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 Yet Singleton has always seen the Comedy as far more than a historical document.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.
The fact remains that with poetry of this order a purely aesthetic response (if indeed there is such a thing) must be inadequate. “The accuracy of accurate letters is an accuracy with respect to the structure of reality,” Wallace Stevens said, and the Comedy, if any poem ever did, aims at this final accuracy. It requires a response as serious as we can give. We must bring to it our fullest sense of life, our deepest beliefs and unbeliefs. “Poetic assent,” a term that raises more questions than it settles, will hardly do. Nor can we come to this poem in borrowed robes, fancy-dress medieval Christians “imaginatively” accepting much that we vigorously reject.
Bring to it, not impose upon it. The first step toward a genuine encounter must I think be to decline the alternatives which Singleton would press on us. Either, he says, “by an effort of imagination we…again achieve” [?] Dante’s view of life. Or we “shall be forever recasting Dante and his world into the image of our own.” Certainly we are not to fasten our categories upon Dante; on the other hand we can only understand from within our own horizon of experience which, though we may to some extent transcend it, is very distant from Dante’s. We need to devise a means of bridging this distance which does not demand wholesale capitulation on our part, a capitulation likely to be damaging to any real sincerity of response. We ought to recognize that this demand, although made in the name of historical scholarship, is itself naïvely unhistorical since it fails to perceive the historicality of all understanding. It assumes that a text has a single “real” meaning that exists independently of every event of understanding it, an unchanging, timeless identity which we must “go back” to recover.
The notion of the “historicality of understanding” (or Geschichtlichkeit des Verstehens) is of course a central pillar of the hermeneutic theory of understanding developed out of Heidegger by Hans-Georg Gadamer in Wahrheit und Methode, and it may be in these terms that we can now best approach the Comedy. It might offer a means of overcoming some of the contradictions (particularly those related to the problem of belief) that have hitherto stood in our way. Not of course that hermeneutics provides a magic (or time-saving!) key to unlock the secrets of this poem. We must know a good deal before we can hope to understand.
The proper contribution of scholarship is suggested in a paper by Paul Ricoeur called “What Is a Text?” with the Diltheyan subtitle “Explanation and Interpretation.”6 Dilthey saw the two terms as belonging to different areas of inquiry, the first to the natural sciences, the second to the humanities. Ricoeur would apply both to the study of texts, overcoming their opposition by setting them in a sequential, complementary relation. Explanation, in this sense, seeks to suspend the text’s reference to the world and the reader’s subjectivity, bracketing the question of its truth in order to concentrate on the interplay of its internal relations, its structure. The model Ricoeur proposes is in fact French structuralism. As he makes clear, the ideal rigor of this procedure must be something of a fiction since no text worth studying can be reduced to the pure play of its constitutive elements. Rather, explanation fruitfully postpones the full hermeneutic encounter with the text until such time as its structure has been laid bare.
So far as I know, a structuralist reading of the Comedy has not been attempted. It might throw valuable light on the poem’s central patterns and polarities, but with a work of such intellectual complexity something more is surely needed. We still need historical scholarship, of the kind Singleton has given us, provided that this is recognized as constituting only the first, “explanatory,” stage.
Its limits reached and task accomplished, explanation yields to interpretation. The brackets are now removed and the text can address me. The text, it is well to insist (not “Dante”), understood not in terms of an individual life but of what is said there: “Detached from the contingencies of its origin, what is put down in writing is freed for new relations of meaning exceeding those which may have been intended by the author.”7 It follows too that what concerns me now is not the text as it (“really”) was but as it addresses me now in the event of understanding. But how can I hope to “understand” a work so distant as the Comedy? By seeking to enter into a relation with it that at first resembles a conversation. Say I have a question to put to it, a question arising from my own experience of life and yet set in motion by my preliminary grasp of what the text has to say to me. Gradually I discover that it is “answering” me and that my initial question is being transformed by this answer.
The process of understanding which allows this to happen Gadamer calls the fusion of horizons (Wahrheit und Methode, pp. 286-290). At first, the horizons of text and interpreter seem wholly distinct. This distance, and the challenge, the tension of this distance must be accepted: a great work from the past should break disturbingly into my present existence. At the same time there is some common ground, for my cultural horizon has been formed by countless elements from the past—that past from which the text has been handed over to me by the tradition. This holds out the hope of constructing a new, more comprehensive horizon within which text and interpreter, while retaining their otherness, can both stand.
