From Dante to “I Love Dick”: 10 books about Unrequited Love

“Katherine Mansfield’s exquisite long short story At the Bay, Beryl, a middle-aged woman still fantasising about the young girl she once was and the lovers she could have captured then, stands in a darkened room half-imagining someone is out there in the dark, desiring her. So much of fiction is about desire, a yearning of some kind or another … the love of reading itself a sort of intense affair.

“These thoughts and more were whirling around in my mind when I wrote my own novel about unrequited love, Caroline’s Bikini, the story of middle-aged Evan’s great love for his landlady, the desirable but always just out of reach Caroline Beresford.

“The Divine Comedy by Dante- Dante follows hard on his heels, of course, and was writing before him – his Divine Comedy a kind of early novel, as I think of it, in three parts, that was inspired by a similar kind of experience. Dante never knew his Beatrice either, yet the idea of her propelled his great work about visiting Hell and Purgatory and Heaven, to be met there by her: another fantasy made true in words.” […]    –Kirsty Gunn, The Guardian, June 27, 2018

Dante’s Nine Circles of Hell and the Internet Inferno

“I’ve seen several references to various social media apps and the Seven Deadly Sins, but as I consider the darkness that seems to breed in social media circles — from teen bullying on Snapchat and Instagram, to Twitter trolls threatening female reporters in India with rape and abuse, to child pornography on the Dark Web and the children who suffer miserably, literally living in hell for predators’ public pleasure — Dante’s Inferno comes to mind, and how this ancient story from 1300 might actually describe our reality right now, as we enter the Information Age of our human development.

“Perhaps this stage of humanity had to take a technological twist, one Dante couldn’t have imagined in his time, but one that was destined in our evolution none-the-less. For no other invention has ever truly united human minds together. The Internet is where we are able to peer into the human psyche and together decide, shall we go on to Heaven, or will we devolve into the sadistic beasts depicted in Dante’s work? Our online behavior effects the whole, we can’t create true connection as long as the beast continues to dominate the conversations. If we want a truly liberated Internet-of-Things, then we will need to face the demons inside of us, and overcome them with the help of some trusty advisers.

“Let’s go back in time then, and see if the great Dante Alighieri can shed some light on the baseness of the online world and how we can transform it into the ideal that sparked the birth of the Internet, as well as every social media application that now serves to bring us together.

“And what exactly is the noble spark that underlies the Internet?

“Inferno begins with Dante on a quest to be reunited with Beatrice, his true love. This then, is the ultimate goal of our human experience. Love. Not necessarily romantic love, but connection in the truest sense. Behind all of our impulses is the desire for connection with others such as family, lovers, community. We want to belong to a group. I think this is what we’re searching for when we go online, the promise of connection, of finding our tribe. Hence, we have created the Internet as a forum to do so. We want to find one another on a deeper level, one that knows no physical bounds.

“But, like Dante’s quest, the path to union is a dark one. He finds himself in a dark woods and wants desperately to leave it. This is the aspect of the online world that we must address if we’re ever to realize its potential, a dark world full of fear, hate, intimidation and misinformation. Dante sees a mountain in the distance and tries to climb it, but is stopped by three wild animals — a leopard (Apple, since they made the smartphone), a she-wolf (Google, since the she-wolf is one of Wisdom’s symbols and Google has put all knowledge at our fingertips) and a lion (Charles Babbage, since he’s the one who created the first computer and set the entire information age into action. Besides his Wikipedia picture sort of looks like a lion). They basically doom Dante to go back, i.e. enter the dark woods of the Internet. Their inventions have made it so. There’s no way around it.

“Fortunately, the Roman poet Virgil suddenly appears and gives Dante hope. He says they have no choice but to descend into Hell together, but that on the other side is Beatrice and the heaven they both long for. Thus my fellow humans, we have to go into the World Wide Web in order to face the evil within us before we can experience the true connection that we not only long for, but also binds us together with the whole of life.

