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Dante Agonistes

The Divine Comedy, Inferno

by Dante Alighieri, translated, with a commentary, by Charles S. Singleton
Princeton University Press, Part II, Commentary, 683 pp., $80.00 complete

The Divine Comedy, Purgatorio

by Dante Alighieri, translated, with a commentary, by Charles S. Singleton
Princeton University Press, Part II, Commentary, 851 pp., $80.00 complete

The Divine Comedy, Paradiso

by Dante Alighieri, translated, with a commentary, by Charles S. Singleton
Princeton University Press, Part II, Commentary, 610 pp., $80.00 complete

A late starter on the road to classic status, Dante stands very high today. The Modernist masters and critics joined in paying him homage. His prestige in the literary world is unquestioned. And now Professor Singleton’s great edition of the Divine Comedy has been completed, each cantica with a volume to itself, the verse beautifully spaced and disposed in the most elegant of columns, each cantica with its volume of intensive commentary, 3,296 pages in all. Whatever may be the place in modern society of the classic texts of our literature, with Dante at least all seems to be well.

And yet in a matter of such moment it is best to be sure, sure that we really do possess the Comedy, in spirit, not merely in the letter. For the burden of Singleton’s criticism has been that we do not. “For some time now,” he wrote in 1958, “we have been reading the great work in what amounts to an amputated version. It is not that the text of the poem…suffers from any serious lacunae…. The lacunae are rather in us, the readers, and reside in that deficient knowledge and lack of awareness which we continue to bring to our reading of the poem.”1 To the task of filling in these lacunae Singleton has devoted the best part of his life as a scholar.

For much has fallen out of our minds that must be “reinstated” there, as he puts it, if we are to become “such readers as Dante expected us to be.” Scholarship has had to piece together the “recoverable context” of the poem, not merely a multiplicity of facts about people and places and events but “the dominant modes of thought and feeling, the master patterns of the Christian mind and imagination that had come to prevail through the Christian centuries,” patterns which Dante could assume were public property.

To recover not simply knowledge but modes of thought and feeling, modes which our minds have, historically, not mislaid but rejected: this, it might seem, could lead only to a formal, academic response. Yet Singleton has always seen the Comedy as far more than a historical document. The difficulty, as he here and there grants, is that not merely ignorance stands between Dante and ourselves. There are |metaphysical obstacles. Thanks to the Renaissance, “our faith in the ability of the word to contain a changeless truth continues to diminish….” Before long, we may have “completely lost the belief in the possibility of transcending the world of change….” And religious obstacles. The Comedy is addressed to the unquiet heart of the Christian pilgrim who knows that this world is only a place of transit. And yet this conception, as Singleton himself tells us, was already starting to fail six centuries ago, with Boccaccio.

More than our ignorance is at issue. Unavoidably the question of belief crops up and no one has found anything very helpful to say about it. Eliot declared in the famous essay that “you are not called upon to believe what Dante believed, for your belief will not give you a groat’s worth more of understanding and appreciation.” And went on to contradict himself handsomely: “I cannot, in practice, wholly separate my poetic appreciation from my personal beliefs.” He tried again with the aid of Coleridge, distinguishing between “philosophical belief” and “poetic assent.” Singleton takes a similar tack. To read the Comedy properly we must be converted: not of course religious conversion but “a necessary conversion of our imagination.”

Most readers do not in fact feel the need to go as far as this and contrive to make themselves at home with Dante’s poem by translating it into a more familiar language, psychological or existential. A reading of this sort will work, yet it is open to the criticism which Wolfhart Pannenberg has raised against Bultmann’s interpretation of the Bible. If you put “the question of human existence” to the text (Biblical or Dantesque), it will speak to you only partially since its answer is framed in terms of a larger whole which includes the world, society, history, and God. The trouble with fastening this “anthropological constriction” on a religious work, as Pannenberg says, is that only “the possibilities of human existence” become relevant for your interpretation. Much of what the text has to say is toned down or ignored.2

Another influential approach, one that brings its own lasting satisfactions, is open to different objections. Call it the poet’s way of reading Dante and let R. P. Blackmur speak for it. Claiming that “there is a part of Dante which never came to life until our own time,” he argued:

When criticism some six hundred years old comes suddenly to life, and relevant life, in a new context, that new life cannot be destroyed even if it can be shown to be based on a misunderstanding of the life in the original text. We have a right—we literary critics with a little bent for poetry—to whatever life we can find.3

The strength of the literary approach is in its care for the present, and the presence, of a past text. When scholarship intervenes, as it must, and shows what the text is really saying, the danger is that part of its vitality may be lost. It happened with Donne. He was “kidnaped” by the literary gentry, taken out of the past, as Douglas Bush put it, and made over “in the likeness of a modern intellectual.” So scholarship had to sound its rappel à l’ordre and correct “this distortion of the real Donne” by setting him in “a much richer and clearer historical setting.”4 The unfortunate result has been that Donne, a genuine poetic force in the earlier decades of this century, is no longer of great interest to anyone. The same fate could befall even Dante.

