DANTE AND HIS STATUS
To have problems with either Dante or Shakespeare might be to have problems with western civilisation itself. According to T. S. Eliot, “Dante and Shakespeare divide the world between them. There is no third”.
If you can ignore Goethe, for literature that may be true enough – in music we might substitute Bach and Wagner – but what renders Dante and Shakespeare a crucial pair is not just their similarity in terms of poetic brilliance but their complementary difference. Dante aspires heavenwards as surely as a gothic spire, while Shakespeare, world-conquering as a Renaissance mariner, explores outwards. One is explicitly religious, the other implicitly (as in Macbeth).
Some people, especially the Irish, see the two poets in competition and keep asking who wins? Having lost both their historic language and culture, the bard’s linguistic freedom appeals in one direction while the architectonics of Dante in another. The Catholic side of Ireland would, with James Joyce, like to think Dante wins by a slight margin, which in effect he does if a rare poetic sublimity as opposed to a more general elevation of tone is the overriding consideration.
T.S. Eliot felt nothing in western poetry quite compares to parts of the Paradiso and certainly little enough in English does – the nearest comparison would be a piece influenced by Dante, Shelley’s Epipsychidion, with its waves of orgasmic emotion, while outside English there is the ecstatic conclusion of Goethe’s Faust. The Protestant Yeats allows Dante to be the “greatest imagination in Christendom”. But here my unusual problems with Dante begin, and the more I thought about it, the more I felt I should pursue to its source my at times real irritation with him. It has led me to a radical conclusion about what and how the West thinks and believes, things which, beyond his originality and encyclopaedic range, Dante often simply reflects almost too well.
A PARADISO PROBLEM
Because it is great and sublime poetry I should like to like Dante, but as regards especially the Paradiso, I can only manage reading it in short spurts to get through it at all because something about it grates and jars and it gives me a hard-to-describe feeling of being cheated.
It must be immediately stated this is not, or not fully, based on reactions either Protestant or modern. It’s true that Protestants only began to discover Dante after the hauntingly beautiful Commedia illustrations of William Blake caught their attention two centuries ago and they have usually hesitated before a Purgatario (arguably the most charming and colourful part of the Commedia) they don’t believe in. However, many read it as just symbolic of a “sanctification” process associated more with this life than the next. And in some respects, especially in his criticism of the popes and Rome and given his quite extensive biblical literacy, Dante can anyway strike a quite “Protestant” note.
Nor is my problem the “modern” one which regards the whole of Dante as terribly “medieval” and its Paradiso, drenched in light, as good as someone on drugs gone bonkers. (The drugs theory of Dante’s inspiration owes something to the fact the poet belonged to the guild of apothecaries who also functioned as booksellers in Florence for the latest manuscripts. So it’s possible Dante enhanced a natural visionary sense with chemicals).
The fact is you can be a modern unbeliever and still be entranced by Dante like Samuel Beckett for whom Dante was some of his preferred reading, and atheist Clive James who has produced his own critically praised translation and who says somewhere that if there is any work should qualify as a bible, it should be Dante’s Commedia. Certainly there are people for whom Dante is a kind of bible. There is for example a Daily Dante Lenten Discipline of reading him!
But with that kind of recommendation I am a bit nearer to my visceral problem with the poet. He challenges, denies or revises at times to the point of near blasphemy, everything from scripture to the nature of inspiration and the poetic role itself in order to unfold, and often impose his vision.
I remain to be convinced that Petrarch’s cool response to Dante and his legacy marks simple resentment and jealousy as opposed to discretion. I suggest that as a poet with himself at times a “prophetic” message, he was simply unhappy with things Dante and his opus represent; and these did have critics from the first. But the sheer popular success of Dante as a new style poet employing the vernacular would soon render his legacy hard for especially any Italian to question without bringing the house down.
The very language Italians now speak is the dialect of Florence which, by a nineteenth century political fiat it was decided, because of Dante, would be privileged above all other dialects as the national tongue. And for all time the vignettes of Dante’s cosmic journey have captured essential Italian character as surely as his contemporary, Masaccio, captured still recognizable Italian looks. Dante is taught in schools like so much bible and Shakespeare. So many of his lines are undeniably haunting like the famous “E’n la sua volantade e nostra pace / ell e quel mare al qual tutto se move “, (in his will is our peace/ that is the sea towards which all being moves”) words which seem to come from afar, drifting like a bird over a bright scene.
PROPHETIC SEEING OR FAKING JUST WHAT?
