The 1465 painting above, La commedia illumina Firenze by Florentine painter Domenico di Michelino, is on the west wall of the Duomo and may have been painted to commemorate the 200th occasion of Dante’s birth.
When I was writing How Dante Can Save Your Life, one of the books I drew on was Prue Shaw’s excellent, highly accessible book Reading Dante: From Here to Eternity. Shaw is a Dante scholar, but her book address the lay reader. If you read my book and find yourself captivated by Dante, Shaw’s book, now out in paperback, is a great companion for the reader who wants to know more.
The podcaster Gil Roth has a new episode up featuring a long interview with Shaw, recorded in her Cambridge, England, home. I could listen to her talk all day. You can skip the introductory first six minutes of the podcast without losing anything. But you won’t want to miss the rest of it.
At the outset, Roth tells Shaw that he had stayed away from the Commedia for many years because of its “monumental” quality. But once he started it, Roth read right through, surprised by how well the story flowed once he crossed the threshold. I’m really glad to hear him say this. I think that is a very common experience. I had never seriously considered reading the Commedia, for just that reason. It seemed so, well, monumental, and therefore inaccessible. I considered it the Mount Everest of Great Books. Like Roth, I was surprised by how easy it was.
Wait, “easy” is not the right word, because it’s an extraordinarily complex poem. But it’s not complex in the way that Modernist verse is complex. For example, I have never closely read Eliot’s Four Quartets, because those poems have always struck me as a puzzle to be solved. I suppose I will get to them one day. Dante’s verse, though, while amazingly deep and intricate, is also highly accessible, simply as storytelling. With each successive reading, especially if you have a good guide (like Shaw, or Herzman & Cook), the layers and layers of meaning reveal themselves to you.
It must be said — and Shaw confirms this — that Paradiso, the third and last book of the Commedia, is by far the most difficult, because the most intellectual and abstract. But its language is the most beautiful, and I find that it is becoming my favorite. My book focuses almost exclusively on Inferno and Purgatorio, because that is where I found Dante to be the most helpful to me, and where I think most people will as well.
Shaw tells Roth that she wrote her book after several highly educated literary friends said they couldn’t imagine why anybody would read Dante. One of them, a famous poet, hated Dante, believing him (quite wrongly!) to be spiteful and vindictive. Shaw and Roth talk about why modern people might feel that way, and he suggests that the religiosity of the Commedia might have something to do with it. Shaw concedes that that is probably true, because there’s no getting around the fact that this is a very Christian, and Catholic Christian, poem. Says Shaw:
“I think that shouldn’t be a barrier because the appeal of the work in terms of humanity, of human issues … these are issues that are of interest to everybody, and the fact that it is built into a medieval Catholic worldview doesn’t mean it’s not interesting, in fact it makes it more interesting, because you can see the perennial questions that human beings have been engaged with [appearing in a work written] 700 years ago. It’s just the same.”
Yes! Exactly! That was one of the most surprising things to me about the Commedia: how relevant it is to life today. It’s why it reached me so deeply, and why I wrote a book about it — to show others how this miraculous poem can reach them wherever they are. I suppose this is a naive thing to say: that Great Books remain Great because they address the human condition, across cultures and eras. When my son and I studied the Odyssey, I found the same thing, to my surprise and delight. The Commedia, probably because it occurs within a Christian worldview, not a pagan Greek one, was much more relevant to me, and I think will be even to non-Christians, given that we are all heirs intellectually and culturally to Christian civilization.
Roth, who is Jewish, says to Shaw that he suspects the well-known focus in the Commedia on sin is another turn-off for contemporary readers. She agrees, saying that it says something about our world today that the strongest term of disapprobation people can stand is “inappropriate.” I wish she had spoken a bit more about this with Roth. In How Dante, I talk about the way Dante’s discussion of sin — as disordered love — is so much richer than the way I had been used to thinking about sin, and helped me to reset my own mental categories for evaluating my behavior. From my book:
The wild beasts symbolize sin. Let’s dwell on that word for a moment: sin. The novelist Francis Spufford says that nowadays everybody knows that “sin” refers to indulgence, or naughty pleasure, but that’s about it. For Christians, though, sin refers not to what Spufford calls “yummy transgression”—a chocolate sundae, getting drunk at a party, a roll in the hay with one’s lover—but rather, to paraphrase his pungent expression, to the human propensity to screw things up.
