Wednesday, November 21, 2007

The web of being


Ah, yes, the divine Dante. Even in his lifetime he was recognized as the prince of poets. His great work, the Divine Comedy, seemed to his contemporaries almost miraculous, a judgment that endures to this day. Here was a poet of consummate talent who embraced in his verses the grand sweep of the physical and spiritual universes and all of human history.

Dante's world was one of incessant violence. Throughout his lifetime his native city of Florence was racked by strife between Guelphs, supporters of the Papacy, and Ghibellines, allies of the Holy Roman Emperor. The Guelphs were themselves acrimoniously divided into White Guelphs and Black Guelphs. Add into the mix assorted war lords and ambitious princes and it was pretty much unending conflict. If you weren't struck down on the battlefield, there was always burning at the stake or decapitation for real or imagined offenses. Nevertheless, Dante lived to the fairly ripe old age of fifty-six, although most of that time in exile.

He died of natural causes, not long after finishing the Paradiso. Struck low (apparently) by a mosquito.

Yes, a mosquito. Not a lion, the king of the beasts, or an eagle, the prince of birds. And, no, not even a mosquito, but an invisible parasite of mosquitoes and humans called Plasmodium falciparum.

In 1321, returning to Ravenna from Venice, Dante crossed malarial marshes, where he seems to have contracted the disease then blamed on bad air (mala-aria), the bite that binds. A creature from far, far down on the Great Chain of Being reached up into the highest rung of mortal existence and dragged the greatest poet of his time down into the dust.

There is no more Great Chain of Being in Italy. No more malarial marshes either.