NOTE: this piece first appeared in the Spring 2021 print edition of Ad Fontes
I didn’t like Dante in high school. I took a kind of pride in being able to differ with the authorities who had, on one or two points, been a little more liberal than I would have been in bestowing canonical status. To be fair to my old self, behind the hubris and impertinence lay a real objection to the Divine Comedy: it was just too specific. Why should I be expected to know the social circles of late thirteenth-century Florence to understand half the references in Hell or Purgatory? It was like Eliot’s Wasteland: a cascade of private allusions, Shibboleths, inside jokes. Readers of the Divine Comedy, ceaselessly glancing down to the critical commentary for context, were basically like Michael Scott from The Office: “I love inside jokes. Someday I hope to be a part of one.”
This is all wrong, of course, and thank goodness I’ve changed my mind. I still have trouble getting excited about parts of Paradise, but I think that will come. What reconciled me to the Divine Comedy was reading Dante’s earlier works, such as De Vulgari Eloquentia, a bizarre and comical Latin treatise on vernacular poetry, and La Vita Nuova, Dante’s handbook on composing love poems and the story of his romance with Beatrice Portinari, who would later become his guide through Paradise. It was La Vita Nuova that truly made me excited to return to the Divine Comedy.
Unusual among poetry manuals, La Vita Nuova is something of a page-turner. (Although Western Wind by John Fredrick Nims or Perrine’s Sound and Sense come to mind, and of course Sidney’s Defense of Poesy.) But La Vita Nuova is not a typical manual of poetry. Dante is giving specific explanations of how he wrote his love poems to one Beatrice Portinari, a woman whom he loved his whole life. Between his descriptions of making this or that sonnet or ballata, he tells the story of his life since meeting Beatrice, his “new life.” But where, exactly, does this mystery come from? What kind of romance is this?
It is certainly not a hot and heavy romance, gripping only insofar as it is lurid. Actually, nothing could be further from the contents of La Vita Nuova: Dante records his life from the first meeting with Beatrice to the aftermath of her death, during which time he interacts with her—get this—twice. Given how little Dante and Beatrice interacted in the real world, a modern reader would likely consider Dante’s romance repressed or even pathological. But “repressed” and “pathological” don’t even begin to capture the complexity of it. At one point, he considers in rapturous detail Beatrice’s mouth and then feels the need to clarify, in case your mind was in the gutter, that he wasn’t talking about kissing. He was talking about her mouth as a source of virtuous words. Dante is serious: this book is not about kissing. Whatever sort of “love” this is, modern readers likely have no category for it.
But it’s that asymmetry that is so fascinating—on the one hand, it is a Platonic love, never consummated, always focused on the metaphysical, but, on the other hand, Dante’s own manifestations of love are so fervent, bodily, visceral (but never, on his own insistence, sexual). Dante is always falling sick, or throwing up, or weeping the instant he makes eye contact with Beatrice. These paroxysms are brought about by almost nothing. Yet there is no pay-off, no torrid consummation of the sort found in the Lais of Marie de France or Chretien de Troyes’s Lancelot or any number of other courtly loves from medieval literature.
Nor is “plot,” in any contemporary sense, what drives the interest. In fact, as Barbara Reynolds points out, Dante seems embarrassed to even be including the details of the romance with Beatrice in what should be talk of prosody. When Dante describes the aftermath of Beatrice saying hello to him (which shatters his world), it is, “in his view, a digression, for he feels it necessary to justify, almost apologize for, its inclusion.” La Vita Nuova is, first and foremost, a manual of poetry.
Instead, what keeps the pages turning are the understated ways that Dante creates tension. Dante’s method is simple: he scatters moments of pure aporia which grip the reader with the unfulfilled mystery. Dante includes recurring motifs, seemingly unrelated to the romance, but never bothers to explain them. He contradicts himself but never resolves the contradiction.
The opening paragraph, one of the most famous openings in Medieval literature, is a good example of a motif that is never fully explained: the book of memory, a metaphorical volume, distinct from and governing La Vita Nuova itself. “In the book of my memory, after the first pages, which are almost blank, there is a section headed Incipit vita nova.” This Latin phrase probably would have been understood to mean “Here begins the period of my boyhood,” but the Latin literally says, “Here begins a new life.” This wording, redolent of the language of salvation, is prompted by his first encounter with Beatrice. Dante continues: “Beneath this heading I find the words which it is my intention to copy into this smaller book…” Now we have two books: one is Dante’s own memory, which, as Mary Carruthers points out, Dante portrays as a physical book, a “work in visual form, written in his memory as pages with text, rubrics, and paraphs.” The other book is the literal book, La Vita Nuova, into which Dante is copying from his metaphorical book of memory. Dante conceives of his life as separated into distinct chapters. Since he was nine, he has lived a new life—one single chapter under the heading “Beatrice.”
