“Dante, D’Annunzio and Tagore” is the name of a project that culminated into a Seminar of the same name between Prof Mario Prayer and the English Department of Jadavpur University. The focus of the scholarship was mainly around modernity and its critique. However, to understand the poets as mentioned above, we may need to be aware of a brief historical and cultural background.
In D’Annunzio’s own words, his purpose, as has been the purpose of philosophers right from Socrates and which is, to be able to see an underlying pattern among the apparent randomness of everyday life. Hence, he draws his inspiration from Dante with whom he has many worldly similarities. Both were in positions of political power, both were defeated and exiled and for both, more than defeat and exile, it was a forced rendering them as irrelevant that created the trouble. D’Annunzio took his exile badly, knowing fully well that his defeat meant the advance of fascism in Italy, focused on self-destructive passions, unnecessary bitterness, and unfounded cynicism, while writing some of his expansive poems. Dante, on the other hand, sought his metaphysical refuge in Christianity, writing his Divine Comedy in which the Inferno depicting the Purgatory constituted the lengthiest passages and acutest descriptions of human follies and temptations. Dante’s spirit then reconnected with Beatrice, his lifelong passion, his muse, who he could not marry while he was alive because of social compulsions. The Divine Comedy establishes the truth of Heaven, of romantic love and the fragility of social customs, ranks of power, desires of material wealth and so on.
Indians would find the familiar idea of “Maya” in Dante’s poem; the world of appearances being merely illusory and a celestial world that is truer than the one lived in. This is our religious belief. We would also find in the Divine Comedy, the familiar motif of Devdas, a novel written by Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay in 1917, politically a most volatile period in India, where Devdas loses all meaning in life because he cannot marry Parvati, his Beatrice, sneers at the world of appearances and goes into an existential lull. Devdas, is a story of self-annihilation, like Dante’s death but without the prospect of the Catholic resurrection and instead a Protestant blankness of afterlife. Devdas is the Protestant conversation with Catholic Dante. Devdas has been the most filmed novel ever.
The other familiar motif for the Indian would be the penultimate scene of the Mahabharata where the Pandavas are on their path to Heaven, the Mahaprasthan. Each Pandav fall on the way for their human limitations and Yudhisthir is alone with the stray dog who, quite unnoticed till the final moments suddenly catches our attention. The dog is Dharma, the God who everyone searches on earth and yet He follows Yudhisthir around. Yudhisthir is beyond Dharma; he leads Dharma rather than seek or follow Him. The episode of the Mahaprasthan expresses an unlimited faith in human powers and the reality of the world rather than of the Purgatory, which is where he meets his loved ones as departed souls. Yudhisthir refuses salvation on two counts, once he refuses to ascend the chariot to Heaven because he does not want to abandon the dog who followed him and the other when he refuses to graduate from the Purgatory because for him the company of his family was far greater than the pleasures of Heaven. The Mahaprasthan is the only moment when we see Yudhisthir revealing his emotions, which are attachments to family and bonds of filial relationships.
The third motif is Hamlet of Shakespeare in which the Father, his ghost and the son are in a dilemma; the dilemma is that of a Protestant who is supposed to believe in predestination and annihilation after death now confronted with the “reality” of the Catholic purgatory and the Holy Ghost. Hamlet’s guilt is the guilt of the Protestant against the Catholic and of the Unitarian against the Trinity, a familiar guilt among religious converts of the subcontinents.
D’Annunzio does not speak of the Catholic beliefs but is essentially Greek who seeks to integrate the Latin flavour of Dante. The Greek and the Latin have been the long-standing conflicts in the European tradition; each seeking the other but, in a way, repelling too. The Greek culture is humanist and pagan and yet idealist, its metaphysics is about material hyperloops. In its materiality, it gets really close to the Protestant nihilism of Heavens. The Latin culture is transcendental and religious; spirituality is its metaphysical unity. D’Annunzio seeks the unity, a transcendence of appearances into their higher forms of cognition, a transcendence that negates the appearances. Dante has inspired great paintings through ages, namely, Classicism, Expressionism, postmodern and the futuristic. D’Annunzio has been influenced by paintings especially of Leonardo da Vinci rather than inspiring paintings. D’Annunzio’s influence is far sharper in drama, the opera, the theatre and even, unwittingly in comedy. While Dante’s transcendence, despite being other worldly is tangible, physical, and palpable while D’Annunzio is misty, intangible, illusory reaching the zone of the unknowable. A possible explanation could lie in Dante’s palpability of death while death for D’Annunzio is pure annihilation.
Tagore and Dante do not seem to meet too well because Tagore’s is not the mind of an epicist. Michael Madhusudan Dutta may be a better study with respect to Dante, Dante’s poetry seems to have some resonance in his works, especially the Meghnadbadh Kavya, a retelling of the Ramayana. D’Annunzio and Tagore are closer to each other in constantly trying to find patterns and more than that, a future in the prevalent chaos in the real life. D’Annunzio is exiled by political forces; Tagore is rendered irrelevant by his state of being in a colonized nation. Both their audiences are blind to their visions, deaf to their words. How would they make themselves hear? D’Annunzio’s poetic strategy seems to be the use of words to push the apparent away into Nature, Tagore seems to raise the smallness of everyday familiarity to a larger universal yet to be known. For D’Annunzio the world must melt away, cease to exist in the vastness of the unity of patterns; for Tagore, the smallest of existences must be infused with the contemplation of the vastest.