The Case of the Florentine Poet: Was Dante the father of Science Fiction?

It was only in researching this piece that I was struck by the uncanny physical resemblance between Dante Alighieri, the Florentine poet, and Mr Sherlock Holmes, of 221b Baker St, the World’s first Consulting Detective:

‘His eyes were sharp and piercing, … and his thin, hawk-like nose gave his whole expression an air of alertness and decision.  His chin, too, had the prominence and squareness which mark the man of determination.’

SH Paget DA Sherlock

That is a description of Holmes, but it would serve equally well for Dante, who even seems to have anticipated the famous deerstalker in the picture above. The similarities are more than physical – of Holmes, Watson observes

‘His ignorance was as remarkable as his knowledge.  Of contemporary literature, philosophy and politics he appeared to know next to nothing …  My surprise reached a climax, however, when I found incidentally that he was ignorant of the Copernican Theory and of the composition of the Solar System.  That any civilized human being in this nineteenth century should not be aware that the earth travelled round the sun appeared to be to me such an extraordinary fact that I could hardly realize it.’

Now, Dante was a learned man and knew a great deal about the literature, philosophy and politics of his time, but like Holmes, he was ignorant of the Copernican Theory, though with rather better excuse, since he died a good century and a half before Copernicus was born.

We know only of Holmes’s ignorance, nothing of what he believed concerning the Solar System, but it is a reasonable inference from what we know of him that it would be a matter of no real interest: times of sunrise and sunset might be of practical value in solving a crime, but not the fact that they are illusions created by the earth’s rotating about its axis at approximately a thousand miles an hour while pursuing an annual orbit about the sun with a radius of some 93 million miles. The intricacies of planetary motion are of no  concern to a man whose mind is wholly taken up with the international conspiracy of crime and the machinations of James Moriarty and his sidekick Colonel Sebastian Moran, the second most dangerous man in Europe, obliquely referenced in Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats: ‘he once played a tiger – could do it again – which an Indian Colonel pursued down a drain.’

Dante, however, would take no such refuge in indifference: his idea of the Cosmos is very clear and thoroughly detailed, derived ultimately from the ideas of Aristotle, refracted through the formidable mind of Thomas Aquinas, one of the foremost thinkers of his age. This mediaeval world-view is admirably described in CS Lewis’s book The Discarded Image. In brief, it pictures the Earth as the centre of a succession of concentric spheres – nine beyond the Earth, progressing through the nearest (that of the Moon) to the outermost Crystalline Sphere or Primum Mobile, beyond which lies the Empyrean and Paradise. (The intermediate spheres are, in ascending order, those of Mercury, Venus, the Sun, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn and the Fixed Stars):

dante cosmosIn The Secret of the Alchemist, my first book,  the hero and heroine are two teenagers, Jake and Helen, who meet in Florence at a Dante Festival. Helen has a great love of Dante, whom Jake thinks an odd choice of hero. Helen asks

– I suppose you prefer computer games and adventure films?

– A bit.

– How about this one? The hero has to penetrate an ancient underground city, where all sorts of people are held prisoner and tortured in terrible ways; his only help is from one of the locals, who offers to guide him – they work their way deeper and deeper underground, encountering all sorts of dangers along the way and outwitting these terrible creatures that try to stop them, till finally they come to the frozen centre of the city, and there is a huge great monster trapped up to the waist in ice, and the only way they can escape is to climb down his body and squeeze through the hole in the ice to the other side –

– I think I’ve played that one, or seen it – is it a film?

Helen smiled. In a rich American accent she intoned

Divine Comedy I : The Inferno. ‘In Hell, everyone can hear you scream! Join all–action hero Dante Alighieri and his trusty sidekick Virgil as they carve their way through the Infernal Regions.’

(The Secret of the Alchemist was published in 2003: in researching this piece, I was tickled to discover that some years later – 2009, I think – someone actually did bring out a computer game based on The Inferno. By the way, if you’re looking to create a follow-up game, you could do worse than to consider basing it on my third book, City of Desolation, in which my young protagonists Jake and Helen follow in Dante’s footsteps, but through an Inferno that has developed somewhat in the intervening seven centuries.

Dante and Virgil make a journey to the centre of the earth six hundred years before Jules Verne thought of such a thing, and when they come out the other side, they ascend Mount Purgatory from whose summit they travel through the heavens, passing the moon and inner planets, till they reach and pass beyond the farthest reaches of space – but this is 1300, not 2001. So is Dante the unacknowledged father of Science Fiction?

