Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Half of our life’s way

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Illustration by Gustave Doré for Dante's Inferno

When I had journeyed half of our life’s way,
I found myself within a shadowed forest,
for I had lost the path that does not stray.

—Dante Alighieri, Inferno, translated by Allen Mandelbaum

Seven hundred and fifty years ago, Dante Alighieri was born. We know this because in The Divine Comedy—which explicitly takes place in the year 1300—Dante states that he had traveled “half of our life’s way” at the time of his journey. Based on the Biblical allotment of threescore and seven years, this would make him thirty-five as the poem begins, implying that he was born in 1265. His exact birthday is unknown, although Dante, as usual, leaves a few tantalizing clues for interpreters. He once told a friend that he was born in May, and based on a reference in Paradiso to the constellation of Gemini, which he notes was in the sky “when I first felt the air of Tuscany,” we can narrow it down even further. Commentators have tried ever since to pin down a specific date, most recently on the Paris Review blog, in which Damion Searls makes a convincing case for May 26, based on internal evidence from the rest of the poem. Still, we don’t know for sure. And while I’m aware that this is just wishful thinking, I’d like to believe that it might be May 31. Why? Because that’s my birthday, too.

In fact, I turned thirty-five yesterday, so the fact that this year also marks Dante’s sesquiquincentenary strikes me as personally significant. I’m well aware that there’s nothing more boring than reading someone else’s thoughts on a particular birthday: if you haven’t reached that age yet, you can hardly sympathize, and if you’re older, the last thing you want to hear is someone younger brooding over the meaning of it all. Yet I’ve been more conscious of this particular birthday than usual. Dante has been important to me ever since I read The Divine Comedy in a course taught by Lino Pertile in my freshman year of college, and at the time, his journey felt like the most vivid allegory that I’d ever encountered for my own progress through life. We all feel charged with significance in our late teens and early twenties, and looking back, I can smile a little at how readily I identified myself with one of the two greatest poets the western tradition has produced. But I never quite shook the sense that, like Dante, I was waiting for a Virgil to appear, and that my life would be spent preparing to answer that call when it came. So even if this birthday doesn’t represent the halfway point in my life, on some level, it feels like it does.

Illustration by Gustave Doré for Dante's Inferno

Dante wasn’t thirty-five when he wrote The Divine Comedy, of course: he seems to have begun drafting the poem around 1308, or eight years after the end of its internal narrative, and continued to labor on it for the next twelve years. Placing the journey earlier in his own life was a conscious poetic strategy. As with other works of encyclopedic fiction, setting it in the recent past allows Dante to prophesy accurately about events that have yet to occur within the poem’s timeline, notably his own exile, which lends credibility to the other predictions he makes. As it happened, one big prediction turned out to be wrong: he died at fifty-six, not seventy, which means that he was well past the midpoint of his own lifespan at the time the poem begins. Obviously, there’s no way that he could have known this—although he speaks with such prophetic authority elsewhere that it seems slightly surprising. But it’s also hard for us to imagine him outliving the poem’s completion. More than any other writer I know, Dante is his major work: it’s all but impossible to separate Dante the Pilgrim from the poet who constructs the seven circles of Hell. And when the poem was done, so was he.

Which feels like a lesson for all of us. It can be easy to forget that Dante’s poem was, in part, a reaction to the fact that his life had not gone as he had planned. As Erich Auerbach puts it so unforgettably:

Beyond a doubt [Dante] was the wisest, most resolute man of his time; according to the Platonic principle which is still valid whenever a man is manifestly endowed with the gift of leadership, he was born to rule; however, he did not rule, but led a life of solitary poverty.

The Divine Comedy was an effort to create, in poetry, the kind of order that he sought but failed to find in his own life. All authors do this to some extent; what sets Dante apart was how brilliantly he succeeded. His poem endures as the events of his time have not, and to the extent that we still care at all about the Gulephs, the Ghibellines, and the Florentine politics of that era, it’s because Dante put them in a poem. (Countless figures of that period, both friends and enemies, endure only because he consigned them to a few lines of torment or redemption.) Dante never ruled, at least not in the way he wanted, but he lives for us in a way that no ruler ever will. Whether or not this provided him with any consolation is unclear—but it consoles me. A human life makes a pattern that none of us can predict. And even as we reach the halfway point, its true shape may only be beginning.

Written by nevalalee

June 1, 2015 at 10:09 am

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