Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Dante in Love by A.N. Wilson

Along with Shakespeare, Dante is the greatest literary figure in the Western tradition. In an awards contest, I'd give Dante the award for the greatest single work, while Shakespeare would receive the award for the greatest lifetime body of work. Such conjectures and contests are always a bit of a silly exercise. Both are great. But Dante, even more than Shakespeare, is daunting. Shakespeare wrote at the end of the Northern Renaissance and therefore helps lay the very foundations of our modernity. Dante wrote at the apex of the Middle Ages, when Pope Boniface VIII faced off with Phillip the Fair, king of France, over the competing claims of Church and State in the medieval world. (My thanks to the late Professor Ralph Giesey and to TA Nancy Neefie for introducing me to medieval history in my first weeks as a freshman in my Western Civ class.)

Dante, St. Thomas Aquinas, and the great Gothic cathedrals loom as the great cultural icons of the Middle Ages. However, despite some interest in the Middle Ages, and a pretty good introduction to the high points of the Western tradition, I didn't approach Dante until my mid-30s, when I decided that this was a seminal work that I should engage. I thought—rightly so—that it requires a degree of maturity to appreciate. (I hope that for me, however, that it did not mark midway on my life’s journey!) Reading Dante is not easy. References to contemporary Italian politics, as well as Classical and Biblical figures, abound. The work is one of poetry, so we have the rich metaphors and other figures of speech that challenge those of us who live in our prosaic world. I don't recall what translation I read, but the experience proved worthwhile. I've been reading Dante and his commentators ever since. I now can add A.N. Wilson's Dante in Love to the list of fellow Dante readers—nay, enthusiasts—who have found the effort of the Commedia intriguing and enlightening. 

Wilson emphasizes that he is not a Dante scholar, but he's been reading and appreciating Dante since his late teens, and so he's a fellow enthusiast who also happens to be an experienced and talented writer of biography, history, and fiction. Wilson writes that he intends his book to serve as an introduction and appreciation of Dante’s life and works in all their complexity. He intends to provide a guide for others like him who aren’t scholars, but interested readers. He succeeds in his intention. This book is the best single volume appreciation of Dante and his masterwork (and some of his lesser works) that I've encountered. His title references his central premise: Dante is the poet and philosopher of love in all its manifestations. 

Love is the central trope of Dante’s work. Love, for Dante, can be quite worldly, following the cultural lead of the troubadours, or quite ethereal, as we see with Beatrice, the idealized neighbor from his youth. Or it can be the Lady in the Window, the personification of philosophy. (Wilson speculates that perhaps Dante’s wife Gemma, whom Dante never names in his work, is the Lady in the Window.) However, in addition to his love poetry, Dante is a political actor, and it’s his political connections that lead to his exile from Florence. The treachery and confusion of Italian politics didn’t begin with the fellow Florentine Machiavelli and the Renaissance; the turmoil was rampant in Dante’s time, with Popes, Emperors, and city-states vying for political supremacy. Thus, to understand Dante, one must attempt grasp both human and divine love as well as Italian politics. It can seem daunting, but Wilson’s book helps answer the challenge.  

We can—and perhaps should—spend a lifetime reading and studying Dante. We could do much worse with our time. But whether you’re making a passing acquaintance or you decide to dive in headfirst, Wilson can serve as a personal Virgil to help you along the way. Indeed, as Wilson is quick to point out, there are many such guides, but his may have the widest scope and easiest access of any that I’ve encountered. 

Pick up Dante, read, and remember that you’re trying to understand “the Love that moves the sun and other stars”.

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