As promised, I am returning to the theme of finding and Meeting Dante in the midst of our contemporary lives, rather than on some high bookshelf of the past. I have had a month or two now to reflect on Ingrid Soren’s excllent new book Meeting Dante, and I want to tell you something more about it.
First, its a real page turner. She is unfolding a series of stories simultaneously and you get caught up in each, and want to know what happens next. Over the course of the book she tells the story of the poem itself, tracing for us the compelling, eerie, horrifying but often beautiful and luminous journey of Dante and Virgil through the realms of Hell and Purgatory, and then the transcendent journey of Dante and Beatrice, reunited, up through the spheres of Heaven. And interwoven with that she is telling the story of Dante’s life and with it the great love story of Dante and Beatrice themselves.
Alongside these connected stories from the distant past she is also telling the story of her own journey in Dante’s footsteps following his life of exile, visiting the places he visited, the scenes and views he saw. This kind of vivid travelogue is not only interesting in itself but constantly throws new light on Dante’s poetry as we see how the valleys and rivers, the wildlife, the cites and towers he saw and transmuted into his poetry. But there is also one more story she is telling and this is the one that makes the book so compelling and relevant. As we follow her in Dante’s footsteps we are treated to a series of vivid flash backs into the tragic love story that she herself is living through. We gradually realise that she is following Dante because she believes that only he can help her recover and grow from a deep love and a terrible betrayal. It is that story of love, betrayal, and the struggle for forgiveness and redemption which illuminate for the reader the true meaning of Dante’s triple realms of Hell Purgatory and Heaven. We are shown time and again that these realms are not medieval fantasy pictures of the afterlife but fearfully accurate depictions of contemporary inner life, of what it it is like to be human now in all our depths and the heights.
Though this is a unique book, the reading experience it most reminds me of is my first reading of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. There too we have a surface story of contemporary travel interleaved with a gripping account of important ideas from classical and contemporary philosophy told with passion, not for academic purposes, but because they matter here and now. There too we have a series of dramatic revelations from the past; recovered memories and flashbacks that release emotional depth charges with which the narrator can hardly cope and which leave the reader gasping. And there too we are left with the conviction that philosophy in its deepest sense, as a search for truth compelled by a love of wisdom, is the most essential thing we need. ‘ Zen and the Art’ is about the parent-child relationship and the path to true maturity and freedom. ‘Meeting Dante’ is about erotic love; its heavens and its hells, its ultimate redemption.
Like’ Zen and the Art’, Meeting Dante is also full of reference to to other great writers and poets whose words suddenly take on new importance. As you follow Ingrid and Dante on their parallel journeys you also find that Rilke, and Einstein, Jung and TS Eliot have joined the company for a while and are part of the conversation. Indeed, early in the book it is a quotation from Rilke that sets the whole agenda:
“for one human being to love another: that is perhaps the most difficult of all our tasks… the work for which all other work is preparation… whoever wants to have a deep love in this life must collect for it and gather honey”
‘Meeting Dante’ is written by someone sharing all they have learned fom Dante and from their own heart about what it means to love. Ingrid has collected and gathered just such honey as Rilke speaks of, long in the making, rich and sustaining. Her book good place to gather wisdom, strength and hope for your own journey in Love.