Sean Hespell's Reviews > Inferno

Inferno by Dante Alighieri
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Feb 16, 12


Dante’s great work, The Divine Comedy, maps the voyage of the soul through a vast and unforgiving funnel of darkness and, ultimately, into the presence of God. The journey encompasses the mystical, spiritual, logical, physical and personal struggles that regularly permeate our lives and reflects the full array of these mysteries of life back upon the individual self. This metaphysical spectrum forms a sort of network, or web—a personal connection to choice and the acceptance of the inherent consequences. Extending from this web are channels of association that keep us directly aligned with Dante’s pilgrimage, and as we read we are essentially transfigured by the very grief and elation that he experiences along the way. It is because of these reasons that the familiarity of The Inferno remains blindingly apparent. Knowing this, Dante’s word operates in parabolic descent so that we, too, may suffer the revelations of Dante the pilgrim. The Christian themes at play here are that of falling and rising from ourselves, or from God. We simply cannot be stagnant, for in the illusion of stillness awaits death. These ideas are approached right from the very first passage in The Inferno, and I’d like to unravel some of its metaphorical, and often Platonic, allusions relating to the truth they represent—the dreams within the dream.

Awakening in silence and confusion and without knowing of how he arrived, the pilgrim in this tale finds himself lost in dark woods. These woods symbolize a life in ruin. It is man’s habitual nature to become lost, again and again, in a sinful wasteland darker than black itself. The poet brilliantly describes the woods as ragged, rough and savage. Here, the literal gradually bleeds into the metaphorical as Dante strives to speak directly to his readers through the universal and dynamic method of fourfold interpretation. The images of the woods parallel the moral (topological) blackness, vagueness and recklessness that bridge the gap between innocence and eternal damnation. In this gap, Dante includes the allegorical (typological) dark woods—home to systematic anxiety and the cultural and political evils of the time. Finally, a spiritual emptiness is implied as the mystical (anagogical) absence of God reveals the true nature of man. Such potent imagery acts as a kind of soothing medication to the soul and its effects are timelessly amassed.

According to Dante the soul has its limitations and crossing certain thresholds may very well mean not being able to return to the path we seek. Within each of us looms a dark passenger; an expression taken from the popular Showtime series Dexter, wherein a sympathetic serial killer seeks to rid himself of his inner evil. This darkness, or sinful nature, often guides us, spiritually, away from the righteous path and, more inconspicuously so, feeds the disintegration of societal morality. This is a common thread among the living and without a guiding light that dark passenger will corrupt and destroy any potential for salvation.

It is not easy to convey two entirely different meaningful experiences through a singular representation of thought. However, not only does Dante do this with ease but he does so in one, staggeringly poignant opening line. Midway on our life’s journey, I found myself in dark woods, the right road lost. With this ingenious use of language Dante exacts the nature of two isometric experiences and boldly distinguishes them from one another; the individual experience of Dante—of him finding himself lost in dark woods—and the shared experience of the human condition—or our life’s journey. Dante speaks of our life in the unanimity that one comes to expect from these epic works of world literature. Shared experience and collective representation give this poem, like many others of its kind, a noble and dignified worth in which even the smallest individual can seek a relationship and find meaning.

Our life is also a journey; a plunge into darkness and away from the righteous path. Dante implores this imagery throughout his poem with vital and stimulating, poetic prose. Yet it is in the first passage of this great work that the right path is described. If the path is righteous, then straying or falling from that path seems to lead us away from our teleological end, but, in fact, only by being misled are we able to be found. We see this testimony in the work of another poet of Dante’s time. The Dervish poet Rumi says, in striking simplicity, straying maps the path. The path he speaks of is the same path that Dante seeks in The Inferno.

There is, however, an alternative to the dark forest. Dante, at his most piteous moment of existence, sees a hill illuminated in a glowing grace. This is the allegorical sun; the God of the universe and the knowledge of the intelligible world. Eternal and unchanging is the hill leading up into the absolution of your dark passenger endlessly weighing you down. Dante accepts this grace and observes yet another metaphorical truth; the darker the woods, the heavier the sin, the further we are from any kind of intelligible reality. But in turn if we want to gain knowledge and grow to be unchanging reflections of God we must suffer isolation, abandon our senses and experience true faith. In a brilliant re-construction of Plato’s allegory of the cave, Dante introduces a Christian perspective into the mix. Because Christ was crucified by the suffocating weight of the sin of mankind, God’s mantled rays will pierce the darkest wood and, if you allow it to, guide you to His glory. Sometime you have to surrender to something greater than yourself.

All of this, for Dante, serves as a bittersweet recollection; a memory of a painful past but a memory nonetheless. Dante relates his experiences to us through raw reminiscence as a war veteran recalls nights spent entrenched in blood and filth and horror. However, lessons are to be learned from re-living the past and, in this case, Dante reminisces for that purpose. Here, Dante confronts an ancient, universal axiom with marvelous enthusiasm backed by experience and knowledge; that we are alive in our memories. Dante writes with the clairvoyance of a prophet foretelling things to come and, because of this, his memories live on even today. An example from The Inferno displays a meaningful convergence of memory and recollection as Dante confesses: To tell about those woods is hard, and yet to treat the good I found there as well, I’ll tell what I saw. This passage alone evokes such a deep and revealing connection to the importance of reliving the past. There is goodness to be found in even pure darkness as God conjures good from evil, always. Dante encourages this celebration of life so that we may live boundlessly. Only through deliberate recollection may we relive our memories and through our memories may we remember how to live.

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