Dante and the comedy of our lives. Advent 2021
"Dante teaches us to see history and our own life as a comedy. We take ourselves far too seriously. During the whole of our lives we are on a stage: we perform narratives dictated by our upbringing, our social status, other people’s expectations on us".
Dante, Paradise, Canto 21, vv. 1-10; 30-70
My eyes were already fixed on my Lady’s face once more, and my mind with them, free of every other intent, and she did not smile, but said: “Were I to smile, you would be like Semele, turned to ashes, since my beauty which burns more brightly, as you have seen, on the steps of the eternal palace, the higher we climb, if it were not moderated, glows so much, that your human powers, at its lightning flash, would be like the leaves the thunder shatters”.
Inside the crystal planet […] I saw a ladder erected so far upward my sight could not follow it. And I saw so many splendours descending the rungs that I thought every light that shines in heaven had been poured downwards there.
[…] But she from whom I wait for the how, and when, of speech and silence, pauses, and therefore I ask no questions, counter to my own wishes. At which she who sees everything, saw my silence in his look, and said: “Let free your burning desire.”
And I began: “My lack of worth does not make me worthy of a reply, except for her sake who allows me to make the request: O life, blessed, who live, hidden in gladness, tell me the reason why I am placed near you, and say why the sweet symphony of Paradise is silent here, when it sounded below through the other spheres, so devotedly.”
He replied: “You have mortal hearing, as you have mortal sight: there is no song here for the same reason that Beatrice does not smile. I have descended so far, on the steps of the sacred ladder, only to give you joy with words, and with the light, which mantles me: nor did greater love make me swifter: since more and greater love burns higher there, as the flaming made clear to you, but the deep love, that keeps us, as ready servants to the wisdom that controls the world, assigns me here, as you see.”
[Translation by A. S. Kline]
Here we are, at the beginning of Advent, when once again the liturgy is saturated with a mixture of foreboding and expectation about the day of Jesus’ coming and with entreats to be on guard, wary, alert. I really love this “Be alert!”. Alertness requires us to be aware, watchful, present, active, involved, purposeful – and especially, I would say, imaginative.
Imaginative, how so? Jesus’ charming answer is: learning how to look better at ordinary things, at what surrounds us, which often we barely notice, and take for granted: “Look at the fig tree and all the trees; as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near” (Lk 21.29).
The secrets of God, the shape of the last things, the truth about our destiny, the proper way of dealing with the mystery of God’s will, of God’s plan for humanity: the best way of dealing with these questions is deploying our wonder, our curiosity, our inventiveness to explore the countless, often unexpected ways in which God’s presence and love colour every aspect of our daily life, be it the leaves of a tree or the smile of the person I love.
The passage from Dante’s Comedy we have just heard, starts in this way: “My eyes were fixed on my Lady’s face once more”, and most of this enchanting 21st canto from the Paradise hinges around the sudden disappearance of the smile on the face of this Lady, who, as we know, is Beatrice, the girl Dante had fallen in love with in his youth, whom he might have spoken to only twice in his life, who died when they were both in their twenties, and to whom he bestowed immortality by adopting her as his muse.
The so called ‘divine’ Comedy is not divine at all – or, if you want, just as ‘divine’ as Jesus’ invitations to look at the leaves of a tree. We are misled by the Comedy’s grandiose architecture, the formidable erudition it enshrines, its ominous setting: hell, purgatory, paradise; its characters: damned, demons, angels, saints, God. If we are not all that much into theology or are sceptical about human projections concerning an improbable afterlife full of sadism and rarefied bliss, understandably we might hesitate to dive into Dante’s masterpiece, especially into its last part, Paradise, which is sometimes -how wrongly!- perceived as tediously esoteric. How often have I not heard people say that Dante’s Hell is much more engaging: at least there we find passions, tragedy, vices, affairs, murders – this we can relate to! What on earth are we supposed to make of such an extravagant endeavour to visualize hell, purgatory and paradise.
The truth is that neither Dante nor any of his contemporaries ever even thought of taking the Comedy as ‘divine’, as an apologetic work, as a literal portrayal of the last things, as a depiction of what hell, purgatory and paradise might look like. In fact, this is a work that we really appreciate only when we realize that it is not talking about the after life, but about the ‘comedy’ that this life is. And, of course, Dante’s work is a ‘comedy’ because first and foremost it is meant to make us think by entertaining, amusing, and delighting us.
If it was an attempt to describe the afterlife, it would be unfunny, insanely arrogant, even blasphemous from a Christian viewpoint. Instead, precisely because it is ‘just’ a comedy, and insofar as its only ambition is to describe this world, our loves, our passions, our hatreds, our politics, our sexuality – to this extent, it is a model of consummate ‘imagination’ – and, precisely for this reason, it can bring us closer to God. The Comedy simply becomes yet another way of heeding to Jesus’ invitation to look at the leaves of trees, to recognize God’s coming in the here and now.
And indeed, Dante’s Comedy is permeated by a profound sense of the mysterious nature of God’s will. Like most Italians, I read the Comedy at school between the age of 15 and 18. At that age, I must admit, most of it went way above my head, but curiously very early on one sentence really struck me and has remained branded in my memory ever since, not least because it is couched in the most exquisite Italian: “Vuolsi così colà dove si puote ciò che si vuole, e più non dimandare” (“It is so willed where will and power are one, and ask no more’). Dante is unendingly puzzled by the way God acts in history and in his own tragic life – as we see in the passage we have just read: “Tell me the reason” he entreats – why is Beatrice not smiling any more, why in this sphere “the sweet symphony of Paradise is silent”, why does this long dead girl, this love of a long passed youth, still inhabits each of my longings, thoughts, sighs, hopes, and rhymes.
The list of the things we can’t make sense of in our life and in our world is maddeningly long. And our frustration is compounded by the way God seems to spend most of his time in hiding: is he unwilling, or distracted; is he impotent, or is he just indifferent? When and how will he finally accomplish what he promised – what Jesus calls “the Kingdom of God”, that is the act through which he will change history for good. Repeatedly Dante is told “più non dimandare” (“ask no more”) – but thankfully for us he stubbornly keeps asking, searching, questioning. And the enduring appeal of his Comedy comes from the way he does so: by looking at the leaves of trees, by a relentless, often aching, burning, and always extraordinarily acute observation of the way in which, in this life, people think, live, love, betray, hate, wage war, despair, hope.
His most important lesson for me lies precisely in this. He teaches me to see history and my own life as a comedy. We take ourselves far too seriously. We should never forget that during the whole of our lives we are on a stage: we perform narratives dictated by our upbringing, our social status, other people’s expectations on us. We think we are free agents, but in fact we are actors who recite the part assigned to them. Most of what seems so real, so vivid, which moves us, makes us laugh and cry, contains vast elements of fiction. We become aware of these only when we see them from the viewpoint of the last things. This is why the setting of Dante’s comedy in hell, purgatory and paradise.
This I think is what Jesus wants us to do by his invitation to look at the leaves of the trees – this is why we need literature, and especially poetry: they unravel for us the plot of the comedy which is our life, included the part God plays in it. We still do not know how it ends, but we know that there is a script. The roles we play, the feelings we experience, our tragedies and our moments of happiness are real, but to fully make sense of them we have to wait for the end of the play.
We do not know how the play ends, except for one thing, that it ends well, because it ends with God, because God has the last word, or rather, his love does - which Dante describes as that “deep love which keeps us as ready servants to the wisdom that controls the world”.