Book Essay - Summer 2016

Living With Dante

A writer reflects on how the poet’s vision served as a vade mecum amid the horrors of the Holocaust

By Louis Begley | June 6, 2016
Detail from Empyrean, 1819-1824, fresco by Philipp Veit (1793-1877), Dante Hall, Casino Massimo, Rome, Italy
Detail from Empyrean, 1819-1824, fresco by Philipp Veit (1793-1877), Dante Hall, Casino Massimo, Rome, Italy


In 1953, as a Harvard junior, I took Professor Charles S. Singleton’s course on Dante Alighieri’s La Divina Commedia. Twelve of us—apocryphal lore held that Professor Singleton insisted that our number must equal that of the Apostles—worked our way through the 100 cantos of the Commedia, straining to catch every word as he read aloud in Italian from the venerable C. H. Grandgent edition and explicated in English the lines we had just heard. We covered the Inferno and the Purgatorio thoroughly and gave less time to the Paradiso, which was fortunate for me, since I had no faith in God and found it difficult to suspend disbelief sufficiently to accept the theological underpinning of the poem. I remember, however, lingering on Canto XVII of Paradiso and the prophecy by Dante’s ancestor Cacciaguida of Dante’s banishment from Florence:

Tu lascerai ogne cosa diletta. …
Tu proverai sì come sa di sale
lo pane altrui, e come è duro calle
lo scendere e ’l salir per l’altrui scale.

[You will leave all that you love. … You will find out how the salt of another’s bread tastes, and how hard it is to descend and mount by another’s stairs.]

Cacciaguida might have been speaking to me. I had left Poland in 1946, at the age of 12, having lived there all through World War II, and knew that exile is bitter even if the place of your birth has rejected you.

When called upon—a frequent occurrence since we were so few—we students translated passages of varying lengths and did our best to interpret them. Professor Singleton gave no lectures about Dante’s life or the historical setting of the Commedia. What little we learned about Guelfs and Ghibellines (Dante was a White Guelf), Florentine and papal history, Thomistic thought, and pre-Copernican astronomy, we learned “on the job”—from Professor Singleton’s explication of the text. If the thought of doing independent background reading came into my head, I surely dismissed it. The truth is that at first I needed an unseemly amount of time simply for reading and comprehending the cantos assigned for the next class. The reason was one I would not have wanted to bring to Professor Singleton’s attention: I was taking his course, for which knowledge of Italian was a prerequisite, without knowing any Italian, not even such rudimentary Italian as one would acquire during a vacation in Italy. Nor would I have wanted him to know that I had never been to Italy. I kept my head above water by spending long afternoon hours in the Eliot House library parsing the Inferno with the help of my Latin and French, which were pretty good, and one of the library’s treasures, an Italian-English dictionary limited to Dante’s vocabulary. The dictionary was also a guide to Dante’s verb forms. I caught on to the syntax fairly fast, and the rest followed. Gradually, reading the Commedia became a task to which I looked forward. Why hadn’t I made my life easier by acquiring an Italian textbook for beginners? The fault may lie with another Professor Singleton legend, according to which the great man had difficulty making his fluent 14th-century Italian understood along the Arno when he tried to buy a loaf of bread or a carton of cigarettes. It seemed unlikely, if the anecdote was true, that a modern Italian primer would be of much use.

A better question might be why I enrolled in the Dante course without knowing Italian. The fault was T. S. Eliot’s. In keeping with the Zeitgeist, I read “The Waste Land” shortly before starting college, or perhaps at the very beginning of my freshman year, and convinced that Eliot had plumbed the existential anguish from which I suffered, I reread it again and again. I was dazzled by the vast learning revealed in the footnotes, skipped the ones that assumed knowledge of Greek, and kept coming back to the one in which he quoted the following two lines from Canto V of Dante’s Purgatorio:

Ricorditi di me, che son la Pia;
Siena mi fé, disfecemi Maremma

The effect of these words on a non-Italian speaker like me was so strong probably because they were both euphonious and ineffably mystifying, and because I especially liked the lines in Section III of “The Waste Land” with which the reader was invited by that footnote to compare them:

“Trams and dusty trees.
Highbury bore me. Richmond and Kew
Undid me. By Richmond I raised my knees
Supine on the floor of a narrow canoe. …
After the event
He wept. He promised ‘a new start.’
I made no comment. What should I resent?”

