CULTURE by Kevin DonnellyNews Weekly
Pope Francis' message on Dante true of other classics
, June 6, 2015
Pope Francis, on the occasion of the 750th celebration of Dante Alighieri’s birthday in mid-May, is in no doubt about the enduring significance of his masterwork, The Divine Comedy.
An illustration of the Divine Comedy
by William Blake.
Even though the narrative poem, depicting Dante’s journey through hell, purgatory and heaven, was written centuries ago, Francis believes it still resonates in today’s world.
The Pope writes that Dante “still has much to say and to offer through his immortal works to those who wish to follow the route of true knowledge and authentic discovery of self, the world and the profound and transcendent meaning of existence”.
In today’s world of 30-second sound grabs, narcissistic social networking sites, texting and the need for immediate gratification, talk about “true knowledge” and “transcendent meaning” barely registers. But there is no denying that to be human is to seek such understanding.
As Alexander Pope puts it in An Essay on Man, to be human is to be incomplete as we are “Created half to rise and half to fall; / Great lord of all things, yet prey to all, / Sole judge of truth, in endless error hurl’d; / The glory, jest and riddle of the world”.
Given such a situation, it is only natural that through the arts, literature in particular, we seek to find solace and meaning in a flawed and imperfect world.
Francis goes on to say that The Divine Comedy depicts “a true pilgrimage, both personal and intimate as well as collective, ecclesial, social and historical. It is the paradigm of every authentic journey in which humanity is called to leave behind what Dante calls ‘the flower-bed that makes us so ferocious’ and reach a new condition marked by harmony, peace and happiness.”
Dante’s pilgrimage involves what the Penguin Classics edition’s translator, Robin Kirkpatrick, describes as an “intellectual and spiritual struggle” exploring the “psychology, actions and the fate of the human individual”. In particular, Dante explores human nature and actions within a Christian ethos where free will prevails and good and evil struggle for supremacy.
The Divine Comedy and other enduring classics such as John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress, as well as more recent literary texts such as C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia, deal with existential questions and dilemmas about what constitutes right action and how we should relate to one another.
In a similar way to The Pilgrim’s Progress, Dante’s poem also shows how the path to goodness and understanding is often a tortuous one where temptation and weakness cause indecision, suffering and pain.
While a rainbow alliance of theories, ranging from neo-Marxism to feminism, queer theory, post-colonialism and postmodernism, seek to deconstruct texts in terms of class, gender, power and sexuality, the reality is that literature — especially the classics — is inherently moral in character.
Macbeth and Lady Macbeth suffer remorse and eventual madness and death as a result of committing regicide.
Frodo Baggins in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings suffers as a result of being torn between keeping the ring for himself and giving up what is most precious to save his companions and destroy the evil Sauron.
Classic texts such as The Odyssey, The Iliad and old English tales such as Beowulf also deal with overcoming adversity and what appear to be insurmountable challenges. Bravery, endurance and resourcefulness are traits that allow the hero to succeed.
Such is the power of such tales that Hollywood regularly produces movies such as Thor and Troy and TV series such as The Odyssey and Helen of Troy. As American mythologist Joseph Campbell has noted, such tales also form the basis for modern popular classics, including the Star Wars films.
Those familiar with Greek tragedies such as The Bacchae, Oedipus Rex and Medea will appreciate that human nature has not changed in thousands of years and there is nothing unique about our own psychological problems.
When many young people, given the increasing rates of self-harm, suicide and depression, appear to lack a moral compass and a sense of resilience and being grounded, it is vital that they be allowed to encounter such tales.
U.S. academic Allan Bloom, author of The Closing of the American Mind, describes how great works such as those of Homer, Dante, Goethe and Shakespeare provide a “common understanding of what is virtuous and vicious, noble and base” to their respective cultures. Without such works, Bloom argues, societies become atomised as they lose a common understanding and respect for the values and beliefs that are most worth cultivating and protecting.
Pope Francis, in applauding The Divine Comedy, suggests that one of its strengths is that it provides a transcendent view of life. It gives a sense that this physical world is a veil of illusion and our time here is not all there is.
To acknowledge this is not cause for despair; rather, to embrace the transitory nature of life and our imperfectability is to achieve what T.S. Eliot refers to in The Waste Land as “the peace which passeth understanding”.
Kevin Donnelly is a senior research fellow at the Australian Catholic University and author of Taming the Black Dog. This article first appeared in The Australian on May 9, 2015.