Quibbling with Sayers about Dante

Sayers writes in her Introduction to Hell about the use of allegory in The Divine Comedy. After saying that the best way to read the poem would be straight through, surrendering to the poem’s own internal drive, she then spends pages explaining why this can’t be done. One of her principal reasons for this is that The Divine Comedy has many layers of meaning that we need to think about.

She also drops this simple line on page 14 of her introduction to Hell, while she is explaining several different levels on which to read.

“The literal meaning is the least important part of it:…”

I massively disagree. First let me explain what the “literal” level of reading is, in this situation. Literal means — what the words actually say. It doesn’t mean that the words are describing a factual situation.

Part of what makes The Divine Comedy stunning is that the literal world that Dante has drawn for us is rich, multi-faceted, surprising, very human. This is not an easy thing to accomplish. Sayers contrasts Dante with John Bunyan and his allegory, Pilgrim’s Progress. (Okay, but I haven’t been able to get through that piece of literature although I have seen comments about it explaining useful and helpful lessons to draw.) John Bunyan named his characters so that the allegorical message of the journey was obvious. Dante did not do this. You can read without initially dealing with the allegory involved.

The word pictures that Dante drew at the very beginning of Hell, showing the traveler in the early morning walking through woods towards sunrise over a hill, are very important. They are both externally correct for time and place and internally correct for someone who is off course, spiritually. If you choose to draw lessons from the scene there are many to draw because each detail can be used.

Sayers is correct that we need not worry if Dante has details “wrong” about what someone did or didn’t do. She gives Guido da Montefeltro as an example; did he or didn’t he actually commit some great fraud. She is admitting that Dante has points to make which require that we accept on the “literal” level the stories that he tells about his characters.

For example, Dante is the originator, as far as I can tell, of the idea that Ulysses took the last voyage that ends with his boat being sunk near Mount Purgatory. But I know that that voyage is endlessly discussed. Its details matter, allegorically. Dante made up a story about Virgil traveling to the depths of Hell. That story is part of how we must think about Virgil. It must be used for any discussion of what Dante meant.

Now, I think that Sayers does use all the different parts of the poem. My beef with her is her statement that the literal meaning is the least important part of the writing. For a good allegory, all else stands or falls on the literal meaning.

Long ago I read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. All that I got out of it was this. If some five cent bolt could not be removed so that a broken machine could be fixed, either the bolt was worth the entire cost of the machine (rather than five cents) or the whole machine was worth five cents. Your choice. As I see it, the literal meaning of a piece of literature is the same deal. If it’s well done the further meanings of the writing will be helpful. If not, not.

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