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‘Look, I Overcame!’: contesting normative narratives with Dante’s Comedy

2021 sees the 700th anniversary of the death of poet Dante Alighieri. To mark this, we asked authors of some of our new publishing on Dante to write for the OUPblog.

Do comedies owe us a happy ending? When Dante called his masterpiece a “comedy” the explanation of his title was fairly straightforward. Comedies promise to guide us from difficult beginnings to happy endings:

And from this it is clear that the present work is to be described as a comedy. For if we consider the subject-matter, at the beginning it is horrible and foul, as being Hell; but at the close it is happy, desirable, and pleasing, as being Paradise.

(Epistle 13)

From Hell to Heaven—Dante’s poem is broadly structured on this comedic arc where the various challenges and epiphanies along the way trace an upward trajectory that culminates in the vision of transcendence. In Heaven, the protagonist defines his identity by his upward mobility:

I, who had come to the divine from humanity,

to eternity from time,

and from Florence to a people just and sane…

(Paradiso 31, italics mine)

This basic narrative arc is the masterplot of the Comedy. A number of important metaphorical discourses inform and sustain its trajectory throughout the poem. Images of pilgrimage and seafaring voyages, discourses of penitential progress, narratives of conversion, the myth of the righteous exile, each in their own way, suggest a tale of overcoming. In the seven centuries since Dante’s death in 1321, the narrative of overcoming has proven to be one of the greatest draws of Dante’s text, engaging and inspiring generations of readers and compelling many to imitate and elaborate Dante’s story in their own way. Famously, Dante’s daring journey of emancipation and self-knowledge was reworked in Primo Levi’s account of his internment at Auschwitz; it also inspired reflections on emancipation in the creative writings of African American writers such as Toni Morrison and Kamau Brathwaite. In the seventh-hundredth anniversary of its author’s death, the Comedy continues to spark films, videogames, graphic novels, music, art.

Dante was very aware of the power of his masterplot. For the writer of the Commedia, configuring his fiction as a path from past error to newfound knowledge and spiritual freedom has the remarkable practical advantage of fashioning its author as an authority. The uplifting masterplot of the Comedy is carefully designed for the purpose of investing its author with a mandate to speak truth to power. The poem makes Dante’s overcoming visible for all in order to purchase him such authority. The journey, he claims, made him “free, righteous, and sane” (Purgatorio 30).

But there’s the rub. Feminist philosopher Robin James in Resilience & Melancholy: Pop Music, Feminism, Neoliberalism critiques resilience narratives of this kind, which she calls “Look, I Overcame!”. They can empower but they can also burden, the moment they become normative. When overcoming is turned into a moral imperative, “Look, I Overcame!” stories can also be used to shame those who were not able or fortunate enough to overcome. Hegemonic power can use the stories of those who have overcome adversity to reject responsibility for, and even justify, the systemic social and political injustices of the status quo. The blame is shifted on the vulnerable with the implicit reproach: “Why are you not overcoming?”.

Dante’s Comedy can be read as a carefully “curated story” in the genre of “Look, I Overcame!”. Yet for all its investment in crafting authority out of its comedic trajectory, Dante also shows remarkable sensitivity to the fact that overcoming cannot be expected to be the norm. Normative readings of the Comedy tend to stress the narrative of development and authority making it the measure of interpretation; however, a whole host of alternative storylines in the poem counters that emphasis with a kinder appreciation of failure, interruption, incompleteness, errantry, and vulnerability. These are as many reminders of the important fact that even Dante’s comedy could have ended tragically. These alternative stories in the poem show how the exceptionalist “Look, I Overcame!” narrative is only really possible in retrospect, as the curated story of those who happened to have survived. The poem’s appreciation to alternative outcomes is a reminder that no a-priori merit distinguishes those who will be able to overcome from those who will not be so lucky. The overcoming that in retrospect appears as predestination was once open and uncertain for them too.

Indeed, Dante had occasion to reflect on the mechanism of victim-blaming that inevitably affects those who fail to overcome. The final twenty years of his life were spent in exile from Florence and condemned him to meander across Italy’s courts in hope of patronage, putting his poetic enterprise at risk. In the Comedy, Dante reflects that “Blame will loudly follows those who have been wronged, as usual” (Paradiso 17). It is a fact that despite its comedic promises, the poem did not afford its author a happy ending. Dante Alighieri never returned to Florence as he had prophesied in his fiction but died an exile.

There is a tyranny to narratives of overcoming and the expectation of happy endings. They can saddle the living with the burden to have already overcome while obscuring inequalities in opportunity. The opportunity can only ever belong to those who have the privilege (and live) to tell the tale: it is not a chance that the “Look, I Overcame!” narrative is a favoured myth of meritocracy. At a time where “curated storytelling” is “being reconfigured on the model of the market to produce entrepreneurial, upwardly mobile subjects and is leveraged toward strategic and measurable goals driven”, Dante’s Comedy has a lot to teach not only about escaping Hell, but also about the insult that is added to the injury of the vulnerable when they are expected to prove their worth before they can be heard.

Feature image: “Between the lines” by Elke Foltz 

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