One hesitates, though, to build an argument on bad scholarship, and Singleton’s reading of the Comedy looks so persuasive and wide-ranging, so devoted and at the same time so authoritative, that it makes earlier forays into the poem appear impressionistic and slipshod. This, it seems likely, is now our main thoroughfare to the great poem. Let us take a few steps along it.

On the fifth Canto of the Inferno Singleton writes:

Here are Francesca and Paolo, forever without peace, tossed on an infernal storm. This is the simple and literal fact, such is their state after death. But in the literal fact we may behold the justice of God: for their state, which is a punishment, bears witness to its sufficient reason, its justice…. It is proper, it is just, that the condition of the lustful after death should be the condition of lust itself…. [This is not] offered as a justification of the ways of God to men. Here is no pleading of a case for God. In His will these things are so, and that is our peace, if not always theirs.

Singleton’s usual strategy is to speak as though from inside Dante’s world. It is hard in such passages to be sure (so far has he identified himself with his author) if we are to hear the dramatic utterance of the exegete or an expression of personal belief. No doubt it is impertinent to inquire and anyway not to my point, which is that our recovery of Dante’s world has taught us a rather sheltered way of talking about his poem. Santayana, an unreconstructed though not unintelligent reader of Dante, spoke more frankly some years ago of this matter of eternal damnation. “The damned are damned for the glory of God,” as he put it, and went on:

This doctrine, I cannot help thinking, is a great disgrace to human nature. It shows how desperate, at heart, is the folly of an egotistic or anthropocentric philosophy. This philosophy begins by assuring us that everything is obviously created to serve our needs; it then maintains that everything serves our ideals; and in the end, it reveals that everything serves our blind hatreds and superstitious qualms. Because my instinct taboos something, the whole universe, with insane intensity, shall taboo it for ever.

We have come a long way since then, even if an unregenerate poet-critic like William Empson can still complain of the way scholarship is forcing the reader of older literature to “enter an alien world called ‘historical’ from which his own conscience and knowledge of life are excluded.”5

Move forward many thousands of lines to a serener region, the sphere of Mercury in paradise where Dante has just heard the emperor Justinian deliver a splendid, impassioned speech on the providential course of Roman history. He is puzzled by one thing, the point where Justinian tells how under Titus the Roman standard, “inspired by the living Justice,” sped forward to “do vengeance for the vengeance of the ancient sin” (6.92-3). Dante understands, as we may not, that the emperor was referring to the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70. What he does not understand is how a just vengeance can be justly avenged. So Beatrice has to remind him that when Adam sinned he damned himself and all his progeny until God chose through an act of love to make himself man, in human form atoning for (“avenging”) the primal human offense.

Christ’s death on the Cross therefore justly atoned for original sin in Adam,” Singleton explains. “Nothing was ever so just.” The destruction of Jerusalem was also just since “even though the Crucifixion of Christ was part of God’s plan, the Jews are nonetheless accountable for their terrible deed.” Aquinas is cited in confirmation: “It must, however, be understood that their ignorance did not excuse them from crime, because it was, as it were, affected ignorance. For they saw manifest signs of His God-head; yet they perverted them out of hatred and envy of Christ; neither would they believe His words, whereby He avowed that He was the Son of God….”

With less learning John D. Sinclair, in his commentary, played the role of mediator to the extent of recognizing that such passages may be difficult for us (“indeed a singular historical judgment…”). We might hope that Singleton too would pause here and explain not simply the logic of Dante’s case but the compulsions that led him to it, the satisfactions he found there, with perhaps even a hint of what it “felt like” to look at the world in this way. But no. The fiction of Singleton’s commentary for the most part is that we too stand inside Dante’s world and require not so much mediation or persuasion (the “pleading of a case for God”) as instruction.

This does raise questions. Under the immediate spell of Dante’s verse we can accept almost anything he proposes and grant “imaginative truth” to matter we would otherwise find repellent. This however is likely to be no more than a poetic assent. It is one of Singleton’s great services that he forces us to go into the prose of it, the hard small print, and realize what it is we are being asked to assent to. The question is how far we can “reinstate” in our minds the beliefs which Dante shared with his age. And what happens to our minds, and hearts and consciences, when we have performed this operation. There is a story about an actor who was to play the part of a gorilla. To get inside the animal’s skin—metaphorically, before he did so literally—he went every day for some weeks to the zoo and studied a particular gorilla so closely that in the end he felt he had become one. Later he went mad.

  1. 1

    Quotations from Singleton, where not drawn from his commentary, are from Dante Studies I: Elements of Structure, and Dante Studies II: Journey to Beatrice (Harvard, 1954, 1958), and “The Vistas in Retrospect,” Modern Language Notes LXXXI (1966).

  2. 2

    Basic Questions in Theology (Fortress Press, 1971), pp. 109-110.

  3. 3

    The Lion and the Honeycomb (Harcourt, Brace and World, 1955), p. 226.

  4. 4

    Prefaces to Renaissance Literature (Harvard, 1965), p. 44.

  5. 5

    Milton’s God (New Directions, 1965), p. 34.

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