Dante and the genius of hypertextuality

Dante’s Commedia remains, in my opinion, the archetype and the most accomplished exemplar of hypertextuality in European literature (no offense to Beckett fans).

It has been claimed that Virgil stands more indebted to Homer than Dante to Virgil. I don’t think that’s a fair assessment. Whilst there can be no doubt that in terms of form and content the Aeneid follows the Odyssey far more closely, the stylistic and narrative tentacles with which Dante reaches out to the author of the Aeneid are more complex and variegated. The chief evidence for this claim is the role given to Virgil in the Commedia. Homer doesn’t walk alongside Aeneas above or under the earth, nor does the Greek bard’s voice mediate between characters on stage the way Virgil does in the Inferno. In the Aeneid, Homer is a silent voice, the illustrious great-grandfather whose example is followed at a distance, with reverence and obsequiousness. In the Commedia, however, Virgil is a close, tangible friend (remarkably illustrated by Bouguereau – see image below), a liminal presence, straddling faith and disbelief, a bridge across two ontological and ethical worlds. In the Aeneid, Homer is never let go, the Greek mirror always held up to the Roman face. In the Commedia, Dante respects his friend enough to move past his guidance, staying true to himself, to Virgil and to the worldview which imposes limits on their respective movements and agencies.

It is worth remembering the assessment of the famous German literary scholar Ernst Robert Curtius, who underlined the importance in European literature of the Dante-Virgil hypertextual rendez-vous:

“The conception of Dante’s Commedia is based upon a spiritual meeting with Virgil. In the realm of European literature, there is little which may be compared with this phenomenon. The ‘awakening’ of Aristotle in the thirteenth century was the work of generations and took place in the cool light of intellectual research. The awakening of Virgil by Dante is an arc of flame which leaps from one great soul to another. The tradition of the European spirit knows no situation of such affecting loftiness, tenderness, fruitfulness. It is the meeting of the two greatest Latins.”

(European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages, New York 1963, p. 358)

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