However, the possibility of entering into such a relation at all depends on my initial question. A bad question will be met only with silence. Since the Comedy is a religious poem, it must in some sense be a religious question and it is here that the real difficulty starts. For although this is presumably the greatest religious poem in our tradition, it has become, from a religious point of view, among the least approachable. Hölderlin, at the beginning of the modern period, spoke of “God’s default,” Gottes Fehl, not so much a blank nothing-there as a pregnant absence or missing presence which, he said, “helps”—helps, I suppose, to keep us discontent, keep us searching for the traces of the fugitive gods, as Heidegger puts it. Religious experience today is likely to be paradoxical and fragmentary, “hints followed by guesses,” guesses at an unknown holy which has no place in a profane, despoiled world and which is nonetheless to be sought here, in this world, if anywhere.
Dante’s universe, however, is rigorously two-tiered, the here of earthly life vertically related to a transcendent reality there, in the next life. It is a real question how far the Comedy can still be a religious poem for those whose experience is “sealed off against any transcendental ingression from without” (in Nathan Scott’s phrase) and whose gods are at best “absent.” Dante’s poem speaks from a world that, however sinful, bears the impress of the divine intention everywhere. Even in the realm where God cannot be named, his absence is in no sense problematic.
The trouble is that nothing in the Comedy is finally problematic, for although Dante the poet provides Dante the pilgrim with much to puzzle him (why is A damned and B saved? why did God choose to save us in this way? and so on), they both know there is always an answer. The pilgrim, at the beginning, is lost but he knows where he ought to be going; his difficulty is how to get there. More than any other great work of the imagination the Comedy confronts us with a world that is ordered and meaningful from top to bottom. A recurring phrase of Singleton’s is “It is no accident that….” One sometimes wishes it were. What Dante says in paradise, “casüal punto non puote aver sito” (32.53), is true of his poem as a whole: there is no place there for a particle of chance, for the randomness of things. No place, then, for the unexplained gift of the moment when, in Stevens’s words, “Life’s nonsense pierces us with strange relation.” The relations are all there, plotted in advance, waiting only for reason to discover them or grace to reveal them.
There are those who claim to feel nostalgic about this world of vanished certainties. I do not share their emotion (Homer’s sane world of chance and change strikes me as far more habitable), nor can I think nostalgia a proper frame of mind in which to approach this unyielding text. Unyielding, and for some readers, finally, excluding. Perhaps the best hope of finding a way in would be to come on a chink in the armor, a flaw or imperfection, some fertile contradiction that probably did not seem contradictory in Dante’s time but which has since become so. There is a moment in Paradiso 22 that may, from this point of view, be worth glancing at. Dante has now ascended to the sphere of the fixed stars and Beatrice tells him to look back at the great distance he has come. So he gazes down through the seven planetary spheres and sees our earth, “such that I smiled at its paltry semblance,” “tal, ch’io sorrisi del suo vil sembiante.”
In its achieved context the utterance feels dramatically right: at this height the human tension between Here and There has been fully resolved. It is only if we step back for a moment and hear the line from our perspective that it can sound a little outrageous. A medieval Christian, we suppose, would not have felt this. Or is there, even from Dante’s perspective, a slight though concealed sense of strain here? Has he quite earned that smile? His heaven, after all, must wear our colors or go naked and even his God is composed, by inspired bricolage, from bits and pieces of man’s earthly endeavor—a geometer’s puzzle, scraps of ancient myth and cult.
This line can be related (from the point of view I am pursuing) to a much earlier scene, in Purgatorio 13. Dante sees a group of penitents approaching and asks if there are any Italians among them. “Each one of us is citizen of a true city,” comes the reproachful reply. “You mean—did any of us live as a pilgrim in Italy?”8 The souls in Purgatory, Singleton comments, “no longer indulge in those lingering attachments to the world of the living that were characteristic of souls in Antepurgatory,” and on the next page he refers to the verse in Hebrews 11.13 which reminds us that we should be “strangers and pilgrims on the earth.”
The fact that this conception of life is now hardly more than a historical curiosity need not concern us on our first, explanatory, reading. There, the question of the poem’s “truth” does not arise and we listen neutrally when Singleton tells us that “in this life it is our proper condition as Christians to be as pilgrims” or when Augustine, at his behest, explains why we must use rather than enjoy the things of this world:
Suppose…we were wanderers in a strange country, and could not live happily away from our fatherland…and wishing to put an end to our misery, determined to return home…. But the beauty of the country through which we pass, and the very pleasure of the motion, charm our hearts, and turning these things which we ought to use into objects of enjoyment, we become unwilling to hasten the end of our journey…. Such is a picture of our condition in this life of mortality. We have wandered far from God; and if we wish to return to our Father’s home, this world must be used, not enjoyed, so that the invisible things of God may be clearly seen….
It is very different, though, when we are trying to interpret the poem and must let it enter our lives and address us. Interpretation does of course accept the challenging distance of the text; at the same time there has to be some common ground and it is hard to know where to find it if the Comedy does indeed present human life in the terms proposed by Augustine, which are far too remote to be seriously challenging.
