Can An Atheist Really Get Dante?

ROD DREHER

Reading the great Catholic poet's Divine Comedy is more than a literary experience, it's a guide to the spiritual life.

Dante Alighieri
by Sandro Botticelli

I'm leaving tomorrow for a Liberty Fund conference, and need to finish today the proposal for my planned book on how Dante can save your life.  The chief problem I'm struggling with in the proposal is how Christian to make the book.

Here's what I mean.  Mine will be a practical book about how going on this imaginative journey with the pilgrim Dante, through Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven, and applying the insights he teaches you, can show you the way out of your own dark wood.  It happened to me; it can happen to you.  This is not a study in Dante, or if it is, it's a very specific kind of study, one that is meant not only to be contemplated, but used. It is, of course, hard to write about the Commedia without putting God at the center of the experience, and I wouldn't want to do that.  But people do.  Prue Shaw's wonderful new introduction to Dante, published this week, explores the main themes in Dante's work, but doesn't really get into the God business — which is bizarre to me, but it's a very fine book, if an incomplete one.  Yesterday, it was announced that the Bard College Dante scholar Joseph Luzzi will be writing a memoir of how the Commedia got him through the death of his wife; he wrote a moving column in the NYTimes about this not long ago.  Excerpt:

"The Divine Comedy" didn't rescue me after Katherine's death.  That fell to the love of my family and friends, my passion for teaching and writing, the support of colleagues and students, and above all the gift of my daughter.  But I would not have been able to make my way without Dante.  In a time of soul-crunching loneliness — I was surrounded everywhere by love, but such is grief — his words helped me refuse to surrender.

After years of studying him, parsing his lines and decoding his themes, I finally heard his voice.  At the beginning of Paradiso 25, he bares his soul:

Should it ever happen that this sacred poem,
to which both heaven and earth have set hand,
so that it has made me lean for many years,
should overcome the cruelty that bars me
from the fair sheepfold where I slept as a lamb,
an enemy to the wolves at war with it …

I still lived and worked and socialized in the same places and with the same people after my wife's death as before.  And yet I felt that her death exiled me from what had been my life.  Dante's words gave me the language to understand my own profound sense of displacement.  More important, it transformed this anguished state into a beautiful image.


I deeply look forward to Luzzi's book.  I don't know if Prof. Luzzi has religious faith at all, but he doesn't mention God in this column, and a brief online search didn't turn up evidence that he is a believer.  One certainly does not have to be a Christian or any sort of religious believer to love the Commedia, and to find solace and direction from Dante's verse.  Indeed, Dante himself structures his trilogy such that you can reach the border of Purgatory's summit on human reason alone — this is why Virgil accompanies Dante to the edge of the Garden of Eden, but can go no further.  To enter Eden, and to go on to Paradise, requires faith.  Again, you don't have to be a believer to love the entire Commedia and to learn from it, but as a believer whose life was transformed by reading the poem, I puzzle over how a nonbeliever experiences it.  Carol Zaleski wonders the same:

If you watched Mad Men last spring, you saw Don Draper on the beach in Hawaii, reading the John Ciardi Inferno:  "Midway in our life's journey, I went astray / From the straight road and woke to find myself /Alone in a dark wood."  What is Dante saying to readers who love the poem but reject the message?  What is their devotion to Dante saying to us?  If Draper reads beyond the Inferno, what will he make of the promise of salvation, the joy of the penitents, the beatific vision?

It seems unlikely that imagination and sympathy can be so deeply engaged without leaving traces in memory and planting seeds in reason.  However that may be, the precise relationship between art and belief is a mystery and must remain so until we are imparadised with Dante.

Dante scholar Prue Shaw, whose new book Reading Dante: From Here to Eternity is an elegant thematic guide to the sound, sense and syntax of the Commedia, suggests one possible answer with a line from a sonnet on Dante by the ardently anti-Christian Italian poet Giosuè Carducci: "Muor Giove, e l'inno del poeta resta" ("Jove dies, and the poet's hymn remains").  But I'd like to think that the obverse is true:  as long as the poet's hymn remains, it's a sign that God is longed for and subliminally known.

