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"A God More Powerful than I": Dante's Surrender to Love in La Vita Nuova

by David Shaddock

This regular column for Poetry Flash looks at poetry to illuminate issues relevant to health, mental health, and coping with our lives today.

WHEN HE FIRST VIEWS his beloved Beatrice (they are both nine-years-old), Dante hears two voices in his head: first "Now the source of joy has been has been revealed," then "Woe is me! For I shall often be impeded from now on." Love enters our lives with the possibility of both completing and defeating our plans. As a couples therapist, I am continuously confronted with the alternation of joy and woe in intimate relationships. Love both feeds and vexes our inherent narcissism. One minute we feel grand to be at the center of a partner's attention, the next minute we feel ignored, or perturbed by the daunting task of meeting another's needs.

Reading La Vita Nuova, Dante's great treatise on the rule of love, reminds me that this mix of joy and woe is developmental. Joy fills us with life energy and hope, woe chastens our self-importance. My job is to convince partners to embrace both and not cling to the highs or let the lows of the relationship define their picture. The loss of the joy and romance that eventually informs relationships can be shattering, particularly if it recapitulates a childhood experience of what the psychoanalyst Heinz Kohut called traumatic deidealization—the sudden (as opposed to gradual) confrontation with a parent's flaws. But even when relationships don't remind us of earlier trauma, surviving disappointments and staying committed is a central developmental challenge. Love requires us to learn to buffer romance with reality and to enchant reality with romance.

A medieval poet, Dante is talking about the difficulties of surrendering to love in the abstract; love as a spiritual and poetic practice. The impediments he refers to have little to do with the problem of careers, housework and children, or even with what psychologists call the problem of alterity, the difficulty of encountering a mind completely different from our own. Dante gets around these everyday problems by creating Beatrice, an idealized, almost unknown (she speaks only a few words to him in his lifetime) female. He never has to deal with her "bloomers soaking in the sink" that male comics like to joke about. Letting love rule your life in Dante is an internal process of self-improvement and salvation, a journey Dante will go on to describe in the Commedia. But the idea of surrendering to love that Dante evokes does speak to me across the centuries. Love and relationship can make us more human, less violent, less enthralled by power. "What little I know of love is her gift," writes Petrarch, Dante's rough contemporary, of Laura, his Beatrice figure. "My glimpse of perfect grace, and my ability/ To follow it are hers; my knowledge/ That what men mostly want is worthless."

The Vita Nuova is a mix of prose, poems and discussions of poems. The first sonnet is addressed to "every captive soul and gentle lover"—his fellow travelers on the path of love. It goes on to describe a vision—perhaps from a dream—that Dante intends to be a controlling image for his whole book. In it he sees the Lord of Love feeding to a lifeless-seeming Beatrice the poet's own flaming heart:

Then he awoke her, and her fear not heading

My burning heart fed to her reverently.

Weird. But perhaps it gets at the terror and vulnerability of love. A contemporary interpretation might go: "I am feeding you my burning heart, my love, giving you access to my innermost feelings. I am letting myself be consumed by you. I want to let myself live in you." Dante's is not offering the reciprocal, I will do the same for you, so he offers little practical help to contemporary couples. But he is getting at the idea that marriage is a sacrament. And, even in the face of loss, a blessing. "Blessed is he/ Fair soul, who may your goodness gaze upon" he writes upon hearing of Beatrice's death.

How can we think of Dante's letting yourself be ruled by love when it comes to relationships with real, not idealized people? To be ruled by love today, I think, is to be ruled by the necessity for mindfulness. In a famous experiment on the development of what is called a theory of mind, young children are presented with a researcher who shows them she likes pickles and hates cookies. Only after age fifteen months is a child capable of offering the researcher a pickle. But this development is only a possibility, not an inevitability. We may lose it under stress, in the heat of arguments. To be ruled by love in the twenty-first century means being committed to holding the contents of our own minds lightly while treating the contents of the lover's mind, her thoughts and feelings, with respect and curiosity.

David Shaddock PhD is a poet and psychotherapist. His new poetry book is A Book of Splendor: New and Selected Poems on Spiritual Themes. Poetry and Psychoanalysis: The Opening of the Field is forthcoming from Routledge. He is the author of two books on relationships and couples therapy and lectures widely on those topics; he has a private practice in Berkeley.

— posted January 2020

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