Reviews of La Vita Nuova (1294) and related work

La Vita Nuova (1294Text)

Dante Alighieri (writer).

Read in 2022.

Read in Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s 1861 English-language translation.

The poet’s courtly idolization of a woman: Beatrice.

Dante’s nerdy, high-strung self-censorship is typical of high Medieval romance, and feels typically perverse. He was forced by the upper class of his society to subscribe to a model of love without physical affection. Instead of talking about love as humans experience it, he explicates his poems in prose, pedantically laying out his false beliefs—including his mathematical apophenia—for a barely literate audience.

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Divine Comedy (1320Text)

Dante Alighieri (writer).

Read in 2022.

Read in English-language translation by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

Beatrice selects the poet to undertake a journey from the surface of the Earth through Hell and via Purgatory all the way up to Heaven, alive among the dead.

An iconic work of long-form poetry laying out the Medieval European imagination. Dante’s angels are explicitly those of Ezekiel (ca. 600–500 BCE) and he refers to a few other Abrahamic myths by name, but almost nothing in Dante’s larger view of the afterlife is based upon The Bible (ca. 110 CE). Instead of the vague and self-contradictory mess of the original, the Comedy is clear, systematic, and sometimes thrilling. Its boldness is a product of the High Middle Ages, which had ended roughly 20 years earlier. Dante was mostly finished writing when the Great Famine of 1315–1317 hit, and the Black Death was still a couple of decades off. It was possible for Dante as an old man to imagine a utopia, a comedy in the degraded sense of a story that ends well, except for the sinners in Hell.

Given that Dante spends the first third of the work traipsing through a version of Hell that is compatible with the later visual imagination of Hieronymus Bosch, the ultimate utopia at the end of the journey is surprisingly gentle, even philosophical. Whereas in modern satires, Heaven is typically depicted as a boring place for prudes, Dante’s Heaven is instead so dense with theological argumentation that it verges on science fiction. His benefactors mostly just explain the deep mysteries of the world to him, often through fantastic images like five stars in an eagle’s eyebrow (Paradiso, canto 20). The explanations are false, but the interesting thing is that they are explanations, not merely assertions or lazy fabulist fiat of the kind that fills The Bible.

The range of thinking is impressive for its time. For example, in the first book (Inferno), many virtuous pagans go to the first, least colourful circle of Hell. These include the poet Virgil (Vergilius), whom Dante greatly admired in real life and used as his guide in the fiction. Dante understood that eternal suffering was not a fair punishment for having been born before Christianity was made, so in canto 19 of Paradiso, the last book, he problematizes the case of a virtuous Indian who has also not heard of Christ and therefore has not had the opportunity to go to Heaven. Dante concludes this argument in the same way as the author of Job (ca. 550–200 BCE), i.e. that it is wrong to question authority, but he does question authority more effectively than Job.

As a philosophy to live by, it’s shit. Most centrally, in the afterlife depicted here, the best you could hope for is a second life with the knowledge that your fellow humans are being tortured forever. The torture is sometimes ironic, but not helpful. Despite Dante’s genteel argumentation and the absence of overt Schadenfreude among the saved, it’s a ludicrous system if you have empathy or critical thinking skills: Undesirable and contradicted by observation, yet the same is true of a lot of later fantasy fiction.

References here: The Prince (1513/1532), Eric (1990), Tear Along the Dotted Line (2021).

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