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Introduction

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  10 June 2022

Alison Cornish
Affiliation:
New York University

Summary

There is a tendency, at least among secular readers, to bracket off Dante’s faith as something no longer true, something to which we no longer subscribe. Yet that would seem to miss not just an aspect of the Divine Comedy, but its central point. The episodes in the Inferno this volume focuses on, paradigmatic for the whole work, point to a problem of faith – lack of a shared belief, misreadings of important stories, failed allegiance, and broken promises. But it is the choice of Virgil as a guide, lost because of his belief in “false and lying gods,” that teaches us how to read ancient books whose culture we no longer share. How indeed can we believe in them?

Type
Chapter
Information
Believing in Dante
Truth in Fiction
, pp. 1 - 21
Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Print publication year: 2022

In a recent issue, the American journal Dante Studies republished an essay by the writer and scholar, Claudio Giunta, about why we continue to read Dante. The essay had appeared in an Italian literary review in 2009, but was originally delivered as a lesson in an Italian high school, or liceo. In that sense, it was a kind of rallying talk to students who would be reading Dante that year, whether they liked it or not. Outside of Italy, Dante is not generally required reading either at high school or university, but continues to be read nonetheless. Giunta posits that, apart from its form – 100 cantos and 14,233 verses in ingenious triple rhyme – what could most potentially put off the contemporary reader from such a text would be its cultural distance from us, in particular its ideology or, in other words, its religious faith. Our present secular society has “gone beyond” that ideology. The Commedia has ceased “to be true.”1

It is interesting to think how the same problem of a difference in religious faith or ideology is never brought in as a reason why classical, pagan texts might be now illegible. On the contrary, they might be thought to be more legible, as yet uninfected by the contagion of Christianity that modern Western society has now – to grant Giunta’s claim – superseded. The Divine Comedy bothers us not because it is old (Homer is older), and not because the religious assumptions that prevailed when it was written are now widely contested, rejected, or simply not shared by a more pluralistic, larger, global world. It bothers us because it remains close to us. Its ideology, its religion, and its faith still haunt even the secular. Since secularism is a phenomenon of the West, many of us are still inescapably inhabiting a world of Christian roots, evident in many of our assumptions and convictions, even those that reject Christianity. This is the thesis of Tom Holland in his recent book, Dominion.2

One of the very many uncanny things about Dante is that he seems to anticipate this very problem: the skeptical stance one wants to take toward old books, even and especially those passed on to us as “great.” Dante, the author, chooses Virgil, the author, as his guide – portrayed as the one who actually goes to meet him on the impassable slope just beyond the dark wood. But Virgil, to the chagrin and even outrage of many a reader of Dante, is damned. This is not because Dante had to heel to the dictates of the Church, since he finds a way to save a number of other pagans or supposed pagans (Cato, Statius, Trajan, Ripheus, Rahab). Virgil is damned in the hell of which Dante is the maker; it is the modern poet’s ultimate judgment on his ancient predecessor. Virgil is damned not because of the medieval poet’s unfortunate lack of intellectual freedom to save whom he would save, because we see that he does do that rather spectacularly, but because of his fundamental conviction, similar to our own, that modernity is right while antiquity had it wrong. Just as we have outgrown the medieval worldview, so too Virgil is coralled with the “innocents,” those who just did not know better, in an infernal limbo of Dante’s invention.3

