Literature has the power to change one's perspective in a very real way. Jack Thornton reflects on "The Divine Comedy" and how a full reading of Dante's masterpiece sheds light on the path to salvation.
I graduated from college almost exactly one year ago. Over the last year many people I’ve run into have expressed an appropriate amount of interest in my college experience with questions like, “What was your major?” and “How will that help you get a job?” and “Did you write a thesis?”
When questions about my thesis arise the conversations usually go something like this.
Them: “Did you write a thesis?”
Me: “Yes I did. I wrote about the influence of Dante on T.S. Eliot’s poetry.”
Them: “Oh Dante! Right, right. He wrote the 'The Inferno,' yes?”
Yes! He did write “The Inferno” and I’m always happy when people can identify his work. Many high
school students read “The Inferno” as part of their curriculum, and that’s great.
But sometimes I wish they would add “The Purgatorio” and “The Paradiso” to that curriculum. I wish that people would identify Dante not only as the author of “The Inferno,” but as the author of “The Divine Comedy.”
Dante is consistently identified with only the first part of his three-part poem. “The Inferno” is part one. Virgil takes Dante through Hell. It’s a marvelous achievement, but it’s not the end of the story. After Hell, Virgil takes Dante through Purgatory in the “Purgatorio” and his muse Beatrice takes him through Heaven in the “Paradiso.” These aren’t sequels. They are the second and third parts of one poem. Altogether the three parts make up one single poem called “The Divine Comedy.”
In my opinion “The Divine Comedy” is the single greatest work of literature ever written. I know, I know. Other great works can and should be in that discussion. You could make very good cases for "The Iliad," "The Odyssey," "Paradise Lost," "Ulysses," some of Shakespeare’s plays, "The Aeneid," "The Brothers Karamazov" and others. I’m sure all of you have other titles that should be in the conversation. My opinion here is certainly not meant to be the end of the conversation.
But “The Divine Comedy” is my favorite literary work because I think it best encapsulates the human condition with all the philosophical, theological, spiritual, political, social, intellectual, physical and emotional aspects of being human, and does it in absolutely exquisite language.
(Do yourself a favor. Read Dante in the original Italian aloud, or at least find someone who can read Italian well and have them read some lines to you. Even if you don’t understand it the mere sound will blow you away with its beauty.)
The awesome value of the poem, however, can only be taken in when one reads the entire thing. A great deal is missed when one ignores parts two and three in favor of part one. Not only do you miss what happens in the later sections, but missing the later sections detracts from your understanding and enjoyment of the first part.
"The Divine Comedy” is written in such a way that ideas and images introduced in “The Inferno” are mirrored and enhanced in “The Purgatorio” and “The Paradiso.” Just as certain things in the Old Testament are clarified and fulfilled in the New Testament, some things in the “Paradiso” and “Purgatorio” shed light on parts of “The Inferno.”
The most important thing that one misses when only reading part one, however, is just that; it’s part
“The Divine Comedy” is many things, but one of the clearest interpretations is that it is an account of salvation. “The Inferno” represents the recognition of sin. Dante travels through the bowels of Hell, meets sinners, hears their stories, and is confronted with all the evil, suffering and terror imaginable. His descent climaxes with the image of Satan trapped in a lake of ice that he keeps perpetually cold by frantically beating his wings in an effort to escape it. The wind from his wings chills the ice and so the more he tries to escape via his own power the more he is trapped.
“The Purgatorio” describes Dante’s journey up the mountain of Purgatory. He witnesses the purgation of the souls and hears their stories. Here the souls undergo painful punishment for their sins but they
accept it willingly and joyfully as it cleans them of the stains of immorality. They have recognized their iniquity and now desire the pain that will cleanse them for the sake of salvation just as one who plays football accepts the pain of practices for the sake of excellence on the field. The acceptance of redemptive suffering is the second step in the salvation story.
The third step is the joy of existing in the presence of grace. In “The Paradiso” Dante travels through the spheres of Heaven with his muse Beatrice and rejoices with the saints as they praise God and each other.
The problem with only reading “The Inferno” is that, if you finish reading Dante there, you end up stuck in a lake of ice at the bottom of Hell instead of singing praises with the choir of saints and angels. That’s not a good place to be and we’re not meant to stop there. Sin is a part of the human condition. That’s just how it is. But we’re supposed to confront our sin, accept it as real and then work through it. Part two of the story is the working through. Part three is the wonderful result of that work.
Parts two and three sanctify part one and if you don’t have them then there is no escape from the ice.
Today’s world is full of problems. There are wars and unrest in the Middle East and Africa, human rights violations everywhere, the economy is in terrible shape and the political sphere is harshly divided on almost every issue. I’m not going to list every problem in the world as that would take too long, but you get the idea. There’s a lot of darkness out there.
But it does not end in the darkness.
There is always an opportunity to confront the problems, work through the negative effects and embrace the cleansing power of suffering so that we can end up in a state of communion and grace. It’s important to recognize that everything can be sanctified even while we confront the depths of evil both in the world and in our own souls. If we don’t have the will to work and the hope of salvation than we can’t move past the darkness.
So let’s not end the reading in the lake of ice. Let’s end it in contemplation and direct vision of the divine the way Dante’s poem ends. Let’s confront the darkness and overcome it through practical realization of the reality of sin and put forth the effort to work through it until we are living in grace.
And seriously, give “The Divine Comedy” in its entirety a try. I promise you, it will be worth it.