Befriending Dante: A Reflection on Readership

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Although I have always been bookish in about every sense of the word, I went through a “rebellious” phase in high school when my AP Literature class was required to read Dante’s Inferno. I was adamantly against it and now, as I reread it for the fourth or fifth time, I can explain away this opposition as perhaps being the fault of a poor translation. Possibly, it also had something to do with the fact that it Inferno not meant to be read in isolation; that popular engagement with Dante’s Divine Comedy begins and ends with hell may be telling of some morbid modern imagination or revealing of a concerning preference for darkness rather than light. Whatever the case, though, I scoffed at Dante without giving him a fair chance and declared that the whole of Inferno was not much more than a fanfiction in which he cast himself as the star. 

Although more nuanced now—having had the privilege of reading the Commedia under the Virgil-like guidance of a world-leading Dante scholar—my basic impression of Dante remains about the same. Laughing into my well-marked copy, I recall my first encounter with Inferno. Such an adorable young hypocrite I was! I belittled this great father of poets and—to think!—without Dante, my beloved Eliot would not have written!

As I mocked Dante for putting himself in a poem peopled with his favorite fictional and real-life heroes and villains, I was at the same time doing the same thing on a much humbler scale. You see, my first real attempt at a novel centers around a girl who is suspiciously similar to myself and who engages vividly in conversation with her favorite book characters: Scarlett O’Hara and Sherlock Holmes being among their eclectic ranks. As I wrote this long-since abandoned draft, I had to address the question which I now realize also occupied Dante: Why am I so compelled to document my own development in the context of people I know not only in life but through literature? 

Reading Dante’s Divine Comedy again, I’ve come up with a few hypotheses as to why this may be: First of all, loneliness. It’s no secret that we introverts often prefer the company of a good book and likely Dante was similar. He was, however, also an exile, reading and writing apart from the home he loved. His Commedia was not only a product of his imagination but of his isolation. In reading and writing, we enter a community no longer bound by time and space. Just as Virgil is able to leap from history to lead Dante on a narrative journey, people from history, myth, and fantasy hasten to meet us in the pages of books. If we are willing, we can still talk to them as though they are flesh and blood, though we must summon them with paper and ink.

Our loneliness finds relief in the company of books, even those of our own making. By engaging imaginatively with the characters I loved most, my novel draft allowed me to get to know them more intimately and to incorporate them into my own little imaginative circle. Through reading and writing, my sense of community expanded vertically throughout time and horizontally across cultures, worlds, and even dimensions. Similarly, Dante incorporates a diverse cast of characters to regain community, to situate himself solidly within his own Italian cultural and historical context, as well as to establish himself in the continuation of a poetic-philosophical tradition.

My second hypothesis is a continuation of this idea. As relational creatures, we come to know ourselves through our knowledge of and interaction with others. A prominent theological emphasis of Dante’s Commedia is that the truest self-knowledge is attained not through stubborn individuality, but in the mutual humility of community and faith. Through his conversations with various people along his journey, Dante becomes more self-aware, ultimately coming to perceive the Triune God as the divine epitome of self-love and self-knowledge. In growing in relation to others and maturing in his consideration of God, Dante himself is remade.

Similarly, readers often piece themselves together through books, stitching words and stories into patchwork personalities. My outlook on life is lovelier thanks to Anne Shirley, my wit sharper thanks to Elizabeth Bennet, and I like to think I’ve gained some gumption from Scarlett. Reading is an act of self-reflection, considering ourselves in comparison to the characters and writers we most admire. Best of all, the books—and, of course, the Book—which disclose something of our own Author lead us to a greater knowledge of our identity as human beings made in the Image of God.

Finally, it seems that reading (and in turn writing about what we read) serves as moral formation, shaping our desires and decisions. Dante encounters many sinners in hell who, through their own devices, get exactly what they wanted. They loved stories that reflected their own flawed desires and pursued these to the bitter end, continuing to desire those same lowly things in death so that these desires fittingly become their chosen punishments. This is a negative example of bad readership. Using books to reinforce or justify vice is a discredit to discernment, that incredible gift of intelligence.

