“Dante’s Lovers”

"Francesca da Rimini and Paolo Malatesta appraised by Dante and Virgil" Ary Scheffer, 1835

“Francesca da Rimini and Paolo Malatesta appraised by Dante and Virgil” Ary Scheffer, 1835

“Dante’s Lovers”

There is a circle of hell, not very far down but definitely under the white line of redemption, where Dante places a certain species of doomed lover. There the enchanted couples pursue each other and, it seems, are trapped in the very everlastingness of flight and pursuit. It’s an eternal tease, and a place in hell.

She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss,

For ever wilt thou love, and she be fair!

Thus Keats summarizes the lovers depicted in his “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” They escape aging, they escape fulfillment, they escape each other, and they are never free of longing.

Recently I watched “Now Voyager” on TV. It was one of the Hollywood films from the era that paid tribute to Woman, especially her Gift for Sacrificial Love. It’s not a big theme today — in fact young women are counseled to give it a wide berth — but it modeled feminine virtue for women up to about the mid-twentieth century.

In the movie, Bette Davis’s sacrifice actually does some good in the circumstances of her life. The heroine can’t marry her true love, who is unhappily married, but she can live for his child, substituting herself for the girl’s unfit mother and letting his daughter represent the child who would’ve been theirs, if … .

“Happy?” echoes Bette Davis famously.

“Don’t ask for the moon.

We have the stars.”

Close-up of the stars and fade-out.

In “Lydia,” another film from the same era, Merle Oberon plays a young woman who enjoys a brief amorous idyll with a dashing and well-bred “sailor.” Suddenly, one storm-tossed night, he sails away in his yacht. The note he leaves explains that he has gone to deal with a previous entanglement. Apologetically, he urges her to wait for him. Through the years, at intervals, he sends messages that raise her hopes to fever pitch, dash them to the ground, and still beg her to expect him. So transfixed is she by this lifelong tease that she refuses two real-life suitors.

There is a finale when she is old. The rejected men in her life arrange for the seducer of her heart to ring her front doorbell and step into her drawing room. Neither she, the jilted woman, nor he, her seducer, can recognize, in the face and figure of the other, the lover of their dreams. But he, the classic cad, does not even recall the incident that began her enslavement to the image of him. Whilst she at least realizes that, her whole life long, she has attached herself to a fantasm!

What is this power – of attraction without an object? Why does it seem almost more powerful than a nourishing reality? As if people are not seduced by a seducer – but by seduction itself, which cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss … ?

Addictions may have a similar power. They offer the attraction of something that cannot satisfy – the attraction of unquenchable longing itself! It works on the psyche with the force of a command. But what is it? Why should anything that cannot satisfy be stronger than things that can?

I don’t know. Probably, it’s a theological question. But here is where the influence of intelligence is key, I think, to emerging from this trap.

Dante supposes that the doomed lover has fixated on the creature and neglected to love the Creator from whom all derives. Unfortunately, “getting religion” doesn’t necessarily solve this problem – of seduction or addiction. Religion too can involve self-deception, infatuation or projection – as when one loves the image of one’s own piety in the mirror of one’s imagination. Religion too can be seductive. One can fall in love with oneself playing at being religious, and never get to reality by that road either.

It’s damn tricky to get the hang of being a human being. Man or woman, girl or boy, the whole script is full of pitfalls. It’s not a safe enterprise. However, I do have a modest recommendation to offer, amid the pitfalls of life.

One should hold on to intelligent hope.

It’s better than mindless devotion — also better than intelligent cynicism.

Mindless devotion may include subliminal despair. It says: “I can’t open my eyes. It’s really hopeless. I can never find someone or something to love that won’t let me down. If I want to keep on loving, I must do it eyes closed. Stupidly.”

Intelligent cynicism says: “Since everything perishes, including my private dreams, I should proceed without expectation. That way I will dodge tragic disappointment, even if life turns out rather flat and monotone.”

Intelligent hope resolves not to pin itself on a fantasm, since that way lies the end of hope. The intelligence permits one to unmask whatever is delusive in one’s encounters. The hope allows one to move along, without giving up on the future, even where the way ahead seems dark and fog-bound.

My recommendation might not sound so poetic as the “marble men and maidens” on Keats’s Grecian Urn. But believe me, ladies:

Don’t put your money on the eternal tease.

It’s going belly up.

About Abigail

Abigail Rosenthal is Professor Emerita of Philosophy, Brooklyn College of CUNY. She is the author of A Good Look at Evil, a Pulitzer Prize nominee, now available in an expanded, revised second edition and as an audiobook. Its thesis is that good people try to live out their stories while evil people aim to mess up good people’s stories. Her next book, Confessions of a Young Philosopher, forthcoming and illustrated, provides multiple illustrations from her own life. She writes a weekly column for her blog, “Dear Abbie: The Non-Advice Column” (www.dearabbie-nonadvice.com) where she explains why women's lives are highly interesting. She’s the editor of the posthumously published Consolations of Philosophy: Hobbes’s Secret; Spinoza’s Way by her father, Henry M. Rosenthal. Some of her articles can be accessed at https://brooklyn-cuny.academia.edu/AbigailMartin . She is married to Jerry L. Martin, also a philosopher. They live in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
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