• Dante's Recovery

    Light in the Dark Wood

by Arthur Paul Patterson

HAVE YOU EVER been so swallowed up in something unfair happening to you that you couldn’t find your way out of it? The Italian poet Dante Alighieri found himself the victim of vicious politics in 13th century Florence. Eventually he would write an epic poem about it—The Divine Comedy. Here is an imagined journey on what might have been on Dante's mind as he wrote his poem.

facing the darkness

image from Aish.com

One after another they rose to expose me. Libel and barbs of betrayal dripped from their venomous lips. The president's gavel scarred his lectern as he called out, "Order!" No order of any sort visited either the council chamber or my mind that day. I hardly remember the issues we were debating, all I knew was that I had become the focal point of the Council's rage. It was not my stance toward the Ghibellines, who supported the Emperor, or the Guelphs, who catered to the Holy See. Nor did their ire concern my poetry or the sins of my youth, normally the object of conjecture and whispering. These were mere peccadilloes in comparison to the charges now before me. Their wrath was directed at something deeper, more shaming, more substantial than any accusation I had ever weathered, even as Florence's President.

They skewed my personhood. Old friends of many years stood to denounce me and proclaimed their separation from the republican ideas I had advocated. As if a wasp had stung me, Giovanni Villani, my young friend and apprentice, his reddened face and temples throbbing with anger mingled with disappointment, dealt the final blow. He said I had been disloyal to the Council, to him and even to what he believed was the best about me. I was a traitor, a self-deceived liar, who deserved no mercy, not even the severe mercy of execution. "No," Villani said, "Dante Alighieri ought to be exiled." I was run out of my beloved Florence without even the courtesy of being able to arrange my personal business.

Usually a vote was taken for actions this drastic. They didn't vote with paper or quill that day; en masse they voted with canes and swish sticks and the shrieks and hollers of a mob. They stripped me of my office-bearing insignia and led me out to the edge of the city. Pushed, shoved, dragged and driven, I looked back at their vicious faces and realized my only course was to continue running down the ravine and then perhaps over the hill at the edge of the city boundary. Eventually I might find safety in the distant town of Ravenna.

A Dark Place

I felt my ankle slide sideways on a dank piece of rotten wood. First there was the throb, then vertigo and the plunge down the steep incline. I lost consciousness. I awoke from my nightmare realizing this was no night-dream. The phantoms who chased me were my old friends and colleagues. I am not sure which disoriented me more, the brutal treatment and chase or the shock of waking up to the consequences of my life in Florence. I had come to expect applause for my philosophical poetry, honour for my years of service, perhaps even a chance at the mayoralty of the city. Instead I found myself a middle-aged man with a torn tunic, a swollen ankle, and hemorrhaging pride in the bottom of a gully. The lofty sentiments of my intellect were useless. My philosophy and poems were futile to explain this abhorrent situation.

The twilight images of this dark place were far better instructors than my words. Words, whether those of my own or of my former friends, lay impotent in the slough; actions and perceptions became my new mentors. The heavy velvet fabric of my twisted tunic soaked in the stagnant water and stunk. "Fine toiletry for a politician," I thought. My skin was rubbed raw, scratched and scraped from the plunge. My half-submerged lips spewed out the fetid water. Moaning, I turned on my side to gain orientation.

As my eyes grew accustomed to the darkness something strange, almost miraculous, occurred. It was as if the gnarls and knots of the decayed thicket around me mutated into a mural of my life. In the twisted roots I saw the faces and bodies of those whom I had harmed and who had harmed me. Their limbs entwined, every branch spoke of their leering, smug postures, tumbling in self-revealing acrobatics. Worse by far were the sullen faces of those who had once admired me, even trusted me, and who now on the advice of Florence's most respected councilmen, turned from me in dismay. This dark wood was my life. Of this place I would later write, "So bitter it is, death itself is hardly more so; Yet there was good there..." (Inferno Canto I. 7,8).

