Reading The Divine Comedy as a non-Christian

Though Dante intended his magnum opus as primarily the story of his spiritual reformation and redemption, and presumed most of his readers would be Christians or future converts, you truly don’t have to share that religion to enjoy it. Many of the themes and lessons can be interpreted in alternate ways, just as Krishna famously tells Arjuna there are many different names and faces for God, and paths to her/him, but none are wrong, so long as one has a pure, devout heart and soul.

However, despite Dante treating righteous non-Christians very respectfully, struggling with his era’s teaching that only baptised Christians could attain Paradise, avoiding antisemitic tropes about Hell, and saving a few so-called pagans, there are certain things which are still a challenge to read. This isn’t a reflection on Dante, but rather my own background. Life gives all of us a different frame of reference based on so many things, religion included.

My family background and my own personal religious history are too complicated and private to get into here, but the most pertinent thing to know is that I’ve been living a Jewish life since I was eighteen, after years of longing to reclaim my spiritual birthright. The religions I feel closest to after my own are Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, and Jainism.

Theologically, Judaism is closest to Islam. They were even closer before Prophet Mohammad got pissed off that more Jews weren’t converting, and changed things like how many times a day one should pray (from three to five). Again theologically speaking, Judaism and Christianity are like oil and water. So many important things radically contradict one another; e.g., Jews don’t believe in Original Sin or the divinity of Jesus.

This is a topic for another post, but suffice it to say, interfaith relations weren’t very good until about 1950. At the heart of the antisemitism which culminated in the Shoah was the deicide charge. And while I’m really glad the only Jews depicted in Inferno are Judas and Caiaphas, thus avoiding grotesque stereotypes and slanders, it’s hard to not be bothered by the deicide charge in Paradiso VII. There’s also this tercet in Paradiso V:

“If evil covetousness cries out to you,
be men, and not foolish sheep,
so that the Jew among you does not laugh!”

YIKES!

Intellectually, I can explain and contextualise these statements to take some of the sting off. Dante cannot be divorced from his time and place, no matter how modern and relevant he feels in many ways. He also believed other things we now know to be false, like the Donation of Constantine and Prophet Mohammad originally being a Christian, since there was no widely-available information debunking these claims.

And compared to many other Medieval writings (e.g., the Prioress’s Tale in The Canterbury Tales, the chilling end of The Song of Roland), this is really tame. Out of 14,233 lines, these comments are a tiny drop in the bucket. Dante also questions why, if Christian doctrine says the Crucifixion was necessary, the Second Temple then had to be destroyed and the Jewish people forced into Diaspora.

But emotionally and personally, it’s really hard to read that, knowing the deicide charge formed the basis of almost 2,000 years of horrific antisemitism in Europe, and that even those few seemingly off-handed comments were part of a much larger picture that really added up.

Judaism and Christianity also radically differ on the subject of the Pharisees, who are mentioned in a negative light in the Commedia. Though all evidence from multiple sources attests to Pharisaic beliefs and practices forming the basis of post-Temple Judaism, and indeed being the very reason we were able to survive the loss of the Second Temple, their reputation in Christianity is far different.

Long story short, each of the four Gospels is successively less Jewish and more Christian in character. As time progressed, the two faiths diverged more and more, and it became obvious there weren’t as many Jewish converts as hoped for. Thus, it was felt necessary to draw strong lines between the two traditions and seek converts from other populations.

Judaism has no concept of Limbo. While there are many conflicting views on the afterlife, who goes where, if very wicked souls stay forever in Hell, whether Gehenna or Sheol is the place for the worst sinners, and what exactly all these places are like, one thing everyone does agree one is that the righteous of all nations have a place in HaOlam HaBa, the World to Come. We don’t believe only our people can attain Paradise.

Dante heavily leans towards this view too, as he struggles all through the poem with the idea that only baptised Christians (plus the righteous people of the Bible) are worthy of Paradise. What about people who live in places like India, where Christianity had no presence, or who lived before Jesus, like his dear Virgil? Indeed, he saves a few so-called pagans (Cato, Trajan, Statius, Ripheus the Trojan), and depicts a few Muslims among the righteous in Limbo.

He also says many people of other faiths, or of no faith, are closer to God than actual baptised Christians.

