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Banning Dante's Divine Comedy is a human tragedy


Dante's Divine ComedyThe Italian human rights advocacy group Gherush 92 recently called for the removal of Dante's The Divine Comedy from school curricula and university reading lists, arguing that it is Islamophobic, anti-semitic and anti-homosexual and so should have no place in the classroom or lecture theatre.

Gherush 92 has an ideological approach that lends itself to this kind of campaign. For example, it argued in 2009 against Benedict XV1's planned visit to the Great Synagogue of Rome, stating that the Pope intended to manipulate the Jewish people 'so as to squash them and isolate them in their memory’. Benedict's visit was, in their terms, an insult not only to Jews but also to Roma gypsies, to gay people, to women and to all who were massacred in the Shoah and during the course of the centuries of Christianity’.

Even if we pass by their conflating of the Holocaust with the entire history of Christianity, it's obvious Gherush 92 has a distinctively anti-Christian and, in the Italian context, anti-Catholic agenda. Christianity, according to them, is responsible for everybody's suffering, past and present, an historical consciousness reflected in the organisation's name, which recalls the treatment of Jews in 15th century Spain.

Nevertheless, there are important questions raised by its call for The Divine Comedy to be banned. The debate provides an opportunity to reflect on how people in a modern pluralistic society can value and understand works of art, elements of which clash with contemporary moral and cultural preferences.

In the 1950s the Oxford philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe argued that, with the decline of belief in God, the moral concepts and language derived from belief in a divine will were no longer sustainable. The arguments made by Gherush 92 fulfill Anscombe's thesis. They imply that the ideas expressed in works such as The Divine Comedy are mere cultural preferences, rather than a grasping after truth, and that, as cultural preferences, they are unacceptable.

In effect, any art, symbolism, stories or language that doesn't correspond with Gherush 92's conception of 'modernity' should be jettisoned from our cultural canon. Unfortunately, if we were to be thorough about this, it would mean depriving ourselves of Dostoevsky, Balzac, Shakespeare, Hobbes, the Iliad and most of our literary and philosophical resources penned prior to the later 20th century.

Fortunately, following Anscombe, there is no obligation to accept the Gerush 92 vision in order for us to protect pluralism or cultural diversity.

So how do we answer Gherush 92? Is it true that art that expresses ideas incompatible with modern western cultural preferences can no longer offer wisdom and lasting insight? Is there an unnavigable gulf between modernity and the cultural and religious world of the past?

The answers to these questions are very important; after all, if we appropriate Anscombe's reasoning, if 'modernity' is disconnected from its foundational moral concepts and language, then is modernity, including pluralism and respect for diversity, still possible? If we can no longer understand, appreciate and draw wisdom from our cultural and religious history, then isn't 'modernity' hollowed out, and our moral and social concepts just flimsy expressions of contemporary cultural preference?

For the sake of real pluralism it's important we are willing and able to enter different cultural worlds, in order to see the universe in different ways.

A visit to an ancient church, for example, is an invitation to do this. Often in churches in Italy and France one can look up and see a night sky painted on the ceiling above the altar. Small silver stars are set against a deep blue background. The night sky evokes a sense of awe at the vastness of space and time. When the congregations of the 14th and 15th centuries looked up at a night sky, what did they imagine they saw? In a culture steeped in Christian narrative and teaching, many would have seen the heavens arrayed above them, the cosmos ordered by divine mystery.

Dante's Comedy paints a cosmic vision of life, death and life beyond death. It expresses this mystery of the late medieval Christian universe in its stories and images. Some of these images, like that of the Prophet Mohammed enduring painful torture, or the derogatory description of Jews, don't fit with a modern orientation toward pluralism, respect for other faiths and inter-faith dialogue.

Of course we cannot condone this imagery today. If it were included in a contemporary literary work it would be disrespectful and wrong. But historical texts should be read with understanding.

