With Usura: Dante (Pt.1)

This is turning out to be a little too long for one post, so it’s coming as two (I hope).

When I first thought of this piece, the intention was to provide a historical look at prevailing historical attitudes towards usury through an analysis of the Inferno. This is still my intention, but it is done with an important caveat.

There are two mottos every self-respecting literature student should hold dear when it comes to textual analysis: ‘no man is an island’ and ‘there is nothing outside the text’. Art is fundamentally contextual in its creation and its interpretation. Of no author is this truer than Dante, and of no author’s work is interpretation more complicated. The extant biographical information on Dante, whether from contemporary accounts or his own poems, is extremely patchy; his wife and children (the number is still contested) for example, are never mentioned in his poetry, while Beatrice, his muse and objet d’amour with whom he was not on particularly intimate terms, is obsessively elevated to mythic standing in his early dolce stil novo works. Regardless, one of the few facts agreed upon by all scholars is that some time between late 1301 and early1302, Dante was exiled from his native Florence, and remained in exile until his death in 1321. The events of these years form the most pertinent backdrop with which to contextualise The Divine Comedy, the work that secured Dante’s place in the Western canon.

So where is the problem? All good art is a fascinating interaction between the creative individual and wider society, and, as this terribly brief biography highlights, Dante’s was particularly fraught. To read the Comedy in light of this singular event exposes its extraordinarily polemical nature. We think of the Comedy primarily as a fictional-theological work; as a startlingly imaginative cosmology delineating hell, purgatory and heaven; perhaps even as a theodicy of sorts, justifying the ways of God to man. But while it may be all of the above, it is also testament to the anger and bitterness the author felt regarding the political, social and religious situation of the day.

Therefore the caveat: like Milton’s Paradise Lost 300 years later, Dante’s epic religious poem is also an intensely personal sublimation of his politics, and, like Milton, politically he may not have been in the majority. To describe Dante’s politics as self-serving would overstep the mark; to describe it as coloured by a set of extraordinary circumstances and a desire for recrimination would, I think, be accurate. The Comedy is densely populated not only with mythical and historical figures, but also with the great and the good of Florentine society and one cannot help but feel that he had a score to settle. This may seem like a statement of the blindingly obvious: art is always a subjective endeavour. Nevertheless, personal circumstance seems to seep into The Divine Comedy on such an all-encompassing scale that it was a statement of the blindingly obvious I felt duty bound to make.


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