Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Reading the Classics with Paul- Inferno- Conclusion

And so we reach the end of the book in our series that I personally found most troubling.  A few thoughts on why.  The first is the placement in this book series.  I know it's sort of a cultural given, but Inferno is the only bit of the Divine Comedy in the series.  People, in general, if they read Dante at all, tend to read Inferno.  I imagine it's a sort of schadenfreude or outright Sadism that leads an individual to only take interest in the listing of creative forms of eternal suffering and neglecting the point of the whole piece.  The point of the piece lies more in the later books, especially Paradiso (more on that in a soon to be forthcoming post.  Again, I apologize for the shift in my consistent bloglife.  As most of you have probably noticed by now, I haven't yet mastered my new schedule with, you know, living life.)

Of course, another discomfort is the existence of Hell.  I am not speaking to belief on the matter one way or another, but as I've said before, I have a difficult time with people who are comfortable with the concept.  I think that even one who is a solid believer in the doctrine ought not be comfortable with the idea or they are, in my estimation, either being flip or missing the point of the doctrine entirely.

But as for this week's reading, the lower reaches of Hell are, as one would imagine, increasingly terrible to the point where the description (at least in my version) seems to slip into a bit more poetic.  The Damned tear into one another with their teeth and so forth.  We have liars and false accusers.  He have Nimrod and the giants.  Nimrod speaks gobbledygook, presumably carrying over punishment from the Tower of Babel.  The stark, huge, terrifying Antaeus conveys our travelers to the Ninth Circle.  The Ninth Circle is reserved for the treacherous.  We meet a lot of treacherous people, as usual some known to Dante for the sake of social commentary.

The very bottom is reserved for traitors to their benefactors.  This includes Lucifer, Judas, Brutus, and Cassius (the latter three in the mouths of the three faces of Lucifer.)  Again, this shows a knowledge and interest in antiquity on the part of Dante that we so rarely see today (on that note, I had also planned to mention in this admittedly rather rushed conclusion, the similarities between Dante's Hell and Socrates' version of the afterlife for the unvirtuous.  The former resembling the latter arguably more than the compiled scriptural description of Hell.  Which is part of what I was talking about in earlier posts when I suggested that many modern religious types in the Christian tradition may have a good deal of their views formed more by Dante and Milton than: 1) the key text of their religion and 2) they realize.)  If anyone's hackles are raised over crimes against Caesar seeming to be raised to the level of crimes against Christ and the Godhead, I would suggest that this is not the point.  The point is to illustrate that being treacherous against one who is nothing but benevolent toward you is, in the eyes of the author (and, at least in concept, the church he seeks to serve in writing this) the worst of all sins.  That's because it is pretty much the opposite of God.  God is love and meeting the extension of love toward one with treachery is about as far from God as one can fall according to Dante (and on a personal note, in spite of my uneasiness with the whole infernal concept, I am inclined to agree on this point.) While these are sufferers in Hell, they are also, in this case, examples.

Hell, in this story, is quite literally in the center of the Earth and Virgil climbs down Lucifer at this point to get out.  They emerge in New Zealand or something on the other side of the world and just as suddenly they roll credits.

As I mentioned above, I will return to the Divine Comedy for the remaining portions sometimes next year.  More on that soon.

I am now about to begin the final book in our series.  Next up is Moby Dick by Herman Melville.  I am going to do one of those "reminder" posts at the end of this week (I'm taking a short break before starting this final book because I have a library book I want to finish before the due date.)  I would highly encourage everyone to take part in this next one.  We will be going at a very leisurely pace so that by the end of the year you will have read Moby Dick.  If you've never read it before, you should.  If you have, you probably don't need a lot of convincing that it's well worth more than one trip through in a lifetime.  So, again, around the end of the week I shall announce the first week's reading (Deo volente and the creek don't rise.)


  1. A post of mine, culled from email correspondence, dealing with a comfortable tea-coffee-and-cakes discussion of hell. I share your discomfort.

    At the same time, I didn't find Inferno disturbing. Macabre, yes, but it is grand poetry. I would have had it out with Dante if he were suggesting his poetry were something like realistic. As it is, it's easy to read as partaking in the kind of imagery we find in the Hebrew and Christian apocalyptic writings. As metaphor I have no real qualms except for the fact that Dante the poet (as opposed to Dante the fictional character) is rather brutal and merciless... unless somehow he's pointing to his fictional depiction of his self as the better self.

  2. Yes, I think you hit it right on the head. I am finding that I must take it as poetry and I think that had to have been the poet's intention. On one hand, I keep thinking about C.S. Lewis' The Great Divorce and a rather intense conversation I once had with someone about "Lewis' view of the afterlife." They took The Great Divorce quite literally and thought less of Lewis from it. I have doubts that Lewis wrote the piece to say "This, I believe, is an exact description of the afterlife." It seemed fairly transparent to me that the piece was speaking more about human nature.

    Likewise, it seemed to me that Inferno was largely a literary device to discuss human nature and, more specifically, a lot of current events. Part of the brilliance is the spiritual view of the universe that he must needs weave into his social commentary. But, as I've said on here and in dozens of conversations since, I am unnerved by how much of this poetic work has seeped into a mainstream, evangelical, Protestant view of the afterlife.

    As I understand it, the meaning of the piece is made much more clear in the more elevated later realms of The Divine Comedy. I am greatly looking forward to getting to those pieces. However, I guess my take away is to avoid the temptation of skipping ahead in my project.