Dante’s invention is to have adults in limbo after the harrowing of hell on Holy Saturday, when Christ descended to the underworld in order to liberate the matriarchs and patriarchs of the Old Testament who believed in the Messiah to come. Because Christ comes at a specific moment in history, they could not be saved before, and yet they could not be damned. Hence, limbo. But Dante uses this ecclesiastical solution to a theological problem to create a space for another category of people: non-Christian greats, including heroes, warriors, philosophers, poets, pagans and Muslims, women and men, people worthy of honor. Yet they are still in the underworld; they have no access to salvation, to God, or to heaven, in which they did not believe. Virgil tells us that these people did not sin, but their merits are not enough because they did not have baptism, which is the door to the faith that you – you, Dante, you moderns – believe. He also admits that it is not purely an accident of time: if they were before Christianity, they still did not worship God as is due. “And I myself,” Virgil says, “am one of these.” This is what Virgil says when the two poets visit limbo, but in his initial introduction he defines himself chronologically by the regimes under which he was born and lived (sub Iulio and sotto ’l buono Augusto) in the time of the “false and lying gods.”4

There is no religious equivalence. One God is true; the others are false. Virgil does not say he believed in the false and lying gods; they simply featured in the religion of the time. They constituted a regime under which he lived. He does say that he was remiss in worshiping God (in the singular) as is due, which suggests he had a good idea that those mythical gods – or maybe all gods – were and are simply a lie, requiring certain superstitious rituals and professions of allegiance. Later, reconsidering his state in the context of purgatory he will explain that he “lost Heaven” for no other fault than for not having faith.5 Yet Virgil himself will rebuke Dante for his lack of belief in a book, Virgil’s own book, the Aeneid, and in particular in an episode that is patently marvelous and frankly fictional: a fabulous occurrence one could only have seen in a poet’s verses.6 At another point in the Inferno Virgil will contradict an account of the origins of his native city of Mantua given in the Aeneid, and admonish Dante to disregard any other version than the one he gives as a character in Dante’s poem. Dante responds that this speech he has just heard is so certain and so gains his trust and belief, literally, his “faith,” that all other accounts will be to him as spent coals, which would include, presumably, indications given in the Aeneid itself, which contradict it.7 Most remarkably of all, we will meet another reader of the Aeneid, the poet Statius, who was healed of his particular vice and converted to Christianity through a fairly obvious misreading of Virgil.8 Thus, while we tend to think of faith as something religious, Dante shows us that it is also literary: how we believe what we read or what value we accord it. This is dramatized in the story of Francesca falling for “such a great lover” about whom she was reading in a book, but completely missing the lover than whom there is none greater, who loved her first.

The question of what we believe and the consequences of believing it are dramatized by the act of reading itself. How we live depends on how we read our circumstances. To say that we believe what we read is to say that we think the story we are reading is true. Books that we continue to read, despite their obvious fictions and their outdated or superseded assumptions, must be, for us, in some sense, true – although the sense in which they are true for us is also to some extent elusive and changing depending on what we can see from where we stand at the moment. This is what I mean by “believing” in Dante. This response of the reader to the fiction, this question of belief, is I think written right into the poem and is one of its major themes. We can see it in the acclaimed addresses to the reader throughout the poem where the poet both swears to the truth and invokes a bond of trust.9

Dante’s immense arrogation to himself of the authority to judge who should end up where in the afterlife is at bottom the reason the truth-value of the Commedia has been such a topic of discussion. Teodolinda Barolini argued that “the Commedia makes narrative believers of us all” and accused certain of us of reading it as fundamentalist Christians do the Bible; Dante in effect “commands belief.”10 Albert Ascoli sees this peculiarity of Dante as his “quest for special standing, for authority in a general sense” and Dante himself defined authority as something or someone “worthy of faith.”11 Despite my title, Believing in Dante, I aim not to show how Dante gets us to believe everything he proposes, but how he gets us to see that whatever it is we believe is what determines our story. The “moral” of a story, which comes only at its end, is equivalent to a judgment upon it. Where one decides such a story would end up in the afterlife is to pronounce one’s own judgment. This is true of all stories we tell ourselves. They all entail a judgment and they all entail belief.12

