A few months with Dante: vines, hyperspheres, and forgiveness

Domenico di Michelino, “La Divina Commedia di Dante” (1465)

Six months, 1600+ pages of translation/commentary, approximately 60 hours of video lectures later, I can say I’ve read Dante’s Commedia. It’s something I’ve always wanted to read, given its importance in so much Western literature, but I’ve always been intimidated. An unusual concatenation of disparate events finally got me going. You never know when a project’s going to crop up. But one of my life truths is: never question a healthy impulse.

One of those events was the announcement of a series of three Georgetown MOOCs covering the Commedia as well as La Vita Nuova. Since I described my experience of the Inferno course earlier, I’ll skip over most of that. I will say that I may be the only person who found Inferno to be the least interesting of the three Divine Comedy canticles. Granted, part of that may have been because I was distracted by the material in the MOOC, which I found more oppressive than educational. For “Purgatorio” and “Paradiso”, I focused on the Hollander translations and commentary, along with the Yale Open Course lectures by Giuseppe Mazzotta. I still used the Georgetown material, but to a far lesser degree, and more as a supplement than a focus. And I do love how they incorporated art into the text. For me, it worked much better this way.

I was surprised at how attached I became to Virgil along the way. I was never crazy about Aeneas’ dismissive treatment of Dido when he decided to move on to fortune and glory, and that alone colored my impression of the entire Aeneid. I was downright resentful of what I referred to (to the amusement of some of my fellow students) as Dante’s cultural bias – come on, Brutus and Cassius as Judas’ compatriots in the mouth of Satan? Seriously? – particularly his depiction of Ulysses as one of the most execrable sinners, a transgressor of boundaries, as theologically sound as that might be in the context of the poem, while Aeneas was a hero. But Virgil grew on me. His understated departure from the poem, again a structural and thematic necessity, was devastating, and I was surprised to find myself in tears. I did not react well to Beatrice’s abrupt and harsh treatment of Dante at that point, and apparently I’m not alone: Prof. Mazzotta mentioned one of Jorge Luis Borges’ Nine Dantesque Essays complains about that exactly. I was doubly displeased when Georgetown focused on the importance of the transfer and the meaning. No one wants to let anyone mourn any more. Well, I mourned for Virgil. And I still think he got a raw deal, being sent like an errand boy to guide Dante around, only to be dismissed without any acknowledgement, locked out of the heaven to which he guided others. On the plus side, his home in Limbo among the Virtuous Heathen, surrounded by Plato and Aristotle and Homer, struck me as a better place for him than the Paradise where there’s nothing left to say.

I should reiterate – although it’s probably evident by now – that while I was intensely religious in my tweens and early teens, and have always been interested in the study of religion through history, sociology, and philosophy, I’m more of a secular humanist than a theist. Fact is, I don’t have any beliefs rigid enough to label, though I see possibilities everywhere. But those more heathen than I have found much to enjoy in Dante. Obviously, I’m not going to “review” the poem – that would be ridiculous, given my lack of background in the dozens of areas necessary to fully explore all that’s there – but I will recount some of my experience, which is all I do here anyway.

I’ll start with where the primary impetus to read at this point in time this started: with the hypersphere.


Another of the events that sent me down this path was, of all things, a math MOOC from last summer. Not only did one of my favorite fellow students use the name “Purgatorio,” but it turned out the instructor was, among other things, a Dante fan, and had given a lecture in another venue which referenced Dante’s view of the universe in Paradiso as a hypersphere (the pertinent part of the lecture begins at about the 14 minute mark, but the whole thing is worth watching). I read Dante almost heading towards that scene in my head. I still don’t know enough about hyperspheres to really “get” it, though I found an animation featuring a kind of “flipping of pages” which makes sense in this context. I have no way of knowing how accurate that is, but any representation of a hypersphere is going to be approximate.

But two things really grabbed me about the scene: first, Beatrice’s explanation, in medieval Italian which, of course, I don’t read – “Da quel punto depende il cielo e tutta la natura” – that gets translated into “From that point depend the heavens and all nature.” That ties in with the four-dimensional hypersphere, as I understand it: there’s a point at which, in three dimensions, everything turns inside out on itself. That’s the point where the pages are flipping in that animation, the point in the lecture at the 19:30 mark) where we “flip past an equator” to discover concentricity around a different pole. And, as I tend to do, I get carried away, and my mind went straight to William Carlos Williams’ red wheelbarrow, a humbler point from which, all the same, so much depends. And if I haven’t blasphemed poetics enough, let me add that the drunken angels of Canto 30 brought to mind Emily and her liquor never brewed, leaning against the sun.

And finally, to cap off this hypersphere obsession, I discovered something wonderful in the Yale OCW lecture by Giuseppe Mazzotta (about the 41:00 mark): a little rebus in which the words “When” and ” cross at the word “hemisphere”, describing, as he puts it, the universe as two hemispheres (the caveat being that the poem did not drop nicely typeset from the sky). He’s referring more to creation, but there’s also this hypersphere Dante experiences when he turns and sees the point and what is ahead is suddenly behind and inside out.

