Why You Need Good Notes

by Paul Mathers


So, you’re reading Dante’s Inferno and you reach Canto XV. Dante and Virgil reach a vast expanse of hot sand in Hell. The sand is scorching on its own, but occasionally bursts into flames and fireballs rain down from above. The inhabitants of this region are men who are running around entirely exposed (nude). One of the damned recognizes Dante. It is Brunetto Latini who, it seems, was Dante’s teacher when he was a young man. Latini walks with them and talks because if anyone in this region pauses for a moment, they are subsequently forced to lay exposed on the sands for 100 years.

Latini asks Dante the name of his guide. Dante changes the subject. They chat. When it comes time for them to part, for Dante and Virgil to move on, Latini asks Dante to read his work The Treasure when he returns to the land of the living because he lives on in this work. As they part ways, Dante says of Latini as he is leaving:

“He seemed to be the one who wins the race, and not the one who loses.”

I came away from this passage a little surprised that Latini seems almost victorious in Hell, as if his sunny disposish has overcome the greatest of all adversities. He swaggers away triumphantly.

But then I turned to the endnotes. A very different story emerged.

First of all, the nature of these damned is not explicitly expressed in the text. In the endnotes, it is pointed out that the other men named in that portion of Hell are men who were convicted for homosexuality and, indeed, the fire raining from the sky suggests an allusion to Sodom. There is no record of Latini being a homosexual, but bear in mind that Dante knew him personally. Depending how carefully you were digging through what you are reading, you may have suspected this about that particular portion of Hell. But regardless of how much thought you were putting into it, there is information you could not have guessed, information which greatly illuminates the passage.

Latini’s book is one of the (if not the) only book titles mentioned in Inferno. The Treasure is a book by Latini about how one can achieve immortality through one’s glory or renown of, oh say, writing an immortal book. Latini’s bravado is not victorious, rather it is pathetic. Here he is in eternal torment in Hell and he is still putting forth his proto-humanist theories of “immortality.” Instead of what may have at first seemed to us an image of the triumph of the human spirit, what we are witnessing is the pinnacle of empty human vanity. In a way, isn’t that what’s behind every curtain of the triumph of the human spirit?

Of course, my interest piqued by the inclusion of a book title, I came to the internet to search for The Treasure. It does still exist. The cheapest copy I could find was $100. It is on a small and obscure press. Conceivably, you might be able to find a cheaper copy in the original Italian. You can find a free copy in English on Google Books although that seems to be the only eBook option (and nobody wants to read a whole book on their computer screen).

I was suddenly struck by the subtle tell of Dante’s compassion on the poor deluded soul. If you go on Amazon, you can get a copy of Virgil’s work for pennies, for free if you want it in an eBook. It is abundantly available. It is an immortal work. Dante did not introduce his guide because his guide was everything that Latini had aimed for… and missed.

As we step away from the work, we see Dante imitating the divinity towards which he is moving, dealing out with two perfect hands: one of mercy and one of justice. In his Divine Comedy, he has granted his former teacher the object of his desire. He has made him immortal in his work. He is, however, only immortal as a cautionary tale against seeking that sort of immortality.