So altogether Dante can’t be avoided, so much so that as a national or international treasure he can scarcely be criticized either. He himself, with shameless vanity, declares himself as early as Inferno’s Limbo region, equal companion with Homer, Ovid, Virgil and others. He doesn’t go so far as to say he is the equal of the biblical prophets; he nevertheless as good as assumes their mantle as though he was one of them, especially as (even while admitting he has forgotten and can’t describe much of it), he claims to have seen or visited heaven itself. Biblically at least, it is only prophets who have been admitted to heaven and the council of Yahweh (Jer 23:18).
Any errors or memory lapses are plastered over and concealed, with exclamations “I saw, I saw” as though he really did see. Affirmations get chanted in tones fit for Isaiah and offered as though pure scripture …. at the same time as the poet incongruously calls upon Apollo to be his muse and evidently thinks so highly of this figure of pagan myth, he even seems to approve his cruel skinning of his musical rival. the satyr Myrsus. While obviously I am not Dante, I chance to be one of the very few today who has produced anything like visionary/metaphysical poetry and I know I could not, whether seriously or in play, treat of inspiration in Dante’s cavalier manner. One stresses as a sort of honest courtesy to readers what any inspiration means. (1)
By the time Dante arrives at the Paradiso, he has learned some lessons, but the overall impression is still of a rather self-glorifying and at times unforgiving soul. The enraged cursing of the already damned Filippo Argenti in Canto 8 of Inferno and still more the treatment of Bocca in Canto 32 where Dante actively tortures a hideously damned soul whom he impels to speak through a promise he doesn’t keep, has something obscene about it, while having Virgil exclaim in praise of the poet’s rage against Argenti, “Blessed the womb that bore you….” is disconcerting if not distasteful.
In presenting himself and/or Beatrice as redeemed, enlightened spokespersons for the inspiration of a world in spiritual darkness, Dante is necessarily compelled into some painful exaggerations or scripture-ignoring distortions at times preposterous. For example in Paradiso Canto 21, Beatrice (who has become Dante’s mentor in place of Virgil and as a vehicle of grace is teaching him including through her celestial beauty), become brighter than the sun itself in the heaven of Saturn, can’t now smile at Dante lest he be burned to a crisp. It is not possible, especially not before the general resurrection of believers, that Beatrice could be either so powerful or transformed as to do this. Dante has already accorded her power beyond perhaps the angels.
IMAGINATION AND IMAGE
But in modification of this severe judgement and to repeat Yeats, the latter was, however unintentionally, right to define Dante is the imagination of Christendom. Yeats meant this approvingly but “imagination” can have a downside and be deceptive. In religion it can bolster the vain dreams of the false prophets (Jer 23:16) and Dante largely reflects directions of the western imagination to whose shape his vision conforms. It does so even when it makes assumptions of a kind which turn the Judaeo-Christian tradition on its head and psychologically into a kind of idolatrous expression of soul over spirit.
Dante’s is the supreme religious literary expression of a larger western idolatry of the image, and thus of the desire to see rather than to hear God, to contemplate as opposed to interact with God and to shift ordinary religious experience into a matter of seeking favours and contacting with intermediaries from saints to angels rather than deity. Dante himself embarks on his saving quest through the intervention of no less than Beatrice, St Lucy and the Virgin working together. What he discovers about God is arguably less than what one might derive from the seventeenth century Metaphysical poets.
While, as said, Dante like many people today claiming NDEs, admits that he has forgotten much of his paradise vision and that he can only reconstruct it, the reconstruction is too often unsatisfactory no matter how glorious the poetic tones and images that sustain it. It corresponds neither to what the scripture he otherwise often refers to in the Commedia indicates about the afterlife, nor to the kind of things we might reasonably generalize from the diverse testimonies of NDE experiences today.
Nor does it satisfy the ethical sense or spiritual feeling to read of the dubious persons supposedly enjoying high blessedness in heaven like for example the emperor Justinian (seen as super corrupt and even demon possessed by some Greek Christians according to Procopius’ The Secret History). Numbers of Dante’s glorified notables have been chosen largely to fit the poet’s political theories and bolster his underlying conviction about the need for a secular saviour. This should be someone in the style of Emperor Henry V11 who had inconveniently died, someone independent of the corruptions of the papacy and ruling within an ideally church/state divided world, fulfilling the greater destiny of Rome first outlined by Virgil, Dante’s guide through hell and purgatory.
ODD HEAVENLY CITIZENSHIP
Because the emperor Constantine’s established toleration of Christianity in 312 rendered the Virgilian ideal at least possible, this ruler (albeit criticized by Dante’s Justinian for transferring the imperial capital from West to East ), is still glorified in heaven. The level of distinction is in blind disregard that this emperor only formally converted on his deathbed, having largely used the church to further his position and support imperial unity, while he himself was guilty of murdering his wife and son. Arguably Constantine also stands as chief inspiration of the evil of most subsequent holy wars because of his dream that he could win battle victory under the sign of the cross. (Here, if ever, was a lying dream no Christians should have ever endorsed, given its source in a clearly unrighteous person not even at the time adhering to the faith).
