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Dante: On a journey towards Christ

by
01 April 2021

Dante, who died 700 years ago next September, has much to teach about Easter, says John Took

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Dante and Beatrice (1882-84) by Henry Holland (Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool)

Dante and Beatrice (1882-84) by Henry Holland (Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool)

. . . crucified, dead and buried, he descended into hell; the third day he rose again from the dead; he ascended into heaven. . .

 

IN ONE of the most succinct accounts of the Christ-event in European literature, Dante, as pilgrim-poet and protagonist in his poem, has Beatrice explain why God chose to assume the flesh and live and die as man for man.

Why did God choose this roundabout way of making good? Would it not have been easier either to forgive man his first and continuing disobedience and wipe the slate clean or — failing that — leave him to sort it out for himself? In the event, Beatrice offers a wonderfully concise account of — as she understands it — God’s managing in and through Christ to do both.

But she prefaces that account with a formula touching on the deep substance of Dante’s entire meditation as a poet and Christian thinker; for there can be no understanding of God’s purposes in Christ, she says, other than by way of “maturity in the flame of love”. That is to say, by way of a properly adult understanding of love as that whereby the beloved is freshly empowered in respect of new life — by way of a fresh start on the plane of seeing, understanding, and desiring.

Indeed, more than this, she explains, Christ assumes the flesh and lives and dies as man for man as the means whereby each and every individual man or woman might be said, in some sense and some degree, to participate in his or her own resurrection.

Now here, clearly, we have to tread carefully; for, as Dante has Beatrice say, there can be no question of man’s doing what God alone can do, since grace alone is equal to the original and continuing catastrophe of Eden.

But, even so, by way of a mutual indwelling of nature and grace — of the human and the divine initiative — in the recesses of this or that instance of specifically human being, it is a matter of co-involvement, of man’s living out, on his own account, the innermost and abiding substance of the Christ-event. This precisely is his high calling as a creature fashioned in the likeness of his Maker.

 

Recognition

WITH this, however, we are as yet in the foothills; for, given this sense in Dante of man’s (in some sense) making his own the substance and significance of the Christ-event, what can it mean to speak of his “participating in his own resurrection”: that is, having a part to play in his own coming about as a new creature?

For Dante, this means that he, too, descends into the pit as the condition of rising again as a creature of moral, ontological, and eschatological determination — as a creature empowered by grace to shape and substantiate his own destiny.

To take, then, the first phase of what, for Dante, amounts to man’s proper spiritual journeying as man — namely, the “he descended into hell” moment of the argument — we may say this: that, “halfway through this life of ours”, he, Dante Alighieri, finding himself in a dark wood and beset by a lion, a leopard, and a wolf (denoting pride, lust, and avarice, and making for something close to annihilation on the plane of properly-human being), knows himself only in the fear, perplexity, and near-despair of it all.

Seeing, then, no way out to the sunlit uplands beyond the wood, and discerning in the shadows the silent figure of one Publius Vergilius Maro — the Virgil of the Aeneid — as himself a singer of significant voyaging, Dante is summoned to an alternative journey. This is a descent into the pit beneath Jerusalem, to behold there all those have fallen in one way or another prey to their misdirected loves.

These are the intemperate in their indiscriminate delivery of themselves to the pleasures of the sensitive soul; the violent in respect of God and man alike; and the fraudulent in their use of reason as but a principle of deception, thus breaking the bond of love between one man and another.

And at the bottom of the pit? Not fire, but frozenness: a stilling of all life, light, and love — in short, the degree zero of existence.

And this — this liquidation of all life, light, and love in the wasteland of the pit — brings us to the deep and abiding tragedy (not to speak of the deep and abiding sadness) of the Inferno; for if, on the face of it, in this first canticle of the poem, it is a question of divine retribution, and, as Dante himself puts it, of the exquisite artistry thereof, it is a question here of self as afflicted by self: the self is living out, in a now unqualified manner, the agony of its own leading choices.

In other words, for all the wealth of Dante’s imagination as the poet par excellence of divine wrath, the Inferno is an essay in “self-presencing” in all the anguish of the soul’s knowing itself in the depth and irretrievability of its guilt, and as delivered less to the divine than to the demonic.

So, for example, the case of Francesca among the intemperate in Canto V, or of Pier delle Vigne among the violent in Canto XIII, or of Ugolino among the fraudulent in Canto XXXIII. For all their more or less frantic self-exoneration as the only way of coping with the self in its hard-heartedness, it is a matter of self-recognition: of standing in the truth of the self which for ever rises up, Leviathan-like, to torture the impenitent spirit.

This, then, is, in Dante’s sense of it, the first phase of properly-human journeying, taking the form of a descent into self — there to contemplate, as preliminary in respect of everything that comes next by way of resurrection, the now desolate substance of the self in the completeness of its self-betrayal. No self-presencing thus understood, no new life: simply captivity to the leading idea in all its power to bring about nothingness on the plane of properly-human being.

 

Reconfiguration

BUT that is not all. What applies in the Inferno — through its invitation to look beneath the ostensible substance of the text as an essay in divine retribution, and to ponder there the agony of recognition, of knowing the self in the unresolved guilt of the self — applies, too, in the Purgatorio.

Cornell University/P J Mode CollectionOverview of The Divine Comedy by Michaelangelo Caetani (1855)

Here, for all that it turns on the notion of satisfaction, of paying off hereafter the “debt of punishment” incurred by sin here and now, the question is of reconfiguration. This is the kind of love-organisation by which the love engendered by the sights and sounds of the world round about is brought home to the soul’s preceding and instinctive yearning for communion with its Maker as the beginning and end of all loving.