This metaphor may be odd to a modern audience only because we are unfamiliar with the role memory played in the Middle Ages and the distinct ways, as Carruthers as shown, that ancient Greco-Roman and Medieval theories of mind portrayed the memory as a book and, conversely, structured the technological innovations of the codex around their paradigms of mind. So whatever strangeness is evident in this opening paragraph may be a symptom of what Medievalist Laura Kendrick calls the “alterity of the medieval, setting it within a kind of magic circle, defining it as definitely not our ordinary life.” In fact, every page of La Vita Nuova elicits that sense of alterity in its modern readers, but there are mysteries therein which, I suspect, would have befuddled and intrigued fellow Medieval readers as well.
Just such a mystery is the number nine. It is everywhere, like Hurley’s numbers in Lost. In an almost novelistic way, Dante omits to explain but continues to repeat the motif again and again: nine months, the ninth year, nine days after. It becomes obvious that not even Dante can make sense of the numerology that haunts his romance with Beatrice—indicating that his contemporary readers would have also wondered about the nine-ness of La Vita Nuova. It is only after Beatrice’s death (“in the ninth hour of the ninth day of the month…in the ninth month of the year”) that he submits some hypotheses for consideration. He considers Beatrice to have been so connected with the number nine because, first, she was born the year the nine spheres were aligned (1265). But more profoundly, Beatrice is the number nine. She, a miracle, was the square of the root miracle of the Trinity: “if the sole factor of miracles is three, that is, Father, Son and Holy Ghost, who are three and one, then this lady was accompanied by the number nine to convey that she was a nine, that is, a miracle, of which the root…is nothing other than the miraculous Trinity itself.” He seems genuinely befuddled by the nine-ness of her life, because he concludes by saying, “Perhaps a more subtle mind could find a still more subtle reason for it,” but that this is the explanation which pleases him the most.
What makes such a device so effective and so modern is the fact that Dante can provide no sure explanation himself, subtly lending plausibility to the actual events in question. Had he been able to tie the number nine neatly into the rest of the fabric of his narrative, it would undoubtedly strike us as a literary or structural device, too convenient to be taken as an event that literally befell Dante. Yet Dante is not structuring the account of his life with the number nine; he brilliantly gives the impression that it is the number nine that structures his life.
Another moment of this proto-realism appears in perhaps the most mysterious and least explained scene of all. Early on in his romance with Beatrice, “a young man dressed in whitest garments” appears before Dante in a dream. It is the personification of Love. He is inexplicably sorrowful, and, when asked why, replies: Ego tamquam centrum circuli, cui simili modo se habent circumferentiae partes; tu autem non sic, which Barbara Reynolds translates “I am like the center of a circle, to which the parts of the circumference are related in similar manner; you, however, are not.” Dante, as if reassuring his readers that they have not missed something, observes that this is a pretty opaque oracle, and so he presses Love to explain himself. Love replies, in the vernacular: “Do not ask more than is useful for you!”
Readers can expect to wait a long time for an explanation of this incident, because Dante never gives one. This is all the more surprising, because the anecdote contradicts the straightforward explanation of Love which Dante later gives as an “accident occurring in a substance.” This important phrase encapsulates the Aristotelian underpinnings of late Medieval allegory: Dante’s Love is nothing more than Dante’s own emotions of love (an accident) personified as some outside person (a substance). So then how can Love be in possession of some knowledge Dante is not? It’s a bit like that part of Ratatouille where Remie the Rat asks the ghost of the chef Gusteau, “How can you not know you have a son?” and Gusteau replies, “I am a figment of your imagination. You did not know, how could I?” Yet, Love, an accident of Dante’s substance, a figment of his imagination, does seem to know something Dante does not.