The Holy War ideal is nonetheless celebrated in Dante’s heaven of Mars where knights of Christ, crusaders etc, have their reward. The whole of Paradiso is divided up into heavens of the seven planets (lowest moon and highest Saturn) in accordance with some notion of universal “justice” which with “love” should rule all things including celestial cycles. Saturn as a symbol of highest heaven below the Empyrean is odd given that across history, and certainly in medieval times, Saturn was a devil planet, source of misfortune, and misery. Dante places in this exalted sphere the dubiously uncorrupted St Peter Damien, a fanatical ascetic whose enthusiastic condemnation of gays had inquisitorial effects. St Dominic, a major promoter of the Inquisition, is found in Dante’s heaven of the sun.
In fairness, it would obviously be hard for anyone from poet to theologian to convincingly imagine the divisions and rewards of heaven; all would probably be unsatisfactory. Dante’s celestial levels at which souls are able to manifest to him (they really dwell in the Empyrean and elsewhere) are a sort of appearance only within the larger celestial rose, an exquisite garden overseen by the Virgin for Christ. It may sound all terribly mystical, but Dante’s distribution of bliss and glory is really quasi-philosophical; and as opposed to the would-be objective, schematic arrangements that ensues, it would have been closer to Christian tradition to have simply housed souls according to either or both of
a) how closely the individual had been to fulfilling the divine will and generally “knowing” the heart and mind of God (like the Beloved Disciple or the prophet Jeremiah to whom some of his contemporaries compared Jesus) or
b) emphasising the qualities of the planets over their order outwards to the Empyrean. Thus the poet could have put the heaven of Venus (signifying love) at the summit, if only because the Christ of the last things, the apocalyptic Christ, is self-declared as “the Bright Morning Star” (i.e.Venus) who has overcome Venus as Lucifer who is source of evil). Or again, since the Paradiso describes a progressive increase of light, Dante could have placed the Sun at the planetary summit.
One of the weakest points of the celestial organization (indeed of the Commedia’s entire system of value judgement at its three levels) is exemplified by the treatment of Cunizza da Ramono within the level of Venus. Having earlier doomed to the hell of incontinence the unfortunate Francesca da Rimini, who surely had some case for divine forgiveness, Dante lets off the also real life Cunizza lightly, even glorifies her. A sort of Good Wife of Bath figure, she had had four husbands and two lovers, and left the first husband to become mistress of the poet Sordello, (whom Dante meets up with in Purgatorio). She is permitted to rejoice and she even laughs that she has forgiven herself because she has at last found the meaning of love in its divine aspect and thus she can make what was her occasion of sin the basis of redeemed life.
Ignoring that one could well stress God alone forgives sins (Mk 22:7) and that all redemption has something to do with “predestination” (as higher up even St Bernard concedes) never human choice alone, Dante’s depiction has to be understood against his system of values more generally. According to this – and it would have seemed more meaningful to medieval persons imposed on by tradition and parental authority – we have an inborn nature that must be fulfilled. Denied, it becomes unhealthy and will run to evil. This is true enough, as is also a belief that if God forgives us we need to forgive ourselves too. Even so, here and at points throughout the Commedia, Dante’s treatment of evil finishes over-rationalized, at times shallow vis this emphasis (perhaps never more so than when he attributes what today we would call homosexuality to mostly bad wives). To cite an Italian example against him, Italy today is the chief centre of revived practices of exorcism. Its exorcists would be the first to insist evil can run deep, and some bad impulses can even result from such as occult involvements and family curses, a case of the sins of the fathers visited to the fourth generation ( Ex 20:5). Much more is involved than a few thwarted impulses.
MARIA AND BERNARD OBSESSIONS
Having read and written in the past on this subject of exorcism and its effectiveness (2), I would further add that the effectiveness of exorcism (some are carried on over years!) can be weakened by another factor which features as one of the stand-out contradictions of the Paradiso and which I would associate with especially St Bernard of Clairvaux.
At almost its highest point of the Paradiso, from the Empyrean emerges Saint Bernard of Clairvaux. St Bernard is one of the most important figures in the Paradiso because it is his prayers to the Virgin permit the poet to “see” God. However, even if by divine grace Dante was granted some kind of visionary glimpse of the Beyond, we can rest assured he did not see St Bernard in highest heaven. Not only do the gospels famously declare “The first shall be last and the last, first” but Bernard could be grateful if he was even permitted the level of Dante’s moon.
