16 November 2009

My Own Personal Purgatory

Ever since I first read the Divine Comedy, I have sought to adopt Dante Alighieri as something of a mentor (although I wouldn't presume that I have one tenth the talent he had). I strove to model my life after his in as many ways as I could, drawing parallels wherever I might find them. Three such parallels are of paramount importance: the life-changing unrequited love, the exile from the home city and the loss of the proper path. My circumstances may not have been as drastic as Dante's, but these parallel incidents had no less of an impact on my life than they did on Dante's life.

As Dante had his Beatrice, I had my own lost love. More accurately, I had a series of lost loves, totaling a half-dozen over the course of the past seven years. Dante's loss was perhaps more catastrophic than mine--he lost Beatrice through her own premature death, whereas my losses came about through my own bungling, my own inaction or the simple impossibility of my beloved loving me in return. But however the specifics of our respective heartbreaks might differ, the effect of heartbreak upon Dante and me was much the same. In our spiritual and emotional anguish, Dante and I took solace in introspection. Ultimately we both concluded--Dante, naturally, in an exponentially more masterful fashion than I--that love, even if it be unrequited, was the true path to salvation.

For Dante, salvation had a primarily religious meaning; that is, through his love for Beatrice he was able to overcome error and sin and once again walk the path to God. For me, on the other hand, salvation was more introspective and philosophical than it was literal. It was not from hellfire and damnation that I needed to be saved, but rather from the wicked, base and ultimately self-destructive elements of my own character. Even if my beloved did not reciprocate my affections, the sensation of simply being in love compelled me to better myself, both physically and spiritually. Because I was in love, I could shun the perverse, slothful and avaricious temptations of the world around me and instead focus on the noble and beautiful aspects of life.

The wounds of lost love were deep, to be sure, and they certainly left their scars; nevertheless, they did heal. The old wounds would be compounded by new ones, however, as both Dante and I found ourselves cast out from the cities we called our homes. The specifics again differ--Dante was exiled from Florence for political reasons, and I was compelled to leave Seattle by my financial difficulties. Nonetheless I too was forced to abandon the things I loved, and I too would come to know the bitter taste of others' bread, and how difficult the the path is for one who must ascend and descend others' stairs.

Dorothy Gale was right--there is no place like home. But Kansas City is not my home, no more than Ravenna was Dante's home or Tomis was Ovid's home. For me, Kansas--to say nothing of Missouri--is a vast wasteland, a sprawling prison cell from which I cannot seem to break free. Even more disheartening is the fact that my exile is also a return to a past from which I wanted to badly to escape. In my exile I find that I have lost my way, and am wandering directionless through the dark wood of error.

Owing to scale, depth and sheer audacity of the work, I consider Dante's Divine Comedy the single greatest work in all of western literature (although I am certain that legions of scholars and other literati will disagree with me quite vehemently). Less controversial (but perhaps more important) is the fact that the Divine Comedy has influenced me so profoundly that I at times consciously attempt to model my own life's journey after Dante's pilgrimage. After all, if one considers the pervasive theme of the Divine Comedy--namely, that love is the true means of salvation and redemption--one must conclude that it is a better guide to life than any religious text could pretend to be. That aspect of Dante's philosophy I have incorporated into my own.

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