Canto 31: She’s Just a Girl? She’s a Bomb.

So much of what I love about Dante and his magnificent poem is on display in this Canto, and what leads up to it. Love it.

Speaking of which, I can’t resist pointing out what I think is a delicious irony that we encounter through the setting of the last several Cantos in the Sacred Wood. It’s taken about 61 Cantos – how many thousands of words is that? – to go from getting lost in the woods to getting found in…the woods. All this time to “get ourselves…back to the garden.” Is it possible that the same dark wood in which Dante originally got lost is…the same woods that we find here, atop purgatory? If we stretch our spacio-temporal and poetic imagination, I think it’s what Dante intends. As if heaven and hell are the same place, only separated by a state of consciousness. I love that. And I think it to be true.

Makes me think of family vacation. But alas, I digress.

Now to get to the heart of the matter in this Canto: Beatrice. Is it not odd too (perhaps moreso for the modern reader) that it took Dante this long to catch a glimpse of his honey – to be in the presence of his soul mate (could we call one’s lady that, in the context of courtly love of Dante’s time? More on that in a moment…)…and for what? A mighty tongue lashing. And, am I the only one who senses the strange mix of pleasure and pain in the heart and soul of Dante to be receiving it? That pain/joy mix seems to match the experience of those souls we’ve just met – but especially in this section of the Purgatorio, we get the idea that this is not about Dante the voyeur, the poser, the one learning a great lesson about sin and hell and suffering and all that. All very…informative and salutary. No, this is about Dante the pilgrim: to get there, he too has to experience the pain of his own sin. He has to feel it, in order to be healed of it; in order to forget it. And the only one uniquely qualified to inflict that kind of searing pain? The one whom Dante loves most. His Beatrice. (And I use that phrase, “loves most”, carefully – in light of what follows here).

So then, let’s say a word or two about Beatrice. I notice we haven’t written much about sister Bea (the key to the whole structure indeed, Bob). One of the reasons I love the poem – a reason it’s been so spiritually meaningful to me – is the notion that God does not come to us as an abstract concept; a philosophy; a faceless “force”. God comes to us in the veil of human flesh. And for Dante, God comes in the most marvelous human flesh: that of a woman.

Disagree with me? I’d really be interested in anyone else’s insight here, but from my angle of view, Beatrice herself is none other than a Christ figure in the poem, and for Dante. Now, we can’t get too literal here – Dante is playing around in this very Canto with the idea of form and image as it relates to incarnation: how is it that God takes on a form that is “unaltered in itself / yet in its image working change on change”? (XXI:124-125) What Dante seems to be saying is that divinity can be reflected, refracted / imaged, imagined, in forms that “work change on change” – the essence cloaked in flesh can take a variety of visage. And in the poem, Beatrice takes various symbolic forms – divine light; the church; lady philosophy…and: a feminine Christ figure.

I think it’s rather cool that Dante connects the very viscera-engaging experience he had when he saw the image of a girl – she was just nine years old when he first saw her – and it rocked his world. He felt that thing that touched the inner core of his humanity, and he realized it was not “just a girl, just a girl”…to further borrow from Pete Townsend: she was a bomb. (Check out the lyrics and the story behind the song and maybe you too will see a strange consonance with Canto XXXI.) But for Dante came the insight that this soul-bomb could be nothing other than that which reflects to us the divine. This insight, to be sure, was incubated in the culture of courtly love in which Dante and everyone in his age was swimming – but to me, it is an insight that is given its clearest expression in Dante.

All this reminds me of a book I read years ago, We by Robert Johnson; one of those books you read, and somehow it sticks to your brain and soul. It’s a book about the psychology of romantic love. Johnson is a Jungian psychologist, and he uses the story of Tristan and Isolde as a parable of human and divine love. Tristan – like Dante – is off and away fighting battles for his Lady, Isolde. She is the very force that drives and motivates his quest. She is beyond reproach: a prefect image of woman. The irony is that he, like Dante, never really gets to know his love as a person. The share very few words. She’s a lady best viewed from a distance. She is, in that overused word from modern psychology, a “projection.” She is an image. And it is a powerful image. It has power to drive the soul of a man (and in this context, specifically, a man. I will not comment on the dynamics that may be at work in the opposite gender here, as I don’t feel qualified – but if there are any readers out there who would care to comment, would love to hear…). Romantic love, in some ways a discovery of the late middle ages, was like splitting the atom: it was a discovery that unleashed an incredible force on the collective psyche of the west.

