Fides quaerens intellectum: a faith seeking understanding

Dante is one of the supreme artists of the Catholic faith and its incomparable poet and dramatist. If Dante turns his mind out upon the world he sees pattern and order based on divine Providence; if he turns his mind inwards, he does not experience himself as an isolated individual, but as a vital part of the same symmetry: a soul in an all-encompassing universe, the macrocosm of which he is the microcosm. To be is to belong. Dante can never fall through or out of his world or be at a final loss within it. There are no cracks in the foundation below; no black holes in the space above. In his world there can be no tragedy. Everything has its time and place and just outcome.

This is why his Christian epic, plotting a personal journey through Hell and Purgatory to the eternal joy of Paradise, is called the Commedia – a word deriving from the Greek ‘komos’ meaning ‘a revel’ and ‘aidein’, ‘to sing’. The book sings the divine revelation. However weak or corrupt or evil the characters he encounters, there is always a niche where they have their fitting place, while for those who are able to pursue the virtuous life on earth with Christian humility, there is not only the certainty of immortality, but the prospect of eternal bliss. This is Dante’s metaphysics of the self; life as a pilgrimage from darkness to light; each individual being held within the infinitely larger compass of Divine Being.

More accurately, of course, it is the metaphysics of the Church he believed in, as it was given architectonic expression by its greatest philosopher, the Dominican Thomas Aquinas (c.1225-1274). It is a memorable coincidence that the year of the philosopher’s death marked the same year that the young poet claimed to encounter Beatrice in Florence for the first time, a formative encounter which was the subject of his first autobiographical work, La Vita Nuova. This short work has an important but ambiguous position in the story of the self and the development of autobiography. Written not in Latin but in the Tuscan vernacular, it is conceived as a public epistle to his friend and fellow-poet Guido Cavalcanti. The deliberate use of living sinuous speech, of the primal mother-tongue, released at times a new intimacy of feeling and spontaneity that was no longer possible in the more canonical Latin. The poetics of the vernacular, nurtured by Cavalcanti and part of the literary movement of the age, created a revolution in European letters which fostered a greater individuation of life and a finer expression of individual sensibility.

A further intimacy of tone sprang from the context of the work. Dante was addressing directly the small community of poets in Florence to which he belonged. One of his aims was to make explicit his own poetic methods and to demonstrate in some of the key poems the ‘dolce stil nuovo’ – ‘the sweet new style’. Thus, at one level, the book is almost an apologia, a literary manual, a manifesto: a young man’s ambitious entry into the cultural élite of his own city. But it is at the same time a passionate love story revealing Dante’s relationship with Beatrice – a relationship that his immediate readers would have known about, for most of the poems gathered in the book had been previously circulated and one had been sent directly to Cavalcanti himself, soliciting his judgement. Through thirty original poems and a connecting prose narrative the book documents a transformative experience of eros culminating in an all-encompassing mystical love. It also climaxes in the author’s resolution to forge in the smithy of his soul a further work, one without equal, to house more fully the spiritual revelation he has undergone. It can be seen as a portrait of the artist as a young man.

It has to be said, at once, that the dual intentions of the work – to comment on the poetry and to tell a personal story – set up two different styles of writing, two distinct voices which rarely integrate. The laboured commentaries on the poems are as dry as ash. They impede the narrative, detract from the power of the poetry and add little in the way of illumination. They express the pedantic side of Scholasticism: a methodical tabulation of bullet points devoid of spirit. The modern reader involuntarily skips the dull and earnest exegesis so as to catch up with the startling story of erotic love. It is not the explicating poetics but the explosive narrative that enters the imagination.

