I finished up Inferno this afternoon while waiting to take a so-called random drug test. (I say so-called because it’s my third in fifteen months, and I’m one employee in a library system that employs probably over a hundred. The four of us who work in the Bogart branch have accumulated ten in the last year and a half. I’m not saying that anybody’s covering anything up, but the numbers do show definite… tendencies, if you know what I mean.)
At any rate, the poem remains a great one. It’s ideological and subversive and high-flying and vulgar and all the great things that make Dante Dante. Having done some research on Shakespeare’s Roman plays and verse in the last several months, I especially enjoyed looking at Dante’s Caesar and Brutus and Cassius and Cicero and Cleopatra next to their Shakespearean counterparts. And the scene in which Virgil can’t figure out why there’s a Jewish high priest in the middle of the road in the circle of the hypocrites is still priceless.
One thing that struck me this time around is in Canto three, when the Pilgrim is about to enter Hell. He reads the famous inscription above the gates, and then Virgil says (in Mark Musa’s translation) that those beyond the gate are “the suffering race of souls who lost the good of intellect” (17-18). I think that such an assessment at the outset of Inferno demands at least a bit of thought about the nature of Dante’s Hell. The grisly details of what happens to the thieves, the diviners, and the traitors in Dante’s poem are clear enough; why those things happen is a little more complex. I have to admit that when first I read Dante as a high schooler, my interpretation was colored not a little bit by the common youth group mantra, “Praise God we don’t get what we deserve.” (I’m sure the variations are endless.) In other words, I imagined that God had a creative/sadistic streak in Dante’s mind, and whatever the divine surveillance camera showed the sinners doing, God inflicted something poetically linked to the crime.
Now that I’ve read some Boethius and Thomas, I realize that in the picture Dante paints, the divine agency in fact creates the place and then turns it loose. The sinners inside do not suffer the wrath of Aeschylus’s Zeus; rather, stripped of right reason, that faculty most proper to humanity, and deprived of the telos which is beatific vision, their own corruptions in fact become their punishments. In the world of the Inferno, there is no longer a prevening grace that saves the usurers from the corruption that they bring into the world; that corruption devours them. And the thieves’ serpentine ways engulf not only their minds but their bodies, and in the company of all the thieves who have ever robbed a temple, and absent divine mercy, they in fact become body-snatcher snakes.
I have not yet changed my mind that Inferno is the least interesting of the three sections of the Comedy. I’m four cantos into Purgatorio, and it’s much more interesting, for all I’m concerned, than Hell is. That said, as I teach Boethius and as I read more theology on my own, I appreciate more and more that even the sensationalistic scenes of eternal damnation have their greatness, and I’m more and more convinced that Dante is still the man.