“Subverting” and Repurposing Dante

A question I have had early on in our class is why Toni Morrison chose Dante’s trilogy to frame and play with in at least three of her novels. I read Dante in HUM I like everyone else. I thought the text was fascinating and rich, and I can see the value of studying it, and I have a great respect for the scholarship surrounding it. Yet, the moral, and perhaps anachronistic, implications of the poem are troubling for me. What struck me most, in the negative way, was how Dante put his father figure/teacher/mentor Brunetto Latini in a relatively deep level of hell for being a “sodomite. 

I’d like to think Dante would have a more holistic view of individuals to not place them in Eternal Damnation. This is why I place quotations about “subverting,” since my title implies Dante in the first place needed to be subverted/repurposed. I’m aware I’m placing cultural expectations that may be unreasonable for the context Dante is writing in, but regardless the meanings transposed into our contemporary time have significance. It’s clear after reading four Toni Morrison novels (three in this class, one in another) that she is attempting to convey meanings of liberation and fluidity; like Dr. Beth says the “both/and.” So, I have been trying to determine why Morrison would chose this text to utilize and repurpose. I think many of the vision of Paradise are more synonymous with a less oppressive version of the afterlife and divinity. For example, the eagle which appears in an upper level of paradise is composed of two Christians, two Jews, and two Pagans(223/228). Specifically, one of the Pagans, Ripheus, is a totally minor character from the Aeneid. I translated a good deal of that epic from Latin in highschool, and I had absolutely no recollection of his character, and he really only appears in one scene. All of this is to say, and Musa points that out too, that paradise is difficult to grasp since Pagans are in heaven and the eagle also says only those that believed in Christ were in heaven, thus Ripheus believed at the time of his death in someone that had not existed yet, and the concept of him had yet to exist. That is a contradiction, but I think the logic, or lack of it, is somewhat unlike the other realms Dante visits. Hell, for example, has a rigid order and from what I recall from Hum I, follows Aristotelian logic pretty closely. Paradise does not. Here is perhaps were Morrison likes Dante’s usage of a complex system of the afterlife that is not so easily understood, which recalls Dr. Herzman’s quote that those who claim to know “God-talk” do not know what they are talking about.

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