“Virgil leads Dante to the gates of Hell, which bear the sign, “Abandon All Hope, You Who Enter Here.” Nice. Some of the wisest people I know say that about social media. Abandoning all hope, they go in and enter the outer regions of Hell — a place where the souls in life who couldn’t commit to anything, good or bad, spend their lives chasing a blank banner and being bit by insects. Sounds a lot like email to me. The first major application to drive early Internet development, email is an entry point into the online world, without actually going in and getting dirty. Each day we’re inundated with emails, mostly just trash, but we login all the same, hoping for a meaningful letter from a friend, or a new job opportunity, or perhaps an invitation to a party. Unfortunately these more important notes are often hidden in a jungle of emails from every vendor or website we’ve visited online. And don’t even bother trying to Unsubscribe, the cookies and bots won’t let you.

“Next, Virgil and Dante cross a river and soon find themselves in the First Circle of Hell — a place reserved for those learned men who died without knowing Christ. Now, Dante wrote a religious tale, but Christ is also known as the Word, or Logos, which is the term in Jungian psychology for reason and judgement. Thus this level of Hell is filled with those who love information and share it with others, but lack the underlying reason and judgement to do a great service. Sounds like some of the bloggers out there today, as well as others who push their opinions as news, thus clogging up social media with posts that look like journalism, but are really click bait, or written in order to deceive. We may glorify our most famous bloggers, raise them on pedestals, but without knowing Logos, without being disciples of reason and judgement, they’re nothing more than parroting what we already believe, making us even more divided in the long run. Blogger, Tumblr, even Medium are entry points into this level of Hell, enabling us to pontificate without reason or responsibility (alas, like I am right now).

‘The Second Circle of Hell is reserved for those who are Lustful, and they swirl about in a terrible storm. Here we have our Instagram and Snapchat accounts where we post our perfect meals, perfect bodies, and perfect pets while at the same time bullying and hurting those who are “out” in our culture. Teens notoriously use these two applications to vent their insecurities, leading to too many instances of the very young taking their own lives. It used to be that you could leave the bully at school and get a break from his/her abuse at home. No longer. If you’re the uncool one, the hate follows you into your back pocket. And what about those boys who snap pics of their sexual conquests and then share them with their friends? The virtual locker room is sexual harassment storm.

“In the Third Circle of Hell, we experience the Gluttonous, who must lie in mud and endure a rain of “filth and excrement.” Oh, this is horrible! Yet Facebook newsfeeds recently feel like a rain of filth and excrement. Elections now hinge on the Fake News published through the medium of Facebook and while many of us use it in order to find connection to those we can’t see every day, it turns out that this app is a huge reason for the divide between liberals and conservatives in many nations. From Trump’s election to Brexit, gluttonous politicians now use Facebook to gain access to the emotional states of the gluttonous voters by feeding their fears and desires with crap, over and over, as they swipe their smartphones for hours a day.

“In the Fourth Circle of Hell, we meet the Avaricious and Prodigal, those who spend, spend, spend. Their greed covers the land and they desire nothing more than the next lavish purchase. In this level of Hell, they’re made to charge at one another with great boulders, each one taking down the other. Amazon Prime ring a bell? Or Alibaba. Take your pick, both seek to bring you your every material whim, hopefully within two hours, if they can get the approval to fill our airspace with their little delivery drones. Now, that does sound like hell. Imagine all of our materialism made manifest with the constant drone traffic above our heads.

“For the next level of Internet darkness, I have to quote Sparknotes, for this summary can’t be beat: “The Fifth Circle of Hell contains the river Styx, a swampy, fetid cesspool in which the Wrathful spend eternity struggling with one another; the Sullen lie bound beneath the Styx’s waters, choking on the mud. Dante glimpses Filippo Argenti, a former political enemy of his, and watches in delight as other souls tear the man to pieces.” Imagine it? Of course we can. Ask any journalist, politician, or even minor celebrity what it’s like to have a Twitter handle. Jimmy Fallon’s “Mean Tweets” segment is only the tip of the iceberg. On Twitter, souls are ripped apart into pieces, devoured by trolls that come together for the singular purpose of threatening other users. Twitter is a perfect example of how something with a noble start (basically a broadcasting station for all voices in the world) has been co-opted by our lesser natures and turned into a “fetid cesspool in which the Wrathful spend eternity struggling with one another.”

