Manny's Reviews > The Divine Comedy:1 Hell

The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri
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The other day, in the comment thread to her review of The Aeneid, Meredith called The Divine Comedy "lame": specifically, she objected to the fact that Dante put all the people he didn't like in Hell. Well, Meredith, you're perfectly welcome to your opinions - but I'm half Italian, and I've been politely informed that if I don't respond in some way I'm likely to wake up some morning and find a horse's head lying next to me. So here goes.

I actually have two separate defenses. First, let's consider Dante's artistic choices, given that he's planned to write a huge epic poem where he's going to visit Hell, Purgatory and Heaven, each of which is divided up into a large number of smaller areas corresponding to differents sins and virtues. Now, who is he going to meet there? One option would be to have allegorical figures directly representing Pride, Wrath, Charity etc. That's what Bunyan did in The Pilgrim's Progress, but most people agree that it's not a very good solution: The Divine Comedy is much more fun than The Pilgrim's Progress. Or he could just make people up, but then he wouldn't have any space for character development, and you'd never be able to keep track of all the invented figures. Lindsay tried that route in A Voyage to Arcturus , and, even though the book's worth reading, he showed how hard it is to make it work. Every time someone interesting turns up, they always seem to get killed fifteen pages later.

I think the choice Dante made was the best one: to use real people. Of course, it is a bit presumptuous to decide that the ones going to Hell are mostly guys he doesn't like, but nothing else makes sense. If you want damned souls to populate the Hell of the Hypocrites, isn't Caiaphas, the high priest who falsely condemned Jesus, a sensible choice? If you're looking for Traitors to Lords and Benefactors, then don't Brutus and Cassius fit pretty well? And every now and then he meets his friends down there too. His beloved teacher Brunetto Latini is damned for sodomy, which shocks Dante just as much as it does me, but in his world-view it makes perfect sense; homosexuality is plain wrong, that's all there is to it.

Okay, that was my first defense. My second is that it's far too simplistic to say that Dante is self-righteously damning all his enemies and extolling his own virtues. The theme that continually comes back through the first two books is that Pride is the root of all sin, and Dante is very conscious of his own sinful nature. For example, he's way too happy to gloat over the fact that his enemy Filippo Argenti has been condemned to the Hell of the Wrathful, and Virgil gently points out the irony. Then, later, he has to spend the whole of Book 2 climbing up Mount Purgatory, which is hard work. He's got plenty of sins to purge.

To me, the real problem with Dante is that his world is so very different from mine, and I keep having to scramble to the footnotes to get the necessary background; so it's hard to keep the flow of the book, since you're constantly being interrupted. But even so, it's still a remarkable piece of work. We just don't think seriously any more about the nature of Good and Evil, Sin and Redemption. Dante's world thought they were crucially important, and he's one of the few people who's still able to give us a window into that view of life. It's nowhere near as irrelevant as we like to make out.

Don Corleone, will this do? Or do I have to add footnotes as well?
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message 1: by Robert (new)

Robert OK - I'm pretty sure now that you're 1/2 Italian, 1/2 English and 1/2 Welsh...and Penrose hasn't explained how that can work, yet. Maybe it's in Chapter 16?

The thing I find interesting about the Divine Comedy is that everyone finds Hell much more fun than Heaven. What does that say about human nature?

As I remember it (from the footnotes!) people who turn up in Hell are often political opponents; the political and personal enemies of Dante were often one and the same considering they exiled the guy before he wrote what I gather is the first major literary work in Italian (as opposed to Latin).


message 2: by Sparrow (new) - added it

Sparrow We just don't think seriously any more about the nature of Good and Evil, Sin and Redemption.

Hmmm. This is not my experience of life, but I wouldn't claim my experience is typical. Maybe I just spent enough time thinking of what heaven, purgatory, and hell would be like as a child that Dante's descriptions seemed a little too pre-Sartre for me. Kidding! I kid! But, also not. There's that cheesy, earnest, horror-flick element to it that makes me impatient. And I didn't grow up Italian Catholic, so maybe there is some resonance specific to that.

I agree that The Comedy is an outline of how spirituality worked in medieval Western Europe, but I feel like once you know that it makes it even less enjoyable as a reading experience because it is all basically predictable at that point. My sense of reading it is similar to sitting through the Benjamin Button movie. Like, well, we basically all know how this is going to go, right?

And, I just think the Medieval holy women were cooler at medieval spirituality than Dante. The Italian ones were still earnest and creepy, as I recall, but at least they ate scabs and stuff. Did Dante eat scabs? I didn't think so.

ALSO, so he has Virgil reprimand him about being prideful seeing his enemies punished in his FICTIONAL hell, but he doesn't see that it's prideful to WRITE THEM INTO his fictional hell?! Uhhh, hypocritical much, Dante? He just puts that part in so he can point out how perfect he is - because repentance, not doing things right in the first place, is the key to salvation.

