The Divine Comedy and the Human Experience

The Divine Comedy and the Human Experience

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The Divine Comedy: The Depth of Human Experience      

Religious, structured, and orderly. Although this book is religious through and through, it is also very earthly. You seem to never leave the earth. In fact, there seems to be no difference between earth and the heavenly sphere.

It is a solid world, no distinction between mind and matter, everything is touchable. The physical expresses the spiritual, the spirit of God is physical and pervades the physical universe--it's all one place. There is no heaven and hell, it is just all here. For this reason, this book answers all of those questions you had as a kid in Sunday school and nobody could give you a satisfying answer, for instance, where do people go when they die, what does hell look like, what does heaven look like, what is purgatory, and how does one get from purgatory to heaven. Sunday school teachers should just read Dante to the kids--it is the end-all encyclopedia of heaven, hell, and purgatory.

The symbolism of the beginning is nice, that he is in a forest being chased by various animals. I can imagine that each of the animals represents some kind of vice and that the part in the woods symbolizes the sinful, confused life full of temptations. It was interesting that Virgil was his guide. I was expecting a more religious character, for instance, Moses--but it later turned out that he was sitting in hell himself! That was an eye-opener. It makes you realize the difference between the old and the new testaments. Even Noah was in hell.(!) But at least they weren't very deep in hell.

"All hope abandon ye who enter here."

I liked how Hell is an interactive place for Dante. He isn't afraid to "touch the merchandise."

Then seizing on his hinder scalp, I cried:
"Name thee, or not a hair shall tarry here."

He is human, he takes part and overreacts. And he keeps fainting. It's not a Universal Studios ride through hell, but you can actually grab ahold of the props, talk to old friends and acquaintences, and the guide will patiently wait for you when you faint.

Another aspect of hell that surprised me was that the devil was standing on a frozen lake. This isn't the picture of Larson's Far Side hell scenes, nor is the devil the cool, rebellious bad boy of Milton's Paradise Lost.

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For Dante, the Devil is an impotent lump of frozen hate. He shows us that evil is not only stupid, but self-destructive as well.

I like the short cantos for each level and the "proceeding on." I couldn't help thinking during the trip down into Hell that this would make a fantastic video game. All of the levels are already there, and at each level you have a different kind of enemy, here flying, metamorphosing dragons and on the next level a pool of liquid tar with demons swooping down at the sinners. If you make it through all levels, you and the devil could skate around on a frozen lake throwing fireballs at each other! Maybe some programmer/English teacher has already made it, I'll have to check the Internet.

Each level is interesting because the punishment always matches the sin of the people there, e.g. the murderers are in a river of blood and the grafters are being fought over by demons just as the grafters fought over positions in their beauracracies. In this sense, each sin is graphically represented in some way (but not always in an obvious way) so that you can understand the sin better.

You realize in hell that Dante certainly had an ax to grind with the city of Florence in this book! My reference notes identified most of the people in hell as people he had known in Florence.

Purgatory is everything that hell wasn't: light, above ground, things are clean and white and orderly and safe. It is a nice contrast after the bloody jungle ride through levels of hell. Purgatory for Dante is a "school of love designed to correct the erroneaous forms human love has taken." Again you have levels with people there who were guilty of lighter sins. My favorite group was "The Slothful Souls" who as penance were hurrying around uttering quotes about swiftness and speed:

Soon they o'ertook us; with such swiftness mov'd
The might crowd. Two spirits of their head
Cried weeping: 'Blessed Mary sought with haste
The hilly region. Caesar, to subdue
Ilerda, darted in Marseilles his sting,
And flew to Spain."--"Oh tarry not: away;"
The others shouted; 'let not time be lost
Through slackness of affection. Hearty zeal
To serve reanimates celestial grace."

Dante's symbolic dreams were nice. My reference notes explained them thoroughly which brought out all their meaning. Dante seemed to have packed this poem with interrelated meanings which could take years to discover. Everything he described seemed to have another meaning. Here he is describing steps in purgatory. By the way he carefully decribes the scene, you know that each step represents something distinct, as well as the colors and textures:

The lowest stair was marble white, so smooth
And polish'd, that therein my mirror'd form
Distinct I saw. The next of hue more dark
Than sablest grain, a rough and singed block,
Crack'd lengthwise and across. The third, that lay
Massy above, seem'd porphyry, that flam'd
Red as the life-blood spouting from a vein.
On this God's angel either foot sustain'd,
Upon the threshold seated, which appear'd
A rock of diamond. Up the trinal steps
My leader cheerly drew me.

This made the book a series of riddles, more than you could possibly digest in one reading of the poem.

The long anticipation of Beatrice builds suspense until he finally sees her. He of course faints at her beauty. You feel that his love is not really for her but for beauty itself. It was also interesting that Beatrice became his guide in heaven as Virgil, being a more earthly character and representing reason, could only take him so far. Beatrice, representing faith, would have to take him the rest of the way so that he could understand heaven.

In paradise, I liked the symoblism of light. It is a strenghth of the poem that even though everything in the story is so literal and touchable, Dante describes Christ and God not as people, but as light and energy and warmth. It retains their mystery and wonder:

As one,
Who vers'd in geometric lore, would fain
Measure the circle; and, though pondering long
And deeply, that beginning, which he needs,
Finds not: e'en such was I, intent to scan
The novel wonder, and trace out the form,
How to the circle fitted, and therein
How plac'd: but the flight was not for my wing;
Had not a flash darted athwart my mind,
And in the spleen unfolded what it sought.
Here vigour fail'd the tow'ring fantasy:

But yet the will roll'd onward, like a wheel
In even motion, by the Love impell'd,
That moves the sun in heav'n and all the stars.

This book is for the love of God, of the universe, and personal experience. It is a masterpiece which threads these themes into a tremendous journal through the three known areas of the afterlife. Shakespeare shows us the width of human experience, and Dante the depth. Nor does Dante preach. His religious message is positive. He shows us what a joy it is to live according to the will of God and encourages the reader to embark on the long journey of getting to know the meaning of faith and love.  The Divine Comedy gives wonderful meaning to Christian life as it was understood in the Middle Ages. It should be required reading for the study of Christianity. It is the personal and vivid story of a soul's journey through salvation.

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