St. Bernard of Clairvaux’s prayer to Mary, which opens Paradiso XXXIII, is pure beauty, power, emotion, and devotion. Remembering back to Inferno II, Mary is the one who ultimately set Dante’s journey in motion. And given that Dante lost his mother when he was five or six years old, it’s easy to understand why he felt such devotion to Mary.

Despite not being Christian myself, I’m very moved by the image of Mary as a loving, universal mother figure. Many people who lost their mothers are particularly devoted to her for this very reason.

While specifically Christological beliefs do nothing for me and have no parallels in Judaism, most of the poem is a rich, fertile ground for inspiration. Dante intended his magnum opus as a spiritual guidebook, and despite his own strong Catholic faith, he frequently thinks of other kinds of people. Indeed, the penultimate word is l’altre, the other (in plural form). The Love he believes in, which powers everything in existence, includes a vast rainbow of perspectives and experiences, not just one.

Why everyone should read The Divine Comedy

Beginning on 8 September, Baylor Honors College, in conjunction with five other schools, will kick off 100 Days of Dante. The objective is to read one canto a day, until finishing on 17 April (the Catholic and Protestant Easter). Though I just reread the Commedia earlier this year, in the Mark Musa translation, I’m really excited to begin all over again.

I got the much-lauded Durling-Martinez translation of Inferno, which is dual-language and has excellent essays and notes. Though I’m pissed that less than 24 hours after I ordered it, the price dropped by five dollars, to $9.95, and I was unable to be refunded despite it not having shipped yet! I’m keeping an eagle eye on the price of Purgatorio and Paradiso. They’re extraordinarily, unacceptably, ridiculously high ($24 and $33), but if they sink to $15 or lower, I’m jumping on them.

If they remain high, I’ll get the Allen Mandelbaum translation for the other two canticles. That’s another edition I’m really eager to read for myself. I really like what I’ve heard of it so far.

So why should everyone, regardless of religion, read the Commedia?

1. It’s one of the greatest works of literature ever written. Right up there with Shakespeare, The Decameron, The Mahabharata, The Odyssey, The Iliad, The Tale of Genji, The Romance of the Three Kingdoms, The Aeneid, Don Quixote, and any other work of classic world literature.

2. You can read it a hundred times and still discover something new each time. This isn’t a one and done book. There are so many delicious layers and nuances, you can’t discern or digest them all with a single reading.

3. It’s a priceless compendium of Medieval history, politics, and religion, as well as Classical Antiquity. There are also a lot of astronomical, geographical, and mathematical references and calculations. This truly was a continuation of Dante’s discontinued encyclopedia Il Convivio. Without Dante serving as the historian of record for many of these people, particularly the women, even hardcore Medieval history scholars wouldn’t know or care about them.

4. Despite being over 700 years old, it feels so modern and relevant, not like a book tied entirely to the Middle Ages. Yes, there are many other great works of Medieval literature with forward-thinking characters (e.g., the awesome Wife of Bath in The Canterbury Tales, many of the women in my belovèd Decameron). However, they ultimately belong to the world in which they were created.

5. The teacher and student relationship between Dante and Virgil is a joy to read and watch developing.

6. The use of language is nothing short of genius. Terza rima is so complex, even in a language with a plethora of rhyming words. Dante had to think so many steps ahead to ensure he stuck to that rhyme scheme through 14,233 lines and found the right words to end each line on. There are also times when he uses repetition of certain letters to evoke things like running water and dried, snarling tree branches.

7. The poetry gets more and more beautiful as the work wears on. Yes, many people do find it more difficult to comprehend or care about as theology comes more and more to the forefront, but don’t let that scare you away from the beautiful language. This is one of many reasons you should read the Commedia in Italian, even if you don’t have fluency!

8. Who hasn’t had an unrequited love like Dante had for Beatrice? Almost everyone can relate to that feeling of longing and grieving for a lost love.

9. There are lots of funny moments to lighten the intense mood.

10. Though most of the souls Dante encounters are men, he also meets a number of women, and they’re no shrinking violets. He gives them moral agency to tell their own stories, and contrary to the prevailing attitudes of his day, his sympathies lie with victims of domestic violence, not their abusers. And you have to love how he flips the trope of a damsel in distress being rescued by a man. Beatrice is the one who saves him.

