Saturday, November 06, 2010

Oh Dante.

My first exposure to Dante was in my senior AP English class. Over the door, my teacher had made a sign saying, "Abandon hope, all ye who enter here." Lovely. (It was actually my favorite class of my high school experience). As part of our unit on mythology, Ms. Taylor went on a rant about Dante. I can't remember if we actually read an excerpt or not. But she told us all about how he descends into Hell, puts people he doesn't like into various circles of Hell, including some who haven't died yet, and then we moved on to Sisyphus. (There is Sisyphus-like punishment for the avaricious - forever pushing rocks and fighting each other in opposing directions). I thought this was very interesting and that maybe someday I would actually read it. Then I promptly forgot about it, until Husband told me I should read it. Except for this random sculpture by Rodin called The Gates of Hell that I took a picture of in France. I just looked it up and it does in fact feature a scene from the Divine Comedy, although I didn't know this when I took the picture. Anyway...

So, a little background on The Husband. He lived in Italy for two years serving a religious mission and is now minoring in Italian and teaching the Italian 101 class at the university we both attend. His Italian class this semester is on The Divine Comedy. As he was reading, he kept talking about the freakish trials Dante experiences and telling me that I should read Inferno. As Halloween was approaching, I thought it would make a good seasonal read. Of course, he read it in Italian. But fortunately his book has one page in Italian and the corresponding in English, so it worked out for me.

It is a very complex book, but the premise is this: Dante fell in love with his donna scala (if I have misspelled this, The Husband will tell me and I will fix it), Beatrice. The donna scala is a woman who is supposed to inspire a man to come closer to God, but you are not supposed to fall in love with her, and Dante does. When she dies, Dante is not sure what to do with himself (and here there is a gap in my knowledge, because all my knowledge comes from Husband's knowledge) but as part of his making up for loving Beatrice, he must journey through hell, purgatory, and paradise and write about it. (His experience with Beatrice living are told in Vita Nuova, another book I should read someday...) Anyway, so Inferno begins with Dante's fearful descent into Hell and all that he observes there.

Here is a lovely diagram of Hell.I could go on and on about the punishments, because they are many and disgusting, but I will just describe a few to keep this post reasonably short.

The river Phlegethon is rather horrible. It is a river of boiling blood that serves as the final resting place for tyrants and murders in the 7th circle of hell.

Another interesting punishment (also in the 7th circle of hell) was for suicides. They became plants that could only speak if you broke them, and blood would pour out. This is because they wanted to stop their natural progression through life, and they rejected the bodies God gave them, so they are now wooden. Dante cries when he breaks the bush to speak to it. He cries a lot, actually, and faints and is distraught - and who could blame him? But he did put some of these people in there (there is a lot of politics and history in Inferno, most of which I understood nothing of) so I don't think he is really crying.

The book was very dark and dreary, and extremely gory (another circle has Mohammed being constantly cleaved down the middle for fraud against God). However, the line that chilled me the most occurred near the beginning. Dante asks,

And after the great sentence --
o master -- will these torments grow, or else
be less, or will they be just as intense?
And he to me, "Remember now your science,
which says that when a thing has more perfection,
so much the greater is its pain or its pleasure.
Though these accursed sinners never shall
attain the true perfection, yet they can
expect to be more perfect then than now. (p. 57)

Shivers. There is so much more to this book, I wish I could expound all that I got from it, which is definitely only a fraction of the whole. It was nice to ask The Husband questions about it. I read the Mandelbaum translation, which I highly recommend. It might also be good to get a study guide or dictionary of things in Dante. (We have one, but it is in Italian, so I didn't use it... obviously. I just used my human dictionary).

I cannot possibly give this book a rating. I didn't always enjoy reading it, and I was very glad to be done with it. But it is a rich novel full of many things to think about. I think everyone should read it. I am still trying to decide if I should read Purgatory and Paradise. Husband isn't enjoying those as much, and I'm sure at any rate they are less shocking than Inferno. I'm glad I read this one, so I'll probably get to the other ones after a buffer period. Read it. But get help.


  1. I remember reading excerpts from this in high school, and actually creating diagrams of the layers of hell. I've yet to try and brave it, but from your review it seems like it might be the type of daunting read that I should continue putting off. Great review!

  2. Well done for reading it - I don't think I could get through the whole thing. It's nice that reading it was something nice to share with your husband too.

    And the quote you selected is just chilling. I read through it a few times and it's just chilling.

  3. I haven't read this one and have been a bit nervous to tackle it -- but I really feel I mustn't wait any further! That's an incredible picture of the Gates of Hell, also!

  4. Yay! I love Inferno because its just so completely bizarre and awesome. Also, I wrote a paper on that Rodin sculpture last year! Woo hoo!

  5. @ Coffee and a Book Chick - Thank you! People always tease me about my pictures because I am too impatient to try and set the picture up well, so it's nice to know at least one has turned out nicely. :)

    @IngridLola - I know absolutely nothing about art, minus what I could decipher on the plaques when I was in France. I would love to know more about that sculpture, in particular what exactly the scene from Dante was and also if there was a specific reason why Rodin included so many of his other sculptures in it. If you get the chance and know the answers, I'd love to know!

  6. I absolutely adored The Inferno when I read it in college! I really need ot read the rest of the Divine Comedy, but I'm a little scared to without a class!

    I love that Rodin sculpture, especially because it really looks like Camille Claudel did a whole lot of work on it - it's more her style than his - or that at least she really influenced his style for that piece of work. The Rodin museum was one of my favorite places in Paris.


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...