I will will finish my thirty-eighth year this year, in September (gift giving ideas: books), and start on my thirty-ninth — if things go as planned. They never do, though, or when they do, one finds that the plan wasn’t worth the making; or one discovers that what one had planned was already inevitable: it would have happened with or without the breath it took to suppose any agency. And yet I think I will make a good seventy-eight-year-old.
Dante begins the Divine Comedy with the words Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita: “Midway through the journey of my life.” That’s about where I find myself, too (though Dante was thirty-five). Dante goes on to write mi ritrovai per una selva oscura / ché la diritta via era smarrita: “I found myself in a dark wood–” or obscure forest “–the straightforward path being lost.”
This writing project will take a look at each canto of Dante’s Divine Comedy, at least through The Inferno. (You can find Canto 1, with a recording of the poem in Italian, here.)Much like Milton’s Paradise Lost, things are more interesting in Hell. Once Dante steps through Purgatory into Paradise, and once Milton regains Paradise, the dramatic tension is lost. “Happy families are all alike,” Tolstoy tells us. “Each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
Misery loves company.
Not that I’m miserable. Or, rather, not that I’m more miserable than generally happens to people alive, breathing, and paying attention. But I do find myself, approaching thirty-eight, lost in an obscure wood, too. It’s the same wood that I was in when I was thirty-seven, though. And thirty-six. And twenty-six.
When the poem opens, we’re dropped into the middle of the action. This isn’t Chaucer, where we start on the journey with the pilgrims; instead, our narrator appears to just be waking up, and has no idea where he is or, really, how he got there. All he knows is that it’s a forest, he’s in it, and he’s terrified.
I don’t like that my life works that way, too. That I sometimes cut myself off from my own decisions in such a way that, when I face a consequence, I hide behind my unconscious. “How could I have gotten here?” It’s painful to be conscious for all of one’s life; and it’s exhausting, too.
I worked with a woman named Jennifer at a terrible temp job in Portland. She was impressively fat. We read The Return of the Native together, and we’d take our lunch at the same time. I would answer questions about homosexuals for her (“Is it true your horn can magically purify water?” “I think you’re thinking of unicorns.” “Aren’t you guys the same thing?”) and she would tell me about life as a morbidly obese woman. “People think that fatness is a kind of deafness,” she once told me. “That somehow I can’t hear as well. People say really terrible things in earshot, and they’ll think they’re being really quiet about it, but they aren’t. And when I look at them, when I let them know that I heard them, they aren’t ashamed of what they’ve said; they’re embarrassed for me because I heard them being hurtful.”
She also explained how awful restaurants are. “It’s this heightened awareness of everything I’m eating. Diet books are always telling fat people to be aware of what you eat, right? Keep food journals and all of that. But maybe what they should tell fat people is to always eat out in public — especially buffets. You’ll never be more aware of all the food on your plate until you’re being audited by every diner in the restaurant.”
Where this connects to Dante, though, and why I’ve always remembered her, is this anecdote: “People will ask — well, they won’t ask me, because people won’t talk to me directly about my weight. But they’ll ask near me, in that she-can’t-hear-me tone, ‘How do you let yourself get that fat?’ Like I don’t know. Or like it’s a decision I made at some point. ‘Hey, here’s something I’ll try: eating myself out of house and home.’ But — and here’s where it sucks, because here’s where they’re a little right: I didn’t know. Not for a long time. I didn’t know that I was as fat as I was. You stop seeing yourself long before others start staring at you for how fat you are. I stopped looking in mirrors. I stopped listening to myself. All I knew was that something was hollow, that I was hollow, and since it hurt too much to think about that, I stopped listening to the hollow parts, too. I just filled them with food. So no: I didn’t know how fat I was for a long time. Yes, one day I woke up and thought: fuck.”
Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita mi ritrovai per una selva oscura.
So Dante finds himself lost in a dark wood. He tells us Io non so ben ridir com’i’ v’intrai, / tant’era pien di sonno a quel punto: “I don’t know how I got there; I was asleep for too long along the way.” We know, as readers, that he wakes up in time to go on this epic journey through Hell; does this mean that he was predestined? Was Dante always headed to Hell? Is Hell this necessary journey for all of us — and is it just that some of us make it through, and some of us do not?
