Sunday, April 21, 2013

Shelf elves, dream detectives and Dante

I am determined to hold on to my copy of Dante. This is a paperback edition with a black cover. I want to finish my notes on his description of different orders of reality, and of angels. Numbers are very important here, including the number 12.

I jotted this dream in my journal on Saturday morning, and went back to work on the first chapter of my new book, especially scenes from my life when I was nine and when I was 18 going on 19. Aged nine, I died during surgery in a Melbourne hospital and seemed to live whole life somewhere else before i came back. At 18, I wanted to die because I had lost the first woman I loved; instead of dying that night, I wrote a poem.
    I paused in my writing and reflection and posted a quick note on my Dante dream on my Facebook page, which I use for punctuation and refreshment in a day or night at my desk. My brief report immediately had a score of dream detectives working on my Dante clues. One of them found a reference to the number twelve early in Dante's poetic memoir La Vita Nuova (The New Life).
    I jumped on this lead. I could not locate a copy of Dante's Vita Nuova in my own library (where the resident shelf elves are known to hide as well as reveal) but the excellent used book shop down the street was open. No, they did not have a copy of La Vita Nuova but it might be in a copy of The Portable Dante that had come in just that morning; it was there on the stand with the New Books, a paperback with a black cover. Yes, it contained the full text of La Vita Nuova.
    Three minutes later (I live dangerously close to this book store) I am at home leafing through the text. The translation is somewhat florid. Ah, this is because it is by Dante Gabriel Rossetti. I am seized by a personal connection. When I was 18, I played Dante Gabriel Rossetti and read some of his poems in a repertory performance of "An Evening with the Pre-Raphaelites" in Canberra, Australia. I read on. Nine is Dante's number in this unusual memoir, a medley of poetry and prose. He sees Beatrice for the first time when they are both nine years old. He encounters her again when they are both 18 (2x9, as he insists, at length). That is the year when he dreams her death, and then sees her carried to the heavens by angels when she actually dies.

    In La Vita Nuova, we see the first hints of the Divine Comedy that is to come, and begin
to understand how Dante could borrow the form of a lovely woman he could not have (because she was married young and died so young) for the spiritual guide who meets the pilgrim inside the gate of Purgatory when he has come up through all the terrors of the Inferno and opened his heart.
     Dante's "New Life" contains a very interesting account of a dream conversation with an inner guide. The guide appears as a beautiful young men dressed in white but addresses Dante as "my son." Dante makes it clear this experience is unfolding in a sleep dream, in which he recognizes the voice of The Young Man in White from previous dreams. As the poet tries to feel out the nature of their relationship, perhaps asking himself whether the Young Man in White is a projection (though that is not the language of the late 13th century), the inner guide tells him: "I am as the center of a circle, to which all points on the circumference bear an equal relation. With you, it is not so." (ch.XII; my translation).
    I was thrilled with the sense of recognition when I read these words. For me, they are a very exact description of the relationship between our ordinary personalities and a self that is at the center of a family of aspect personalities.
    The Dante of La Vita Nuova is ahead of himself. He not only takes the conventions of courtly love to a higher and more creative level, and helps to birth Italian as a language of literature (in the Tuscan dialect); he demonstrates the central importance of dreaming in the life of the soul and the sources of creativity.
    What is most important for me personally in this adventure in literary synchronicity and memory is that Dante created a new kind of autobiography. His "book of memory", as he called it, is woven from his dreams, visions and poems with just a little connective narrative. He omits personal names and details, making it clear that this is a memoir of his spirit, not his ordinary life. In my current book project, am attempting to do something analogous, untrammeled by traditions of courtly love and medieval religion. 

Dante as I met him at the Marché aux Puces,  St-Ouen de Clignancourt (c) Robert Moss

1 comment:

Patricia said...

This is an exciting piece of writing for me Robert. Writings in science and literature seem to be the perfect marriage for me right now. I kind of feel like I'm cooking in my kitchen and a new food for the soul is about to be finished. This "... relationship between our ordinary personalities and a self that is at the center of a family of aspect of personalities", really parallels a dream I had about having a baby and bringing her home to a larger family. I am going to take this into an understanding of the development of soul as it encodes and enriches the human developmental process. I have difficulty containing a sense of big belly laughing with studying your writings because in the past all these games for children and adults I work with start popping up to and life gets interesting.