At one time the almost uncrowned ruler of Europe for sheer influence with its rulers, as a preacher of the Crusades that caused the unnecessary death of thousands and an interferer in lives – his unrelenting attacks upon the philosopher Abelard as a heretic was behind the attack on him and castration, Bernard was one of the maddest of the Catholic mystics. This was less because he was so unwashed his fragrance was hard for his devotees to manage, but because he was an eccentric who believed the Virgin had fed him drops of her breast milk. Bernard couldn’t doubt this and nor could Dante and all devotees because had not Bernard declared one only needed to have the Virgin perpetually in one’s mind never to be deceived?
Bernard’s devotion to the Virgin which Dante so trendily follows, helped form a vision which turned the West towards a cult of the Virgin exceeding anything prior to it. As in Dante’s vision, Christ for Bernard, though notionally acknowledged as redeemer, becomes as good as subordinate to an all-encompassing vision of the Virgin’s glory, “empress” of heaven.
Standard Catholic teaching is that the Virgin is venerated, not worshipped, but practically that can hardly be said to hold and one needn’t look far in the Paradiso to trace the effects of Bernard’s doctrines upon Dante’s representatively western/catholic spirituality as they are already dramatically present in the Purgatorio. In Canto 5 there is the case of Da Montefeltro the leader whose place of death was unknown but to whom the poet endeavours to supply an ending and a pious one to somebody religiously indifferent. Staggering towards the river losing his lifeblood.
There my sight failed me and my last word sped/ Forth in the name of Mary; there headlong/ I fell; there left only my body dead.
Hell shrieks in rage at this saving of this soul, in effect by Mary at a very last minute call. Here if ever is the neo-medieval gospel according to St Bernard. Last minute conversions are not a feature of biblical record, the individual is supposed to be working out their salvation in the virtual purgatory of this life (Phil 2:12); but there is undeniably the case of the thief on the cross – whose same day transfer to Paradise itself bespeaks a system of grace in which the toils and waiting of Purgatory have no place. The thief however makes appeal to the crucified Jesus, not to the Mary beneath the cross. This is entirely consistent with two lead statements from earliest tradition and which exclude Mary from any salvation equation: “Everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved “ (Rom 10:13) and “there is no other name [than Jesus] under heaven, given among mortals by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12).
SEEING AND APPROACHING GOD: BEATIFIC VISION
Dante’s Bernard-inspired distortions of the original doctrine, are not limited to this rather crucial point. They enter to infect the whole aim, attitude and basis of his Paradiso vision, which is to “see” God, the Beatific Vision. In Canto 32 we read, what by some standards could be called pious blasphemy, the following words of Bernard to Dante: “See that face resembling Christ/closer than all; for that bright light alone/can make you fit to look on Christ”. This is then followed by around a page of the bliss and glories of Mary as the angels chant “Salve Regina” to heaven’s own “empress”.
There is much that’s between ignorant and shocking here. Fit to see Christ? Dante and Bernard should be aware that in numerous instances like 1 Pet 1,2 the original message it is the Spirit who sanctifies and prepares whether souls or church to become faithful disciples or devoted bride of Christ. Moreover – at least theoretically – there should never anyway be any problems about “seeing” Christ any time, anywhere.
As the human face of God, as divine incarnation and mediator, Jesus is simply available, as in his lifetime, to be approached. In Revelation the redeemed of many nations plainly see the enthroned Redeemer as a matter of course (Rev 7:9,10). Nothing could be further from the author of Hebrews with its “let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness” (Heb 4:16) than this remarkably over-awed approach to a Jesus so unavailable that it takes Bernard and the Virgin working together to make even the hope of seeing him possible. This is a whole new alternative religion and absolutely no longer one of “to God through Christ” than “to Christ through Mary” and in a way to render the Trinity virtually irrelevant save as Dante’s parting, suitably abstract and impersonal image of the intermeshed circles which sustain existence. This is scarcely Christianity; it is a colourful new form of neo-platonism.
And before briefly descending to Inferno level, reverting to the point made about weakness and contradiction introduced by the influential St Bernard, practically his Marian cult would successfully undermine fundamental spiritual energies of the faith. One arguably sees this in even the embarrassing failure of two modern popes to be able to exorcise. This was something which early Christians were well known for doing without prior permission of bishops and boards of clerics and in the name of Christ alone, not Mary and the saints under whose patronage, amid elaborate rituals, the exercise now exists to what is often its confusion – absurdly, modern exorcisms can function like therapy sessions that are carried on over years, never coming to any real conclusion, just as Dante never – quite – gets to see God despite the prayers of Bernard and the Virgin!
