Editor’s Note: This text was written in 2021, seven hundred years after Dante’s death, and refers to the year 2021 as “this year” throughout.
In September of this year, seven hundred years have passed since the death of Dante Alighieri, which has motivated numerous homages. Why, seven hundred years later, do we celebrate an author like Dante Alighieri? Is it due to his having written books, foremost among them that monumental work that is the Divine Comedy is? But how is it that a book remains relevant after seven hundred years? How is it that a book born from the personal purge of a man distressed by the political problems of the late Middle Ages, madly in love with a woman who did not love him back, and who died very young still tells us something? The answer emerges immediately: “because it is a classic.” But what is a classic? Classics, I would say, are books we cannot stop talking about. And, to talk about books, we must read them. Consequently, a classic is a book that we cannot stop reading and that we cannot stop talking about even if centuries go by.
I want to go through these questions and offer at least one answer as to why we celebrate Dante this year. I titled this text “Dante and Borges” because the answer I will provide is offered to me, in turn, by Borges. In Borges, I find the key to understanding why it is that the Comedy is a book that we cannot stop reading and that we cannot stop talking about. I am going to tie these two authors together, one born in Florence in 1321 and the other in Buenos Aires in 1899. First, I will speak about Borges, and his conception of literature, to then arrive at Dante.
Borges’ entire work unfolds through a mechanism of references and quotes both internal and extratextual. In his writings, there are always allusions to other authors, philosophers, and literati, and with these references, he assembles his metaphysical conception of literature. Many authors claim that literature is nourished by reality; for Borges, however, the being of literature is literature itself: a book is made of books and, therefore, makes up a world. Thus, a library composed of those worlds is the universe. So, literature is a universe for Borges, and like every universe, it overflows space and time; it is infinite. But, how can literature be infinite if, set to be counted, we could someday define how many books there are in humanity’s literary patrimony? For Borges, nonetheless, the certainty that literature made of literature is infinite is an irrefutable fact. To show why and how this is, I will speak about a book of essays that Borges dedicated to the Comedy, published in 1982 and titled Nine Dantesque Essays.
The title is already significant: nine essays dedicated to Dante, just like the nine circles of the Inferno and the nine spheres of the Paradiso in the Comedy. As Virgil guided Dante in his book, Borges will guide us readers through this other book sprung from the Dantesque. In each one of these essays, Borges takes an episode of the Comedy that has sparked varied interpretations and controversies and offers us his own reading. First, he lays out the episode and presents some interpretations brought forth by experts on the text to then, in turn, comment on these interpretations; he then returns to Dante’s original episode to introduce a new possible reading: his own. For instance, in “The False Problem of Ugolino,” he references the “famous line 75 of the penultimate canto of the Inferno”: Ugolino is locked up with his four children in a prison. They are walled up. There, Ugolino witnesses how, one by one, his children die of starvation, and he then goes blind. He speaks to his dead children, feels for them, and cries. Dante concludes the scene with these verses in Ugolino’s mouth: “Then fasting had more power than grief.” The controversy that occupied multiple interpreters of Dante throughout centuries, and that Borges exhibits, is whether Ugolino died of starvation like his children or ate them due to hunger in the end. Borges shows the answers given to the interpretative dilemma by Chaucer, Rambaldi de Imola, Francesco Torraca, Croce, etc., and speaks about an “inutile controversia” in which he himself will participate. The controversy is “useless” because we will never know the hermeneutic “truth” of that verse. Borges’ version of this episode is that Dante did not intend us to think that Ugolino ate his children, but he did want us to suspect it: He says:
Robert Louis Stevenson […] observes that the characters of a book are strings of words; to that, as blasphemous as it may seem to us, Achilles and Peer Gynt, Robinson Crusoe and Don Quixote are reduced […]. About Ugolino, we must say that he is a verbal texture consisting of thirty tercets. Should we add the notion of cannibalism to that texture? I repeat that we should suspect it with uncertainty and fear. To deny or affirm the monstrous crime of Ugolino is less terrible than to glimpse it.
I want to extract two important things from this example: the line of readings stirred up by an episode of the Comedy starting with Chaucer circa 1380 and ending with Borges in 1982, and how these readings generate an interpretative controversy that, although useless, we still partake in.
About the first point: what Borges shows is a chain of readings. These readers are also writers, like Chaucer, for example, or Borges himself. Geoffrey Chaucer reads the episode about Ugolino and integrates it into The Monk’s Tale, of the Canterbury cycle, nearing the end of the fourteenth century. The Ugolino episode reconfigures itself as such in The Canterbury Tales, which, in turn, are read by other authors, who will reconfigure episodes from The Canterbury Tales (and the Comedy) and generate other texts that will be read by other authors who will reconfigure them into new texts and so on. By pointing at this chain of reading-writing, Borges is defining the mechanism that makes literature expansive, because he incorporates reading as an activity inherent to literary creation, and places it at the same level as writing. Without reading, literature is a dead occurrence; but with it, literature unfolds, irradiates, revitalizes, continues.