Historians identify the Reformation as the period when unbelief became possible. The Protestant insistence on “faith alone” raised the stakes for belief to such an extent that it opened an oppositional space of not believing, or believing differently, or constant questioning of what exactly it was that one believed. George Hoffman has described it as “seeing one’s own mind as a sort of experimental space, an inscrutable cognitive frontier in which the status of belief presented itself as a constant problem, and the experience of faith seemed to require a constant effort of will.”13 In The Birth of Modern Belief Ethan Shagan argues that “between the Middle Ages and the Enlightenment, successive revolutions in religious knowledge refashioned what it meant to believe.” What characterizes modern belief, he says, is the general acceptance that people’s beliefs, however different one from another, are in fact beliefs. This “distinctively modern space of belief” is set in contrast with the “old certainties” that had dissolved. Shagan shows that the possibility of unbelief, or the possibility of measuring a historical decline in belief, depends very much on what is meant by “a believer,” a fidelis, in pre-modern times. Modernity has long been set in opposition to a so-called age of belief. Before the Reformation, to believe was to adhere to a dogma, to obey the dicta of the authorities, to be “humble vessels who accept God’s truth from authorized sources.”14

In a closed and largely homogeneous society where “Christians” could be used almost synonymously with “people,” self-described unbelievers did not form a demographic group. As we will see in Chapter 2, there were nonetheless many stories in circulation about people, even “respectable” or “important” people, who did not believe in and mocked the tenets of, the official religion. Granted, these records are preserved mostly as accusations garnered against enemies. But a visit to Dante’s underworld shows just how many ways it was possible not really to believe. This is not like the scrupulosity of the Reformation thinkers who feared the “atheist within”; rather it is an exposé of how we can be seduced by stories other than the grand narrative to which the Divine Comedy subscribes.15 Even the medieval Dante was able to contemplate faith not just in terms of a dogma to be obeyed but in the context of an intimate and even painful self-interrogation of what it is we believe when we do what we do. In so far as Dante is inviting (rather than “commanding”) his readers to believe something, that “something” would be that story of which he is, precisely, not the maker. To believe there is truth in what he recounts is to believe there is something external to and independent of the representation he weaves, but to which that representation points.16

We are told that the damned have lost the “good of the intellect.” In his philosophical treatise, the Banquet, Dante quoted Aristotle as saying that the good of the intellect is truth.17 The damned have thus lost the truth. Or, to put it another way: what they believed was not true. The commentaries will also tell us that the good of the intellect is God. God is the good of the intellect perhaps in the sense that God is the point of having an intellect, what having an intellect is good for, the ultimate reality we want to know and insatiably seek. God is the truth. The truth is God. The damned have lost God. This means that, just like the non-Christians in limbo, none of the damned really believed in God. Or, to put it another way, as is easily seen in the case of Francesca: it was not God that they saw in the story they were reading. What they believed in was not God or, in other words, was not the truth. To know the truth is to grasp the meaning of things; it is to see the value in facts. To put it in literary terms, it is to read “for the plot.”18

The plot and architecture of Dante’s worldview is both familiar and forgotten; in many ways it is the water in which we swim without necessarily being aware of it.19 Like the ancient poet whom Dante’s protagonist encounters in the dark wood, the culture of the Divine Comedy can seem “hoarse from a long silence.” Dante does not lay out his system in the form of a treatise or an encyclopedia, but rather as a story, the story of “our life”: his and ours and of many other individuals encountered over the course of the journey. The motivating force of the journey is the desire to know, a desire that for Dante’s Ulysses was an ardor, in which he still burns, to follow “virtue and knowledge.” The phrase, “good of the intellect,” like “virtue and knowledge,” puts together a question of value and the apparently neutral question of reality. What good is it to know anything at all? What is knowledge actually good for? The divide between facts and what value we attribute to them cannot really be brooked by knowledge, or reason, or logic. As discussed in Chapter 4, David Hume set up a guillotine between what is and what we ought to do. He thought that what we consider morally good is simply what we arbitrarily prefer, what seems pleasing to us. In that sense, it is irrational. For Dante, it is God that makes it possible to see the value of things; and God is known by faith, not reason.

