Apr 08, 2024, 06:27AM

Why They Suck: Dante Alighieri

Abandon hope, all ye who enter here.

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Several times in the course of an undistinguished academic career I had occasion to teach Dante's Inferno, the first "canticle" of the Divine Comedy, in freshman seminars oriented toward Great Books. Each year, as we traversed the Western tradition, I was happy to grapple again with Plato and Nietzsche, Duras and Achebe. And each year, I feared the weeks we spent on Dante, i.e. in a hell both theological and political, both ethical and artistic. A hell we mapped on the white board, with 27 circles.

Does Dante's hell really have 27 circles? I don't know or care, but if so, that would be because he's working an elaborate system of numerology out of the Trinity, and 27 is three times three times three. I think so! But I don't care. When students asked detailed questions, I shrugged. If there were 16 or a thousand circles of hell, I don't think that would have any artistic meaning or any theological plausibility. The good part, I suppose, is that we got to put up a whole bunch of slides of writhing bodies: the Baroque Dante, that inspirational orgy of sin and suffering.

Let's get into it, boys and girls! In the first Canto, Dante starts his journey to hell. Then he sees a panther! It's beautiful, but the panther is chased away by a lion. But the lion is chased in its turn by a "she-wolf." This is bad, I think! These are the beasts of the apocalypse! These are images of ravenous human sinful desires! They come both from the Book of Revelations and Aesop's fables! Maybe?

Dante was, by acclamation, the first or one of the first to write in "the vernacular" as opposed to the Latin of liturgy. In some sense, as is constantly intoned, this led to Cervantes and Shakespeare and Milton. That’s an achievement, though it doesn't bear directly on the quality of the Comedy. But I have this funny feeling that it might’ve occurred to Shakespeare that he could write in English even without Dante's Italian model. Also, I can't imagine that there's much Dante in Shakespeare, whose plays are not mere allegories or incoherent theological lectures draped in bejeweled purple robes. "Exit, pursued by a bear," has a certain wit that "Good heavens, it's a panther pursued by a lion chased by a she-wolf!" just doesn't possess.

And I think the theological vision is incoherent, though it's incoherent in an extremely productive or fecund way that helped lead to centuries of art. That is, it's half Pagan Roman Empire and half fanatical Catholicism. You get to frolic in two myth cycles at once, celebrating them both. However, not to put too fine a point on it, the society represented by Virgil, Dante's guide through hell and purgatory, is the same society that put Jesus to death. There were comprehensible if not adequate reasons for that, as the value systems of the Aeneid and the New Testament are entirely incompatible. Nothing happens in the Divine Comedy that reconciles the mythologies.

Dante takes great pleasure in spit-roasting his opponents, but first he enumerates the residents of hell in the most tiresome fashion.

Electra there I saw accompanied
By many, among whom Hector I knew,
Anchises’ pious son, and with hawk’s eye
Caesar all arm’d, and by Camilla there
Penthesilea. On the other side
Old King Latinus, seated by his child
Lavinia, and that Brutus I beheld,
Who Tarquin chas’d, Lucretia, Cato’s wife
Marcia, with Julia and Cornelia there;
And sole apart retir’d, the Soldan fierce.

Page after page as we go on, pushing our way through the masses of people wailing and moaning and bitching.

Now ’gin the rueful wailings to be heard.
Now am I come where many a plaining voice
Smites on mine ear. Into a place I came
Where light was silent all. Bellowing there groan’d
A noise as of a sea in tempest torn
By warring winds. The stormy blast of hell
With restless fury drives the spirits on
Whirl’d round and dash’d amain with sore annoy.
When they arrive before the ruinous sweep,
There shrieks are heard, there lamentations, moans,
And blasphemies ’gainst the good Power in heaven.
I understood that to this torment sad
The carnal sinners are condemn’d, in whom
Reason by lust is sway’d. 

Dante never shows when he can tell. "This was really sad!" is the kind of thing he needs to emphasize every sentence or two. He never stops trafficking in abstractions like "lust" and "blasphemy." I don't understand how one is expected to maintain attention.

