Sunday, November 16, 2008

canto ii

The first time I ever tried the high dive, I was too scared to jump.

It was agonizing. The whole time we had been at the pool, I had been watching one kid after another climb the ladder, walk or even run the length of the board, and then dive in. Some of them had jumped. Some of them had cannonballed. A few actually had dived, arms stretched out to part the water before them. It looked like a lot of fun, and so I had decided to give it a shot.

It didn't feel as easy as it looked, though. For one thing, the top of the ladder seemed much higher off the ground than when I was on the ground. And the diving board didn't feel very safe once I was standing on it. I walked carefully out to the end of the board, and froze. There were kids down in the water, playing and splashing about, and having a grand old time, and I knew that it was perfectly safe just to jump off.

But I couldn't do it. Heart in my throat, I carefully turned around and walked back to the ladder, which I climbed back down to terra firma.

So I think I can understand the reaction Dante has at the start of Canto II. At this point, he is still in the dark wood, in sight of the holy mountain and not yet on his way down into the circles of hell. It's at this point that Dante has the only sensible reaction anyone can have at the mouth of hell: What am I thinking? I can't go down there!

When I stood at the end of the diving board, I'm fairly sure I tried to psych myself into making the jump. I'd been off regular diving boards plenty of times. I'd seen dozens of kids jump off the high-dive that day alone. (I had the same problem trying the zip line at an Afs camp in New Zealand in 1987.)

Dante does the same thing. Journeys into hell are a pretty common thing in literature, after all. Odysseus made such a trip in “The Odyssey”; Heracles went there at least twice; the Bible teaches that Jesus descended into hell to free all those who had died in faith; and so on. Dante calls to mind two other such stories, in an attempt to put his impending descent into perspective.

The first tale he mentions is Virgil's own “Aeneid.” In that poem, Aeneas, one of the surviving members of the royal family of Troy, visits hell and discovers that he is destined to be the ancestor of the Roman Empire, which will restore a golden age to the earth under the august leadership of its first emperor. (Coincidentally, I'm sure, Virgil wrote “The Aeneid” during the reign of Augustus Caesar.) The other tale Dante mentions, which I've never read, comes from a medieval account of a vision of the Apostle Paul descending into hell. (2 Corinthians 12 tells of Paul having a vision of heaven.)

What's interesting about these reminders is that, to Dante, they underscore his unworthiness of such an undertaking, which he is sure he will regret. He is neither a great Trojan lord, nor a hero of the faith, like Paul, and he is fairly sure he is going to regret such an undertaking once it has begun.

Perhaps it would be useful here to differentiate between Dante the character in the poem, and Dante Alighieri the poet. Dante the character is practically shaking with fear here, humbly considering himself unworthy of the task set before him. Dante Alighieri is using this to lay the foundation for declaring his worthiness to his readers.

And that justification comes swiftly from the mouth of Virgil, who as the premiere poet of ancient Rome naturally is going to make an impression on Dante. Virgil explains that he was in Limbo, the first circle of hell, where, as Alighieri explains in a later canto, virtuous pagans and unbaptized infants go when they die.

Virgil explains to Dante that he was sent to his side from Limbo by Beatrice, who came to him straight out of heaven to see him lead Dante away from the wild beasts that had been threatening him on the hillside. And not only Beatrice, but two other women from heaven, are calling for him. (Though I count three besides Beatrice: the Virgin Mary, Lucia and Rachel.)

Dante finds this heavenly encouragement more than enough, and he resolves anew to go into hell, with Virgil as his guide.

So what's at work here is that Alighieri, in presenting his Dante avatar as fearful and unnerved by the trip, essentially is casting himself as a humble sort of fellow who would never presume on his own to say any of what follows in the remaining cantos of his own poem. As a result, the journey he takes, the things he claims to see, and the political ramifications of what he finds there – such as political foes suffering the torments of the damned – acquire a gloss of greater credibility.

The closest I've ever come to hell was attending middle school for three years, but at the time, that high dive felt pretty close. I tried it again later that same day, and after some of the other kids in line teased me for wanting to chicken out a second time, I made the jump.

Unlike Dante, I had a blast.

Copyright © 2008 by David Learn. Used with permission.

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