Take for example The Book of Travels by the 17th century Ottoman traveller Evliya Celebi in which he refers to Christians he encounters as 'pigs' or 'swine' snuffling around for food, ready for slaughter. Celebi's literary work is nevertheless a wonderful, vivid experience — it depicts a beautifully imagined world open to those Christian readers who can forgive their forebears being compared to bacon.

Rather than being 'saved' from these works, children in schools and students at universities should be taught to enter into their historical visions of life, visions that are also religiously shaped. The exercise of the imagination is the first step towards appreciating the complexity of history, of art and, indeed, of our contemporary cultural condition.

Against the selective and reductive reading proffered by Gherush 92, Dante's Comedy acts as an entry point for students to think about how religion pervaded the world of the Italian Renaissance, how people's vision of the universe was bound up with biblical imagery.

It also conveys the complexity of religious culture in this period — it is none other than the poet Virgil who leads Dante through the circles of hell. Here one can see the blending of classical and Christian themes that characterised Christian art and philosophy of the day. Only look at the façade of Siena Cathedral and you can see the figures of Aristotle and Plato alongside those of Solomon and Moses.

When the Russian poet Osip Mandelstam was banished by Stalin from St Petersburg to Voronezh, he took with him a copy of The Divine Comedy. As Seamus Heaney has written, by the time Mandelstam 'came to dwell with the Commedia, his powers as a lyric poet had been tested and fulfilled, and his destiny as a moral being ... was tragically embraced'.

Mandelstam found in The Divine Comedy a lyric beauty and a powerful message of humanity's moral state, and future redemption. While one can call to mind Gherush 92 staffers in their offices scouring Dante, checking the juicy bits, I prefer to think of Mandelstam in the midst of his despair, reading The Divine Comedy expansively, hopefully — just as students today might be taught to read it. 

Benedict ColeridgeBenedict Coleridge is a recent honours graduate of the University of Melbourne. 

Topic tags: Benedict Coleridge, Dante, religious art, religious literature



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Existing comments

Thank goodness someone can express common sense in well articulated language exhibiting logical arguments. I enjoyed this article very much.

Shirley McHugh | 19 March 2012  

A scholarly and very entertaining piece. I suppose this states in simple terms that pluralism can, by definition, only exist if we embrace all and that exclusion does not belong in the genuine pluralist domain where tolerance becomes the essential virtue.

john frawley | 19 March 2012  

By the logic of Gerush 92, the Bible also must be expunged from modern culture due to its anachronistic mindset.

Posie | 19 March 2012  

Reduction to absolutes, beyond all questioning, seems an aspect that ties the mindset of Gherush92 to a shared mediaeval past. But in the context of the mediaeval world's limits, our forebears were by no means simplistic. Gherush92 and others can't be excused on that score. For, zealotry and tribalism no longer define civilised thought.

Fred Green | 19 March 2012  

I agree with Benedict Coleridge, and rather find him a breath of fresh air. The present age witnesses intriguingly, the swing of the social mores pendulum, as it sweeps away old sacred cows only to replaces them with new. We are coming to accept without blushing - things like pennis extension adds knocking upon our email doors. Is it a quantum package of living in this age, that we must also try and accept the extreme positions and prohibitions of organizations like Gherush 92.

John Whitehead | 19 March 2012  

A refreshing and open-mided response. Thank you. It is heartening to read someone who understands that literature, like human beings themselves, is complex and challenging, and so rich in its rewards.

Morag Fraser | 19 March 2012  

Good article!

Theo verbeek | 20 March 2012  

Ben, I agree that banning Dante would be tragic and culturally barbaric. But some other morals you are pinning on this are not defensible. Anscombe's idea that basic moral ideas stem only from an idea of divine will - an idea rejected from St Paul through Aquinas - is very implausible. The would-be banners' objection to bigotry against gays, jews etc. is a moral one, and not at all that these are "mere cultural preferences"; and in this they're right. It's your objection that sounds more like that kind of relativism when you say such bigotry "doesn't fit with a modern orientation" and put down objecting to it as merely "modern western cultural preferences". Dante - and Celebi, for that matter - said a lot that, if we are serious about truth and goodness, we must seriously disagree with; so opposing banning them should involves serious tolerance. But to misrepresent the disagreement, or defend Dante as a package on the grounds that it expresses the Christian vision, is surely not the way to go.

