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Interview: John Took, Dante biographer

01 April 2021

‘Whatever else it is, Dante’s Commedia is an existential analysis of astonishing power and precision’

Having retired from University College London a couple of years ago, I now study in splendid isolation in my room, alone with Alighieri. But, in truth, I was always a bit like that, since libraries as places to work and to think things through intimidate me — a perpetual reminder of what has not, as yet, been read, and probably never will be.

What with Covid, university life has changed immensely, and my heart goes out to colleagues in their efforts to quicken and sustain the enthusiasm of students. As far as the general ethos or spirit of university teaching is concerned, I look back fondly to the time when everything revolved around the academic stars in the department. Nowadays, it’s all a bit bureaucratic and top-down. O tempora, O mores!

Formerly, when I was a Professor of Italian at UCL, my students were young people everywhere on the cusp of a new and exciting order of experience. Now, by contrast, as a guest at the Warburg Institute and the Italian Cultural Institute in London, I have an audience of all ages and all walks of life — an audience, that is to say, well attuned to the hell, purgatory, and paradise of this life. Having been round the block, as it were, they can see more or less at once what Dante is really all about. Teaching them is a real privilege.

As far as Dante is concerned, I’ve always made a point, and still do, of emphasising that I am speaking from his point of view, leaving it to the students to make what they will of it all. Preach at them, and they will turn off. Point up, however, the existential significance of the text — its status as an account of the agony and ecstasy of human beings under the conditions of time and space — and they will be all ears.

My experience as a teacher is that, if you address issues of importance in the areas both of self-interpretation and of world-interpretation, and take care to define and to develop them just above the level of the students’ familiarity and capability, then they will rise to the occasion.

I was attracted to Italian initially by two of the principal presences in my early life: namely, the religious-education teacher in my secondary school, a kindly man who also offered instruction in Italian language and literature, and my Aunt Lucia, with her exquisitely Italian — and more especially exquisitely Florentine — speaking voice. Between them, irresistible.

In addition to the poets and philosophers of the late scholastic age, including Dante and Aquinas, I really appreciate French literature of the 19th and 20th century — as much as anything else for the beauty, nay, the sensuousness, of the French language.

The commonality between European literature in the medieval period is a very complex question, but in some senses — mainly to do with a shared classical inheritance, and sharing Latin as a common language as the means of its exploration — the answer is very definitely, yes: that commonality was much greater then than today.

Herein is one of the key properties of reading and teaching Dante: whatever else it is, Dante’s Commedia is an existential analysis of astonishing power and precision. He gives an analysis: that is to say, settling securely on the forces both of affirmation and of annihilation — always and everywhere at work in the recesses of historical selfhood. As Paul Tillich puts it — and he for one understood exactly what is going on in Dante — the Commedia constitutes the “greatest poetic expression of the existentialist point of view in the Middle Ages”. A Dasein analytic we might, with Heidegger, say avant la lettre.

Dante, exiled from Florence in 1302 never to return home, was not only an observer, but a victim, of Italian politics. Well, times have changed and, with them, the leading issues; but my impression is that Italian politics are as complicated now as ever they were.

The substance and, with it, the persuasiveness of Dante’s discourse can be conveyed by a good translation, of which there are many; but he himself was from the outset committed to the unique equality of his own beloved Italian vernacular to the matter in hand. Thanks be, then, for translations — but the best translation is but an approximation to the original.

In so far as the Divine Comedy bears as much on this life as on the next,what comes next being for Dante but a definitive statement of what already is as the truth of this life, it offers an existential analysis of the way we are here and now of unparalleled power and precision, overarching as it does so the generations.

At every stage of the work’s history, there have been those crediting Dante with a genuine vision of the hereafter, folk for whom the poem, therefore, has the power by turns to terrify and to appease the troubled spirit. An impact, then? Indeed. A good impact? Who’s to say?

There is a firm commitment in our own time to the exploration of theological issues by way of the poetic, as distinct from the merely propositional: a procedure tending straight away to engage the reader as himself or herself party to the undertaking, as, by way of the infinite suggestivity of the image, co-involved with the writer when it comes to the generation of meaning — a situation, this, that Dante himself understood with perfect precision.

I was fortunate from the outset to have a secure and happy home, and, latterly, to enjoy the companionship of a loving and quintessentially seasoned spirit in my wife, who is herself a Baptist minister. That has confirmed me over the years in a sense of the immanence of the divine in human affairs, of the incarnational intensity of the Christian message.

It must, I think, be Beethoven who gives me most pleasure. His power to quicken the pulse — he was with me in a critical post-operative phase of my life — was most certainly there in the moment of creation. Somewhat like Alighieri himself: a prior, perpetual, and providential presence among us.

My hope lies in the residual courage and goodness that, despite everything to the contrary in human experience, make between them for a consummate act of specifically human existence; for — as Augustine used to say — an instance of greater rather than lesser being.

On poetry and prayer, Dante is exemplary. His account is of both divine and — in its authenticity — human being as but an opening out of self in ever fresh channels of love-creativity, making, in the moment of its articulation, both poetry and prayer, the one shading off into the other as but a sacred undertaking.

Three guesses! If I could be locked in a church with Dante, I’d seek to know more of the man and his circumstances hidden behind the ideal reconstruction of his life: from the Vita nova of his youth, through to the Commedia of his mature years. And I’d ask to be put right wherever — albeit in good faith — I’ve missed the mark as a dantista.

Professor Took was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.

Why Dante Matters: An intelligent person’s guide is published by Bloomsbury at £20 (CT Bookshop £18); 978-1-4729-5103-8.

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