Dante Alighieri. His poetic masterpiece The Divine Comedy has enraptured scholars and the literati for centuries. His depictions of Hell (Inferno), Purgatory (Purgatorio), and Heaven (Paradiso) have been endlessly dissected, analysed, and reinterpreted. Still, his legacy endures. I first engaged with his works several years ago. Like most Dante neophyte’s, I discovered that a wider appreciation of his works provides an important foundation of understanding. Enrolling in the public-access Dante lectures at the Warburg Institute, I was fortunate enough to listen to the wonderful John Took. Here he talks briefly about his passion for the Italian master, and what Dante can offer us in the twenty-first century.
Could you describe what your Dante lectures are about?
Dante lectures at the Warburg Institute and the Italian Cultural Institute offer both an introduction to Dante (1265-1321) followed by a reading of, and commentary on, selected cantos of the Divina Commedia. The readings are accompanied both by illustrations (e.g. fresco and manuscript), and provision is made for open discussion by way of a question and answer session of each reading.
What drew you to Dante, to begin with?
As a young man, I had thought of working in the Renaissance period, but there is something irresistible, magnetic even, about the great name. It has something to do with both the spaciousness and the seriousness of Dante as a perennial presence to us: ‘spaciousness’ in the sense of a mind reaching out for clarity in just about every level of human concern (theological, philosophical, moral, social, political and linguistic), and ‘seriousness’ in the sense of at no point underestimating the importance of these things for an interpretation of the human situation.
What’s the biggest misconception about Dante?
The greatest misconceptions about Dante are (a) that his inspiration is exhausted by a depiction of hell, whereas he is, in truth, the great poet in European letters of life, light and a fundamentally ecstatic sense of what it is to be fully human; and (b) that hell or Inferno in Dante’s sense of it a matter merely of affliction as distinct from self-affliction, from any sense, that is to say, of suffering as a matter of self-delivery and of self-alienation. To suppose otherwise, to imagine that it is all a question of an eye for an eye, is to skate over the surface of the text.
Why is Dante still relevant today?
Quite simply because Dante offers probably the most powerful and the most economic analysis of the human predicament, in respect of its self-losing and self-finding of the whole of European letters. As the theologian Paul Tillich once put it: “The greatest poetic expression of the Existentialist point of view in the Middle Ages is Dante’s Divina Commedia. It remains, like the religious depth psychology of the monastics, within the framework of the scholastic ontology. But within these limits, it enters the deepest places of human self-destruction and despair as well as the highest places of courage and salvation and gives in poetic symbols an all-embracing existential doctrine of man” (The Courage To Be).
There is no need to be intimidated by Dante. Once understood, it is a representative of the existential point of view in medieval philosophy. Dante starts with a story or narrative, with an account of his journey through the three (as he understands it) realms of the afterlife: hell, purgatory and paradise. He is an excellent story-teller. This is where you begin with Dante; by merely enjoying the story. Then with each subsequent reading, Dante is a lifelong companion, you go ever more deeply into his fundamental meaning.
Could you tell our readers what they should look for when considering reading Dante for the first time?
The first thing to do when it comes to the Divina Commedia is simply to enjoy the story; with Dante’s account of his journey down into the pit (of hell), across the terraces of purgatory, and away across the circling spheres to paradise. Then, with each successive reading, Dante has to be lived with as a lifelong companion, the text will yield up its deep significance, its indispensability as a means on the part of the reader of self-interpretation.
What do you think the future of Dante will look like in the next decade?
This depends in part on the direction of Dante scholarship and teaching, as well as on the sophistication of the reading public. Dante scholarship, by and large, tends to be exclusive; ‘exclusive’ in the sense of one Dantist writing for another or for those already in the know. Certainly this side of the channel, but also, I think, on the continent, the well-being of great texts such as the Commedia depends on the opening out and sharing of the whole thing with a broader public (the objective of our endeavour at the Warburg Institute and the Italian Cultural Institute in London).