The following is an excerpt from Alberto Manguel’s latest book, Curiosity. The word itself has been seen through the ages as the impulse that drives our knowledge forward and the temptation that leads us toward dangerous and forbidden waters. Here, Manguel explains the origins of the word as he sets the scene for a journey through his own life of curiosity.
Curiosity is a word with a double meaning. The etymological Spanish dictionary of Covarrubias of 1611 defines curioso (it is the same in Italian) as a person who treats something with particular care and diligence, and the great Spanish lexicographer explains its derivation curiosidad (in Italian, curiosità) as resulting because “the curious person is always asking: ‘Why this and why that?’” Roger Chartier has noted that these first definitions did not satisfy Covarrubias, and in a supplement written in 1611 and 1612 (and left unpublished) Covarrubias added that curioso has “both a positive and a negative sense. Positive, because the curious person treats things diligently; and negative, because the person labors to scrutinize things that are most hidden and reserved, and do not matter.” There follows a quotation in Latin from one of the apocryphal books of the Bible, Ecclesiasticus: “Do not try to understand things that are too difficult for you, or try to discover what is beyond your powers” (3:21–22). With this, according to Chartier, Covarrubias opens his definition to the biblical and patristic condemnation of curiosity as the illicit yearning to know what is forbidden. Of this ambiguous nature of curiosity, Dante was certainly aware.
Dante composed almost all, if not all, of the Commedia while in exile, and the account of his poetic pilgrimage can be read as a hopeful mirror of his forced pilgrimage on earth. Curiosity drives him, in Covarrubias’s sense of treating things “diligently,” but also in the sense of seeking to know what is “most hidden and reserved” and lies beyond words. In a dialogue with his otherworldly guides (Beatrice, Virgil, Saint Bernard) and with the damned and blessed souls he encounters, Dante allows his curiosity to lead him on towards the ineffable goal. Language is the instrument of his curiosity—even as he tells us that the answer to his most burning questions cannot be uttered by a human tongue—and his language can be also the instrument of ours. Dante can act, in our reading of the Commedia, as a “midwife” of our thoughts, as Socrates once defined the role of the seeker of knowledge. The Commedia allows us to bring our questions into being.
Dante died in exile in Ravenna on 13 or 14 September 1321, after having recorded in the last verses of his Commedia his vision of the everlasting light of God. He was fifty-six years old. According to Giovanni Boccaccio, Dante had begun writing the Commedia sometime before his banishment from Florence, and had been forced to abandon in the city the first seven cantos of the Inferno. Someone, Boccaccio says, searching for a document among the papers in Dante’s house, found the cantos without knowing they were by Dante, read them with admiration, and took them for inspection to a Florentine poet “of some renown,” who guessed that they were Dante’s work and contrived to send them on to him. Always according to Boccaccio, Dante was at the time at the estate of Moroello Malaspina in Lunigiana; Malaspina received the cantos, read them, and begged Dante not to abandon a work so magnificently begun. Dante consented and began the eighth canto of the Inferno with the words: “I say, carrying on, that long before . . .” So goes the story.
Extraordinary literary works seem to demand extraordinary tales of their conception. Magical biographies of a phantom Homer were invented to account for the power of the Iliad and the Odyssey, and Virgil was lent the gifts of a necromancer and herald of Christianity because, his readers thought, the Aeneid could not have been composed by an ordinary man. Consequently, the conclusion of a masterpiece must be even more extraordinary than its inception. As the writing of the Commedia advanced, Boccaccio tells us, Dante began to send the completed cantos to one of his patrons, Cangrande della Scala, in lots of six or eight. In the end, Cangrande would have received the entire work with the exception of the last thirteen cantos of Paradiso. For the months following Dante’s death, his sons and disciples searched among his papers to see if he had not perhaps finished the missing cantos. Finding nothing, says Boccaccio, “they were enraged that God had not allowed him to live in the world long enough to have the chance of concluding what little remained of his work.” One night, Jacopo, Dante’s third son, had a dream. He saw his father approach, dressed in a white gown, his face shining with a strange light. Jacopo asked him if he was still alive, and Dante said that he was, but in the true life, not in ours. Jacopo then asked whether he had finished his Commedia. “Yes,” was the answer, “I finished it,” and he led Jacopo to his old bedroom, where, putting his hand on a certain place on the wall, he announced, “Here is what you were searching for for so long.” Jacopo woke, fetched an old disciple of Dante’s, and together they discovered, behind a hanging cloth, a recess containing moldy writings which proved to be the missing cantos. They copied them out and sent them, according to Dante’s habit, to Cangrande. “Thus,” Boccaccio tells us, “was the task of so many years brought to its conclusion.”
Alberto Manguel is a Canadian writer, translator, editor, and critic, but would rather define himself as a reader. Born in Buenos Aires, he has since resided in Israel, Argentina, Europe, the South Pacific, and Canada. Today he lives surrounded by more than 30,000 volumes. His latest book is Curiosity.