My rating: 5 of 5 stars
You know the story: a man in the middle of life is lost in a shadowy forest of ignorance and error, his path to wisdom blocked by impassable beasts. Then he is saved by the shade of the great poet, Virgil, sent to rescue the wanderer by his dead and heavenly beloved, Beatrice. Salvation comes in the form of a journey through the Christian afterworld: a descent down the funnel of hell, a climb up the mount of purgatory, and a sojourn in paradise. Our hero, like many an epic hero before him, will quest through strange realms, even as our poet-philosopher—the hero’s own later self, recollecting the odyssey in rhyme—discloses its significance for humankind. This tripartite poem is threefold in genre: it combines epic, autobiography, and philosophy in one. Such a yoking of incommensurates marks the achievement of Dante. What ambitious imaginative writer that follows has not wished to fuse personal life and local politics with the wisdom and personae of eternity, “to hold in a single thought reality and justice”?
To ascend, you must first descend, as Odysseus and Aeneas and Freud and Jung understood. Virgil leads Dante down what Lawrence, referring to Orpheus rather than Dante, will later call “the strange lanes of hell.” Their strangeness is what should be emphasized for the contemporary reader. Dante must be the most off-putting canonical poet, his vision almost totally encrusted in allegorical interpretation: you feel like you must halt at every line of verse and ask, “What does X stand for, what does Y stand for?” And maybe—my native contrarianism makes me question the post-structuralist chaos theory of textuality—this is the ultimate or final form of reading imaginative literature, the point just before reading itself ceases because truth has been realized. But first you just have to read: the text before the commentary.
Reading the Inferno, what stands out is the inventiveness, the prodigality of imagination. Dante was hoping it would. Poetry and philosophy may rest in the end a little lower than wisdom, but we poets and philosophers sometimes feel we can stand in their fainter light forever. Hence in Limbo, at the threshold of Hell, Dante joins the great shades of antiquity—Homer and Socrates, Aristotle and Ovid—in the odd university town that is their ambiguous immortality. Neither saved nor quite punished, they are able to control themselves by force of reason but unable to redeem themselves through faith: “we have no hope and yet we live in longing,” says Virgil of his own sphere, speaking for all of us who have not been able to unite reality and justice.
But I write on Halloween morning—though the poem takes place on Easter weekend—so let me proceed to the horrors:
And—there!—a serpent sprang with force at one
who stood upon our shore, transfixing him
just where the neck and shoulders form a knot.
No o or i has ever been transcribed
so quickly as that soul caught fire and burned
and, as he fell, quickly turned to ashes;
and when he lay, undone, upon the ground,
the dust of him collected by itself
and instantly returned to what it was…
Dante’s horrors are uncanny in the Freudian sense of the displaced familiar; his Hell is our world, distorted. His use of epic simile, which compares the epic poet’s marvelous narrative with homely or natural places and events to make the poetic material seem more plausible, begins to work in reverse, so that the everyday comes to be seen by hellfire, just as the modern novelist, reversing the epic poet’s procedure, likens homely or domestic affairs to the strange and outlandish:
The demons did the same as any cook
who has his urchins force the meat with hooks
deep down into the pot, that it not float.
Hell, as I said, is a strange place. Writing before the Last Judgment, when the dead will rise from their tombs and rejoin their souls, Dante necessarily makes Hell a simulacrum of what will later hold full reality. Again and again, it is Dante alone whose feet dislodge stones or whose weight bears upon boats and the backs of demons. At the end of the Inferno, he even encounters the soul of a sinner who has not yet died on earth (“as soon as any soul becomes a traitor, / as I was, then a demon takes its body / away”).
