"In the middle of the journey of our life, I came to myself, in a dark wood, where the direct way was lost. It is a hard thing to speak of, how wild, harsh and impenetrable that wood was, and thinking of it recreates the fear. It is scarcely less bitter than death: but, in order to tell of the good that I found there, I must tell of the other things I saw there.
I cannot rightly say how I entered it. I was so full of sleep, at that point where I abandoned the true way. But when I reached the foot of a hill, where the valley, that had pierced my heart with fear, came to an end, I looked up and saw its shoulders brightened with the rays of that sun that leads men rightly on every road. Then the fear, that had settled in the lake of my heart, through the night that I had spent so miserably, became a little calmer. And as a man, who, with panting breath, has escaped from the deep sea to the shore, turns back towards the perilous waters and stares, so my mind, still fugitive, turned back to see that pass again, that no living person ever left."
These are the opening lines to The Divine Comedy, the Dante poem that I'll spend the next 6 years writing about. I started my PhD at UCLA this week, and a flood of powerful sentiments have visited me in surprising ways as I take this on. Since Dante will be the end focus of this endeavor, he is filling my mind as I think about my journey beginning.
Dante opens the poem with a picture of himself lost in a dark wood. It's wild, harsh, and impenetrable. He doesn't know how he got there, and he spends a scary night trying to get out of it - an experience that terrifies him. He does emerge on the other side just as the sun is coming up, and he turns around to look back at the darkness through which he has wandered all night. He then begins the climb that becomes his journey through hell, purgatory, and heaven, and thus the poem begins.
I don't arrive at the starting gate for my PhD with a sense of feeling lost, but I do share the feeling that I have just put my feet on the proper path again. I have a strong calling about my academic work, and resuming that calling after several years away is like a farmer returning to the spot in the field where he abandoned the plow when rain set it. My time at UCLA is a distinct new chapter, but there is a feeling of continuity with the work that I have already begun.
At the beginning of the Commedia, Dante has glimpsed the terrors of darkness through his scary night in the woods and the feeling that he has lost the true way. As veteran readers of the poem, we know that far greater horrors away Dante in the pages to follow, and then the glory of the Beatific Vision ultimately awaits at the end. Having tasted a bit of graduate study during my masters program, I have a sense of the darkness that is in front of me. It's a strange thing to feel at the outset of this degree - that there is darkness ahead - but when we delve into the intellectual life we are bound to encounter things that are painful and dark and deeply unsettling. During my orientation, I held the picture of Dante lost in the wood in my head, and then heard HIC SUNT DRACONES in my head - meaning HERE ARE DRAGONS. In the middle ages sometimes cartographers would write "Here are dragons" or "here are lions" in the unknown territories. They were the scary, wild corners of the world that were thought to be filled with monsters. Venturing into the life of the mind again reminds me of the intellectual battles I encountered as a masters student, and it's daunting to armor up to engage in them again.
My studies will make me confront some of the most formidable intellectual warriors in human history. People who were able to articulate the horrors of the human experience. Who were able to rage against God and rage against Truth, to combat institutional ways of life and put injustices on the operating table.
There's a great scene in Inferno where Virgil and Dante arrive at the gates of the city of Dis, which is a big fortress within hell itself. The gate is locked, and Virgil and Dante have to wait there for an angel to come unlock it for them. When the angel does appear, he is disgusted by the damned souls and demons all around him and the darkness and flame and dirtiness of hell. He is bored and disdainful as he saunters over to the scary gate and lazily and begrudgingly unlocks it before basically rolling his eyes and heading back up to heaven. While this is happening, all the awful creatures of hell are hissing and screeching and wailing in torment all around him, and he just could not care less.
This illustrates for me how God is not in the least bit damaged by all the intellectual warring against him. I think he is more compassionate than the angel in that scene, but ultimately these thoughts are not threats to him in the least bit. He IS truth. But Dante and Virgil are small and terrified while this is going on, and they still have to enter the gate and tour the miserable city, descending all the way down to encounter satan himself. I feel weak and small and vulnerable as I walk past all these hissing authors. Dante needs to walk through hell to see the truth of the universe laid out before him, and he learns a great deal in Inferno. I too have to walk that path now, as frightened and intimidated as I am, to gain the knowledge that will move me along my path.