11. Many of the lessons Dante learns along the way can easily apply to every reader. Yes, he primarily intended it as a story of his redemption and spiritual awakening, but you can find parallels to things in your own faith or life if you don’t share his exact beliefs. It’s just like how Shakespeare’s stories translate so well to other eras and cultures; e.g., Akira Kurosawa’s Ran and Throne of Blood.

12. It’s one of those works of literature which has massively influenced society. So many books, plays, poems, films, TV shows, video games, songs, musical compositions, and works of art directly reference it, were inspired by it, and/or depict events from it. My own Journey Through a Dark Forest and each of its four volumes got their titles from the famous opening lines!

13. It’s jam-packed with drama, beauty, intensity, power, and emotion.

14. His views on religious minorities and gay men are lightyears ahead of those of most of his contemporaries.

15. Many times throughout life, we find ourselves lost in a dark forest, no idea how we got there or lost the way so badly, overwhelmed by hopelessness and despairing of ever escaping. And just like Dante, sometimes we have to sink to the lowest, saddest, most hopeless point possible before we can begin slowly rising up to happier, more hopeful, more beautiful places and get back on track with our life. We also can’t do it alone, and need our own Virgil and Beatrice to help and guide us.

And don’t forget to find a translation that works for you, read it carefully instead of mindlessly powering through, and take advantage of extratextual sources.

Misquoting Dante

Imagine my complete mortification and embarrassment when I discovered earlier this year that this famous Dante quote is a 20th century fabrication! Despite always checking alleged Buddha quotes against FakeBuddhaQuotes, I nevertheless took this one at its word and never thought to look up the actual chapter and verse citation.

What makes it more than embarrassing is that I used this quote several times in the books formerly known as The Very First and The Very Next, as the guiding principle of Cinni’s father’s life, a moral imperative which compels him to bring people out of the lions’ den and to the safety of the U.S. before the Nazis devour them. He even has a framed calligraphic print of it in his office.

Finally, I got curious and Googled it, expecting to find a citation so I could see it in full context. Nothing of the sort, only multiple quote sites (and a few other places) trotting it out as a Dante quote. No chapter and verse at all.

First of all, Dante considered betrayal the worst of all possible sins, not neutrality. The Ninth Circle of Hell has four rings, each for a different type of betrayal—Caïna (kinfolk), Antenora (city or country), Ptolomaea (guests and hosts), and Giudecca (benefactor or master). Also, there’s zero fire down here. Instead, the sinners are punished by being frozen in an increasingly more brutal lake of ice.

Neutrality isn’t punished in Hell at all. All three afterlives have rejected such people, and they’re condemned to forever aimlessly run after a banner to nowhere and be constantly stung by wasps and horseflies in Ante-Inferno. The blood from the bites mixes with their tears and drips to their feet, where maggots collect in the pus.

These people took no sides in life, either for good or evil, and just passively drifted whichever way the wind blew, only caring about their own self-interests. Dante is disgusted by them, condemning them as evil and cowardly, in comparison to how he feels pity, respect, sympathy, even love for many of the other souls he meets in Hell.

Over the centuries, many people have seized on this episode in Canto III as support for their various causes, including abolition of slavery; ending nativist, xenophobic immigration quotas in the 1930s and 1940s; the U.S. ending their isolationism policy during early WWII; and the Civil Rights Movement.

By WWI, the fake quote had begun appearing with a slight difference from the modern version. In place of “hottest,” the words “darkest,” “worst,” and “lowest” variously appeared. The first known instance of the “hottest” version appearing in print was 1944, in a book by Henry Powell Spring.

From there, it gradually took on a life of its own, being quoted by politicians, activists, clergy, and laypeople alike. Before long, it came to be believed as fact, despite not appearing in a single English translation of The Divine Comedy, nor any of Dante’s other works.

Rather than doing a second edition of the book formerly known as The Very First and rewriting the pertinent parts of the book formerly known as The Very Next, I included a note about this in the front matter of TVN, concluding by saying Mr. Filliard will tell Cinni in the third book that he was duped by a fake quote, and impressing upon her the importance of always vetting sources.

