La Vita Nuova
by Dante Alighieri
translated by David R. Slavitt
Harvard, 160 pp., $18.95
The great books of the Western canon rest on the presupposition that all the books contained therein are ipso facto “great.” But what happens if you encounter a book from one of the authors that seems—well, not so great? The initial response is disappointment, like paying a half-month’s salary for a dining experience that a food critic likened to the sensations of a supernova, except that your meal ends not with a bang but a whimper. The subsequent response is guilt: Why don’t you sense the greatness that must be there; is your palette not trained enough to detect the subtleties?
Reading La Vita Nuova, Dante’s first book, induced this disappointment and guilt because, as loath as I am to say, some of the lyrics don’t seem a whole lot more elevated than Katy Perry’s hormonal hit “Teenage Dream.” If I’m a philistine whose blunted imagination cannot apprehend the beauty, compare the lyrics for yourself.
First, Katy Perry:
My heart stops
When you look at me
Just one touch
Now baby I believe
This is real
So take a chance
And don’t ever look back.
My face grows pale. I feel my body shaking.
In the presence of such sweetness, I am unmanned.
I am reduced to total helplessness
and if I could, I’d ask my lady for
help, salvation from this strange duress,
painful, and yet, I must admit, even more
pleasurable than anything I know—
although I cannot speak or tell her so.
Yes, more than seven centuries separate these lyrics written by twentysomethings, but they both emphasize the physiological and ethical malfunctioning that often accompanies love—or more accurately, lust. Perry invites her lover to put his hands on her skintight jeans; and to get Freudian, Dante pleads for his lover to ease the conflict between the pleasure principle and the reality principle. Where one indulges the fantasy, owing to the sexual liberation of postmodern America (Perry), the other defers the fantasy, owing to the sexual restraint of medieval Catholicism (Dante). Content aside, the lyrical expression is not that different: breathless, terse, above all youthful.
I’m not alone in my disappointment with Dante’s inaugural poetry. The Italian scholar Robert Harrison writes:
The most striking aspect of the Vita nuova, for those who do not merely take its canonical stature for granted, or whose perception of the work is not mystified by the fact of its authorship, is the utter seriousness with which the author sets out to dignify and solemnify the rather innocent (and often mediocre) lyric poems that he composed in his youth. The Vita nuova gives the impression that Dante was unwilling to allow the poems to stand on their own but strove, through his prose commentary, to give them the sort of weight they lacked in their own right.
Judging these poems “innocent (and often mediocre)” is ageism, plain and simple. But a prejudice against the young can be fair when there’s evidence of inexperience. According to Harrison, Dante provides his own evidence by self-consciously and retrogressively defining “the nature and ambition of his literary vocation.” La Vita Nuova is a book within a book: His “little book” compiles, copies, and comments upon what is written in “the book of my memory.” The commentator seems insecure with the author, who’s trying to find not only his voice but his leitmotif as well. Under the rubric Incipit vita nova (a new life begins), Dante anxiously enters a career with words after finding his muse in a Florentine woman named Beatrice, who blurs the line between fact and allegory.