There are several potential explanations for this. A Freudian or Lacanian reading might say that this personification of Love was a way of dealing with those excesses or traces left by the unconscious alienated onto some allegorical figure, or, as Slavoj Žižek drolly calls it, “unknown knowns,” that which “we don’t know we know.” Thus Love can both be a part of Dante and yet know something Dante’s conscious mind cannot admit or comprehend. Curiously, Lewis’s own interpretation in the Allegory of Love is similar, except that he considers medieval allegories like Dante’s to be not an unconscious but conscious technique: “if we could be free,” he says, “of our own Zeitgeist, we might confess that [allegory] is not very much more abstract than that ‘self’ or ‘personality’ on whose rock-bottom unity we rest so secure and of which we would so much rather hear [the poet] talk.” Psychoanalysts and Medieval allegorists are, it seems, both unconvinced of the unitary and epistemically fixed nature of the human “self.”
If not the unconscious, another explanation could also make sense of the content of Love’s statement about the circle and circumference. Love is an accident of Dante’s heart, not a substance in itself. Yet Love is an accident that is shared by all humans, which might imply to the Platonically minded that there is some perfect, ideal Love toward which all accidental Loves within each human heart tend. What visits Dante in a dream is, yes, his own accidental love for Beatrice, but this Love also partakes in something beyond Dante. Dante is, perhaps, one of these parts of the circumference, whom Love, not merely his echtypic Love but the archetype Love, has to show an equal disposition toward as Love does toward all other lovers.
Whatever the case may be, Dante is not inclined to reveal the meaning of Love’s statement, which both increases the narrative tension throughout the book and lends some plausibility to the vision. It is as if not even Dante knew the answer to the question. He is merely reporting what happened to him, and he is thus not responsible for explaining every aspect of it; so he doesn’t. Indeed, it becomes clear, Dante cannot hope to explain every aspect of his “new life” defined by Beatrice, because Beatrice’s existence exceeds his capacity to explain altogether. She is an event of cosmological significance whose meaning neither La Vita Nuova nor even the later Divine Comedy can exhaust.
But the theological explication of a random thirteenth-century woman named Beatrice Portinari hardly ameliorates my initial hesitations about Dante. It was in fact precisely the intimate and personal character of the references that turned me away. But my misstep is one common to a more modern aesthetic of literature that seeks some generalizable principle of the human spirit latent in every offering of poetic imagination. Whatever specific details tether a great work to its historical moment are valuable only insofar as they capture some insight into human nature, the Vichian notion that poetry is “the realization of the infinite variety of the divine spirit, manifesting itself through the genius of the various peoples and periods.” But Dante will have none of it. La Vita Nuova insists that, if I may abuse once again an oft-abused expression, the personal is the metaphysical. This is no sentimental peroration that we can find Beatrices in our own lives if we only have Dante’s imagination to look for them—no, Beatrice’s whole life was sui generis, an abstract type for nothing and for nobody but, perhaps, the Blessed Trinity. Dante masterfully portrays the entire world as if Beatrice’s birth is of metaphysical consequence and he happens to be lucky enough to be caught in the orbit of a huge divine conspiracy centering on her person. The nine spheres have converged on her birth, and he therefore lives in a new era, a “new life” as the book’s title describes it. The insistent immediacy in Dante’s work bridges the immense gulf separating modern and Medieval, inviting us into the quotidian details of Dante’s life which he has so elegantly transmuted into fantastical significance.
John Ahern is a PhD candidate at Princeton University studying the history of Medieval music. His writings have appeared in Eidolon, First Things and the Theopolis Institute blog.
- Dante Alighieri, La Vita Nuova: Poems of Youth, trans. Barbara Reynolds (New York: Penguin, 1980), 12. ↑
- Mary Carruthers, The Book of Memory : A Study of Memory in Medieval Culture, Cambridge Studies in Medieval Literature (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990), 279. ↑
- Laura Kendrick, “Games Medievalists Play: How to Make Earnest of Game and Still Enjoy It,” New Literary History 40, no. 1 (2009): 44. ↑
- Alighieri, La Vita Nuova, 80-81. ↑
- Alighieri, La Vita Nuova, 42. ↑
- Slavoj Žižek, How to Read Lacan, 1st American ed. (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2007), 52. ↑
- C. S. Lewis, The Allegory of Love: A Study in Medieval Tradition (Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1936), 61. ↑
- Erich Auerbach, “Vico and Aesthetic Historism,” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 8, no. 2 (1949): 111. ↑