Earlier this week was so-called Super Tuesday. As the readership of this blog is international, I might explain that the portentous adjective "Super" is used to designate the day on which numerous states hold their "primary" elections, those designed to arrive at a single party candidate to run in the general election in November. I have to admit I have gotten caught up in the political excitement and was prepared to stay up late to learn the news. This may not sound to you like a dramatic evidence of deep political commitment, but as I am definitely a morning person with a vengeance, it really is. However, two factors worked in my favor. Most of the voting was being done in my own time zone, so that the voting day was done about the same time as my energy was depleted. Secondly, we have advanced beyond the bad old days of the "hanging chads." The technology of the voting machines now reliably yields almost instantaneous results, so that I knew all I needed to know before falling into a deep and restful sleep.
What made yesterday "super" for me had nothing to do with the voting or its results. What made the day "super" for me was the first meeting of a six-week course I am offering on Dante’s "Inferno." The venue for this seminar is the Evergreen Forum of Princeton, one of the hundreds of Geezer Colleges that now dot the landscape of the American Senior Community. I have written about “adult” or “continuing” education on this blog before. I regard its vitality an impressive sign of social and cultural health. On a day on which various pundits were predicting the results of Super Tuesday in terms of the frustrations of embittered old white people, I was standing up in front of a class of mainly old white people full of cheerful intelligence, eager expectation, and the thrill of discovery.
I asked for a show of hands. "How many of you will be reading Dante for the first time?" At least a third of the students — there are in perfect harmony with Dante’s own numerological aesthetics 33 of them — raised a hand. I actually felt a pang of jealousy. The cruel fact is that you can read a great work of literature for the first time only once. And while older students are often at first a little timid and diffident, uncertain of intellectual and spiritual capacities dormant since their college days, they have a huge if unrecognized advantage as readers of serious books. That advantage — our advantage — is a cumulative life experience for which there is no artificial substitute.
I am amused by our common use of the word adult in such phrases as "adult themes" or "adult movies," usually signifying sexual content dealt with at an adolescent level. If you want adult themes, let me recommend the "Divine Comedy." Its subject, according to its author, is "the state of the souls after death." It deals with the traditional four Last Things of Catholic theology: Death, Judgment, Heaven, Hell.
Centennial years always command a special attention. The year 1300 perhaps held more than most. The pope had declared it a special year and offered special inducements to attract pilgrims to Rome. They came in large numbers. Dante’s poem, written a few years later, uses the Jubilee of 1300 as its historical setting, so that the journey of the poet-narrator has a universal symbolic suggestion as well as an intensely personal focus. The famous opening lines of the "Inferno" begin thus: "Midway in the journey of our life, I came to myself in a dark wood …" The interplay of a shared plurality (our life) with the singularity of a first-person narrator invites, perhaps requires, that readers find their own journeys within the fantastic description of the pilgrim’s.
As is typical of this poet, what he means by midway is both personal and universal. Life’s journey is something of a cliché and already was when Dante first picked up his pen: "Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita …" But there is more. Suppose that an author happened in fact to have been born in the year 1265. Then in a poem set in the imaginary year of 1300 that man would be in fact 35 years old. That is indeed exactly at the midpoint of a canonical lifespan of 70 years. "The days of our years are threescore years and ten," says the Psalmist; "and if by reason of strength they be fourscore years, yet is their strength labor and sorrow; for it is soon cut off, and we fly away." There is a certain pleasing lack of dogmatism in this verse. Seventy is the norm, but you might make it to 80. It still has a sobering impact, especially should you, the reader, just happen to be 79 years and nine months, say.