Even as a teenager when I first encountered Dante, I was disappointed with the conclusion of Inferno which has an almost pantomime Satan at the bottom of hell, tormenting not just Judas Iscariot but Brutus and Cassius. Surely this pair who rid the world of the tyrannical Julius Caesar, himself opposed by righteous individuals like Cicero (accorded a place in Limbo), couldn’t deserve the lowest point of hell for being “traitors”. Shouldn’t figures like, say, Caiaphas (who is higher up among the hypocrites) and Nero (who’s nowhere) be there? Of course it makes no sense – except that Dante is fixated on the need for a just imperial ruler and Brutus and Cassius interfered with the foundations of the empire he admires. But condemning the pair with Judas is like making Julius Caesar a Christ figure he very obviously wasn’t.
Which reminds us how much Dante’s is a political text and a semi-pagan one. The sins of hell are not organized as they could be according to, say, the ten commandments, but rather notions of virtue and vice as defined by Cicero and Aristotle (the latter being appropriated around the time by the philosophy of St Thomas Aquinas). Thus the sins of love and lust can’t be covered by the circle of incontinence alone which carries the adulterous tragedy of Francesca da Rimini, but much further down hell will deal with seducers and panders under the head of Fraud. “Sodomites” and suicides are treated under the head of, and thus in the circle of, Violence because they have been “violent” against nature or the body. It all gets quite intricate and involved, more so than Purgatorio and Paradiso which have fewer sections. It also gets colder as Dante and Virgil descend rather than hotter, though sight is never really lost to effects of any nether gloom such as would apply to the nether gloom of especially Tartarus, prison of the fallen angels, that Dante doesn’t portray.
If Irish otherworld journeys influenced Purgatorio, it is believed the third century apocryphal Apocalypse of St Paul was the main inspiration for the Inferno and its gruesome, torture chamber type details and its icy lower depths. Necessarily so since the bible has little to say about hell apart from affirming its existence and declaring that (through a body of death rather than of resurrection), there is a gnashing of teeth and some torment by worms and by thirst, and then that at the end of time as we understand it, the Hell/Hades zone gets thrown into a lake of fire for “eternity”.
The Inferno is nonetheless truer than other parts of the Commedia to things we can know about the afterlife, if not from the Bible then negative NDEs. Those persons who report experiences of hell, frequently refer to pain and harm vented on them from tormenting demons. These demons moreover seem to torment people in relation to a single sin, or if demons don’t do that, the person torments themselves in relation to one besetting sin, like the alcoholic who is thirsting for and being burned by alcohol.
I struggled over this in my own poetic experiment, an attempt at an updated Danteque journey as in The Hell Passage (3). The poem drew upon especially one reported vision from South America of a visit to hell led there by Jesus. The sinners allegedly encountered on this journey sometimes had their besetting sin branded on them as surely as Dante can know the sinners and their sin by the circle they inhabit. Is this even likely, whether literally or more symbolically, since sin is of all kinds and is present in everyone?
FINAL IDENTITY TAGS
My (provisional) conclusion is that since hell is most essentially about separation from God and whatever makes for that, it could be that one besetting sin is what confirms that separation. And since everyone’s final identity is with and through God, in hell personal identity becomes whatever is not God. Alternatively some inhabitants are shown as branded (as none of Dante’s sinners are) not with a sin but with 666, evidently people who have taken the mark or who willingly would do so given the chance, an action which insures separation.
The activity of tormenting devils seems hardly credible or fair – if they are really fallen angels, why aren’t they themselves tormented? – but perhaps their role should be seen as the equivalent of biblical claims to the effect that (until finally overcome by the returning Christ) the world belongs to the realms of evil. Ultimate damnation would include the tormenting demons too. The final destination of damned souls is not Hades/Hell but the Lake of Fire, evidently a mirror of God who is “fire”, and entails an existence through God as fire but nothing else, hence God negatively experienced in proportion to the degree of spiritual separation.
Given how much Dante is prepared to send doubtful cases like Francesca da Rimini to hell and blast the already suffering damned, curiously, if generously, he is still concerned about who is lost and saved according to their beliefs. It prompts him to allow the good pagans Cato and Statius a place in Purgatory and the Trojan prince warrior Riphaeus even a place in heaven’s sphere of Jupiter for his righteousness. And it obviously pains Dante that Virgil has to return to the Limbo of the good pagans (among whom he includes that author of the arts of seduction, Ovid!). It was for this kind of juggling with doctrine some early critics considered Dante’s work heresy, but the salvation problem he wrestles with is and should always have been a non question.