John Fox | 20 March 2012  

John, to correct a misunderstanding, Anscombe doesn't argue that all basic moral ideas stem from religious faith or from belief in divine will. She argues that concepts of moral obligation based on belief in God are unsustainable when one ceases to believe - they have their roots in the Almighty.

Benedict Coleridge | 20 March 2012  

Dante’s levels of eternal reward reflect the hierarchical world and worldview of medieval life. The whole poem is revelatory and educational to any modern reader for that reason alone. The Divine Comedy is about the quickest means available to understanding European thinking just prior to the Black Death. We don’t see life that way, but we are just as given to categorising people to suit our own interests and beliefs as was Dante. There are people we would put in our own private hell, purgatory or paradise, all of which says more about ourselves than the people we choose to condemn, criticise or praise. Political correctness is not the special preserve of the 21st century. Dante put his enemies in hell and left those he didn’t particularly like to writhe in purgatory a while, which might be why Auden (in a tabletalk book) questioned whether Dante was actually a Christian. Two can play at this game and Gherush 92 obviously wants Dante down there on a Lower Circle. Italian literary wars look spectacularly ludicrous to outsiders and this one is more spectacular than most. It is also a case study in advanced stages of tall poppy syndrome. While we may be grateful to Ganesh 92 for drawing attention to some of Dante’s divine solecisms, the intelligent reader is already aware of them.

PHILIP HARVEY | 20 March 2012  

Unfortunately, while zealotry and tribalism no longer define civilised thought, civilised thought does not always define our current thinking. There will always be groups and individuals who will seize upon anything to justify their hatred and bigotry, whether it's Dante or God's Word.

AURELIUS | 20 March 2012  

Right on!

John Smith | 20 March 2012  

Osip Mandelstam’s essay on Dante should be read by anyone who treats literature, and poetry, seriously. In one memorable passage Mandelstam says that while reading the up-and-down up-and-down of the terza rima of the Divine Comedy, he could hear and feel the exiled poet in Ravenna walking up and back in his cell or garden. The walk is the talk. There is Dante, remembering everything about Florence, his own world, while locked away for life in a provincial town. The content of the poetry is full of that greater world of past, present and future, while the metre reminds us that he is a human trapped in a time and place he reluctantly has to make his own. Mandelstam himself was an exile in his own country, where the Kremlin dictated who was in and who was out, whether they were poets alive or long dead. Thankyou Dante and Mandelstam. Thanks to you and others, we live in hope.

PHILIP HARVEY | 20 March 2012  

Didn't Anscombe argue that the notion of moral obligation made no sense except as based on God's will? But even though it wasn't the explicit centre of, say, Aristotle's ethics, it or synonyms were crucial in lots of different civilizations before the equating of what was right with God's will became common. The Ockhamist idea that it was God's *will or command* that made something right, obligatory or good never had much influence in catholic christianity; so much the better for c.c. It would imply, for instance, that to call God good was just to say that he approved of himself; as many villains and tyrants do.

John Fox | 22 March 2012  

Excellent thought-provoking article, and what I really like about Eureka Street Online is the quality of the conversations that take place in response to articles such as this and others I have read this morning. Respectful, intelligent and interesting. ABC Online could take a leaf out of your moderator's book...

Lisa Hill | 27 April 2012  

the worst part of the story is not the formal offense, but the formal defense, which reads: "Works of literature need to be placed in the historical context". Denigrators and apologists alike have failed to recognize that Dante is critiquing his historical context (nay, all historical contexts!)--not condoning its bigotry. To show this to be the case, one would have to study the Comedy with serious care, not kidnap its verses out of their original *poetic* context.

Marco Andreacchio | 09 June 2012  

A very enjoyable and thought provoking article. Thanks. Will recommend it to others to read.

penny | 28 June 2012  

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