There are very few books in the entire history of Western literature that are more important, more iconic than the Divine Comedy, and fewer still in specifically Christian literature. Dante was hardly understood in his own time, and he remains widely misunderstood in the present time; his writing is profound, revelatory, apocalyptic, even, but nothing else can be compared with the power of his symbolic vision that quietly subsumes all individual aspects of his work into a single comprehensive worldview which is at once potently spiritual at the highest level and readily applicable to moral living. That Dante’s opus is richly symbolic need not be said; that it is universally symbolic must be said.
We entered this particular book of Mrs. Upton’s with a modest awareness of Dante’s weird and wicked world that lies beneath ours, and with hopes that were equally modest: to see Upton extract a definite link, a certain parallel between her thesis (or, Dante’s tale made clear by traditional knowledge) and the work itself. In a word, we were hoping to see the anagogic qualities of the poetry unearthed and, through traditional understanding, crystallized into an unmistakably clear statement. What we instead discovered was that this book, which is really a series of exegetical essays, is more or less of an almost scientific nature, that the individual ‘revelations’, although written in a fairly poetic manner, were not so much part of a single linear path as they were isolated components of a meticulous dissection. We do not mean to say these things in an overbearingly negative context, merely that they were not identified and organized in the way which we were looking for, a point that we shall return to below.
Every one of the thirty-four essays (one for each Canto) attempts to interpret its respective Canto in a way that reveals its ‘multi-dimensional’ and symbolic reality; while the other ‘dimensions’ are indeed discussed, Upton rightly places foremost emphasis on the last and greatest understanding, namely, the spiritual or, in Dante’s words, the anagogical understanding. Every character of evil, every level of hell is therefore perceived to be analogous to a peculiar darkness in the spiritual state of man; this allows us to comprehend quite easily the fundamental flaws and vices that each ‘infra-human’ lapse in judgment inherently contains. In this respect, viz., pursuing higher spiritual living through the awareness of its evil antagonist, Jennifer Doane Upton is most successful.
While we were expecting René Guénon’s excellent study, The Esoterism of Dante, to be an integral reference for this book, Upton actually makes little use of Guenon; she instead elects the primary aid of the Swiss traditionalist Frithjof Schuon, even quoting him at lengths spanning several pages! Although this was undoubtedly a slight surprise to us, it did not take long to determine why Upton called upon the reverent, mystical Schuon instead of the coolly rational and supremely metaphysical Guénon: the amorous work of Dante demands poetic justice first, which evidently is its own metaphysic.
A central identity of Dante is, firstly, his ideal of love; everything that is good essentially derives from the love of God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit, and everything that is evil essentially derives from the inversion of love, which takes the form of some cruel and hideous parody of the ideal love. Upton is quick to seize the importance of this, and nowhere are her observations more precise, more astute, and more relevant than when she is detailing the relations between the heavenly ideal and its infernal parody, and this is precisely because the greatest meaning of this book (and, indeed, of the first third of the Comedy itself), resides in the telling of evil, which is also another strange paradox of Christianity, and the justification of ‘evil’ thereof. The possibility of the good in the created world is not possible at all without the possibility of evil in this world, which is perhaps the clearest statement that Upton never made.
The single major complaint that we can invoke against this neat study is the one mentioned earlier, that its studies are largely limited to each particular Canto. Any common thread that can be found between the covers are there only because any real undertaking of the Inferno would not allow them to be omitted since they are so finely ingrained into the text; Upton fails to notice the many parallels and the ‘symbolic stream’ that underlines the poetry and thus fails to form any definite and rigid correspondence between Dante and her interpretation; to speak metaphorically, which is generally how things are best understood, Upton lights up a series of waypoints along the shore when Dante paves the continuous path with a radiant and shimmering glow that leads the follower to new depths, to new heights. Notwithstanding this rather serious shortcoming, Upton nevertheless manages to illustrate the divine mysteries and the cosmic symbols of Dante in a special clarity that is seldom seen in our day, in our age.