My relationship with Dante can be traced back to a Saturday morning in 1994. My dad and I were standing in the rain on Sixty-Sixth and Broadway, and I suspected he was taking me to Lincoln Center for a concert. Instead, we stopped at a small park where a large, bronze statue was shrouded by nearby trees, hidden away from the city. That, he told me, is Dante.
The night before, my dad had told me the story of Count Ugolino, the sinner of canto 33 who may or may not have eaten his children during his imprisonment in Pisa; and later that day, he’d take me to the courtyard at St. John the Divine, where a statue of a crab-like creature pinches off the head of a demon—a scene that bears a striking resemblance to the end of Dante’s Inferno, when the three-headed Lucifer gnashes his teeth around the bodies of the three greatest sinners: Judas, Brutus, and Cassius. Here, in canto 34, the final chapter, Dante and Virgil meet Lucifer and climb up his back in order to slip through a crack in the universe and leave the Inferno.
It wouldn’t occur to me for many more years that these weren’t stories from my dad, but the work of the better craftsman, or il miglior fabbro, as T. S. Eliot writes in the dedication of “The Waste Land,” paraphrasing Dante himself. In fact, if I look hard enough, I find traces of Dante throughout my life—a description of the wolf, lion, and leopard in the elevator of 765 Amsterdam Avenue, the building where my grandparents lived; the story of Paolo and Francesca, which I read in an illustrated, abridged Inferno for children; the fiberglass tyrannosaurus in Riverside Park, which I climbed as though I were Virgil scaling Lucifer’s back with Dante in order to reach Purgatory at the end of canto 34; a twig from a tree that I passed on a field trip in a botanical garden, which I tore off à la Dante in canto 13, so that my dad, a reluctant chaperone, would know that I wanted to be there as little as he did. As far as I knew, I wasn’t alluding to Pier delle Vigne but to a character from my father’s bedtime mythology. None of these tales came without embellishments, and so even today, when I reread passages of the Inferno and notice departures from the stories I heard growing up, I cannot help but think that Dante Alighieri’s versions are slightly inaccurate. Even so, by the time I reach someone like Ugolino, I feel as if I’m meeting an old friend.
As I finished reading canto 34—the last installment of an eight-month series—I realized that one of its most famous passages is often horribly misinterpreted. After Virgil tells his traveling companion which sinners Lucifer is chewing, he tries to prod the ever-dillydallying Dante onward: “It is time for us to leave, for we have seen it all.” But how could that possibly be? Is the Inferno really a place we hope never to revisit? Can we really ever be done with it? If that’s the case, then why am I more moved by certain passages than ever before?
One can’t really find oneself jaded by Dante. Every time I go over the text I leave another set of earmarks; I come away with another history lesson; I leave another few notes on the sides of the pages in another color of ink, crossing out the scribbles that no longer seem quite as poignant and underlining the ones that do. Rereading Dante forces us to collect layers.
So can we ever really have seen it all? Even Virgil, who speaks these lines, is already taking his second trip through the Inferno. Perhaps what he really means to say is, “You’ve seen as much as you’re going to see this time around, pal.” So I’ll continue reading, and if I tire, I’ll just have to remember another Hallmark-worthy line spoken by Virgil: “Get to your feet, for the way is long and the road is not easy.”
Rereading makes me feel close to Dante, and so I wonder: Will I ever get to take a son of my own to Dante Park? Will I ever stand on Sixty-Sixth and Broadway in the rain, hoping that seeing this statue might shed light on a story about an Italian cannibal that I told a preschooler? And if said preschooler is too tired to walk, will he hook his arms around my back, the way I did with my father, and the way—which is perhaps totally irrelevant—that Dante did with Virgil as they climbed to Purgatory?
In the final few verses of canto 34, Virgil and Dante finally see the night sky as they exit hell. They hear a nearby stream. I started to feel sentimental rereading this: “The sound of a narrow stream … trickles through a channel it has cut into the rock in its meanderings, making a gentle slope.” Is that the Hudson I hear outside my window, or is it the water trickling from the air conditioner and pooling right above the double pane? Or am I imagining it all, hoping that if I try hard enough I might be able to drown out the sound of the city’s late-night traffic and hear the water sloshing between here and New Jersey, pretending I’m actually right beside Dante and Virgil. For a moment I can pretend that I’m Dante, the poet in exile, sitting far from home and trying to remember what the Arno sounds like at night in Florence, imagining that by some strange coincidence it might perhaps even sound just like a little brook nuzzling its way through a boulder beneath the starlight at the far end of the world.
To catch up on our Dante series, click here.