the same question when I first studied him. Neither he nor his characters looked, sounded or acted like me. The politics and the religion had nothing to do with my life. That's what made my immediate preoccupation with it all the more intriguing to me. I clicked with it without seeing it as a mirror into my own life.
There is something comforting about being in the midst of boundless confidence like Dante's. This is part of why we fear demagoguery, isn't it? Because its appeal is so evident. But with Dante, all the dogma has long been defused of any charge, his politics and even most of his theologies are no longer in contention. We can all believe in the poem, regardless of our backgrounds. In this way, it actually binds us together and finally accomplishes what Dante set out to do – create unity.
True, this is not how Dante would have wanted us to read the poem. However, most of our art and culture is not appreciated in the context originally envisioned by the creators – I'm thinking about the art once belonging to homes and churches around the world now shuffled around in museums. Musuems always feel like they're orphanages to me. Frankly, I am not sure Dante’s poem was ever read as he wanted it to be. Dante, as far as we can tell, sincerely meant for his readers to believe he actually did make the journey through the three realms of the afterlife, like Aeneas or St. Paul, whom he mentions in the opening of the poem. However, I have never found any clear evidence that any readers ever took this claim seriously, even in Dante’s own time, certainly not today. Not even Dante’s son Pietro, who wrote the earliest commentary on the poem. You too, Pietro? I sometimes wonder if someone is out there (anyone? anyone?) who quietly believes Dante descended into hell from the dark woods where we first meet him in Inferno’s opening canto. I would be excited to meet this reader.
In any case, I believe Dante would be disgruntled to know we have not all been as accepting as this imaginary reader. He'd be irritated beyond belief that we read it secularly and without his politics. He'd balk at a law student working obsessively on his free time to convert Dante's energy into a historical thriller novel.
But that is part of what makes literature exciting and vibrant – we transform literature whenever we read it, just as Dante transforms Virgil, his literary idol, by recruiting him as a central character in the Comedy. Virgil even gets a new fate in Dante’s plan – a bittersweet one, as a brave guide but also as a permanent citizen of hell. Part of Dante’s fascination with Virgil comes from the fact that Virgil’s Aeneid told of the origins of Rome, and Dante was trying to sort out the present and future identity of Italy. So Dante brings Virgil into his new vision. Although Virgil, as a non-Christian, is ultimately left behind in hell in the story, Dante makes sure Virgil’s poetry will not be left behind.
The Divine Comedy may be said to mark the origin of modern literature that we might take for granted: a literature of ideas. Therefore, as we continuously adjust our paradigms for literature, we constantly bring Dante along with us – we remake not just our present literature but our literary origins, as well, just as Dante did. We find new concepts in Dante, new wrinkles, new principles, new gifts to our time. Although Dante’s body of knowledge may have been substantially fixed, his imagination was limitless, and that creates a work of art far more open-ended than Dante probably would have admitted he was writing. That is why translation takes on such an important role in appreciating and reading Dante today, and why reading translations of Dante’s text has its own value independent of the original text. Translation is a way of constantly challenging the text and rediscovering it. We read the Comedy not just to find out what it says, but also to find what it might say tomorrow.
That's worth a bit of obsession.