“Dante and Shakespeare divide the modern world between them; there is no third.”
“At one point midway on our path in life, I came around and found myself now searching through a dark wood, the right way blurred and lost.” So begins one of the most famous poems in all of literature, Inferno, in which Dante travels through hell, with Virgil by his side. Our narrator takes us through the various levels of hell, stopping to talk awhile with the inhabitants and to record their testimonies, whether they be heretics, swindlers, or traitors.
I had another Interintellect discussion series with the “Reading the Greats” group the other week, and it’s lodged the poem so firmly in my head that I’ve come around to thinking that above almost all the other works on my great books list, this is the one that will –and ought– to be most strongly preserved going forward. (And I say that without having read Purgatory and Paradise).
The best books work on two levels: being good stories and being good encapsulations of a time and place: you can read Dante as a tale of a man who travels through Hell, or you can learn about the political struggles of Italy during the Middle Ages. It isn’t even an “or,” it’s an “and.” You can still “get” Dante even if — like me — you know very little Italian history.
A quick note: I agree with Joseph Luzzi in his approach to Inferno: read it section by section, without feeling pressure to get through it quickly or remember every single detail. “In other words: treat the poem as Dante the character treated his journey, something to be undertaken step by step.” This was the first book that I let myself slow down for — one of the downsides of doing the Great Books Project in public is a certain pressure to constantly have smart opinions on these books. By letting myself read them for myself, first and foremost, I found myself enjoying the story and the language much more.
So, why is Dante such rewarding reading so long after the fact?
First, there’s the parochial nature of the work — Dante’s obsession with the individual. We get some ideas of the geography of Hell, but it’s its inhabitants who are front and center in the book. Dante is bearing witness, mostly but not entirely without judgment, on those sinners who have been damned to the inferno. They are the people who can’t — or won’t — divorce themselves from their sins. At each stage, Dante inquires as to the provenance of each sinner and takes particular interest in those he either knew (or knew of) when they lived, and pays almost obsessive attention to Italian residents of Hell.
The second is the writing itself. Inferno reminds me, maybe incongruously, of A Gentleman in Moscow — a book has an aesthetic intellectualism that takes for a given that the reader is coming along for the ride. Dante does something similar here, assuming that his readers have a broad understanding of history, religion, and Italian politics that is both deeply rewarding and not wholly necessary to enjoy (see above) the cast of characters that the poem introduces.
Third, I was struck by how close in proximity Hell is to earth — both geographically and metaphorically. “In me, then, counter-suffering can be seen,” Bertran de Born tells Dante, referencing the fact that the punishments in Hell reflect the earthly sin. Prophets, those who looked too far ahead, are punished by having their heads turned 180º on their bodies. Francesca and Paolo are caught in a whirlwind since they were unable to control their own lust. Bertran de Born, for his troubles, is bodily decapitated after trying to ‘decapitate’ the state by undermining its ruler.
Inferno is a mighty work, one that brings together politics, literature, religion, and poetry (although we may not get the benefit of the poetry in translation). It’s a work of an unusually broad scale: few 21st-century authors seem to attempt a work that’s either as long, as detailed, or as grand in scope. I hope we take Inferno with us to Mars; it’ll be well worth including.