Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Thoughts on The Divine Comedy

It may be difficult for us to completely understand the worldview of Dante. We live in a world where secular power (for the most part) and religious power are mutually exclusive (at least in theory). Moreover, the sad history of religious abuses of temporal power is right before our eyes as we read the text of The Divine Comedy. Furthermore, many of us might not be as enthusiastic about empire as Dante appears to be. Nevertheless, there is something else that we find in Dante. We see the importance of imagination, and how imagination can create an open space to generate possibilities. As Sandra Levy states, “What I mean by imagination here is the inherent human power to transcend the concrete, to create new images or ideas that can open up new possibility and promise – the not-yet of a future we can envision, the re-valuing of a remembered past.”[1] Certainly, Dante would much to agree with concerning the statements of Levy. These possibilities enable the reader to strive for better things and not acquiesce to “the way things are”. This does not mean that we live in a state of complete delusion. Rather, we should see that reality and fiction form a synthesis. In The Neverending Story by Michael Ende, young Bastian comes to this conclusion:

[Bastian] now realized that not only was Fantastica sick, but the human world as well. The two were connected. He had always felt this, though he could not have explained why it was so. He had never been willing to believe that life had to be gray and dull as people claimed. He heard them saying: “Life is like that,” but he couldn’t agree. He never stopped believing in mysteries and miracles.[2]

While Ende and Dante have different goals in mind, they both show how the imagination can present a reality in which we can act to change the way things are. Furthermore, Dante uses imagination and fiction to critic how things are as well.

In his book The Last Days of a Condemned Man, Victor Hugo makes this comment: “Today, the author can reveal the political and social ideas that he wished to bring to the public’s attention under this innocent and transparent literary disguise.”[3] Dante also uses his craft as a means of exposure. Of course, he also fuels his poetry with a sense of divine vocation. Nevertheless, Dante writes in order to remind Italy (both Church and State) of their identity – what God has called them to be. However, he also shows them in his poem what they can be. On top of all of that, he also gives dignity to his fellow countrymen and women by writing the poem for them as we already discussed above. He writes it for them by uses Italian for the language rather than Latin.

While both Dante is less than subtle, they both speak a kind of truth that Christianity may have let slip away. Whether these are true experiences for the poet or a “disingenuous bid for fame”[4] fails to take in the artistic beauty of what Dante has accomplished. He certainly gives the reader an experience as he weaves strands of history and theology together and gives the reader a fresh perspective on the world both physical and spiritual. It is no wonder that The Divine Comedy continues to endure as one of the greatest pieces of literature ever written. It seems that it will continue to be enjoyed for coming generations. Thus, as Hawkins so eloquently puts it: “But for many who found themselves transformed by Dante’s words, the poet’s wish has indeed been granted to him. The sparks have made a flame.”[5]

[1] Sandra Levy. Imagination and the Journey of Faith (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2008), p. 3. Italics are hers.

[2] Michael Ende. The Neverending Story (New York: Firebird, 2005), p. 153. The italics are used in Ende’s book to differentiate between the world of Fantastica and the human world.

[3] Victor Hugo. The Last Days of a Condemned Man (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992), p. 12.

[4] Hawkins, Dante’s Testaments, p. 95.

[5] Hawkins, Dante’s Testaments, p. 95.

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