Dante on drugs

Peter Hainsworth reviews Dante: the poet, the political thinker, the man by Barbara Reynolds, in the Times Literary Supplement:

DantealighieriThe shape is familiar – a chronological survey of Dante’s life and career, with ample exposition of all the important works, and with an emphasis on their autobiographical implications. But the novelties come thick and fast, beginning (so far as I was concerned) with the suggestion on page 10 that Dante and other poets he associated with in Florence as a young man might have given their visionary and dreamlike imaginings a boost with the stimulus of love-potions. These herbal stimulants, cannabis perhaps, may, it turns out later, be what Dante is referring to in the comparison, near the start of Paradiso, between his own “trans-human” experience and what Glaucus felt “on tasting of the herb” (nel gustar dell’erba) which made him into a sea-god. As Reynolds explains at greater length when she comes to the final vision of the Godhead, mystics did often use drugs of one kind or another in conjunction with fasting and meditation in their pursuit of visionary illumination. There is no reason, she argues, why Dante should not have done so too.

Dante as a substance abuser? It is not a key argument and Reynolds may be being provocative, even mischievous. She herself gives much more importance to her decoding of the two prophecies that have always been a problem for Dante commentators. Virgil says, in the first canto of the Comedy, that a hound (Veltro) will be coming to chase away the ever-hungry she-wolf that is afflicting Italy. Reynolds goes along with the standard view that Dante is talking of a new, righteous Emperor, but argues that the real interest lies in the puzzling phrase “tra feltro e feltro” (between felt and felt), which she sees as an allusion to the use of felt in contemporary paper-manufacture; Dante, she argues, is referring to the new power of written texts, and specifically to the imminent imposition of the rule of canon and civil law.

More here.