In addition to fake quotes, there are also quotes taken out of context. This happens with many quotes from many sources, and they’re eaten up by people who care more about quick, easy sources of inspiration than checking the lines before and after. Particularly if a quote comes from a novel, play, or epic poem, you should look up the full context. E.g., is this the author speaking in his/her own voice, or a line of dialogue? Is it a standalone line, or in the middle of other lines which might radically change your interpretation?

And if it’s a translation, is it literal, close to literal, rendered in a forced rhyme scheme, or presented with some creative touches to adhere to blank verse iambic pentameter or sound prettier?

Take the quote “Follow your own star!” This is spoken by Brunetto Latini in Canto XV of Inferno, in the middle of his mutually reverential conversation with Dante. Sure, many lines throughout the poem can apply just as well to all of humanity and readers’ personal situations, but not this one.

The full context:

“And he to me: ‘If you follow your star,
you cannot fail to reach a glorious port,
if I saw clearly in the happy life;

and if I had not died when I did,
seeing that Heaven so favours you,
I would have given you comfort in your work….'”

Given Dante’s belief in astrology and how proud he was of being a Gemini, I’m inclined to believe “star” refers to his Sun sign; indeed, Mark Musa translates it as “constellation.” Thus, a very specific context! It’s not even a standalone line.

People who pass along fake quotes, misquotes, and quotes out of context aren’t deliberately ignorant. In fact, many times they’re very well-meaning and had no reason to doubt the source they found that line in. But just like with urban myths, these quotes become that much harder to debunk when they’re constantly trotted out as factual.

How Il Convivio became La Commedia

Il Convivio (The Banquet) is an unfinished book Dante wrote from about 1304–07. Its title refers to the banquet of human knowledge contained within, which he intended as an encyclopedia similar to those written by his dear mentor Brunetto Latini, Li Livres dou Trésor and Tesoretto. The first part serves as a general intro, and the next three parts each have a long poem followed by a commentary or allegorical interpretation serving as a jumping-board for many different subjects—astronomy, politics, linguistics, history, science, mathematics, nobility, virtues, philosophy, theology, love.

Unless we miraculously discover Dante’s original notes for The Divine Comedy with dates, and/or a secondary paper trail such as letters or journal entries, we’ll probably never know when exactly he began composing his magnum opus. However, some scholars believe he may have been working on it as early as 1304, or even started it before his exile and resumed writing after a Good Samaritan reunited him with those precious pages.

Thus, he may have at one point been writing Il Convivio and La Commedia simultaneously.

Obviously, Dante ultimately abandoned Il Convivio to focus solely upon his magnum opus. Yet this unfinished book wasn’t written in vain, since many of the ideas expressed therein found their way into the Commedia. Not only that, the Commedia is in many ways an extension of Il Convivio. If it were just an ordinary epic poem about the afterlife and Dante’s spiritual reformation, it wouldn’t be peppered with so many historical figures, astronomical calculations, geographical references, or philosophical and theological points!

Dante’s great-great-grandfather Cacciaguida degli Elisei, the poem’s fifth-most recurring character after Statius, appears from Cantos XV–XVIII of Paradiso and merits 550 lines. During his lengthy addresses to his descendant, he entreats Dante to be brave and reveal the whole truth, however unflattering, about well-known people. By only including people of renown, he’ll ensure lasting fame and power for himself and his poem.

Think about it. Would the poem have had the same impact if everyone Dante met were Guido and Gianna Nobody down the street, or purely fictional characters? It was easier for his audience to grasp all these deeper lessons precisely because he used real people everyone knew, both contemporaries and important historical figures. Besides, Dante always presents this as a real story, and many people absolutely believed him. (I’m inclined to believe he may have experienced at least some of these things in dreams or intense visions.)

Sure, these aren’t household names to most modern people, unless they’re Medieval history scholars, but Dante’s original audience didn’t need any footnotes to know who they were or the details about their lives.

Additionally, his original audience was Italian. Of course he primarily used people from their native land and Classical Antiquity. It wouldn’t have had the same impact if the poem were peopled with Germans, Russians, Englishmen, Chinese, Turks, or Egyptians. In an era long before instant mass communications and easily-available translations, people knew more about their own backyards than the wider world.

Dante did intend his poem first and foremost as a religious instruction manual to help other people who lost the way just as he did. But many of the components don’t relate to theology at all. They’re in there to finish the encyclopedic job Il Convivio started and celebrate the banquet of all existing human knowledge.

