In Matthew’s lecture on Monday he went through his ‘Seven Deep Thoughts’ about the Inferno. Although he warned us that they would be pretentious, I didn’t find that they were. I just found some of them totally mind-blowing. Especially when Matthew was going on about how the whole point of the Comedy is to make us question what the point of everything is, and that the ‘selva oscura’ in Canto I might be a metaphor for our lack of comprehension about life. I found this quite a scary thought. It made me a bit anxious to think about such big questions as the meaning of life last thing on a Monday afternoon after quite a heavy weekend. But the lecture did the trick and got me thinking really deep thoughts, not only about the meaning of life, my lack of understanding of life, how lost I am in my own ‘selva oscura’, but also more generally about Dante and literature.
Matthew made a point about Dante using the Comedy as a way to engage with other authors, to challenge everything he had ever read, and to attempt to create something better than anything that had ever been written before. Including the Bible. Now, I know I’m a hardcore medievalist, and this blog is all about how great Dante is and all that jazz, but this all struck me as a little self-absorbed on Dante’s part. I mean, who sets out on a writing mission with the sole intention of being better than the divine word of the Bible? I’m an atheist (lapsed Catholic, to be precise) so I feel I can look at this very objectively without any strong religious feelings blurring my vision. Whether or not you believe in God/the stuff written in the Bible/the idea that Jesus came to cleanse us of our sins, etc etc., you’ve kind of got to admit that the Bible is a very impressive work of literature. So for Dante to set out to write something better than something which has fascinated people for several millennia is one hell of an undertaking.
I’d been mulling this over in my mind for a few days when yesterday, whilst sitting in the park eating a Mr. Kipling Lemon Slice and reading Petrarch’s Triumphs, it dawned on me that what Dante was doing was totally normal, because every writer does it: he was just finding a way to massage his own ego. Petrarch did exactly the same: he uses scenes from key biblical passages and mixes them up with characters from mythology, classical fiction, historical figures, and even Dante himself, to create something which he firmly believed would supersede the quality of all other literature ever written.
So, my overriding ‘deep thought’ about the Comedy is this: authors have seeeeeriously huge egos and are constantly trying to out-shine each other. I don’t mind this idea so much, because it means that literature will just keep on getting better and better, which is ultimately all we, as readers, can ask for.
I realise that I haven’t offered you seven deep thoughts, but cut me some slack, yeah? It’s taken me three whole days to come up with this point.