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Dante, Ereos, and Kabbalah
Mark Jay Mirsky
A Non-review by J. Stefan-Cole

Mark Jay Mirsky, writer of novels and heady works like, The Absent Shakespeare, has written a bit of scholarly sleuthing, taken an unorthodox journey through the life and work of Dante Alighieri. I wasn't long into, DANTE, EROS and KABBALAH; Syracuse University Press, before I put it down to pick up John Sinclair's translation of the Inferno, part one of Dante's, Divine Comedy. If you haven't read the Inferno or got by on what you absolutely had to read to pass a course, I recommend remedying that, getting a copy and taking Dante's timeless journey through hell, you'll recognize all sorts of acquaintances there. Then go back to Mirsky's book so he can spin your head around some very, well, transgressive takes on the medieval Florentine's life and art.

The book is thick with cultural references, some of it a thorny read, much of it passionate and brimming with breathless speculation. For openers, most scholars won't touch the question of whether or not Dante actually slept with the love of his life, Beatrice Portinari. Most leave it at a courtly admiration from a far, a muse to the poet who had been promised to another. Mark Jay Mirsky took the question and rubbed on it for years.

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Dante first laid eyes on Beatrice when she was a child of nine, he a boy of twelve, and Mirsky suggests the children may have flirted, innocently, or in a more exploratory frame; a kiss, perhaps even a touch here or there. Whatever took place, Dante was never again free from love's sting to the point where at the very least Beatrice became a literary obsession. Mr. Mirsky suggests the two hooked up after she married, if not before, and that a childhood touch blossomed into an adult embrace. Dante lived in a rigid society where sexual irregularities, never mind things kinky, were tabooed by the Church, so if they met it would have been in utmost secrecy. Beatrice died in 1290, at age twenty-four, and Mirsky believes Dante wrote the Commedia as a way of meeting her, in the flesh, after death. That he hoped in heaven to be carnally reunited. Was this the real goal behind his journey through Hades, and later purgatory and finally paradise? That he might find the dead Beatrice to serve as his guide, mixing the sexual and the sublime, to God?

So, the Commedia as a tart love story with occasional bits of dirt served up on some famous dead, and Dante's work, in effect, reportage worthy of the Inquirer? Dante would certainly have had to sublimate this proposed real topic, his lust for Beatrice, because lechery was a serious sin in his day, and, Beatrice or no Beatrice, he was guilty of that. Old Dante had an eye for the ladies, and Mr. Mirsky suggests he may not have been immune to the homoerotic either. Beatrice may have been the one but Dante was not idle in the midst of his longing for her. Arranged into marrying another, his adulterous activities would be met with severe punishment. In the end Dante was expelled from his beloved Florence not for his erotic life, but rather for falling on the wrong side of the deadly dispute between the White and the Black Guelphs. The punishment for returning home was death by burning.

Mirsky quotes the very same Leo Strauss, from his, Persecution and the Art of Writing, that Paul Wolfowitz and company used, in part anyway, to form their secretive and questionable thesis on governance (but that is another topic entirely). From DANTE, EROS, and KABALLAH: "Strauss's thesis is that Maimonides, and philosophers in general before the seventeenth century, concealed from the vulgar, or a state bureaucracy of conventional authority, convictions that ran counter to popular prejudice or myth. Such concealment is the principle, I have come to believe, that the whole of La Vita Nuova and the Commedia (the later work taking its cue from the earlier), is organized upon." Pornography between the lines?

Mark Jay Mirsky, professor of English at City College of New York, has written energetically and even poetically, though this does not always serve to make his book an easy reads. At times the writing borders the comically ecstatic, with the writer slipping into asides on his own topic. His material is endlessly rich and any number of these asides might have come out as a whole other book. And just how seriously are we to take the claim that the Commedia is a lusty love poem, a prayer for intercourse with the deceased Beatrice?

Dante ushered in modern literature. He wrote in Italian, broke away from the sanctioned Latin of the church. He intended to be widely read. It was also his intention that Italy be unified, and writing in a refined vernacular encouraged that. Dante also believed in secular rule separate from a Papacy that had become a corrupt arbiter of power. He is modern too, Mirsky makes clear, because he wrote of human anguish without disguise, outside of the hero formula. Following his guide, Virgil, through an imagined hell, Dante encounters both the famous and the infamous in the several rings of deepening foul behavior doomed to be repeated to eternity until the impenitent finally wakes up to his or her own wrong doing. Only then can the purge take place and the hoped for release in paradise; a meeting with God, or light, or perhaps beatification. There is a deep humanity in Dante, arrived at the hard way; the Commedia is his enlightenment.

And Dante frothing after Beatrice? "The composer of the Commedia is determined to touch his mistress, to "know" her. Mounting the stairs of Paradise, the lovers, Alighieri, Portinari, circle each other in the steps of a Provençal courtship, the strum of innuendoes, gentle rebukes, side glances, affectionate outbursts, between lines that act as blinds. Dante took inspiration from Provence, Languedoc, seed plot of Kabbalah, mysticism, poetry." The idea is that sexual love is a virtue. (Well, happily, you can try that at home.) Passion is encouraged; there, in the brink of madness, the grip of ecstasy, sexual, artistic, the thirst for knowledge (the dangerous sort forbidden in the Garden of Eden) "God" is found. "Such is the argument of courtly romance. Beatrice, however, is only an aspect, as she admits, of something beyond her. Here the Commedia touches Kabbalah, its extension of Neoplatonsim, the notion of man and woman, their erotic coupling, as a means to the original unity of the human being and God. If Beatrice can forgive, spurn envy, vengeance, spite from her, it is because beyond those images of motherhood, those dripping breasts by which Dante is holding onto salvation, is Divine Unity." Indeed.

Or you could just drop acid until you got blinded by the light and found yourself talking to God or to a multi-colored parrot. If one heads all the way down the road Dante took, Beatrice or no Beatrice (though way better to have that image to cling to on that hard highway), one is sure to stumble upon the bright and terrifying quest for, call it what you like: God, Enlightenment, Truth, the self, saintliness, Buddha-nature, it all comes to a straight gate and narrow way. If the road travels inevitably through lust or pride or greed, or whatever sins, to the inferno, purgatory and finally paradise, it is a journey few take all the way to the end, and it may be telling that Dante Alighieri died shortly after completing the third book of The Divine Comedy. "Oh abundant grace whence I presumed/to fix my look on the Eternal light," Dante. He was blinded by the light, and, "At the very last moment of Paradiso, he is granted what he has asked, like Moses, a look at the face, backside, of the Holy one, the smile of God." An intensity of imagination that could kill, and of course Dante made the whole thing up. It's fiction! A literary journey only as real as the self taking it. And did Beatrice do Dante? That would be telling.

Mark Jay Mirsky has written a complicated, at times inspired book, a free-wheeling flight of fancy into the sexual dream of a dead poet. The scholarship can at times be intimidating, and I had a bone to pick here and there, some graphic suppositions I found over the top; the quirky idea of female genitalia as the way to God, for example. Didn't Cindi Lauper dump that burdensome pedestal once and for all? Beatrice maybe only wanted to have fun. Still, if you like a rich book to dig into, this one is worthy of the shoveling. And Dante is always worth the effort.

©April 2004 J. Stefan-Cole


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