Tag Archives: Ingrid Soren

Meeting Dante (2)

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.

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Meeting Dante (1)

It is extraordinary how Dante, my close companion since I first started to read him in my late teens, keeps cropping up in my life. Take the last few weeks for instance. I had a random email from Robert Loch, headed ‘Dante Idea’, containing a proposal that a Dante retreat I had once given, and he had heard described, might be pitched as a TV programme and inviting me down to the Paramount, one of his London haunts, to discuss it. The meeting was arranged and I was sketching out ideas, thinking of ways we could use TV to convey the immediacy, the contemporary relevance of Dante’s journey, the way  he is mapping and exploring, not so much some imagined afterlife, but all the winding intricacies, the mysteries of the human heart. The way Dante’s journey through the circles of hell, the terraces of the holy mountain and the spheres of paradise could be mapped directly on to the contours of contemporary Britain; the stories that fill our papers and are told in our pubs.

My cogitations were interrupted by the arrival of the post; a plain brown package addressed to me; it contained, unexpected and unsolicited, a copy of a book called Meeting Dante by my friend Ingrid Soren, I was delighted to be given it, but even more so when I opened it and began to read. What an amazing book! I shall write a proper review of it later, (look out for Meeting Dante (2)) but it couldn’t have been more timely and helpful to me at that point. Like Dante’s poem, Ingrid’s book is multi-layered; its a travelogue of her journeys in Dante’s footsteps, it is a beautiful account of the poem itself but it is also (like Dantes poem) a love story; a searing personal account of the making and breaking of a relationship and how Dante helped her at every step to deal with the delights, the demands, and the sorrows of love. Every page sparkles with insight into the links between the Divine Comedy and contemporary life, I couldnt have asked for better inspiration for my London forray! I packed her book in my bag and headed for the paramount.

High above London, with a panoramic view vbiew of  its palaces and temples, its dark alleys, its corrupt banks and glorious museums, all its places of delight and desolation spread out below us, Robert and Mike Dicks and I began to plan our series on Dante’s contemporary journey and to map his places of the soul onto the real places we could see from thParamount’s panoramic view, finding connection after connection. Could we sell it? we wondered, could we liberate Dante from the ivory tower and set him walking the streets again, a compassionate guide for twenty-first century life? Would others see these connections too? Even as we wondering about that a woman who had been working away at a laptop in the corner, but also, I had noticed often looking up at us and listening, came over. She said “I’m sorry to interrupt, but I can’t contain myself any longer, I never thought I’d hear Dante’s name up here and I’m thrilled, I love Dante and I think of his work often in the midst of my own life.”

She turned out to be a well known and witty comedienne, star of a channel four series, but also, (on the quiet) a Dante scholar and enthusiast, just in the club by chance that day! I had a wonderful sense of providence, of pieces falling together and of Dante own poem so full of beautiful connections and imagined spaces in which the most unlikely people separated byt time space and language can still meet together and make something new of each others lives. I left London with the distinct feeling that the old Florentine was definitely on our side with this one!

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Filed under imagination, literature, Theology and Arts