Who exactly is Dante?

I’m not going to lie and pretend like I regularly read the Wichita Eagle on the off-chance that they might have published a recent article about Dante. I don’t. To be honest, I only ever read the horoscopes in the Metro that you get free on the bus, and that’s quite a rare occurence in itself because I’d much rather listen to my iPod and blank out society. But, luckily for me, Google alerts (which I’ve only just discovered, and which has totally radicalised my life) sent me a link to an article about Dante, published yesterday in the aforementioned Wichita Eagle, which is called ‘Passionate studyof Dante and ‘Divine Comedy’ is a winning labor of love’, by Arlice Davenport.

The main focus of the article is to review A. N. Wilson’s book, Dante in Love, which was published earlier this year (Atlantic Books, June 2011). Now I happen to own a copy of this book; I was sent a proof copy to review by the publisher, since I sometimes moonlight as a bookseller. Admittedly I’ve never read it (never even opened it either), but it sits happily on my bookshelf, looking gorgeous. Dante in Love is essentially Dante’s biography, written, as the review, states, by the “intelligent, witty and erudite” Wilson, a self-confessed Dante-amateur.

Although the review is complimentary about the book, what struck me the most when reading the article were the author’s personal reflections on the Comedy:

This was my Dante, an existential hero, staking his life, indeed his afterlife, on the elevating powers of love. Would Wilson’s book have helped my understanding? Perhaps. But I would have beheld his Dante, not mine. And what, after all, is more personal than love?

I loved this sentiment: that the Dante we read in the Comedy is entirely personal.  Like all literature, we, as readers, bring a part of ourselves to that which has been written; we interpret texts based on our understanding of the world and our own experiences. To one person, Dante might be a sad sap, desperate for a glimpse of Beatrice (even slightly stalkerish), but to someone else he could be so utterly romantic that he causes them to melt into a huge mess on the floor.

After reading this, I started thinking about MY Dante. Of course I have an image in my head of who he is and what he’d be like, much in the same way as I picture Jesus, or the guy who does the voiceover for the X-Factor. The thing is, I’ve never tried to explain to anyone what this image is like, so it’s always been something that I just assume everyone has in common. But it’s really not, is it? Dante, like everything in the world, is completely subjective. That thought just blew my mind, no joke.

Sarah x

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