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Dante in Love: A Biography
Dante in Love: A Biography
A. N. Wilson
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011
400 pp., 49.9

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Jessica Hooten


A Prelude to Dante

A. N. Wilson is your guide.

After reading excerpts from the Summa Theologica of Thomas Aquinas in one of my courses, a student reflected, "I think the world would be a better place if everyone read this." For the majority of the reading public, the Summa may be a bit intense and out of reach (as it is for me most of the time). So, while I agree with my student that everyone should consider Aquinas' theses about God, human nature, and the good life, I can appreciate why Aquinas himself likened all his work to straw. Without love, the best often lack the conviction to live according to reasonable arguments or even revealed truths. We are "desiring animals," as James K. A. Smith asserts in Desiring the Kingdom, meaning "we are essentially and ultimately lovers. To be human is to love, and it is what we love that defines who we are." What is needed to change the world, then, is for everyone to have their will and desires turn "with the Love that moves the sun and all the other stars," as Dante phrases it in the final line of The Divine Comedy. Rather than converting minds, Dante transforms readers' passions. He embodies Aquinas' theology in an imaginative poetic journey of the afterlife, through which readers experience love.

How can love change the world? In Dante in Love, A. N. Wilson looks to the canonical poet for an answer. He asks: "[W]hat if the world of popular culture which jangles and sings in the background of our lives, in TV soaps, in films, in pop music about this experience of being in love—what if this world has something in common after all with the now all-but-lost world of a shared religious culture?" Contrasting the pop-singer definition of love with the intellectually substantive meaning assumed by Dante and Aquinas, Wilson connects Dante's political life with his poetry as well as his romantic obsessions with his devotion to God. In doing so, Wilson also reveals to us how a 14th-century poet may have something to say to those in the 21st century willing to listen.

Wilson writes this book as an act of love. Having read The Divine Comedy first as a teen abroad in Florence, he continued to reread it every few years. He confesses in the opening chapter that he is not a Dante scholar, but he wanted to write a book that would serve as a useful prelude to the Comedy, a book that could fill in the gaps about the political situation in medieval Florence, that would outline Dante's influences from Virgil to Boethius and elucidate concepts of Courtly Love as well as love in general. His intended audience is those who are not yet Dante readers but know that Dante is good in the same way that they know Mozart is good without ever having attended a performance of Don Giovanni. While his aim is worthy, Wilson should realize that few people who have never read Dante are going to pick up a big book on him. That said, Dante in Love is indeed "the book I wish I had read before I started" the Comedy.

Professing a personal love for Dante, Wilson frames his argument around the concept of love, persuading readers of the importance of love to Dante's life and work, and in the process, he moves us to fall in love with Dante as well. He shows readers how to read Dante in love. In A Theology of Reading: The Hermeneutics of Love, Alan Jacobs poses the question, "What would interpretation governed by the law of love look like?" Jacobs lays out a kenotic method of interpretation that calls to mind C. S. Lewis' An Experiment in Criticism; the reader empties herself of presuppositions in order to experience the text. Lewis writes, "In reading great literature I become a thousand men and yet remain myself." When Wilson asserts that The Divine Comedy "will take on a life of its own inside" and that, from his experience, "it also has the power to make its own version of us," he echoes Jacobs (who wrote a book on Lewis) and Lewis (who wrote a book—in part—on Dante). If we read the poem in love, then we will join Dante on his journey and be transformed with him. Wilson promises as much to his reader: "in the end you become the pilgrim; your fears and terrors find you isolated in the dark wood; your sins are purged as you climb the mountain; you are led by Beatrice/Grace into the heavenly vision." For this reason, Dante begins the poem by referencing "our lives"; his journey is ours.

Although Wilson does not begin his book in the middle of a dark wood, he chooses a city strongly connotative of both love and spiritual pilgrimage, Rome. He commences with a sketch of the religious and political setting prior to Dante's birth and then progresses through Dante's childhood and adolescence, interweaving references from the Comedy with descriptions of the historical personalities behind some of Dante's most notorious characters. When Wilson depicts the woman who many consider the love of Dante's life, Beatrice, he does so in contrast with Dante's wife Gemma, of whom Dante "would write not one word. Not a word!" Wilson cannot comprehend Dante's silence regarding the mother of his children, especially since the poet was prolific about another man's wife. Though he tries to clear up some of the myths surrounding Beatrice as the singular love of Dante, he never undermines her importance to his work.

While Wilson delivers a breadth of material on Dante's education, his poetic apprenticeship, influences, importance for the Italian language, and reputation among later poets, his literary analysis of the Comedy itself is inconsistent. According to Wilson, the Comedy "only really works for the reader if you allow yourself to be taken by Dante's hand and believe that it is in some senses actually happening." When he writes about Paradiso, he proposes an experiential way of reading in which the reader will, alongside Dante the character, see the vision of God. However, he disconnects the reader's experience of hell in Inferno from its meaning. For instance, he sympathizes with the adulterous lovers Paolo and Francesca, assuming that Dante wants us to "forget that what they have done is a sin." Yet, if Dante intends readers to experience the poem with his character, then any sympathy we feel for sinners in hell, we should acknowledge as sinful. When Dante the character swoons in response to Francesca's misapplied rhetoric, he does so in error. If we respond similarly, then we are experiencing the seduction of hell. Dante's transformation begins in descent: he becomes the worst of sinners, only to gain discipline through the journey in purgatory, and then blessing in paradise. By pitying the sinners in hell, Wilson commits the same blunder as Dante's protagonist and thus misinterprets much of Inferno.

Moreover, because Wilson misconstrues some of the characterizations of sinners in Inferno, such as Brunetto Latini, who is condemned with the sodomites, he makes dubious assertions about Dante's stance on homosexuality. Wilson turns Dante into a proponent of gay marriage and becomes a bit preachy against the doctrines of the church. Also disturbing is his anachronistic use of Harold Bloom's Anxiety of Influence to brand Dante a "ruthless" poet rebelling against his mentors. Dante's resurrection of Virgil as his guide in the Comedy should be enough of an example that Dante desires to pay tribute to rather than abuse his predecessors. When Wilson acts as a "strong reader," to use Bloom's terminology, he does not exhibit the love for Dante that he elsewhere promotes.

Wilson writes about love because he thinks it is the last shared virtue that our disparate culture can agree on. However, if we're all defining love differently, are we really agreeing on its virtue? If we define it apart from God, can we declare "all you need is love," or do we then participate in a heresy similar to that of Paolo and Francesca? Still, taken as whole, Dante in Love does more than merely prompt a Beatles chorus to ring in our ears; it should convince us to return to Dante, to see in the Comedy the outlines of a just society and to understand why this too often unread masterpiece is "The Good Poem." If Dante in Love succeeds, it should make you want to blow the dust off your own copy of The Divine Comedy—or go out and purchase it for the first time—and read past the horrors of Inferno until you eventually enter Paradise.

Jessica Hooten is assistant professor of English at the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor.

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