Full disclosure: I have never read the Divine Comedy and, though I’ve been dipping into various translations this past week, I may never read it in its entirety. I probably won't.
That’s not to say that I don't think it's worth reading. The Inferno is the most widely translated book after the Bible. I understand that Oscar Wilde ordered a copy sent to Reading Gaol in advance of his imprisonment there. The poet Osip Mandelstam would put a paperback copy in his pocket before leaving his apartment in case he was picked up, while out, by one of Stalin’s thugs. Samuel Beckett kept a copy beside his death bed in hospice where it kept him amused and in good spirits.
As I was preparing this piece last week, I realized that I’d scheduled it to be published on Easter Sunday which happens to land this year on the third quarter of the moon.
The Inferno? On Easter? Is that really a good idea?
In almost the next breath, I learned that Dante’s journey began late on Holy Thursday, or just before dawn on Good Friday. He gives that clue in Canto XXI, lines 122-125, though I’m glad I didn’t have to figure that out on my own.
So, it happens that Easter weekend is the perfect time for Dante’s Inferno after all.
Why the Inferno and not Paradiso? The Inferno is where Dante's journey starts. It’s the most popular part of the whole shebang. And Victor Hugo said somewhere that the Inferno is the only interesting part of the Divine Comedy, “when the poem becomes happy, it becomes boring.” Anyway, I’m really only concerned with the opening lines of the entire book which are found at the start of the Inferno.
Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita
mi ritrovai per una selva oscura,
ché la diritta via era smarrita.
—Dante, The Divine Comedy, Inferno: Canto 1
In the middle of the journey of our life
I found myself in a dark forest,
for the right way was lost.
I can’t remember when I first heard or read those lines but it was definitely by the late 1980s when I worked with Reid Stewart Austin at Kingsley’s Book Emporium on St. Armand’s Key in Sarasota, Florida. Long after our stints at Kingsley’s, Reid and I remained close friends until the day he died. He was a font of knowledge about all things cultural from the 1920s and ‘30s (and well beyond). He once made me a cassette tape of original performances of Rogers and Hart songs and other early American musical theater and pop song treasures. (Most notably, Lee Wiley's version of Victor Young's Street of Dreams.) If you want to glimpse Paradiso, listen!
The Italian Lesson may have been on that tape but if not, Reid certainly told me all about it and often referred to or quoted from it. So much so, that to this day, when I listen to Ruth Draper performing it, I can still hear Reid’s voice.
You haven’t lived if you haven’t heard Ruth Draper performing The Italian Lesson (if you’re into that sort of thing). It’s not available on YouTube but you can download that one track at iTunes here or Amazon Music here. The first three minutes are worth the pennies you’ll spend.
But back to the opening lines of the Divine Comedy. As Draper says,
“They’re so wonderful because they’re so true! That’s what’s so extraordinary. To think those lines were written hundreds and hundreds of years ago and yet, they are so applicable to life today.
Because, don’t you think that’s exactly what happens to people? Oh, I think so often in the middle of life, people seem to lose their way. They don’t know where they’re going. They can’t see the way before them. It’s such a wonderful picture of confusion!”
I don’t know about you but I have lost sight of the right way and found myself in the middle of a dark forest more than a few times in my life, before, during and after the middle. Dante was on his way to salvation. I have never cared much about salvation, rather I have cared about finding my way out of the woods.
When I’ve found myself deep in the thick of that darkness, I’ve either been going through a depression or in between creative projects. That being said, I’ve found that those two states go hand in hand.
It’s like the Bardo described in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition; the intermediate state of existence between two lives on earth where the consciousness disconnects from the physical body. This definition perfectly describes my personal experience of what happens in between completing one creative project, or one chapter of life, and finding my way into the next.
Sometimes, it’s a short stop in the woods. Other times, the dark woods have been an island in the middle of stormy seas with no other land in sight.
Finding a way out of the dark woods doesn’t always mean going through hell but it certainly can be a treacherous passage. The way out definitely never (well, okay maybe rarely) ever happens in a flash or overnight. The only way, truly, to weather the suffering without completely losing your mind, is to keep faith. Faith that you’re not always going to be in the dark woods, that there is a way out, and that you’ll find a way through to the exit. Probably less by trying to figure things out and more by allowing yourself be intuitively guided.
The word faith comes from the Latin root, Fides and first appeared in the mid-13th century. By the early 14th century, it meant an "assent of the mind to the truth of a statement for which there is incomplete evidence.”
I found the following gem while looking up this etymology:
“And faith is neither the submission of the reason, nor is it the acceptance, simply and absolutely upon testimony, of what reason cannot reach. Faith is: the being able to cleave to a power of goodness appealing to our higher and real self, not to our lower and apparent self.” -Matthew Arnold, Literature & Dogma, 1873
Faith. That’s a good note for Easter Sunday. The Inferno and the dark woods are relevant after all. We re-emerge, we resurrect our lives, we are reborn.
Even though it may seem like the end of the world when you lose your way and find yourself in the dark, remember that there is a light out there, just waiting for you. You’ll find your way into it even if you have no idea how (and you probably won’t). Just keep the light in mind. Picture it until you find your way there.
Remember, this is a comedy. That’s because there is a happy ending.
Read Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's translation of the Divine Comedy here with thanks to Dartmouth.
But wait... See? Even in the midst of writing this piece, I've lost the straight way. Because, what I really wanted to do here was to explicitly apply this experience of getting lost in the dark woods to the beginning of any creative process when the right way is often not clear at all. Sometimes you can stumble through the forest and get lost in the confusion of dim early stages or fail and fail and fail and then simply check out of the process. But, sometimes, even when the woods are dark and the way through is confused, the journey might feel right for no good reason that you can point to. That's usually when you find unexpected signposts and guides that appear out of thin air. That's when it feels alright to move forward without a defined end in sight. That's when creative faith kicks in.
©2021 Suzanne McDermott