“Yet, my friends, we’ve only just begun experiencing our evil archetypes. For now Dante comes to Dis, a city so horrible, the gates are closed to him and he has to get help from an angel to enter. Why then go in, if even the demons refuse us entrance? Because we can’t help ourselves, we always have to look. Besides it’s the only way to Heaven. So into the Sixth Circle of Hell we go to encounter the Heretics, the bot accounts on EVERY SOCIAL MEDIA PLATFORM that spew forth misinformation and conspiracy theories galore, appearing like a real human user, but are actually nothing more than chatbots, created by governments to influence elections and public opinion. These bot accounts sound very American, like “@MomLuvsTrump” or “@TruRedWhiteNBlue”, but they exist merely to push propaganda that is beautifully crafted to look like something any thinking, rational, internet user should follow.

“There’s nothing to do but keep going at this point, down to the darkest parts of the internet that mirror the very worst in humanity — the Seventh Circle of Hell, where we find those who were violent towards God, Nature and Art. To me, this is Reddit. Sure, the threads mean to be a place of power and change. I’ve often likened this online social arena to the pamphlet movements during the Revolutionary War. And I love to attend AMAs hosted by various favorite personalities. Unfortunately, Reddit is also the rallying place for the alt-right where they can spew their violence against God, Nature and Art. Reddit is often where trolls gather to plan their Twitter attacks on a certain media personality. Or to organize a hate rally, Milo Y. or Richard Spencer book signing, etc. Hate speech vs. the First Amendment begin to face off in this realm of the Internet Inferno.

“When Dante gets to the Eight Circle of Hell, he finds not just one type of evil, but pockets of evil. Nine of them at least, filled with panderers, seducers, charlatans, and barraters (those who accepted bribes). These evil ones are suffering in various ways, from regular whippings, to being held in pitch while demons tear them apart. I can’t help but think of 4chan when I read of this place. 4chan is a site where people can post images anonymously. Oh ho, nothing can go wrong in such a community, can it? 4chan has devolved so much in the past years that in 2014, its very founder, Christopher Poole, walked away. Why? “I’ve come to represent an uncomfortably large single point of failure,” he wrote in his farewell post. I guess when a murderer uses your site to post photos of his victims, your invention has gone from the Wild West to the Nine “Evil Pockets” of Hell fairly fast. Poole works for Google now, so perhaps he’s the she-wolf at the beginning of the story?

“The Ninth Circle of Hell is a frozen wasteland and filled with those who have betrayed their kin, their country, their religion, and their community. This then is where we see the worst in us, for betrayers are the ones who prevent true connection from taking place. Those who hurt and abuse others for their own gains and pleasures are the ones who stand in the way of the salvation of our species. Here then are the ones who use the Internet for the purpose of betraying others, from money laundering, to drug cartels, to prostitution. In my opinion, one of the darkest, most evil betrayals is the abuse of children. I don’t wish to spend time in this icy wasteland, and any of the above applications have been implicated in this behavior, but I have to name it — the use of the Internet by child pornographers and consumers lies here, in the heart of hell. One can’t be any more evil, even if he murders another. For to spread this filth is to stain the entire endeavor, and at some level those who prey upon children are enabled by the Internet and the ease of sharing images. It isn’t surprising that if this is festering in the virtual world, all of the other disturbing trends mentioned above exist as well.

“Unfortunately our technology is held hostage by the worst of us. Until we can turn the technology around and use it against those who commit such evil, we can’t get out of the woods. However, Dante and Virgil do make it out of Hell. Interestingly the poets cross through the barren wasteland and to the river of forgetfulness, emerging from Hell on Easter morning.

“I find it interesting that they must forget the darkness in order to leave Hell and make their way to Heaven, where true connection, love and solidarity await. What must we forget in order to fulfill the promise of the Internet and the idea of a globally connected world?

“Our hate? Our jealousy? Our anger? Our fear? Our ignorance? Our greed? Our lust? Our mistrust?

“I imagine so. In the meantime, our experiences online seem to be on one hand accelerating and enabling those who wish to sow the seeds of discontent and on the other hand bringing us together, enabling the collection and sharing of information and knowledge, and making us aware of those places and people in our community who are in need. If we can rid ourselves of our lower natures and focus on the fact that when we’re online, we’re actively creating a world together, perhaps someday we will hold Beatrice in our embrace, and finally find human connection at the deepest, most satisfying level.” […]    –Nicole Sallak Anderson, Medium, October 25, 2017

Louise Glück, “From a Journal” (2001)

The-Seven-Ages-Louise-Gluck“From a Journal”

I had a lover once,
I had a lover twice,
easily three times I loved.
And in between
my heart reconstructed itself perfectly
like a worm.
And my dreams also reconstructed themselves.