Now was not the time for writing. I rose and after wandering this way and that, as if in a frightening house of mirrors, I arrived at the hill. My arm slashed through the underbrush revealing the golden mound upon which the sun had just set. Beyond that hill lay new life, a true La vita nuova! I looked back at the wood. My aching body had learned its lesson but had my mind? Had my soul? What was the nature of that good I detected beneath the rough hewn appearance of loss? What or who had brought me here?

Dore's Dante in the Dark Wood

Image from Wikimedia Commons

Safety often comes before conceptual clarity so I bestirred myself to climb the hill. It took my full concentration to move my aching muscles in such a way as to avoid a downward tumble. I scaled the cleft one step at a time, my strongest foot always forward. As I climbed I realized my perspective was warped. It was not eventide as I had imagined but morning. I must have lapsed into oblivion much longer than I had supposed. This realization permeated my bedraggled self with optimism and courage. I had been given another morning, a new beginning.

A Clear Path

Taking a deep breath I bounded up the side of the escarpment. My body remembered boyhood climbing days. Whether it was the dappled effect of a bent tree on the mountainside reflecting on rocks or an actual leopard, my progress was interrupted by a scampering, almost dancing feline. Every few steps I stopped, mesmerized by his adroitness and the smoothness of his wild waltz. The strange seduction had a familiar feel. How many times had I been enraptured by this sort of motion before? Finally I threw off his image and found myself again on a clear unobstructed path.

The sun shone brilliantly as I turned another corner in my climb. I was almost blinded by the radiance coming off the smooth surface of a marble rock. I could not see for a brief moment. Upon making sense of the scene, I sighted the outline of a lion. I am not confident in saying whether I saw the lion as much as to record that I felt the lion on the breeze. The beast surrounded me. Cold sweat and fear reminded me that any courage I mustered could easily be surpassed by the instinctual animal whose majestic presence I could tangibly feel upon that mountainside. I must beware. I must slow down and above all I must take heed against overconfidence.

I had betrayed the higher aspirations and goals of my colleagues when I put my glory and reputation before the benefit of the city.

Nearing the top of hill I was forced to crawl through a cave. It was not a long tunnel to traverse. I anticipated standing upon the crest of the hill momentarily. As I bowed to make my approach, a feeling of dread overwhelmed me. This cave and that dark tangle below seemed carved out of the same noxious material. Steeling my will I moved forward until, in the cave's recess, I espied a set of red eyes. The luminosity belonged to an animal I shall never forget nor want to encounter again. She was a wolf made small through her hunger and yet all the more ferocious because of it. Frightened, hungry and snarling, the wolf forced me from her cave. I forsook all hope of planting my feet upon the summit. Where had I experienced that hunger, that insane unpredictability before? Was it in the council hall of Florence? Assailed by the animals, discouraged by my own inability and cowardice, I made my way back to the dark wood to ponder my dilemma.

And, as a man who, practically winded,
Staggers out of the sea and up the beach,
Turns back to the dangerous water and looks at it,
So my mind, which still felt that it was in flight,
Turned back to take another look at the defile...
- Inferno Canto I. 25

Not finding safety I was compelled to search for clarity. Where had I gone wrong in evaluating my life in Florence? I thought I was serving both my ideals and my fellow Florentines. I spent many a candle-lit night looking for solutions to the controversies and factions in our body politic. I studied, wrote and conversed with Italy's finest minds in search of a way to create an environment where wealth could be used for creative purposes, where our city might serve as a model for a restored national unity. To be called a traitor when these were my sentiments was heart wrenching.

Surely those who knew me best knew that I was a dedicated servant. They obviously saw something in me that I myself had missed. Giovanni Villani was not a malicious man and yet he had detected an odiousness in me that led to violence. Which was the dream, my service to Florence or the reactions of my countrymen? The answer came when I reflected once again on the dark wood's carved mural of my life.