We are inclined to bracket off Dante’s faith as something inaccessible to those of us who do not happen to be Christian. Even Catholics find at times that Dante diverges uncomfortably from what they are now taught. Dante’s religion is, after all, medieval; it is therefore something that we may or may not share to some degree, but that we just have to assume or grant and get on with the story. Yet what belief is and how it permeates every aspect of our existence, whether it’s the Christian faith or some other set of propositions we hold to be true, is one of the main things that this poem – which is, after all, a fiction and therefore something on some level untrue – is constantly interrogating. Faith is crucial to everyday life, communication, living with others and with ourselves. The Inferno explores the absence and rupture of faith, trust, and belief, as we will see particularly among the heretics and the suicides; hell is the yawning emptiness that opens up in the breach.

A lot can be lost in the centuries that divide Dante from us. It was a question of twentieth-century scholarship as to whether it was possible to read Dante in a purely secular way, apart from his medieval Christianity, to read him as poet of the secular world, as Erich Auerbach proposed.20 It seemed like an innovation when American critics – also influenced by Auerbach – began to delve into theological details that some Italian thinkers, most notably Benedetto Croce, had thought better left aside in the pure appreciation of poetry.21 It is Dante himself who insists on some kind of radical separation between the jurisdiction of the Church and the secular affairs of worldly rulers, and this might suggest we could set aside the religious dogma that decorates or dictates features of what can be appreciated independently of it as poetry, as if what the poetry meant or was aiming at could be irrelevant. More than that, a recent trend in criticism and scholarship is dedicated to investigating Dante’s theology as poetry. As Vittorio Montemaggi puts it, “underlying Dante’s work is not only a theological understanding of the value of narrative and poetry, but also a theological understanding of language itself.”22 Even in the very choice of language and its use, it is theology all the way down.

Dante’s God is the end of his journey, the motivator and subject of his poetry. The God of the Divine Comedy is to be identified with the God of the Bible, no doubt, and with the incarnate Christ of the New Testament, but also with Aristotle’s first mover, who moves everything by being desired, and not with Virgil’s “false and lying gods.” But what (and who) God is, is in some sense the whole question, as well as the object of the quest. To claim that morality or justice is to do God’s will, for example, is to state a tautology. It does not decide for us what the right thing to do is. To want what God wants is to want what we actually have, to desire what is. God’s will is reality, but we can still disagree and debate what that reality is. These six chapters are an attempt to translate, in other words to make sense of, a worldview that posits God to a worldview that might not. They zero in on some of the hard bits, the ones that especially do not seem to make sense to us here now. Each of the chapters begins with an issue that rankles, either in contemporary reception of Dante, or as a philosophical question entertained even in the popular press. Yet they were questions also for his immediate readers, who might be superficially described as “the faithful.” In proclaiming the charitable act of what he was trying to do in the project of his poem, Dante tagged this target audience somewhat uncharitably as “the world that lives badly” (in pro del mondo che mal vive).23 We may read the book, but the book is also offering a reading of us; a judgment, and this is surely part of what rankles, or to use the vulgar language of Dante’s ancestor in Paradise, what itches.24 To put it bluntly, Dante is not necessarily preaching to the converted.

That is why the episode of Francesca, in the circle of the lustful, is so paradigmatic. The crucial point is not that she was reading, when the fatal move was made, nor what she was reading, but how she read it. Everything hinges on the single point in her reading when she came to a conclusion, had a revelation, identified with the story, and stopped reading, presumably to pursue her own story, which is precisely the place where she stops her own narration. This place is where she reads of how love gripped “so great a lover,” which she translates directly into the situation at hand and applies to the person sitting next to her, and they imitate with their bodies the kiss they were reading about in the book. The drama of Francesca gets straight to the problem we all have of distinguishing between facts and narratives. It is not simply that facts often differ from fiction – we close our eyes with visions of Lancelot and end up being kissed on the mouth by the sweaty-palmed fellow adjacent to us – but that we only make sense of facts as part of a narrative. The question is not what are the facts and what is the fiction, but which story we choose to live in, which leads to the questions posed by Francesca’s hasty conclusion itself: who is, in fact, the greatest of lovers? who loved whom first? and what is the action she should take in response?