I did not track down many of Eliot’s footnotes, but this one led me to read the English translation of Canto V in the Temple Classics bilingual edition of the Purgatorio. La Pia, the lady who piqued my interest, is the subject of the last four lines of a canto dealing with sinners who repented at the very last moment of their lives. Here is the entirety of her story:

Ricorditi di me, che son la Pia;
Siena mi fé, disfecemi Maremma:
salsi colui che ’nnanellata pria
disposando m’avea con la sua gemma.

[Remember me, who am la Pia; Siena made me, Maremma undid me: he knows it who with his ring first took me in wedlock.]

This was indeed mysterious, but a footnote, this time in the Temple edition, explained that la Pia was a noblewoman born in Siena and possibly killed by her husband, who may have thrown her out a window in a tower of his castle in Maremma. What was she doing in “The Waste Land” beyond giving Eliot yet another opportunity to show off his remarkable memory and capacity for free association? It occurred to me that his head was so full of the Commedia that, once he had written the words “Richmond and Kew undid me,” disfecemi Maremma answered like an echo, and suggested the possibility of  contrasting two kinds of “undoing”: the murder of a medieval lady by her noble spouse and the vulgar defloration of a cockney girl. Or was it a bow—Eliot might have preferred to say un coup de chapeau—in the direction of Ezra Pound’s “Hugh Selwyn Mauberley,” published in 1920, two years before “The Waste Land”? My taste for Dante whetted, I followed the lead of the footnote to lines 60–63 in Section I of “The Waste Land” and found their source in Canto III of the Inferno. Approaching Limbo, Dante and Virgil see so long a train of sinners running behind a banner that Dante says, “I would have not have believed death had undone so many” (ch’i’ non averei creduto / che morte tanta n’avesse disfatta). Here the connection to the crowd flowing under the brown fog over London Bridge was real and powerfully enriching. I decided that I, too, would become a student of the Commedia, a goal toward which Professor Singleton’s course became a necessary first step.

Rereading “The Waste Land” more than 35 years later—after I had written my first novel, Wartime Lies, and had become acquainted, through Eliot’s essays, with his passion for Dante—I had a different insight. I asked myself whether through his footnotes Eliot wasn’t tacitly bidding the elders he cited—Wagner, Shakespeare, Baudelaire, Milton, and Saint Augustine, among others, in addition to Dante—to validate his first major work. Dante had himself invoked the Muses in Canto II of the Inferno, the Muses and Calliope in Canto I of the Purgatorio, and Apollo and the Muses in Cantos I and II of the Paradiso. Eliot’s invocation may seem sardonic, but so is “The Waste Land.” The reason for mentioning my novel, the story of a young Jewish boy’s experiences in Poland during World War II, is that while writing it, at times I felt a desperate need to open a window on the outside world, to connect with a similar story told by someone of unchallengeable authority. By then, the Commedia had become my constant companion. Almost instinctively, I grasped Dante’s hand and invoked the Inferno, the account of his descent with Virgil into Hell, of the journey to la città dolente, the city of suffering and grotesque punishments that could have been a model for the hell the Third Reich created for the dehumanization, torment, and slaughter of Jews. But I did so with a sense of unease because the analogy was imperfect, even jarring. The German system for destroying Jews and other undesirables was criminal to the core, whereas over the gate to Hell, through which Dante and Virgil pass, it is written:

giustizia mosse il mio alto fattore,
fecemi la divina podestate,
la somma sapïenza e ’l primo amore.

[Justice moved my high builder, the divine power made me, the greatest wisdom and the first love.]

