Unexpectedly, as he draws to the end of the steadfast and beautiful autobiography of the first half of his life (‘Indirections: a Memoir 1909-1947’, pages 412-413), the New Zealander Charles Brasch introduces from out of his reading time, Dante Alighieri. The timeframe is the immediate end of the second war, as he calls it, and Brasch is returning from wartime life in Britain to his homeland.
Reading just then the early cantos of the ‘Inferno’, suddenly for the first time I felt I understood what inspired the ‘Commedia’ and what it is all about. It is a vision of the terrible reality of good and evil, and of the inescapable consequences of human action, which is the exercise of free will. The vision begins significantly in that dark wood between youth and middle age, where Dante implies that he had lost all sense of purpose and of right and wrong and that the life he was living was an unworthy one – unworthy of him. All at once he saw what he was in danger of becoming, and by contrast what he could become if he willed. The vision was a warning to him: unless he mended his life he would end up as one of the damned, bound for ever in the torment of a spiritual state, the inward being of those physical states the ‘Inferno’ shows; for right and wrong, good and evil, his own sin and the truth and beauty which he had first seen or imagined in Beatrice were real, overwhelmingly real. To make the torment worse, he would be self-condemned, for it was in his power to live ill or well, as he chose.
Dante’s account of states of the soul which may be said to be true for all men in all ages is given in terms of the theology and cosmology of his own age; but what he is essentially concerned to say is plain enough, and simple enough: men are, spiritually, what they wish to be; they judge themselves by what they think and say and do, and judgement is now and all the time, for they are all the time faced by choices between right and wrong, or better and worse. Purgation there may be, if sin has not bitten too deep, but annulment never: what is done is done for all time. So, for those who are damned, “Nulla speranza li conforta mai”; for the good there is the “Oh sanza brama sicura richezza!” of Paradise. To speak of Dante’s cruelty is thus to miss the point. He does not condemn men to the punishments of the ‘Inferno’, on the contrary he is urgently warning them by showing the degradation and torment they condemn themselves to by evil living, by not caring, by indifference.
Here is Brasch at the midpoint of his own life journey pondering the midlife change brought by Dante into the light of day. Brasch’s ‘Indirections’ (the title comes from Hamlet’s line, “By indirections find directions out”) is a sustained memory of Dunedin childhood, youth and early adulthood, in which he honours the many people who brought him to a place where he could learn his own direction in life, in his case to be a writer and founder of the pre-eminent New Zealand journal Landfall. The first to advise that he is not Dante, Brasch all the same repeats the Dantesque process of composing a work that, by describing the lives of those he remembers in his own life, both living and in books, comes to a point where he can now explain, in all senses of the word relief, his understanding of life, and even something of that mystery, Charles Brasch himself.
It is refreshing to read Brasch’s experience of Dante as a sustained exercise in retrospection. Those who read anything as though it were happening in real time now, and many Dante readers judge him on this count, have yet to develop the sense, essential in reading, that the ‘Commedia’, as with most writing, is retrospection. This is especially true of such a distillation of life’s experience as we find in Dante. The drama is forward moving, happens in the present tense, and is about people who are no longer among the living. Which only causes us to marvel at Dante’s preparation for his poem, meditating at depth on the views he has of all of those in the ‘Commedia’, whether fictional or from his own lifetime, or history. Yet Brasch also grasps the essential drama of moral choice that we all encounter at times in our life, usually after rather than before we understand how choice arises.
To see the ‘Commedia’ as a warning is pivotal for a reader: the poem is spoken to the individual listener, you or I. It may be a drama involving ancient great poets, but each episode, each canto, confronts us with the deadly sins that we have every freedom to indulge in ourselves. It is not as though we don’t have the choice, and this is Dante’s point, we know what he’s talking about, almost certainly. This could happen to us, and that goes for all three places described in the poem.
Brasch is to be recommended for his observation that the essential meaning of the ‘Commedia’ is in the lives lived, not the cosmological structures (strange as they would have seemed even in the fourteenth century) or the, for us, curiously rigid hierarchy of the afterlife, reflective of feudal society. That we may be judged at every moment of our lives seems a restrictive existence until we appreciate that Brasch is saying what Dante is dramatising, we live in the here and now alive to what we have done and have not done. There are readers of Dante who would resist the permanence of the states his people find themselves in, whether infernal, purgatorial, or paradisal, who find this an unreal completion of their lives. In the fixity of the storyline this may be so, but then it is just that, a story, made to confront us with our own life of choices. It is a useful exercise to test which episodes we, as private readers, are drawn to, those from which we recoil, and those that leave us indifferent. We will find, as we do when reading books of personal development, that conditions we identify with are intrinsic to our own personality and dilemmas.
“By indirections find directions out” is shorthand for the state the character Dante finds himself in at the opening of ‘Inferno’. It raises the question of when is the right age to read Dante as, for some readers at least, the poem is one of experience, of the condition of looking both backward and forward in time, unable to make very much sense of either. While this is a helpful check, a reminder that it is a poem set in mid-life, indeed erupting out of that state, it is helpful to remember Dante’s own message in the poem, that judgement is in the here and now. If that is so, then mature reading age is as good a place to start as any. Anyone in late teens or their twenties will encounter in some of these cantos glimpses of life as a reality of desires and choices. Even to do nothing is a choice and there is a special place in ‘Inferno’ reserved for them as well.