On the night of September 13-14, 1321, the Italian poet and philosopher Dante Alighieri died in Ravenna. It was the end of a life in exile. After political power struggles since 1302, he could no longer safely return to his hometown of Florence. The death penalty imposed on Dante remained unforgiving. Under the conditions of exile, in addition to an important work on the political thought of the Middle Ages, the “Monarchia”, he created his monumental main work, the “Commedia” – what later became known as the “Divine Comedy”.
In it he sent his literary self in 100 chants in 1300 on a journey through the otherworldly worlds of hell, purgatory and paradise. There were great role models for such explorations of the afterlife. Virgil lets Aeneas and Homer get his Odysseus into the underworld. Dante’s claim – and his urge to assert himself – was enormous. He made God’s judgment and decided who goes to hell and who goes to heaven.
In May of this year, French President Emanuel Macron concluded his address on the 200th anniversary of Napoleon’s death with a strange metaphor that comes close to the suggestive power of Dante’s symbolic language: “Le soleil d’Austerlitz brille encore.” The Austerlitz sun is still shining. Rays, one can ask on the 700th anniversary of Dante’s death, also his stars, with which the three parts of the “Divine Comedy”: Hell, Purgatory and Paradise each end, even to our present day?
He could be as caustic in his condemnations as he was bold in his political visions of a world monarchy
Well, conditions could be worse. Dante could have written his work in Latin. But he chose the vernacular Italian, which, as soon as it had become the language of poetry, was ennobled as the language of an incomparable masterpiece of literature. The “Divine Comedy” is mentioned today in the same breath as Homer’s epics and Shakespeare’s dramas. With her, Dante achieved the status of the Italian national poet.
Raphael’s strict portrait of the poet passes through our hands today as the common Italian two-euro coin. But how do we think about Dante and his work? At first glance, there seems to be a certain familiarity there too. Because the history of its impact, historical research and numerous approaches to modernizing readings seem to bring it closer to us.
In her book, which was published in this anniversary year under the somewhat succinct title “Visiting Hell”, Franziska Meier gives an overview of 700 years of the reception and adaptation of the “comedy”. There is, for example, the political poet who longs for order and justice, who, in view of the political turmoil in his hometown in exile, has also become a warning and a poet, even a prophet, of political anger. The invectives against the political conditions in Florence, the decline of the empire or the corruption of the church are hard to beat in their violence. The “comedy” is also political poetry. It is spoken of as political poetry in the distress and political crisis experience of the early 14th century. He could be as caustic in his condemnations as he was bold in his political visions of a world monarchy.
But with his verses he also became a stop for the persecuted in the age of extremes of the 20th century. For example, for Primo Levi, who, as a camp inmate, remarks about the message of the human way of life in the song of Odysseus, it affects all people in distress. Arno Schmidt read differently. In a letter to a certain Mr. Dante Alighieri at the address in Berlin, Reich Security Main Office, he informed him that hell would be ideal as a manual for the design of the concentration camp.
The “Lasciate ogni speranza voi ch’entrate” (Let those who enter, let all hope go) above the gates of hell could become the winged word and sign of the times. The political philosopher Eric Voegelin took up the word of the gate of hell as the motto of his book on “Political Religions” to interpret the totalitarianism of the 20th century.
Is there an even more general, fundamental, existential familiarity?
And isn’t there an even more general, fundamental, existential familiarity? The poet Dante writes of love and anger, of longing for justice and of striving for knowledge. He lets the reader face all of this in memorable individuals and concise scenes – whether in the redeemed or in the damned. There are people in Hell too.
He lets his self, wandering the realms of the hereafter, face the “comedy” in the midst of a deep life crisis from which Virgil rescues him as a companion through hell and purgatory, before later the beloved Beatrice, idealized early in the poet’s life, will take over as guide through paradise. “In the middle of our life’s path I came to in a dark forest. The right path was wrong.” When Franziska Meier asks whether the enormous pulling power of this beginning comes from a “basic anthropological situation that can be interpreted in many ways”, one does not want to contradict immediately and carefully follows the various associations with the midlife crisis. But that doesn’t do justice to the lost Dante’s deep despair at the beginning of “Commedia”.
Historical research into the biography, the intellectual situation of his time and the social and political conditions as well as literary research on the work and its embedding in the contemporary world of forms, language and ideas may also contribute to a certain familiarity. If we want, we can know more today than ever about the poet, his work and his time.
The results of the research are bundled as explanations and available to today’s readers of Dante in numerous editions, translations and commentaries. In German, for example, the commentary by the Romanist Hermann Gmelin from 1954 to 1957 is available, as are Ferdinand Barth’s explanations and Hartmut Köhler’s commentary from more recent times. Not to be forgotten: the “invitation to read Dante” written in wonderfully light-footed scientific prose by the historian of philosophy Kurt Flasch.
