The direction of travel is not always clear, whatever myth or narrative we might subscribe to. The world doesn’t always go from bad to better, whatever mental gifts we might lay out on the altar of progressivism. And Golden Ages, if they ever existed, don’t always succumb to alloys of silver, bronze or lead.
But the stories we tell ourselves are powerful motivators, and often have the power to shape the journey, nowithstanding the direction of travel.
In the Divine Comedy, Dante the poet was pretty sure about the direction of travel, even if his narrative alter-ego, Dante the pilgrim/hiker, wasn’t always clear about where he was headed. He needed several women, led by Beatrice, to explain it to him. And that was not to lay out the blueprints of his journey like a movie script, for him to follow. The genius of the Comedy is that its characters don’t really play the roles they are given – or at least the roles we think they are given. And from the dark wood to the luminous Empyrean, the drama unfolds in the most unexpected way. The direction of travel remains unclear. Dante’s intellect, in the words of Matilda, the woman he finds in the uppermost parts of Mount Purgatory, is clouded and needs ‘unclouding’ (disnebbiar, Purgatorio 28:81).
The mental cumulonimbi affecting Dante’s understanding of the architecture of the universe, its redemptive design and his own role in it never really enjoys clear skies and smooth sailing.
The transformative power of the Commedia for the protagonist and its readers, from the 14th to the 21st centuries, depends on an awareness of mental cloudedness and a mindset focused on unclouding the mind. The existential journey which the work describes and invites the reader into is one from paralysis to agility, from silence to music, from cognitive and emotional cloudedness to mental clarity and singlemindedness.