Tuesday, April 2, 2013

To Hell and Beyond, Through Far Away Eyes

It was time for my annual trip through Western literature’s canon, and so, because its settings and themes are similar to those smoldering under my work-in-progress, Butchertown, I pulled on my reading boots and took an epic hike through The Inferno of Dante (or Dante’s Inferno as it’s more commonly known).

The Inferno is the first part of The Divine Comedy trilogy, written by medieval Italian poet Dante Alighieri in the 14th Century. The poem has undergone many translations. I chose a 1994 dual translation (Italian on the recto page, English on the verso) by Robert Pinsky, a former U.S. Poet Laureate. This version also contains atmospheric, impressionistic illustrations by Michael Mazur.

The Inferno casts a blazing light throughout Western literature. Followed by two volumes (or canticas), Purgatorio and Paradiso, it was written between A.D. 1308 and 1321. Up until then, most books were written in Latin. Dante wrote his epic in his everyday Tuscan dialect, which eventually became the official language of Italy when the nation assembled itself five hundred years later.

The Inferno explores numerous themes, but first and foremost, it’s a vivid journey through humanity’s fractious relationship with God, as seen by a medieval eye. Threads of Florentine politics are weaved throughout the poem, as well. Dante was what we might call an activist, caught up in the violent civil struggles between competing factions for control over Florence. Unfortunately for him, he was on the losing side and was driven from his beloved city. Like many great works, from Machiavelli’s The Prince to Nabokov’s novels and stories, The Inferno was written in exile. It’s a cry of pain and very violent revenge.

That sentiment of exile is plain in the poem’s famous opening lines, which still ring mournfully six centuries later, words I first heard at a former girlfriend’s funeral years ago:

Midway on our life’s journey, I found myself

In dark woods, the right road lost.

And so we open with Dante the poet lost and in peril, as three hungry beasts closing in. Just in time, in sails the spirit of Dante’s literary hero, the Roman poet Virgil, who has been sent by Dante’s great love, Beatrice. Virgil has come to guide Dante to where Beatrice awaits him in Heaven.

There’s a catch though: to get to Heaven, they’ll be taking the scenic route, all the way down through Hell and up the other side. No shortcuts to Heaven, then or now.

After passing through Hell’s vestibule (“Abandon All Hope, You Who Enter Here”), a purgatory for the morally uncommitted, Virgil leads Dante step by step down into the bowels of The Infamous Other Place.

Dante maps Hell with precise and vivid geography and achieves a genuine feat of imagination, boisterous and colorful, flatulent and gory, even by the standards of the Hostel movies and Comedy Central. If Hell exists as Dante describes it, the poem would be a useful travel guide (provided you can keep it from getting wet, catching fire, or shattering when its gets cold).

The route leads relentlessly down through circles nested within circles within sub-circles. Each circle symbolizes a particular category of sin, though sometimes Dante’s categorizations break down, overlap, melt together, and crisscross.

The First Circle is reserved for pre-Christian pagans and Jews, waiting miserably for Jesus the Redeemer (who is never mentioned by name) to come down and take them up to Heaven. The next level is for those who suffer from “excess” carnal passions; the next circle, the stingy and the wasteful and so on.

Muslims get their own special circle—a whole city in fact--which clues you in to the tenor of ecumenical dialogue in that era, when inter-religious warfare was the norm and, as it is in every era, un-Godly vicious.

Grotesque terrors and tortures, ugly monsters and dragons, wait around every bend. The end notes credit The Inferno for creating many of the tropes found in horror fiction to this day, making it an Ur text for horror writers.

If you go, you’ll meet many of Dante’s political enemies—including a couple of popes--along the trail, so be ready for plenty of axe-grinding, score settling and vengeful mutilations; as most of these people now live only in the nooks and crannies of history, these sections took patience to get through, especially for one who dislikes didactic fiction, as I do.

And anyone who believes Satan's declaration in Milton's Paradise Lost that it's better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven may need reminding that there is only one guy living free in hell and it won't be us. There ain’t much freedom to be had around these slimy, slummy neighborhoods of Dante's Inferno

Mark Twain once recommended going to Heaven for the scenery and Hell for the company, but there’s no Algonquin Round Table in this Hell, only an endless, relentless shrieking chorus; not much in the way of twinkling wit and knee-slapping humor, unless being permanently impaled on a pitchfork with your head dunked in molten lava is your idea of a hearty chortle. Better a boring harp than a sizzling hot spike up my fundament, that’s my attitude. And I’m stickin’ to it.

Surprisingly it’s not the murderously violent and hateful who burn and freeze in the dens, warrens and bleak ice plains that make up the ninth and bottom circle, but “falsifiers,” “blasphemers”, and liars and betrayers in general.

Hell is a lively action-packed place, but, as the introduction states, there’s one other noticeable thing lacking besides the name of Christ—a sense of forgiveness, which stands very much at the heart of Christianity, then and now. This is a most unforgiving poem. Freezing or hot, those sentenced to Hell are on eternal lockdown, regardless of the shallowness of their sin or sincerity of their repentance. No parole. No probation.

The Inferno is the most challenging book I’ve read in my journey through the world’s literary masterpieces. Uneducated in Italian, untrained in both poetry and the classics, I turned for guidance to this versions’ introduction and end notes, plus articles in Sparks Notes and Wikipedia (though I had to skirt around asides like “Michiko Kakutani declares that, beyond a doubt, Stephanie Meyer is the real author of The Inferno.”). Though I was in safer climes in my bed than Dante was on his abyssal trail, the journey was sometimes stumbling and strenuous.

Dante’s world isn’t mine, but I’m glad I visited, once again to see things through eyes not my own, to live other lives I’ll never know, which has always been the draw of fiction for me. The more I learn how to see other worlds through other eyes in other times, the better my own work seems.

(reedited 4/16/13: I had misquoted Satan's adage, from Milton's Paradise Lost about reigning in Hell, though I swear someone somewhere states it as "live free in Hell.")

Copyright 2012 by Thomas Burchfield

Photo by author

Thomas Burchfield has recently completed his 1920s gangster thriller Butchertown. He can be friended on Facebook, followed on Twitter, and read at Goodreads. You can also join his e-mail list via tbdeluxe [at] sbcglobal [dot] net. He lives in Northern California with his wife, Elizabeth.


Julie Schauer said...

57fGreat review, and it should be noted how much the artists of the Renaissance read and were influenced by Dante. The one passage I remember about his contemporary art was something about Giotto having eclipsed his teacher, Cimabue.

I find it very significant that he had the nerve to critique authority (putting popes in hell) which makes him modern in many ways. He and Giotto were contemporaries and very much parallel to each other in pushing the world to a modern universe.

Thomas Burchfield said...

Thanks Julie for the insight and perspective, especially his role in move toward modernity. I didn't pick up on that--esp. the questioning of authority. According to what I've read, however, the idea of papal infallibility hadn't become dogmatic doctrine at this point (and wouldn't until the mid-1800s), so I wonder if Dante and others still had some leeway for criticism at this point.