In the Dark Forest, Once Again – Dante’s Perspective Today

Entrance to The Divine Comedy, 2019, by Alfredo Jaar. Photo Credit: Mona/Jesse Hunniford. Image courtesy of MONA, Hobart, Tasmania, Australia

by Francesco Giusti

Celebrations for the 700th anniversary of Dante’s death (1321–2021) are taking “place” all over the world, albeit displaced due to the current circumstances. They have been somewhat reduced in number and altered in form by the unexpected event of a global pandemic, which has forced long-planned gatherings of Dante scholars and enthusiasts to be moved online. The commitment to Dante’s celebrations suggests the cultural significance his Divine Comedy still holds not only in the European canon, but in a globalizing world: but the circumstances in which they are happening call for reflection, including the globalized technology that allows them to take place despite those circulating dangers.

The enormous influence and dissemination of the Divine Comedy is evident in its variegated reception in contemporary literature, cinema, music, and in the visual and performing arts. But what exactly is it that contemporary artists find so engaging and fruitful in the medieval poem, beyond its highly visual imagery? The answers are complex and multifaceted, but some clues are offered by Chilean-born and New York-based artist Alfredo Jaar’s three-room installation at the Museum of Old and New Art (MONA) in Hobart, Tasmania. The installation is titled The Divine Comedy and was created in 2019, before the rise of the pandemic but in the middle of other anthropogenic disasters. The motivations for returning to Dante may have to do with experience and time, or more precisely with a certain modality of experience in time.

According to the video presentation of Jaar’s installation available online, it intends to offer visitors (ten at a time) an “immersive” experience of Dante’s three realms of the afterlife. One’s first guess is that the medieval Divine Comedy too offers its readers a similarly “immersive” experience. The poem opens with the famous tercet (Inferno 1, 1-3):

In the middle of the journey of our life
I found myself in a dark forest
for the straight path was lost.

Three verses suffice to plunge readers into that dark forest, and make them feel the same shocking terror that Dante felt when he suddenly found himself lost in a perilous darkness and strayed from the straight path. The journey is not his alone; it is our journey. Even though mediated via the personal story of a particular individual, the experience is, and intends to be, collective and universal.

The journey is also situated in time, in a present conceived as a middle point in an expected trajectory of human life, which contains both past and future. If the past needs to be re-experienced, the future may also be realigned and reoriented. It needs to be. It follows from the subject finding himself: the experience of immersion in that unknown environment begins in a moment of relative self-awareness, in the sudden realization of a crisis, of being in an uncharted territory away from the traced path of one’s own story and collective history. Later in the poem’s first canto, it is made clear that the protagonist cannot simply climb the hill and see the light, he must go through the crisis to get out of the forest. Moreover, he cannot rescue himself by himself; the feat cannot be accomplished alone. He must ask for help and follow the guidance offered to him. The expected timeline becomes lost along with geographical certainty. The long narrative proceeds from this moment of crisis. The journey through the three realms of the afterlife can only begin with an acknowledgement of being in a crisis, however minimal it may be.

The reality of the experience recounted by Dante has been much debated ever since the poem was written: Did he have a real vision of the afterlife? Is it an inventive exercise in poetic fiction? In the end, the distinction doesn’t really matter. Dante the poet creates a virtual reality that may happen, and should be reckoned with, which is all that matters: a proposed environment that opens up potentials for shareable, repeatable experience and change.

…there is something deeper that Dante seems to offer Jaar: a position in time linked to a particular perspective on time, a particular self-positioning along the axis of time and an awareness of it. A crisis-position from which time, or at least time as we know it, is about to end (very badly).

Yet, watching the video presentation of Jaar’s installation and listening to the artist’s voiceover accompanying the images of Inferno, it becomes clear that the Divine Comedy provides not only an immersive experience of the human condition, but also a model of engagement with the world and of critical reflection on the present. The medieval poem is not concerned with the environmental issues and climate crisis the video talks about, but there is something deeper that Dante seems to offer Jaar: a position in time linked to a particular perspective on time, a particular self-positioning along the axis of time and an awareness of it. A crisis-position from which time, or at least time as we know it, is about to end (very badly). Human history is about to collapse — or at least this is the future that is likely to follow from past developments. It is curious how repeatable this kind of messianic perspective that informs the early 14th-century poem is, as Jaar’s installation shows. It can be powerfully reenacted as a critical perspective from which to look at the surrounding world and perhaps try to change the expected future.   

Thinking of Jaar’s 2019 installation in and from the crisis-time of a global pandemic elicits some further thoughts. Attending lectures and events centered on the medieval poet online (just one case among countless others these days), makes strangely palpable the global interconnectedness that the internet has made virtually real. If the transnational community of Dante aficionados has moved online to celebrate the anniversary of their beloved poet’s death, this is made both possible and necessary by a technologization of the world in combination with a pandemic afflicting the world on the same global scale. Can Dante be of any help in thinking about both technological globalization and the pandemic that is shaping our time?

Unlike other medieval literary works, the Divine Comedy includes allegories, but it does not present itself only as an allegorical poem. This helps make it the powerful work of art it still is today. What Dante sees, hears, touches, and smells in the afterlife is indeed constituent of a universal reality. The poem conjoins the extremely local and the universal — from Dante’s own affections, including the love and hatred for his hometown Florence, through the actors and events of collective history, to the metaphysical order of the universe — in a perspective on shared time in which each particular (person, event, or even little gesture) resonates with the universal. Those resonances offer ‘Dante the character’ the possibility to understand higher realities through the experience of particulars, and ‘Dante the poet’ a way to represent those realities and how everything is profoundly interconnected.

Even scaling Dante’s metaphysics down to history, those resonances still seem to offer today a powerful way to make both concrete and comprehensible the participation of every animate or inanimate being in our shared existence on this planet. As the video presentation of Jaar’s installation makes clear, the intensified temporality of the about-to-end as a critical positioning in time still seems a viable possibility to draw attention to this interconnectedness. Although the world can no longer hope for an external force to come and save it, as was the case in a certain medieval Christian messianism, perhaps — this seems to be the bet — we can start from those planetary resonances to realign and reorient our collective future.    

Francesco Giusti is a lecturer in Comparative Literature at Bard College Berlin and a former fellow of the ICI Berlin Institute for Cultural Inquiry, where he was working on their core project ERRANS, in Time.

Courtesy of Jesse John Hunniford, MONA and Alfredo Jaar (all rights reserved)

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