Dante & The Chinese Backpacks

Many of my readers are in China. This blog’s for you.

A huge black and grey snake with green lines running down its sides is coiled around a ceiling on the second floor of Toronto’s Art Gallery of Ontario. The snake is made of Chinese children’s backpacks, each one representing the life of one of the 5,000 children who died when their shoddily built schools collapsed in an earthquake. China’s government doesn’t like to talk about this tragedy. It also doesn’t like Ai Weiwei, the artist who made the snake, who has been jailed for speaking out, and is now being kept from attending openings of his art shows in Europe and Canada. 

To see this extraordinary snake go to: http://www.ago.net/ai-weiweis-snake-ceiling

I saw the snake on my way into an exhibition of 14th Century Florentine Art. A hand-illustrated edition of Dante’s Divine Comedy stopped me in my tracks. Made a few years after his death in 1321, this copy of his world famous poem has been carefully preserved for nearly 700 years. When he created it he was in exile.

Written in Italian, the language of the street, The Divine Comedy takes its readers down, with Dante and the Roman poet Virgil, into The Inferno’s seven circles of hell, where some of the public figures of Dante’s day are among those gruesomely tortured by sins, such as greed and avarice, that consume them. Dante and Virgil then travel up, through cold, grey Purgatorio — a new concept in Dante’s day, where less serious sinners must suffer until they can achieve redemption —  into heavenly, love-filled Paradiso. 

Dante was no more popular with his government than Weiwei is with his, but his poem was copied again and again. Anyone could read it and they did, until it became one of the great foundations of western literature.

To see a beautifully illustrated, 14th Century copy of dissident Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy, right after marvelling at 21st Century dissident Ai Weiwei’s sensational snake, gave me hope in the unstoppable power of art.

Once, thirty years ago, Canadian novelist Margaret Laurence was battling soul-destroying censorship of her brilliant novel, The Diviners, in her hometown. For the second time.

“Why does this keep happening?” I whined. The Diviners was a Canadian literary classic. “Can’t we do something to make it stop?”

“No,” she told me, “all we can do is keep on standing at the barricades (of repression.)”

She’s right. Political and religious ideologies everywhere keep trying to smother inconvenient truths and points of view. I give thanks for the freedom I have to tap out these words today. It’s more than Canadian government scientists, or Chinese artists, or writers in many countries enjoy. 

Snakes shed their skins and grow, however, and governments have no choice but to coil through Dante’s journey. While blessed art, in all its forms, goes on refusing to be silenced.