In Purgatory, however, tales and pictures of virtue are presented, spurring penitent souls to better love and pursue all that is good and true and beautiful. Many good books feature fallen characters; in fact, there would be no narrative conflict were all characters and situations wholly good and perfect. However, if we read like the redeemed souls Dante encounters, we will learn from the good and the bad in books. Through discerning readership, we can engage the whole breadth and depth of human experience without leaving our nooks, honing our ambitions and hopes without the inconvenience of real-life consequences. The more excellence we glean from books, the more attuned to truth and goodness our minds and hearts will become. 

Rereading Dante now is supremely fitting. I know that I am not alone in being perhaps more lonely, more confused, and more in need of direction than ever. Dante, rather than providing an escape, has become a way of engaging my own isolation, wandering, and hope in faith and relationship. He has become a very dear literary friend—albeit a chatty one who I often wish would stop talking politics.

When Dante is lost and fearful in the first canto of Inferno, his favorite poet-philosopher appears to restore him to community and truth, and, through these, to himself. In the same way, rereading our own beloved authors might restore us to ourselves, just as talking to a close friend might bring us back to our senses. Engaging authors and characters-turned-companions provides company in loneliness, conviction amidst chaos, and, ultimately, a reminder of not only who we are but—if the books are good and true enough—who we are meant to be. 

I return now to the notes I took only a few weeks ago when I once more met Dante at the gates of Hell: Through literature, we form productive relationships with those who thought and imagined before us, as well as those who continue to think and imagine beside us. If we, like Dante, engage in humble and eager readership, perhaps we will—unlike my AP reading list—transcend beyond the filthy babbling of Hell and look toward the radiance of Heaven. Dante may begin his epic in pride, placing himself alongside the best poets and thinkers of history, but, throughout the Divine Comedy, he allows their wise words—and, indeed, their failings—to instruct as well as inspire him, to help him develop not merely as a poet-turned-protagonist but as a human being on the journey of virtue and faith.

This, my dearest reader, is the essence of readership itself: to develop together as human beings toward the best and truest communication, community, and—when readership couples with faith—communion. 

Grave con Brio: On Pianos in Literature

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Me right now…

I feel a bit guilty admitting this, but I love writing essays. Really. My classmates- if any of them actually are reading this- are probably rolling their eyes and groaning, but call me a nerd, I don’t care and I’ll say it again: I love writing essays. I especially love writing them when they are not on set topics and I am free to explore familiar regions, themes from my own life, stories chosen directly from my bookshelves. Having, over the course of the last two weeks, written a total of nine essays for AP Literature (even for me, this was too much), I suppose I was bound to find at least one where I could choose my own topic and, to my delight, the final prompt was the one. 

I'm afraid this is going to be me in a few hours...
Me in a few hours…

I was instructed to choose a motif not generally taught in English course and discuss its appearance in several literary works, but having just spent several hours practicing piano, it was hard to switch gears so suddenly into essay mode. But, as it turns out, I didn’t have to! My favorite instrument (sorry, bagpipes) happens to be a common motif in literature and I was so embarrassingly excited to write this paper that I may or may not have written it to be two pages longer than required… oops.

 

Anyway, here is the finished product:

 

 

Grave con Brio: On Pianos in Literature

“I tell my piano the things I used to tell you.” -Frédéric Chopin (1810-1849)

In this one heartbreaking statement, Frédéric Chopin, the “Poet of the Piano,” describes not only his yearning for a lost friend but a motif that has played its way into numerous literary works: the piano. This instrument is one that I hold dear to my heart, as it has been an extension of myself since I learned my first tune; it has been and continues to be a source of comfort and companionship for

the emotional artist in times of loneliness and despair. Like Chopin, many authors have understood this connection between musician and keyboard and made use of it to portray depression, isolation, but also a hope for recovery.

