…meaning and truth in Dante’s world reside in the afterlife, where figurae are fulfilled and totalities formed. Mortal existence is, by contrast, incomplete, illusory, secondary. But I think the opposite can be said, with equal accuracy: it’s the afterlife that is a tissue of illusions. Dante’s afterworld may be highly structured, but he invented that structure himself, synthesizing classical mythology, Christian theology, and medieval demonology. Dante’s afterworld, drawing attention to its own eccentricities, paradoxes, and loopholes, is not a universal afterworld – it’s Dante’s afterworld, based in his own experiences. Seen from this perspective, the only thing that’s indubitably real, the only thing everyone can see and agree on, is the stuff of this life – all the stuff that Dante himself studied with such interest and love. Is Paradise more real than all that? Is it better? Is Paradise enough to compensate for the loss of the world?
Maybe it is, and maybe it isn’t…But if this world is all there is, then it’s in history itself that the riddle finds its solution. The meaning of Dante’s existence is revealed not by his place in the chorus of Paradise but by the fate of his corpse and his corpus IN THIS WORLD. Then Dante’s head is a figura for Mallegni’s plaster cast, and his poetry a figura for wine, and Ugolino eating Ruggieri’s skull is a figura of forensic scientists extracting Ugolino’s bone marrow.
Batuman’s argument that the comedy (things ending well and whole) of the Divine Comedy is to be found in the continuous present moment of history is something I see popping up all over the place these days. I think it is an attempt at hope newly emerging from the postmodern despair, the “breeding of lilacs out of the dead land.” Science and philosophy are expressing a new(ish) hopeful eschatology; folk-level art is expressing it (I think Josh Ritter’s present moment eschatology is similar to Batuman’s). In my mind, it is simultaneously exciting and terrible: the hope sounds eerily similar to the modernist hope that culminated in the first World War; hope is better than despair, but what sort of havoc could we wreak with our new technologies that WW1 and WW2 could not?
My solution isn’t to instead revert back to the postmodern despair, but rather to have an honest reading of the eschatology that all of these things are singularly reacting against; the Christian eschatology. The orthodox eschatology of Christianity, despite the zeitgeist in America today, was not one where “meaning and truth reside in the afterlife” but rather that the hope of a redeemed life makes meaning now. The continuous present moment is informed with hope because of a promise where THIS WORLD is redeemed – not trashed or sucked up into a golden city in the sky – but remade, here; albeit, a whole here. Jesus Christ died on the cross, and when He stepped out of the tomb, He still bore the scars of his execution, but the scars were in a new and whole flesh.
So, I agree very much, and disagree very much at the same time with Batuman’s thesis. The end of the article though, is gorgeous prose.