Exactly 700 years ago, Dante Alighieri, the greatest Christian poet and one of the two or three very greatest poets in human history, was in exile in Verona, thanks to political factions in his native Florence and the machinations of Pope Boniface VIII. We chafe, rightly, under the mendacity and buffoonery of our public figures, and are often puzzled by Pope Francis. But our trials – real though they are – are, comparatively, lesser stuff.
One advantage Dante had over us: he knew what was what. Priors and popes might be unreliable, vicious. (He’d occupied Florence’s highest political office himself a few years earlier; in exile he was under a death sentence.) But Dante had a preternaturally clear idea of human vice and virtue – and the depths and heights of the spirit – which he’d learned from the great ancient pagans, as well as the Christian tradition, and added to out of his own sheer genius. He might not always live up to the truth – he was a sinner like the rest of us. But he knew what the wisest and holiest human beings, pagans and Christians, thought were the main truths about human things.
Still, midway through his Purgatorio – he’d already seen Hell and was on his way to the Beatific Vision – he encounters a crucial problem in a dream. In the Old and New Testaments people often find truth in dreams – think of St. Joseph. Freud and Jung only seemed to be breaking new ground because so much of reality had for centuries been excluded by a false rationalism. The episode begins:
there came to me a woman, in a dream,
stammering, cross-eyed, splayfooted,
with crippled hands and sickly pale complexion.
But an odd thing happens. As Dante looks, his own gaze makes her appear beautiful and even gives her a beautiful voice:
she started singing in a way that would
have made it hard for me to turn aside.
“I am,” she sang, “I am the sweet siren
who beguiles mariners on distant seas,
so great is their delight in hearing me.
I drew Ulysses, eager for the journey,
with my song. And those who dwell with me
rarely depart, so much do I content them.”
Despite this candor, and what he’d seen earlier, her beauty still bewitches him:
at my side appeared a lady,
holy and alert, in order to confound her.
‘O Virgil, Virgil, who is this?’
she asked, indignant. And he came forward
with his eyes fixed on that virtuous one.
The other he seized and, ripping her garments,
laid her front bare and exposed her belly.
The stench that came from there awoke me.
Readers of Dante know that Virgil, the greatest Roman poet, is his guide through much of the afterlife, the parts that do not require Christian knowledge. In fact, just before this dream, Virgil was explaining to Dante how Purgatory – and a good bit of the universe – works. Everything is moved by love, either in the right way, to the right degree, towards the right objects, or in wrong ways, degrees, objects.
But how to tell the difference? And how is it that we may see things we know to be ugly and evil as beautiful and good? And how can we break a spell that, as this episode suggests, is all but unbreakable? These are not just “medieval” questions; it’s a troubling mystery, but as we know only too well, the world is constantly going to Hell because, over and over despite prior experience, people think something is good – or can’t resist something that’s bad – because it looks, momentarily, desirable: drugs, drink, sex, power, etc.
The answer here is in the poetry. A certain kind of poetry. We’re too sophisticated today to accept art intended to teach us something, unless it’s something we already think we know, like the horrors of micro-aggressions and homophobia. Didactic poetry, as most poetry of the past intentionally was, does not necessarily mean dull and predictable. If it’s clever and creative, it can help us see truths that reason might otherwise find it difficult or impossible to grasp, especially if we’re wearing rationalist blinders or slumbering under powerful illusions.
Scholars disagree, as they often do, about the identity of the “holy and alert” lady here. Some say Dante’s Beatrice, others St. Lucy, patron saint of eyesight. (As a young man, Dante’s eyesight went bad after too much studying. He prayed to her and it cleared up. She appears at several crucial points in the Divine Comedy.) In any case, there’s grace here, some power beyond us, that stimulates Virgil, sometimes a figure of human reason, to act and to reveal the truth.
One reason why Virgil, like the ancient world into which Christianity was born, could be open to such truth was that the great pagans, too, had a rather sound knowledge of human vices and virtues. The cosmology of the Comedy was superseded by modern science; but the science of human nature – how it flourishes or fails, which gives structure to the poem – has not been superseded because it can’t be. It’s the template for who we are and what we do.
The greatness of Dante and the whole Western tradition is that, in them, no one action occurs in isolation. Everything is correlated with everything else. In a universe ordered to the truths of reality, there are no special indulgences for attractive adulterers, blustering politicians, corrupt pontiffs, or Romantic Satans defining their own order and meaning of the universe. Because there is only God and His universe. Everything else is disorder and meaninglessness.
Of course, to see that, we need the “holy and alert” lady to wake up reason, not only in individuals, but in our culture. Even the poetry of reality cannot do that by itself. But it can show us what the real thing will be like when, Deo volente, we experience it. Which, let’s hope, we all do. Soon.