 

hammershoi-woman-piano          The piano as a motif appears in most literary works on my bookshelves, but is especially prevalent in those dealing with thwarted love. For instance, in Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, when Marianne is abandoned by her unprincipled lover, she sinks into a sorrow beyond the reach of her friends and family. However, she finds comfort in the notes of her pianoforte, which provides a means for her to both express her woe and piece her heart back together. Similarly, in Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, when Jo March refuses to accept the hand of her best friend and ardent admirer, Laurie, in marriage, he storms away. A few hours after his disappointment, Laurie is heard playing the opening lines of Beethoven’s “Sonata Pathetique,” which is considered among the most keenly sorrowful works for solo piano, having been composed around the time of Beethoven’s tragic hearing loss. In fact, Beethoven wrote it to be performed “grave” and then “allegro di molto con brio,” which mean gravely and then with fiery passion. In this instance, like that of Marianne in Sense and Sensibility, Laurie feels that none among his friends can empathize with his disappointment and thus turns to the piano, which is always there to suffer under his angry fingers and propel him toward recovery through its understanding melodies.

 

The piano as a motif does not merely appear when cupid’s arrows have misfired, however, for this instrument can be the medium for emotion and healing from misfortunes beyond star-crossed romances. In F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, when Daisy and Gatsby are finally reunited in Gatsby’s mansion, one of the first things that they do is find the pianist who has been “visiting” for many 13994344704_2229c08b1f_zmonths and make him play a song for them called “Ain’t We Got Fun?” This piece, while frivolous, bridges the gap between them in a way that words never could and it allows Gatsby to feel for the moment that he is not completely alone. Granted, this still seems romantic, but Gatsby’s true desire is for acceptance by the “Old Money” families of society and he has simply found this desire personified in Daisy. Thus, when the piano is clinking away a familiar melody, Gatsby is actually expressing his longing to be a part of a world that he has been excluded from and creating a feeble link between himself and the representative of this world. The piano music, although performed by another, was commissioned by Gatsby to serve as the accompaniment to his heartache and attempts at healing. Another example of the piano motif, and perhaps the most obvious, is in Gaston Leroux’s The Phantom of the Opera.  In this novel, the face of the title character, Erik, is horribly disfigured. This, combined with his extraordinary genius, gives rise to violent suspicion in other men, thus forcing him to cut himself off from his fellow men to become the “Opera Ghost.” He conceals himself within the cellars of the Paris Opera House and spends his indistinguishably dark days and nights at his organ and piano, composing his masterpiece. The dissonant tones and provocative melodies of his composition parallel the turmoil of his forsaken soul. Only the keys of his instruments understand his anguish and give a voice to his misery. Like most appearances of the piano motif, the music has a restorative nature, keeping Erik alive only for as long as he continues playing; when his masterpiece is completed and he leaves the piano bench, his life too comes to its finale. Here, as in The Great Gatsby, the piano offered a catharsis for Erik’s emotion, but when its notes faded, the healing was halted.

Me in real life (not a meme!)
Me in real life (not a meme!)

The piano is a staple instrument. It is used to find pitches for singers, tune violins, unify jazz band riffs, and create mood in silent films. Nearly every home has one crouching in its living room, or at least a keyboard lurking in some forgotten closet, but wherever the piano is, there lies the heart of the house and the musician who resides there. I can personally attest to this truth, for I have a piano dominating my front room and seek refuge in its music whenever my heart is overwhelmed. In the same way, pianos furnish the pages of literature as a motif that is generally overlooked but can provide major insight into the souls of the players if examined closely. From the works Austen to Leroux and Alcott to F. Scott Fitzgerald, the members of the literary canon are crowded with pianos, which, although they play different tunes, all  represent an emotional outpouring and a gradual calming of the mind, experienced through the impassioned performances of their owners.