The Modern Medieval
By Jason Baxter
Dante's imagination is not merely
a product of its time, but shows a marked kinship with later luminaries.
Next year will be the seven hundredth anniversary of the death of Dante Alighieri, the universally admired and rarely understood Florentine poet, who still feels like one of our contemporaries. In the twentieth century, modernist poets and artists like T.S. Eliot, Samuel Beckett, and Auguste Rodin fell in love with Dante’s style. It combined a “modern” subjectivity—that is, the sense of real people with genuine emotions, negative and positive—with eerie, non-human forces and desires (love, hope, faith, glory, avarice, hatred, etc). They almost felt Dante was a contemporary, trying to create an avant garde style. Look at Rodin’s Gates of Hell, now in the Musée D’Orsay, or his grief-choked sculpture of Ugolino from Inferno XXXIII.
Samuel Beckett’s absurdist and nihilistic presentation of his own hell also draws on a key insight from Dante. In Dante’s hell, the characters are in denial, fiercely clinging to those things which they loved to a fault in life. It is good to be a patriot, but what if your nation’s well being were the only thing you could think about? We find the great general Farinata portrayed like this in Inferno X, speaking as if courage and loyalty were the only virtues that existed. Mercy? Justice? Joy? All of these are invisible to him. Likewise, Beckett borrows this idea from Dante: the reflexive need to invent meaning—lest he look around and see the foul hole in which he now dwells. In Waiting for Godot, Beckett takes this to an absurd degree: his characters are terrified of acknowledging their eternal meaningless waiting, and so they generate verbiage to distract themselves.
People often call Dante’s poem “allegorical,” but I think that epithet a little misleading. There are, of course, allegorical figures and allegorical scenes. In the very first canto of the poem, for example, Dante meets three beasts (though one Italian scholar suggests it could be a single shape-shifting beast which presents three distinct forms). Their meanings are never clearly explained, but, it would, seem might represent sins of the flesh, sins of violence, and sins of fraud. If so, this would correspond to the overall architecture of hell, which Virgil, in the most schoolmarmish way, explains in Inferno XI. But the real power of Inferno I is lost if you set yourself out to decode the allegorical meaning, because, in the midst of these allegorical figures, we have a portrait of psychological realism: a compelling evocation of anxiety, disorientation, and despair.
How is it that Dante became an honorary “modernist” poet? That is, how does he feel so modern, offering acute insight into our personalities (our tendency to deceive ourselves, but also our legitimate hopes and dreams) as they operate among subterranean psychological forces? Modern psychologists like Freud or Jung or Lacan were tuned into these deep desires, always playing in the background of our psychological lives. But how did a Medieval poet like Dante come to a similar vision?
The genius of Dante is that, again like modernist artists, he brought competing styles and traditions into a kind of grand poetic fugue. On the one hand, his Latin-reading culture admired the classics—Roman poets like Virgil, Ovid, Lucan, and Statius (but also, as I have tried to prove in my recent book, contemporary classicists like Bernardus Silvestris and Alain de Lille). These Latin poems were learned, epic, and highly rhetorical structures. They tried to recreate the music and harmony of the cosmos in song. But Dante began his writerly life as a composer of love lyrics, written in the less respected vernacular (in his case, the Tuscan dialect of Medieval Italian). These poems emphasized interiority, inexplicable emotions, admiration for beauty, the sense of love and loss, and, sometimes, despair.
Mapping these two worlds onto one another, Dante produced a fusion of techniques and genres that we might call lyrical epic. His greatest work is massively ambitious. In the guidance of a classical epic poet, Virgil, he explores the underworld like Æneas and Odysseus. He goes to the center of the earth, comes out on the other side, climbs a mountain which covers a whole continent, and then, in a sci-fi conclusion, ascends into heaven in a thrilling, Interstellar-like act of space travel. But along the way, he meets numberless historical and contemporary characters. He holds hundreds of conversations, in which people confess their failures or hopes. Blending the objective, big-picture nature of epic with the interior quality of lyric verse created this world. It is like a hall of mirrors in which human beings are displayed in their beauty and charity and courage, but also in their sick, self-deceptive, craving, twisted avarice. For this reason, we need Dante. He is still modern and relevant, even after seven hundred years.
Jason M. Baxter is Associate Professor of Humanities and Art History at Wyoming Catholic College. He is the author of A Beginner’s Guide to Dante’s “Comedy” (2018) and a scholarly monograph, The Infinite Beauty of the World: Dante’s Encyclopedia and the Names of God (2020). He is at work on a new translation of the Comedy, which will be available next year.
Every week, we publish a profile of one of the figures from the CLT author bank. For an introduction to classic authors, see our guest post from Keith Nix, founder of the Veritas School in Richmond, VA.
If you enjoyed this post, you might also be interested in our profile of Dorothy Sayers or this “Great Conversation” piece on virtue and vice. Or check out our weekly podcast, Anchored, where our founder Jeremy Tate discusses education and culture with leading intellectuals.