Friday, August 13, 2010

Reading the Classics with Paul- Inferno Part 1

When approaching Dante's Divine Comedy, we do tend to think of the theology first (at least, once we get past the grotesque and, as it were, inflammatory imagery.)  On one level it is a tour of the highly-structured, what we would now refer to as Catholic, afterlife.  On another level, however (and I venutre a guess all who read along have caught this by this point), it is a highly personal and political work.  One could evaluate it as social commentary or possibly even personal vendetta at some points.  If I'd had my wits more about me last week, I would have stressed to everyone to be sure to get a copy with good and plenty notes.  There is a lot of material which time has obscured immediate understanding, although I contend that one can still gain quite a bit from the work without a working knowledge of 13th Century Italian politics.

I have a modest example from the 3rd Canto which I've been discussing with Laurie all afternoon.  I went and picked up the Princeton University Press 700 page commentary on Inferno in The Divine Comedy series by Charles S. Singleton (highly recommended and can be found a bit cheaper through online used book sources.)  Lines 58-60 read:
"Faces I knew among that company;
especially that one whose coward conscience
led him to refuse his sacred duty;"
Were I reading without the benefit of the commentary, I would probably simply have contented myself that Dante knew someone, or of someone at least, who, in an act of cowardice, didn't do something he was supposed to in something probably regarding religion.  It seems like kind of a throw-away line especially as Hell seems to be heavily populated even in those days.

Oh, but the actual story is quite remarkable.  For those of you who don't remember your papal history, Celestine V was a monastic and a bit of a hermit who founded the monastic order called The Celestines, which was a rather ascetic branch of monastics, often noted for a great deal of fasting.  Celestine was a very old man and, by most accounts, a very pious one.  Enter Benedetto Caetani of Anagni.  Caetani wanted to be pope.  He went to Pope Celestine and convinced him to decree that a pope may renounce the papacy if he felt it necessary "for the welfare of his soul."  Caetani mentioned Clement who, in Catholic history, refused the apostolic succession from St. Peter himself "for the welfare of his own soul."

Here's where it gets interesting.  Dante, as well as others, believed there was a secret side to the rest of the story, possibly through gossip or smear campaigns or eyewitness accounts.  Dante was one who believed that Caetani then bribed the attendants surrounding Pope Celestine.  He snuck into the Pope's bedroom and hid under his bed with a tube to amplify his voice.  When the Pope came in to sleep for three nights in a row, Caetani said "I am the angel sent to speak with you, and I command you, in the name of glorious God, to renounce the papacy immediately, and return to being a hermit."  Which Celestine did and Caetani was elected Pope.  He took the name of Boniface VIII and then promptly ordered Celestine confined to a monastic cell for the remainder of his life.  About 20 years later, the Church canonized Celestine as St. Peter Celestine.  But, get this, Dante's indictment in that quote is against Celestine for abdicating (although Boniface VIII also appears later.  While Boniface VIII is still remembered as one of the "bad Popes", current history tends to be much kinder to Celestine V than Dante was.)  Also, don't miss this, all of that story is unpacking three lines of the 250 page poem.

So there are definitely a few ways one could choose to read Inferno.  There is A LOT to unpack in this piece and I imagine we will shave enough ice off the tip of the iceberg for a snow cone in this series (or, perhaps more accurately, we have a snowball's chance in Hell to fully explore this piece in the course of four short blog entries.)  There is the highly topical way (I'm surprised none of our contemporary political commentators have picked up this format.  It seems right up their alley to me), the highly theological way, and also the way of the rip-roaring good story (although with the latter I'm not sure what you would do with all of the topical material aside from disregarding it outright.)   I don't intend to neglect the former completely, but I shall do my best to limit my "geeking out" on Dante for the sake of not aliening my audience.

We begin straddling the line between realism and metaphor, in that marvelous Medieval style, as Dante experiences one of the most dramatic mid-life crises in recorded history.  Skirting beasties, he runs into Virgil, the long dead Roman poet (whose works I think I'm scheduled to hit on this blog sometime early next year.)  Virgil agrees to act as Dante's guide up the hill by way of Hell and Purgatory.  Virgil sets up the love story relating how Beatrice came to Virgil and told him to keep an eye on Dante.

Both times I've read this piece I've thought that Limbo didn't actually sound all that bad, at least if you were one of the virtuous pagans.  It's kind of like sleeping in a park in a crummy part of town for eternity.  On top of that, the great classical poets (all of whom Dante just happens to be a rabid fan of) reside in this area.  The message is fairly clear: even Dante has a hard time with the concept of the pagans he really likes personally actually being tormented for all eternity.  Also here are unbaptized babies.  Also, this is where the Fathers of the Faith hung out until Jesus came to get them.  That would have been when Virgil was less than 100 years dead and, at the point of the story, almost 1300 years ago. 

We then pass a lot of souls in eternal torment and reach our first of Hell's residents/employees (as opposed to Hell's clients) who is Charon the boatman (or one of them anyway.)  Charon says "Hey, we don't serve your kind in here!"  Virgil talks Charon down, but also nudges Dante on the boat ride and says "That's good news for you!  He was reluctant because he usually only ferries damned souls!"  Dante chooses to curb his excitement over this news for the present given the circumstances.

Second Circle: we meet Minos who also needs to have Dante's presence explained to him.  We see the Lustful in a rather graphic description of their area of torment (really, the descriptive qualities and the bold imagination in the narrative are peerless in works of this period.  This truly is a masterpiece in the history of literature.)  Dante meets a girl who got a little carried away reading about Sir Lancelot with her brother-in-law and ended up transgressing her way into that circle.

