multilayered. Dante himself wrote one of the clearest expositions of the complex intellectual and emotional experience created in metaphors.

Dante had among the Italian nobility a benefactor, who was known as Can Grande (loosely translated, "the Big Dog"), to whom he dedicated the
Divine Comedy. But knowing that allegorical language can easily be misunderstood, Dante wrote a letter to Can Grande which clearly explained the structure of the poem and its levels of meaning. The four levels of meaning Dante describes in his letter can serve as a guideline to interpreting the metaphors of mystical literature.**

Dante explains to Can Grande that the
Commedia is "'polysemous', that is, having several meanings" (Dante, "Epistola X" 199). There are two main categories of meanings, the literal and the allegorical, or mystical. The literal meaning is the "letter," or the imagery and rational sense at the surface of the text. In other words, it is the meaning that is immediately understandable. Dante tells Can Grande, for example, that the overall literal sense of the Commedia is "the state of souls after death, pure and simple, without limitation" (201). For a more specific example, when Dante says, "I came to my senses in a dark forest" the literal meaning is that he woke up in a forest - pure and simple. Even though this sentence obviously has metaphorical implications, nonetheless we immediately know its basic - and most important - meaning.

Any literature can be fulfilling and enjoyable at the literal level alone. There is no need, for example, to puzzle over what else the phrase "dark forest" could mean, what metaphorical value the image could have. We can simply take it at its literal, face value. The literal meaning is the fundamental range of all literature and poetry.

But words, and especially the images they convey, unfold meaning beyond the literal - hence the word "metaphor" from Greek terms meta, meaning to change or transform, and ferein, to carry. Dante explains this when he tells Can Grande that the allegorical or mystical meaning has three levels: an allegorical sense, a moral sense, and an anagogical sense.

Dante's "allegorical sense" refers to the specific metaphorical value of an image, event, character or turn of phrase. He gives the example from the Bible of the Exodus of the Jews from Egypt. The literal meaning of this story is the simple event itself, that in the time of Moses the Jews left Egypt. Further, the allegorical meaning (as divined by Dante and Christian biblical scholars who believed their task to be to show how the stories of the Old Testament prefigure events of the New Testament) of the Jews leaving Egypt is "our redemption through Christ," meaning that the Jews being freed from slavery in Egypt is like Christians being freed from earthly bondage.

For Dante (and others), this metaphor operates at a further, more complex level, as well. The moral sense of the Exodus is "the conversion of the soul from the sorrow and misery of sin to a state of grace." The moral sense, in other words, has to do with the state of the soul itself; an image in a poem can convey a sense of the state of a soul. The allegorical sense of Dante's sentence "I came to my senses in a dark forest" is that he felt himself awaken from a feeling of lostness; and further, the moral sense may be that his soul was in a state of awakening, to use the term in Evelyn Underhill's sense - not simply waking up to the fact that he felt personally lost, but that a deep inner movement resembling awakening took place at the level which mystics and others refer to as the "soul."

**It will be demanded that we clarify what we mean by an interpretive "guideline." Although for the last fifty years literary critics have been devising methods of interpreting literary works (as we're doing here), at the same time they have been denouncing all interpretive methodologies as misleading. A method of interpretation - or a guideline as I'm calling Dante's categories - is intended to help understand poems and stories. To do this, it is necessary to create categories that our texts and experiences may fit into. Poststructuralist critics of the 1960s and afterward fear that any categories we create do not fully correspond to the real world and are therefore misleading and false. Dante's four levels of meaning may be seen as particularly misleading because they restrict the terms in which figurative language can be understood by any given reader; they create, in one metaphor, "Procrustean beds" into which innocent readers will feel they must force all literary texts to fit. In other words, according to poststructuralist tenets, guidelines or methodologies restrict rather than assist understanding. However, this is true only for extremely naïve readers who believe everything literary critics and others, including themselves, say. My experience is that most intelligent readers, from the age of about 10, have either an explicit or implicit understanding that poems have multiple, provisional and changeable meanings, and that even a professional interpretation by a literary critic is usually just one among many possible meanings, or even simply wrong. In explaining and using Dante's four levels of meaning as a guideline or help to understanding mystical literature, few people will believe that they make up the only possible method. The worries of poststructuralist critics are far removed from people's actual experience of reading.
Further still, the image or event has an anagogical sense. The root "anagoge" is once again Greek, anagwgh, meaning religious or ecstatic elevation, and Dante uses it to mean spiritual understanding or interpretation, as one would interpret scriptures. The anagogical sense refers to the spirit's relation, at the highest level, to God. The Exodus anagogically signifies "the passing of the sanctified soul from the bondage of this world to the liberty of everlasting glory." In other words, the departure of the Jews from Egypt signifies, at the highest level, the spiritual freedom of those who have been taken by God. The anagogical meaning of "I came to my senses in a dark forest" may be that Dante, the speaker and main character of the poem, felt himself to be in a state of spiritual lostness, completely off the track of Christian - or any other mystical sense of - salvation.

If we bounce Dante's imagery off Plato's metaphor of the cave, we can see that the key figure in both is light, and that another common image is bondage. People who are in caves or dark woods, detached from higher realities, are in the dark, and at some extreme of spiritual debility are shackled or enslaved. The "Allegory of the Cave" can be read outside the Christian tradition using Dante's terms from within the traditions of Christian biblical exegesis. Mystical literature transcends human categories and cultures.

It may seem tricky and difficult to sort out the allegorical, moral and anagogical meanings of a sentence even as simple as "I came to my senses in a dark forest"; and indeed it takes concentration and inventiveness to bring those meanings to rational awareness and put them into words. But Dante's letter points implicitly to the fact that these levels of meaning do exist, especially in mystical literature, and his outline is a way of bringing them to our conscious minds.

In another, more important way, we can say that "allegorical" or "mystical" meanings are implicit in images and words themselves, and that as soon as you read or hear them, they are at work in your psyche whether your rational, conscious mind knows it or not. The image of the "dark forest" carries a sense of lostness; the image as given in the words changes the literal image of an expanse of trees into a foreboding, lost feeling - it is a feeling, not a thought, and in mystical teachings, the moral and the spiritual exist at orders of reality which are more in the range of feelings and cannot be comprehended rationally. The allegorical, moral and anagogical meanings conveyed in mystical literature are meant to occur in the reader's emotional, moral and spiritual centers more than in his or her rational centers. Mystics are far more interested in our inner understanding - which is very hard to put into words - than in our rational understanding.

But if we want to talk about what we've read, we have to put our responses into words, and to use words, we have to think. Dante's four levels of meaning are clues for how to think about our inner responses to images, events, characters, phrases that have stirred meanings in us deeper than our thoughts. Literature, especially mystical literature, speaks not primarily to our intellects, but to our feelings.
Reading Mystical Literature:
Dante
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© Dana Wilde 2007
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