The title of the book offers a crucial key. The phrase ‘la vita nuova’ was from the lines in a theological treatise by Augustine: ‘The new man knows, the old man does not know. The old man is the old life and the new man is the new life.’ The source suggests that the book will tell of a Pauline conversion; a dramatic turning round, a discarding of one life and the embracing of another; in short, a spiritual testimony. But the very first sentence sets a further meaning in motion. The book starts: ‘In the book of my memory, after the first pages, which are almost blank, there is a section headed Incipit vita nova.’ The line suggests another and more literal reference; that here after his forgotten infancy his childhood begins. The two readings are not in conflict; they resonate, unifying two powerful expectations. The first is that the book will tell the story of a momentous conversion; the second that it will be presented as a retrospective chronological narrative, beginning with the earliest formative moment. The organisation of the writing thus resembles Augustine’s Confessions, yet Dante’s method of telling could not be more different, nor the cause of the conversion more at odds with the teachings of the Church Father. For at the heart of the book lies this quivering experience of eros as intense as anything to be found in the fragments of Sappho or the love letters of Heloise – yet startlingly different both in spiritual meaning and aesthetic import. It is as if Dante is giving an account of his obsessive love for a beautiful child/woman in terms first set out in Plato’s Symposium. It is a personal witnessing to the way in which erotic love can advance through a series of stages to the silent contemplation of wisdom (theoria), but, of course, an account rendered absolutely within the framework of the Catholic faith. Dante’s ‘book of memory’ thus offers one of the first personal descriptions of an individual journey from eros to theoria in the story of the self, one of the first ‘romances’ in western culture – a genre that centuries later will become secularised and evolve into the romantic and autobiographical novel, into Rousseau’s Julie ou la Nouvelle Héloise and Goethe’s Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre.

After the briefest introduction, invoking the primacy of memory, La Vita Nuova continues by relating Dante’s first sight of Beatrice. He claims that he is nine and that Beatrice was the same age – as we shall see, nine is a numinous number for Dante. The encounter leaves the young boy in a state of crazed possession. His one desire is to see her constantly, to gaze at her beauty: ‘and so, while I was still a boy, I often went in search of her; and I saw that in all her ways she was so praiseworthy and noble that indeed the words of the poet Homer might have been said of her: “She did not seem the daughter of a mortal man, but of a god”’. As so often in the writing of Dante, the words quoted from Homer stand in their own right, but are also proleptic. They indicate the state of intoxication that the young boy feels, but simultaneously point to the theological meaning of the work. Beatrice does not derive from a pagan god, in fact; rather like Maria Sophia in Gnosticism, she is a female expression of the one eternal God of Biblical Revelation. For in the hot crucible of Dante’s imagination Beatrice finally emerges as nothing less than a female Christ, one who has been given the task of guiding the floundering pilgrim to the divine vision. This is a supreme example of the sublimation of male sexuality before the power and beauty of the feminine, marking a new development in the life of amor coming out of the Provencal poets of the twelfth century, a development which was to play an enormous part in shaping western consciousness right down to the most recent four wheel drive advertisement and the last sticky batch of Mills and Boon novellas. La Vita Nuova has been judged in our own time as a classic text of erotic perversity. Thus does one age deconstruct and re-read another.

But what kind of transformation was this and how did it happen? In contrast to the sudden cathartic conversions of Paul and Augustine, Dante’s metanoia is more gradual; it unfolds from childhood to youth and goes through at least three distinct stages; each movement containing within itself some of the elements present in the earlier phase. It is an integrative process, a continuous act of self-sublation, a journey both inwards into the depths of his soul and a journey outwards into the whole of the Ptolemaic universe, reaching beyond ‘the widest of the circling spheres’. For, in the end, within and without are one and the same. In this movement from a lower to a higher state of consciousness, psychology and theology are woven into a single strand. And at each stage of the journey Dante, as philosopher-poet, reflects on what is happening to him and registers what it signifies. An early ‘sentimental education’ is being documented.

The opening chapters present an erotic theatre of frenzied dreams and secret encounters, in which the beloved Beatrice is invariably hidden by other women who serve as screens, a drama in which, following the tradition of the troubadour poets, love is portrayed as a violent intrusion upon a helpless victim. Dante describes how he enters ‘love’s maze’ to become utterly disorientated. He lists the pathologies: compulsive weeping, fainting, convulsions, inner division and paralysis. The sensation of eros and the sensation of death arrive together. The inchoate maelstrom of feeling culminates in a dread of annihilation. As Dante dissects his state of consciousness (though never quite with the acuity of Augustine in the Confessions) he judges it as too passive and too confined to the negative and self-destructive. The realisation brings an inner liberation. Passive reactions are converted into active reflections and the eye begins to look outwards rather than inwards. There is a spiralling up to a higher level of understanding.

