Dante’s Inferno- Part 2

by Paul Mathers


Another way in which Dante struggles with the concept of the afterlife is what to do with his guide. His high reverence for Virgil and certain other non-Christian ancients precludes his ability to depict them as justly suffering eternal torment in Hell, although that is a teaching of his religion. Dante’s Limbo seems a bit like Huckleberry Finn’s Hell. As a Classicist, I struggle with the inclination, upon reading this, to want to spend eternity rubbing elbows with Aristotle, Socrates, and countless other great brains of antiquity. I have strong suspicions that Dante may have been struggling with a similar inclination. The conflict inherent in this message is made clear later when it is said,

“Here pity is alive when it is dead:

Who is more criminal than he who suffers

Because he does not like the divine judgement?”

(By the way, before my American friends correct me, this is the Oxford Classics edition, which accounts for the British spelling of “judgement”).

The conventional length of a blog that can retain the attention of the general reader now dictates that we whirlwind through the rest of Hell like a bunch of unbaptized infants. Ready?

* The name of Christ is never mentioned in Hell, although the effects of His three day stay are still, nearly 1300 years later, abundantly evident on every level. Indeed, even in their roles and torturers and in their rebellion, the demons are restrained to follow the Divine Will. This is evident in their desire to give Dante just a little bit of a whipping and their subsequent failure to do so. It is evident when the demons are shown to have specific jurisdictions which they cannot exit (although they are still demons and will try to misdirect you). It is evident when the Boss at the beginning of each level allows passage to Dante and Virgil. It is evident when Lucifer, even in his own torment, is employed in effecting the affliction of the three greatest of sinners in history (in Dante’s eyes anyway). As a side note, the picture above is taken from the mosaic in the cupola of the baptistry in Florence. Dante would have been familiar with this image and scholars suppose that the image informed his depiction of Satan.

* Hell has a specific order. We’re all familiar with the levels. It is also worth noting that the great Julius Caesar resides in the highest realm of Limbo, which would be elevated from the furthest possible point in Hell from his murderers.

* One project I wish I had the foresight to have undertaken with this reading (and am putting in my cap for my next time through) is the manifestations of Hellishness, specifically how they mirror every unpleasant sensation known to humankind on Earth. I should like to have listed them. I deduce from the order of the piece that I can expect the converse to be the case in the higher realms (i.e. Paradise will be marked by pleasant sensations known to humans). This first occurred to me in the realm where there is naught but icy rain falling on the exposed souls. In other places, there is boiling, fire, hot sands, feces, mud, attacking dogs, being shot with arrows, the customary pitch-forks, being ground between teeth, being frozen in an icy lake, fevers, darkness and confusion, sadness, looking to the past, disfigurement, being chased, fisticuffs, and probably dozens more manifestations of Hellishness that I’m not immediately remembering. There is also the contributions of the damned in anger, pride, and so forth. The integrity of the damned leaves them in their state and, as we’re all too familiar with, people are capable of creating Hell with their own attitudes without any help.

* I found the part of Hell where the angry reside striking in light of a comment from the Introduction in which David H. Higgins makes the (I think correct) assertion that the sins of the damned are behaviors that would be proscribed by any rational society. Again, it occurs to me how many of these sins have been transformed into virtues in my own society. Anger becomes righteous outrage. Greed becomes the self-interest that promotes a stable economy for all. Lust becomes a natural expression of our inescapable procreational impulses given to us by the evolutionary process. Usury and covetousness are the two forces that drive our economy. Gluttony manifests both in the traditional sense and in the over-focused health consciousness (which comes with the built in finger-wagging sin of Pride at no extra charge). At one point, Virgil rebukes Dante for delighting in listening to the disputes of two of the wretched damned. Delighting in listening to disputes is the foremost characteristic of contemporary American entertainment and news. It is a little unnerving to see someone lay out the marks of an irrational and doomed social order and in it immediately identify the society in which you live. The damned in Hell rage against God. And so do we.

“O you whose intellects are sane and well,

Look at the teaching which is here concealed

Under the unfamiliar veil of verses.”

* “There is the one who infects the whole world.” Sin is like a virus and, like a virus, infects the host unseen and without the conscious will of the host body. The disease is always fatal and would be the end of everyone save for the opportunity for transference in the Great Physician.

* The tormented are desperate for any consolation. This sometimes manifests in unexpected ways. They seek to learn about the current condition of their homelands and families. They also seek to have Dante mention them so that their names will be remembered on Earth. Although some, in the lower reaches, seek the consolation of anonymity. In an affecting scene near the end, a soul refuses to reveal its identity to Dante when he demands it, exerting the last vestige of power available. In that soul’s triumph, we, the readers, share in the sense of transgression. We are left unsatisfied in the successful attempt at maintaining anonymity and, for a moment, taste the universal need for justice.

* In the final moment, the light of the stars, as Dante and Virgil emerge to the surface of the Earth, bring such a sense of relief. It is the sort of relief one has in a moment of pleasure after any time of suffering. We are primed to move towards the light.