Taking Another Look

One of the scenes depicted was the last council meeting, where I was attempting to convince the rich merchants to utilize their resources to create a literary academy where poetic philosophy could be taught. Instead of humble service, I saw arrogance and pride of intellect engraved on my face as I made my argument. In contrast to my words, the wood carving did not lie. Through the uplifted eye and the sneer, the relief revealed that I wanted to show how superior I was, how I had recovered the teachings of the ancients, how I was the natural candidate to be the founder of this renowned academy. I had not said this with my words. I said it through my condescending demeanor. I made my argument so complex that I knew that I was concealing rather than revealing my true plan. I misused my rhetoric. I squinted into the dark wood's tangled mural trying to examine my physical features. I looked haughty and distant. I stood with no one but myself and yet demanded that the council give allegiance to every iota of my plan.

Many of the council, believing my words, gave up their family lives, other worthy projects, and their creative genius to promote my self-owned project. In the twilight of the dark wood, my heart convinced me that I was like Brutus, Julius Caesar's friend, who betrayed him for pride. I had betrayed the higher aspirations and goals of my colleagues when I put my glory and reputation before the benefit of the city. My ideas were good. My character was flawed. I was found out.

Self reflected in a pond

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That odd feeling of something fortuitous about my fall was gradually making sense to me. I had not come to the dark wood through fate or accident; pride and providence had put me there. The sense of joy this thought brought in its train was not dissimilar from the exultant sentiment of the Augustine, "Felix culpa. Oh, happy fault!" It was through this fall, this fault, that I could see who I had been. In looking backward to what brought me here, my sense of shame was replaced by a sense of gratitude. It was not that I was proud of my motives, not in the least. I recognized that providence had not left me to my pride and that my pride had been snapped violently by the sticks of my oppressors. I was no worse than them for they too had their vanities that accompanied public office. I was in some ways more blessed than they by having been found out.

Restful Reflections

I rested for several hours content to be in that dark wood which had formerly brought dread. Again my body became my mentor. I experienced hunger and discomfort and as I became disquieted, I remembered the she-wolf and the other animals upon the hill. What was the connection between those beasts who prevented me from escaping and the dark wood itself? Not unlike the wooden mural at the bottom of the gully, these animals where dynamic emblems of myself. Like myself they prevented my progress. How many times had I been seduced by the likes of the leopard, mesmerized by form, beauty and grace, devoid of character and depth? How many times had I met this leopard in the arms of a lover, poetic or real? I had bartered beauty and lust for truth and lost my way.

What of the lion? The lion, prideful king of the beasts, was my political mentor. My ambition was to be the mayor of Florence, apparently as servant. In reality I wanted to rule the city and subject them to my vision and wisdom. These vanities prevented me from looking into my human nature and seeing the flaws that would have led me to humility. I opted for pride of appearance and position instead of humility, and was lost.

I had seen the she-wolf in the council room of Florence. Her desperateness appeared in the apprehensive faces of those about to lose power. When all they had slipped away on the breeze of political disfavour, they looked this way and that way for support only to find apathy in those they once looked to for sustenance. Power in Florentine politics is really a source of food and when you are hungry you get desperate, even violent. Loss and want have a way of sharpening the senses so the political she-wolves were quick to pounce on any opportunity that would restore them and their brood to their former state of contentment. Until that final day in the chambers I had never known what a she-wolf felt like. Only then was I fully in touch with defensive rage and the desire to lash out without a view to the consequences.

In looking backward to what brought me here, my sense of shame was replaced by a sense of gratitude.

If this was the power of hunger in those so opulent what must be the rage of Florence's poor and outcast? They must have lost the good of reason entirely. Perhaps that is why I was always afraid of the poor. When starving, the higher values of reason and understanding melt in the desperate pursuit of food.

While still physically hungry, I was spiritually fed on these realizations. I was uncomfortable but not without hope. For if my spirit and mind could be generously fed by these truths surely my body would be taken care of too. But how? How was I ever to progress through the dark wood to the new life in Ravenna?

I had been forced to look back on my life, to take the time to contemplate my character and to attempt to scale the hill. These efforts wrought me a well earned self-knowledge but they didn't deliver me from my lost condition. I needed something I had rarely sought. I needed not to lead, even to lead myself, but to be led. I was ready to put my trust in another for my self-recovery. I resolved to follow if ever a Teacher would come.