After a time, I realized I was living
a completely idiotic life.
Idiotic, wasted—
And sometime later, you and I
began to correspond, inventing
an entirely new form.

Deep intimacy over great distance!
Keats to Fanny Brawne, Dante to Beatrice—

[. . .]

“From a Journal” is from Louise Glück’s 2001 collection The Seven Ages. It was published by HarperCollins.

Contributed by Jessica Beasley (Florida State University, 2018)

Tasha Mack, Angel & Dante: A Dopeboy Love Story (2017)

Angel+Dante-Tasha-MackWhile the connection to Dante Alighieri isn’t explicit, the pairing of the two protagonists in the novel, Angel and Dante, has a “heaven and hell” resonance to it. Here is the synopsis of the novel, from Amazon.com: “The young, intelligent, & beautiful Angel Harris swore off men after a traumatic experience left her wanting to end her life. She found love in the arms of her new partner, Courtney. Things in the relationship were peaches & cream until Angel crossed paths with Dante Johnson.

“Dante Johnson, better known to the streets as Duke, was one of Atlanta’s most notorious kingpins. Duke was used to having women flock to him and be at his beck and call, until he met Angel. Angel was like a breath of fresh air to him with her charismatic personality and she helped him go escape the drugs, crimes, & promiscuous women in the Atlanta streets. Dante proved that he would do anything to make Angel his, even flaunt her around town with his fiancé Arianne at home.

“Arianne Thomas thinks that she has found her meal ticket out of the hood after she pops up pregnant with Dante’s baby. She is on cloud nine, until she finds out about Dante’s new love interest. Arianne will stop at nothing to protect what she feels is rightfully hers.” — Amazon.com

“Compagno di scuola” by Antonello Venditti (1975)

From the 1975 song “Compagno di scuola” by Antonello Venditti:

“E la Divina Commedia, sempre più commedia
al punto che ancora oggi io non so
Antonello-Venditti-Compagno-di-Scuola-Divina-Commediase Dante era un uomo libero, un fallito o un servo di partito, o un servo di partito.
Ma Paolo e Francesca, quelli io me li ricordo bene
perché, ditemi, chi non si è mai innamorato
di quella del primo banco,
la più carina, la più cretina,
cretino tu, che rideva sempre
proprio quando il tuo amore aveva le stesse parole,
gli stessi respiri del libro che leggevi di nascosto
sotto il banco.”

Listen to the song on YouTube.

Lyrics from AngoloTesti.

Contributed by Alessandra Mazzocchi (Florida State University ’19)

Thomas Centolella, “In the Evening We Shall Be Examined on Love”

Although the most direct reference is to the 16th century Spanish mystic Saint John of the Cross, Thomas Centolella’s poem also recalls the pilgrim’s examination on love by Saint John in Paradiso 26:

“In the Evening We Shall Be Examined on Love”Thomas-Centolella-In-the-Evening-We-Shall-Be-Examined-on-Love-Paradiso
St. John of the Cross

And it won’t be multiple choice,
though some of us would prefer it that way.
Neither will it be essay, which tempts us to run on
when we should be sticking to the point, if not together.
In the evening there shall be implications
our fear will change to complications. No cheating,
we’ll be told, and we’ll try to figure the cost of being true
to ourselves. In the evening when the sky has turned
that certain blue, blue of exam books, blue of no more
daily evasions, we shall climb the hill as the light empties
and park our tired bodies on a bench above the city
and try to fill in the blanks. And we won’t be tested
like defendants on trial, cross-examined
till one of us breaks down, guilty as charged. No,
in the evening, after the day has refused to testify,
we shall be examined on love like students
who don’t even recall signing up for the course
and now must take their orals, forced to speak for once
from the heart and not off the top of their heads.
And when the evening is over and it’s late,
the student body asleep, even the great teachers
retired for the night, we shall stay up
and run back over the questions, each in our own way:
what’s true, what’s false, what unknown quantity
will balance the equation, what it would mean years from now
to look back and know
we did not fail.