Johnson’s thesis in the book, and here I’ll present a very boiled-down version, to me is fascinating. It’s also useful in diagnosing much of modern spiritual sickness, especially as regards our conflicted and dysfunctional expectations of our relationships. Here’s a question: when we settle on a mate, do we expect that person to be our “soul mate”? There is a very distinct and powerful social myth that indeed it should be so. There is one star-struck love who is meant for each of us. We find each other. The kiss that rocks the heavens. “You complete me,” you say. And we live happily ever after.

Well, not really. And not always, to be sure.

For Johnson, this is the unfortunate detritus of the Age of Romantic Love. In some ways, this has bequeathed to us a culture that worships…love. The experience of love. The kind of love you find in pop songs about it. (“Who’s that lady? who’s that lady? Beautiful lady. Who’s that lady? Sexy lady…”) Perhaps this is the most prominent example of what Dante has been talking about throughout the entire poem: looking for love in the wrong places – and ironically, the place that seems the most likely place to find it. In a woman. (Or a man, depending on your gender and orientation). In that Other we hope, fantasize, expect will…”complete us.”

The problem is the fact that we experience what most everyone experiences in the course of a romantic relationship: we fell in love not just with a person, but a projection. Somehow the real person presented an image we connected with something else. Something like that thing that Tristan saw in his Isolde. That Dante found in his Beatrice. And Dante could stay in the illusion (that’s not the right word, but suffice for now) because he never spoke with her. Never held her. Never saw her pick her teeth with a knife, or fart, or make a stupid comment at a party.

And don’t get me wrong: projections get a bad rap in modern psychology. “You’re projecting” might be the typical fodder of many a marriage counseling session. But projection in itself ain’t wrong. It’s the very thing that Dante is doing. And I think he’s conscious of it. How could we possibly connect to an image of God unless it were projected…somewhere, on something (or on someone).

For Dante’s age and culture, marriage was not the institution through which we find our “soul mate.” Marriage was for the purpose of having kids, creating family alliances. It was utilitarian. That’s not to say it was absent of love – indeed, that’s not the case. It was just not freighted with all the expectations carried by our modern culture, namely that our mate will also fill the role of…God for us.

Because, whether or not he realizes it, that is the true object of Tristan’s quest: God. God in the visage of a woman who fires his imagination (and his lions, and his viscera).

And the same is true for Dante. But what I would venture is that Dante is aware of this dynamic. Check it out:

Like sunlight in a glass the twofold creature

Shown from the deep reflection of her eyes,

now in the one, now in the other nature. (XXXI:121-123)

Dante sees Christ reflected in the eyes of a woman, his beloved Beatrice. And later when she (finally) smiles, he sees in that the very splendor of eternal light.

What would it be like if we – and I mean the biggest we here, the “we” of Western culture – woke up one day and realized that what we are seeing (as if on a scrim) when we look into the eyes of the beloved not the beloved, but God. All those pop songs about love (and indeed, about sex) is not about our numinous attraction to the other, but our innate desire for the Other. For God. Our quest for the infinite begins with the eyes of that creature that most stirs both our hearts and our loins: the object of romantic love.

And so then, what if we realized that we were looking at a projection? What I see reflected in you is in a sense not just you; it’s You. And maybe if we realized that, we would not put so much darned pressure on our relationships. We would not expect our mate to be our Mate. The one who “completes us.” The quest of romantic love is no less a quest for God. And if we were to go on that romantic quest, our relationships might change, for the better. Perhaps we might see them as a bit more utilitarian, a bit less viscera engaging than that first kiss. But no less magical, passionate, loving. It’s just that we would unhook our quest for the ultimate gut-engaging quest from that quest, the quest that is our true life’s quest, the quest of Tristan. The quest of Dante. We would begin our quest anew, and aright: a quest toward God.

Who might look like…and I speak only for me at this point…a woman?

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About jeffvamos

Presbyterian Pastor. Dante Fan. See also my other blog, The Electronic Meetinghouse, at: http://pclawrenceville.blogspot.com/ View all posts by jeffvamos

3 responses to “Canto 31: She’s Just a Girl? She’s a Bomb.

  • Elinore Standard

    Thought provoking for this Dante-unclued seeker. Thanks, Jeff. ES

  • bobsinner

    WOW, Jeff. Talk about the “Bomb!” This one blew me away. Many things to think about – but I’ll be back.