But there is more to what Borges writes in Nine Dantesque Essays: for us to celebrate Dante this year, for example, it was necessary not only for him to write a work such as the Comedy, but also that it be read and commented on by others. In Fictions, Borges indicates the key to this dynamic: “The better way to go about it is to pretend that those books already exist, and offer a summary, a commentary on them.” The key, therefore, lies within this activity implicated in commenting on a text. Let’s see how this works.
There is a book that those who work with texts frequently turn to: The Order of Discourse by Michel Foucault. In this book, Foucault studies how discourses function and regulate themselves, and speaks about commentary. Foucault states that there are external and internal processes in the control of discourses: among the former, he considers the forbidden word, the opposition between reason and madness and true will; among the latter, he highlights the author, disciplines, and commentary. He differentiates two basic types of discourses that circulate in societies: discourses that are said, fleeting, ordinary, that vanish as soon as they are pronounced; and discourses that are told, discourses that remain said, that are original because they give rise to new speech-acts. Within the latter is where Foucault places literary texts, because they possess the strange nature of being already said and, even so, are always to be said again; they are, ultimately, susceptible to commentaries that lead back to them, that transform them, that speak about them, that even transcend them.
This does not mean that every literary text susceptible to commentary endures. It so happens that there are texts that were fundamental during their time, but do not have a lasting reading life and eventually disappear; it is also possible for a text that is a commentary on another to grow and end up taking the place of the first one, as in the case of La condesa sangrienta by Alejandra Pizarnik, for example, read and commented on more often today than the book it refers to, The Bloody Countess by Valentine Penrose. This is not the case, as we already see, with the Comedy, a fundamental text that still remains. But if we let ourselves be convinced by Borges in Nine Dantesque Essays, we will realize that other fundamental texts of literary history are ultimately reconfigurations of the first version, Dante’s. Borges states this in “The Last Voyage of Ulysses”: Dante finds Ulysses, Homer’s Ulysses, in the XXVI canto of the Inferno. But this Ulysses is different because he narrates how his ambition for knowledge drove him to the recklessness of venturing beyond the Strait of Gibraltar, and how this was the cause of his death and his companions’. Homer’s Ulysses never went past the Mediterranean, and if he was reckless, this was surpassed by his cunning. Dante’s Ulysses has very different features: he is a sinful, and it is this Ulysses, not Homer’s but Dante’s, who, as Borges tells us, will become Tennyson’s Ulysses or Captain Ahab in Moby Dick.
Literature, as it presents itself in the Dantesque essays, is made up of writing and its comments, and the latter take the form of a transhistorical dialogue between readers-writers that repeatedly updates certain texts in what constitutes an endless source of meanings. That is why literature is a universe; that is the reason why it is infinite. Here we see that Borges dismisses the old notion that assumes the author as the cause of the effect that reading represents, since the commentary as a core exercise of the literary occurrence supposes a writing that stems from a reading that stems from another writing that stems from another reading…
Hence the second aspect that I previously pointed out: the useless controversy that entails extracting an ultimate meaning from a reading. To extract a hermeneutic “truth” would imply arriving at a definitive comment, a comment not susceptible to being commented on, and that would be the end of the literary occurrence. When the reading-commentary is integrated in this way into the creative act of literature, it becomes clear that a piece of writing always contains more than what it expresses. The commenter conceived by Borges moves through the commented text with the same freedom as the author, and even with the same right to imagine, just as Dante did by modifying Homer’s Ulysses. Borges, in another book of essays, Seven Nights, tells us how “Aladdin and the Marvelous Lamp,” one of the most representative stories from The Thousand and One Nights, does not appear in the original versions. It began to appear with Galland’s translation into French. Many accused Galland of forging the narration, but Borges considers this accusation to be “unjust and malign,” because Galland, as a reader (translator) of the text in Arabic, had the same right to imagine as the fabulists of the Arabic text.
To conclude, I would like to say that, for Borges, among the many complex readings of the Comedy, there is a very simple one that he comes back to in this mechanism of reading-writing I have shown (to imagine one of his most emblematic short stories). In the last two texts from Nine Dantesque Essays, Borges speaks about Beatrice and Dante and basically tells us that the Comedy is a book of love. He says that Dante “built” one of the greatest books in literature to be able to meet again, albeit in fiction, with Beatrice, and that although Dante existed very little for her, Beatrice existed infinitely for Dante (and for us). Then, he comes back to this same idea in “The Aleph.” In this short story, Borges, who is also a character, lives immersed in the melancholy of having lost the woman he loved, Beatriz Viterbo. Invited by the cousin of this other Beatrice, Daneri (who sounds evidently familiar to Dante Alighieri) descends to the basement of the house to see the entire universe in one point, in the aleph. It is the only opportunity he has to see Beatriz Viterbo alive again. And there and then, for an instant, he once again sees the woman he loved, with whom he never had any relationship and who died young. Then the aleph disappears and he loses her for good, just as Dante lost Beatrice Portinari after she looked upon him and smiled at him for one last time, before turning back and merging with the eternal source of divine light.