My saga with the Inferno, written by one Signor Dante Alighieri, began when I was around 16 years old, in the library one rainy summer afternoon, looking for something to read. I picked a new translation (by Seamus Heaney, among other people) of this first third of The Divine Comedy off of the shelf and thought I’d give it a go. Because when you’re 16 with nothing better to do, Italian medieval poetry is right up your alley. At least when you’re 16 with nothing better to do and you happen to be me, which you don’t.
In any case, I think I made it through a canto or two, realized that I wasn’t really a big fan of Seamus Heaney (at least not at age 16, and I haven’t tried since), and went on to read another book, like The Joy Luck Club or something.
A year later, my then best friend in the entire world and I had this private joke that involved the famous inscription on the gates of Hell in the poem, and as a graduation present, she bought me a copy of the book. We’re not friends anymore, but I still have the book, and it is this particular copy of Dante’s famous poem that I have been curled up with over the past week. So, without further ado, I guess it’s appropriate that I say…
Lasciate ogne speranza, voi ch’intrate*, because this installment of Jamelah Reads the Classics is all about (burn, baby, burn) Dante’s Inferno.
It’s like this: Dante gets lost in the woods, where he encounters the poet Virgil (who is the one responsible for the Aeneid — I can’t escape this stuff, can I?) Virgil offers to guide Dante through Hell. Dante freaks out a little bit near the beginning, but then is okay after a pep talk from Beatrice, who he thinks is totally hot.
So, basically, Inferno is the beginning of the buddy roadstory archetype that we all know and love so well. Yeah, just like a 14th-century On the Road, with Virgil as Dean and Dante as Sal with extra large helpings of Catholic guilt!
As Virgil and Dante traverse the circles of Hell, they encounter all sorts of wacky afterlife hijinks, including, among other things: sinners submerged in excrement, sinners submerged in a river of boiling blood, sinners transformed into trees, sinners with their heads on backwards, sinners with their heads in holes with their feet on fire, sinners covered with itchy scabs, sinners submerged in ice, and sinners stuck in Satan’s giant pie-hole(s) to be chewed on for all eternity. In case you haven’t caught it by now, there are a lot of sinners in Hell, which is, I think, the point. And as Virgil and Dante encounter each unfortunate lot, they question those stuck with the eternal suffering deal — Who are you, and how did you end up in this perpetual festival of suck?
It’s when this happens that the fact that this is a politically-motivated book becomes highly apparent. Flip to any page in Inferno and you’ll encounter something like this:
As Virgil and I walked across the monstrous rock and my heart trembled with fear, I saw this man I knew from Florence. Florence is the city that sent me into a life of exile, and I’m really pious, so am therefore totally not bitter. Seriously. Shut up, I’m not. Anyway, this Florentine was a real bastard when he was alive, so he must spend all eternity with his head up his ass. Ha ha! I mean, that’s so sad. I weep.
I made that up, of course. Dante wouldn’t have written it that way. If he had written it, it would’ve included the person’s name, which just goes to show you how lucky he was that pesky things like libel law didn’t exist back in the 1300s.
Anyway, Dante’s Inferno is important to the canon of Western literature for two reasons:
1. Instead of writing in Latin, Dante chose to write in his vernacular (which for him was Tuscan). I’ve lived in Italy, and it seems like practically every city has its own dialect, but Dante’s poetry sort of united Italian into a common language, which is the kind that they’ll teach you in school.
2. Dante has shaped the view of Hell in the popular consciousness. If you were to look in the Bible, you wouldn’t read anything about levels of Hell or differing punishments for different sinners or Judas being chewed on in Satan’s giant pie-hole, or anything like that. So if you’ve ever thought about going to a lesser version of Hell for shoplifting than you’d go to if you, um, gave Christ up for crucifixion, then that idea comes from Dante. Credit where credit is due, people.
In the end, Inferno, though highly repetitive in style, is a pretty entertaining read. I mean, how can I not like something that says “And he had made a trumpet of his ass”? (Dante actually wrote that, not me.) I do think his characterization of Satan is pretty boring, though. I mean, Satan is the bad guy for all time, and I really think he should get to be a bit more diabolical. Frozen, three-headed, weeping, and gnawing on Judas, Brutus and Cassius doesn’t really seem to be evil so much as it is, um, pansy-ass, but maybe that’s just me. Milton’s Satan was way cooler, and this is not a point on which I will debate because I already know how right I am.
So, in summary, there are a lot of sinners, Dante had some problems with Florentine politics, Dante and Virgil are the Sal and Dean of Italian medieval poetry, there’s an ass-trumpet, Satan is pretty lame, and Dante’s Inferno is pretty awesome.
*That’s “abandon all hope, ye who enter here” for those of you who aren’t hip to the Italian.