And no, you may not answer with “it’s obvious” or “everybody knows.”
How do we know? Dante’s name only appears in Inferno on the title page, nowhere else. It could be anybody who gets lost in the Dark Wood. It could be anybody who cried out to Virgil in fear of the three beasts. You or I could even be the main character in Inferno and most of Purgatorio.
It’s not until Purgatorio when someone speaks Dante’s name we know it is he.
This is by design. Because when Dante loses his way in the Dark Wood, he also loses his sense of who he’s supposed to be. Regaining his name in Purgatorio is the first sign we get he has also regained himself. The nightmare of hell and the inner work of purgatory are finally over.
Dante is himself again.
The allegory of a name.
How would you answer the question of who are you? More than likely, you will first answer with your name. Our names are some of the first clues that we are individuals. We even know our name before we actually know who we are as people.
Inferno begins with a loss. It’s the “right way” that’s lost. Along with the name of the person who’s speaking. Think about that for a minute. There’s no name for the speaker in Inferno, Canto I. Oh, he has an identity of sorts, he says as much to Virgil, but there is no name.
It’s not until he’s seen all of hell and all of Purgatory that his name is revealed: Dante. The boy who fell in love with a girl and she became his muse and his encouragement throughout his life. The man who left his first love and chased other things and the man who was lost almost beyond hope and she intervened to save. Poet, philosopher, Renaissance man before the Renaissance even officially began. He is himself again.
This is part of the overall allegory of the Comedy, but a very particular one which should resonate for us today because of the crisis of identity everyone seems to go through at more intervals than before. We go through an identity crisis when we reach adulthood, then we go through another one “midway” in our lives. We may even go through an identity crisis when our careers have to change, or jobs change.
If, like Dante, we’ve really had a rough time of it, we may even question who we even are anymore.
We become nameless, because we no longer know who we are and, like Dante, we have to have a “dark night of the soul” so that we may lay the person we thought we were to rest and become who we are supposed to be. Then, and only then, do we regain who we are.
How we regain our names says something about who we are.
One quote attributed to St. Thomas Aquinas is that what we love tells us who we are. This could also be true of how we go about getting our identities back. Let’s not forget that Dante was very close to succumbing to the beasts in the Dark wood. So could any of us when we too lose our way wherever we are in life.
We could lose sight of who we are and take jobs that don’t align with where or who we want to be. Or we could date and marry someone who doesn’t bring out our best self. There are many things we could attempt to regain our identity.
I know, I’ve tried quite a few of them in my time. From dating someone who was substandard and thinking I couldn’t do better, to accepting a job in a field where I couldn’t be myself, and even to fruitless job searches for positions that weren’t anything like what I actually wanted to do, I’ve tried a few of the “wrong” ways to regain my identity.
Let me tell you here and now, never mix your fundamental identity with anything that’s dependent on external factors like a job, partner, religious organization, or even a group of “friends.” Trust me on this one. All of those things will fail you in the end because you’ll walk into work one day and they’ll have no use for you and then make you think you’re useless.
I know because that’s happened to me before.
How are you supposed to regain your identity? The same way Dante did. Level by level, piece by piece, fault by fault. Strip everything away. See your faults for what they are and how harmful they can be, and then do the work of purging them from your life.
Because when you’ve purged the things that aren’t who you are, like the job, the company, the co-workers who only tolerated you, the other volunteers who are just jealous of you, or the work you do that goes unappreciated, then you get to the real you.
Finding your Beatrice is essential to finding your identity.
Who or what inspires you to be the best version of yourself? In my opinion, this is part of the core problem with today’s world. In Dante’s world, there was a lot more nuance than today. We have silly crushes on people and immediately assume that means we want sex, when perhaps what we really want is something more than what the world can provide.
We must love something or someone other than ourselves to get the sense that there is more. For Dante, that someone was Beatrice. His love for her was both real and allegorical. Real in the sense that they were both real people and allegorical in the sense that Dante discovered that his love for her opened up new heights to imagination and even religion.
Who, or what, is that for you? It doesn’t have to be a “real” relationship to inspire you either. It can be the fact you admire someone so much that you want to be worthy of them, whether you will even end up with them. Dante channeled this feeling into his work. And The Divine Comedy was the result. Beatrice represents the pinnacle of virtue, and his guide through heaven.
As well as the person who worked behind the scenes to help him regain his name. And remember his love for her, what she stood for, and for everything that was good, just, and worth fighting for in the world.
When you are lost, there is someone who thinks you are worthy.
And the real you is worth doing the work to rediscover and save. Because the real you is so much better than the Dark Wood, or the beasts that want to destroy you, or even the person you think you are.
Remember Dante’s objections in Canto II of Inferno? He doesn’t think himself worthy, and he claims no one else things him worthy. Now that is what someone says when they’ve been kicked and abused so much they no longer think even the possibility of an immortal soul is worth fighting for.
Again, I speak from experience here. I’ve been in that dark place and I’ve felt that pain. It’s not pretty, and you really wonder if you perhaps you deserve nothing better than what hell can offer and you’re just too damn tired to even try for better. It’s even worse, if, like Dante, you feel so alone, that your favorite writer could be next to you and you still feel isolated.
But that is where The Divine Comedy really gets its power. Because, you see, we aren’t alone. What that may look like for you may differ than what it looks like for Dante, or for someone who shares his brand of Christianity.
Dante’s brand of Christianity posits that heaven is full of people who are constantly praying and taking an interest in us still below. Dante has more than just Beatrice on his side. He has St. Lucy, Rachel, and the Blessed Virgin Mary herself on his side. He has a family of people who want him to do well.
What does this look like for you? Do you have certain writers you go back to over and over again? Do you have a mentor who understands you better than you do yourself? Or do you perhaps have a favorite place you escape to when you need to recenter yourself?
Whoever and whatever you have as your support system, they are there specifically for times when you don’t know who you are any longer. Because they will be the ones to speak your name, when even you have forgotten it.
For Dante, that was Beatrice and the God she represented. Who, or what, is that for you? .
Just here for the posts? Consider donating to the blog!
If you appreciate or get something out of what I produce, please donate using the link below. You can choose from onetime, monthly, or yearly donations.
Everything goes back into the blog somehow, whether that’s another round of books, more coffee, or maintaining the website.
And, as always, please like and refer others to the blog. All it takes for something to be preserved is one person at a time realizing that it’s worth saving.
Make a one-time donation
Make a monthly donation
Make a yearly donation
Choose an amount
Or enter a custom amount
All money donated goes to keeping the posts coming and the website running! Whether that’s enough for a cup of coffee, or for another book to show you, every little bit helps!
Your contribution is appreciated.
Your contribution is appreciated.DonateDonate monthlyDonate yearly