NEL MEZZO DEL CAMMIN DI NOSTRA VITA
Midway upon the journey of our life
Midway upon the journey of our life
I found myself within a forest dark,
For the straightforward pathway had been lost.
Ah me! how hard a thing it is to say
What was this forest savage, rough, and stern,
Which in the very thought renews the fear.
So bitter is it, death is little more;
But of the good to treat, which there I found,
Speak will I of the other things I saw there. (1)
Why does Dante start the tale of his descent into Hell in the middle of his life?
« Midway upon the journey of our life »: the end of the beginning, or the beginning of the end? This certainty of a moment in time that we guess at, does it mean that creation begins in medias res - as do all true roads? What is the deeper meaning of this initial formula?
On the one hand, in the incipit of the Comedia we have a geographical separation, a dividing line between the « dark forest » and the quiet hill from where divine light shines. On the other hand, « the middle of life » evokes a chronological fracture between youth with its errors and passions, and the age of maturity and reason, a fracture which we also find between the « divine poetry » of The Comedy, and the previous style of poetry called the « new sweet style », represented by Vita Nuova. On the one side, adolescent fantasies encouraged by the « angel of youth » who appeared to the poet while he was still a child, the fantasies, or « vain imagination » which condemns the lover to « fantasize like a madman », to sacrifice himself to the veneration of idols of courtly love, and the multiplicity of objects of desire. On the other side, the poet of the Divine Comedy, who has the spiritual support of the « divine » angels. This is what Beatrice reminds us of at the end of Canto XXX of « Purgatory ».
I for a while sustained him with my face ;
And showing him my youthful eyes, I led him
Along with my turned in the right direction.
But whem the threshold of my second age
I reached, and charged my life, he took himself
Aeay from my, and gave himself to others.
and o'er an untrue path he turned his steps.
The notion evoked here, of a threshold can be understood through speculation on the “stages of life”, which is explained in the Convivio. The pyramid of ages goes in the following order: adolescence, youth, old age, and dotage. The first stage is 25 years long, the second until the age of 45, old age goes till the age of 70, and dotage goes for another 10 years. In fact, this tetrad hides a bipolar opposition: as in the image of the drawn bow, symbol of life, human existence follows a rising and falling curve, of which the clinamen, the acme, divides youth itself between the thirtieth and fortieth year, that is to say, on average, at thirty-five. The Convivio gives us a theological justification for this, which is worthy of our attention:
And this reason has weight with me: that our Saviour Jesus Christ was a perfect natural man, who choseto die in the thirty-fourth year of His age; for it was not suitable for the Deity to have place in the descendingsegment; neither is it to be believed that He would not wish to dwell in this life of ours even to the summit ofit, since He had been in the lower part even from childhood. And the hour of the day of His death makes thisevident, for He willed that to conform with His life; wherefore Luke says that it was about the sixth hourwhen He died, that is to say, the height or supreme point of the day; wherefore it is possible to comprehend bythat, as it were, that at the thirty-fifth year of Christ was the height or supreme point of His age. (Convivio XXIII, 10)
In medico-theological tradition the middle of life represented by the limit of 35 years correspponds to the moment when the four humours are balanced in the organism, enabling a human being to arrive at the furthest spheres of the contemplative life. At this critical point of his physical life, man overcomes the handicap of his origins, to take on the role of an « inspired melancholic » (Aristotle). At a critical moment in life, where « he must look back, and forwards », the melancolical adolescent arriving at maturity must renounce his narcissism and confront the symbolic image of the Other, in other words, exchange his egoism for altruism.
Because, as Aristotle says, man is a social animal, and that is why he must be useful not only to himself, but also to others. Man must, therefore, after perfecting himself, in youth, arrive at a perfection which illuminates not only himself, but others as well. Man must somehow open like a rose, which cannot any longer remain closed, and must share the perfume which has formed in his breast.
For Dante, the Divine Comedy is the result of a necessary development, a mediation which deconstructs lyric love poetry, and re-uses it another way for an epic narration undertaken in media res.
Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita
mi ritrovai per una selva oscura,
ché la diritta via era smarrita.
Ahi quanto a dir qual era è cosa dura
esta selva selvaggia e aspra e forte
che nel pensier rinova la paura!
Tant' è amara che poco è più morte;
ma per trattar del ben ch'i' vi trovai,
dirò de l'altre cose ch'i' v'ho scorte.
(Inferno I, 1/9)
Alcun tempo il sostenni col mio volto:
mostrando li occhi giovanetti a lui,
meco il menava in dritta parte vòlto.
Sì tosto come in su la soglia fui
di mia seconda etade e mutai vita,
questi si tolse a me, e diessi altrui.
e volse i passi suoi per via non vera.
(Purgatorio XXX, 121-130.)