As much as Dante’s Divine Comedy is about the power of romantic love (as it is for the sake of Beatrice that Dante is willing to go through all of the terror of Inferno and the arduous climb of Purgatory), it is also about friendship. Dante is accompanied on this path by his poetic predecessor and literary hero, Virgil. And although Virgil has made part of this journey before, confronting the horrors of hell and seeing them reflected in one’s own will and actions can never be easy. It is not clear even why Virgil agrees to help the rather pathetic Dante-is he moved by his continued love of beautiful and thus motivated by Beatrice? Is it is his desire for honour in the eyes of God that she suggests will be the result? Does he hope that his honour will lead to forgiveness and thus he’ll be moved from Limbo to Paradiso? On this point, the text is ambiguous (Inferno, Canto II).
The further Dante and Virgil journey together, however, the reason for Virgil’s continued assistance grows clear. For through the course of their travels, Dante and Virgil come to love one another as friends. They each will one another’s good and assist one another through the difficult passes. In Canto 23 of Inferno we are presented with a beautiful image of this love. Terrified of the demons who are pursuing them, Dante expresses his fear to Virgil, and Virgil knows at this point that Dante is correct to be afraid. Although he is just a shade, or a shadow of his mortal self, Virgil picks Dante up and carries him along the path: “Then my master caught me up, like a mother, waking/ To the roar and cackle of fire, who sees the flare,/ And snatches her child from the cradle and runs, taking/More thought for him than for herself”(37-40) . Knowing that the journey that Dante is taking is an inward journey and the vices he confronts in hell are actually his own, we are drawn to wonder what this passage says about the dangers of turning inward and examining one’s soul without a friend to help you.
In my last post, Dreaming with Dante, I mentioned that a friend had said that what we imagine must be more true than what we experience. He said this in reference to whether one is able to understand what it is like to fully bear the burden of someone else’s life. Even if we had never experienced it, surely, he said, we could imagine it and in imagining it, know exactly what this meant. (In all fairness, we had had some scotch).
In the image of Dante and Virgil’s friendship, we are asked to think about exactly this. We see Virgil bear Dante’s burden. He must literally pick him up and carry him. A good friendship though is reciprocal. And for this to be true, then Dante must also bear the weight of Virgil. But we are never explicitly given an image of him doing this. Instead we must imagine that it happens.
Dante gives us good reason for such imaginings (a word?). We know that Virgil’s home is in Limbo. He has been eternally condemned for his failure of imagination with respect to the possibilities of God’s love. He never imagined that God could love humans such that he would eradicate our insufficiency. Virgil thus leaves Dante at the top of Purgatory. He just disappears; he is unable to transcend this realm and know Paradiso. As friends of Dante and Virgil, this moment is heart breaking. We imagine and know Virgil’s pain. And if we are able to do this, then the character Dante, who has been picked up and carried by his friend, must be able to do so as well.
But to bear someone else’s weight, means to take it on ourselves so that they no longer have to bear it. It’s not merely to empathize with another, although that is surely important and good. It is in addition to substitute yourself for the other, so that whatever the pain or grief another feels, you have taken it so that they no longer have to. In a great novel by Charles Williams, Descent into Hell, this is described as exactly the same as taking someone else’s parcel. And if I am carrying your backpack, then you no longer are. All of this, my friend, Dante, and Williams say happens in the realm of our imaginations and our wills.
In the Christian account that Dante is presenting it is exactly this that Christ does for humans. He bears the weight of our crimes so that we might be freed to receive love and love in return. This is what is at issue for Virgil, for he never imagined a god who would do this. But now, Dante has become Virgil’s friend. How then is he to bear Virgil’s burden? If the image holds that Dante is made in the image of God, then he must do just what God has done. He must take on Virgil’s crime and hope and pray that this act of sacrifice and love will be sufficient for them both. Which of course it will be, as long Virgil allows him to pick him up, like a mother would a child.
So, for someone with a tiny, dark heart, this is of course hopeful. Not saying who around here has such a heart, but …