Dante, however, challenges us continually. It is true that he calls on us to detach ourselves from the things of this world but he manages to combine this call with a passionate attachment to their every aspect which he recreates with unsurpassed splendor. It may seem that we have come on a real contradiction here, but Singleton can explain, with the aid of another great medieval theme, that it is not really one. The things of this world deserve our closet attention not only because they are God’s handiwork but because they are signs. Every res exists truly here and is at the same time a signum pointing there.
These things, Singleton gets Augustine to tell us, are to be used, not enjoyed. Is this really what the Comedy has to say?
Only a generation or so after Dante’s death, we find Boccaccio no longer able to understand his allegory of the pilgrim’s unquiet heart. Petrarch, in the same period, a man of religious temper as Boccaccio was not, bears more significant witness. His Rime can be read as the long struggle of a heart no less unquiet than Dante’s, if in a different way (nusquam integer, nusquam totus), to achieve a unity of being grounded in Christian faith. A struggle whose outcome is left open and problematic, despite the final penitential canzone which seems imposed on the work by an act of will rather than arising organically from it.
The great synthesis which held all the sign-things of this world in a pattern whose meaning can be discovered only in the next failed soon after Dante’s death. Is it quite certain that we have our dating right? Or did the failure begin a little earlier, within Dante’s mind and Dante’s poem? Perhaps after all it is not wholly on the far side of the great divide. If so, can the immense energy of its structure be understood at least partially as a last-ditch attempt to hold the day—and a premonition of coming defeat?
What—to take a bolder step forward—if the poem is trying to say something which could not be said then but was soon to be said and which we, from our perspective, can help it to say? As Singleton reads the Comedy it points back, to “what is already conceptually elaborated and established in Christian doctrine.” This is indeed a necessary approach and belongs to the first, explanatory, stage. But it is not the only one. We should also allow the poem to point forward. We pay the Comedy a dubious compliment if we suppose that its life and rage for truth were cut short at the year 1321. Instead of protectively putting it out of time’s way, we should let it collaborate with (or struggle against) its own future and grant it what all other great poems possess, a genuine Fortleben, the power of entering into new relations of meaning beyond those which its creator could have foreseen or intended.
For a moment, remove the Aquinasmap we have exhumed from the theological library, detach the signa from the res and let them stand in their own terminal right. For a moment, let the poem suffer the shock of its own dissolution.
Then of course it must come together again, but subtly a change has taken place. The text’s intentionality has not been destroyed (the text’s, not Dante’s). Rather, it has been released—from the timeless limbo to which scholarship would confine it—and strengthened. It has been brought back into time and history, returned to the tradition (with all its hazards) to which we too belong, and can stand before us in its challenging presence as we put our question to it. For to read a great work of the past does not mean “going back” to some frozen as-it-was-then. True reading, as Gadamer says, “is not a repetition of something past but a participation in a present meaning” (Wahrheit und Methode, p. 370).
I do not know what sort of Comedy would emerge from the reading I am struggling to point to. It would hardly be the whole poem but then we don’t have the whole poem today, despite the enthusiasm of the literati, nor can Singleton’s historical scholarship give it to us. Great wholes, poetic or intellectual, seldom pass intact from one age to another. Better living parts, though (which does not mean momenti lirici), than a mummified texte intégral.
What can I make of the Inferno? It should be the most approachable of Dante’s three realms. Clearly it must not be reduced to a series of great human encounters set in an irrelevant theological framework, and to call it a “metaphor” for alienation or loss is too easy. Even to see it, like Lear or the Iliad, as a facing of the ultimate cruelty of things—rather than of the cruelty, or “justice,” of God—is shirking the text’s statement. This is hell, eternal Attica, a compound image of the evil man is capable of, including the evil of imagining the possibility of hell, and beyond that a guess at some metaphysical black hole of the universe large enough to contain all our hopes and fears. I doubt I can go further than that.
The Purgatorio and Paradiso are more intractable: the absent god has bafflingly returned. Even so, much of the Purgatorio is still accessible as the record of a long, painful schooling, a relearning of the words of celebration in order to return to the Garden and then venture on into the more arduous joys of paradise. (An honest reading would I think sometimes simply black out here, leaving a discontinuous, fragmentary heaven, as in Pound’s late Cantos, rather than this steady crescendo of light.) And beyond that again to the vision of the ultimate good. We must take it for what it is. At the same time could we find there the makings of a less anthropomorphic center of reality, some radiant, abounding core of being (“It was everything bulging and blazing and big in itself”) rather than the circling light within which our image is depicted?