The genius of Dante, then, is to organize vivid images of spiritual states: the place in the organization of Hell you occupy is a kind of metaphor for what your soul in its sinful state already looks like. The imagery of Hell is the true picture of reality that is under what we take for the normal world. If you are politically or religiously sectarian, then you are already, right now, a walking catalogue of mutilation, part cleaved from part; if you are a seller of spiritual goods, you are already, right now, upside down in a hole, having elevated the base over the holy; if you are sexually incontinent, you are already, right now, fused to another and buffeted by violent passion. One sinner, who “carried by the hair its severed head…like a lantern,” even announces God’s method to Dante, who merely copies it in his art:
Because I severed those so joined, I carry—
alas—my brain dissevered from its source,
which is my trunk. And thus, in me,
one sees the law of counter-penalty.
But it is not just that we get what we deserve; it is that sin is its own penalty. Dante invents endless haunting horrors to shock us out of sin, from rains of fire to fields of shit to vats of pitch to lakes of ice. As the two poets descend down the spiral that leads to the bottom of the universe, Virgil counsels Dante not to pity the sufferers. Is their suffering not just? Has God not ordained it? The drama of the Inferno is Dante’s growing confidence in his own judgment. He swoons with pity when he hears the story of the adulterous lovers Paolo and Francesca in Canto V, but by Canto XXXII he is grabbing heads frozen in ice by the scruff to enjoin them to speak. What, by the way, do the souls of sinners want from Dante? On learning he is a poet, they all want him to write of them on earth, to bring their names and stories back into circulation. This is a backhanded tribute to poetry: it is the only secular way to a relative immortality, but what does it matter in the grand scheme of eternity if even the damned can be satisfied by it? Virgil, while condemning usury as perverse replication of wealth without labor, argues that art must follow nature, which is the artistry of God:
“Philosophy, for one who understands ,
points out, and not just in one place,” he said,
how nature follows—as she takes her course—
the Divine Intellect and Divine Art;
and if you read your Physics carefully,
not many pages from the start, you’ll see
that when it can, your art would follow nature,
just as a pupil imitates his master;
so that your art is almost God’s grandchild.”
Yet the God of the Inferno is an artificer of perversity; he must be, in giving the perverse their just desserts. I am not quite about to launch into an argument that Dante was of the Devil’s party without knowing it. Even so, compassion accompanies clarity throughout the Inferno, if only for humanity as such and the distortions we are prey to, as when Dante sees the soothsaysers and magi with their heads twisted around in punishment for trying to see too far ahead and by ungodly means:
As I inclined my head still more, I saw
that each, amazingly, appeared contorted
between the chin and where the chest begins;
they had their faces twisted toward their haunches
and found it necessary to walk backward,
because they could not see ahead of them.
Perhaps the force of palsy has so fully
distorted some, but that I’ve yet to see,
and I do not believe that that can be.
May God so let you, reader, gather fruit
from what you read; and now think for yourself
how I could ever keep my own face dry
when I beheld our image so nearby
and so awry that tears, down from the eyes,
bathed the buttocks, running down the cleft.
Dante and the reader, though, feel undeniable esteem for certain of the damned. The sodomite Brunetto Latini in Canto XV, whom Dante sees as a mentor, for instance:
And then he turned and seemed like one of those
who race across the fields to win the green
cloth at Verona; of those runners, he
appeared to be the winner, not the loser.
There is Dante’s Ulysses, who speaks of his restless voyaging beyond the pillars of Hercules from the flame where he is entombed, and who narrates his rousing speeches and his own death with tragic dignity:
“‘Consider well the seed that gave you birth:
you were not made to live your lives as brutes,
but to be followers of worth and knowledge.’
…for out of that new land a whirlwind rose
and hammered at our ship, against her bow.
Three times it turned her round with all the waters;
and at the fourth, it lifted up the stern
so that our prow plunged deep, as it pleased an Other,
until the sea again closed—over us.”
A theological objection does occur to the reader: if a soul like Ulysses can be so articulate and knowing about his situation, then how can grace be withheld him—or, to put it another way, if the soul remains intelligent after death, how might it not be saved? This is just another way of tormenting the nuns in religion class with the old question about God: if God is all good and all powerful, why must anyone be damned or anyone suffer? Why has a benevolent God arranged a universe with so much evil and suffering? (“We made him do it,” goes the answer; “But he made us,” goes the reply; and so on and so forth, from Genesis to Blade Runner.)
