Inchoate thoughts on Dante’s Inferno

“Will you – should either head back to the world – bring comfort to my memory, which lies still lashed beneath the stroke of envious eyes?”
Inferno, Canto 13.76-78.

I’m about a third of the way through Inferno, just finished Canto 13, where they talk to the man turned into a tree.

I keep a post-it on the inside cover of the book, keeping track of recurring themes in whatever I’m reading. For a book that’s ostensibly about Hell, Dante is very concerned with both his own fame and the fame of the people he meets. (As a sidebar, I’m tickled that he meets both famous creatures from mythology and what seem to be random Florentines.)

The idea goes that, consigned to Hell as these people are, they have a modicum of fame back on Earth by virtue of getting a speaking role in Inferno. This fits, in that the people in the lesser (uh, higher) circles of Hell are un-named, as a way of consigning them to oblivion. You also see this when people refuse to tell Dante his name, or the names of other people in Hell: “You can have an everlasting reputation, but as a sinner in Hell” seems like a Faustian bargain.

Something that’s very much a fledgling thought: Dante is literally writing people into Hell. He’s writing a book on a journey through Hell and anybody he meets there (especially, say, in the circle of Hell for sodomites…) automatically gets their rep tarnished. This becomes a way for Dante to comment on the political scenes of Florence of the day, but I couldn’t help being reminded –of all things– of the characters of the movie Mean Girls and the concept of the burn book.

The constant name-dropping (of both famous figures and the great names of literature; Virgil, Homer, Ovid, etc) also has the impact of elevating Dante, both the character and the author. Look who he’s rubbing shoulders with! Look who literally guides him through the underworld! He also apes at least a couple scenes from The Aeneid (I’m only halfway through), some with more subtlety than others.

An open question (one that I’d like to bring to the next discussion series) is whether Dante looks down on all fame — or, asked another way: what’s the right sort of fame to purse, according to Dante?


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1 Response to Inchoate thoughts on Dante’s Inferno

  1. Melissa Dow says:

    I just stumbled across your project, and I’ve been thinking about Dante for a while! I don’t know if this is too presumptive, but I have a couple thoughts on the question of name-dropping and fame.

    The moment in Inferno 4 where he joins the group of poets is, I think, a really biting moment of self-understanding and self-condemnation all rolled into one. The narrator of the story is Dante himself–but AFTER the whole journey has happened and he has returned to Italy. So when the narrator-Dante, who has ascended the mountain of Purgatory and traveled through the heavens to behold the face of God, shows us Dante-the-pilgrim being all smug and pleased to join the poets, I think we’re meant to recognize it as a preening pride. If you’ve ever read C.S. Lewis on the idea of the “Inner Ring”, you’ll recognize Dante’s problem.

    Something else that I’ve come to recognize is that Hell is such a corrupting place that dwelling there is dangerous — whether you’re passing through as a pilgrim or dwelling there in thought as the narrator. This is a controversial point; some people think the narrator is unaffected, and some people even think that the pilgrim changes for the better as he travels through Inferno rather than changing for the worse. I think that the pilgrim gets harder of heart and more numb to goodness as he travels, and I also think that such long reflection on infernal events begins to corrupt the narrator too. There’s that moment towards the end [which you haven’t reached yet; sorry, this is a bit of a spoiler? can you spoil a 700 year old poem?] when they’re walking on the ice and Virgil says “watch your feet” right before the pilgrim kicks somebody in the face. At that point the narrator says something to the effect of “look, I can’t say if I meant to do it or if it was fate or just an accident or what, OK? Don’t look at me. However it happened, uh, this guy got kicked. Maybe my foot slipped.” That seems to me like the narrator is at least dissembling, maybe outright lying, or maybe at that point he had really lost the ability to even distinguish what he willed to do from what was an accident — which would certainly be a step toward losing the “good of the intellect”.

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