Dante Notes


The question of otherness haunts the Commedia at every turn. It is an otherness that occurs, not in the encounter with the world, but an otherness that lives in Dante’s own interiority. It is the encounter with the other as it occurs inside the poet, and it is right to treat these others as they rise before us in our imagination as individualities that live as fully as Dante lives in our encounter with him. That is to say, it is right and fitting to imagine in our reading of the poem, that Dante experienced these imaginal presences as if they were autonomous beings, and that their otherness informs the work by virtue of their having been so fully felt that feeling could be offered in vivid images. If one needs a way to imagine this, I refer them to, besides the Commedia itself, the drawings of Gustav Dore or the paintings and sculpture of Jennifer Strange


And it is the morality that inheres in the poem on the page in front of us that , when taken seriously,gives a context the current critiques that negate the poem’s moral stature. And it is this ambiguity that is the poem’s current life as literature. Though it’s life as moral allegory remains the same as it always has: A means of assessing the evil in the world, and the damage evil does to what has, until recently, been considered to be the immortal in human beings

The greatest fear of any poet is of becoming subsumed in the poem. It is in this context that Virgil comes forward as guide. The poet is utterly dependant on him, and this dependence is what saves Dante from being a shade himself. Virgil, on the other hand , is a figure of the nonexistence that gives the poem its presence among the figures of the real.Imagine the leopard, the wolf and the lion harrying the body of the poet as he writes, experiencing the images of the animals in the space around him--the fear, dread, and inevitability of his encounter with these imaginations, as Dante is pushed back and then further back, renders him unable to pass to the heights beyond himself as afterimage of his own body below him sitting at his writing table.No one alive can fail to desire the freedom that Dante speaks of in the Commedia, yet it is a question of desire at the same time that it isn’t. In fact, desire is what forms the question at the same time that it blocks the questioner from progress, and in so doing, sends him/her down into the inferno of the self.


The Commedia is not a dream then, though it has the quality of a dream that is experienced fully awake, with logical precision. It is a progression forward in a way that resembles a passage through time, but it is not at all time as we understand it, but rather the blood of time, the essence of it, in which the poet moves forward propelled by desire, but not the desire for something, rather desire’s undesiring of its initial objects as it slowly dissolves into the Paradiso’s light. The Commedia is,in short, the perfect inversion of the order in daily life. In this way

Death is the joke, the figure of the comedy,and there is, of course, nothing more serious than a joke. So the cluster of figures that surround Dante as he moves, always have the character of being inside his own space. They are death’s figures, the life inside death. Dante is excluded and included at the same time, and it is quite easy to imagine him returning to purgatory after dying as one who, having been to the mountain once before, must cleanse himself of the Eros of his attraction to what he remembers of writing it down.The desire of the best critic would, it seems to me, live in the realm of Eros, the hope of the critic to dissolve into the text, and to emerge again changed, having elucidated more than the implications of the poem, having become more person through the encounter, so that, on reading that critic, we have a sense of the person who is speaking to us, a sense of their values, whether it is hell, purgatory or heaven that most inhabits them. Instead they have hijacked the arts for their “careers”. They have made the arts into an occasion for the advancement of a social agenda the implications of which they do not understand, and most likely will not have to live through.Dante, in descending, comes to know the shades as they suffer the consequences of their failures, and ins doing So he inhabits the double world, in which desire is denied at the same time it is refined and amplified. The refinements of the soul’s in hell constitute the range of hell’s aspiration to surpass itself, as those souls are both formed against and wrapped around not only the memory of their crimes, but the still-present desire from which they hope to escape, though in the end they succumb to their love of giving in. This kind of double bind is ultimately Satan's plight: the more he struggles, the more he is stuck in the ice –a sad figure, gnashing his teeth inside a finger trap of desire.Where would one find our current president in Dante's hell?


Perhaps he would inhabit a cold sore in Satan's mouth,
There is nothing majestic or ambiguous or ironic in him.—The village idiot who stumbles toward the button. He would remain out of sight, not deserving of a single line.

One’s critical response to a text ought to be a response from a whole person, that is, a personal response, though not personal in the sense of being private, but instead, personal in the sense of being a conscious participation in one’s reading at the same time that one consciously experiences the effects of that reading. So as text and reader meet, the meeting point becomes the still point from which the critical encounter proceeds. This allows the critic to be more than critic, to be a participant in the works that he/she covets. And critic do covet texts, but when they approach them as baubles or decorations, --something to hang a dissertation on, or worse, something to hang their humanity on, it is like framing a beautiful gown and hanging it on a wall. To step down from the prize for a moment and to live inside the text itself, that is an accomplishment, in that it humanizes the reader at the same time it humanizes the poem. Of course anything these days can be quickly perverted into a scheme for dollars and fame, and everyone at every moment is in danger of turning their earnest encounter into an auction of parts, a corporate raid.

In the inferno people’s pain is described in terms of the physical world. people are torn, eaten, mauled etc. It is, in short, as if people have bodies. (though in reality what they have is the memory of the body.) In the Paradiso we enter the sphere of being, where all that is experienced is both personal and impersonal at the same time. In this sphere of life, the boundaries between people are porous. One has day within day, life within life. There is the commingling of essences, as Swedenborg called it. There is no use for a body, rather the body is being as it inhabits the sphere of its capacity for love..In the Purgatorio, the attachments of the penitents to their shortcomings dissolve, which is to say, the attachments to the body as instrument for aggrandizement, for procurement, dissolves. This is a Western sin, more than an Eastern one, not because the East would not procure, but because the East has not yet made of procurement an identity.The question of the poem’s outmodedness is a means of obscuring what shines through the text. Realizing this as we approach the poem, the Commedia becomes the record of an encounter that has no physical referent.Today that encounter would of necessity be pictured differently, as we are more able to hold ourselves inside the ambiguity of our own being. It is a representation of the strictures of those forms that have passed from us since Dante. In their wake, we are left with the free floating qualities of the moral or relative human being: the banality of our evil juxtaposed with the banality of our innocence. And we know too, that every human being has both to such a degree that not a single one of us does not belong in an inferno. Dante however, knew something we do not: that what saves a shade from hell is not guilt or innocence, but the submission to hope. This is something we need desperately to attempt to re-imagine, as right imagination is at first an encounter with the real, and the real is not arbitrary, or the result of our capacity for making pictures. It is the numinous impingement of decency, of love , the radiance of it shining into the air around us and out from the objects we daily abuse. To allow these things to be loosed from our censoring capacity, from the straight jackets of skepticism, need not turn a person into a drooling luddite out of step with their time. If Virgil, dead fifty three years before Christ's crucifixion by Eliot’s account, was indeed a prophet of the coming of the Christ, then Dante's meeting with the poets in limbo, constitutes a kind of a textual redemption of the ancient world. It is, in short, the future meeting the past, or the poet and his poem becoming a willing instrument of teleology… of future-knowledge flowing into the past. Yet Virgil remains in limbo at the end of the poem, though we cannot deny that the context of limbo itself has been changed. . . made more conscious.