Despite his wide reading in bible, Dante, like many to this day, never absorbed how St Paul teaches that ignorant pagans outside the Law will be judged “or perhaps excused” by their thoughts at the Last Judgement (Rom 2: 14,15). While undeniably the bible appears to assume that once the individual has heard and understood the gospel, they have responsibility for their decisions, no one is automatically damned for what they cannot even hope to know. Besides which, the whole subject of ultimate salvation is anyway subject to the statement, “I will have mercy upon whom I will have mercy” (Rom 9:15), which however is not a give-away. It is certainly no justification for notions that Dante sometimes borders on and that a modern Catholic mystic like Thomas Merton renders explicit, namely that each soul independently “chooses” whether they will be saved or damned.
READING DANTE TODAY
There are many benefits from reading Dante, and today perhaps especially from the enforced work of imagination which takes the reader outside of normal existence to hear people doing what everyone should periodically do, which is to assess their lives and motivations. The contemporary restlessness and materialism virtually imposed on everyone by media and the rat race, renders this imagining and self-distancing task increasingly difficult.
At the same time, we may also be drawn to awareness of something else we ought to know. Dante is an imaginative summation of a particularly European way of perceiving reality but which is a distortion, at times even a negation of the Christianity it seeks to defend. There is a reason why deity for the poet, even as the love that moves all things, is so remote and abstract while women from Beatrice to Maria are so magnified, and a reason the religion of Jesus and the prophets becomes a faith politicized to the point of violence and corruption. The noted rationalism and romanticism of Europe are all of one psychological and philosophical piece.
Around the fourth century and the times of SS Augustine and Jerome, who between them rid Christianity of its chiliastic legacy (the prophetic dimension that believed Christ must return to Israel to rule in the Millennium – for Dante the Second Coming is reduced to the Last Judgement), it was reported that spiritual gifts (the charismata) of the early church were rare to non existent. One of the features of especially speaking in tongues was that the person did not usually know what it was they were saying to God (1 Cor 14:2). This was the original Christian via negativa, the not knowing which is nonetheless revelation and an uttering of the mysteries. This element of secrecy apart, it was assumed that individuals should relate to God more or less directly in a basically personal way and entering before the throne of grace boldly (Heb 4:16). And even if the glorified Christ or the enthroned God the Father were not exactly like humans, the long tradition of biblical references to their hands and eyes indicated an essential identity with the human. Christ is even described as the “icon”(image) of the invisible God (Col 1:15)
FROM CHRISTIAN EXPERIENCE TO NEO-PLATONIC VISIONS
The fourth century revolution began a movement away from anything like this, and it transposed practice to another level. It was no longer a case of saying unknown things to God but rather of not knowing or describing deity at all who must be described in negation (not good because beyond good etc) reached through the darkness and silence (the language of heaven itself according to the late medieval mystic, Meister Eckhart!) or who perhaps even was darkness or a superior Nothingness, attained by mental exercises rather than any more spontaneous means. These exercises needed to travel far, high and long as God became ever more remote, much helped by the influence of one of Dante’s own inspirations via Thomas Aquinas, (the latter high in the realm of the Sun) ,namely the Greek Pseudo-Dionysius.
Dante didn’t fall for the deception of the Donation of Constantine, but like many directly or indirectly he fell for Dionysius. Medievals decided this mendacious writer must be identical, as he tried to make out he was, with St Paul’s philosophical convert in Athens, not some fifth century subtle underminer of the entire Christian tradition via neo-platonic means.
Greek philosophy which was favourable to contemplation, almost despised the body as a prison of the soul and which held notions of a remote unmoved, mover deity, had never been entirely at home with the Hebrew legacy and its anthropomorphism dismissed in passing remarks of Dionysius. The Greek church had moreover been introduced to poisonous levels of anti-Semitism (Hitler would even approve it) through the Golden Mouth preacher St John Chrysostom. Pseudo-Dionysius is almost the summation of a Greek dissociation from a disdained Hebrew legacy. At the height of Pseudo-D’s system are angels, who, far from being co-workers with the faithful as per Rev 22:9, are exalted beings like Platonic ideas virtually barring the way to the hidden deity.
The anti Hebraic mindset of the Greeks was for all practical purposes sealed by the 8th Council of Constantinople in 869 which rid itself of the bible’s trichotomy or threefold anthropology of the self with its, Body, Soul and Spirit, substituting in line with Greek rationalism, a dichotomy of simply Body and Soul. Soul was now what contained Spirit, a spirit as intellective spirit more or less reduced to Reason, the same Reason that underlines Dante’s entire rationalizing treatment of evil.
