A.N. Wilson’s new book Dante in Love has come in for a bit of a kicking, notably from Andrew Motion in the Observer, for its attempt, signalled in that Hollywood-riffing title, to sex Dante up.
I haven’t read the book yet but I do think the criticism of Wilson for trying to sell Dante to a large twenty first century audience is somewhat misplaced. Because the truth is that Dante already appeals to a large twenty-first century audience. The computer game Dante’s Inferno has been a massive hit with gamers, spawning an animated movie spin-off and a sequel (called, yes, Dante’s Inferno 2).
The game re-imagines Dante, not as a spiritual seeker, but as a ‘warrior’ (it’s best pronounced with the full Klingon growl: ‘Whorriorr!’) who fights his way through the seven circles of Hell, slaying the already dead as he goes (I know), in his quest to rescue his beloved Beatrice, who has been kidnapped by Satan himself. The player in effect becomes Dante, battling demons, fighting the good fight, going on a Joseph Campbell-style Hero’s Journey.
So yeah, it’s a travesty. But the very existence of the game – indeed the very existence of Wilson’s book – is a testament to the enduring power of Dante’s work, the hold it continues to exert over the Western imagination. As it has done for hundreds of years.
Dante is everywhere. Not only in the ongoing spate of translations: most notably Ciaran Carson’s recent version of the Inferno, all knuckly Belfast vernacular. And not only in such ‘respectable’ guises as Peter Greenaway’s unfinished TV Inferno for Channel 4.
He’s there too in Bob Dylan’s ‘Tangled up in Blue’:
‘She opened up a book of poems and handed it to me
Written by an Italian poet in the thirteenth century’.
He’s there in my fellow Oberon playwright Dan Rebellato’s marvellous play Chekov in Hell, with its picture of contemporary London as a kind of modern Hades. He’s there in my favourite film, Powell and Pressburger’s A Matter of Life and Death, with its war-torn lovers trafficking between life and the afterlife. He’s there in Garth Ennis’s comic book series Preacher, with its fallen angels and lost souls.
And he’s certainly there in Beckett. If, as has been said, all of Western philosophy is a footnote to Plato, it might also be said that all of Beckett is a footnote to Dante. From the ‘Belacqua’ of the early stories to the strange, cowled figures of the late plays, Beckett’s imaginative world is haunted by images from Dante. That’s not to downplay in any way the scale of Beckett’s achievement. It’s to mark the still more extraordinary scale of Dante’s.
It’s that word, ‘scale’, that’s the key here. It’s the sheer ambition of Dante’s work that’s so awe-inspiring. This is a body of work that contains everything. It has its own cosmology. It contains all of the living and all of the dead.
In thinking about this I’ve realised that the work that moves me most profoundly - whether it’s Dante or Shakespeare or the James Joyce of The Dead - all has this kind of cosmic scale. It’s work that has its feet on the ground but its eye on the heavens.
There’s an extraordinary moment in D.A. Pennebaker’s documentary film of Bob Dylan’s 1965 UK tour, Don’t Look Back, where the snotty, twenty-something Dylan confronts a hapless journalist (from Time magazine, ironically enough) with the fact of his own mortality:
‘I’m saying that you’re gonna die and you’re gonna go off the earth. You’re gonna be dead, man. It could be in 20 years, it could be tomorrow, anytime. So am I. It’s gonna be gone, the world’s gonna go on without us. Now you do your job in the face of that, and how seriously you take yourself, you decide for yourself, and I’ll decide for myself.’
Yes, I know, a blog about writing is hardly the place for a meditation about death. And the kind of awareness of death that Dylan speaks of here is frankly terrifying in a culture that prefers to sweep the whole idea of death under the carpet. Let’s all just pretend it doesn’t happen and maybe it’ll go away. I’m all for that.
And yet death, for a writer, is nothing to be scared of.
David Mamet says somewhere that the ultimate theme of all writing is: how do we live in a world where we know we’re going to die? That’s the question at the heart of Dante, though as a Christian he also felt he had the answer. It’s also the question at the heart of Citizen Kane and The Godfather, those stories of men who gain the world but lose their souls. It’s there in Waiting for Godot and Death of a Salesman and Blasted and Shopping and Fucking, all those great modern morality plays. It’s there in all religious and all political art. And it’s there in all of our lives. How do we best live, when we know we’re going to die?
Art in the end is a way of dealing with that question. All art, all writing, is a matter of life and death.
Daragh Carville is the author of This Other City. To purchase a copy click here
For other Oberon Irish plays click here: