A Classic

Mid-Summer                                                   Waxing Honey Flow Moon

Visiting the Inferno today, complete with air conditioning.  The Inferno exhibit, illustrations of this section of Dante’s masterpiece done by a contemporary artist, Michael Mazur, hang in a print exhibition at the MIA.  The Inferno, especially its introduction, has touched me deeply, as it has Western civilization. Here are two versions of its opening canto’s first lines.

Midway upon the journey of our life
I found myself within a forest dark,
For the straightforward pathway had been lost.
Ah me! how hard a thing it is to say
What was this forest savage, rough, and stern,
Which in the very thought renews the fear.
So bitter is it, death is little more;
But of the good to treat, which there I found,
Speak will I of the other things I saw there.

Midway the path of life that men pursue
I found me in a darkling wood astray,
For the direct way had been lost to view.
Ah me, how hard a thing it is to say
What was this thorny wildwood intricate
Whose memory renews the first dismay!
Scarcely in death is bitterness more great
But as concerns the good discovered there
The other things I saw will I relate.

Dante has uncovered that moment in our lives, come soon or late, when the way we had known, probably the one we had carried with us to that point unconsciously, the culturally given pattern for our lives, fails to work for us.  The moment when I realized achievement and upward progress hindered my self-knowledge, that old gender roles no longer served as guideposts for intimate relationships, that the racial stereotypes I had grown up with were wrong, that the liberal politics I had received at the breakfast table could no longer explain the problems I saw in American society, that the Christian faith could not stretch wide enough to include even my own family, in that moment I set off with Dante, needing a Virgil to guide me through the underworld of my own changing Self.

This is the power of the classics, the mirror held up to our search, the challenge to our comfortable assumptions and, perhaps most important, suggestions about where the path may lead beyond them.

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