Originally, however, human spirit under the influence of Holy Spirit is what shapes and helps organize the imagination of soul. Soul (Gk psyche) is the reactive yin type function, the Hebrew/biblical nephesh or animal soul (the basic radiant aura or astral body of esoteric traditions). It is often what St Paul means when he refers to the “flesh” or lower nature which is more than just “body” and which is perceived as in conflict with the spirit (Gk pneuma, Heb ruach) which should be allowed to dominate it. (One can picture the trichotomy as either body and animal soul nephesh together, with beyond it spirit ruach and then neshamah, the divine lamp,spark or higher soul, or you can portray the trichotomy as simply body, soul and spirit. Either way you have a possible reflection of the interactive Trinity that the simple soul/body dichotomy does not permit),
SPIRIT AND SOUL
If one reduces the whole drama of the self to simply a dualistic contrast and conflict of soul with body which in no way reflects the interactions of the Trinity, one is left with Logos or Word seen as purely masculine Reason tasked with dominating an unruly and despised purely feminine body. Whether in religious or cultural contexts, this distorts the masculine yang factor in man and God alike. What is masculine becomes a fixed, often cold, inflexible Reason, not a higher lyrical, adaptive, creative force. God is not a Creator whose creation can be also be poetry and sung over ( Zeph 3:7).
There is a Spirit of God, but there is also a Soul and Christ is that Soul; and because Soul is for humans the problem of what’s “fallen”, it is into the image of the perfected Christ to which the believer is supposed to be conformed (Rom 8:29). This does not and cannot happen in Dante where Christ is a dim figure, a cross, a griffen, “our pelican”, a wheel, because soul function through the form and the work of woman (a Goethean Ewig Weibliche Eternal Feminine leading us ever on), has almost completely taken over obscuring the person. Dante in his ascent instructed by Beatrice as a model of divine grace, is also teaching him via the beauty she embodies. This is problematic. Beauty is a reactive yin force, its power dependent upon power before or beyond it.
Effectively substituting for the person of Christ, Beatrice even examines Dante in what is the equivalent of the believer’s presentation before the bema or judgement seat of Christ (Rom 8:10, 1 Cor 3:15). The entire image of Jesus in the Commedia is suitably odd, empty or just vague. As said, it can be glimpsed (reflected in Beatrice’s eyes! ) from the head of the Christ-linked griffin in Purgatorio, to the forming and reforming cross of the heaven of Mars whose inhabitants are supposed to be close to Christ because, as or like crusaders, they literally took up the cross! And Dante at this level of heaven even identifies himself as a kind of Christ figure because of his exiled life! But ultimately, unlike other, especially female figures of the Paradiso, Christ is never quite clearly drawn, never quite characterized. He is an object of catechism, a sort of functionary to manage salvation, a precious symbol, but never quite either a recognizable person or inspiration. (Admittedly, over seven centuries later this treatment remains basically consistent with controversial statements from Pope Francis in July 2017 to the effect any claims to personal knowledge of or relation with Jesus can be dangerous and harmful; it is collectively through the mediation of the Church community and Mary that one may know of him).
On the social plain, the spiritual result of mis-vision in Dante’s style is that the very abuses he hated can still thrive because the outer forms (objectivised Reason) are respected as a sufficient perfection and spiritual development (through controlled exercises rather than inspiration) can continue. And they can and will do so because they take individuals the way of soul rather than spirit. This is liable also to mean via the inspiration of women, for Dante from Beatrice to the Virgin. But this is not the way of will-shaping and correcting Spirit working on spirit as indicated by Jesus from the first in rejecting the salutations of the woman who praises the mother who bore him and the breasts that gave him suck (Luk 11:27), insisting only those that do the divine will are blessed.
DANTE THE MAN
A brilliant, erudite walking encyclopaedia of a man, Dante with his quirks is almost the epitome of the “mad” genius and poet, perhaps starting with the near crazy obsession with the indifferent and early deceased Beatrice dei Portinari. Eros and sexuality (the realm of especially “soul”) is one way to understanding the poet and not just of the Commedia but La Vita Nuova where he discovers Lady Philosophia.
Dante scholar Barbara Reynolds points to a connection in feeling and reference between the treatment of the sodomites Brunetto Latini in hell and Forsi in purgatory which she takes as a virtual confession of homosexual involvement (4). While we needn’t greatly doubt her – Florence like ancient Athens was a leading centre of openly expressed same sex feeling and art in especially the Renaissance, and Dante’s mentor Brunetto Latini was gay. But I am just not sure why Reynolds speaks of “homosexuality” when obviously in Dante’s case she should be speaking of bisexuality.
