What Do the Poet Dante and the Linebacker Manti Te’o Have in Common?

With Manti Te’o, the rookie linebacker for the San Diego Chargers finally back in the game after missing the first few weeks of the NFL season owing to a foot injury, it is an appropriate moment to reflect on the situation he found himself in back early in 2013 when he was still at Notre Dame.

When the sensational story broke that Manti Te’o’s girlfriend was fictional, and that he had known “her” purely through an online correspondence, Dante scholars may have had a different reaction than ordinary American football fans. Te’o had apparently fallen for an elaborate hoax dreamed up by someone he knew. As a result of this hoax, Te’o thought he had found a girlfriend and a confidante who was a student at Stanford. Even though they had never met in person, Te’o thought he was in love with Lennay Kekua. They apparently had an extensive online correspondence and occasional phone calls. When the girlfriend, who was apparently suffering from leukemia, appeared to have died in a car accident, Te’o played on courageously in her memory as she had “asked” him to do. Soon after the reported death of Lennay, it was learned that the girlfriend was fictitious. Although there were conflicting accounts of whether they had met briefly on one or two occasions, and who was in the picture Te’o had been given of Lennay, the relationship was a mind trick played on Te’o by a male acquaintance with the possible assistance of his female cousin.

Most people reacted in disbelief to this sordid tale. How could a football hero have a “girlfriend” whom he had never met? How could Te’o be that naive?

For those knowledgeable of the world of Dante, the relationship suggested a curious parallel with at least some versions of the story of Dante’s relationship with his beloved muse, Beatrice. The more or less official scholarly version of the Dante story is that he and Beatrice only met a few times in life, and those meetings were brief. The first one was when they were children–Dante was nine, Beatrice eight. The second meeting occurred nine years later. Yet Dante was certain he “loved” Beatrice. Love could be defined then as of the platonic kind. Dante’s love appears to have been in the tradition of the medieval chivalry, where it was common for knights, poets, and troubadours to devote themselves to the honor and glory of a lady, without necessarily having sexual intentions toward this muse.

The Vita Nuova, an anthology of Dante’s early poems collected and stitched together with prose passages, was Dante’s first important work.  The title means “new life” or more narrowly, “life renewed by love.” It is mainly a book in praise of Beatrice and about Dante’s love for her. It was written in the emerging Italian vernacular, rather than the formal written language of the day, which was still Latin. (Dante would take this same path in writing in the vernacular in the Divine Comedy, although it would be a decade or more between his completion of Vita Nuova and his start on the Commedia). One could stretch a metaphor a bit and make the structural–although obviously not literary–comparison between Dante’s poems and love letters for the unseen and barely known Beatrice, and Te’o’s online correspondence with Lennay.

Like Lennay, Beatrice died at a young age. Meanwhile, Dante married Gemma and fathered seven children with her. Yet he continued to devote himself to his spiritual love for Beatrice. The Commedia is written as a paean to Beatrice. By placing himself on an imagined tour of Paradiso with Beatrice as his guide, Dante is able to see, experience, and think about her again.

We don’t know the real facts of Dante’s relationship with Beatrice. But if the modern consensus of scholars is to be taken at face value, this was one of history’s deepest and most poetic love relationships, even though it was unconsummated by physical love. Almost all of this one-sided love affair was carried on by Dante in his mind. If Dante’s imaginary relationship with Beatrice could sustain him through the long years when he was in exile and at work on the Divine Comedy, then certainly Manti Te’o could have been sustained through a football season by an imaginary girlfriend.

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