The proposition that primo amore—first or primal love—was, along with justice and highest wisdom, the foundation of Hell struck me then and it does now as a sneer of cosmic dimensions, like the sign over the entrance to Auschwitz: Arbeit Macht Frei [Work Sets You Free].

We will never know whether Dante took these words literally when he described so vividly the horrible tortures that sinners endure in his Hell (many were of his own invention rather than part of the standard iconography of his time), any more than we will know whether Michelangelo believed that sinners are tormented in Hell in the manner he depicted in his Sistine Chapel Last Judgment. In any event, I did not pick a quarrel with Dante over the attributes of the triune God. I did chide him, though, for his tendency to defer to rich and famous sinners and to pity them more than sinners whose station in life was humbler, as well as for his sneaking admiration for sinners who show disdain for Hell and its punishments. I wasn’t being unfair: Virgil and Dante are inveterate snobs. Virgil, for example, rushes Dante along, presumably so that, having started their descent into Hell on the evening of Good Friday, they will be able to start the ascent of Purgatory on the morning of Easter Sunday. But on the way, he is nonetheless willing to have his pupil pause to listen to Paolo and Francesca, the noble lovers, the great warrior Farinata, the philosopher, writer and civic leader Brunetto Latini, Ulysses, and Count Ugolino, to name only those who also occasioned the most moving scenes and beautiful poetry in the Inferno.

But pity is, in any event, in short supply in Hell—and in Purgatory—for an obvious reason: what befalls sinners is their own fault. Ergo, to pity them is to put into question that somma sapïenza and that primo amore. Two surprising examples of heartlessness in the Commedia have always chilled me. Virgil tells Dante that he asked Dante’s beloved Beatrice, when she descended from Heaven to request that Virgil serve as Dante’s guide, why she wasn’t wary of visiting Hell with its scalding fires and other inconveniences. “I am made such by God’s grace,” she replied, “that your misery doesn’t touch me” (I’ son fatta da Dio, sua mercé tale, / che la vostra miseria non mi tange). In a similar vein, Cato, a virtuous pagan promoted from Hell to Purgatory when Jesus Christ harrowed Hell, rebukes Virgil for trying to capture his benevolence by promising to praise him to Cato’s wife, Marcia. She is confined, like Virgil (when he’s not traveling on business), in the first circle of Hell. “I loved Marcia, she could obtain everything from me,” Cato responds, “but now that she dwells on the other side of the evil river [Acheron], she can no longer move me” (or che di là dal mal fiume dimora, / più muover non mi può).

Lapses of memory are bewildering. The unease I felt about seeking Dante’s aid in my novel would have vanished if I had remembered in sharper detail Primo Levi’s masterpiece, If This Is a Man, the account of his survival in Auschwitz. I read it shortly after the appearance of the English translation in 1959.

Levi was 24 when the doors of the freight car that brought him and 44 other Italian Jews to Ausch-witz, part of a convoy of 12 such cars, suddenly opened in the night. They found themselves on a vast platform illuminated by floodlights. SS men stood by, legs apart, a look of indifference on their faces.  A “journey toward nothingness,” Levi wrote, “a journey down, a journey toward the bottom,” was over. As one would expect of a cultivated young Italian, Levi’s head was also full of Dante, and from the first moment, he looked at Auschwitz through the prism of the Inferno. Thus he noted that the German soldier guarding him and the other able-bodied men who passed the initial “selection” asked them for their valuables courteously, instead of shouting the boatman Charon’s greeting to the souls crowding the shore of the Acheron, “Woe to you, wicked souls!” (Guai a voi, anime prave!    ). Nor did the soldier announce, as Charon does, that he will carry them into eternal darkness, into heat and freezing cold, ne le tenebre etterne, in caldo e ’n gelo. He lets them keep their illusions. In the face of the maddening and arbitrary prohibitions that govern every action of a prisoner, “not for hidden reasons but because the camp has been created precisely for that purpose,” to disorient and dehumanize the inmates, Levi’s thoughts turned to the Malebolge, the most noisome region of Hell, and the only one where the devils, the Malebranche, actively torment the sinners. The cruelty and extravagance of punishments reach a peak there. The devils shoot the sinners with arrows, slice them with swords, and throw them into boiling pitch and stick them with their pitchforks if any part of the body protrudes. Levi recalled that an SS guard told him that here, in Auschwitz, there is no warum, no why, and how a Kapo (an inmate that the SS enlisted to keep fellow prisoners in line) said here you’re not at home. Likewise, a devil jeered at a sinner drowning in the pitch: “Here we swim otherwise than in the Serchio,” a stream near Lucca (qui si nuota altrimenti che nel Serchio). When Alex, a brutal and sadistic Kapo, escorts Levi from an interview that was to test his knowledge of chemistry, Alex “flies” down the stairs. Levi remarks that “he is as light on his feet as the devils of Malebolge.” The cumulative horror of Malebolge is such that Dante exclaims, I suppose in spite of himself:

Oh potenza di Dio, quant’ è severa,
Che cotai colpi per vendetta croscia!

[Oh the power of God, how severe it is to rain down such blows for vengeance!]

What words would he have found to say about Auschwitz?

Levi must have remembered Arbeit Macht Frei, and related the words to those written over the gate of Hell. His intellect and moral sense were so fine that he surely was aware of the flaw in the analogy he was drawing between Auschwitz and Dante’s Hell. In all probability, he decided that the flaw was of no significance because, T. S. Eliot’s views to the contrary notwithstanding, one can read the Commedia and pay no greater attention to the Thomistic or Pauline view of the universe it expresses than to the pre-Copernican astronomy that so fascinated Dante. One can luxuriate instead in the unsurpassed beauties of Dante’s language, his psychological insights that are equal to those of Shakespeare, and his deeply personal responses to what befalls him on the greatest of imaginable voyages: from the rough wood, selva selvaggia, in which he had lost his way, into the presence of God. I came to this conclusion in my novel:

Poetry has its own power, and a poet’s words overcome the hardness of his own heart. In that place mute of all light, as the two poets trudge on, setting their feet on the emptiness of sufferers that seems like real bodies, sopra lor vanità che par persona, one question reverberates louder than all others: Who piles on these travails and pains, and why does our guilt waste us so? Perché nostra colpa sì ne scipa?

But the last word must be Levi’s. Among the camp institutions he describes is that of the “Pikolo,” usually an adolescent, who cleans the barracks, does errands for the Kapo to whom he is attached, “has a free hand with the remains of the daily ration at the bottom of the vat, and can stay near the stove all day,” and one supposes, although Levi doesn’t say so, very likely satisfies the Kapo sexually.  A Pikolo by the name of Jean is a somewhat older Alsatian prisoner, bilingual in German and French. He chooses Levi to go with him to get the prisoners’ soup, which is a great favor because it is time away from work and an opportunity to get an extra half-ration, and suddenly “who knows how or why, it comes into [Levi’s] mind” to explain to Jean “who Dante is. What the Commedia is. … How the Hell is divided up, what its punishments are.” He begins, imperfectly—because his memory fails him—to recite and translate into French Ulysses’s speech from Canto XXVI of the Inferno, given in answer to Virgil, who asks where he lost his life. It is one of the most beautiful passages in the poem. The “why” is never answered. But Levi likely wanted to let the Pikolo hear the words with which Ulysses urged his old comrades to dare to sail with him beyond the Pillars of Hercules, although both he and they are old and slow, vecchi e tardi:

a questa tanto picciola vigilia
d’i nostri sensi ch’è del rimanente
non vogliate negar l’esperïenza
di retro al sol, del mondo sanza gente.
Considerate la vostra semenza:
fatti non foste par viver come bruti,
ma per seguir virtute e canoscenza. …

[in the brief time that remains, do not deny to your senses the experience of the unpeopled world beyond the sun. Consider the seed you sprang from. You were not made to live like beasts, but to follow virtue and knowledge. …]

I know no nobler affirmation of human dignity, and cannot think of a place where the need for it was as great as in Auschwitz.

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