Just over a year ago, the images of the coffins arriving in large quantities at the Ice Palace in Madrid made the memory of one of the illustrations that Sandro Botticelli prepared for his unfinished but impressive iconographic program of the Comedy. What Dante and Virgilio see when crossing the walls of the capital of hell and entering the sixth circle is a great expanse of tombs, and the author compares it with the necropolis of Arles and Pula, famous and relatively close for his first readers. .
In times of uncertainty, Madrid photographs seemed like a performance postmodern doomsday, and they were, in their own way, a Dante quote. Because the Comedy It is a medieval work loaded with the future. In the seven centuries that separate us from the death of its author, it has been copied, commented on, printed, illustrated and translated countless times, but if today it were published as a novelty in a narrative collection, it would be enough to put together two words that are à la page to assign the best promotional strategy: autofiction and dystopia. And there would be no shortage of those who proposed its adaptation in the format of a television series or those who found the best summary of their argument in the chorus of a popular bolero, because it is the story of a love like no other that makes us understand all the good and everything. evil.
Dante we are all
Dante recounts, as if it were real, his week-long exploration of the three kingdoms of the underworld, but from the first verse he is talking about us, because his experience is also the representation of our passage through life, an exemplary way of understanding our lives. easements and our desires. He advances at a brisk pace through the capital sins that he considers the least (those of incontinence: lust, gluttony and laziness), then he abandons that scheme and analyzes various forms of violence, and in the last circles of hell he delays in condemning deception, that culminates in betrayal, showing from the first song to the last an obsession with greed (“infamous old wolf”) as the cause of the worst evils. The protagonist faces the consequences of sin, varied and showy forms of horror in a permanent exhibition of spiritual deviations and moral evils: the whirlwind of the lustful, the sewer of the flattering, the burdensome line of the proud, the persistent rain that It muddies the angry, the forest of the suicides, the comic and festering dropsy of the forgers, the abyssal ice of the traitors. But it is not about intellectual abstractions: it is Francesca de Rimini who tells how she fell in love with her brother-in-law, it is Guido Cavalcanti’s father who lies among the Epicureans and misses his son, it is Pope Nicholas III who confesses his nepotism , it is Muhammad – for Dante a schismatic, more than a heretic – who literally opens his flesh before the spectator, it is the troubadour Bertran de Born who walks “with his head held by the hair, / like a lantern”, it is Ulysses who he harangues his men and embarks on a tragic exploration in pursuit of knowledge: “Think of your origin, that you were not / made to live like animals, / but to follow virtue and science.”
The rows of coffins during the pandemic were reminiscent of the ‘Comedy’ illustrated by Botticelli
In Dante’s powerful imagination, which proliferates in ours, these characters remain there forever and ever, and perhaps they await us. We are pilgrims like the author, but there is also a more unspeakable possibility: that we recognize ourselves in the damned of Hell or in the penitents of Hell. Purgatory. Who does not know a corrupt politician, a sympathetic glutton, an unscrupulous climber, a vain artist, a petty colleague, a compulsive liar, a poet with a passion for polyamory? Everyone has their place in Dante’s verses for having been who we are; They are where they should be, but their case singles them out and demands the attention of the poet, sensitive to infinite nuances and delicate ambiguities, as when he finds his teacher Brunetto Latini among the Sodomites and prefers to remember with affection his great lesson: “Eternity that man can reach ”.
The books that save us from the routines of the day —even by telling us the routines or the ruins of their characters— are part of a genderless territory in which truth and lies do not mix, nor are they confused, nor are they compensated, they neither alternate nor challenge each other, because they are simply the same thing. The Purgatory, with its isolated strata (except for those who, like the narrator, are progressing on their path of perfection), can be the metaphor of this second pandemic year: sinners have to purge their errors for a variable period of time, depending on their faults and the external help they may receive in the form of prayers or stories of exemplary cases, and their penance is quite similar to ours, of unpredictable duration and end, based on personal and collective sacrifice, but oriented towards hope of a better future.