Anyway, to me it was like listening to one of those sermons where the pastor talks about how everyone who likes stuff that he doesn't like is a lost soul. I think the basic premise is a problem to me - because if you write a book about eternity, you're going to have to put characters in it, like you're saying. I can't think of a way to include real people and come out looking good. Maybe if I knew those guys, it would have been funny, though.


Manny Dante's descriptions seemed a little too pre-Sartre for me. Kidding! I kid! But, also not.

Well, okay, I also find it easier to enjoy Huis Clos. (By the way, do you also like the bit at the beginning where they ask about the pitchforks, and the attendant devil says yeah, everyone asks about that?) But it's our culture, our way of looking at things, so of course it's easier...

ALSO, so he has Virgil reprimand him about being prideful seeing his enemies punished in his FICTIONAL hell, but he doesn't see that it's prideful to WRITE THEM INTO his fictional hell?! Uhhh, hypocritical much, Dante? He just puts that part in so he can point out how perfect he is - because repentance, not doing things right in the first place, is the key to salvation.

Yes, but, again, what are his choices? He's got to be able to get to Heaven, so he can't be too bad. And he's got to have real baggage to shed on Mount Purgatory, so he can't be too good either. I think he's forced to portray himself roughly as he does.

I can't think of a way to include real people and come out looking good. Maybe if I knew those guys, it would have been funny, though.

I wished many times I'd known who the hell they were (so to speak). I get the impression that he's often being really funny and bitchy, but there are only a few dozen people left who can still get the joke, and even they aren't quite sure.

Unfortunately, as Niven and Pournelle demonstrated, it's not as easy as you'd hope to bring it up to date with modern characters.


Manny Robert wrote: "OK - I'm pretty sure now that you're 1/2 Italian, 1/2 English and 1/2 Welsh...and Penrose hasn't explained how that can work, yet."

Check out my ethnicity here...

The thing I find interesting about the Divine Comedy is that everyone finds Hell much more fun than Heaven. What does that say about human nature?

Well, it's fun to see people getting tortured. Ha! Serves them right. But I thought Heaven was pretty good too.

It's a pity that Carina Burman's Den tionde sånggudinnan hasn't been translated into English. She has some interesting things to say on this subject.


message 5: by Robert (new)

Robert I prefered Purgatory to Heaven...I hardly remember any imagery from Heaven, whereas I remember things from Hell and Purgatory.


message 6: by Sparrow (new) - added it

Sparrow Manny wrote: "Yes, but, again, what are his choices?"

I think the basic assumption here is that people have to write a book that is a tour of eternity. I see no requirement to do this.

I do enjoy that about No Exit. I don't really think it is my culture, though. I think it has been influential in the culture that I live in, but probably not nearly so influential as Dante. Dante's assumed, but Sartre's newer, I guess. Still, I think if there were a reference to Sartre on a sit com, it would be from a snotty intellectual type, where someone could throw in a Dante joke without too much surrounding story.


Manny I think the basic assumption here is that people have to write a book that is a tour of eternity. I see no requirement to do this.

Most people don't seem to feel this urge, I agree. I have certainly never done so. But my understanding is that, when it strikes, there's just nothing you can do but give in.

I think if there were a reference to Sartre on a sit com, it would be from a snotty intellectual type, where someone could throw in a Dante joke without too much surrounding story.

Good point. Dante's completely fundamental to our culture, but Sartre's already fading. Though I think his plays will last a while yet. Have you read Les Mains Sales? That's the other one I really like...


message 8: by Sparrow (new) - added it

Sparrow I don't think I've read Les Mains, but most of my Sartre days were in high school, so I'm not totally sure.


Manny It's genuinely good. I mean, good in the sense of being a gripping play that's worth reading on its own merits, as opposed to being a piece of propaganda for existentialism. It's also a pretty vicious attack on Marxist-Leninism, which is kind of funny to watch. Sartre apparently pissed off most of his Communist friends and lots of people wouldn't speak to him afterwards.


David Lafferty Well, since I'm half Irish I suppose I should really be reviewing Ulysses, but here I am. I am an unabashed Dante fanatic and want to throw my two cents in. The beauty of the Commedia is that it operates on so many levels. That being said, I personally thought that the fact that Dante threw some of his enemies (Hello, Boniface!) in Hell was pretty funny as well as brilliant. But it's important to keep in mind that Dante shattered many Medieval stereotypes by placing different souls in unexpected parts of Inferno, as well as Purgatorio and Paradiso.

I emphatically agree with your fourth paragraph. The Commedia is a story of exile, purification, and redemption. Plus where else can you read about Ugolino chowing down on Ruggieri's head!

The Aenied is great, without it there would be no Commedia, but for me, Dante is the man.


message 11: by Sally (new) - added it

Sally Great defense.


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