After about two months off, I'm back to reading Dante again. Every morning I read a page from the Paradisio. I started last fall; right now I'm on Canto XXI, a little more than halfway through. I'm reading it in a facing-page translation; otherwise I'd be working on it for another year. I try and get to a point, going back and forth, where I can read the Italian straight through without having to go back and consult the English.
The section yesterday involved an explanation of why certain of the virtuous pagans can, in fact, be saved. In the Inferno Dante famously consigns everyone who lived before the time of Christ--no matter how virtuous they were--to hell. Socrates, Plato, Aristotle--they're all found in an antechamber at the start of the Inferno. Nothing too terrible happens there, but, still. It is hell. And so the idea, obviously, is that without knowing Christ and undergoing Christian rituals (baptism, etc) no one can come to heaven.
Except that now, in Canto XX of the Paradisio we find out that, in fact, there are a few people born before the time of Christ who got to heaven. The Roman Emperor Trajan, for one. And also, a minor character in Virgil's Aenied, named Ripenus. Dante's explanation for how this is possible is to me less interesting than this unfinished, contradictory aspect of the poem. Unlike the first two books, the Paradisio contains a number of sections that seem to differ theologically from the past two books. The accepted explanation seems to be that he died before he had time to revise the Paradisio and perhaps resolve some of its apparent problems.
It is not by any stretch a page-turner. In fact, I'd say it's up there with the most difficult things I've ever read. Still, there are some rewards. Dante's certainty that there is a vast angelic order overlying (and undergirding) all our acts and thoughts, the infinitely intricate apparatus that is Scholastic philosophy, though frequently confusing and occasionally incomprehensible, imparts, at its best, a profound calm. They make belief seem possible. If someone could dedicate fifteen years (or whatever) of his life to writing this immense celebration of the Christian faith, then maybe, you think (I think), there's something there. No one builds cathedrals in honor of atheism, as the saying goes. The Commedia is a cathedral. Spending thirty minutes in it every day is generally worth one's time.
Tonight we're going out to celebrate the anniversary. I have to tutor today--it's been light this month--and I guess I'll work the rest of the day. I should read up on Japanese internment during WWII. That's what my student this afternoon is writing about. A subject I know nearly nothing about.