Tuesday, December 6, 2011

When in Doubt, Think Dante

I think about Dante all the time.
All the time.
I especially think of Dante when in times of hardship.
Of course, it helps that since the age of nine I got in the habit of maniacally memorizing verse after verse and, oddly, have yet to forget a single stanza in the terza rima. Dante helps me organize my thoughts. His work helps me get centered and put things in perspective.

As a doctoral student in Germanics, I took a PhD course in Dante's Inferno. I was the only non-Italian PhD candidate in the course. The professor, one of the better known Dantisti in the States, asked me one day, "Brikena, come mai Dante?" i.e.: "Brikena, how come Dante?"

Stutteringly, I said: "Perche, eeee, insomma, perche mi parla...." i.e.: "Because uhm, well, because he talks to me."

Since early childhood, I've most likely spent thousands of hours reading Dante. Easily. Dante never feels like reading. It doesn't feel like work. It's like listening to music. It speaks to me. And unlike much else, it never disappoints. It always gives me something. It doesn't just take. It gives. Therein lies its unfading novelty and attraction. Novelty and attraction can only work well in the confines of giving. Deprive them of it and they'll vanish.

Dante understood that the human experience is marked by universality. He knew that while we might term certain emotions and feelings differently, our experience of the great basics, i.e., love, pain, anger, anxiety, difficulty are fundamentally the same whether one is professor Brunetto Latini who's condemned to inferno for eternity (see Canto XV) or Virgil, the guiding poet, who was unluckily born a few decades 'ahead of his time.'

Feeling good is 'dolce' and feeling badly is not. The dichotomy is clear to all. Dante refers to himself as two separate entities. On the one hand, there's the generally cerebral Dante, il poeta laureato, and on the other hand, there's Dante, l'uomo, the highly emotional man. The man, who faints at the sight of the great emotional pain of Paolo and Francesca in Canto V.

Dante embraces his emotional and cerebral sides fully. In my view, this is what makes me be as Dante-centric as I am. Dante fills a need. A need to self-soothe and inevitably self-ameliorate.

Why Dante, others, other than Prof. Di Tommaso have asked me. Why not Sophocles or Shakespeare? Or Goethe, even. For crying out loud, especially Goethe!

The answer is easy. I've long held that we don't get to choose art. Art chooses us. I believe this. As a matter of fact, I'll venture so much as to say that few things are solely choice-based. Very few. We think we choose but in most situations we are swayed to go one way over another.

Daily, I'm amazed at the multitude of applications that La Commedia lends itself to. And daily I'm tempted to apply it.

Dante spoke to me first on a cerebral level as someone with a doctorate of philosophy. He spoke to me equally strongly on a personal level. My whole life I've had difficulty with displays of emotions. I've always privileged my cerebral side. And unfairly so at times. But the older I get and the more I experience raw life, the more I allow myself to taste the opposite of ease, levity, and happiness, the more I'm drawn to Dante. It's hard, no, impossible, to ignore something that reaches you both on a cerebral and emotional level contemporaneously. Try it. You'll most likely fail.

What's been claiming most of my thoughts recently is the notion of the pursuit of happiness and it tenability. I've long wondered what it is that Dante must have experienced to write in Canto V that there's:
Nessun maggior dolore
Che ricordarsi del tempo felice
Nella miseria
(lines 121-123)
There is no greater sorrow
Than to be mindful of the happy time
In misery.

Cerebrally, I've always known this. I've lectured on it plenty. Emotionally, I'm convinced that the only way to get happiness, to truly capture it albeit fleetingly, is to see it in conjunction with pain and memory. Happiness cannot exist in the confines of complacency. It couldn't. It needs the oxygen of immediacy. It can't be without. Happiness can only be when ridden with the anxiety of potential loss.

Being, at times, happy is the hardest task to accomplish. Some are aided by their respective genetic makeup to have a somewhat easier/harder time with happiness. Generally, however, happiness takes much conscious work. If left to chance, the end result will undoubtedly be difficult. The gift of introspection, some call it. This ability that some have to look inward to find answers to the human condition. Introspection is not a gift. Introspection is work, a lot of arduous work. Introspection cannot be given one. It needs to be acquired. One individual at a time.

2 comments:

Nicki said...

Darn you, Bri!
You had to go and write this today!
I need to go home and think now. Great! ;)
Fave part 'Happiness cannot exist in the confines of complacency. It couldn't. It needs the oxygen of immediacy. It can't be without. Happiness can only be when ridden with the anxiety of potential loss.'

Dana said...

Ok, I could have used this a few days back....
"Novelty and attraction can only work well in the confines of giving. Deprive them of it and they'll vanish."
Instead I think I said something along the lines of 'yeah, well, i'm just bored, so there!'