It is a well known fact that I am not a morning person. Waking up is bad; being woken up is evil – which is to say, it makes me evil. This is not an exaggeration. I no longer will the good of anything. In fact, in those few minutes of being woken up, I will the absolute destruction of everything that is. Living with a cheerful, bright-eyed morning person (which autocorrect translated to moronic, so it’s on my side) is a kind of sick torture for said moronic and me.
As a preventative measure against the destruction of the world, as soon as I roll out of bed I roll out of the door and go running. Alone, listening to early morning radio, I can take my rage out on the morning radio host who sits safely some distance away. And by the time I make it home, I emerge, civilized (or as much as is possible for a sad sack like me).
At least, some days it’s like that. Other days, I roll out of bed, roll out of the door, and start running. And it’s only half light out. And I’m still half asleep. And then running is like dreaming. Being awake is like being asleep and I float along in a drifty appreciation for all that is. And in those moments, things become strangely clear.
At the beginning of Dante’s Divine Comedy, he wakes up in a dark woods. And it’s like he has been startled awake by some rude alarm going off at 6:13 am. He doesn’t know where he is and he has no idea how he got there. My reaction is to be angry, but Dante is terrified.
He then has the most amazing vision, the most amazing dream-he dreams he visits the afterworld, and travelling through Inferno and Purgatory, Dante meets mythical heroes, historical kings, and famous lovers. It’s as though he has won the door prize and is able to have a dinner party with whoever he wants. And then, he hits the jackpot – a vision of Paradiso and the possibility of his own reunion with his great love Beatrice (not to mention the possibility of a reconciliation with the head cheese (also known as God).
Among all of the large puzzles present in Dante’s poem, we begin with this tiny little puzzle – one you might not notice if you have just woken up and are a little grumpy about the intrusion. Dante wakes up and then he has a dream of eternity. What has he woken up from? His life. What is the reality he faces when he awakes? An image or vision of eternity. In other words, at the beginning of his poem, Dante suggests that the lives we believe are real – our seemingly awake, active, 9-5 lives are actually like being asleep. The everyday world of our experiences, Dante suggests, is like the illusions of a dream. They might feel as though they are real, but then Dante wakes up and is startled to discover that the life he has invested everything in is not the full truth. The life that he has invested everything in, his 9-5, will end, and then he will have a lot of time to consider what is true and what is but a dream. Dante has to wake up from his life to discover what is real. And the reality he discovers is a vision or a dream. All of which is to say, as a friend said to me last night, that the things we imagine can be more real than anything we encounter in the physical world.
If someone woke me up to tell me that the coffee beckoning to me from the Starbucks around the block was not real … KABOOM …. world destruction would be imminent. It after having had a couple of those not-so-real coffees, I might realize that Dante is saying something quite important about what it means to be human. The seemingly sharp and pressing nature of the external world convinces us that it is true. We can see it, touch it, taste it, measure it, and in all kinds of way confirm for ourselves it’s veracity. And Dante is not saying that this world is not important. Instead, he wants us to consider the importance of another world – one that we cannot so empirically experience and thus prove, but one which can only imagine. That we are able to imagine the nature of eternity, write poems about the infinite, for instance, indicates that we understand, even if just darkly, the nature of the Infinite in and of itself. Being made in the image of God is to see or know an image of what God knows. However, dark this image is, however dense the shadows through which we must peer Dante says that whatever we see there is more true, more real, than anything we see in the broad daylight of our 9-5 lives. of this is some comfort to my angry waking self. The dreams, Dante says, the visions of my imagination are more real than the life I am being so rudely thrust into. (Not to mention that my bed is super cosy and it’s cold, Canada-like cold out there.)
And yet, the dream Dante has of the afterlife also suggests that the activities of his 9-5 life are of infinite or eternal importance. After all, the people, he meets in Inferno and and Paradiso have chosen their retirement homes on the grounds of what they have known and done in their 9-5 life.
Both dream and reality are dream and reality. It’s like you got up at 6:13, and it’s half dark out, and you are half asleep, and you start running. Where are you going?