Dante, Beatrice and Auerbach

Where did love songs come from? The sort of hyperbolic praise of lovers and love itself? An answer is not to be found solely in our biological need for reproduction, that is much too general a concept to make much sense in a world where we actually have to do our best to attract a mate and go through the motions and negotiate contingencies biologists can gloss over. It is a long way from Dante’s poetry to vapid love songs, but the path is illuminated by books such as Erich Auerbach’s Dante: Poet of the Secular World. It’s a short little thing, but it’s one of those books that is able to humble you however towering your scholarly pretensions are — anyone who enjoys taking beatings like this will absolutely love it. The weight of Auerbach’s vast knowledge looms in the background even as he gets carried away with his own prose and lifts his reader along with him to previously unimagined heights.

Beatrice is Dante’s love, his inspiration and muse. She was the name of an idea that gave birth to love as we have come to know it through song and verse. She became the nexus between the realm of the ideal and the sensuous, not Beatrice Portinari but the sign of imminent enlightenment and the ecstasy that precedes it. The poetic world and the real world, previously separated and only held side by side to make the ontological distinction clear in linguistic play, came together through her presence. Says Auerbach:

In Dante . . . each poem is an authentic event, directly set forth in its unique, contingent, and ephemeral this-worldliness; from personal experience it expands into the universal, whence by a kind of counteraction it derives its articulated form to become an immutable vision of reality in general, earthly particularity held fast in the mirror of a timeless eye. (68)

Auerbach makes Dante’s achievement epic in every sense of the word. Dante created a new way of thinking, a new metaphysical language, one is almost tempted to say he created poetry as we know it. But that would be saying too much, even if it were true, and it also seems too harsh to blame Dante for the kind of mindless wailing about babies and girls and boys you hear when you turn on the radio. That drivel is not Dante’s fault, but the reason it can exist perhaps is, the fault of him and Beatrice and the world they created together.

In Beatrice the oriental Christian motif of incarnate divine perfection, the parousia of the Idea, took a turn which has profoundly influenced all European literature. With his passionate, exacting temperament and his unflagging desire for a concrete embodiment of the truth Dante could only accept a visionary experience capable of legitimation by reason and act; he removed the secret truth, which in this case coincided with the first sweet enchantment of the senses, from the hazy private world of his [stilnovisti] companions and gave it a foundation in reality; his yearning for the truth did not turn to sterile heterodoxy or shapeless mysticism. (61-2)

Reading Auerbach, one begins to wonder if Dante did us all a disservice and drove us mad. What he came up with was not a new religion and, although a part of one, it seems to go far beyond any religious belief. Love blown up. Love encompassing the universe. Love whose praises we may sing forever. Inexhaustible love. Love godlike, His rival even. Dante made it possible to blow up the idea into something whose inexhaustible praiseworthiness and simultaneous concreteness made it possible for man to meet God face to face. Denying its otherworldliness made it of this world, albeit something that can never be reached, a thirst that can never be quenched or a flame that never goes out.

2 Responses to “Dante, Beatrice and Auerbach”

  1. 1 Moon Under Water March 13, 2012 at 00:03

    Great post, really interesting observation. Thanks!

  2. 2 nonvisedvoce March 13, 2012 at 00:26

    Thanks for the comment! It should be said that Auerbach gives us a slightly different Dante in his famous Mimesis book. I prefer this one.

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