But (this is what matters now) the bringing home of one kind of love to another, of occasional loving to the love of God which is given with existence itself, does not come easily to us. Thus the agony of the Purgatorio as an essay in reconfiguration is no less than that of the Inferno as an essay in recognition.

First, then, as far as the narrative of the Purgatorio is concerned, come those who, having taken the guilt of the self into the self (this being the difference between hell and purgatory), prepare themselves in a moment of stillness for the arduousness of purgatory proper by way of a meditation on the wideness of God’s mercy: on his readiness always and everywhere to welcome home the sorrowing spirit.

Then come those who are embarked on the purgatorial way proper: the proud bent double beneath the rocky burden on their back (this, for them, being the way of thinking themselves through to a more sober estimate of the self); the envious with their eyes cruelly sutured (this, for them, being the way of seeing more clearly); the wrathful enveloped by an acrid smoke (this, for them, being the way of a sweeter humanity); the slothful with their now unwonted athleticism (this, for them, being the way of a now fresh sense of urgency); the avaricious as cleaving to the dust (this, for them, being the way of constraining the self to a more exalted finality); the gluttonous as cruelly emaciated (this, for them, being the way of more orderly appetition); and the lustful as engulfed now by the flames of their erstwhile passion (this, for them, being the way of purging unreason on the plane of properly-human loving).

And, with this, the pilgrim-poet — who, for the moment, is but one passing through — likewise knows himself in the gradual emancipation of the self. Virgil goes out of his way to confirm him in his status now as “king and bishop over himself”. This is an exquisite instance of what Paul Tillich used to call the “Protestant principle”, everywhere at work in the recesses of Christian sensibility properly understood.

This, then, is what it means to speak of the Purgatorio — the beautiful Purgatorio — as an essay in self-reconfiguration, or love-garnering; and as an essay presupposing the agony of self-recognition, but seeing that self-recognition as preliminary, within the resurrectional economy of the whole, to a now more spacious and radiant humanity — to, as Dante puts it, the kind of “transhumanity” as but humanity itself in act.

 

WHEN we come to the Paradiso, the sublime canticle of the poem, we lose none of the existential intensity of the Inferno and the Purgatorio, of their turning on the structures of consciousness which are proper to the individual in the moment when he or she loses and finds himself or herself on the plane of properly-human loving.

For here, in the Paradiso, it is a question not so much of reward in consequence of a life lived in keeping with its innermost reasons as of the individual’s knowing the self in the now rapt transcendence of the self: in an opening out of the self on all that it might be and become as a creature called from beforehand to rejoice in the immediate presence of the One who is as of the essence.

In the company now, then, of Beatrice as the second of his guides in the Commedia, Dante makes his way across the circling spheres of his geocentric universe, there to delight in the company of all those — be they contemplatives, crusaders, rulers, or recluses — living, in keeping with the properties of personality, the now resolved substance of their unique and uniquely precious presence in the world.

Nothing, to be sure, of problematic humanity is left behind; for this is no fairytale account of what it is to be, paradisally. As Dante has it in one of his most insistent images in this third canticle, it is now an object of smiling, of a coruscation of the spirit equal now to its erstwhile aberration and to all its living on in a regio dissimilitudinis, or region of unlikeness or exile.

 

THIS, then, is what it means to speak of Dante and the Easter story, and of what in the Commedia amounts to a sense of humanity’s participating in its own resurrection by way of the events of that first Good Friday and Easter Day, its own raising up as creatures of ultimate accountability.

To speak of Dante and the Easter story is to speak of an Easter itinerary of the spirit, a journey into new life consisting of: (a) knowing the self in the delivery of the self to the self-consciously demonic possibility (hell); (b) the struggle to affirm the self on the plane of properly-human loving (purgatory); and (c) the twofold peace and joy of an act of existence, resting at last in the “love that moves the sun and the other stars” as the whereabouts of all loving — and all this by way of grace as a quickening of humanity’s proper operation.

It is at this point that, turning as it does on the agony and ecstasy of journeying thus understood, Dante’s discourse in the Commedia enters into conversation with all those nearer to us in time who have been likewise busy at the point of ultimate concern: with Søren Kierkegaard in respect of the inwardness of it all; with Karl Jaspers in respect of the call to transcendence; with Martin Heidegger in respect of the substance and psychology of man’s being there in the world; with Eric Fromm in respect of the dialectic of having and being; with Martin Buber in respect of the I-Thou structure of human consciousness; and with Paul Tillich, whose sense of Dante’s entering into “the deepest places of human destruction and despair as well as the highest places of courage and salvation” — and thus of the Divine Comedy as the “greatest expression of the Existentialist point of view in the Middle Ages” — is as powerful as it is persuasive.

History and hermeneutics, clearly, have their part to play in all this, as difference in point of formation and temperament enters, as it always does, into sameness as the ground and guarantee of the genuinely useful encounter.

But, for all that, Dante’s call remains a call from afar into the most intimate kind of communion, the most complete kind of companionship — in short, and as the terminology suggests (cum pane), that of a fellow breaker of bread.
 

John Took is Professor Emeritus of Dante Studies at University College London. Among his most recent publications are Dante, published by Princeton University Press at £30 (CT Bookshop £27), and Why Dante Matters: An intelligent person’s guide, published by Bloomsbury at £20 (CT Bookshop £18).

Read our interview with John Took in this week’s Church Times

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25 September 2021
Festival of Faith and Literature: Food for the Journey
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