I haven’t been posting much since I’ve been continuing to work on my Dante book that I’ve mentioned before and have resolved to work on it until the end of March at the very least. Although I’ll still find time to blog, I will be focusing a lot more time on the meditations and writing. I wanted to share a little bit of my musings on the first chapter. It’s only a first draft so it’s still rather rough but I’ve been very pleased with the results so far. If anyone wishes to discuss or join me in any study of Dante feel free to contact me. Admittedly it will lose some of its impact without an introduction as the introduction would also serve to reiterate how amateur I am at Dante studies and how I do not wish to assume some mantle that is beyond me, but I hope that my tiny little contributions might be helpful to someone who wishes to better understand The Sublime Poet’s greatest work.
Canto I: The Dark Wood
Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita
mi ritrovai per una selva oscura,
ché la diritta via era smarrita.
In the middle of the journey of our life
I came to myself within a dark wood
where the straight way was lost.
I think that if there is one thing that marks the state of the modern world, it is “dissolution.” We have never really felt more divided than we do in this modern age whether it’s between races, religions, spouses, ideologies, our families or even our own psyches. Any attempt at universality is met with resistance—any semblance of unity is construed as control. And yet there is this yearning deep within mankind to feel united to each other. How often do we lighten just a little when we receive the empathy and resonance that another human soul brings? For Dante, his medieval world was constantly in search of “unity.” But this was not the unity of “commonality” or the “lowest common denominator.” It was not a subtractive unity, but an additive one; it was the harmony of all hierarchies and levels—a symbol which will perpetuate in the very architecture of his poem. Nonetheless, the very first brick of this massive structural message is found in the ownership he takes as representative of man: “in the middle of the journey of our life,” he says.
In this statement, Dante advances the claim that the universe deals in the mode of macrocosm and microcosm: that reality is a series of concentric circles. To understand Dante—to understand man in his journey—is to understand mankind and its journey and vice versa. Just as his concentric rings of his landscape will demonstrate the same shape but in different sizes. Dante, therefore, begins his poem with one of the most ancient and primary of insights: the second item of the Emerald Tablet which states: “quod est inferius est sicut quod est superius, et quod est superius est sicut quod est inferius,”1 or, as Isaac Newton translated it: “that which is below is like that which is above and that which is above is like that which is below.” His drama, therefore, is all of man’s. The drama of one man is a miniature of the drama of all of reality and an ability to understand our journey is also an expansion of consciousness to be able to understand all life. This connection of macrocosm and microcosm is immediately apparent in the fact that while Dante uses “nostra,” he immediately follows it up with “mi ritrovai per una selva oscura.”; he follows it with “mi”. He shows that his poetic consciousness flows from the communal and superindividual to the individual; from the universe to his person; from the universal to the particular. Thus, he incarnates the universal into himself like the LOGOS in His universality incarnates into the particular of the Christ. Appropriately, after the first two lines establish the “above” and the “below,” the third line establishes the “left” and the “right” for “the straight way” that had been lost is a horizontal dimension. It denotes the spiritual movement attested to in salvation history by the era of the Holy Spirit. After the concentration of the universal into the particular, this particular spread out once again to the universal on the horizontal plane. In other words, from LOGOS to the Incarnation and then through the subsequent Evangelization inspired by the Holy Spirit of the Universe; the universal Church. Thus, in the very first three lines of his poem, Dante begins as all prayers do: from the top, to the bottom, and then from left to right: “In nomine Patris et Filii et Spiritus Sancti.”
Paul Piehler once commented that, “in allegory, as Foster Provost has noted, each fragmentary image contains or implies the total cosmos in potential form.”2 Thus, the whole genre of allegory, of which the Commedia is the preeminent example, can be thought of as an exercise in microcosm and macrocosm. As I mentioned in the introduction, no formal academic “proof” of this assertion is given. Instead, Dante relies strictly on the compelling power of intuiting beauty and harmony. His “art” will be his proof. Dante’s mysticism shines so brightly that the preoccupation with finding academic proofs may be detrimental to the assimilation and intuition of the “meaning” of the work. In other words, the academic world is replete with G. H. Hardy’s rigour but it requires the intuition of a Ramanujan to be “best friends” with the terza rima of the Commedia.
Thus, Dante begins his work with the implicit understanding that truth is to be intuited rather than proved a mode which he adopts by not saying anything of it at all. Like the LOGOS coming in the form of a babe on a Silent Night so that He can be understood intimately and intuitively, so, too, does Dante deploy his Art as the personal teacher which does not seek to illuminate through dialectic or Socratic discourse, but through humanity, personality, and love. Thus, Dante does not skip over the first item of the Emerald Tablet: “Verum, sine mendacio, certum et verissimum.” “Tis true without error, certain and most true.” In other words, the truth will be revealed and the mode of this revelation with Dante shall be the emanation of the sacred into the world; it will be, as Mircea Eliade would put it, a “hierophany,” such that the truth of it will be accepted in the very encounter itself.
Having established the universality of person, Dante also sets about his temporal dimension in similarly universal tones. While many excellent footnotes would reveal that “halfway” through Dante’s life would put his age at thirty five, his qualitative rather than quantitative vocabulary asks the reader to examine this “halfway” point through the dimension of depth. After all, what does it mean when the action occurs in media res? For Dante, this is beckoning to a reading of depth is indicative of “polar” thinking since depth is associated with the vertical dimension. “Polar” thinking can also be thought of as “Axial” thinking and it is this image of an Axis or Pole around which the world turns which can be thought of as a “turning point.” This “turning point” is, thus, another image of the “midway” point. These two ideas support each other although in a kind of freeform structure. Dante’s implicit request to read with “depth” or “polar thinking” rather than “discrete numbers” or “horizontal thinking” creates a trajectory for the reader to follow. Simultaneously, temporally setting his age at the halfway point also creates a “turning point.” These two trajectories follow each other and point towards the same thing and through this movement support each other at the higher level—in other words, like a free standing arch. Thus, through the column and curve of personality on one side and the temporal turning point of universal history on the other, Dante opens his poem by beckoning the reader to enter through the arch of his poetic cathedral.
1 Tabula Smaragdina
2 “The Rehabilitation of Prophecy: On Dante’s Three Beasts,” Paul Piehler, Florilegium vol. 7 (1985), pp. 186