Dante must have been bitterly aware of the chasm between narrative and facts when he contrasted the sunny rhetoric of communal civic concord with the culture of vendetta in which he actually grew up, played out in constant street fights and incursions between opposing factions, with frequent bloody attacks, sacking, looting, and burning of houses. In the second chapter, we examine great and admired political figures who end up in the circle of violence in the Inferno – the sort of people who inspire plaques and monuments around the city. Dante’s staged “discovery” of them in hell is the equivalent of tearing down those monuments. Some of these are designated as heretics, or unbelievers, but what is at stake does not seem to be any sort of religious orthodoxy so much as a diagnosis of endemic and persistent political polarization and factionalism. In the failure of the earnest traveler to have a conversation with any of these worthies without inadvertently inflicting severe psychological pain on them, we see into the core of the problem. The inability to see the same facts or to inhabit the same present reality is what happens in a world without shared belief, or a shared narrative in which authentically to believe.

The third chapter focuses on the emperor’s faithful secretary, falsely accused of treason, who killed himself to escape such a precipitous fall from grace. This Peter, or Pier, who held the keys to Frederick’s heart, swears he never broke faith with his lord who was so worthy. In the canto of the suicides, faith, trust, and simple belief in what is the case, all coincide. The power of words turns out to be so powerful only until those words are no longer believed. How can we secure trust with words? how can we believe what people tell us? Like Francesca, who mistook a legendary knight as the greatest of lovers, so too Pier delle Vigne mistakes his lord “who was so worthy” for the Lord who is most worthy and never breaks faith. This chapter shows how religious faith (faith in God and in the God of a particular faith tradition) is cognate with a prerequisite for all communication, which demands some sort of commonality of belief, as well as some authentic correspondence between exterior sign and supposed meaning. The question is not whether we ought to believe, because we always believe something and act accordingly, but what, or rather, whom to believe. The suicide’s broken relationship with his body symbolizes the rupture between truth and expression, an essential relationship that he tragically views as disposable, and that the writer for the state may have already compromised.

The fourth chapter addresses the twin goals, or ends, of Dante’s Ulysses, who sets off on a mad quest on the open ocean to pursue virtue and knowledge. Quite the opposite of the Homeric hero Odysseus, this insatiable adventurer forgoes love and duty toward home and homeland in order ardently to pursue experience of the world and human morality in the world without people. This lofty pursuit of virtue and knowledge, which Ulysses identifies as our noble purpose as human beings, is dramatized as an open-ended exploration that ends in shipwreck. Much later in the poem, from the height of the fixed stars, in one of the constellations by which sailors navigate, Dante is tested on his knowledge of virtue, specifically of the three theological virtues: faith, hope, and love. The categories would seem to be incompatible. Knowledge has to do with facts; virtue has to do with values. Can we determine what we ought to do from what we discover to be the case? Can science, even of the mind, reveal to us how we ought to behave? The question of value, the question of what we should choose among the available options, is addressed in the last of the examinations on the virtues: the examination on love in Paradiso 26, where we learn that love is the Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end, of all that is written and read. It is the goal of our knowledge, but also the motivator on our quest. It is the point of our soul. We can only love what we see, but also, paradoxically, only by loving can we know what to look for.

