How can a poet who wrote 700 years ago in medieval Italy possibly be relevant to today's world? This is a question I try to answer in my book Reading Dante [Liveright, $28.95].
The Divine Comedy tells the story of Dante's journey to the afterlife: to hell, purgatory and paradise, where he meets and talks to the souls of the dead. The wicked are punished in hell, the repentant purge their sins in purgatory, the blessed are in paradise where they enjoy the vision of God. Dante himself sees God at the end of his journey in the final lines of the poem. This may all seem very remote to modern readers, especially those who do not share Dante's Christian faith.
But in fact Dante's concerns in the poem are those of any thoughtful person in any age or place: what is it to be a human being? how do we judge human behavior? what is important in a life or a death? Human behavior, our own and other people's, is at the core of human experience in this world. A poem which encourages us to reflect on that behavior in all its countless manifestations will always be relevant.
We engage with these questions through the stories Dante tells in the Commedia. There is his own story (how he came to be the person who writes the poem we are reading), and there are the stories of the people he meets on the journey. The stories of their lives are endlessly fascinating: the predicaments they found themselves in, how they came to make the choices they made, why they have ended up damned or saved.
Those stories involve human emotions we can all recognize and relate to: love, hate, anger, fear, joy, anxiety, bewilderment, despair. The poem invites us to think about these powerful feelings and their place in human life - to reflect on them not just in relation to our own experience but also to the wider scheme of things.
Issues of individual conscience are set against a broader framework. How should human society be organized to ensure people lead fulfilling lives? Questions like this emerge naturally from the stories of the people Dante meets. We will not always agree with his views on these matters, but his answers will at the very least force us to think.
Dante has always been controversial. The Comedy was considered a dangerous work by many of his contemporaries, not least by the church authorities in his own Catholic religion. He was anything but an orthodox thinker. His profound originality and capacity to think outside the box is one of the enduring aspects of his appeal - an inspiration to any reader at any time in history.
One of the lessons the poem teaches is the need to stand up to injustice and the abuse of power. Astonishingly to modern eyes, in Dante's eyes the arch-villain was the pope himself, the head of the Catholic church. We come upon a whole series of corrupt popes in hell. The punishment they suffer is disturbing and surreal, equal to anything you might come across in a horror film. For the popes as for everyone else in hell, each kind of sin is punished in a different way. Dante is endlessly inventive in making the punishment fit the crime. Corruption in the church, in our supposed spiritual leaders, is a subject not without contemporary relevance.
Another lesson of the poem is the destructive effect on human life of greed, whether greed for money or greed for power. The two usually go together. Again there is a powerful resonance with modern life, in an age characterized by the excesses of hedge fund managers and financial speculators. One of Dante's most scornful lines almost seems to have been written to describe them: la gente nuova e i subiti guadagni ("the new people and the instant profits").
A production of Shakespeare's King Lear currently on in London, starring the marvelous actor Simon Russell Beale as Lear, has set all the critics talking about the extraordinary relevance of the play to the modern world. The themes of dementia, of an aging parent, of the power shift between the generations as time passes, are as relevant in today's world as they were in the time of a mythical medieval king. The play speaks as powerfully to a modern audience as it ever did.
As for Shakespeare, so for Dante. Italy's great medieval poet is the equal of England's great Renaissance playwright in the power of his imagination and the expressive force of his language. His capacity to harness both has created a poetic work whose relevance is universal and timeless. The Comedy is as relevant today as it ever was.