Persone, personaggi e il dilemma dello scrittore part 2 – Dante, the writer with no grandmother

We have to admit two things with Dante: If he is judgmental, he is that in a funny way, and he is not that harsh with people he knows and admire, even when he is forced to place them in Hell. When he is rude or mean to someone, it is to someone he hates or despises, or it is to himself. I have never seen such a great exaltation of double personality as the one he shows in the Commedia, where he seems to be unable to behave, and he then has himself, the writer, shouting at himself, the character, through Virgil:

“S’i’ ho ben la parola tua intesa”,

rispuose del magnanimo quell’ombra,

“l’anima tua è da viltade offesa;

la qual molte fïate l’omo ingombra

sì che d’onrata impresa lo rivolve,

come falso veder bestia quand’ombra. (Inf. II, 43-48)

E quelli a me: “Oh creature sciocche,

quanta ignoranza è quella che v’offende!

Or vo’ che tu mia sentenza ne ‘mbocche. (Inf. VII, 70-72)

It is simply a wonderful example of genius, madness, and masochism. At the same time, though, he praises himself for his superb writing and his priceless political effort. Again, without even blinking or blushing, through the souls he meets, he speaks his mind about how great he is. As they say in Spanish, this man has no grandmother (see note at the end of the post)!

 Disse: – Beatrice, loda di Dio vera,

ché non soccorri quei che t’amò tanto,

ch’uscì per te de la volgare schiera? (Inf. II, 103-105)

Ed elli a me: “Se tu segui tua stella,

non puoi fallire a glorïoso porto,

se ben m’accorsi ne la vita bella; (Inf. XV, 55-57)

Anyway, once again, Joe’s post made me think, and took me back to my previous post about the relationship between the writer and his characters. Dante talks about countless people who he knows, or has known, personally or by fame, and he talks about their sins, so he is often forced to face a difficult choice: Should he talk about those people, even if their sins will be revealed? He chooses to do it. As a strong believer, he cannot save souls he admires just because he wants to do it; he has to condemn the sinners. However, he also has the power to make that condemn lighter, because every soul has only one desire, they want to be remembered:

Ma quando tu sarai nel dolce mondo,

priegoti ch’a la mente altrui mi rechi:

più non ti dico e più non ti rispondo”. (Inf. VI, 88-90)

Ma dilli chi tu fosti, sì che ‘n vece

d’alcun’ammenda tua fama rinfreschi

nel mondo sù, dove tornar li lece”.

E ‘l tronco: “Sì col dolce dir m’adeschi,

ch’i’ non posso tacere; e voi non gravi

perch’ïo un poco a ragionar m’inveschi. (…)

E se di voi alcun nel mondo riede,

conforti la memoria mia, che giace

ancor del colpo che ‘nvidia le diede”. (Inf. XIII, 52-57 and 76-78)

Sieti raccomandato il mio Tesoro,

nel qual io vivo ancora, e più non cheggio”. (Inf. XV, 119-120)

Però, se campi d’esti luoghi bui

e torni a riveder le belle stelle,

quando ti gioverà dicere “I’ fui”,

fa che di noi a la gente favelle”. (Inf. XVI, 82-85)

Of the few exception, one for sure is Bocca degli Abati:

“Vivo son io, e caro esser ti puote”,

fu mia risposta, “se dimandi fama,

ch’io metta il nome tuo tra l’altre note”.

Ed elli a me: “Del contrario ho io brama.

Lèvati quinci e non mi dar più lagna,

ché mal sai lusingar per questa lama!”. (Inf. XXXII, 91-96)

As we can see from these quotes, he is able to achieve immortality through his writing, and the Commedia is a titanic way to achieve that, but he is generous, and wants to share that luck with the rest. Some of them are perfectly able themselves to gain immortality: Virgil, Aristotle, Latini, and the other famous poets have already gained their immortality thanks to their own masterpieces, but Dante still wants to honour them, to brag about his knowledge, and to thank them for their help in his formation:

“O de li altri poeti onore e lume,

vagliami ‘l lungo studio e ‘l grande amore

che m’ha fatto cercar lo tuo volume.

Tu se’ lo mio maestro e ‘l mio autore,

tu se’ solo colui da cu’ io tolsi

lo bello stilo che m’ha fatto onore. (Inf. I, 82-87)

With some other souls, he is just sympathetic, because he shares something with them, the suffering for love, or the political ostracism are just some of the examples:

più di mille

ombre mostrommi e nominommi a dito,

ch’amor di nostra vita dipartille.

Poscia ch’io ebbi il mio dottore udito

nomar le donne antiche e ’ cavalieri,

pietà mi giunse, e fui quasi smarrito. (…)

Mentre che l’uno spirto questo disse,

l’altro piangea; sì che di pietade

io venni men così com’io morisse.

E caddi come corpo morto cade. (Inf. V, 67-72 and 139-142)

Now, of course, that gift is a weapon that he can use to defend, Brunetto’s example is just one of many, but also to wound, and he likes doing that maybe even more. Exactly as he can give eternal glory, he can condemn to eternal despair and criticism people he doesn’t like:

Ed el gridò: “Se’ tu già costì ritto,

se’ tu già costì ritto, Bonifazio?

Di parecchi anni mi mentì lo scritto.

Se’ tu sì tosto di quell’aver sazio

per lo qual non temesti tòrre a ‘nganno

la bella donna, e poi di farne strazio?”. (Inf. XIX, 52-57)

“Omai”, diss’io, “non vo’ che più favelle,

malvagio traditor; ch’a la tua onta

io porterò di te vere novelle”. (Inf. XXXII, 109-111)

Paraphrasing Mik Everett: If a writer falls in love with you, you can never die; if you are dead, or not, and Dante hates you, you are not going to get away with it!


“To have no grandmother” is a literal translation of the Spanish expression “no tener abuela“, that means “to be full of oneself”. Normally, grandmothers are the ones constantly praising their grandchildren, and if one does it himself it must be because he has no one else to do it for him.

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1 Comment

  1. This was delightful. It’s intriguing to say that someone who praises themselves, including on the page, “has no grandmother.” According to literary critic Harold Bloom, writers try to replace their “fathers,” by being better than, and different from, the writers who influenced them. Someone who praises himself is trying to invent himself, by appearing in a certain positive light to others: they are acting, in other words, like someone who has no people. No grandmother, and no father, either!

    Most of the people I’ve researched, while reading Dante, are searchable on Google because they appear in Dante. You’re absolutely right — Dante doesn’t merely observe people condemned for eternity. He sends them there, and they are still on fire today!



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