The Reading Room

Dante at 700: What the Supreme Poet can teach us about work, love, art, and life: Canto One

A Reading Room series on The Divine Comedy
Last week we began our epic journey with Dante by accompanying him as he is lost in the woods, before meeting his literary idol Virgil and agreeing to set forth with Virgil upon another path that will take him out of the dark woods and lead him through a domain filled with more terrible sounds and sights than most mortal beings can bear to even imagine. This week we shall explore some of the deeper meanings of this introductory canto… 
When I say that “we” began our epic journey with Dante, I am not speaking in a poetic manner, or using some sort of literary conceit. I mean this quite literally—as does Dante. 
 Dante begins Canto I not by saying that this is an account of something that happened to him “in my life,” or that this is a story from something that took place “in the middle of my life’s journey,” but rather that this is an account of an event which took place “in the middle of our lives’ journey” (“Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita”). Yes, The Divine Comedy is an account of events which occurred to Dante in the middle of his life (recall that Dante presents this epic as an accounting of events which he really did experience), but Dante also intends us to read The Divine Comedy—and to experience the Comedy—as an epic which we live through as well.
 In our reading of the Comedy, we really should feel as if we are experiencing these events with Dante, as if we really are on this epic journey with him. Because, in a very real sense, we are: reading The Divine Comedy makes us conscious of the fact that we are, and have been, on this journey. And one of the primary reasons that the Comedy has been able to stand the test of time is because it has spoken to so many millions of readers for 700 years now—readers who indeed have been able to see themselves along the road with Dante on this epic journey through hell and purgatory, hoping to one day be able to make it to heaven. 
 Like Dante, so many of us, during the middle of our life’s journey, find ourselves lost in some kind of dark woods—a job or career that is wrong for us; a relationship that is not fulfilling us; a spiritual or existential crisis that is paralyzing us. We have, like Dante, “lost the right way.” And, perhaps even worse, like Dante, we have been sleepwalking through life to such an extent that we do not even know how we got ourselves in these dark woods to begin with. And now that we are in this lost state, we don’t know how to get ourselves out. The three beasts Dante sees lurking on the mountain just outside the woods conjure the frightful obstacles that we all face in our own lives’ journey when we begin doing the hard work of trying to extract ourselves out of the dense forested thicket into which we’ve sunk. These obstacles—like the leopard, lion, and wolf that Dante sees in Canto I—can appear to be so terrifying that we shrivel up in fear and cower in a corner rather than facing them: the partner we’ve been putting off having “the talk” with for so long because of our fear of upsetting them; the parents, relatives, and community we’re afraid of disappointing if they were to find out that we’re going to be changing careers; the friends who we worry will thing that we’ve become weird because we’ve decided to finally pursue our long-dormant but always-latent need of tending to the spiritual and psychological dimensions of our lives. And so, instead of confronting the very real fears that we must confront in order to move forward, we slink back into the dark forest—all the while knowing that this lost place we’ve been withering away in is itself so terrible that, as Dante too knows, it makes us question the value of even continuing to exist. 
 What is the solution to this awful dilemma? 
 Dante, as we saw, finds it in the figure of Virgil, who appears to him while Dante is stuck—immobilized by his fear of the beasts and his fright of the forest—and offers him a path out of the woods. Virgil’s appearance to Dante is no mere Deus ex machina—a miraculous manifestation of some sort of providential figure from out of nowhere who will now suddenly be able to solve all of our problems. Virgil, rather, is for Dante the manifestation of the classics—the great works of thought and literature which have stood the test of time and which shaped the minds and emotions of readers for millennia. Dante admired many classic writers—Ovid, Lucan, Horace, and others—but above all, Dante, like so many other Middle Age Europeans, admired Virgil. (Many modern writers and thinkers in the West have felt this way about Virgil too; T.S. Eliot regarded Virgil’s The Aeneid as perhaps the foundational work of Western Civilization, “the classic of all Europe.”) When Dante tells us that Virgil appeared to him and offered to be his guide out of the woods, he is telling us that the key to getting ourselves out of our middle-age messes is to let the classics be our guide. The classics are not mere works of entertainment; The Odyssey, Iliad, Aeneid, and the other foundational works of Western literature were not the Marvel movies of their day. The reason they have stood the test of time is because they indeed have been able to not just entertain (and, as we shall see with The Divine Comedy, they are also very gripping dramatic works) but because they have also been able to guide—to educate, edify, instruct, and inspire. Entertainment, Roger Ebert once wrote, can only divert, but great art can give you a picture of the way things actually are. The classics, Dante understood, do not only divert; because they portray the eternal truths of our inner lives so completely, they actually—if read openly and attentively—can help us lead better lives. 
 For this reason, Rule no. 1 of the seven overarching lessons Dante teaches us in The Divine Comedy is Read the classics. Let them be your guide, just as Dante lets Virgil be his. Let their wisdom instruct us, just as it has edified so many millions of minds over the past several millennia. And, if we follow their lead—even if it takes us through an epic journey through hell, purgatory, and beyond—we are assured, like Dante, of escaping the dark woods and reaching the blessed place.