Classic Remarks is a meme hosted here at Pages Unbound that poses questions each Friday about classic literature and asks participants to engage in ongoing discussions surrounding not only themes in the novels but also questions about canon formation, the “timelessness” of literature, and modes of interpretation. Feel free to comment even if you are not officially participating! This week’s prompt is:
What relevance does a medieval text like The Divine Comedy have for readers today?
Dante’s Divine Comedy can seem intimidating and antiquated to contemporary readers. A lengthy poem in three books narrating Dante’s physical journey through hell, purgatory, heaven, as well as his spiritual journey from sympathy with sin to a recognition of the wisdom and love of God, the Divine Comedy does not immediately strike many as interesting. Indeed, its concern with the spiritual state of its protagonist and Dante’s belief that individuals have free will and can commit wrong are troubling to many who believe that truth is relative and that they cannot sin. Distaste for the Catholicism that Dante embraces also causes some readers to want to give Dante as wide a berth as possible.
However, embracing or agreeing with Catholicism is not a perquisite to reading and appreciating Dante’s work. At its heart, the Divine Comedy is about free will and the choices individuals, societies, and institutions make. It is concerned with questions such as what the role of an artist is, how love and lust are distinguished, and how far an individual should pursue knowledge. And it fearlessly engages troubling questions such as whether upright individuals who were not baptized should go to hell, how individuals who are kind and serve their city might still damn themselves, and the confusing nature of God’s mercy, which allows an excommunicated murderer like Manfred to be in purgatory on his way to heaven and the pagan Ripheus to be in paradise, but keeps Virgil in Limbo. Dante’s struggles with the nature of choice, the seeming unfairness of life, and the attraction to behaviors that he understands to be wrong, are struggles contemporary readers still face.
Plus, the Divine Comedy is just great entertainment. It is highly political, leveling criticism at the corruption of Florence and boldly chastising the Church for its greed. Dante places familiar figures in his world, cheekily assigning his personal enemy Pope Boniface VIII to hell for simony, but also allowing readers to see and interact with other famous names from history and literature. His imagination is stunning and though most readers focus on his inventive punishments in hell and the contrapassos (the punishments fitting the crimes), the terraces of purgatory are also richly drawn. And the journey through paradise is a rather trippy adventure that has Dante travelling through the spheres, meeting the just rulers in Jupiter (who arrange themselves in aerial patterns much like marching bands today during sports events), being questioned by St. Peter about the faith, and approaching God Himself.
Dante’s ideas are far from outdated. Rather, Dante engages with the puzzles and the problems that continue to engage readers today. From concern about political corruption to musings on the nature of love, Dante restlessly probes the underpinnings of his world, seeking to understand them. His restless mind and his devotion to seeking truth can continue to speak to and inspire us.
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