BIG OTHER, gracious blog, has been letting me post my ideas about Dante’s Divine Comedy. The basic question: Why should so long and formal a piece of work, coming up on its 700th birthday and all about notions of faith hardly anyone believes in, still enjoy enormous contemporary impact? Earlier stages of my investigation have laid out the problem, then looked at Inferno, then Purgatory, then Paradise. Also I have to thank Southwest Review, where this material appeared in considerably different form. Now, I begin to see what I can make of the whole.
The core of my Comedy, then, resides in these three end-of-the-road images: the the slum-tower, the the garden-tree, and softer lights of Heaven. In concert, I would argue, they enact something more ambivalent than a “conversion narrative.”
The conversion story is Charles Singleton’s insight, developed in the mid-20th-Century, and there’s no question it honors “the Poem.” The Bollingen translator claimed that Dante constructed an “allegory of theologians” rather than an “allegory of poets” — that his odyssey has its “proper end not in the life after death, but here in this life” (this in a 1954 essay, “Dante’s Allegory”). Singleton and those who followed him, like John Freccero, have treated the work as, fundamentally, an imaginative reframing of its creator’s journey back to faith from the dark wood of exile. It’s a Comedy of conversion, a drama of the born again.
Of course I’m simplifying. That’s what happens to any system of thought over 60 or 70 years, it starts to feel simple. It feels, almost, in the way. Throughout Robert Pinsky’s Inferno (otherwise very fine, tempestoso), the conversion reading looms like an inviolable monolith.
Yet the final epiphanies of Paradise also intimate something else again: what used to be called “the act of love.” The glowing eyes and flying sparks limn a growing closeness, and can’t help but suggest a tryst by candlelight. Not just any tryst, to be sure, nothing prurient. Rather, given the context of talking with the dead, combined with the narrator’s much-remarked-upon aging (in Canto XXV especially), one thinks of some youthful encounter recollected years later, an embrace in the dark once fumbling but now — as the candle of our sensual being gutters — transcendent.
I make this connection fully aware that the author knew conversion. Dante’s revival of faith makes itself felt on first reading, as we move from the rage of Inferno to the receptivity of Paradise. Inferno, too, gives carnal desire its comeuppance, in the famous case of Paolo and Francesca (V), and Paradise tends to express intimacy in metaphors such as a baby at suck (XXX). Yet that image too has aspects of the erotic, and at a number of points in the final cantos, the transcendent experience is imbued with the ardor of a mature lover, a desire purified by time.
Doesn’t Virgil declare, at the center of the journey: “Natural love can never be at fault?” (Purgatory XVII) A clarifying latter-day companion would be Krapp’s Last Tape, Samuel Beckett’s piercing rejection of epiphany. In this one-act, an old man fast-forwards through his younger self’s recorded pontifications about Meaning; he prefers to hear, again and again, a few words about a lost lover.
“Natural love,” I mean, participates in the Love celebrated in the Poem’s final line, that which “moves the sun and the other stars.” This participation reveals, further, something intrinsic to the work’s lasting impact. The concluding images from the end of Inferno to the end of the whole — from tower to tree to candle — delineate a consistent movement away from power. In worldly terms, each of the metaphorical objects is more fragile than the last. Dante first leaves pride and its towers behind, then embodies pride’s cleansing in a tree’s fragile blossoms, and then locates the greatest force in the universe in the glow of a candle. It’s a reverse Pilgrim’s Progress, agitating throughout against stock images of the Almighty.
The continuing power of The Divine Comedy depends on the value it invests in the meek and the low. The Poem still upsets expectation via a tension between the omnipotence it seeks to express and the fragility in its instruments of expression. Not all devices in the epic partake of that fragility, to be sure. The organization for instance remains among the most formidable in literature. Still it says something, it says a lot, that the comparison with Jackson’s Lord of the Rings is essentially one between crowd scenes and intimate encounters. Jackson crams the screen with armies; Dante pauses for a whisper.