I don’t know anything about Dante.
I know he described the Inferno and the sign leading into it that read, “Abandon hope all ye who enter here.” I vaguely understood that there were circles of hell where things went (as they say) from bad to worse, but that was about all I knew. When I learned that a class in Dante was being offered right before the class I teach this summer I decided to take it, although I was pretty sure it would be grim.
I didn’t expect it to be all about love.
My professor is from Italy— Sardinia, to be precise— the large island on the southwest side of Italy. She is a tiny woman with a radiant smile and graying hair who wears short, chic dresses and Italian shoes. She grew up reading Dante as a child and, for her, a class about Dante is a class about love.
There is Dante’s great unrequited love of Beatrice, but there is more. There is my professor’s love of Italy, love of Italian, love of the ideas and ideals that came from Dante and his contemporaries. She cannot talk about Dante without talking about her father whom she adored, and her mother who gave up everything for love, and her grandmother who scandalized everyone by eloping, and her husband, the American, whom she married in Reno (“So not Italian!”) because he begged her to.
“Everything is part of Dante, in my interpretation,” she told us on the first day of class, “Cat Stevens, the Beatles, ‘paving over paradise…’ it is all part of Dante!”
We have not even gotten to the Inferno yet. We are reading love poems and talking about the world into which Dante was born. We are talking about the relations between men and women and God. We are talking about life in Florence and Sicily and gardens filled with fragrant lemon trees and cities with walls that shimmered like silver and the pain of these long-dead lovers parting with the one they adored and the terrible fear of losing their love.
It is a summer love seminar.
My professor brings in a suitcase full of books to show us every class, always apologizing for not bringing more because she could not carry them all. She shows us medieval drawings of lovers and volumes of love poems, scholarly texts littered with her tiny margin notes, and Italian tabloids chronicling the activities of celebrities who are the great-great-grandchildren of famous lovers from long ago, carrying on the grand tradition of Italian love. It is heady stuff.
“Carrie, will you read this poem in English after I read it in Italian?” she asks, and so I do. After her beautiful lilting Italian, I read the words of someone suffering and stumbling, someone confused and distraught. I read in these verses how utterly unchanging and universal this experience of love is.
Stepping into the sunshine every afternoon after two hours of love poetry, I look around at the nearly-deserted campus and my heart swells. Everywhere, it seems to me, there is love. Still smarting from my own misadventures in love, it is good to be reminded that love, like life, is a journey and never a thing accomplished or realized. I feel a little less alone, less of an outcast. Instead of being a washed-out lover, I am part of a grand and revered tradition. I am in the leagues of the lovelorn. I am an active participant in this great human experience that makes us more fully human.
Till next time,