I recently had my heart broken.
Well, truth be told, my heart is easily broken. It breaks at least a little every day, a challenging, yet welcomed reminder that I am human, alive, mortal (“lo spirito de la vita, lo quale dimora ne la secretissima camera de lo cuore”). My tender heart led me to poetry, naturally wanting to perpetuate that ineffable joy of its own intensity.
Searching around my shelves I came across La Vita Nuova, by Durante degli Alighieri, better known to us all as “Dante.” In reading, I left my broken heart behind and wandered through his.
Said to be autobiographical, the story tells of his love for Beatrice, which strikes him to the core immediately and whose image remains with him throughout his life.
He trembles violently and falls apart in her presence, claims only to desire her greeting, and remains loyal to her even after her death, despite never have engaged with her intimately. This intense stirring exemplifies the pure joy of the broken heart.
“But what joy can there be in heartache?” you ask. Indeed. That depends on what you tell yourself about it.
And of course it depends on how you define “heartache.”
As human beings, we can’t really decide not to feel the joy of seeing our children, of appreciating the beauty of the spectacular world around us. These are the stories that define what we think is the kind of heartache that we want to have.
But how different is that feeling from the pain of rejection or disappointment, for example, for which we likewise have no choice?
If we stay with the raw feeling, without any stories, we can see that these feelings are very similar. Quite simply, they are tenderness. Of course, it’s challenging not to try to get rid of an uncomfortable feeling, so instead of accepting the feelings we have as part of our experience, we reject them. Doing this is like trying to stop a flood with your hands. You will inevitably drown.
We often turn heartache into stories of how unworthy we are. That causes suffering.
Staying with our experience, staying with the tenderness, we can be authentic. It’s like when we eat something spicy. It’s painful. Sometimes unbearable. But there are no stories, just the experience. Fighting it, jumping up and down and screaming only increase anxiety and does not make it go away. If we let it ride, we can even enjoy it until the pain passes.
And it will pass.
As Dante’s character sat weeping over his Beatrice, his heart heavy, immobilized, Love came to deliver a message.
“[I]t came to pass one day that, as I sat thoughtful in a certain place, I felt a trembling begin in my heart, just as if I had been in the presence of this lady [Beatrice]. Then I say that an imagination of Love came to me; for it seemed to me that I saw him coming from that place where my lady dwelt; and it seemed to me that he joyfully said to me in my heart: ‘Mind thou bless the day on which I took possession of thee, for thou oughtest so to do.’ And of a truth it seemed to me that my heart was so gladsome, that it did not seem to me to be my heart, because of its new condition.”
A change in perspective, the same tenderness, but now joy. If only we could escape desire and avoid its inevitable trap of suffering, we might have joyful hearts as well.
Dante wrote La Vita Nuova in the Tuscan dialect rather than in Latin, firmly believing that language which is meant to communicate should be conveyed in the vernacular, or natural language.
I’m no linguist but I think, by writing in Tuscan, he set the standard for a more unified Italian language, one which would be more widely understood by all Italians.
And this was important, of course, for expressing one’s amores. “And the first who began to write as a poet in the vulgar tongue was moved to do so because he wished to make his words intelligible to a lady who could not easily understand Latin verses.”
Ah, love…Thank you, Dante, for sharing your broken heart.
Love elephant and want to go steady?
Apprentice Editor: Kathryn Muyskens/Editor: Catherine Monkman
Photo: Wikimedia Commons