The secret writing on the door is "Abandon skepticism, all ye who enter here."  To approach the Divine Comedy with an open heart is to be converted on some level, if only for the time being.  The late American Dantean Charles Singleton put it this way in a retrospective essay:  "It is quite conceivable to me (though I confess I do not know that it has ever happened) that an out-and-out atheist might achieve an understanding reading of the Divine Comedy through a willing suspension of disbelief and an imaginative and sympathetic surrender to the experience of the Poem."  The question is, can one make such a surrender and remain unchanged by it?  I doubt it.  It seems unlikely that imagination and sympathy can be so deeply engaged without leaving traces in memory and planting seeds in reason.  However that may be, the precise relationship between art and belief is a mystery and must remain so until we are imparadised with Dante.

This seems right to me.  I don't know how one can go swimming in waters as deep as the Commedia's without being changed at some level by what you read there.  Dante writes in the poem about how art affects the imagination.  Most art, I think, rolls right off of us, but this poem?  Well, if you open yourself up to it fully, it will change you.  Without question many people read it and understand it deeply without converting to Christianity, but as I read Paradiso, with Inferno and Purgatorio behind me, I found myself genuinely mystified by what an atheist or agnostic reader would make of its illumination of the workings of divine love.   Paradiso is not a work of theology, strictly speaking, but if you do not accept the existence of God, and a God who is Love at that, the poem loses much of its power, or so it seems to me.  I know how defensive atheists and agnostics can get over claims like this, so let me hasten to say that the Iliad and the Odyssey remain imaginative works of staggering genius, even though none of us believe in the pantheon of Greek gods.  You do not have to accept Greek religion to understand and be profoundly moved by these epic poems (though it is interesting to imagine how those who first heard the poems, as believers in those gods, experienced it).

Paradiso is different.  It is utterly saturated with theology.  In my personal experience, I do not think the Commedia would have worked its magic on me had I not believed that the God of Whom Dante wrote really exists, and that His love, as Dante characterizes it, is a real thing.  The Commedia was a means of transformative grace for me, and a theophany, the likes of which I had not experienced since I was 17, and wandered unawares into Chartres cathedral — but I doubt it would have been had I not believed that such grace actually exists.  What I don't know is the extent to which that is a statement about my own subjectivity.

So, back to my practical challenge with my book proposal.  I really do believe that the Commedia has life lessons to teach all readers, believers and non-believers.  I even believe that Paradiso expresses certain principles and ideals that you don't have to be a believer to embrace.  I intend to write the book for all readers, not just Christians.  That said, I don't know just how particularly Christian the book should be to reach a broad audience, but be faithful both to Dante's intent and my own experience with his work.

Thoughts?  Hey readers, let's not turn this into an atheists-versus-believers squabble.  I'm seriously trying to grapple with the best way to handle this challenge as a writer, and I would appreciate your considered thoughts on the matter.  I often learn a lot from you, and what you say about this will make a difference as I finish this proposal today.

See the original article with comments here.

 

 



ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

Rod Dreher. "Can An Atheist Really Get Dante?" The American Conservative (February 5, 2014).

Reprinted with permission of The American Conservative.

The American Conservative, politics, culture, and foreign policy from the perspective of traditional conservatism. Find out about The American Conservative here.

THE AUTHOR

Rod Dreher is a writer and journalist who lives in Philadelphia. He is an Orthodox Christian and the author of Crunchy Cons: How Birkenstocked Burkeans, gun-loving organic gardeners, evangelical free-range farmers, hip homeschooling mamas, right-wing nature lovers, and their diverse tribe of countercultural conservatives plant to save America (or at least the Republican Party).

Copyright © 2014 The American Conservative




Subscribe to CERC's Weekly E-Letter

 

 

Not all articles published on CERC are the objects of official Church teaching, but these are supplied to provide supplementary information.