As Barbara Reynolds observes in her careful and convincing study of Dante and his works, even in the 14th century it was the special effects of the great poet’s language and attention to detail that transformed the Commedia into the monumento magnifico of Italian literature; his use, for example, of Italian double consonant rhymes – Viddi, Cariddi, riddi, intoppa, troppa, poppa – to convey the clashing and hurtling of boulders in Inferno, or the contrasting vowel sounds that make the snapping of a twig resonate with such injury and despair, or the way the monstrous Geryon flies in the Seventh Circle, “like a helicopter,” writes Reynolds, “rolling slowly off the roof of a tall building and hanging in space” with upward currents of wind anticipating “Galileo’s discovery of invariance.”
We might say, in fact, the Commedia works more as a kind of video game than screenplay, that Dante was as much a brilliant programmer as musician (using numerology, “mystic additions,” symmetries, trinities and tetrakises that would confound Dan Brown), and that today’s joystick journeys through the levels of Doom, Diablo, Dungeons and Dragons and countless other computer-generated underworlds owe much to the levels of difficulty – in monsters, morality and the violence of the quests – found in Dante’s three-dimensional poetry and arcade style, outwit-the-demons gameplay.
But Dante the technician, architect, builder, engineer, Dante the landscape artist and mind mechanic, however brilliant, could never compete – or so Reynold’s portrayal suggests – with Dante the performer, dramatist, showman. One gets the feeling from Reynolds that if Dante were forced to choose between literary immortality and a single gay night of poetry reading, he’d immediately write a fresh canzone and beckon the musicians, dancers, acrobats and servant boys to accompany him at the banquet.
Rather it was fate, that is, his exile from Florence during the factional feuds between the “White” and “Black” Guelfs at the end of the 13th century, that compelled Dante to pass through the gates of hope’s abandonment and mingle, however self-promotionally, with Homer, Horace, Virgil, Ovid and Lucan. As talent agency, Exile (and its partner agents Poverty and Lost Love) boasts a remarkable portfolio of lyric writers, not just Virgil and Ovid, but Voltaire, Byron, Pushkin, Hugo, Nabokov, Brodsky, Soyinka, Arcady – and this is just a sampling from the A-list.
Now before leading us through those infamous gates of hell, Reynolds, one of the world’s leading Dante scholars, is too experienced a guide not to provide us with the necessary footwear, knee-pads, rope (as the poet’s hero-Dante carried), helmet with halogen lamp, and everything else we’ll need to fully examine the devils and she-wolves, the giants and demons, serpents, sorcerers, ditches, rings, castles, cornices, boiling rivers, bubbling pitch, shuddering mountains and all the diseased, eviscerated, headless, burning, freezing, rotting, bleeding, wailing souls within. Her instruction on Dante’s early life, his political education and exile, the workings of his La Vita Nuova and Il Convivio, his lecturing style, love of pageantry and masques, his studied invention of the terza rima – not to mention, of course, the most important carabiner of our climb, the death of his first love, Beatrice – all come to our aid at some point or another in Reynold’s tour of the Commedia.
“Anticipating the damnation of people still alive,” as Reynolds politely puts it, Dante’s Commedia is Dante’s vengeance upon a world he feels has cheated him – that is cheating him even as he writes. It’s not the afterlife that matters to Dante, but the life of Verona and Florence, empires and papacies, and the common Italian dialect in which his mind exists. This must have proved startling to his audience and if Dante didn’t so shrewdly and abundantly mix the non-fictional dead with souls from literature and myth, the Commedia might never have passed the censors.
As it is, we owe much to Boccaccio (who first called the Commedia “divina”) that Dante’s work survived at all. He was the first to grasp its significance, and now, seven centuries later, the Commedia’s place in literature is so immense that it’s produced an ever-expanding cataract of enigmas and puzzles, which Reynolds, often it seems for her own enjoyment more than ours, can’t resist solving. I believe her when she claims Dante’s reference to wisdom being found “tra feltro e feltro” (“‘twixt felt and felt”), a famous conundrum amongst Dante scholars, refers to paper making and texts; nor is there any shortage of wisdom in the paper text that is Reynold’s account of why Dante still deserves the attention he receives today.