looking for the real dante

Harrison_1-102413_jpg_470x717_q85Robert Pogue Harrison at the New York Review of Books:

Professionally trained Dante scholars—I am one of them—believe we have special access to The Divine Comedy’s deeper layers of meaning, yet judged by Dante’s criteria, we are self-deceived. In Inferno 9, Dante challenges his audience with a direct address:

You readers, who are of sound mind and memory,
Pay attention to the lessons woven into the fabric
Of these strange poetic lines.

Who among the members of the Dante Society believes in good faith that he or she possesses the “sound mind” that Dante appeals to here? No one reconstructed the Christian doctrines that supposedly underlie the Comedy’s veils of allegory more piously than the great American Dante scholar Charles Singleton. Yet Singleton was an agnostic who took his own life, and one hopes for his sake that he was right when he declared, “The fiction of the Comedy is that it is not a fiction.” If the poem contains an arcane truth that is predicated on faith—not only in the medieval Christian God but also in Dante’s version of history, with its Holy Roman Emperors and all—then none of us will ever gain full access to it.

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