IS DANTE HAVING A MID-LIFE CRISIS?
Updated: Jun 30
At 34 and thrust into the bedlam and chaos of the Inferno, Dante was a bit young to be suffering a mid-life crisis. But make no mistake. He was in crisis. And, fortunately for him, a loved-one staged an intervention from which he successfully overcame his demons (no pun intended). Dazed and stunned as he stumbled through the bleak, sinister and dangerous Dark Wood, the prose in The Divine Comedy beautifully conveys the confusion, fear, exhaustion, overwhelming anxiety and utter bewilderment he felt as he staggered on the precipice of eternal damnation.
It’s a great metaphor for the modern-day lost soul. Dante has unwittingly started his unavoidable journey and he’s uber stressed. He knows that should he fail to complete it, he’ll be lost and alone for eternity, separated from his sweetheart, his compatriots, his family and his God. Forever. His spiritual survival hangs in the balance and he needs to dig deep to overcome his fears and anxieties as he battles his way through the afterlife, senses heightened because he’s alive. Indeed, he must succeed in his quest. Mankind’s finger is hovering over the spiritual destruct button and he needs to warn of the impending spiritual doom and set society firmly back on the right path. The very future of humanity depends on his triumph. It’s very final, with high stakes; a pressure situation like no other. He, a lowly, humble poet, has to restore mankind’s faith in God. It’s like a bad day at the office. Only worse.
It is his lover Beatrice who, having witnessed Dante’s errant earthly deeds from her throne in the celestial heavens, intercedes and thrusts him into the fiery inferno that he better understands to renounce sin and return to the path of Faith will secure his ticket to the bliss and glory that is Heaven. She’s guiding, encouraging and motivating him to victory, to find his way to her and, therefore, eternal life in the beauty of Paradise. She’s arming him with the tools to effectively navigate life on Earth so that, in death, he can enjoy happy-ever-after with her in the celestial spheres. Be clear, this is a sophisticated, 14th century intervention with its own steps to recovery. But, to guarantee Dante’s survival, it’s not rehab he has to successfully negotiate, it’s three realms of the afterlife.
Dante’s dependency on his guide, Virgil, to help him navigate the darkness, plus his understandable reluctance to execute the dangerous trials and tribulations presented throughout the poems, indicate that whilst he lacks Faith, he also lacks the courage of his convictions - reticent about trusting his own instincts. His self-worth remains shaky despite having successfully journeyed into the hideous and barbaric inferno and scaled the colossal rock to reach the celestial spheres. He can claim the monumental achievement of being the only mortal soul to have ever done so yet, he continually fails to give himself credit.
Virgil and Beatrice act as Dante’s guides. And conscience. To the modern-day reader they’re also his counsellors – engaging in protracted, convoluted conversations discussing his plights and drawing out his issues, his worries and concerns, enticing and encouraging him to reach his own resolutions. They challenge him to think more independently and, despite his initial self-esteem issues, he is able to reciprocate; convincingly challenging them on subjects including existential philosophy, even, often with gusto.
So, having triumphed in his quest, Dante’s biggest, most demanding problem comes into play; how to save humanity from spiritual destruction. How to relay the vital message to mankind; the warning. That to avoid eternal death in the torturous inferno one must renounce sin. That to enjoy eternal life in the beauty and glory of Paradise, man must restore his faith in God. But how, he wails, will mere mortal words convey the magnificence, perfection and might of God, the King of Heaven? It's another mountain to climb, for sure. But he's done it before. And, this time, with pen in hand, he'll succeed again.