(Hopefully) Less inchoate thoughts on Dante’s Inferno

“There Minos stands.” Gustave Doré.

Continued from here.

Intellectuals say that Paradiso is for pious theologians, Purgatorio is for brilliant, exacting scholars of Medieval cosmology, but Inferno, Inferno is for filthy casuals.
Books in 150 Words.

I finished Inferno over the weekend, and there’s something about the book that comes together at the end. I don’t just mean that the plot comes full circle — he goes into Hell, he comes out — but the symbolism of the descent into Hell helps you understand and contextualize the book better than just reading selections.

I also have a couple of reference books that are following me through this project: Charles Van Doren’s “The Joy of Reading,” Clifton Fadiman and John S. Major’s “The New Lifetime Reading Plan,” and Harold Bloom’s “The Western Canon.” All of these shed light on just why Inferno is so unusual.

Part of it is that, for a book ostensibly about good and evil, it’s sort of… all about Dante. He’s very sure of himself, both in the religious sense (the schismatics) but also in the sense that he is undeniably the central character. More than Virgil, more than anyone he meets, more than Satan, this is a book about what Dante does, thinks, and cares about. (I love how everyone he meets gets asked specifically if there are any Italians/Florentines in their circle of Hell: Inferno is at once cosmic and parochial.)

There’s never a hint of doubt that Dante is your tour guide through Hell, and what he’s seeing is The Truth, in caps: he goes to great lengths to contextualize what he’s seeing, not just witness it.

In all, Inferno is an enjoyable read both because it contains so many references one would recognize in the 21st century (the Seven Deadly Sins, the circles of Hell, “abandon all hope, ye who enter here”) and because it’s a rewarding tale. It’s not — as I thought before I started it — a book about Hell: it’s a book about this world. Dante explicitly wants us to think and to act in certain ways, and Inferno is one big allegory, a vehicle for that desire.

One question I get every so often is how much of a given Classic I’m “getting.” The suggestion, I think, is that these books are only comprehendible to scholars and academics, and the question of whether it’s worthwhile even trying to understand a book if you’re not going to get everything out it. Here’s Fadiman again:

“Most editions contain notes explaining the major references. A good way of trying Dante is to read a canto without paying attention to the notes. Then, reread it, using the notes. Do not expect to understand everything — eminent scholars are still quarreling over Dante’s meaning. You will understand enough to make your reading worth the effort.”

I agree with Fadiman in that my goal isn’t to understand 100% of Dante — I understood very few of the references he makes, and certainly I was unfamiliar with essentially all of Dante’s contemporaries. I think it’s a mistake to worry too much about not understanding the Great Books: they’re enduring in part because they’re excellent stories that have been copied and referenced time and again. When you let go of perfect understanding as an aim, you enjoy the stories themselves much more.

P.S. Everyone who’s anyone says you have to read the entire Comedy and not just Inferno, and I will! Just not right now — next up for the discussion series is Machiavelli’s The Prince. Translation/edition recs welcome!

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