Question Of The Week: "The Divine Comedy"

by Conor Friedersdorf

A reader writes:

I had no idea that any large work of literature could be so well orchestrated, or so complex, or so neat.

Every story and every character fits into a great self-referential web: from one point of view God is angry justice (Inferno), in another a tempting beloved who make you long for your own redemption (Purgatorio), and finally God is the Love so great that the history of the world is only his footnote (Paradiso). Dante is so completely aware that the nature of truth shifts and contorts a million different ways depending where you stand and where you look and that finally, somehow in the deepest mystery all the opposing truths and points-of-view fit together into God's ineffable plan. It isn't that I agree with all of Dante's politics and theology, much of it I strongly reject, but his vision of a whole universe build out of only love (distorted, sorrowful, and finally, human) is so grand that it begs me to try and find myself in it.

I think that is the poem's great victory: you can find yourself in it no matter where in life you are and the poem always seems to know where you should go next. As the years have gone by, I have been slowly walking along it's plot. I remember being frozen in the pits of hell because I was young and too proud to learn from my mistakes. I could only see bodies (that is, the torture porn of it all). But like Dante's Virgil, I had older, smarter, wiser people who lured me out. I remember in my late twenties when I was definitely in ante-Purgatory: I made love wait, so love made me wait. Now I am slowly winding my way up the mountain of adulthood (that only ends after my own death, I guess). When I find myself in the world of the proud, I study the geniuses of art and morality and try to become humble. When I am in the world of the envious, I try to serve others. Lately I have been hanging out with the slothful as I have been trying to learn the value of hard work - we'll see how that goes. Hopefully, as Dante predicts - and I am becoming more sure that he is correct - it gets easier as you go, "like a boat floating upstream."