One of the clues that this orientation was the case is the astonishing way, often noted, that Dante simply never mentions his wife (from an arranged marriage) and mother of his children,Gemma (to whom he is anyway believed to have been unfaithful). I am however less surprised than some by the silent avoidance. It may not be quite PC to say it, but it should be recognized that bisexually inclined men are often seriously bad news for wives. Dante exquisitely joins two other major bisexually inclined poets: Shakespeare who famously bequeathed the wife he hardly lived with his second best bed, and the bible’s King David who loved Jonathan but banished one of his wives, Michal, from his bed without reprieve lifelong. From the outset doubtless Beatrice represented at any rate one way for Dante of dealing with his creative and erotic complexity. Obviously she represents an anima figure who carries the weight of his massive imagination at the same time as her inaccessibility helps prevent his being too overwhelmed by the opposite sex and by eros generally.
If Dante has been more “homosexual” even within his bisexuality, he would likely have developed spiritually more along the lines of Michelangelo who reflected himself in the rather anti woman and even rather gay prophet Jeremiah (5). And he would have given a quite different emphasis to portrayal of the Virgin. Rather notoriously, Michelangelo’s Last Judgement fresco portrays a very human Virgin figure, almost cowering away from a commanding Christ figure. Anyway, I consider Dante’s sexuality could use more critical attention as it affects his work. So too could another theme, not liable to be emphasized and even downplayed in academic circles.
As he enters the region of the fixed stars, Dante makes it very clear he was born under and takes the character of Gemini, the celestial sign of words and communication but also division. In a way, this is a vital piece of information for all sorts of reasons (including to some extent the poet’s rather experimental, flitting eros). Europe is traditionally put under Gemini and certainly Christianity, born at Pentecost amid a speaking in tongues, belongs to the sign. Also born under Gemini was modern Italy which has taken Dante’s language for its own (reflecting the indelible role of Dante,incredibly the horoscope for Italy shows a conjunction of asteroids Dante and Virgilius in the hell section of the chart) (6), and so too were Dorothy Sayers and Barbara Reynolds who have translated and popularized Dante in modern times. Even if you say that politics is of Capricorn, the fact is that democracy itself, the idea of divided church and state, a prominent Dantean theme, is of Gemini. Quite simply Dante is a Geminian person broaching a mass of Geminian themes and thus for better or for worse his opinions can both reflect and make what the West is in itself – which has been a rather dark/light, changeable phenomenon in harmony with the sign’s “mutable” status.
FAITH AND VISION SOULED OUT
Dante never went to any heaven, or if he did it wasn’t like the one he described. The Paradiso is the equivalent of Bernini’s stunning but questionable The Ecstasy of St Teresa in sculpture. Dante was a visionary poet who incomparably faked rather too much of his vision because ultimately it arose out of soul function rather than descended on him through the spirit function and depended too much on virtual orgasm. That vision and mystical religion could be thus dependent to some extent is inevitable and we needn’t automatically dismiss it for that – unless it’s allowed to become the whole story which, when soul takes over at the expense of the impulses of Spirit, it risks doing so that religion falls towards the sensationalist idolatry which is also materialism.
I am not saying that Dante was a false prophet (if he had a sin it was overweening vanity!) but that he was sometimes victim to those who were, and that he expressed their beliefs by default at a particular point in history to which he was somewhat hostage and has left others hostage too. Dante is, as Yeats had it, the imagination of Christendom, but sometimes unfortunately so. Because what the European imagination in its Christian mode has too often done, is, like a divided Gemini, run in one or other of the opposed directions of elaborate superstition and reductive humanism, pursuing a religion of numerous pious forms or alternatively political agendas because in both cases it is not grasping God aright at the centre.
Dante’s God of (remote and static) light and love joined to his dream of an elusive perfect ruler, a Roman rather than the early Christians’ Christ of history, the Millennium and Jerusalem (Dante turns the Second Advent within historical time into the Last Judgement beyond it), is also remote from original and authentic Christianity. It is so adrift in a sea of intricate symbols and allegories (each episode organized to give four different possible meanings) it could be appropriated by almost anyone today from New Agers to one world, one religion Globalists. The turns of history and culture are so peculiar such might yet even be the case.
1) In Raphael and Lucifer p.10 I write:
So may you, Inspiration, now draw near
To assist, reveal, declare because
More felt than seen by me or anyone
The forces are too bright and dark
Too fair and foul to be directly held….
It’s thus by symbol and through fantasy
You will convey the truths unrealized…..
2) Temple Mysteries and Spiritual Efficiency esp Chapter 6 https://goo.gl/Xi1jv8
3) The Hell Passage https://wp.me/p2v96G-7e
4) Barbara Reynolds, Dante p.296
5) Jeremiah’s Loincloth https://wp.me/p2v96G-Hm
6). A Picture of Italian Life and Mind https://wp.me/p2v96G-Nc