Continuing my slow start to Dante’s Comedy, I look here at additional themes of love, community, and spiritual journey as the pilgrim prepares to enter the Inferno.
N.B.: To get your bearings in our Dante series, start here.
Though the pilgrim has a guide in Virgil, he says in the beginning of this canto that, “I alone was preparing as though for war.” We will often be reminded that the pilgrim is a living being while everyone else he meets is a spirit, so despite the company this is, crucially, a solitary or personal journey, and now he calls it a struggle, too. In terms of the allegory, this brief remark captures the simultaneously individual and communal spirituality of any Christian’s life: we need fellowship with others, the moral and spiritual support of others, but ultimately the state of our soul is a matter between each of us and God.
Knowing what we know about the mind and memory, it’s hard for me to read “flawless memory” in line 5 (literally, “the mind, which does not err”) without some reservations. The science of memory suggests our memories change as we rehearse them, that memory is really fluid and changing and far from flawless. In some ways this belief makes Dante more continuous with Benjamin Franklin than Sigmund Freud. Before the late-19th/early-20th century, Enlightened moderns believed the rational mind was coherent and intelligible to itself. Marx, Darwin, and Freud were among the first thinkers to persuasively argue that factors outside our awareness might affect not only our actions but our beliefs.
Such thinking raised questions about our identity that were exacerbated by postmodern thought, but some Christian responses to postmodernism consciously or accidentally realign us with a more medieval perspective like Dante’s. Dante certainly believed in the usefulness of reason, but in his theological vision, reason was itself a servant to love—love, specifically, of Christ. That love, or rather the union of the soul with Christ, grounds identity more than any conscious effort of sustaining memory, whether you’re Dante or Don Miller.
Peter Leithart’s reading may support this. He argues that Dante wrote the Commedia in Italian rather than Latin because it is really a love poem, not an epic poem, and, as Dante wrote elsewhere, poets first used the vernacular for love poetry because it is best suited to that subject. Now, I don’t think Leithart rejects the evidence of all the epic conventions in the poem so much as subordinates them to this higher purpose. Better to say that Dante was rewriting epic in a Christian vein that brought the ancient categories of high and low, noble and common, close together. However, in context of thinking about reason, mind, and identity, to think of the Commedia as a love poem, or a poem about divine love, gives us a kind of guiding light by which to read everything else. Even if, as Pinsky argues, Dante treats divine justice in Inferno, that justice itself appears to us in context of ultimate love.
O Muses, O genius of art, O memory whose merit
Has inscribed inwardly those things I saw—
Help me fulfill the perfection of your nature. (III.6-8)
Minimally, I think we see here a rhetorical move that Dante will repeat in later cantos, viz., emphasizing the distance between the pilgrim’s experience and his poetical powers to represent them. The effect is two-fold. I tend to think that authors who use this trope often really have great confidence about their poetic powers, and so they cavil with a kind of false humility that actually expects us to be pretty impressed. Someone like Dante can often succeed in truly impressing us, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t somewhat disingenuous.
It is more interesting, however, to recognize that, in the hands of a competent poet, this move also serves to invite us as readers into the narrative as co-creators of the vision. Because we already enjoy and trust the author, we willingly fashion what we read according to our tastes and experiences. When Dante later tries to describe grotesque sights, each reader will see something slightly different according to what strikes him or her as grotesque. Good artists can use the reader’s own imagination to amplify their art.
The pilgrim’s self-contrast with Aeneas and Paul (l.26), believing himself unworthy of visiting the afterlife, points up how Dante sees all three books as a whole. Virgil himself told of Aeneas’s journey through Hell in The Aeneid. The reference to Paul makes sense when we recall that Dante is thinking of the whole journey: Inferno -> Purgatorio -> Paradiso. Dante will follow in Paul’s footsteps insofar as he takes Paul to be speaking about himself in 2 Cor 12: “I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven” (NIV). Whereas the earlier address to the Muses may have been slightly disingenuous, I rather think Dante seriously wants to justify his intention to write of things supernatural, things which, in their specifics, Scripture does not explicitly support.
Interestingly, Virgil sees the pilgrim’s hesitation not as humility but as cowardice—which, in epic terms, is contrary to heroism (not Aeneas, indeed). The pilgrim then learns that his age-old idol of beauty, Beatrice, later transfigured into an image of Christ, herself commissioned Virgil to guide his soul to safety (i.e., salvation). In Virgil’s narration of how Beatrice came to him in Limbo, we see the significance again of love to the whole design of the Commedia: love willed Beatrice to advocate for Dante, Dante’s love elevated him above “the common crowd,” and love transformed Beatrice into something that can no longer suffer the torments of even Limbo.
One last thing I notice in the canto is Dante’s determination in the last four lines:
From now, we two will share one will together:
You are my teacher, my master, and my guide.”
I can’t help but hear echoes of Ruth’s words to Naomi: “Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God.” In both cases, a subordinate proclaims a profound identity with someone superior, a willing subjection to the experience and judgment of the other. Dante is more explicit than Ruth in establishing his subjection to Virgil, and in general the tone is more submissive than Ruth’s assertion of loyalty, but both examples remind us that love can, in fact, blur the boundaries of the self, and that is not necessarily a bad thing when the object is worthy.