The professors in my course on Dante's Divine Comedy made an interesting point: Dante the character on this journey is looking for guides, much like Dante, the writer, is looking for literary guides.
The writer looks for models and sources and direction. For example, Virgil's Aeneid gives Dante idea for stories (Dido and Aeneas) and geography (the entire underworld comes from him). He also looks to Augustine for influence, and two now lessor known writers, the Roman poet Statius and an early Christian historian named Orosius.
This got me thinking. What do we look for when we seek out guides?
Some people may look to pure heroes as life guides. They will seek out people like Martin Luther King or Mahatma Ghandi or Helen Keller or Cesar Chavez. These people have done incredible work, and some of them have left amounts of large bodies of work that people can mine to find information.
But do these heroes help you like a guides? One problem with being a hero is the humanity can be stripped from them, and their positive characteristics are expanded. They look less than people and more like...icons. Can you learn life lessons from a statue?
Other people find people who have been through great struggles to help show them the way. Perhaps that is why Christians still follow st. Augustine. Steven Jobs was a person who lost many things and made a remarkable comeback. As did James Dyson and Willie Nelson, who both struggled and persevered. Some people want that — to learn from those who at one point lost but learned from it and came back.
We are all on life's journey, and each of us look for inspiration to help make sense of it. Picking a set of guides probably tells a lot more about this than we care to admit.
Dante, the writer, looked to his guides after he was exiled from the city and culture he loved. He began writing the Divine Comedy when he realized he wasn’t going to return to Florence, the professors argue. Perhaps he began writing as a meditation on longing and exile and used the time to prepare the project to be able to find guides well versed in those issues.
“Poet,” I said, “I ask you to effect,
In the name of that God you will never see,
An exit for me from this place of grief,
And then an entry to where I would be—
Beyond the purging flames of which you tell—
In sight of Peter’s Gate, though that relief
Demands for prelude that I go through Hell.”
And then he move, and then I moved as well.
-Dante’s Inferno, translated by Clive James