Third Circle: the Gluttonous and Cerberus.  Virgil throws mud in the dog's mouth which it is content to eat and let them pass (That works on my dog, Schubert, as well.)  We meet another of Dante's contemporaries who sits up in a rather grotesque field of prone gluttons to speak with them.  Dante rather oddly asks the damned soul for political analysis.

Fourth Circle: Plutus spouts gibberish (apparently the Bosses are at the beginning of each level in this game.  BTW, I'm sure you'll get to see me spit and sputter over the travesty that is the recent Dante's Inferno video game sometime in the near future.  Stay tuned for that.)  Dante witnesses a rather stinging indictment against the greedy in a form of damnation that I cannot be alone in thinking resembled the floor of the New York Stock Exchange.  For our "Nothing New Under The Sun" file, most of these are clergy although we don't get a good look at their faces.  They are "given over" and, in this case, the sin itself is pretty much the punishment.  Virgil gives a rather hopeless economic theory and we forge ahead.

Cue "Come Sail Away" because we're at the River Styx. This is where the angry hang out and mosh eternally (which sounds like Hell to me!)  Phlegyas takes our heroes across in his boat.  Dante has words with a damned soul he knew.  Virgil has words with demons and they refuse to cooperate with their mission from God (or, at least, Beatrice.)  Virgil is a little crestfallen, but knows that they have to relent sooner or later.

And this is where we find ourselves at the end of this week's reading.  The tour isn't going well at the moment.  I think this next week we will read through Canto XVII.


  1. Glad to see you reading through Dante -- do you plan to do the entire Divine Comedy? I have upwards of 5 or 6 translations of The Inferno and down to maybe 2 or 3 for the rest. I honestly can't remember who I ended up liking best for reading, but for the notes, I liked Esolen's and the Hollanders's versions.

  2. I will be doing the entire Divine Comedy, but I won't be doing the other two right away. Inferno is in the 10 Penguin Essential Classics which is the reading group I'm working through right now and the entire Divine Comedy is in the Harvard Classics Library, which is the next series I'll be reading through on this blog. So, I will be coming back to Purgatory and Paradise in the near future.

  3. I might be interested in joining you for the Harvard Classics Library. Do you know when you'll be beginning it and in what way you'll navigate all those works? Timeframe?

  4. For that matter, where are you at in your current reading schedule? I tend to read randomly, but am currently taking hints from Bloom's How to Read and Why.

  5. Bloom is such a great resource.

    Here's what happened with me and the Harvard Classics Library. The Penguin Classics reading group seems to be pretty much composed of me at this point, but I'm almost finished. Back in July, before Laurie and I went to Sacramento, I was in the library looking at the Harvard Classics set and figured "well, why not start now."
    So, I wasn't really planning on doing it as a reading group, but I am posting on every piece I read in the series on this blog and I would love it if you'd like to join me. So far I've read Volume 1 (Ben Franklin's autobiography, the Journal of John Woolman, William Penn's Fruits of Solitude) and the short Plato pieces from the beginning of Volume 2. I've just sort of been reading them in between the Penguin Classics for the past 2 months.
    If you would like to, it would be a good time to get in on this series because I have Moby Dick to finish out the Penguin Series which is not a quick read. I've tagged all of the previous books under Harvard Classics. I don't really have a formal schedule planned yet (as in, I haven't set deadlines for myself on reading them) and I imagine I'll really dive into the series once I get past Melville. But, at present my personal reading curriculum for the foreseeable future is the Harvard Classics (although I'm also "reading" through audiobooks of P.G. Wodehouse's Jeeves books on my commute.)

  6. Wodehouse is a blast. I need to read more of him.

    I've tried to start numerous reading groups over the years and it always boils down to just me. Which is a bummer, because discussion while reading is not only fun, it's an important part of internalizing and seeing the work from different angles.

    That said, my browsing your various posts challenged me to review my own reading that I've been doing. I had set out with some goals which have kind of gone limp. So, once I could pull myself away from endless browsing today I started thinking hard about what I'm after and how to approach it. I'm going to be posting about it soon, actually. Tonight or tomorrow.

    My reading goal is taking a specific shape, but it would be nice if we could find a way to bring the two plans together to some extent for the sake of discussion and mutual benefit.

  7. And here it is. A reading plan in 4 stages.

    As you'll notice, I've based the first two stages on Bloom's books. Given my preoccupations and goals, he's an excellent starting point, and I'll benefit from being able to read his criticism after reading the works.

    And though this is set out in 4 stages, it's loose and not strictly sequential. I'm currently already reading through Shakespeare's plays, Don Quixote, War & Peace, and short stories from a variety of authors. I'm about half done with Quixote and am still in the first Part of W&P. I won't be done with either of them for a while. I haven't yet compared my plan to the Harvard Classics Library to check for overlap. If you see things here that you'd like to coordinate so we're reading them at about the same time, just let me know.

  8. This is a very happy thing. I will let you know of overlaps. I may borrow some of this in the distant future once I'm through the Five Foot Shelf. One thing I've noticed as one of the key problems with the Harvard Classics is that they end with the 19th Century (and are even a bit stingy with that century.)

  9. I'm surprised by the number of authors I've never heard of who appear on the Harvard list. This may expose my ignorance. Is it possibly also a sign of a shift in what's remained important 100 years later?

  10. I hadn't heard of several of them either. That is entirely possible. Also bear in mind that the collection was compiled by one man (albeit the president of Harvard at the time, but still. I'm sure he had priorities and world views like any of us do.)