Wednesday, October 04, 2006

32. The Inferno

by Dante Alighieri

The Inferno is a book I was, and I’m sure hundreds of other students were, forced to read in school. It would have been 12th grade AP English (World Lit) where I also read Oedipus Rex, portions of The Aenied, the requisite Shakespeare (Hamlet), and spent more time sitting on the floor getting acquainted with my now best friend of nine years than following Raskolnikov’s tribulations in Crime and Punishment. It was also the first of several times that I would be asked to read The Iliad and the first of all those times that I would really just b.s. my way through the test.

I never had plans to return to these texts I had been obligated to read and it wasn’t until very recently that the idea of reading them popped into my head. One day I randomly announced to a friend that I was going to read the entire Divine Comedy and I meant it. I don’t know why I decided on that. Perhaps because I hadn’t understood it the first time and wanted to see if my acquired years of reading experience helped me out (though, to be honest, I had no interest in understanding the first time as those were my “non-reading” years). Perhaps it was knowing that these writings have held a great influence in literature combined with my penchant for getting at those original sources; after all, we wouldn’t be forced to read them seven hundred years later if they didn’t mean something. Perhaps it was the simple idea of falling into an intensely descriptive account of hell, purgatory, and heaven. Or perhaps it was the repressed academic deep down inside me that, after several years of doing nothing with my college degrees, wants to prove to myself that I’m still, maybe, just a little bit smart. And maybe to prove it to other people, too.

Hey, no one ever said this reading business was vanity-free, okay?

What I really love about reading classic texts is finding all of those little things that have survived hundreds of years later to become fully immersed in pop culture. They become those sayings that everyone knows but of which no one knows its origins. Most notably for everyone who’s been keeping up with the Series of Unfortunate Events is Beatrice, the woman Snicket often refers to as a deceased love. Turns out that Beatrice is the woman Dante was always in love with and, in the Divine Comedy, calls for him to be led through the after-life to meet her in heaven. Also, there’s this little line I found just before Virgil is about to lead Dante into hell: “All hope abandon, ye who enter in!” For as many times as that line has been uttered in movies and TV, I’d never stopped to think where it may have come from.

Of course, what really brings The Inferno its fame is Dante’s extremely vivid vision of those condemned to hell and the punishments they must suffer. He’s split hell into nine levels with each level serving a different sin. One thing that makes these sorts of classic reads really difficult is that there are so many historical and cultural references that, without being some sort of Italian scholar, we don’t stand a chance of understanding. Which is why it’s so important to get a really well annotated edition. But, for each of the politicians, adulterers, and greedy bankers that find themselves in Dante’s hell (it’s important to note that many of these people were not yet dead and Dante was prophesizing their fates), it’s interesting to think of who from our day might make it into his hell. Would Hitler be in the seventh circle where the sin is violence against others, or would he be somewhere in the ninth circle, closer to Lucifer? Would the Enron executives be in the eighth circle with the thieves and counterfeiters whose punishment is be engulfed in flames? And what of our promiscuous celebrities that go from marriage to marriage without a thought? Would they be in circle two, forever tormented by heavy winds and storms, “whirling them around, and smiting, it molests them”? Who would be our society’s flatterers, condemned to the eighth circle where the sinners are “smothered in a filth that out of human privies seemed to flow”?

Oh yes, that would be the ass-kissers literally covered in shit. When you take the basic story and ignore the fact that you don’t recognize half of the names Dante drops – that’s what the Italian scholar’s endnotes are for – it becomes really interesting to extrapolate this idea to our world. If you can forget that you were once forced to deal with the obscure references and garner some kind of meaning from the heavily historical mess with your fifteen year old mind, it’s really worth giving the epic another try. Dante’s a man with a heavy political grudge (he was exiled, after all), a sharp cultural wit, and an even sharper tongue. It’s too bad we don’t have any current writers than can compare – who wouldn’t love to find out where he’d place our current president?


Blogger jenclair said...

I love my copy of The Inferno, and I love all of the allusions that Dante makes and that so many authors since then have made in reference to The Inferno. Was never really interested in Purgatorio or Paradiso, but maybe I should attempt them as well.

12:21 AM  
Blogger piksea said...

Amazing review! Mr. Handsome Honey bought me The Inferno and it is languishing on my TBR pile. Now, I'm going to have to push it up to the top of the pile.

Personally, I like the idea of Dubya in that buried in shit world. Seems sorta fitting.

10:22 AM  
Blogger Exxie said...

Thanks, piksea! Alas, the TBR pile, where so many of our good intentions fall.

Jenclair - I plan on reading Purgatorio and Paradiso at some point so, provided I'm still blogging about books, I'll let you know what I think. I'm interested to see if they're any less vivid than the Inferno since there isn't nearly as much push to read them.

11:09 PM  
Blogger Carrie said...

oh, the inferno. i began it ages ago and now I can't find it. mostly, i just read the intro by dorothy sayers of lord peter whimsy fame...

thanks for your take!

2:55 AM  

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