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?