In the Dante fandom
Emily McConville | Monday, November 21, 2016
I really like Dante’s Divine Comedy. No single work, in fact, has had more of an impact on my college experience. A University Seminar on the “Inferno” freshman year led to Italian classes, an Italian major, almost a year in Rome, and the desire to live there after I graduate.
What I didn’t understand until recently is why Dante was able to light such a fire in me. I still haven’t read a lot of the Western canon, literary analysis does not excite me, and despite my deep appreciation for Dante’s works, I haven’t devoted myself to studying them; Harry Potter fan theories tend to catch my attention more than close readings of medieval poetry.
For awhile, I thought I liked Dante’s works because of their science-fiction-like world-building. Dante’s afterlife is fantastically vivid and detailed but also orderly. I can see his heaven and hell through the text, and I can infer more details about it based on the rules he created for them. Part of it is the engagement with the divine: While I don’t draw a lot of religious instruction from the Comedy, I like stories that use Biblical concepts and themes. Part of it is also the sheer audacity of the whole project. Dante constructed an entirely new afterlife, claimed it was reality, ordained himself God’s chosen vessel to explain it all to us and then put people he knew in it.
But that doesn’t entirely explain why the Divine Comedy was able to pick me up and carry me across an ocean and back. Then, three years after that University Seminar, I started another Dante course, and I figured it out. The academic study of the Divine Comedy is not just the Divine Comedy. It’s 700 years of notes, commentary and translations. Reading Dante is reading centuries of the learned and not-so-learned arguing over big things, like the nature of divine justice as Dante presents it, and little things, like how exactly Virgil hugs Dante in a passage of the Purgatorio. Dante put quite a lot of stuff in the Divine Comedy, so reading it is reading Ovid’s Metamorphoses into Dante’s entry into heaven; it’s teasing out exactly how Dante uses the story of the Pentecost to criticize the medieval Church; it’s analyzing the theological significance of a simile about shipbuilding. It’s sometimes silly, sometimes profound, almost always mind-blowing.
Which … actually isn’t too different from the internet forums on, say, Harry Potter or Doctor Who or Game of Thrones I looked at in high school, where you find people who (for better or for worse) are passionate about understanding fictional worlds, resolving potential contradictions, trying to find sources of information, devising grand theories of the work. The difference, of course, is that people have been Dantists for hundreds of years, they get paid for it, and they literally have to master the great works of Western civilization in order to do their jobs.
I don’t pretend to have mastered the great works of Western civilization, but every time I study Dante, I feel like I’m part of one of the world’s oldest fan forums, one dedicated to understanding the nature of the universe itself. It’s everything I like about stories, fandoms and scholarly inquiry rolled up into one. Dante, centuries later, allowed me to think big thoughts and made me feel legitimate in expressing them. The least I can do is learn his language.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.