Dante, builder of worlds
During my first semester in college, along with classes on Latin, expository writing, and, for some reason, the literature of science in the English Renaissance, I took a class on Dante. At that point, my knowledge of Dante was very limited: I’d read the Inferno, in the comically inadequate prose translation included in my set of the Great Books of the Western World, but it was easy to see that this was one work where I’d benefit from a more guided approach. The class I took, taught by Professor Lino Pertile, was that and more: it was a transformative experience that set the tone for the next four years of my life. People go to college for all kinds of reasons, but what I wanted, in the most earnest way possible, was to enter a world of ideas. And while it’s always good to be taken by the hand and led through a major work by a talented teacher, at that moment, Dante, in the excellent translation of Allen Mandelbaum, came to represent both the life of the mind that I wanted and an adventure that I alone had survived.
The result, weirdly enough, is that I’ve come to regard the poem that Borges has called “the most justifiable and the most solid book of all literature” as something like my own personal property, and an intimate part of my own life. Some of this is due to the fact that Dante, as far as I can tell, is rarely taught in American public schools, and if he is, students invariably stop at the Inferno, which is only part of the story. But even more important is the conviction, which is hard to explain to anyone who hasn’t read the Comedy, that I somehow lived this story with Dante. You can approach this poem from any number of angles, but the really strange thing is how convincing it all is. I know that Dante is essentially writing fantasy, albeit with a theologically unimpeachable grounding in Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas, but I still sometimes find it hard to believe that the historical Dante Alighieri didn’t actually experience the journey he describes here. Because if you want to talk about world-building, this is by far the greatest example in all of literature.
How does he do it? Dante is a reminder, perhaps the ultimate one, that the greatest philosophical conceptions can be less persuasive than a single well-chosen detail. In some ways, the elaborate architecture of Dante’s afterlife is the least impressive part of the poem: many theologians of Dante’s time, or fantasy writers today, would be capable of constructing the nine circles of hell, but few, if any, would be able to imagine Chiron, the centaur, dividing his shaggy beard with the arrow in his hands before he can talk. (Ruskin called this image “a thing that no mortal would ever have thought of, if he had not seen the centaur do it.”) Dante is full of such astonishing, concrete, mysterious touches, including his poem’s most controversial aspect, the meting out of divine justice after death. Far from simply condemning his enemies and rewarding his friends, Dante uses his choices to convey the incomprehensibility of the divine mind: he punishes men he loved in life, like Brunetto Latini, and elevates Ripheus, a figure who appears in two lines in the Aeneid, to the level of the highest saints, as if to represent how little we can really know about God’s intentions.
Of all the many tributes to Dante, I stumbled across one of the strongest only the other day, in the chapter “Farinata and Cavalcante” in Erich Auerbach’s Mimesis. Auerbach is an unparalleled close reader, with an attention to detail that borders on the absurd (he describes one of Dante’s phrases as “a future clause of adhortative import with an adverbial qualifier”), so it’s all the more powerful when he opens up into unstinting praise:
But if we start from his predecessors, Dante’s language is a well-nigh incomprehensible miracle. There were great poets among them. But, compared with theirs, his style is so immeasurably richer in directness, vigor, and subtlety, he knows and uses such an immeasurably greater stock of forms, he expresses the most varied phenomena and subjects with such immeasurably superior assurance and firmness, that we come to the conclusion that this man used his language to discover the world anew.
This sense of both discovering and building an entire world, like the cycle of dream creation described in Inception, is one that all writers of fantastic fiction have tried to create, but none has done it better than Dante. As a result, even today, when I haven’t read the Comedy in many years, its images still burn in my imagination, as if I’d been to hell and back myself. To an extent that no other work of art has matched, it’s a world made of words. And it’s a journey that every writer needs to take.