Why you should read The Divine Comedy in Italian

Note: Many of these points can be tweaked to apply to foreign language works in general.

While I doubt many people learn another language simply to read one book, there really is no experience quite like reading a work in its original language. And if you’re a Dantista, be you autodidactic like I am or professionally trained with a Ph.D., odds are good you’ll want to read the Commedia in Italian. Who cares if it’s not widely seen as a “useful” language like Spanish, French, German, Arabic, or Chinese? You should learn a language because you genuinely want to, other people’s opinions be damned.

However, one need not become fluent in Italian prior to reading or rereading the book, take formal classes, or do self-study. All one needs to do is get an edition with side-by-side Italian and English. Maybe you want to read each canto in English first, then Italian, or vice versa. Or do it tercet by tercet. Maybe even be bold and read the entire book in Italian first, or just listen to someone reading it in Italian.

This is what personally meaningful immersion is all about, something many foreign language teachers don’t understand. It’s easier to learn a language if one truly enjoys it instead of treating it like an obligatory academic requirement. While I studied Italian my senior year of high school, and studied the very similar Spanish for seven years, starting to read and memorize the Commedia in its original language has already begun working wonders on my language skills. I recognize verb forms and cognates, and can match Italian words with their English translations.

The more you immerse yourself in a language, the more you begin to naturally understand. After a certain point, you’ll rely less and less on the English side or looking words up. And then one day, you find yourself speaking, reading, and/or writing in that language as though you were always fluent.

Even the best translations will never be 100% accurate to the Italian original. E.g., Dante uses a lot of R sounds to evoke the feeling of dried, twisted tree branches in the Wood of the Suicides, and he uses many L sounds to evoke the running water near Geryon. It’s impossible to translate that into English without taking multiple linguistic liberties.

Another example is Canto XII of Purgatorio, where four tercets in a row start with the word Vedea (I saw), the next four start with the poetic one-letter word O (no translation needed!), and the next four start with Mostrava (showed, depicted, displayed). In many manuscripts until about the late 18th century, the letters U and V were printed or written interchangeably. Thus, Dante is spelling out the word uom (man, in the old-fashioned generic sense to refer to all humans).

Some translators have ambitiously risen to the challenge and spelt out MAN in English, with phrasing like “My eyes beheld,” “Ah,” and “Now was shown,” but again, that requires linguistic liberties. All translations (of any book or poem) do this to some degree, but it just looks and feels more impressive and emotional in the original.

When you have a side-by-side edition, it’s easier to discern when and where the translator took liberties, even if you’re not fluent in Italian. It’ll be obvious when entire big sections of lines are invented, when things are put in the wrong order, and when words are translated inaccurately. E.g., some translators translate the line “And like one with laboured breath” as “like a swimmer with laboured breath,” or simply as “And like a swimmer” in Canto I of Inferno.

I understand the reason for this, given the following lines where Dante compares himself to being released from the perilous waters of the deep to the shore, but again, it’s not helpful if you’re serious about learning Italian and having an accurate of a translation as possible.

Since starting my memorization journey in March, I feel much closer to Dante. He’s always been the only one of my fave writers who’s always felt like a dear, personal friend instead of just someone I deeply admire and/or would love to spend a few days talking with, but reading and learning his words in his native tongue made our suprarational connection even stronger.

When you read a book, story, poem, or play untranslated, you’re reading it exactly as the author wrote it, not someone else’s presentation of it in another language. So many words and phrases can’t be fully expressed in translation, and it just feels more emotional, evocative, expressive, beautiful, haunting, intense. Something is always lost in translation.

While you can understand many things and learn a lot of Italian from reading the original, it’s still in Medieval Florentine Tuscan, not modern standard Italian. Granted, modern Italian is strongly based upon Florentine Tuscan due to how many literary lights used it, but they’re not one and the same.

Open a new document, set the language to Italian, and type out a canto. You’ll see which words are flagged as misspellings and autocorrected, and which words pass recognition. Most of the differences aren’t that great, and if you already know Italian, you can figure out what a lot of the unfamiliar words mean based on context and similar spellings.

Basically, it’s equivalent to reading The Canterbury Tales in Middle English, with far fewer spelling differences.

Learning another language gives us a passport to another world. Who better to learn Italian with than the Supreme Poet?