Like all reasonable ancients and moderns, but perhaps not medievals (to use an overly simplistic historical narrative), I accept that the universe is so horrifically arranged while discarding the possibility that a universally benevolent power has so arranged it. Insofar as Dante remains a poet, he does no less, and this is shown in his insistence that eternity is a kind of Florence writ large, only our own world, but seen through the eye of God.
One of the glories and sorrows of the Inferno is the amount of space taken up by Florentine politics in Dante’s time. This necessitates frequent recourse to endnotes and glosses, and, unless one is a historian, the politics never quite come clear. I grasp that Dante belonged to the leftmost wing of the republican party that initially supported the papacy against the empire, and that after he was permanently exiled by a rival faction he developed a political philosophy emphasizing a division between spiritual and worldly power. (The corruption of spiritual authority is particularly important in the Inferno, as Dante denounces church corruption and even traces it to the Donation of Constantine, which is to say the founding of the church as a secular power.) I see too how this desire to neatly arrange different types of perfection and happiness belongs to the same poetic imagination that fuses thought and image into complex but intelligible philosophical arrays.
But all the Florentine personalities tend to blur every time I read this poem, and I sometimes question the wisdom of this literary strategy; for myself, I would not ask readers almost a millennium hence to recognizes the names of, for instance, Paul Manafort and John Podesta (to choose only Italian names from the present American political inferno). Even so, I am stunned by Dante’s boldness in putting his contemporaries right next to the personae of religion and mythology and retaining a level and authoritative tone while doing so: Paul Manafort and Ulysses, John Podesta and the Titans of Olympus (I use the aforementioned contemporary American figures because I cannot just now recall the names of any Ghibellines), all occupying the same metaphysical plane.
The Inferno is a worldly city. It is, perhaps, the city we all live in on earth, and in the tones in which so many sinners speak we hear our own voices, complaining about politics and recounting our despair, chastened by the absurdity of it all and the necessity of enduring it:
My home was in the city whose first patron [Mars]
gave way to John the Baptist; for this reason,
he’ll always use its art to make it sorrow;
and if—along the crossing of the Arno—
some effigy of Mars had not remained,
those citizens who afterward rebuilt
their city on the ashes that Attila
had left to them, would have travailed in vain.
I made—of my own house—my gallows place.
Postmodern psychology is the opposite of Dante’s: do we not invert his hierarchies, honoring impulse and desire over the reason that was, we hear, discredited by its bringing of inferno rather than paradise to those it colonized, enslaved, and immolated? If God does not exist and Auschwitz is the other name of reason, then it is not even any dishonor for us to acknowledge that we live in the infernal city. We have learned, perversely perhaps—but do you have any better ideas?—to enjoy the agonies our offenses bring us, to admire our own woundedness. Of Dante, we ask only vividness and discard the wisdom.
A final note on this translation. Allen Mandelbaum, working toward the end of the twentieth century (this translation dates from 1981) and working in rhyme-poor English, knew he could not replicate Dante’s terza rima while translating clearly and faithfully; but free verse would be a poor substitute for the poet’s sonically intricate yet clear and rapid Italian. Mandelbaum’s solution is superb: he chooses “close sonic packing,” he says in his introduction, “with pure rhymes, pararhyme, assonances, alliterations, and consonances often called into service.” (I tried something like this myself when trying to see the greatness in Mallarmé through a poor translation.) English is suited to such a technique: alliteration, not end-rhyme, was the major sound technique of the earliest English poets, and alliteration, assonance, and consonance serve perhaps more naturally than rhyme as sonic unifiers in English poetry. This means that while Mandelbaum’s poem does not rhyme quite as Dante’s does, it chimes throughout. In this way, it proclaims even in English, when read aloud, the unity of God’s creation as not only described but also verbally enacted by the poet.