The perilousness of the obscure wood is what rouses Dante. Once awake, though, he pushes through it and arrives on the edge of it, looking up at a tall mountain. And we get to one of my favorite lines in the first canto:
E come quei che con lena affannata
uscito fuor del pelago a la riva
si volge a l’acqua perigliosa e guata…
“Even he who, half-drowned,
cast up from the sea on the shore,
turns again to the perilous water and gazes…”
There’s something of Lot’s poor wife there, no? She can’t stop herself, even after being told explicitly not to, turning back for one last look — not just at her old city, her old house, her old life, but at the voluptuous destruction, the gratuitous vengeance of it all. And she’s punished. That’s me all over: I’ll ruminate too long on painful memories, until all I am is That Person Who Was…, and I stop being A Person Who Is.
Out of the wood, and properly rested, Dante sees the tall mountain, and the sun, and prepares to climb towards the light. We wake up in our own obscure wood and we think we can climb out of it, too. Only it’s never that easy. A mistake isn’t something to climb up out of, it seems. A mistake is something to endure. Or a mistake is something to return to, again and again, like that comfortably unflattering pair of pants.
Here’s how it works for me. I will slack too far behind at work. I will leave projects unfinished, or I’ll have had to obfuscate my way out of several mishaps of my own creation, or I’ll have had to sit through another “this is disappointing behavior” talks from my boss, and I’ll say ENOUGH!. And I’ll decide to turn over a new leaf, and I’ll arrive at my desk and begin to apply my nose to the grindstone, and I’ll finish projects and I’ll accomplish everything and I’ll think, “This! This I can do!” and I’ll feel like I’m underpaid for all of the great things I’m accomplishing, and I’ll being to imagine how the office would probably stop functioning without my newly-formed constant vigilance.
And then something I left undone yesterday, or last week, or last month pops up. And it will destroy the polite fiction of the Organized Mike. And I won’t know how to accomplish this new task that has to be accomplished. And I’ll feel dejected and worthless and find myself surfing the Internet again because what use is it, being the New Improved Mike of Today when so many mistakes that the Old Unimproved Mike of Yesterday left behind keep popping up?
Dante is chased away from this mountain by three wild animals: a spotted panther, a lion, and a she-wolf. He can see the top of the mountain. He can see the sun’s rays, and he knows that if he can just reach the top he will have successfully surmounted the obscure wood and the arduous mountain. But these wild animals — these old mistakes — chase him away. That mountain is not the path to righteousness — or, at least, it’s not Dante’s path. Unable to climb the mountain, he runs for his life back to the obscure woods.
He’s met there by Virgil, a Roman poet, and an idol of Dante’s. Virgil explains that Dante can’t climb the mountain — that it’s not time for Dante to climb that mountain — and that, besides, the way up the mountain isn’t up: it’s down, under, and below. The she-wolf, Virgil explains, is a demon, loosed from Hell, and who would have most surely killed Dante had he attempted to climb the mountain. Virgil also explains that the she-wolf will one day be chased back to Hell by a greyhound.
What’s interesting about this she-wolf is the way in which she kills: not through a direct attack. She won’t pounce on the traveler and rip his throat out. Instead, ma tanto lo ‘mpedisce che l’uccide: “She harasses him until he is destroyed.” We can wear ourselves down to the point where we are destroyed. “I stopped looking in mirrors. I stopped listening to myself.”
Virgil wants to take Dante through Hell in order to reach Paradise. He wants Dante to hear the lamentations of the spirits (ove udirai le disperate strida) and see the permanent and infinite damages these desperate souls have inflicted on themselves. Once through, Virgil tells Dante, he will leave him with one more worthy to complete the journey through Purgatory and into Paradise. Virgil must stay in Hell.
Canto 1 ends with the line Allor si mosse, e io li tenni dietro: “Then he moved on, and I followed from behind.”
Next week: Canto 2