My reading suggestion for these difficult times is probably not very original, undoubtedly challenging, but also certainly fully worth trying. It’s Dante’s La Divina Commedia.
The quarantine we are experiencing or will be experiencing soon gives us much more time than we usually have; it forces us to stay inside, and it leads us to ponder on the great questions of human life. It is also a situation potentially leading to dullness, boredom and to feel we’re living a “suspended time”, with no discernible horizon.
The Commedia is a difficult read, to be sure, but it’s perfect for these times (also for the added reason that the 700th anniversary of Dante’s death will be celebrated next year. It can be savoured in spite of its length and of its sometimes obscure references or similes now that we have more time.
It leads us through a fascinating journey (perfect for escaping the claustrophobia of our homes), where both the most beautiful aspects of our world, and those we may imagine of the Other world are seamlessly interwoven. It helps us to make sense of what we’re living: it is a “commedia”, a “tale with a happy ending”, which gives us signposts and milestones at a time when we’re crossing a desert.
Human beings can face hardships and suffering when they become capable of “narrating” them, of giving a meaningful sense to the seemingly haphazard succession of things that “happen” (or to those that are not happening, like in this suspended time of quarantine).
By following Dante in his journey, we are led to see this chain of uncountable and seeming meaningless days as a progress, as an abyss to be faced, a mountain to be ascended, with a goal to be reached – the eternal beauty of the Divine Love.
We will meet funny characters, hilarious situations, people who are so powerfully portrayed by Dante that they seem to jump out of the pages, even though many centuries have passed; we will hear stories of romance, war, faith, polemics and politics; we will contemplate quintessential beauty in his portrayals of Beatrice, Matilda, particularly the Virgin Mary, but also in the singing choirs of angels, in Paradise, and in so many unforgettable metaphors.
I know that the uttermost delight, that of reading Dante in Italian, is precluded to many (though I’ve been told of a Japanese woman who speaks 13th Century Italian because she learnt Italian with the specific goal of being able to read Dante!). And the great English poet T.S. Eliot wrote that “What is surprising about the poetry of Dante is that it is, in one sense, extremely easy to read. It is a test (a positive test, I do not assert that it is always valid negatively), that genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood.”
However, I would like to share with you a few of my favourite lines – try to roll them in your mouth and to savour their taste.
For example, take his description of heaven: là dove gioir s’insempra. Insempra is a neologism by Dante, and one of those which weren’t used either before or after him. It’s a verb, made of “sempre” (always) and “in” (as in English). So the sentence reads: “there, where rejoicing ‘in-alwayses’”. I know this sounds horrible, but still, have you ever heard heaven described so beautifully and so concisely?
Or the very last line: l’amor che move il sole e l’altre stelle, i.e. love that moves the sun and the other stars. There is a wonderful rhythm in the Italian original, with the sequence of “dark” vowels (O) gradually becoming brighter (A) and brighter (E), until light shines in the stars (stelle). In just a single line, it’s a summary of the entire Commedia, from darkness to light, and under the never-ceasing brightness of “love”.
So, let’s be bold and take the seemingly huge volumes of the Commedia to accompany us in quarantine. It will turn a nightmare into an opportunity, believe me!