There can be little doubt that in his depiction of the first stage of erotic love, Dante is comparing his abject state to that of Boethius in the Consolation of Philosophy, the very book on which he is modelling his own prosometric composition. In his opening Boethius portrayed himself as the passive victim of forces beyond his control, his potential for seeing eclipsed by his tears of self-pity. Under the guidance of Lady Philosophy, Boethius has to surmount the subjective state of self-wallowing and become more objective and philosophical in his understanding. In the same way, Dante has to overcome the narcissism latent in erotic turmoil. He must turn his attention outwards to the beloved, who is seen as being both wise and beautiful, a Lady Philosophy in her own right, though viewed more and more through the powerful lens of Christian belief and Biblical typology. The subtle intertextuality at play points to a strong tradition of self-representation in the late Middle Ages fusing, once again, Biblical and classical sources. By the end of the thirteenth century Boethius’ dialogue with Lady Philosophy had clearly become a master-text in self-representation, both a literary exemplar and a manual of wisdom. Without it – and without the romantic conventions of the Troubadour poets – Dante’s pilgrimage of love could hardly have existed.

The exact moment of transition from the passive stage to the higher level of objective reflection is recorded in Chapter XVII: ‘I had said almost everything about my state and I thought it right to be silent and say no more, for I felt I had explained enough about myself… I felt impelled to take up a new and nobler theme than before’. At this critical juncture, the troubadour poetry of self-pity is dramatically transmuted into the lucid poetry of observation and affirmation, a witnessing of who and what is loved, and why. Dante relates how, after a period of intense conflict, the next poem came to him spontaneously. It was as if, in relationship to his conscious insight, the poem had mysteriously shaped itself in the deepest chambers of his mind. ‘My tongue,’ he writes, ‘spoke, almost as though moved of its own accord.’ Cast in a new key of lyrical affirmation, the poem confidently recreates not the solipsistic state of the ‘victim’ of love, but its revered object: ‘She is the sum of nature’s universe/To her perfection all of beauty tends.’ Later, in the Commedia (Purgatorio XXIV, 50), Dante referred to this canzone as the starting point of the new poetry with its dolce stil nuovo. The two sparse lines catch Dante’s aspiration perfectly; the cognition of beauty and perfection through the act of animated attention. This turning outwards to the presence of love and its celebration in language characterise the second stage of Dante’s evolving experience. It combines an almost clairvoyant observation with an inner submission to the words that rise spontaneously within. This, indeed, is the hallmark of Dante’s genius as a poet: a crystalline clarity with a compelling ease of utterance. His mature work in the Commedia has its momentous starting point here.

In the final stage of the journey the experience of love spirals up to join more fully the human to the transcendent. A kind of eros becomes a kind of agape leading to a kind of Christian theoria. In the process the beloved becomes a divine mediatrix. Her salutation (meaning in the original Italian both ‘salute’ and ‘salvation’) becomes her visible mark of redemption, an outward sign of her inward grace. Somewhat scandalously, Beatrice is beatified. It is only through her that Dante will be able to achieve the eternal reward of the questing pilgrim. The last sonnet in La Vita Nuova dramatises the journey of the ‘pilgrim spirit’ until it reaches a vision of Beatrice’s soul in glory. The trajectory is one of continuous ascent:

Beyond the widest of the spheres
A sigh which leaves my heart aspires to move.
A new celestial influence which Love
Bestows on it by virtue of his tears
Impels it ever upwards…..

But as with the sacrament of confession, so with most autobiographical writing, the recollection of past events moves inexorably to a set of resolutions which address the future. The person who, in the present moment, has gathered the strands of memory together, finally looks forward with new intentions and renewed hope. The underlying image of the self is that of an intentional agent, shaping itself through the power of the will, a creative being in the hands of the living God. La Vita Nuova closes with these two sentences: ‘Thus, if it shall please Him by whom all things live that my life continue for a few years, I hope to compose concerning her what has never been written in rhyme of any woman. And then may it please Him who is the Lord of courtesy that my soul may go to see the glory of my lady, that is of the blessed Beatrice, who now in glory beholds the face of Him qui est per omnia secula benedictus (who is blessed for ever).’ Thus Dante’s ‘book of memory’ ends looking forward to the creation of a new work of unsurpassed originality and the final hope of eternal life alongside his Beloved. And it is, finally, here that the two conflicting voices of the book, the lover/narrator and the editor/exegete, integrate.

