For many, Dante’s Divina Commedia remains more a description of the three metaphysical realms than the author-protagonist’s journey understood as a phenomenological analysis of sin and redemption. It remains, in other words, a work of fantasy rather than an exploration of a personal drama. Everyone remembers the topography of Hell, the extravagance of sin and of those who are punished therein, but few would recall that this is a reality which presents itself to Dante-the-pilgrim, whose journey is the cause of the insight.
Today I told my students that Petronius’ Satyricon is similar to the Commedia (don’t gasp!) in the sense that they were both, generically, literary singularities, without direct models or subsequent imitators. One student disagreed, arguing that Paradise Lost may be seen as a progeny of the Commedia. That couldn’t be farther from the truth, in my opinion. Milton’s great epic dramatizes the Fall and its consequences, but the point of view is as though ‘from nowhere’. The Miltonian spectacle may be as poignant as Dante’s encounters in the Lower Hell, for instance, but it is mannerist by comparison. For me, the Commedia‘s nuclear reactor lies in its ability to convey the theatre of sin, purgation and exaltation through the eyes of a human agent, free, rational, pasional, incarnate. Rather than objectifying the human condition and its divine destiny, the Commedia puts us first, and orders everything around the discerning, ethical self, creating a narrative that straddles tragedy and comedy in a way that remains without equal to this day.