To kick off my series on “Literature for the Modern Mind,” I’ll start with the one who started it all—Dante Alighieri. Really, I should address his whole Commedia here, but since I’ve taught the Inferno for the past three years in my senior class, and (I’m ashamed to admit!) I haven’t yet read the Purgatorio and Paradiso (both this summer, I hope!) I’ll stick to the first of the three-part journey.
For more on what kinds of literature I hope to write about in this series, see my earlier post on the modern self. I want to examine some works that I’ve read and taught that put forth a concept of our identity that runs counter to the modern one. By a modern identity I mean one predicated on the notion that the body and mind have little to say to each other, that the physical and spiritual exist on separate planes and interact only through a series of representations or extrapolations. Standing against this world view is the kind of art we might call incarnational, in the broad sense that it seeks to express the spirit through matter, through carne, the flesh. Incarnation is obviously an important word for Catholics (and all Christians), as it expresses a doctrine central to the faith, namely, that Christ, God-made-human, took on flesh in order to express love through its wounds. This whole process wasn’t a symbol, or metaphor, but the real thing, love itself, known as only we can know it—through the human form.
Flannery O’Connor once famously said at a dinner party that if the Eucharist “[is] a symbol, to Hell with it!” One might also apply that saying to the kind of literature I’m trying to define (and of which O’Connor wrote her fair share). In it there are really no things such as symbols, for if we think about characters primarily through gestures and talismans that “symbolize” their real identities, we have already divided the world into the two realms of body and spirit. Rather, incarnational literature seeks to collapse this kind of divided vision by presenting, I would argue, the eternal through the physical.
This all sounds rather vague, so let’s let Dante show us the way (guided by Virgil, of course).
I often spend an entire class focusing on the first nine lines of the Inferno. Dante’s famous opening sets the stage for a journey into the wilderness of the self, one that will end happily but only after he faces directly the darkness that lies within him, and within us all. I use the Anthony Esolen Modern Library translation with my students, which is perfect for them—very readable, footnoted only when absolutely necessary, and supported by Esolen’s excellent commentaries on Dante’s medieval perspective, which Esolen, to a large extent, shares (and I mean that as a compliment, by the way). His translation begins:
Midway upon the journey of our life
I found myself in a dark wilderness,
for I had wandered from the straight and true.
How hard a thing it is to tell about,
that wilderness so savage, dense, and harsh,
even to think of it renews my fear!
It is so bitter, death is hardly more—
but to reveal the good that came to me,
I shall relate the other things I saw.
Right away we realize that we are in a kind of in-between reality. The wilderness is not simply a physical wilderness, a hard-to-travel, heavily wooded area, but a spiritual one as well. Dante hasn’t just lost the footpath, but the “straight and true.” Dante emerges from the wilderness early on in the first canto, but is prevented from journeying towards the light (the sun, but also God’s truth) by three beasts, which likewise occupy a space between the world of the flesh and the world of the spirit. The she-wolf which crosses his path is not merely a wolf but one “whose scrawniness seemed stuffed / with all men’s cravings, stuffed with desires.” Spirit and flesh are indistinguishable in this world. You cannot have the she-wolf without also having “all men’s cravings,” nor the cravings without the she-wolf. They are one and the same. The beasts turn Dante back into the same wilderness from which he just emerged, and his guided journey into the wilderness of sin begins.
Students often ask me if the Commedia is “true.” In other words, did Dante “really” visit Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven, and by “really” they mean “in the physical sense.” Such a question must be asked, of course, if students hope to begin having their worldview transformed by Dante’s art, but the best response is perhaps to say that it is “true” if we understand “true” as Dante did. For Dante, the most real world is not simply physical but one that has been made more clear by the workings of the poetic imagination. The most accurate depiction of a landscape is not given to us by a camera but by a poet or a painter. The imagination is the access point to truth, and in Dante’s relating of his journey into the wilderness of Hell, and later, the mountain of Purgatory and circles of Paradise, he is in fact showing us the real truth of human action, in all its dimensions.
To the modern mind the imagination is at best an individual’s ripcord, a way to escape from reality, and at worst a vehicle for delusion, a way to avoid reconciling one’s mind to the hard realities of fact. But to the Catholic artist, like to the Greco-Roman poet or Native American storyteller, the imagination is the one thing necessary to tell a “true” story. Imagination, in this view, does not isolate us but unites us with the real world.
Dante’s goal, in the Commedia, is to present the eternal dimension of human action—that is, to show us how our habits shape our souls. In a way, this is quintessential Aristotle. Virtue (arête) is a habit: we are what we repeatedly do. Someone who constantly thinks about ways to get more money is in fact the definition of a greedy person; someone who consistently visits shut-ins is a charitable person, etc. The idea is not new. Dante’s great contribution here is that he presents that eternal dimension as a good artist must—through vividly physical descriptions, the world accessible to us through the five senses.
As we travel through the different circles of Hell, we see the identities that individuals have created through their sins, identities invisible in the world of time and space but made real in Dante’s poetic journey. A few of my favorites:
In the fourth circle the greedy roll huge boulders at each other, jeering, unable to stop for fear of getting crushed by a stone rolled by someone else. They are appropriately “dim[med] beyond all recognition now,” for they sought to be distinguished in their earthly lives.
In the second level of the seventh circle the souls of suicide victims are condemned to inhabit gnarled trees, whose fruit is plucked by birds. At the Resurrection of the Dead, they will be the only souls in Hell not reunited with their bodies, for in their self-inflicted deaths they have slung them off. Instead, their bodies will be draped over their branches like laundry on clotheslines. The sounds of their voices is horrific to describe:
As when you light one end of a green log,
the air inside that forces its way out
will squeak and sputter at the other end,
So from the splintered limb came forth at once
both blood and speech…
Dante has great pity for them, and promises to do what he can to restore the good name of one of the suicide victims, Pier della Vigna, when he returns to the world.
There are many more memorable descriptions of what sins have done to individuals. Hypocrites, so concerned with presenting good appearances, are weighed down by gilded cloaks of lead. Simonists, who have committed the sin of selling Church offices for profit (think of Chaucer’s Pardoner), are stuck, head-down and drowning, in baptismal fonts. Fortune-tellers have their heads twisted around and walk forward while looking backwards, weeping tears that run into their ass cracks. And so on. All these descriptions are governed by the notion of contrapasso, Dante’s “divine justice”—the idea that the punishment is appropriate to the crime committed, often in an ironic sense.
I could go on, but I’ll wrap up by reiterating the idea that there are no real “symbols” in Dante’s universe. That is, the boulder-rolling that the greedy participate in does not symbolize their desire for money—it is their greed itself, in its eternal dimension. This is what they were really doing, every minute of their lives, as their habits formed their identities. They have come to desire this action—they can’t stop rolling boulders because they don’t want to, and that’s the real horror of their sin.
I have to keep reminding my students that the “eternal” is not the same as the “infinite.” Eternity lies outside of time, and thus this Hell that Dante describes is not the afterlife in the sense that it occurs chronologically after the souls have died. It occurs outside of time and space, and therefore contains all of it. What Dante witnesses are the sinners’ lives themselves, from the vantage point of eternity. In his art, Dante has to make that invisible dimension visible, and so must funnel it through the world accessible to us in our senses. Thus, it appears distorted, stretched, and bent, but not beyond what we are able to recognize.
This making visible the invisible is what I mean by calling Dante’s art, and all Catholic art, incarnational. It is an attempt to give flesh to that reality which is the source of all flesh but not contained within it. It straddles the border between the familiar and the strange, and doing so directs us on a journey that, like the poet's himself, moves outward and inward at the same time.