Superficially, the claim has merit, but there is a crucial difference: it is clear that Dante does not believe that the journey he is describing is one that can be undertaken by a living man. In his own case, he is almost barred at the very start when Charon refuses to ferry him across the Acheron:

e tu che se’ costí, anima viva,

pàrtiti da cotesti che son morti

(‘And thou, who there

Standest, live spirit! get thee hence, and leave

These who are dead.’)

and at various points it is only his friendship with those in (very) high places which secures his exceptional passage. The same point is expressly made when we meet Ulysses, who tells of his own last adventure, to sail with his old companions to ‘the unpeopled lands beyond the sun’ – and he almost makes it: they come within sight of Mt Purgatory, only to be overwhelmed by a sudden squall that whirls their ship around three times then sends her to the bottom – ‘as pleased Another’ . In other words, the Divine Will prevents their proceeding, as mortal men, beyond the bounds of Earth.

It should be clear from this that Dante is not envisaging a model of the Solar System that is like Copernicus’s but with things in the wrong place: the Divine Comedy is a synthesis of the philosophy, science and theology of the time and it makes use of physical description and location to make the story ‘real’, but it is not Science Fiction – the universe that Dante is attempting to represent is a moral one, not a physical one. it is important to see that Dante’s is not a ‘primitive’ scientific view, i.e. one that does its best on inadequate understanding; it is not a scientific view at all.

Mt Purgatory is located at the Antipodes of Jerusalem in the midst of a vast ocean not because Dante thought you would find it there if you sailed to the other side of the globe (as Columbus later thought he would reach Cathay by sailing West) but precisely because he thought you could not get there at all. In the same way, the Heaven of the Moon is not something that Dante would have put there if he had thought space flight was possible: men in Dante’s time were earthbound, and to say that something was on the moon was to say that it was wholly beyond access. Likewise, he does not posit the physical existence of a system of concentric spheres, each with its guiding intelligence (it was Dante’s wit, by the way, that decided that the Earth (which did not have a guiding intelligence in the existing model) should be governed by Fortune or Chance, that being the only way to explain the sudden reversals of power and fortune that are such a feature of human life (as he knew from personal experience))

Much as in an earlier post I suggested that the blank spaces on our childhood world-map leave room for fantasy, the state of knowledge in Dante’s day was such that there was still room to accommodate God and the heavens in terms of the physical world: that was a way of thinking of them that was open to Dante but is not open to us. Dante could use the subjective phenomena of everyday life as part of an imaginative picture of a divine cosmos without experiencing intellectual difficulty – unsurprisingly, as the principal study of his day -‘the queen of sciences’ – as Thomas Aquinas calls it – was not physics but theology. What serious-minded able people thought seriously about in mediaeval times was God: Aquinas is said to have asked, as a child, ‘what is God?’ and that was the question he pursued for the rest of his days.

We could not do what Dante did today: our maps are too complete, and there is no space in them for God to be accommodated comfortably. But at the same time it is perfectly possible to read Dante with understanding: we see what he is getting at, and if we are educated people, we realise that the model of the cosmos he uses is not intended as a scientific description, but a metaphor, in that it uses the known concrete (the phenomena of the senses) to express the unknown. The place that remains uncharted, where a latter-day Dante might find room for God, is the unconscious – or should I say non-conscious? – mind.

I am hesitant about ‘unconscious’ and definitely reject ‘subconscious’ as both seem to elevate ‘conscious’ to a position of superiority – ‘subconscious’ certainly, and ‘unconscious’ more by implication. As a writer, I have gradually become convinced, having started out as a severe sceptic, of the reality and importance of a non-conscious mind. What fascinates me is that it is clearly able to operate with language – a higher-order skill which we associate with consciousness – and as evidence (trivial maybe, but suggestive) I would adduce the phenomenon of finding that crossword clues and word puzzles can be solved without conscious thought, and the fact that plots and plot complications in specific stories one is writing can be unravelled and resolved without conscious consideration – we go to bed puzzled and wake up knowing what to do, as it were.

Might individual consciousness stand to the non-conscious as a house does to the property that surrounds it? That is to say, we have the house which we inhabit, and beyond that the garden, which is separated by an artificial boundary from our neighbours and the public street; but in reality, the garden, the street, the town, the country and indeed the surface of the planet are a single continuum. So we have a conscious mind which we consider very much our own and separate, and a non-conscious mind which is also ‘personal’ – but how confident can we be of its demarcation from the rest? might we not share a vast common hinterland?

One further thing – why suppose that individual consciousness is some peak we have reached, and that we have emerged, as it were, from the unconscious, unreflecting swamp? might it not be that we are waking into consciousness, and have at the moment just a small individual foothold in a vast territory which will one day become wholly know to us all?

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