By all accounts, Dante's terza rima is a great achievement, and the Italian is very beautiful. I'm afraid, however, that reading it in English blank verse as in the translation just quoted by the Reverend Henry Francis Cary, M.A., or in sing-song attempts to reproduce the rhyme scheme, leaves me unable to detect the excellence of the poetry. If I think or teach that the poetry is great, I'm accepting that on sheer authority. It's not noticeable in the texts I’m actually reading.

All this by way of apologizing to you for wasting your time with those quotations, the little tip of the seemingly endless poetry of grinding misery that follows. Each time I get through the Inferno, I'm glad it's over. And each time, I regret the time I've spent. I'm not sure, finally how edifying or even how Christian it is to watch Dante spit-roast specific enemies, or play out the amazing Florentine drama of the Guelphs vs. the Ghibellines. The conflict between the Guelphs and the Ghibellines is Dante's great theme, and each year, I had to disguise from my students that I didn't know or care what was at stake in the conflict.

Famously, Dante fell in love with a nine-year-old girl named Beatrice and remained obsessed by her throughout his life, even though he only saw her a couple of times. That, I told my students, is the tradition of courtly love! I bet Dante's wife was really into this. That pretty young muse as represented in the Divine Comedy inspired a million unrequited poems to underage babes, from Petrarch's Laura to Kierkegaard's Regine. I'm sure these girls were super-pretty! For real. But were they adequate images of God? Was this fair to the particular girls involved?

Beatrice takes Dante Alighieri by the dick and escorts him to Paradise. Or at least, she passes him on to some saints, who get him up there at last, unlike his miserable enemies with their heads stuck on backwards. She’s an image of Jesus himself, and of Mary, and of all that is: of, in short, the Divine Love to which we were always headed. And plus she's super-cute! More profoundly, she's an image of Florence itself, the mighty City of God to which Dante devoted his every patriotic waking thought. God, Beatrice, and Florence: for Dante, these are ultimately identical.

I'm not feeling the post-Aquinas Catholic theology at all, but once you throw in the Roman mythology and the super-cutie, I stop worrying that it must somehow make sense. And now that I’ve retired as a prof, I too, like Dante himself escorted by Beatrice, have at last been released from this literary Purgatorio. 

Follow Crispin Sartwell on Twitter: @Crispinsartwell

  • Crispin, seriously, your line about Beatrice leading Dante by the dick to Paradise was priceless. But I have some issues with the piece. 1. When Beatrice was nine, and Dante fell in love with her, he was also nine. I feel the piece misrepresents this. I'd also strongly object to lumping Beatrice together with Laura (who was married, may not've been real, etc) and Regine Olsen, who Kierkegaard seduced -- or whatever it was -- when she was eighteen, after paying court to her for three years (during which time, from the standpoint of his contemporaries, she was of marriageable age). 2. Dante is funny. So is Shakespeare. I don't see where the value of "Shakespeare is funnier than Dante" resides, but if you ask me, Inferno is much funnier than all of Shakespeare's lesser comedies combined. 3. Just because something's convoluted and portentous doesn't mean it's not worth unpacking. Dante's weird procession of animals is a reflection on Italian national identity. 4. It doesn't make Dante incoherent that he had an ambivalent intellectual relationship to the pagan world. So did everyone: Aquinas, Augustine, Kierkegaard, you name it. If they were really Christian, and really well-educated, they didn't know what to make of classical Greece and Rome.

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  • Am I out of line in suggesting to another commenter that "funnier than all of Shakespeare’s lesser comedies combined" is an excruciatingly low bar? Totally unrelated, fun [mostly useless] fact that I haven't seen mentioned elsewhere, from several tests performed last month on all of the extant AI platforms, computers cannot compose any kind of passable terza rima. No matter how the prompt is structured, the rhyme scheme inevitably ended up as AAA AAA AAA. To be fair I am not a prompt engineer (in either sense of that phrase's usage), and English has never lent itself cheerfully to that particular verse form, but I'll only wonder if the computers may perhaps eventually be capable of true creativity when they are able to replace Virgil in guiding us through at least a few tortuous tercets. And thank you for the fun read here.

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