Certainly, Dante’s La Vita Nouva can be read as pure autobiography. It makes a kind of sense. Yet a certain gadfly question will not be silenced. Was Dante really following his autobiographical impulse or a much stronger impulse to make an allegory? Or both? Or is the question meaningless in terms of the historic period in which Dante was writing? Certainly the personal narrative, with its opening evocation of memory, resembles the genre of spiritual autobiography; while the elements of apologia, relating to Cavalcanti, are indisputable. Yet to interpret La Vita Nuova exclusively as personal autobiography, in the manner of later humanist autobiographies or, even, of earlier spiritual autobiographies – like Augustine’s Confessions – is not adequate. One must be wary of projecting modern notions of self and self-expression onto this most Medieval and Catholic of authors. Dante is not a modern writer, no more than he is a Romantic. Questions like ‘How sincere is the writing at this point?’ or ‘Did this event actually happen?’ miss the target. They fail to register the multiple levels at which the writing intentionally operates. A more oblique, subtle and historically attuned reading is required.

Clearly Dante frequently reads his life analogically and often shapes it more in the form of coded allegory than transparent autobiography. Personal encounters are set in a universe resonant with symbolic patterns relating not only to the Bible, but to the entire classical world: to Plato and Boethius, to Aristotelian philosophy (as interpreted by Aquinas) and Ptolemaic astronomy. A crucial part of that symbolic background related to Christian typology in which figures in classical mythology and history were seen to possess allegorical meanings foreshadowing the binding truths of Biblical revelation. In this way the poet’s experience is translated into a language of type and exemplum; it is lifted up, idealised and sown into the collective tapestry of Faith. There are no loose ends; no private places; no contingent experience standing free of the entire system. Nothing in Dante is (or could be) indeterminate. Indeed, any phenomenology of the contingent has to wait two further centuries for its articulation in a very different historical period, finding its first full expression in the private and introspective essays of Michel de Montaigne.

And essential to a deeper understanding of La Vita Nuova is a recognition of the esoteric numeral 3 with its various multiples, especially 9. The number not only recurs through the narrative, but is a pre-determining force shaping the whole structure of the book. In Chapter II Dante and Beatrice are both nine when they meet: it is ‘exactly nine years’ later when they meet again in Chapter III and then, in the same chapter, when Dante has the dream of Beatrice eating his heart, it appeared ‘in the first of the last nine hours’. When Dante makes a list of the sixty most beautiful women in Florence, Beatrice can only be placed in the ninth position. Later in the Commedia her name occurs sixty-three times, a multiple of nine, while her name appears as a rhyme exactly nine times (a name that is only allowed to rhyme with itself) operating within the formidable terza rima organisation of the whole epic – an epic which ends with Canto 33 of the Paradiso. More broadly, the three Transcendentals of Plato – Truth, Beauty and Goodness – inform the work, but mediated by the Christian belief in the Triune God; Father, Son and Holy Ghost. In Dante trinities are everywhere.

If there is a strong autobiographical force at work in La Vita Nuova – and I have tried to show that there are powerful elements of both testimony and apologia – one also has to concede that much of it, informed by esoteric numerology and the hermeneutics of Catholic typology, moves towards allegory, offering an ideal narrative and an exemplary journey, the journey of the pilgrim soul towards eternal life. Life is interpreted, for the most part, analogically. It is significant that we are never in Florence but in an unnamed city, never by the Arno but by a flowing river, never in a particular house or garden but merely ‘a solitary place’ or ‘a room of tears’. Each place is all but fabulous, a symbolic location representing some portion of the soul or some stage of its spiritual development.