Probably not, nor is it certain that the poem can teach us the lost art of celebration. “We do not know how to celebrate,” Peter Brook said of his dealings with Shakespearean comedy, “because we do not know what to celebrate.”9 Dante’s divine comedy speaks abundantly of the “what” but its terms are not ours and we cannot simply take them over. Perhaps what is required is to recover the “how” of celebration without knowing, or knowing only dimly, what there is to celebrate, if anything.
As it happens, the text can speak to this question and raise another. At the end of Purgatorio 28 Matelda says of the pagan poets who on Parnassus sang the age of gold and its happy state that perhaps they were dreaming of the Christian Garden. These final cantos of the Purgatorio, among the densest of the poem for all their early morning splendors, can be read as Dante’s attempt to build into an enduring structure poetry’s ancient, inextinguishable vision of joy. But poetry, loyal to the bounds of earthly existence even when it remembers the age of gold and its eternal spring, speaks of transitory joy: Pindar’s god-given brightness is subject to vicissitude, Milton’s paradise is shaped by our knowledge of its necessary brevity and loss. What Dante wants is steady on and on forever joy.
The poem tests us fiercely here, challenging a deep if perhaps quite recent (or recovered?) sense that to judge value by duration is unworthy and even vulgar. Despite the pain of loss and death, I can find in myself no desire for permanence, for a state in which things do not pass, since the pain of death is precisely its affront to this existence, against which the desire for some other form of existence is an even greater affront. Yet Christian Dante will hear nothing of this and tells us, from paradise: “It is right that he should grieve without end [” ‘suffer eternal torment’ in Hell,” Singleton glosses, in case we should take this for a mere façon de parler] who robs himself of [God’s] love for the love of what does not endure” (15.10-12). The words are hateful and yet this is how the religious conscience of the West spoke for centuries and a religious reading of this great Christian master-piece cannot ignore them, even if it must seek to overcome them and struggle to lead back the poem’s immortal longings (if only that were possible!) into the clear round and measure of finitude.
For to read this work should mean to struggle with it and my complaint against both the scholarly and the literary approaches is that in their different ways they play down the tension between the poem’s horizon and our own. The Comedy should challenge us from first line to last and the supreme challenge or difficulty which it now presents I take to be this: Will it allow us to find in its Christian pilgrimage the directives for a different but no less religious journey? Would it be possible to interpret the sign-things of this poem so that they no longer point from here to there, from this world to the “true” world, but rather to a different way of human being on this earth? In his reading of a poem by Georg Trakl Heidegger writes, drawing on an essential line of Hölderlin, “[Trakl] calls the soul ‘something strange on the earth.’ The earth is that very place which the soul’s wandering could not reach so far. The soul only seeks the earth; it does not flee from it. This fulfills the soul’s being: in her wandering to seek the earth so that she may poetically build and dwell upon it, and thus may be able to save the earth as earth.”10
Could Dante’s poem speak to a religious quest of this sort? It is older and no less venerable than his own and may in some form be struggling to re-emerge. For if Heidegger’s words look back to the earlier piety of Greece, they also look forward to the possibility of recovering, on our ruined earth, a new sense of the holiness of earthly dwelling.
It would be worth putting this antipodal question to the text only if the questioning left it free to return its own answer. Let Dante strike back at us, as savagely as in the poem he strikes at everything that stands in the way of his truth. Let him ask: “Where does this ‘holy’ you would recover for earthly dwelling come from if not from my holy God? And when you have lost Him altogether, will not the last vestige of the holy vanish from your earth?” Or let him put Nietzsche’s question: “You have abolished the true world: what world is left?” And return Nietzsche’s answer: “The world of appearance, perhaps? No! With the true world you have also abolished the world of appearance.”
What the outcome of this agon would be I do not know. It might not even prove possible. Perhaps the Comedy, unlike the other masterpieces of our tradition, is locked so fiercely into its doctrinal armature that it has only one meaning which it must simply repeat. And yet surely the attempt is worth making, before this great central text which presents itself to us as truth is finally handed over to scholarship. And poetry.
May 1, 1975
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). ↩
Basic Questions in Theology (Fortress Press, 1971), pp. 109-110. ↩
The Lion and the Honeycomb (Harcourt, Brace and World, 1955), p. 226. ↩
Prefaces to Renaissance Literature (Harvard, 1965), p. 44. ↩
Milton’s God (New Directions, 1965), p. 34. ↩
In Mythic-Symbolic Language and Philosophical Anthropology, edited by David Rasmussen (Humanities, 1971), pp. 135-150. ↩
Theodore Kisiel, “The Happening of Tradition,” Man and World 2,3 (1969), p. 366. ↩
For once, I paraphrase slightly instead of drawing on Singleton’s lucid translation. ↩
The Empty Space (Atheneum, 1968), p. 42. ↩
On the Way to Language, translated by Peter D. Hertz (Harper and Row, 1971), p. 163. ↩