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The two most frequent questions that those of us who study Dante are being asked in this seventh centenary are why do you read Dante and why read Dante?
Both are based on the idea, undoubtedly correct, that reading his work, and especially the Divine Comedy, is something complex that requires an effort apparently contrary to the superficial hedonism that today must have, as part of leisure and of consumption, culture.
That is why it is surprising that a work so far removed from our conception of the world, so local, so philosophically intricate and so linguistically difficult continues to arouse a universal fascination and have millions of urbi et orbe readers.
The Divine Comedy is popular culture
I would answer the first question by saying that the Divine Comedy (and also, to a lesser extent, The New Life) is, on a first level of construction and reading, popular literature.
In other words, it shares basic elements with literary, cinematographic and other genres (comics, video games, etc.) of current popular culture, in which, not by chance, it is being widely versioned in this 21st century: a powerful creation of meaningful images (landscapes, gestures, scenes etc.); characters with an overwhelming personality; psychological, ethical and ideological conflicts that are both simple and complex; moments of intense narrative tension; resources of suspense, perspectivism, reluctance …; archetypal narrative schemes (the initiatory journey, adventure, anabasis and catabasis, the return to paradise, the role of the teacher, etc.).
Note that the elements that I indicate are, above all, narrative elements and not lyrical. In addition, to all this, which especially influences those who read in translation, we must add a very varied and impressive sound and rhythmic modulation, and, above all, a metaphorical display that sometimes seems infinite.
All these characteristics mean that whoever reads and recreates the work has solid textual support to “hang” their own worries and obsessions in it, so that such involvement produces a complex, problematic, contradictory and, therefore, more intense enjoyment.
Why read Dante?
The Divine Comedy is a practical didactic book, raised, in a second level of construction and reading, as a deep exercise of knowledge that forces the reader to involve, merged, all their capacities, from the most sensitive to the most intellectual, with a special role for the imagination, because in the late medieval period it is considered the part of the body that links it to the mind and thus makes it capable of thinking with abstract concepts.
Dante has the clear will to produce social or psychosocial effects in the world today, to improve specific individuals and the community. For that, he creates a book that presents us with a study trip and initiation like that of the protagonist, a reading trip that will not only teach us but also transform, liberating him first (leading him to health, rectitude and freedom of his will) and driving him in Paradise beyond the limits of the properly human (to the heroic, the self-sacrificing, the sacrificial … which points to a good that goes beyond the personal relative good).
This possible journey is based, therefore, on a principle radically alien to our conception of the current world, which provides another excellent reason to read it: there is an absolute Truth and Good, which go beyond the relative and immediate good and truth. of the individual (the benefit), with which the human being lost in time immemorial the direct intuitive contact that he had but of which still conserves in the depths of his psyche a natural and living residue that, thanks to radically heroic examples such as that of Christ, can recover, regenerate and turn it into a guide of life and behavior. Dante calls that ability love.
This implies something also very alien to our conceptions: that the cosmos, nature and human communities constitute a universal order that has a logic, a meaning, a coherence, since it reflects, in a more or less direct way, that Truth and that Good. that constitute it. As you can see, it is an enormously optimistic vision, which, considering the very difficult life that Dante had, is even more admirable.
This journey of the protagonist and the reader through the universal order – from darkness to light, from neurosis to inspiration, from evil to good, from power to act – supposes, therefore and above all, an enormous trust in the human being, in his capacity to love, to reconnect with the universal order, with Truth and Good, healing, liberating and even deifying himself.
I think this is the greatest message that Dante wants to convey with the Divine Comedy –with the contents of the work but also with the very act of writing and reading it–: despite everything we see and experience, despite our tendency to allow ourselves to be carried away by partial, confusing, harmful desires, despite the fact that our natural desire for Truth and Good is carried away by partial and deceptive goods and truths, so that love easily degenerates into material greed, in destructive relationships with nature , in manipulations and betrayals of our neighbors, etc., despite all this, the human being is by its own nature capable of overcoming this state and reaching the perfection of its sensitive-intellectual nature and therefore personal and political happiness.
Dante explicitly says that his heroic, obsessive mission is to sow hope in the world, and hope in Dante –in Christianity– consists in waiting with full confidence –moved by an incomprehensible inner love–, which seems absolutely impossible: the utopian healing, straightening, liberation and deification of the human being.
And I believe that in these hopeless times, with racism, hatred, authoritarianism and fanaticism exceeding all rational limits, with the climatic and environmental crisis produced by humans threatening civilization and even the species, the seed of hope that Dante sowing and cultivating with his work is more necessary than ever.
This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original.
Juan Varela-Portas de Orduña does not receive a salary, nor does he carry out consulting work, nor does he own shares, nor does he receive financing from any company or organization that can benefit from this article, and has declared that he lacks relevant links beyond the academic position cited.