Tuesday, June 1, 2004

Dante in Love, by Harriet Rubin

A Review of Harriet Rubin’s

Dante in Love

Originally published in the Rain Taxi Review of Books, Summer 2004

Dante in Love:
The World’s Greatest Poem and How it Made History
By Harriet Rubin
Simon & Schuster ($25)

In Dante in Love, the latest addition to the growing genre of popular works that hold up one artistic masterpiece as the culminating mirror of an entire era, Harriet Rubin argues that the central theme of the Divine Comedy is love and that the poem’s three stratifications—Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso—are each reflections of how well or how poorly any one individual’s love is directed.

Rubin clearly loves the Divine Comedy, but as her book’s hyperbolic title suggests, the overwhelming nature of her subject matter often leads her astray. In dealing with such an encyclopedic work, a writer must be able to encompass a multifaceted sphere of sometimes obscure information, and indeed Rubin often succeeds in reining in large amounts of material. She rounds up all the usual medieval subjects well: Her mini-biographies of Abelard, St. Bernard, Abbot Suger, St. Francis, St. Thomas, Guido Cavalcanti, and Brunetto Latini are both engaging and well balanced, two qualities necessary for any Dantista wishing to mirror her master’s technique. Yet she often falls prey to the sins of rearrangement, exaggeration, and oversimplification—all of which also mirror Dante’s technique but considerably distort the picture that she’s trying to paint.

In an attempt to make her book accessible to contemporary tastes, Rubin greatly plays up the aspects of conspiracy and intrigue, with which Dante’s life and times were rife and which are absolutely essential to any understanding of his artistic pilgrimage, but by using such bold and riveting strokes to draw her readers in, Rubin often wildly misrepresents both the nature of Dante’s reality and the complex mysteries of that reality’s scattered evidence. In her discussion of the split in Florentine politics between the Guelfs and the Ghibelline parties, for example, she makes the astonishing distinction that the Guelfs were brute lackeys and the Ghibellines reflective intellectuals. She also waxes overly poetic about how the Gothic cathedral-schools that Dante encountered on his trip to Paris influenced the theology and structure of the Comedy, even going so far as to map out a nearly Homerically implausible itinerary for her pilgrim-poet—never once mentioning that the only records of this trip are in Villani’s and Boccaccio’s later accounts and that almost all modern scholars have disregarded the trip as a wishful fiction.

Rubin seems to have a fair grasp of Dante’s written works—especially gratifying is her appreciation of his little-read treatise on church and state, De Monarchia—but when she dismisses La Vita Nuova as little more than a sentimental allegory and claims that until writing the Comedy he was a second-rate poet who lived in the shadow of his friend and mentor Guido Cavalcanti, the Dantean balance of her judgments come profoundly into question. Her over-emphasis on certain sections of the Comedy (especially the justifiably absorbing Ulysses section of the Inferno) to the detriment of others is also suspect; she glosses over much of the Paradiso, which she deals with in little more than a string of quotations from Dante lecturer John Freccero; and she often rearranges the order of the text to fit the shape of her discussion. Perhaps the most deeply telling imbalance, however, is her insistence upon Dante’s primacy over Shakespeare, an over-simplification made by only the most fantastical shapers of perfect order.

Still, Rubin’s love for Dante and his work comes shining through even the most distorted passages. She clearly hopes for her book to be an embarkation-point rather than an end-point in the Dantean journey, and if the worst she’s done is to get people to misread the Divine Comedy, that’s a whole lot better than nothing at all. Dante in Love may not have the clear vision of some other recent works dealing with artistic history (see Ross King’s excellent Brunelleschi’s Dome, Anton Gill’s intriguing Il Gigante, and R.W.B Lewis’ succinct Dante, all of which telescope large portraits into simplified but well-wrought frames), but if all Rubin is guilty of is misdirected love, perhaps the worst that Dante would do would be to assign her to Purgatory for a while, where all souls are destined one day to ascend to Paradise, to become one with “the love that moves the sun and the other stars.”

—David Wiley