Jamelah Reads the Classics: Inferno

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!

Sort of.

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.

Any questions?

*That’s “abandon all hope, ye who enter here” for those of you who aren’t hip to the Italian.

11 Responses

  1. the big manGreat review,
    the big man

    Great review, Jamelah — I am looking forward to your next assault on the Great Books.

    I had a similar experience with Inferno. I can’t exactly see why this epic is considered by some to be the greatest literary achievement of all time — I’m not seeing that — but it is certainly fascinating, and it certainly leaves an impression on the reader.

    One point of difference: I really liked the depiction of Satan, in the 9th Circle, as an insensible, bloated, weird monster with three heads, all chewing on famous sinners, all eyes crying. The idea that Satan was crying … well, that seems to mean something. What was Milton’s take on Satan? You referred to it and said you liked it better, but I’ve never slogged through Paradise Lost, so it would help if you could fill in the details.

  2. Well Levi, I think Dante did
    Well Levi, I think Dante did for Italian what Chaucer did for English, so that, in itself, is a pretty outstanding achievement.

    As for the battle of the Satans in these classic works, I think Milton’s Satan wins hands down precisely because he shows absolutely no remorse and actively tries to destroy God’s creation. Paradise Lost is the story of two falls — both Lucifer/Satan’s fall from Heaven (for trying to mutiny against God, and after being cast out, Satan says that it’s better to be ruler of Hell than a lackey in Heaven, and thus his reign of evil is born) and the fall of humans in the Garden of Eden. In Milton, Satan is conniving and creative and incredibly wicked — a real enemy (though I believe it was Byron who said that Satan was the hero of Paradise Lost).

    Dante’s Satan doesn’t do it for me for several reasons, and I think the crying is definitely a part of that. Tears indicate remorse, at least on some level. Whether Satan is sorry that he’s gone against God and was damned for eternity, or whether he’s sorry that he’s frozen and Judas tastes nasty, there’s no telling. But I think that a characterization of Satan who is anything other than pure, crafty evil isn’t really very good.

    He’s more badass and active in the Bible than he is in Dante, even.

  3. By the way, Paradise Lost is
    By the way, Paradise Lost is totally worth reading — I highly recommend it. Milton’s epic is one of my all-time favorite pieces of writing ever.

  4. ANSWER: Just warming
    ANSWER: Just warming up

    QUESTION: What’s that guy with the ass trumpet doing in the lake of fire?

    Jamelah, if I were a college professor, you would be required reading. Your way with the classics is totally cool. I mean, whatever your reviews lack in highbrow loftiness is more than compensated by the enthusiasm and freshness of your style. What’s even better, you really do summarize the plots, action, & themes well, and always add some interesting tidbits to boot.
    Jamelah, you are, The Classics Bomb.

  5. Thanks, Bill. I had enough
    Thanks, Bill. I had enough of lofty criticism by the time I finished school (but I still come across it here & there in my reading), and I think that really, people should stop taking themselves and everything they read so seriously and just have a little fun with it. And if you can’t have a little fun at the expense of the exalted classics of days gone by, when can you?

  6. Well, in that spirit, we’ll
    Well, in that spirit, we’ll just have to see what happens when “Levi Reads Milton”. Coming soon, if I can get through it.

  7. Can’t wait.And give him back
    Can’t wait.

    And give him back his stapler, too. (Sorry, I had to.)

  8. Willy WonkaI’ve heard rumours
    Willy Wonka

    I’ve heard rumours that Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was loosely based on the Inferno, but since I haven’t read Dante (yet), perhaps you could tell us if this is true.

  9. Hi Marisa –I’ve never heard
    Hi Marisa —

    I’ve never heard that before, but when I think about it, I can see a few similarities between the two. With the different parts of the chocolate factory being like the different circles of Hell, and the children facing punishments appropriate to their vices — gluttony, greed, etc.

  10. Itneresting summery. I
    Itneresting summery. I agree, classics should be fun. I think though that the book was more about the expansion of new ideas and new worlds at the time of writing, which is why Dante’s Inferno traverses up and down planes and through the center of the world. I also tend to think that tho he was pissed at the politics, he was pissed more at the idea of christianity and the lack of the christian ideal in his peers…

  11. Jamelah,
    Illusion is the

    Illusion is the first of all pleasures.
    Oscar Wilde
    I never loved the Inferno like I love it now.
    A few Harvard intellects were sitting around drinking
    martinis and I printed our your modern review of the ancient classic. At first they were closed mouthed and cross eyed, silence….entitlement____why would someone rip the guts out of the Inferno for god’s sake, WHY?
    Then as the evening went on they began to appreciate the review. All of them agreed that Milton’s devil was definitely the better of the evil, and for guys who take themselves way to seriously, by the time the last olive was eaten they were toasting you and asking for the Lit Kicks address.
    Right on girl, you got the goods to back it up.
    I always enjoy your articles.
    Keep up the great work!
    Gesso Cocteau

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