I am taking an Italian language class at UCLA right now, and afterward there's a wonderful Dante lecture that I attend as well. There's a special joy about digging into the Divine Comedy again, and I feel more determined than ever to move forward in my academic career. Today between classes I went to the research library at UCLA. It's not a gorgeous setting that inspires the mind, but as soon as I found my old familiar section of Dante criticism in the stacks my eyes welled with tears and my chest felt warm.
I listened to a podcast on my drive to school today that included some thoughts about Charles Williams' famous book, The Figure of Beatrice. I read the introduction today and I am suddenly alive with ideas. Williams looks at Beatrice as the ultimate literary image because of what she says about images as a whole. In the spiritual life, there are two main paths: the negative and the affirmative. The via negativa looks at all things that have been compared to God and all things that have been said about him, and says, no, this is not Him, to each one of them. Nothing is God except God, and indeed nothing is like God except himself. The via affirmativa says the opposite. It looks at all images and symbols and says they are shadows of God, they are sign-posts that point the way, as CS Lewis would say.
Williams writes that there are no humans who can live entirely in one of these camps. One cannot entirely renounce all symbolism and imagery, but nor can the one on the via affirmativa feel that he has been able to perfectly understand or describe God through images and symbols. Both paths fall short, and both are necessary.
Dante is, of course, decidedly in the affirmative camp. For him, all that he has read and learned and felt and experienced is a step on his own journey toward God, and - importantly - Beatrice herself is the ultimate image. Because she has the power to transport Dante so far in his spiritual journey, her immense power as an image gives meaning and importance to all the other images used along the way.
These thoughts are part of an important step toward me figuring out my one essential question, the one specific area that I will work on for the next several years. I wish I could start tomorrow.