It Takes a Pilgrim to Find a Pilgrim
Written by Cecelia Pletan
The first time I picked up Dante’s “Inferno,” it was as a bleary-eyed freshman who had never heard of the Divine Comedy and didn’t find it funny that we had to read it for Great Books. I skimmed through as best I could, and on days that I “didn’t have time” for the reading (like, every day), I skimmed the SparkNotes. I distinctly remember the quizzes over that material. On one, I knew none of the answers, so, self-assured freshman that I was, I drew a cat on the bottom of the page and wrote a note to my professor: “Sorry I don’t know any of the answers. Here’s a picture of a cat.” In what I like to think was a gesture of good intent, I even tacked on a smiley face at the end. When I got my quiz back, there was a frown next to my smiley face. 0/0 points.
I found it more than a struggle to get through the “Inferno” and “Purgatorio” freshman year. It became a hell of my own to pass Great Books that spring, let alone try to enjoy the material we were reading when we got to Dante. Yet three years later, as a late-blooming English major, I found myself sitting in Dr. Smith’s classroom in an entire seminar class devoted to studying none other than this pilgrim’s epic. Honestly, it was no less of a struggle to attempt to understand our reading (or to pass the class–let’s be honest, 400-level English is no joke!), but I found myself drawn into it for several reasons.
First, for those not familiar with the Italian trilogy, here’s the rundown: at the very beginning of the first book, the main character, politician Dante Alighieri, goes through sort of a midlife crisis and finds himself lost in what he calls a “dark wood.” He meets the shade/soul of Virgil, the ancient Roman poet, who takes it upon himself to be Dante’s guide through a journey spanning the levels of hell (Inferno) and the terraces of purgatory (Purgatorio), before Dante arrives in heaven (Paradiso) with a new guide, his forever-crush, Beatrice. We find out as we read that it’s only on a journey to the center of the universe and beyond that Dante finds the context to contemplate his own center (his heart) as well as the world around him.
Although he writes about the afterlife, the underworld, and the heavenly realms–not necessarily light, super-relatable material upon first glance–Dante’s Comedy itself is a fundamentally human project. And you don’t have to be a world-class scholar or even the smartest student in the class to gain something from a reading of his work. A critical piece of context to know before diving into his comedy is this: Dante turned to serious writing after achieving the peak of his political career in Florence, only to be soon thereafter rejected by his beloved city and exiled from it in a sudden series of political events. This brings a depth and perspective to his poem, and humanizes the otherwise sometimes inaccessible writer. Losing absolutely everything he cared about drove this poet to pen one of the most enduring epics of all time. This prompts you and I as readers to ask, “What would have happened if Dante Alighieri had never been exiled?”
Fortunately for us, and I dare to assert Dante would say for him too, we don’t know the answer to that. Dante’s Comedy is a hundred-part series of love songs, or in Italian, cantos, all declaring that the best thing about love is this: not only does love meet a soul where it is, but it doesn’t leave a soul where it is. Love reaches out, speaks the language of, guides, reprimands, affirms, prays for, sacrifices for, walks with, and carries its beloved through even his darkest moments. In its barest and most vulnerable, this is the tale of a man so horribly desperate and lost, he contemplates his own suicide, and yet, in that dark wilderness, the voice he loves the most reaches out and shows incredible depths of love to him. Virgil, sent by Beatrice (and ultimately, Divine Love Himself), walks beside Dante through the gates of hell, carries him when his legs can’t even hold their own weight, follows him into the excruciating fires of purgatory, and leads him to the edge of the most finitely-possible glimpse of the infinite abundance and resplendent goodness of the Divine Himself in paradise. I mean, Romeo and Juliet doesn’t have anything on this kind of story.
Three years out from freshman English, I hope I can say I read with much greater empathy and perspective than before. I’m sure this is due in part to the other English classes I’ve taken, and in part to the phenomenon that life just has a funny way of happening in the meantime. And while I don’t pretend to have a complete or even partial understanding of the depth of loss Dante, the man, experienced, even in small ways this epic has provided comfort that I return to more often than not, especially as a college student, when it seems my whole life is in flux. The story of Dante Alighieri continues to challenge me to question my perspective of the world and my own heart. It calls me to ponder if the challenges, disappointments, or heartaches that come my way–or even, that worst thing in my life, whatever that may be–could be clearing the way for something precious to enter in anyway. Maybe not getting accepted to that dream internship junior year, or failing that one class despite efforts to the contrary, or even harder things like losing friends I thought I’d have forever, or having a family member diagnosed with cancer–maybe all of those, while undeniably difficult, still provide a way for us, for me, to pray, and hope, and experience undeniable love and abundance in other unforeseen ways. Like Dante.
A comedy is a story, usually in literature or drama, that begins sort of as a tragedy and ends happily. I like to think my own journey studying literature like Dante’s is a comedy of sorts too. I may not have understood all of the finer points of the inordinately complex Italian poem or others like it, but I’m not drawing cat pictures on my quizzes anymore either. I even have a quote from “Purgatorio” tacked on my wall right now: sì non si perde, che non possa tornar, l’etterno amore. Or in English, “There is no one so lost that the eternal Love cannot return [to him].” When I came to Hillsdale, I was lost in more ways than in just Great Books class; and while I still may not know what life after college looks like, or what my dream job may be, I can say I know more than when I started about how to live meaningfully, because of not only the education, but also the tremendous examples of love and outpouring of friendship I’ve experienced here.
Love drives our desire to learn about the world around us, and to know one another in this world. Both the act of studying literature like Dante’s, and the call of the story within that literature itself, teach us just that, entreating us to remember life may be constantly full of challenges and unknowns, but with sacrificial love surrounding us, walking beside us, and leading us forth, we will never be truly lost.
Cecelia Pletan, ‘19, is a senior from Texas studying literature. She looks up to writers like TS Eliot, William Faulkner, and Taylor Swift. When she’s not pretending to do important homework in AJ’s, you can find her watching way too many TED talks and biking along Lake Baw Beese.
Published in February 2019