I’ve been reading about hell, and thinking of the girls I liked in my younger days. There’s a connection here, but… probably not the one you think.
In preparation for my story project, I’ve been rereading Dante’s Inferno, a centuries-old poem about a man who journeys through hell. The poem starts with Dante meeting the soul of Virgil, an ancient Roman poet. Virgil rescues Dante from a dark wood, giving him both good and bad news.
The bad news is that they must pass through the nightmarish depths of hell. The good news is that Dante’s love, the dearly departed Beatrice, has interceded for him from heaven. After braving hell and purgatory, Dante will meet her there.
In the poem, Dante represents Beatrice as a savior: a lady of perfect beauty and saintly goodness. In real life, Dante apparently met Beatrice twice. He barely knew her as a person. Instead, he obsessed over her as an idea—a vision that had poetic power but was disconnected from reality.
Beatrice married another man, and died young. Dante obsessed over her memory for the rest of his life, thinking of her even after marrying another woman and having children. He himself acknowledged Beatrice as “the glorious lady of my mind,” a vision barely grounded in reality. In Dante’s mind, Beatrice was an angelic being of compassion and redemption.
It makes me wonder what Beatrice was like in real life. Did she think twice about Dante? Did she even read poetry? What were her favorite foods? Did she have a secret crush of her own?
Beatrice is a fascinating character in Dante’s work—a fictional character. She plays an invaluable role in Dante’s Divine Comedy, of which Inferno is the first part, but the role owes everything to Dante’s imagination and practically nothing to Beatrice herself. Dante’s Beatrice was an idea, not a person.
Like Dante, I’ve had secret crushes on gals I’ve known. Most of them are now happily married to other dudes, and good for them. I wish them the best.
It’s just hard to let go sometimes.
There’s one gal in particular—I’ll call her Socrates—who is rather like my own Beatrice. I could share more details, but won’t in case she ever reads my blog. How awkward would that be? (Answer: Soul-rendingly awkward.) I haven’t seen my old crush in years, but when I think of Dante’s Beatrice, I imagine her looking just like Socrates.
I’m a sentimental person. It’s hard for me not to treasure my memories of Socrates, and even to idealize them. She has become my own “glorious lady of my mind,” disconnected from the real Socrates. The real Socrates, wherever she is now, is a living person. She has her own likes and plans and interests. She has her own life. At this point, it isn’t romantic for me to idealize Socrates—it’s disrespectful, really. It makes for great poetry but lousy living.
I sometimes can’t help but wonder whether my life would be different if I had told Socrates that I liked her all those years ago. This can become just as disrespectful as idealizing her, and for the same reason. It replaces a person with an idea. I stop thinking of Socrates as an actual person, and think of her instead as a missed opportunity. It isn’t respectful, and it frankly isn’t healthy.
I’m still a stubbornly single dude. Even so, I figured that at some point I would grow up and stop having crushes on pretty girls. I haven’t. (Of course, I still watch cartoons and occasionally make faces in the mirror, so maybe I failed the whole growing-up thing.) At the moment, I’m letting go of another crush on another Beatrice. Like Socrates, she is also an actual person with her own life to live, and I need to respect that.
I live in a complicated world. It’s tempting to reduce human beings to trite, comforting ideas, but it isn’t right. People are people. They deserve to be respected as people, not reimagined according to my own romantic notions.
Dante wrote some great stuff, but I have to wonder whether he was happy. He was haunted by the memory of a girl he met twice. Is that any way to live?
My Beatrices have their own lives to live, and I have mine. I had better live it.
I’m now going to eat peppermint fudge and watch Steven Universe. Take that, Dante.