Dante’s Inferno- Part 1

by Paul Mathers


There is a major misconception about Dante’s Inferno that is even perpetuated by some who have read it. As I’ve said before, it is more commonly read than the other two sections of the Divine Comedy. The major misconception is that it is a tour, a sort of travelogue, of Hell. It certainly takes place in Hell and there is a great deal of explanation and interaction between the protagonists and the denizens of the lugubrious regions. Inferno is, rather, the first of three pieces in which the character of Dante is ascending into Heaven. Bearing this in mind is the only way of getting a proper reading of the piece.

But, of course, you can’t really distill it down to a pat theme. It is about bringing one through the infernal to the celestial as a didactic spiritual lesson. It is also a theological discourse in a more systematic sense. It is a political diatribe. It is one of the grandest love poems ever written. It’s a bit of a scientific and philosophical treatise as well. In short, the book is like looking at the great chain of diamonds that holds reality together. If you didn’t have such a good guide it would be easy to get lost in it.

Well, here, once again, I find myself with the daunting task of writing about one of the greatest things a human hand has created. It’s a corner that I seem to enjoy painting myself into. Fortunately, it’s a piece that I’ve written about in recent memory, so I feel like I can simply hit some of my key points from this reading here. I was relieved to find that I’d already done a series of “this happens in this Canto” posts.

The first moment that gave me pause was in the first three words of the work. Dante reveals that he is roughly my age when he lost his way into the great forest. He loses his way from the proper path and ends up Hellbound. Meanwhile, Celestial forces are contriving to bring him upward alive. This is a picture of the co-existence of free will and providence. He is 35, which is my age. It is an age in which one begins to feel competent and as though one has a modicum of wisdom. The Hindus call this stage of life “Grihastha” or the Householder Stage. When problems arise, one has some idea how to deal with them. One has (hopefully) acquired some skills of some sort. One is well on their way in life. One is also in the thick of it. One is probably fairly close to the career that will end up being what they did with their life, like it or not. One is also more keenly aware of the ticking clock as one’s back is not what it used to be; one’s eyesight and digestion begin to show signs of wear. Regardless of how far one has made it in life, invariably it is not exactly what one had in mind and therefore one feels a creeping desperation. One is toiling and laboring for happiness. In other words, it may well be one of the most easily distractable times in one’s life in regards to one’s “walk.” There is no easier time to get lost than when you have the false assurance that you’re not.

In the second canto (the one in which Virgil is pretty much just saying, “Beatrice sent me”) there were these lines:

“One has to fear only the things which have

The power of hurting others; for the rest,

They do not matter, they are not to be feared.

And I am made by God, I thank Him, so

That all your suffering has no effect on me,

Nor am I touched by all these burning flames.”

Which is also the Christian answer to earthly fears. Around this section the notes mentioned Dante’s later failure of eyesight, which reminded me of Milton, almost as if they had seen too much.

I was furthermore surprised this time through to gain a different reading of the inscription above the gates of Hell. Again, I cannot recommend the Sisson translation highly enough:

“Through me you go into the city of weeping;

Through me you go into eternal pain;

Through me you go among the lost people.

Justice is what moved my exalted Maker;

I was the invention of the power of God,

Of His wisdom, and of His primal love.

Before me there was nothing that was created

Except eternal things; I am eternal;

No room for hope, when you enter this place.”

A possibly more familiar translation of that last line is “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.” That last line is the source of so much focus which, as human nature would have it, reveals our self-focus. But notice that the inscription is the gate identifying itself as eternal, giving glory to its Creator, telling an abbreviated story of Lucifier’s Fall, and only then and in light of all of that does it give a realistic expectation of what’s be found inside. I especially like how, in Sisson’s translation, the inscription never directly addresses the reader. So, not only are you hopeless, you are also insignificant.

Just inside the gate, Virgil says something that I read aloud to Laurie when I came to it. He says,

“We have now come to the place where, I have told you,

You will find the people for whom there is only grief:

Those who have lost the benefit of the intellect.”

Laurie responded, “Just like The Great Divorce!” And I think she was quite correct. C.S. Lewis’ Hell differs in the dramatic external displays of torture, but preserves with stark and startling clarity the integrity of the damned. We as a civilization have lost our grasp on allegory and we are the poorer for it. One of the problem views of Dante (and, indeed, The Great Divorce) is to look at it as if the author is saying, “This is precisely how the afterlife is.” It should rather be, “This is how things are.” It is not a presentation of perceived facts, it is a presentation of perceived truths.

To this, Dante struggles with the realities of the afterlife in ways that we all struggle with the concepts. He weeps in despair over the fates of some of the damned, while others who he knew to be horrible human beings, he revels in (and occasionally joins in) their torment. This mirrors our own fallen sense of cosmic justice. We would like to see Adam Lanza eternally boiling in blood. We would not like to see Allen Ginsberg running with Brunetto Latini over the burning sands.

Gripped with the sudden realization of the length of this post thus far and the fact that we’ve only just now entered the gates of Hell, I feel compelled to break my thoughts into two bite-sized posts. More soon.