The Reading Room
Dante at 700: What the Supreme Poet can teach us about work, love, art, and life
A Reading Room Series This year marks the 700th anniversary of Dante’s death. Numerous events have been planned throughout the world, especially in Dante’s native Italy, to celebrate the supreme poet’s legacy. But by far the best way of commemorating this occasion is by delving into Dante’s writing itself.
And here at the Reading Room we will be doing just that this year, exploring the wonders and astonishments of Dante’s masterpiece The Divine Comedy canto by extraordinary canto.
Dante’s writing has stood the test of time not only because of the beauty of its verse and the inventiveness of its literary imagination but also because of the sublimity of its moral vision. The poet most famous for writing about the afterlife is most useful for us today for what he can teach us about work, love, art, politics, morality, spirituality, and the pursuit of goodness in this life. This Reading Room series on The Divine Comedy will therefore focus on exploring Dante’s significance for us today by illuminating this early fourteenth-century work’s most valuable insights and most necessary messages for us denizens of the twenty-first century. (Readers who understand Italian and who are wondering about what an example of this manner of illumination might look like are invited to watch my TEDx talk on Dante’s Divine Comedy from 2019, delivered in Reggio Emilia, Italy.)
By way of introduction to The Divine Comedy, and in honor of seven centuries of Dante, this series will begin with seven overarching lessons we can learn from the immortal Italian about work, art, love, education, religion, politics, and creativity. Here are the first three:
1. Read the classics. Although Dante associated with the avant-garde writers of his day—the poets of the Italian dolce stilo novo (“sweet new style”)—he was able to revolutionize the world of literature not because he ignored the old masters but because he read them. Dante was able to create a new form of epic poetry only after having read and absorbed Virgil, Ovid, Horace, Homer, and numerous other great writers of the past. If we wish to achieve something truly great, we must familiarize ourselves thoroughly with the great thinkers and figures who have preceded us. Dante would very much agree with Fran Leibowitz’s great dictum, “Think before you speak. Read before you think.” Only by grounding ourselves firmly in the great works of the past will we be able to produce transformative works that will last into the future.
2. Write in ordinary, everyday language. Dante’s poetry is praised today for the elegance of its refined, Late Middle Ages Italian, but in his own time Dante’s poetic project was linguistically radical, if not downright revolutionary. Prior to Dante, it was virtually unheard of for a poet wishing to make his or her mark to write in anything other than the Latin of Virgil and Ovid. By writing in his own native Tuscan dialect of Italian, Dante demonstrated not only that a poet need not write in an antiquated, highbrow language in order to be considered a great lyricist; he also demonstrated that the best way to write is in a manner that will be the most accessible to the widest possible audience. Whether we are writing a novel, a term paper, a legal brief, or a quarterly office report, we should strive to write like ordinary citizens of the twenty-first century, not like Jane Austen or Henry James.
3. Don’t expect to earn your living through your creativity. We live in an age in which the greatest artists are rewarded quite handsomely for their work—and justly so. But this was not always the case. In fact, for the vast majority of human history, most creative people—including even the greatest artists—were not able to earn a living through their art. Van Gogh only sold a single painting during his lifetime. Mary Shelley was unable to make enough money off of Frankenstein to support herself and her children. Rembrandt, Monet, and Edgar Allan Poe spent much of their lives in dire poverty. The great Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer died in debt. Robert Louis Stevenson was a draughtsman. Nathaniel Hawthorne worked at a customs house. Herman Melville worked as a schoolteacher, merchant sailor, and customs inspector. Nietzsche’s books hardly sold at all during his lifetime, forcing him to get by on a meager university pension. Even into the 20th century, T.S. Eliot worked as a bank clerk, Wallace Stevens worked at an insurance company, Primo Levi worked at a paint factory, and Franz Kafka toiled away at a workers’ compensation agency. Despite having been the greatest poet in the history of Medieval Europe, Dante was a member of his municipal pharmacists’ guild and pursued a career in politics. If we happen to be creative—visually, musically, literarily, or even philosophically—the most likely outcome (economically speaking) is that we will end up in Dante’s company, not J.K. Rowling’s.
Next week, we will conclude our introduction to Dante by exploring the next four lessons.