Everyone loves a good anecdote, so I thought I’d tell you one: several years ago, while at a composition workshop, I had the privilege of meeting and befriending a fellow by the name of Ben Nakamura. Ben’s English skills were intermediate at best, but as you and I both know, this put him on par with the upper percentile of all native speakers—a brief perusal of any blog like this one can reveal as much. Employing such and aptitude for English, he once asked me why I began writing music. I offered him in reply a lengthy exposition on the purpose of art, the human propensity for creativity, and other such kinds of pretentious philosophical ramblings. When I had sufficiently despoiled from his mind any presumption of eloquence or compendiousness that he might have held for me in light of my life-long familiarity with our mother tongue, I stopped blabbering and returned to him with the same question. His response was much simpler: “I started writing music,” he said, “to impress a girl.” Then he laughed at himself before adding, “it’s okay though. It turns out I like doing it anyway.”
In your last letter: “I fear you despise your own tongue at times”
In answer to your accusation, I must submit entirely. I can hardly stand my accursed tongue! It’s always sloshing around like an unwelcome guest, the umbrage of my mouth, all wet and gross, and always arguing with me. I don’t care how amusing a scene it makes for passersby—my debates with my tongue are utterly infuriating! Just the other day we were arguing about Dante. My loquacious antagonist was of the opinion that the Divine Comedy can be read and appreciated much more deeply under the assumption that Beatrice was not a real person. I opposed him directly. If Beatrice were not an actual woman, it would mean that Dante has neglected to provided us with any real-world advice on how to impress girls. Naturally, I would find this all rather disappointing, since arguing about Dante with my tongue already puts me at a disadvantage in that category. In defence of my viewpoint, allow me to extrapolate evidence from one of his sonnets, quoting in a language that’s much more dear me by heart than native to me by birth:
“or voi di sua virtù farvi savere. / Dico, qual vuol gentil donna parere / vada con lei, che quando va per via, / gitta nei cor villani Amore un gelo, / per che onne lor pensero agghiaccia e pere; / e qual soffrisse di starla a vedere / diverria nobil cosa o si morria.”
trans: Now let me make her [Beatrice’s] virtue known. I say that it behoves whoever longs to seem a gentle lady to walk with her, for when she passes by, Love casts a chill into the hearts of the villainous, so that their every thought freezes and perishes. Whoever might endure standing beside and beholding her—he would either become something noble or die.
(Vita Nuova XIX)
As this sonnet implies, the main point that Dante will try to make in the Divine Comedy is simply this: the best way to impress a girl is not to compose music for her but to write immortal Italian love poetry. All throughout the epic, the same question recurs. Dante asks his readers and himself, ‘how does one become worthy?’ Worthy, that is, of so virtuous a lady as Beatrice, of so lofty a poetic theme as the salvation of the human soul, and of so glorious a kingdom as that unending realm of Him who is from Everlasting to Everlasting. The solution is always immortal Italian love poetry. Live a life, Dante tells us, that is a love poem addressed to no less a muse than the very God whose name is Love. Come as you are, base and villainous, and He will cast a chill into your heart so that your every vile thought vanishes into oblivion. Perhaps this will begin somewhere quite superficial—perhaps you’ll begin ‘pursuing God’ only to impress others with your conspicuous virtues or specious magnanimity, both of which are among the many practical benefits of being a nominal Christian. But by the time you find yourself ‘midway through the journey of our life’, you just might realise that God has been using all those trivialities to cultivate his own radical vision for you. He has been pursuing you through all the stupid fancies, all the vanities and futilities that first inspired you to turn toward Him, and now, as the impetus and completion of everything that you are becoming, He has overwhelmed you with His grace and bereaved you of every source of pride, even the pride you might take in your own morality and righteousness. When He has done all this, you may very well arrive at a solidarity with my friend Ben Nakamura: “it’s okay,” you’ll conclude, “it turns out I like doing this anyway.”
P.S. Everything I told you about Ben is true…except his name. He didn’t really go around using a pseudonym as far as I know.