Why should we read Dante? The question is one I often think about, and not just because Dante has been my intellectual and creative “go-to guy” for thirty years now. To me, Dante is much more than an “academic” author for scholars – I think his work can be a meaningful part of all readers’ lives. In my book In a Dark Wood: What Dante Taught Me About Grief, Healing, and the Mysteries of Love, I described how reading Dante helped me get through an especially difficult period of personal loss that I first discussed in an essay for the New York Times.
As I tried to show in my writings, Dante invites us into the essence of his “life’s journey” in the three remarkably suggestive opening lines of Inferno, “Hell,” the first of the three canticles of The Divine Comedy, a 14,233-line poem on the state of the soul. We will all find ourselves in a dark wood one day, these lines tell us, all reach our crisis point.
It could be the death of a loved one, a crushing career disappointment, an illness—misfortune is unfortunately democratic, opportunistic, and ruthless. But, if we read ahead in Dante’s magnificent epic, we will also learn that it’s not what lands you in the “dark wood” that defines you, but rather how you find your way out of it.
Dante wrote those opening words a few years after his ultimate “dark wood” moment: exile from his beloved hometown of Florence in 1302. His city was involved in a civil war, and Dante ended up on the wrong side, making a very powerful enemy, Pope Boniface VIII. Because of a split within his own Guelph party, he was exiled, forced to spend the next and last two decades of his life wandering the Italian peninsula, always longing to return to Florence, never feeling quite at home. But what a gift he left us with.
In Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, the protagonist Ishmael says that a whaleboat was “my Yale College and my Harvard”; I would say the same for Dante’s Comedy. I’ve learned from it endlessly, unceasingly for three decades now, ever since I first read it as an undergraduate, and even now when I find myself teaching it to undergraduates as well as other groups of all kinds. Reading Dante can be a humbling experience because he references everything from the Bible and medieval philosophy to the Latin poets and the tortured political history of the Italian city-states.
Link to the rest at Tertulia