    I guess I was thinking Beatrice played more of a role/ representation of “The Holy Spirit/Ghost,” but the flesh/divine thing does argue for a Christ figure.

    Two of my favorite “Love Songs” (I’m an ‘oldie’) immediately came to mind: Denver’s “Perhaps Love,” sung so divinely with Placido Domingo, and Bette Midler’s “The Rose,” which was written specifically for her for the biopic on Janice Joplin.

    Just look at the words from your perspective above:

    John Denver’s “Perhaps Love” (sung with Placido Domingo)

    Perhaps love is like a resting place
    A shelter from the storm
    It exists to give you comfort
    It is there to keep you warm
    And in those times of trouble
    When you are most alone
    The memory of love will bring you home

    (John Denver)
    Perhaps love is like a window
    Perhaps an open door
    It invites you to come closer
    It wants to show you more
    And even if you lose yourself
    And don’t know what to do
    The memory of love will see you through
    (Placido Domingo) Oh, Love to some is like a cloud
    To some as strong as steel

    (John Denver)
    For some a way of living
    For some a way to feel

    (Placido Domingo)
    And some say love is holding on
    And some say letting go
    And some say love is everything
    And some say they don’t know

    (John & Placido alternating)
    Perhaps love is like the ocean
    Full of conflict, full of pain
    Like a fire when it’s cold outside
    Thunder when it rains
    If I should live forever
    And all my dreams come true
    My memories of love will be of you

    (Placido Domingo)
    And some say love is holding on
    And some say letting go

    (John Denver)
    And some say love is everything
    Some say they don’t know

    (John & Placido) – Reprise Above

    AND

    “The Rose”
    (Written By Amanda McBroom for Bette Midler)
    Some say love, it is a river
    That drowns the tender reed
    Some say love, it is a razor
    That leaves your soul to bleed

    Some say love, it is a hunger
    An endless aching need
    I say love, it is a flower
    And you, its only seed

    It’s the heart, afraid of breaking
    That never learns to dance
    It’s the dream, afraid of waking
    That never takes the chance

    It’s the one who won’t be taken
    Who cannot seem to give
    And the soul, afraid of dying
    That never learns to live

    When the night has been too lonely
    And the road has been too long
    And you think that love is only
    for the lucky and the strong

    Just remember in the winter
    Far beneath the bitter snow
    Lies the seed
    That with the sun’s love, in the spring
    Becomes the Rose”

    Thanks for the mid-week inspiration! Bob

    • bobsinner

      TAKE #2: I am back. There is so much that happens, which reaches critical mass here. So much I missed, Jeff, which you helped tie together for me.

      “Beatrice as Christ”: To look directly upon the face, or even the back, of God as He /She “IS/WAS” was unbearable for humans in the Old Testament. To fully reach His people, God had to enter the world Himself, with all its incumbent suffering and weaknesses. Hence the necessary New Covenant (Testament): Jesus came so that we “could see God face to face” (as a number of our group indicated in their earlier reflections), as well as to grant us Grace, by atoning for our sins.

      But, He ascended into Heaven, being both with us, and, separate from us. I previously alluded to “Hell” as quite simply being the “very absence of God” (in my reflections on Canto 19). The “HORROR” of “The Sound of Silence” was my example. So, I fully agree with your statement “I think it’s what Dante intends — As if heaven and hell are the same place, only separated by a state of consciousness.” – Isn’t that what you are writing about here – Hell is the absence of GOD, “wherever” that might take place?

      Back to Beatrice. It is my understanding is that it is The Holy Spirit that carries on the connection work after the Resurrection (that was part of my reasoning in matching Beatrice with the Holy Spirit, rather than with Christ).
      In the last cantos (28 and 30) I identified the Griffin with Christ, because it was so often used as His symbol, especially during The High Middle Ages, right when Dante was writing. The griffin was said to combine the qualities of the lion and the eagle. So it was “lord of air,” as well as “king of beasts” (‘lord of the earth’). It was this dual nature (on duality – see last few cantos) that led to its association with Jesus Christ: both God and man; king of both heaven and earth.
      Luke 4:28-30 was often used to support this imagery.

      A Final “word” – of course God might look like / be a woman – be “Feminine Infinite.” God is Love – Tough Love. You (unfortunately) don’t find a lot of the Love as expressed in the New Testament coming from 21st century [or 20th, or 19th, or 14th] men.
      Blessed Are All Who Will See and Hear. Bob

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