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Life - The Divine Comedy

"Half way through the journey of our lives, 
I came to myself in a dark wood and found that I had lost the true way."

This such a wonderful line. Immediate. Everyone has been in that dark wood at one point or another. Found themselves alone. Lost. 

Odd to think that these words were written by a man who lived 8 centuries ago, in another language, another country, another world.

Dante Aligheri began writing the Comedia (Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradisio) a decade or so into the 1300s. It is the epic of the personal. An adventure as a mortal man journeys through hell and towards spiritual understanding in Purgatory and finally Heaven. 

It is Dante's brilliance that he writes himself as his own main character guided through Hell and Purgatory by the Poet Virgil. This is no straight forward medieval allegory. Oh, look lady Fortune is speaking with Lady Charity. Blah, blah...Dante mixes real people with figures from legend with vivid poetry.

All of this is a tangential sort of way of saying, for the last several months, Karen and I have been working our way through Inferno, the first book of the Comedia. Every week we would read a few cantos and then discuss them. The language, the meaning, the imagery. A reading group of two.

We started back a few months ago after going to see Hannibal, which isn't as odd as it might seem. In the movie, Hannibal quotes the poem of the burning heart from Dante's Vita Nuova. It's a wonderfully romantic and vivid poem. So, we sat around one night and read the Vita Nuova. And then we thought, well why stop. Why not take on the Comedia.

On Easter afternoon, we emerged from Hell to "once again see the stars."


How to describe Inferno. Eight centuries of critical thinking hasn't been able to sum it up. 

Brilliant imagery that shines even in translation.

As the sails swollen with the wind fall in a heap when the mast snaps, so fell the cruel beast to the ground. Canto VII

No green leaves, but of dusky hue; no smooth boughs, but knotted and warped; no fruits were there, but poisonous thorns. Canto XIII

Or the most famous,
Through me the way into the woeful city,
Through me the way to the eternal pain,
Through me the way among the lost people.
Justice moved my Maker on high,
Divine Power made me and Supreme Wisdom and Primal Love;
Before me nothing was created but eternal things and I endure eternally.
Abandon every hope, ye that enter. Canto III
Inferno tends to be people's favourite, which I suppose says something about people. Personally, I favour Purgatorio (saved sinners are a little more fun). But that's the next book.

Inferno is a brilliant combination of Ancient and Christian theology woven into a cohesive whole. Which makes it sound rather dull doesn't it. But it isn't. Dante meets demons and centaurs and furies and all the kinds of the damned. He faces adventure, damnation, and flying demons with savage hooks and knives.

And through it all he learns to face fear and how to deal with evil. 

And as Dante learns, we get our own lessons. I haven't really settled on my final philosophical, theological beliefs, but I love the richness of Dante's vision of hell. For all that we sympathize with the sinners in hell, largely (well there is limbo) they deserve to be there. I love the idea that it is the intent of the sin itself that counts. That tests are a gift. And that gifts are a test. That life is good and rich and wonderful and that the price of the goodness, and the riches, and the wonder is love. 

No wonder I love Dante. He rocked. 

Purgatory here I come.

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