The Divine Comedy has its end, after 3X9 spirals rendered in 100 evenly distributed cantos, and it’s about time my posts about the Poem wrap up too. The big question that’s kept me on BIG OTHER: why should so complex a work, about places and beliefs that have long since ceased to matter, actually continue growing in impact, now nearly 700 years after it was completed? Earlier posts have raised that question, then looked at Inferno, then Purgatory, then Paradiso, and after that begun to provide an answer. Now, (with a last salute to Southwest Review, where all this appeared in very different form) I reach final conclusions.
My Universal Field Theory for the Poem’s continuing appeal hardly springs, full-grown, from my brow alone. In particular it owes a debt to Jan Kott’s work on Shakespeare and Joseph Meeker’s work on comedy. As Meeker argues, comedy always implies survival — getting through, getting on, even in the ruined undertaker’s garb of the Little Tramp. Doesn’t Dante’s choice of title suggest, therefore, a conversion narrative in another sense? Conversion, in comedy, seems not a lone, fixed entity, but rather a shambling process of iteration. The conclusion of the Pilgrim’s journey itself implies iteration, since he can’t remain floating on air before “the wheel in perfect balance turning” (XXXIII). Rather he tumbles away, out of balance, a party pinwheel.
Or Phaeton dumped from his chariot, with no one to blame but himself. Indeed, how often the Comedy entails a fall! When our narrator isn’t collapsing physically, as at the end of the Paolo and Francesca episode, he must apologize for a mental breakdown, and his apologies multiply as the story goes on. Yet his quest survives each stumble, and so takes on the classic pattern of comic parable. The Pilgrim begins to resemble Quixote, or Shine the Signifying Monkey, or Beckett’s Unnameable: “I can’t go on, you must go on, I’ll go on.”
Now, Beckett’s trilogy, another that goes beyond the life of the body, is also a comedy in the ordinary sense — it makes us laugh. The same can be said of Quixote and any other picaresque, whereas Dante’s voyage offers hardly a chuckle. Our protagonist may fall (and the monolith of the conversion narrative along with him), but it’s never a pratfall. This artist doesn’t amuse, he fascinates: now uncanny, now brilliant. In Inferno’s Malebolge episode, the demons indulge in locker-room antics, but the Pilgrim and Guide carry on with horrified rigor.
What I’m proposing doesn’t ignore that rigor, but rather emphasizes its humanity. Our fragility is never so evident as when we sigh “I must go on,” and these hundred cantos come eventually to the same point, via stages of pilgrimage best considered the way Kott looked at the Fool in Lear: as a representation of the psyche in development. Dante’s three canticle-closing images signal critical points in spiritual and emotional growth.
The psychological principles that underlie my reading are, for better or worse, Carl Jung’s. Jung had his failures, his blind spots, but then he would argue that these compose an element essential to every individual: a “Shadow,” a realm within us we’d rather not visit, horrifying and yet impossible to dismiss. By extension, the work of psychological wholeness is that of embracing and integrating the Shadow. Then too, Jung was one of the thinkers who helped refine the idea of the Unknowable, also intrinsic to the human animal. Every civilization recognizes the existence of the Unknowable, some all-encompassing essence out beyond the ken of the wisest sachem, or the most whole and actualized personality. To describe the Unknowable as God, as the wandering Jews used to claim, is to diminish it.
The Divine Comedy embodies these three aspects of human growth and potential via a sequence of illustrations or signifiers so fitting as to seem arranged back at the dawn of Jung’s Collective Unconscious. One might use an older locution; one might say, concerning this archetypal sequence, that the Comedy “images them forth.” In any case the context requires, surely, explication in poetic terms.
The tower terrifies, it houses our most fearsome icon of self… and yet at the same time it shows us the walls that must come down while we do the work of wholeness, a many-step-program that will turn a naked stump in the middle of our life’s road to something fully realized and alive, of hopeful green stuff woven… and once that high yet still earthly goal has been achieved, once we’ve embraced all the spirits within, then the candle emerges clearly ahead, the still, small flame that leads us on to our true calling, to a permanence and value we cannot name yet can never cease believing exists… and throughout these passages, progress takes the form of renunciation, of putting off worldly armor and becoming ever more vulnerable…
Tower, tree, candle: shadow, wholeness, hope. A sturdy chain of meaning, that, with the strength to haul The Divine Comedy across seven centuries and ground it firmly in the consciousness of a time like our own, mad for individual self-actualization. Yet as I finish my argument it too begins to sound simple. It begins to sound, almost, like the string of platitudes out of an Oscar winner.
Oh, I have assurances that my work is nothing so superficial, no pop-mythic imposition on the text. My analysis doesn’t exclude Singleton’s, no more than his negated the earlier “romantic” interpretations. Nevertheless, after so much of this Comedy, I find myself feeling like the joke’s on me — like I’m merely playing the role I was born to, as a younger disciple, when it came my turn to wrestle with so protean a narrative. My glimpse of the miracle, too, ends in freefall, and the best I can hope for is that when I come too is that I can still count on so rich and sagacious a text as a companion.
John Domini is the author of Bedlam, Highway Trade, Talking Heads: 77, Earthquake I.D., A Tomb on the Periphery, The Sea-God's Herb, Movieola!, and The Color Inside a Melon. Domini has won awards in all genres, publishing fiction in The Paris Review, Threepenny Review, and elsewhere; and journalism and criticism in The New York Times, Bookforum, The Brooklyn Rail, and elsewhere (including Italian journals). He live in Des Moines, Iowa.