Purgatory is the perfect metaphor for this second year of coronavirus
Nor can we rule out identifying ourselves with some of the characters in the Paradise, which in reality is a kind of abstraction, a place without space and time without time, a sustained hyperbole of thousands of verses in which the adventure of the protagonist culminates and that could be summarized with the words that, it is said, pronounced Goethe on his deathbed: “Light, more light!” In the perfect empyrean noon, Dante meets examples of holiness, “very fleeting sparks / that vanished before my eyes.” Beatriz’s love helps him to resist that increasingly intense light and to understand God’s plans and the mysteries of his creation, enclosed in a point of absolute clarity and figuratively like a book: “In its depth I saw that it is enclosed, / sewn with love in a volume, / everything that the universe unfolds ”. In our time of virtual realities, in which Dante’s fiction moves like a fish in water, the idea that everything can be enclosed in a simple and beautiful object of less than 1,000 pages that will accompany us for a lifetime is still comforting.
Dante for a while
In the Purgatory, the Latin poet Estacio tries an impossible hug with his admired Virgilio, who reminds him that they are both spirits: “No, brother, you are a shadow and you see a shadow.” Among the hundreds of characters in the plot, Dante is the only living being, the only one who moves stones or casts a shadow in his wake, and thereby provokes the wrath of demons, the bewilderment of sinners, the discomfort of penitents. and the curiosity of the blessed, and in his journey, after initial doubts, he assumes with responsibility and a point of pride his condition of chosen testimony of extraordinary events. He is our envoy to the afterlife and he tells us what he has seen. Dante’s purpose was not to compose the figure for the eventual contemplation of posterity, as in the vanity of portraits, but to raise a memorable work, a sum of human effort and mystery, superhuman in its own way, of inspiration.
The great works of what we call world literature are incomparable, but almost all belong to a certain lineage, because they perfect a tradition or initiate a fashion. In Dante they go hand in hand, as in other ancient authors, classical culture and the new poetry in romance that was born with the troubadours, but the list of his works in Latin and Italian is made up of a succession of amazing creations that are, almost without exception, unique specimens, unique books without lineage (the New life, the By vulgari eloquentia, the Coexisted, the Monarchy).
The greats of literature perfect a tradition or start a fashion. Dante does both
Confronted with other great works, the Comedy It is even more astonishing: for the ambition of the company, for the circumstances of its writing, for the music of its 15,000 hendecasyllables, for the moral distress of its characters, for the prodigious invention of a form and a structure that create the illusion of perfection, for the evocative accuracy of its innumerable verbal treasures and for many other reasons that help us understand the tireless dedication of philologists and, more importantly, their great power of suggestion over the best creators of any discipline.
And that, which is valid historical evidence for any letter of the alphabet (Barceló, Blake, Boccaccio …), is also a matter of our present. As I write these lines, the young painter Jordi Díaz Alamà is working on an ambitious pictorial program of Hell; A few months ago, the bailaor Andrés Marín projected a great show based on the Comedy and interrupted by the pandemic, and on May 10 composer Mauricio Sotelo premiered in the auditorium of the Museo Reina Sofía an intense piece of “spectral flamenco” in which some verses of my translation sounded in the prodigious voice of Arcángel.
They are affordable and modern ways of feeling in paradise, and we will always have the most basic one: reading Dante, because the Comedy it is a novel in verse, a poem that tells us about knowledge and living, mortal life and eternal life, through an autobiographical fiction that intended to achieve — and has ended up achieving — an ecumenical dimension. It is the ideal fable to give a great meaning to our little lives, a cartography of the beyond that is as imaginary as it is effective, because it traces the best ancient map of an invariable territory: the human condition.
José María Micó is a poet and musician and has translated Dante’s ‘Comedy’ for Acantilado (2018).