From Thomas Centolella’s Lights and Mysteries (1995). See the text of the poem and other poems by Centolella at poetryfoundation.org.

Guy Raffa on Dante and Same-Sex Love

In a response to Rod Dreher’s 2015 book How Dante Can Save Your Life, Guy Raffa (creator of the Danteworlds website) discusses the question of same-sex love in the Comedy:

Raffa-on-Dreher-Dante-Same-Sex-Love-Pop-Matters“In his otherwise fine explication and application of the Divine Comedy, Dreher badly misunderstood—or just plain missed—Dante’s view of same-sex love. […]

“The point can’t be made often or forcefully enough: getting Dante straight means getting him gay, as well. When it comes to the sex or gender of the people we love best, Dante doesn’t give a fig. This is something that Dreher and other serious readers of Dante ought to know.” — Guy Raffa, What Rod Dreher Ought to Know about Dante and Same-Sex Love,” Pop Matters

Jack Gilbert, “Dante Dancing”

Excerpt from Jack Gilbert‘s poem, “Dante Dancing”:

I

When he dances of meeting Beatrice that first time,
he is a youth, his body has no real language,
and his heart understands nothing of what has
started. Love like a summer rain after drought,
like the thin cry of a read-tailed hawk, like an angel
sinking its teeth into our throat. He has only
beginner steps to tell of the sheen inside him.
The boy Dante sees her first with the absolute love
possible only when we are ignorant of each other.
Arm across his face, he runs off. Years go by.

Read the entire poem here.

See also Sarah Manguso’s profile of Jack Gilbert on the Poetry Foundation site.

Contributed by Irene Hsu, Stanford University ’17

What It Means to be Human and “A Working Theory of Love”

working-theory-of-love-scott-hutchins“You could argue that the fundamental question behind all literature is: ‘What does it mean to be human?’ Some people have even argued that storytelling itself is what makes us more than just monkeys with iPhones — that Homer created the modern consciousness, or that Shakespeare (as Harold Bloom has it) invented the human identity. In recent years, however, literature has lost a lot of ground on that score to evolutionary psychology, neurobiology and computer science, and particularly to the efforts of artificial intelligence researchers. So as we wait for the Singularity, when our iPhones will become sentient and Siri will start telling us what we can do for her, many of the savvier fiction writers have begun to come to grips with the fact that the tutelary spirit of the quest for the human may not be Dante or Emily Dickinson or Virginia Woolf, but Alan Turing, the British mathematician who helped start the revolution in computing.
Turing may be best known for his version of the Victorian-era Imitation Game, in which a judge receives written responses to his questions from a man and a woman behind a screen and tries to guess from the answers which is the man and which the woman. In Turing’s version, the messages are from a human and a computer; it was his contention that when a judge couldn’t tell the difference any longer, then a machine could be said to think like a human being. The Turing test has since become, at least in the popular imagination, the holy grail of artificial intelligence developers, as well as a conceit in contemporary fiction, and that conceit is at the heart of Scott Hutchins’s clever, funny and very entertaining first novel, ‘A Working Theory of Love.'” [. . .]    –James Hynes, The New York Times, November 21, 2012

A.N. Wilson, “Dante in Love” (2011)

an-wilson-dante-in-love-2011“Dante is considered the greatest of all European poets–yet his most famous work, The Divine Comedy, remains widely unread.
Fueled by a lifetime’s obsession with Dante Alighieri and his work, the distinguished historian A. N. Wilson tells the remarkable story of the poet’s life and passions during the extraordinary political turbulence of thirteenth-century Europe. An impoverished aristocrat born in Florence, then the wealthiest city in Europe, Dante was the most observant and articulate of writers and was as profoundly absorbed in his ambition to be a great poet as he was with the central political and social issues of his time. The emergence of independent nation-states, the establishment of a modern banking system and currency, and the rise of Arabic teachings and Greek philosophy were all momentous events that Dante lived through. Amid this shifting political terrain, Wilson sets Dante in context with his great contemporaries–Giotto, Aquinas, and Pope Boniface VIII–and explains the significance of Beatrice and the part she has played in all our Western attitudes toward love and sex.”    —Powells