La Vita Nuova concludes with Dante determined to write a book in rhyme dedicated to the divine Beatrice. That book became the Commedia. Indeed La Vita Nuova is no more than a modest and early prolegomenon to that master-work which was finished in 1321, the last year of the poet’s life. Any account of Dante which failed to refer to this work would be badly truncated – for in this masterpiece he forged a mode of autobiographical allegory working on an epic scale which married his architectonic mind to his linguistic genius. What the Iliad and the Odyssey had been to the classical world, the Commedia was to fourteenth-century Catholicism. From our point of view Dante’s masterpiece might best be termed automythography. One of the great differences between Dante and Homer is that the latter composes anonymously; he does not enter his work as author; the tale is told impersonally from a long oral tradition and leaves not one trace of the author’s identity. In contrast, Dante enters his narrative as the reflexive protagonist. On Good Friday in the year 1300 the poet makes through the imagination his journey into the Inferno and he himself tells the story recording in visionary detail his responses, even if they have to be decoded at times through the categories of Biblical hermeneutics. It is all first person narrative. And in the compass of the epic, while all the other characters remain fixed and immutable, conforming to their type, the ‘I’ of Dante, the pilgrim’s soul, changes and develops. He loses his way; he expresses a variety of conflicting emotions; he evolves ethically through the unfolding action.

Dante, the writer, also does something quite new. He draws into his plot a range of contemporary figures, people he had actually encountered in Florence or characters that were in power at the time he was alive. He lines up popes, kings and petty functionaries, men and women from all social classes, even some of his own acquaintances. The poet Cavalcanti’s father is placed in hell, as is his homosexual mentor, Brunetto Latini. This was revolutionary. Of the seventy-nine characters he places in the Inferno thirty-two are from his own city and eleven are Tuscans, while in Paradise he can only find two souls from Florence. The indictment is savage and confrontational. Here the self (the autos) is directly shaping the story (the mythos) to express powerful personal judgements. There is no epic distance; no Homeric detachment.

To grasp the immense sweep of this new kind of personal epic it must be recalled that Dante, following the rules of typology, adds to his dramatic cast over two hundred and fifty historical characters and about the same number of characters from Antiquity, together with some eighty figures from the Bible. The key development is not, however, to do with the scale, but with the startling mix of contemporary and archaic figures, and in the shift of the position of the author as narrator. In Homer he is an anonymous recorder; in Dante he is himself the self-conscious protagonist, the pilgrim who in his journey reflects on his many encounters and undergoes existential change. He is the Christian subject, who weighs every experience in the scales of Revelation, an immortal soul destined after an arduous journey to reach the eternal vision of God. Such literary innovations register deep changes in the historic development of identity. The reflexive individual is emerging through the tribal structures of the church and its enveloping theology.

However, in the end, Dante’s work is beautifully and absolutely of its time. He did not tower over his age so much as expand within it, giving the aspirations and assumptions of his culture the highest literary expression. The Rhineland mystic Meister Eckhart (1260-1327) is an exact contemporary, while in the century before Dante there is Hildegaard of Bingen (1097-1142) and, in the generation after, Julian of Norwich (1342-1416) – all of them profound mystics. It is the age of spiritual aspiration, an epoch of analogical being, expressed most graphically in the soaring Gothic architecture and, quintessentially, in the paintings of Giotto (Dante’s contemporary), whose resonant blue vault cut by golden stars in the Arena Chapel at Padua expresses the same Transcendence as the stars that greet Dante as he emerges from the stifling darkness of the Inferno. In the work of Thomas Aquinas and the Franciscan theologian Bonaventure (1221-1274) Dante would have read that God was Qui Est: He Who Is or, alternatively, Esse Seipsum: Being Itself. He may even have known that Aquinas had declared, towards the end of his life, that before the vision of eternity he could write no more. In comparison to the mystical experience of God his philosophical words were straw.

The writing of Dante can best be understood anagogically; each sentence anticipates the final bliss of eternal being. It lives for parousia. And, tellingly, Dante was the first to apply this hermeneutic category to his own writing; before him it had been confined to the interpretation of Biblical scripture. He takes it, with a certain courage and audacity, to apply to his own craft in relationship to his existence. His first book, La Vita Nuova, ends in the hope of eternal contemplation while his last work, Commedia, climaxes in mystical rapture as, in a flash, he perceives the supreme light of God experiencing, beyond the register of speech, the ‘Love that moves the sun and other stars’. The Catholic tribal vision of the individual soul within a divine universe, being within Being, had never been given such epic expression and would never reach such literary heights again.

In his next essay Peter Abbs will examine changing conceptions of the self in relationship to Petrarch. For further details on the story of the self see:

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