born: 1267 A.C.
died: 1337 A.C.
When Abraham raised his sword to slice off the head of his son Isaac, he did so with absolute faith in God. Dante Alighieri, on the other hand, was not so convinced. Dante was a devout Christian who believed that divine... [more]
When Abraham raised his sword to slice off the head of his son Isaac, he did so with absolute faith in God. Dante Alighieri, on the other hand, was not so convinced. Dante was a devout Christian who believed that divine love required a journey towards, not a blind acceptance of, religion. Unlike Abraham, Dante's pilgrim in "The Divine Comedy" seems caught in a religious conundrum. His journey through the afterlife -- Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise -- is full of illusions and paradoxes. (Incidentally, Breton labeled Dante the first Surrealist poet.) At each descending circle, the pilgrim questions everything he witnesses: he is caught in that obscure territory between ignorance and knowledge, faith and doubt. T.S. Eliot proclaimed, "Shakespeare and Dante divided the world between them. There is no third." And the reason for Dante's reign seems clear: he speaks to humanity's fragility at a fundamental level. In our time of skepticism, we understand Dante's need for proving faith -- the need to see, witness, and experience something absolute and redemptive. The pilgrim's journey is every man's progress through the travails of life, through suffering and human folly. Dante felt the strong desire "to lead the living out of a state of misery and into a state of bliss." Dante knew what a hindered path to bliss felt like. He is perhaps the most famous unrequited lover in history: from early youth he was obsessed with the unattainable Beatrice Portinari. Legend has it that she greeted him only once, in passing on the street, before her death at age 23. The bereft Dante devoted an entire autobiographical volume, "La Vita Nuova," to his pain at her loss. Meanwhile his political career was even less fortunate. Dante was a respected Florentine magistrate who was exiled from his beloved city for denouncing papal hegemony. From afar, he watched as strife and infighting destroyed all possibility of political unity. These earthly tribulations echo in "The Divine Comedy." (Tellingly, the lost souls the pilgrim meets in Hell are there for political crimes as much as religious ones.) The work seems to seek answers for the onslaught of loss, vanity, greed, and self-destruction that Dante witnessed in his lifetime. This is not to say that "The Divine Comedy" is a cynical work. On the contrary, Dante is essentially optimistic as he asserts the goodness of God despite the foibles of man. The poet subliminally inserts the presence of God throughout the work as a spur or encouragement to the pilgrim. "The Divine Comedy" is divided into three sections and is written in three-line, rhyming stanzas (terza rima). The recurrence of the number three and its multiples not only screams of the Trinity, but also structures the poet's wild imaginings into a tripartite crescendo: there is an order that reins in the chaos, a higher presence that rules and organizes the supernatural sphere. In the end, Dante's pilgrim experiences a perfect union with God (through the intercession of an exalted Beatrice, of course). It's a journey of spiritual purification gained through love and reason. As a diagnostician of the human condition, Dante is indeed on a par with Shakespeare: he discerned our faults and follies with an acutely critical eye, sympathized abundantly with our suffering, and affirmed the essential power of belief based in love. [show less]