Randy Boyagoda’s new novel is Dante’s Indiana. He is a professor of English and vice-dean, undergraduate in the Faculty of Arts and Science at the University of Toronto.
Dante would approve of this essay. I absolutely know he would, having spent the past five years reading a canto a day of the three-part Divine Comedy, and also having written and recently published a novel about a group of lost and broken people building a Dante theme park in an opioid-ravaged small town in the middle of Rust Belt America. Granted, Dante died 700 years ago, in September, 1321, shortly after finishing his masterwork. That said, I’m still certain he would endorse what I’m writing because my doing so is my personal and ongoing source of punishment, fit exactly to my personal, pandemic-era fury.
Allow me to explain, confess, self-justify and hopefully purge: This is, maddeningly, the eighth or ninth version of the essay I have been writing, since late winter, to make sense of what we have learned about ourselves and each other during the pandemic -- based on the premise of looking ahead to life beyond it. I was certain that that time was approaching when I began working on this in late winter, then spring, then summer, and now on the cusp of fall, it remains still ahead of us, on a trajectory and terms discernible opaquely at best. In the ongoing meanwhile, like many, I have become frustrated and even angry at the situation, whipping myself with a thorny braid of discouragement and determination: I keep searching for the end of this awfulness in both its perpetual immediate effects and in its lengthening, deepening impact on personal and public life alike. Instead, like many, I find these experiences instead, of late: slow-motion breakdancing to figure out a mutually acceptable way to greet people in person; assuring your children or your aged parents that they’re outside or in the car and there’s no one else around -- they can take off their masks -- and they tell you they don’t mind, they barely notice anymore, they’ll just keep wearing them while we’re in person; the way that “in person” has become a prized and charged term reserved for very specific, limited, and intensely scrutinized, planned and protection-frazzled human experiences.
By this point in our often repetitive-feeling journey through the pandemic, I have realized that the Divine Comedy -- not Camus’s Plague, not Boccaccio’s Decameron -- is the best literary index for understanding how we can respond to the challenge of living good lives in bad times. The premise is familiar to many, whether you’ve read the poem or not. Finding himself lost in what Dante calls “the middle of the journey of our life,” he descends into hell, accompanied by his guide, the Roman poet Virgil, who helps him at the behest of Beatrice, the deceased young woman Dante longed for from afar and in his writing. Making an infernal descent that ends with his meeting Satan -- frozen in place, sobbing and silently eating the bodies of the most infamous betrayers in history, Judas and Julius Caesar’s assassins -- Dante witnesses firsthand what happens to those who do wrong in life and refuse to admit or make up for it when they could: they are doomed to repeat those wrongs for all eternity (Lord, and Editor, let this be the last time I write this essay). Thereafter, Dante ascends to Purgatory, where he encounters people who likewise did wrong in life, but admitted it and have been granted space and time in the afterlife -- a clement mountain to climb -- to purge themselves of those past wrongs and prepare for Paradise. Finally rising climactically into Paradiso, the heavenly spheres, Dante meets the saved: a cosmos of radiant souls lit up by the love of God.
Across its three major sections and 100 cantos, the Divine Comedy features some 500 named characters. Most everyone can identify with at least someone among the damned, the repentant and the saved. But in terms of feeling fed up, pressed down, or pushed around by the pandemic, my time with Dante tells me our task is to not rage in vain, like the unbowed wrathful of Inferno, who ultimately do lasting harm more to themselves than anyone else with their infuriated thoughts and furious words and devastating actions. Rather, while still being honest about such feelings, the right example seems to me the bowed wrathful of Purgatorio, who come to understand that theirs is a self-blinding rage that they need to heal from so that they can see more clearly and fully, and thereby search for better possibilities. Importantly, they cannot know when those possibilities will appear, or in what form. Nonetheless, they believe that such possibilities are worth working for, even if the effort amounts to little more than waiting, waiting, waiting. Such belief and effort are what we should try to cultivate and sustain these days, in ourselves and in each other. Dante’s Divine Comedy and life in the pandemic: both offer abundant material and time to inspire wrath-filled hopefulness and purgative patience.
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