Reading Dante’s Inferno I am struck by the degree to which his literary vision has influenced our popular representations of hell. Fire, shit, monsters, and endless torture all feature in this underworld descent where Virgil (the poet) leads a lost Dante (the peasant) through several chambers to purgatory. Along the way Dante, aided by Virgil, interviews several of the suffering sinners, and by turns feels compassion, vengeance, anger, and self-righteousness as he either recognizes the sinners from his native Florence, or hears their stories.
A moral tale, a political argument, and a vivid painting are all rolled into one as Dante frequently finds those he did not like in real life tortured in the pits of hell. Those tortured include all the excesses of the human passions – for food, money, possessions, power, sex, favours plus those with the inability to control their worst impulses towards violence, deceit, and treachery. Dante, is simply a hapless Everyman, on the verge of losing his way and rescued by Virgil (representative of Reason) who is helping him through treachery and onto the right path again. It’s a bit of allegory that hits one over the head really – though I suppose Dante needed some reason to be traversing hell, purgatory and heaven without being scathed on the other end.
Besides that most obvious of plot devices, I found the Inferno wholly engrossing and eagerly read the end notes to discover the gossip of Alighieri’s day embedded in his voluminous references to people, political parties, wars and Florentine infighting. Not to mention his thorough referencing of Greek mythology including the stories of Troy and the Odyessy – and his extensive symbollic and numerological referencing throughout. This is one rich work!
Most inventive are the punishments, of course, each being concordant with the crime on earth – a demonstration of the perfect balance of God’s justice. Thus, the gluttons must each excrement, the simonists end up stuffed in a hole together nose to ass, the adulterers blown about eternally by wind (just as their passions blew them about in life). Of particular interest are the traitors whom Dante accuses of having lost their souls to hell while their bodies continue to exist on earth posessed by demons – a not-so-oblique reference to the treachery of politicians who sell their own people out in pursuit of power (and what I would reference as modern-day sociopaths, their bodies exist but their eyes are vacant and compassion for others non-existent). The ultimate sinners in the pantheon are in fact famous traitors: Casius, Brutus and Judas Iscariot – all chewed about in the mouth of a three-headed Lucifer in front of the doorway to purgatory. I hate to say it – but after the vivid circles that proceded it, the 9th circle of hell was a bit of an anti-climax, and Lucifer didn’t seem all that bad. But perhaps that’s just because the mouth of Lucifer doesn’t seem nearly as bad as being ripped limb-from-limb by wild dogs, or being subject to a rain of fire.
For the record, the occupants in the circles of hell are as follows:
Vestibule: The Indifferent (those who lead virtuous lives pre-Christianity, like Virgil)
1st Circle: Limbo (those who died without baptism)
2nd Circle: The Lustful
3rd Circle: The Gluttonous
4th Circle: The Avaricious and Prodigal
5th Circle: The Wrathful
6th Circle: Heretics
7th Circle: Violence
8th Circle: Fraud (The Abyss)
9th Circle: Traitors
Post-class discussion notes (October 21, 2011)
Something worth following up on there is that the period in which Dante is writing is within the emergence of early capitalism – with a developing mercantile culture which relied on trust relations between the participants. This could be one of the reasons why Dante places deceit and dishonesty in the lowest circle of hell – with the worst being deceivers of their master, their country and their guests.
I can’t help thinking – since it was brought up by our professor – about what Dante’s Hell of the modern-day 1% might look like. This poses an interesting idea for a project, a blog post, or some figurative art in the future.