When you think about sin this way, you cannot help recognizing that you—yes, you—are a sinner. No matter how hard we try to do right and how sincerely we want to do good, we fail. That’s how we are. It’s like a sickness that we can’t quite shake. If you cannot admit that you too have a propensity to screw things up despite yourself, then you are probably suffering from the sin of pride.
Not long ago I was complaining to my wife about a certain man in our town who has a reputation for self-righteousness. “How can he think so highly of himself?” I said. “Is he really so blind?”
No sooner had the words left my mouth than I thought about my own high opinion of myself. I never set out to hurt anybody or to do the wrong thing. But I do. Every single day. Maybe I don’t do it as much as I used to do, but scarcely an hour goes by when I don’t pass harsh judgment on someone else, or bark at my kids for their misbehavior, or blog something clever but cruel, or miss an easy opportunity to comfort and encourage someone who is struggling and in need of healing. There are people in my town who are sick and who could use a visit from me, or at least a phone call. But I don’t go see them and I don’t call them. There is always an excuse, and sometimes they’re good excuses.
This is a failure of love on my part. It’s screwing things up. It is sin. Sure, the world is full of drug dealers and thieves and adulterers and warmongers, all of whom no doubt do more active harm than a small-town writer with a sense of humor and a potbelly and a weakness for rich food. I mean, look, I go to church regularly, I give to charity, I’m a good husband and father, and I scratch my dog under his chin when he asks. I never do anything seriously wrong in my life, right?
Wrong. That’s not good enough. I’m not responsible for the sins of the drug dealers, thieves, adulterers, and warmongers. I am responsible for myself. Every time I do the things I shouldn’t do or fail to do the things I should do, I sin. The weight of our sins can seem overwhelming, so much so that we feel trapped by them in a dark wood of our own making.
What makes it worse is the sense in contemporary culture that sin is either not real or no big deal. Unfortunately, this attitude is common in contemporary churches, many of which preach that it’s more important to affirm the faithful in their okayness than to lead them away from sin.
In light of this, and of what Shaw says in the Roth podcast, I think of how liberating reading Dante is, because he takes sin, and the ways it works its way into our characters and distorts our relationships, so liberating. Again, sin in the Commedia is very far from the didactic moralism you might be expecting. Frankly, Dante’s exploration of the myriad ways sin works itself out within the individual and in society is subversive of the Sunday-school simplicity many of us carry in our heads. And this is a good thing!
Another crucial aspect of the Commedia that Shaw identifies in the podcast: that Dante’s “breadth of vision” pushes out any “rabid theological self-righteousness” from the work. Yes, Dante’s theological and moral convictions mean that some of those he meets will be punished in Hell, others will be working out their salvation in Purgatory, and others will be in Paradise. What’s so interesting about the work is that Dante the poet is so generous to some of the damned, painting them sometimes as noble, even tragic figures. And he puts some of his earthly enemies in Paradise. He is, says Shaw, “much angrier at those who are within the Christian system” and abuse it than he is with righteous people who are not Christians. In the end, Shaw says, Dante admits (when considering the eternal fates of men who live and die in India without ever having heard of Christ) that there are some mysteries of divine justice that we humans cannot fathom. God will know His own, even if we mortals, with our limited vision, cannot see them.
One more comment about the Shaw interview. She says that we should be careful not to put an analytical barrier between the reader and the experience of reading the Commedia. First timers shouldn’t approach it as a literary artifact to be worshiped and deciphered, but as a story, an amazing story, about a man who died and came back to life. She says that the epitaph on Immanuel Kant’s grave is a perfect summary of the meaning of the Commedia:
“Two things fill the heart with ever new and increasing admiration and awe, the starry skies above, the moral law within.”