In the ninth circle of hell, Count Ugolino is doomed for all eternity to gnaw at the skull of Bishop Ruggiero of Pisa
In the deep ninth circle of hell, which is intended as a place of punishment for the traitors, we as readers come across, for example, the terrible scene in which Count Ugolino is doomed for all eternity to gnaw at the skull of Bishop Ruggiero of Pisa. We find out the reason from Ugolino himself, who turns to the hiker and briefly interrupts his detention. We hear what a gruesome historical event in a tower in the city of Pisa gave rise to this well-measured just punishment. And the commentaries help with further historical and theological explanations.
And yet we are amazed at the grossly merciless vividness with which Dante’s punitive fantasy applies the just divine retribution principle of contrapasso here. The principle measures the infernal punishment in exact correspondence with the respective sin. One could also say: justice with a malicious streak. It still resonates today when it is reported that a well-known American radio presenter, who never missed an opportunity to scoff at the corona vaccination, dies as a result of Covid 19 disease. Whatever: The language of violence and cruelty in the Ugolino scene can be shocking or just repulsive.
Bridging the centuries also helps that meanwhile long and ramified tradition that claims the poet for phenomena, ideas and achievements of modernity. The birth of the intellectual, a characteristic figure of modernity, could also be told with Dante, as suggested by the French medievalist Jacques LeGoff, who of course declares Dante to be a genius that cannot be classified. The emigrated medieval historian Ernst Kantorowicz, on the other hand, who once confessed that it was his pain not to be a Dante, crowned his famous book on the “Two Bodies of the King” with a chapter on Dante and the discovery of human dignity.
The unity of humanitas, which encompasses all religious, ethnic and political differences, is also what constitutes Dante’s modernity for the political philosopher Claude Lefort. The fact that such unity for the lay philosopher in the 14th century is based on a specific reading of the human possible intellect, which goes back to the medieval Aristotle commentator Ibn Rushd (Averroes) and which is also used to establish a world monarchy, falls in view of the noble aim of humanity , conceived as a political-bourgeois unit, no longer carries any weight.
In the 26th song of the “Comedy” there is the much-noticed encounter between the wanderer Dante and Odysseus. It is also sometimes understood as an invitation to make Dante modern. His Odysseus seems to be drawn like the prototype of modern man. Isn’t it because of inadmissible curiosity that drives them beyond the pillars of Hercules, which were set as limits to the human thirst for knowledge? Isn’t he the symbol of the Plus ultra and with it that hubris of modern curiosity that Dante clairvoyantly anticipates in him – and lets it fail grandly?
The pursuit of knowledge and virtue is what defines human dignity, not just wanting to go on living
In the eighth circle of hell, Odysseus atone for his deceitful actions before Troy. Virgil explains that this is quickly settled. It gets exciting when the poet doesn’t let his Greek hero return home. Rather, it can convince the remaining companions of a daring journey across the Mediterranean to the open ocean. Because the pursuit of knowledge and virtue is what constitutes human dignity, not just wanting to go on living. When Primo Levi remembered these lines in Auschwitz, it hit him like a trumpet.
In the words of Odysseus, Dante expresses an existential experience. This does not change the fact that after several months of voyage south, Odysseus and his companions finally get shipwrecked. It lies in the dangerous nature of the open sea and makes it possible to portray the end of the hero. Doom does not punish the quest for knowledge. Neither did Dante, looking ahead to the modern age, whose excessive thirst for knowledge wanted to question. Rather, Odysseus fulfills his human nature. To draw it in this way, Dante passed on his knowledge of the Greek philosopher Aristotle, whose metaphysics begins with the words that all human beings naturally strive for knowledge.
So has Dante been a confidante to us over the centuries? In spite of all the Dante conferences, festivals and artistic adaptations, there remains an unease with such an interpretation. There remains a hint of a distance. Kurt Flasch rightly considers the reasons for “Dante Ferne”. Accompanying Dante on his journey to the hereafter, reading, means venturing to stay in a high-risk area without knowing how to come back and how, transformed, the present appears afterwards.
Each of the three parts of the “Divine Comedy” ends with the Italian word “Stelle”, stars. They were the stars of an orderly, closed cosmos, the enormous structure of which was illuminated and measured by Dante’s cosmological poetry. And while today the first probes reach Mars, the celestial sphere that the poet intended for the fighters for faith, Dante is as far away from us today as the stars of an open universe. Quite inconspicuously, just as Virgil removed himself from the wanderer Dante in the comedy, he is removed from us. The wanderer was just about to speak to Virgil. “But Virgil had left us.” On the 700th anniversary of his death, a hidden Dante, a Dante absconditus, is commemorated.