So lest it seem like some of us are going off into an unrelated hyperspace on this hypersphere notion, none less than Robert Hollander also provides a modern structural reference to Canto 27, line 109 – though he includes a caveat to “temper an enthusiasm for such “premodern physics” on Dante’s part” with consideration of Bonaventure’s Itinerarium mentis, V, something else it seems I need to read. Every time I read something, I find something else I need to read…

Forgiveness and “cheap grace”

Purgatory showed the sweat behind seeking forgiveness. I think we’ve lost this idea in society, if we ever truly held it. We look for, in Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s words, cheap grace. We want to drink our little wine and eat our little cracker and feel cleansed without ever thinking about what might need cleansing. We want to take down a single flag and declare the whole 450 years of racism even. We want to cry on tv and earn the compassion of everyone who’s ever made a mistake. What we don’t want to do is change. Reading Purgatorio, seeing the souls carrying out their penance in a spirit of eagerness rather than resentfulness (this is fiction, after all), was a good reminder: Absolution should cost something, involve work.

I had a harder time with the idea of giving forgiveness. The example in the canto was of the martyr Stephen forgiving his murderers even as they stoned him. I think the point was not that they no longer were guilty of their crime, but that he was relieved of a burden of hate and rage. But I wonder: is such forgiveness possible in real life? Shortly after I read that section, some of the families of nine people murdered in Charleston, SC proclaimed their forgiveness for the racist shooter. A lot of thoughtful people I respect had a great deal of trouble with that; it seems another burden placed on one already burdened community that isn’t expected from others. But the point is: we need to forgive for our own sake, not for the sake of those who wrong us. And, I believe, one can forgive, and still seek justice, because those are two separate things.

But if I was a bit shaky on forgiveness, I found I could far more readily understand faith, though probably not in the way Dante intended.

The Faith of a Vine

Three cantos in Paradiso are devoted to Dante’s oral exams prior to his graduation to the Empyrean. Really, they’re overtly based on the medieval process for obtaining academic degrees, which, as I understand it (having never gone through the process) persists to this day in the oral exams and dissertation defenses of even the most secular academic institutions: a process of close questioning by faculty who just keep digging until they’re convinced the candidate isn’t just repeating words but understands the meaning of his profession. In the case of Paradiso, these oral exams are on the theological virtues of faith, hope, and love, given by saints most associated with those qualities: Peter, James, and John, respectively.

While Peter questioned the protagonist Dante (as distinct from the poet Dante) about faith, I discovered faith in a different way. It’s my habit to do my reading at a back window of my apartment, where there’s a broad sill to use as a standing desk, in part so I can work out the kinks from hunching over a computer for hours. The view from the window is less than inspiring – a parking garage – but I usually find something of interest out there anyway: the tree that aligns with my window, squirrels or birds in that tree or on a railing or even, rarely, on the outside ledge of my window. Maybe just the contrast of sky and brick as I look out at the buildings in the distance. It may not be the view I’d choose, but it’s the view I have, so I do what I can with it.

As I read Dante’s defense of his thesis on faith in P.Canto [23], I noticed something new in my view: a vine poking its way a few inches up the window, sticking off into empty space as it left the bricks that anchored it to the wall. I don’t typically see the back side of my building, but when I looked later, it does appear that I am now the closest I will ever get to the Ivy Leagues: vines cover part of the back wall. And one vine, on some mission to spread, was growing out into nothing. Eventually, it grew long enough to sag under its own weight and found the bricks at the bottom of the window sash.

That’s faith. It doesn’t know if it will find anything, but it grows because it must grow, and faith has to be at the core of that growth; otherwise it would stay in the safety of the known. Faith is coded into the DNA of this vine, so that it reaches out, for something it can cling to. This has been a particularly bleak time for many of us, as we watch bluster preferred over wisdom, greed over cooperation, anger and fear over everything. But we have to keep growing, in the faith that there’s something worth growing towards.

I highly value Dante’s exquisitely constructed defense of faith, and the learned lectures of the professors from Georgetown and Yale on the theology and poetics, and feel nothing but admiration and respect for more contemporary artists who fold Dante into their work. But that vine growing on a brick wall behind a parking lot made faith more real to me.

For a heathen, I got a lot out of this reading, but of course, it’s the kind of massive work that requires multiple re-readings. I want to let things settle a little, maybe pick up a little more background in some of the key references. But I definitely plan to read it again, using a different translation/commentary as a primary guide. I’m interested to see what reads differently in another time. And what reads the same.


4 responses to “A few months with Dante: vines, hyperspheres, and forgiveness

  1. Pingback: Summer School: Upcoming MOOCs, Summer 2015 | A Just Recompense

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