I am touched, as always, when I have to deal with Dante and its Commedia. This masterpiece is the cause of suffering for the great majority of Italian students, forced to analyse it word by word for three years before starting university. The Italian education system understood literally the image of the path through Hell and Purgatory to reach Heaven, and so they structured the last three years of high school in the same way: you study one Cantica per year, and you will enter your own heaven, University. In my case, that Heaven has been nothing more than an experimental, chaotic, disappointing course in foreign languages that left me with plenty of memories and friends, but even more with an unstoppable desire for running away and study interpretation somewhere else.
Going back to the Commedia, I am the exception, I loved it, I loved the lessons, I used to look forward to them, and I still keep the memory of wonderful learning hours that could soothe my spirit when I was tired of my scientific studies, which were supposed to be the main subject of my high school preparation. I consider myself neither a scholar nor an expert, but I can say that I know enough about the dantesque Hell that my opinion can be of help or, at least, interesting.
I think Joe’s analysis is very interesting and profound. In some ways, I feel he is sympathetic with Dante and his struggle as a writer. In fact, I am writing this because I found his opinions refreshing, especially when talking about Beatrice. Just one thing before starting, apologies if I keep some of the names in Italian, it is not a translator’s stand about the impossibility of translating some of them or anything of the sort. They are part of my learning process, I have been walking with them through Hell, figuratively and literally, as I have already said, and if you share that with some friends, you cannot depersonalise them by calling them with an English name! Also, apologies for the translations of the verses, they are my doing, and I am not following metric, I just want to make clear what I read in the original. I am not sure of the translated version Joseph used, and I know he is not happy with some of the versions he found, so I prefer not to use any specific one for now.
So, Beatrice. Joseph, you talk about her thinking that she is a woman, but that is not going to work with Dante. It is not going to work with Petrarca either. They represent real women, yes, but who are more symbols than anything else; they are what the poets desire the most. In Petrarca’s case, he wants to be recognised and celebrated as a great poet, and that, in Ancient Rome, was granted by crowning the person with laurels; he want to be laureato, he wants Laura. That is why the graduation is called laurea in Italian. In Dante’s case, he struggles with his faith, he wants to be a good Christian (we will go back to this), he wants to be blessed, beato in Italian; Beatrice, common name in Tuscany, means “She who makes you blessed.” These women are muses, inspired in real people, but not for the physical desire, they are the inspiration that makes the poets’ art possible. Their description is vague, and always full of symbols, as you can see in the Purgatory -SPOILER ALERT- when she is back, and dressed in white, green and red, with laurel on her head. Again, the laurel, but also the colours, symbols of the theological virtues. By the way, unrelated, this is the reason why the Italian flag has those colours, because of Dante, not because we had no idea what to choose and we just took the French flag and swapped the blue! With that in mind, it is obvious how she is treated in the Commedia. By the way, I don’t agree with you when you say she is described as naïve; I don’t think Dante would ever dare talking about her that way, and this is what he says, through Virgil, in the first Canto:
If you wish to reach them (blessed souls)
There will be a worthier soul than me
And I will leave you with her when we part; (I, 121-123)
While, in the second Canto, Virgil says:
I was among the suspended souls,
And I was called by a woman so blessed and beautiful
That I begged her to command me.
Her eyes shined more than the stars;
She started speaking pleasantly and clearly
With her angelic voice, in her language. (II, 52-57)
She is the muse, she is superior, and not even Virgil can resist the call of a muse. He is not a grown man running errands for a young girl; he is a poet unable to resist beauty and inspiration. Now, I agree, she is not the most loving woman I have ever seen, she is sitting with Rachele in Heaven, and she is not bothered by Dante’s suffering. It has to be the Virgin Mary to ask Santa Lucia to help Dante. The saint, moved by what she sees, begs Beatrice to help Dante in the name of the love he professed for her. She calls him “your faithful servant” and “the man that was able to separate himself from common people thanks to you,” so we can see that, if he is the Sommo Poeta, it is thanks to his muse.
