Dante and His Beliefs

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Dante and His Beliefs

By | April 2006
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Our first reaction to such a map is probably to dismiss it as useless—it's hopelessly simply. But that may be because we are failing to see how this map functions. If we want an accurate way to get from A to B, say from Northern Europe to Africa by ship, this complaint might have a good deal of weight; for this purpose such a map is no help to a navigator. On the other hand, the demand that maps serve as aids for accurate travel is fairly recent in some quarters. What people demanded from a map like this is something else—a structure of meaning which integrates the places of the world into a coherent vision of what the world means, a vision which corresponds to our dreams. This map, which might be (and indeed was) often embellished considerably without any compromise to its basic design, is a complete and coherent statement of the world, and those who take this as the map of the world express in that acceptance a unified vision. Such people have no need for accurate travel maps—they have no desire to travel except in their imaginations, or, if they do, then they will not be asking this map to serve as a physical guide.

You will notice in a moment some very obvious similarities between this common map and the one Dante is constructing for us, even though the latter emerges as something much more sophisticated. Indeed, Dante is, in a sense, adopting such a map as his basic design and extending it. He is taking the reader's understanding of the world and delivering back in an enormously imaginative yet still recognizable form. Such maps were very current even as late as the time of Columbus. It's interesting to note that when he had to give directions on how to get to America, his instructions were to sail south until the butter melts and then turn right; moreover, he believed to the end of his life that he had reached Asia, because in his image of the world there were only three continents—thus, he must have reached the Indies.

Modern maps, of the sort most...

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