One of the indigestible features of Dante’s heaven for the modern reader is the fact that it remains hierarchical, even if it subverts hierarchies that obtain on earth. How can beatitude admit of more and less? Isn’t everybody equal in heaven? The initial focus of the fifth chapter will be the former nuns encountered in the sphere of the moon, the “inconstant” moon, who seem to get a raw deal – in heaven. The lesson of the first encounter of the Paradiso gets at what freedom really means – the power to acquiesce or to resist – but also at why there is diversity, difference, and inequality inscribed into the nature of reality itself. In the sea of things we do or could desire, our navigation through it is always determined by what it is we love more. We have a diversity and a hierarchy of desires, which are unique and different from the particular bundle of desires that characterizes every other individual. In heaven, which is supposed to reflect the truth of the matter, individuals do not dissolve into sameness, but find rest in just that sweet spot where all their own particular desires are quieted. To will what God wills is to want what is, to want what we have, and to want to be what we are. Which is to be different from everyone else.

The last chapter is set at the edge of the universe, at the limits of physical knowledge where we are presented with an image and a narrative about primordial choice. The goal of what we understand as science is sometimes understood as explaining nature, filling in the map of reality. Yet all scientists recognize that there are some questions science cannot answer, for example: why there is something rather than nothing, or how matter generates mind. There is something beyond the map. In the largest body of the universe that gives impetus to the whole system, we interrogate that border between the physical and the metaphysical, the measurable and the immeasurable, the pristine universe and the tipping point of the first moral act in it. Quantitatively, this point seems to have a value of zero. It is the undecided moment of twilight somehow prior to a world in which sides are already taken and the wheels are already in motion.

What is the good of the intellect? Who is the greatest of lovers? What is missing from the heretics’ view of the world? With whom did the suicide break faith? How do we get from “is” to “ought”? What does Piccarda really want? What is the point on which the universe hinges? The simple answer to all of these questions is: God. But since finding God is what the journey is all about, it remains the question posed, a placeholder for the answer we’re looking for. And in so far as Dante sees God, it is an experience that lies outside the text. He claims he had it in a flash: the circle was squared, the scattered leaves of the Sybil were bound up in a volume, ever so briefly and lost to oblivion, like the shadow of the first navigational voyage passing over the head of an amazed sea-god. It is therefore not simple at all. The mere signifier, “God,” does not satisfy the quest, even for the believer. These chapters interrogate Dante on precisely that point where he seems most hoarse, most left behind, in a world where it is impolite, impolitic, or even incomprehensible to talk about God. They are in the tradition of John Freccero who insisted on the inseparability of poetic form and theological content. T. S. Eliot proposed that all that was necessary was the reader’s momentary assent to the poet’s beliefs, exactly the way we might willingly suspend our disbelief whenever we enter any fictive universe of novels or films or any other work of the imagination. Freccero countered that any reading of value requires us to understand the literary artifact as testifying to some sort of authentic experience that the reader can accept “without compromise.”25

To believe in Dante, then, is not necessarily to believe in God, and certainly not necessarily his God. But this poem, perhaps more than other fictional constructs, shows how what we do or where we end up is a consequence of what we believe. In Dante, what we choose to believe is what it’s all about. As with anything else we read, anyone else we listen to, the question is always not only, “what’s the point?” but also, “does this person have a point?” It is that point (and “point” is a quintessentially Dantesque term that anchors this poem from beginning to end) that these chapters are trying to get at in a way that makes sense right here and now.

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  • Introduction
  • Alison Cornish, New York University
  • Book: Believing in Dante
  • Online publication: 10 June 2022
  • Chapter DOI: https://doi.org/10.1017/9781009091923.001
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  • Introduction
  • Alison Cornish, New York University
  • Book: Believing in Dante
  • Online publication: 10 June 2022
  • Chapter DOI: https://doi.org/10.1017/9781009091923.001
Available formats
×

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  • Introduction
  • Alison Cornish, New York University
  • Book: Believing in Dante
  • Online publication: 10 June 2022
  • Chapter DOI: https://doi.org/10.1017/9781009091923.001
Available formats
×