Recapping Dante: Pilot Episode, or Canto 1
October 7, 2013 | by Alexander Aciman
Really, this is how you want to begin? With a trope? And do you really think that we’ll let you get away with it because you decided to double down, fold it over on itself, and begin not only in medias res but in the middle of your life, too? We see what you’ve done there. Very fancy; but couldn’t you have at least started at the end, like Sunset Boulevard?
“Midway in the journey of our life”—the cascade of allusions, and all in a single line, creating some sort of referential trifecta, or fourfecta, or whatever the highest number of fectas is. Is it meant to alert a reader that this probably isn’t an airport book—to chase away the ill-suited, like the opening sequence of 8½?
So far this character has no name, but for the sake of it, let’s call him Dante I. He finds himself in a dark wood, and that he isn’t quite able to remember how he got there feels a bit like an easy, preemptive fix to a plothole. Nevertheless, he goes on his “firm foot always lower than the other” (watch out for phrases like these; it’s safe to assume that whenever any piece of satellite or even self-explanatory information is given, it is probably a giant X telling the savvy reader to dig in that spot).
Suddenly our character is accosted by a leopard, or lonza (a lion-leopard superbeast), and obviously he’s a bit disoriented and doesn’t want to deal with it, so he walks away. But then, a lion appears, and then a she-wolf, and it’s by now such a strange mix of creatures (do they even have leopards in Italy?) that we are left to assume either Dante blacked out and came to in a zoo, is witnessing an ecological disaster miracle, or that these three beasts have some sort of metaphorical significance as well. There’s a chance the beasts each represent a sin, but that feels like a bit of a stretch, so let’s just say that the leopard is Florence; the lion, France; and the she-wolf, the papacy. (Dante, though a Florentine, was in the middle of a battle between two warring houses, and so even at home there were enemy forces out to get him.)
Dante takes off. As he flees, he comes across a figure, and Dante speaks to it. Have mercy, he says, but the English subtitles obscure the fact that Dante is in fact saying this as Miserere, in Latin, and this is when things start to get out of hand.
First, why is he asking for mercy from a figure in a wood while on the run from three far more menacing assailants? Second, Miserere is also the first line of Psalm 51, so now we know Dante loves Jesus. Third, we now have a narratological complication for which a solution was offered earlier. Dante I is telling the story, but as these are the first words his character speaks in the actual story, it’s important to point out that the man saying Miserere is Dante II. Already it’s starting to feel like Big Bird’s Dante Counting Game.
The figure claims he is not a man, but once was, which means he is dead (trivia: Shakespeare also toys around with this breed of semi-loophole in Macbeth, where a man is technically not of woman born because he was cut from her stomach early. It seems great poets enjoy making great distinctions in things we are prone to overlook.)
The figure name-drops some of his accomplishments, and a starstruck Dante realizes that it is Virgil, his literary and historical mentor, his teacher and his author, as Dante says. Virgil hints that the safest passage may be through Hell, and as it turns out Virgil, not only as a matter of personal significance, is just the person to come across at a moment like this because he’s actually sent a great hero through Hell before. Well, actually, Virgil wrote about the pagan underworld, which in theory is different from Christian Hell but Dante seems set on fudging that minor detail.
Virgil suggests that later, Dante will come across someone more fit to lead him (remember this).
So let’s review the facts: Dante mysteriously appears in a wood, he’s attacked by three metaphors, is presented an opportunity to go on an adventure with his hero and at the same time mirror one of the most significant passages in literary history, also written by said hero, as though to at once pay tribute to it, and outdo it. It all feels very … convenient.
I’m getting the feeling that Dante is just a very well-read person who wants to write an ultimate poem with all of his influences present, but still somehow woven into an original work. Yeesh. Talk about grand ambitions; it’s like this guy thinks he’ll actually be able to change the world of art as we know it.