Why doesn’t she go with him all the way? I would like to think that Dante prefers that way because he would be too distracted, and he would be sinning in thoughts all the way to Heaven, so the salvation would be impossible. In fact, I think it is because he wants to honour his Master, Virgil, and because his presence gives Dante a lot more to talk about, to show off we could say. Who could be better than Virgil to accompany Dante in his travels? The same Virgil that “sang about the man and the hero who, by chance, was the first one to reach Lavinia’s shores from Troy?” Then, we have the main reason: The Bible tells us that, once we die, if we go to Heaven, we are happy in God’s grace, we don’t need anything else. Beatrice is worried about Dante (not too much, I repeat myself!), she could go with him, because all the suffering she sees cannot touch her, but she wants to be close to God:
I am Beatrice, the one who sends you;
I come from a place to where I desire to go back;
Love moved me, and makes me talk. (…)
God made me, in its mercy, so that
Your misery cannot touch me,
And the flames of this fire cannot affect me. (II, 70-72, and 91-93)
Now let’s talk about Virgil, the poor guy who does all the job and still doesn’t earn the salvation. Dante tells us why he cannot enter Heaven, and we go back to the concept of free will in religion, something we already discussed before: Virgil was born before Christ and, therefore, he is not Christian. He is not unfaithful either, so he is not condemned to Hell. The problem is that he was not a believer, so he cannot be saved. Ignorance is not an excuse, people like Abraham and Noah believed anyway, and that is why, when Christ rose from the dead, he went down to the Limbo to take them to Heaven. Of course, who knows, maybe now Virgil as well is in Heaven, Dante admires him and wants to leave the door open for him, so he makes Beatrice say she would have tried to help him:
When I will be in front of my lord,
I will often praise you with him. (II, 73-74)
That’s what she says, but blessed souls tend to forget everything else when they see the light of God, so who knows? We will have to work hard and be there ourselves if we really want to know!
Now, back to the beginning, to Dante’s struggle. He is living something that, in my eyes, is bigger than the suffering of a writer who wants to save the world: he is a Christian writer who wants to save his own soul. Of course, his personal situation is tightly bound to the situation of the rest of the world (which, in his mind, and by that time, is the Italian peninsula.) He is already trying to save the world in his daily life, he is in constant fight with the Pope who –SPOILER ALERT- he puts in Hell already, even before his death (we will go back to that, one of my favourite passages.) Due to this antagonism, Dante is forced to exile, a period of suffering and starvation for the poet, a period when he also writes one of his most important oeuvres from my point of view: the De vulgari eloquentia. This is an unfinished treatise about Italian languages and dialects, and it starts the debate about which language will become the official one of the peninsula; it is a discussion that will never really end, even if Manzoni settles it for a while fostering the current Italian language. Exactly as Michelangelo with Giulio II, Dante doesn’t bow in front of Pope Bonifacio VIII, he may become homeless, but he doesn’t back up from his political stand, he is trying to save the world from the evil and the corruption of the institutions. The Commedia, instead, is his personal and moral struggle. He is 35 years old, it is Good Friday in 1300, and he is exactly in the middle of his life, considering 70 as the life expectation back then, as he says in other writings, and as the same Bible says. Good Friday is a time of suffering for a Christian, sharing Christ’s passion, and Dante is living this, and going through more moral struggles, and has lost his way. There is an easy way, the hill, but he can’t follow that path, too many sins prevent him from doing that. He needs to see what is expecting him if he doesn’t change his route, and he takes us with him, because we are also sinners, and we have to see to be saved. In my opinion, he doesn’t want to save the world, he wants to save himself, but he doesn’t think he can do it on his own, and he wants us to go with him. To save us is not his main purpose; he wants to save humanity because, otherwise, he cannot be saved. Of course, the beasts don’t kill him, he is repentant, he wants to be better, and God always rewards that. That is why, instead, -SPOILER ALERT- Paolo and Francesca are in Hell: they were killed while committing the sin, and didn’t have time to repent; that is why suicides are all in Hell: their sin is the ultimate action, they cannot repent after.
Dante still has time, and he is going to be shadowed (never better said) by Virgil, allegory of the Reason. That is why he is so silent, it is not because Dante cannot shut up, apart from when he faints, which will happen often, every time he is not able to explain how he passes from one Girone to the other. Virgil is silent because he is the Reason, and human beings don’t use it too often, even if they have it on their side; especially during the first part of the Middle Ages, the reason has not been used, giving too much space to superstition. This is what Dante means when he says:
While I was falling down,
I saw in front of my eyes
Someone who seemed pale due to a long silence. (I, 61-63)
I think now we have some tools to start our trip and be saved along with Dante. I consider myself lost in a dark wood as well, and my reason has been silent for too long, but not everything is lost. After all, “this could be Heaven for everyone!”