Health: what Dante can teach us and where to find it – interview with Professor Marco Veglia

Prof. Marco Veglia explains how and where Dante's Divine Comedy is fertile ground for reflection in the Medical Humanities.
Salvator Dal

Marco Veglia is Associate Professor at the Department of Classical Philology and Italian Studies, University of Bologna. His scientific interests focus mainly on Dante, Boccaccio, Carducci, Pascoli and Bacchelli. He is director of the Medical Humanities Centre at the same university and president of the La Specola Cultural Association in Bologna.

You teach Medieval Literature at the University of Bologna, although your interests extend to Pascoli and Carducci, but you are also and director of the Medical Humanities Centre at the same university: how (and why) do these two spheres of interest of yours collide and coexist?

My interests extend to Carducci, Pascoli and Bacchelli. All linked to Bologna. I have never studied a contemporary author who was not connected to my city, which is not an urban agglomeration, but, as Thomas Mann said of Lübeck, ‘a form of spiritual life’. And in this direction I studied Augusto Murri and Bartolo Nigrisoli (with the exception of Bacchelli, all these authors were professors at the Alma Mater Studiorum). It was with Murri and Nigrisoli that, albeit from a historical perspective, I approached an area in which the ‘word that cures’ (which cures or consoles the ills of mankind and history) is intertwined with the ‘cure that speaks’, with a clinical art in which the ‘humanological’ component (to quote my friend Giorgio Cosmacini, who is the greatest historian of Italian medicine) is essential and must be humanistically educated, if only to understand the wounded subject that is the patient. Carducci’s father was a doctor, Pascoli was closely linked to Murri, and Bacchelli’s father had the Rizzoli Orthopaedic Institute built. It was my destiny to deal with MH, but with a different approach from other university centres. I am interested in the contribution that a multitude of disciplines, which fall under the hybrid umbrella of MH, can make to health, which is not the opposite of illness, but a state of equilibrium with the ‘nature of the whole’, ever since Plato’s Phaedrus, as Hans Georg Gadamer knew.

Talking specifically about Dante, what is interesting in the Commedia for the Medical Humanities?

First of all, we should understand – and it is not easy – the definition of Medical Humanities. If, as I believe, this approach strives to contribute to the understanding of “health”, which is not the opposite of illness, then Dante comes to our rescue immediately. Health and salvation, in the language of antiquity, coincide (Beatrice’s aim is to restore Dante’s “integral health”, according to Purg. XXX 137: a health-salvation that is obtained starting from Eden, that is, from the place of original innocence, where death, guilt and illness had not yet broken man’s pact with God; the ascent towards the “candid rose” presupposes a body “born to rise”, a flesh restored to its initial dignity and for this very reason capable of an unprecedented feat). The suffering individual asks to be understood in its complex totality, he expects to be interpreted. In a state of health or, we would say today, well-being, the body is silent. It is quite. When, through illness, melancholy, but also through joy, we deviate from the norm, we realise that we are subjects who inhabit an object, which is the body, with which we live, but with which we do not coincide. In order to enter into a relationship with the subject, Dante teaches us this too, we need the word. Truth, the truth that saves, is relationship. Nobody saves himself, nobody heals himself. Dante, enrolled in the art of doctors and apothecaries, is accompanied by expert guides, by Virgil, a wise man who takes care of his health, that is, the return to his original innocence, and by a woman, Beatrice, who guarantees him salvation, as St Bernard himself will do in the last stretch of paradise (from Par. XXXII).

Perhaps this is a rather daring comparison, but do you think it is possible to place Dante’s path (his descent into evil, his arduous ascent and final conquest of good) alongside the path of a patient whose illness has a worsening course until the moment of crisis, followed by a period of recovery and convalescence until he regains his health? And are there precise stages or steps that can particularly communicate this mirroring?

I have also begun to answer this question in part with the previous two answers. All literature, not just the Commedia, must contribute to the hermeneutics of the interpersonal relationship with the suffering individual, who is then the historical man, considered in his contingency. In addition, however, the Commedia reminds us of other things. The patient’s condition is not linked to a vector time, but to an existential state. Rita Charon has written important pages on this ‘time’ of the patient, considered in relation to the time of the doctor or nurse. The wounded subject, who becomes aware of himself, and conscious of his ‘illness’, asks to be entirely himself. In order to do so, with the help of the doctor, they must follow a pathway which is not only that of the hoped-for return to a condition of organic health. The darkness of pain, self-consciousness and the light of health are mirrored in the three times and three worlds of the Commedia, all of which are strictly ausculable in interiore homine. From this point of view, the first two cantos of the Inferno are essential. Dante begins to save himself not only because of Virgil’s ‘ornate word’, but because this word guarantees him that he is within a relationship of love and knowledge witnessed by Beatrice. Beatrice herself, who is health in the sense of salvation, is reproached by Lucia for not being moved by Dante. There is no return to health if the doctor does not allow himself to be questioned by the subjectivity of the patient (Charon speaks of the therapeutic self), nor if the patient refuses to understand that, in order to save himself, he must trust: he must, that is, from the spècola of the Comedy, have faith (not in the doctrine of the doctor-Virgil alone, but in a science that finds its own reason through the mandate offered to it by charity, which is, or rather, becomes Beatrice, when she moves, breathless and crying, towards the lost poet). The essential grafting of trust into the healing process opens up the territory of MH. To the first two cantos of the Inferno I would add, for the reasons I have mentioned, the cantos of Eden (Purg. XVII-XXXIII). To be doctors of the world and to heal it (according to the evangelical model of Christ the doctor), to write “for the sake of the world that lives ill” (Purg. XXXII 103), it is necessary to return to a state of perfection that presupposes a physiology, not just a theology, of health. The body, in Dante, the living body, is always at the centre of everything. Prophecy and prognosis intertwine and overlap.

In what way and in what places do you think the Comedy can be a comforting and companionable reading to be made today, after the tiring experience of covid-19?

In addition to the comfort that the Commedia has always brought to readers who have the good fortune to experience it, there is now a special grace, I would say. The Covid-19 pandemic has placed human and social relationships at the centre of the health emergency as never before in human history. Relationships are both the cause of the loss of organic health (but can we live without running this risk?) and the source of the acquisition of spiritual health, both in our habits of life and in the particular form of relationship which is that with art. A purely organic idea of health has created a whole series of consequences that have aggravated the collective drama. On the other hand, we have understood that even if we do not ‘fall ill’, we can feel ill (because we are deprived of human, social, economic, professional and aesthetic relations). Salvation, and therefore health, is instead relational, as Dante knew and as the brigade of the Decameron would soon know. If we follow Dante, as he followed Virgil and Beatrice and St Bernard, we will no longer be able to forget all this.

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