Up, up from the Inferno and through the Purgatorio we climb with Dante, our fearless tiny band of readers, and as we climb I realize more and more the aspects of this work that speak most clearly and compellingly to me. They are not the long inventive passages, the pictures conjured out of the poet’s imagination. No, those I labor through, like one lost in a dark wood, but from time to time I fall upon a sunlit clearing where fresh breezes play.
Even as sheep that move, first one, then two,
then three, out of the fold—the others also
stand, eyes and muzzles lowered, timidly;
and what the first sheep does, the others do,
and if it halts, they huddle close behind,
simple and quiet and not knowing why....Do you see them, the simple sheep? What about these gamblers?
When dicing’s done and players separate,
the loser’s left alone, disconsolate—
rehearsing what he’d thrown away, he sadly learns;
all of the crowd surrounds the one who won....
Whenever Dante describes something of this world, our world, it rings familiar and true to me, though I am no more a sheep farmer or shepherd than I am a gambler. The parts of the Purgatorio that mean the most to me are not otherworldly at all but this-worldly, as when in the Inferno he recalled a busy shipyard or used the analogy of Italian rivers to drive home the point of his vision. So too when in Canto VI of the former he apostrophizes his native land--
Ah, abject Italy, you inn of sorrows,
you ship without a helmsman in harsh seas,
no queen of provinces but of bordellos!
--it is his native land on earth that grieves his spirit, just as Wordworth poured out his sorrow in “” when he wrote--
MILTON! thou shouldst be living at this hour:
England hath need of thee: she is a fen
Of stagnant waters: altar, sword, and pen,
Fireside, the heroic wealth of hall and bower,
Have forfeited their ancient English dower
Of inward happiness. We are selfish men;
O raise us up, return to us again,
And give us manners, virtue, freedom, power!
Thy soul was like a Star, and dwelt apart;
Thou hadst a voice whose sound was like the sea:
Pure as the naked heavens, majestic, free,
So didst thou travel on life's common way,
In cheerful godliness; and yet thy heart
The lowliest duties on herself did lay.
Harsh seas or stagnant marshes, both poets turn to nature—earthly nature—to express their desperate feelings for their governments and the politics of their times, and however little we know of the details of those periods we have a sharp sense of the writers’ discontent and longing from the figures of speech they use, for nature is nature from one century to the next.
The small coincidence came yesterday, when David picked up some magazines left behind to be picked up by anyone who wanted them in the lobby of our public library. One of them that caught my eye on the table last night after dinner was the September 2011 issue of Harper’s, its cover promising something on Dante within! Opening eagerly, I turned to a piece by Elif Batuman, the story of her participation in a “Danta Marathon” in Florence in the spring of 2009. As I read, I was wondering if this would be something to take to our group meeting on March 1, something to share with the other toilers through Dante’s three-tired afterworld, but then, near the end, the writer turned on its head what has been written by a couple of famous Dante interpreters:
For both Lukács and Auerback, meaning and truth in Dante’s world reside in the afterlife, where figurae are fulfilled and totalities formed. Mortan existence is, by contrast, incomplete, illusory, secondary. But I think the opposite can be said, with equal accuracy: it’s the afterlife that is a tissue of illusions. Dante’s afterworld may be highly structured, but he invented that structure himself, synthesizing classical mythology, Christian theology, and medieval demonology. Dante’s afterworld, drawing attention to its own eccentricities, paradoxes, and loopholes—it’s Dante’s afterworld, based in his own experiences. Seen from this perspective, the only thing that’s indubitably real, the only thing everyone can see and agree on, is the stuff of this life—all the stuff that Dante himself studied with such interest and love. Is Paradise more real than all that? Is it better? Is Paradise enough to compensate for the loss of the world?
Batuman’s view is not at all a denial of Dante’s poetry. She simply points out that what gives the poem life springs from this world and are ever part of it.
I used to think it was a shame that my own beautiful part of the world is not better known, its lovely corners and vistas not as famous as those of the Italian hills or the English lake country or even the states on the American Eastern seaboard. In my view, northern Michigan lacks nothing in a comparison of beauties. What is absent here are the associations: We have no centuries of battles, no lives of world-famous, no buildings dating back centuries. But if we did? Would life be better for those of us who live here?
Now I've changed my mind, and it isn't resignation. I am thankful for the historical and literary obscurity of my home ground. In the woods I may come upon an old rock that looks to me like a grindstone from pre-European times, or a former small clearing now filling in with young trees may reveal, among the weeds, an old iron tractor wheel, and those signs of earlier lives are quite enough. They are quiet signs. No stone fortresses on hills, no rivers running with blood or fields littered with ghosts of fallen bodies. Just woods and orchards, seeps and creeks, people now as then quietly going about keeping themselves and their families alive. We have stories here, but they are stories of ordinary people.