Beauty and the Beasts: On the beginning of Dante

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Explanations incline, by nature, to treachery. They are so full of plausibility that they become completely unhinged. Imagine, for example, your friend singing that song about the ankle bone connecting to the leg bone. How long would it be, really, until you realized your friend was singing about an armadillo, and not about a person at all? Most of the song, would be my guess.

Likewise, imagine a young, innocent girl asks you to go on a journey with her. She warns you that this journey will essentially consume the rest of your life, as it will strand you in an endless series of circles, all connected to one another, the majority of which are dedicated to horror, punishment, regret, and toil. If she was speaking to you through VHS, you would never agree to go. She would clearly be a strange girl from The Ring, inviting you to revisit some kind of primal trauma through a psychotic (and therefore endless) series of displaced aesthetic experiences, undecidable interpretative crises, and hallucinated hells.
Change the scene to a dark wood, instead of your living room, and the medium to text, instead of tape, and the result is a ring that has been luring in readers for more than seven hundred years. Grasping this, furthermore, is key to understanding the subtly comic way that Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy begins.

In the first canto, Dante faces a quintessentially writerly problem: he wants to save the world, but since he is a writer, the only way he knows how to do this is by condensing the world’s problems into ferocious symbols, and then tilting at them. Thus he turns deceit into a spotted creature – not a leopard, necessarily, but rather some combination of a lion couchant and a spotted eagle (the symbol of the Conti di Segni popes). Dante does this despite being already, like most overweening writers, seriously in danger of losing his way. The leopard basically wins. Dante isn’t killed, but he’s pushed around, delayed, and forced to retreat farther from the “right road.”

He repeats this trick with pride (a French lion), with similarly bad results. Finally, undaunted (albeit for no good reason), he begins squaring off against a vicious she-wolf, an obvious political allegory for the savagery and rapacity of Rome. (In case we have somehow missed this, Dante throws in a telling line about the lower territories of Italy, and their struggle to be free.) This battle is the most hopeless of them all, and just as Dante is looking Death in the face, he is rescued – by Virgil, a perfect symbol of the eternal capacity of Rome for evil. Virgil’s lands were, after all, seized and re-distributed by Octavian, and Virgil was forced – in a non-ironic sense, and in a way that shows through in his verse – to spend the rest of his life writing poems designed to appease and flatter a series of Roman emperors and statesmen. Virgil appeases the wolf, naturally, but as an adviser to the rebellious Dante, he is more of a foil than a friend.

Moreover, Virgil is not appearing to Dante on his own behalf. Instead, he has been sent to Dante by Beatrice, who apparently cannot meet with Dante in the dark wood, even though she has no difficulty visiting Virgil (who is in Limbo, which is one highway exit away from Hell). Concerned by Dante’s mounting series of moral defeats, Beatrice arranges for Dante to tour Heaven, and volunteers to be his guide.

Given this, do Virgil and Dante tromp off to Heaven? Of course not! Virgil can’t even enter Heaven, since only the elect can travel there…unless you are Dante, in which case it is fine. So Dante and Virgil take the most indirect route to Heaven imaginable, through Hell, and through Purgatory. By comparison, Dante was doing pretty well for himself in the dark wood: for straight is the gate, and narrow the way.

Of course, like any reasonable person, I understand that the whole detour through Hell and Purgatory can be easily justified as a crucial part of Dante’s moral education, vividly illustrating to him (and to us, his readers) the wages of sin. It is the simplest explanation in the world, which is why it is so interesting that Virgil goes ahead, almost silently, with the enormous bait-and-switch. All of these mysteries are perhaps explicable, but none are explained.

It is equally interesting to note the incongruities between Virgil and Beatrice: regardless of his theological difficulties, Virgil is a grown man and a massively accomplished poet. He is Dante’s hero, model, and peer. Beatrice, conversely, is Dante’s forbidden love. She is a simple and pious young girl. Even in the first Cantos, as paraphrased by Virgil, Beatrice sounds naïve and importunate; it is remarkable that Virgil should be running her errands at all.

Dante strands us in a very familiar place, a dark wood where seemingly unresolvable problems of personal morality, and political injustice, corner him into making theological speculations. He turns to his favorite authors, only to find they have no comfort to offer: their own personal and historical circumstances, forever unresolved, are fearsome reminders of all that Dante may not achieve. Virgil, after all, is a victim of history’s greatest possible joke, since he lived before the historical appearance of Christ. Their works, furthermore, are full of unresolvable questions: Dante never manages to ask Virgil, despite all their time together, how the Aeneid would have looked as a completed work of art, or how Virgil feels about its having been preserved.

Like any romantic reader, Dante puts his own object of affection, Beatrice, right “into the middle” of Virgil. By paraphrasing Beatrice, Virgil is only doing what we make him do anyway, when we paste the face of our own lover onto Dido’s blank visage. The text can only take us so far. If Dante wants to enter Heaven, then Beatrice, not Virgil, must become his guide. Dante sentences himself to Hell, while biding his time with Virgil, for the merest chance of making it all the way to her door.

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