Posted by: Nathan | September 3, 2006

Dante

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I recently finished Dante Alighieri‘s epic The Divine Comedy, and it was pretty interesting. If one had to name the top five most influential literary works in Western Culture, Dante would be in there easily. Every author since Dante has been quoting, alluding to, copying, or using Commedia Divina in their own works. Naturally, being a lit student, I want to understand as many references as possible when I read, but I also read this work because I wanted to know the story.

For those who don’t know, The Divine Comedy is the story of Dante (he’s the main character in his own book) taking a trip through hell, purgatory and heaven in that order. While in the hades and purgatory, Dante’s guide is Virgil. That’s right: the same guy who wrote The Aeneid; once again, I was blessed that I read the epics in sequential order, though it was somewhat accidental. Virgil represents reason, and reason will take you all the way through purgatory (which Virgil does) but reason alone can’t get you to heaven; thus, at the top of Mt. Purgatory, Virgil heads back to hell and Beatrice (representing Divine revelation)takes up guide duties. Beatrice is Dante’s real-life wife who died young. Since the book is structured in three parts, my post will follow suit.

Inferno

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Setting-wise, this was the most interesting of the three sections. With Virgil at his side, Dante gets a tour of hell and its nine circles, each more horrible than the last — at least that’s the idea. It was fun to read about the creative punishments being administered down here: fire, ice, constant rain, turning into a human tree, hanging upside down, lashings, etc. And what’s hell without people? Dante populates eternal damnation with lots of Italians (he’s from Florence), and he even includes some Church officials who are naughty, which I’m sure was pretty controversial at the time.For the curious, here are the circles from top down:

1. Blameless folks who didn’t know God (Virgil’s in here with Plato et al.)

2. Lustful people

3. Gluttons

4. The greedy

5. Angry sinners

6. Heretics

7. Violent injurers (murderers, suicides, etc.)
8. Fraudulent folks (including seducers, flatterers, false prophets, etc.)

9. Betrayers (Satan’s down here gnawing on Judas for eternity…guh)

It was interesting to see who ended up where and for what in this section, plus Dante throws in all kinds of bonuses from the Bible and other literature. I’m talking about giants, minotaurs, centaurs, harpies, Cerberus and lots of other nasty stuff. After seeing Satan in circle nine, somehow (this part was really confusing) Virgil leads him out to the surface of the world again. Then, it’s off to comparatively pleasant…

Purgatorio

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Dante is very Catholic — not like he had a choice since he lived 200 years before Luther — so naturally Purgatory is a part of the progression of the afterlife. Virgil continues on as leader as he and the author ascend the seven levels of Mt. Purgatory, wherein people have to work off all that cruddy stuff that they did while they lived even though they’re believers. The levels correspond with the deadly sins, and the go from low to high:

1. Pride

2. Envy

3. Anger

4. Sloth (Indifference)

5. Avarice

6. Gluttony

7. Lust

Dante’s punishments/solutions for these sins are pretty fascinating. While burning off pride, you walk around looking at scenes of prideful people’s destruction (pictured above); the gluttonous are super thin and are placed near a beautiful fruit tree of which they cannot eat. Despite the unpleasantness, the folks here are pretty jovial because they know where they’re headed (eventually): heaven.

At the top of purgatory, as I’ve already mentioned, Beatrice takes over and Dante sees Eden. He also has this crazy, symbolic vision that I’m not going to bother trying to understand. Despite that, I think Purgatory was my favorite canto; it has really interesting scenery but a lot more hope than Hell (as you might expect). Onto…

Paradiso

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There are nine heavens up here and an Empyrean Sphere, so that makes ten heavens that Beatrice takes Dante through. I was excited to read about heaven, as I’m planning on staying later, but, as is too common in literary heavens, I was disappointed*. There are the usual clouds, choirs, and halos…a little too blase for me, but it has its moments.

Dante places the different heavens on celestial bodies. Since, again, he lived 200+ years before Galileo, his cosmology is pretty off, but it’s still pretty cool. The heavens break down this way (this part done with the help of wikipedia):

1. Moon — vow breakers but saints anyway

2. Mercury — do-gooders who wanted fame

3. Venus — those who did good deeds out of love

4. Sun — The wise

5. Mars — Christians who fought for the faith

6. Jupiter — the Just

7. Saturn — featuring the contemplative types

8. The Stars — all the rest of the saints including the apostles, disciples and others

9. Angels congregate here

10. Empyrean sphere — for God, Mary and other really holy folks

Dante has some relatively interesting chats with saints along the way, though the saints are always please by the most chatechismical answers. There’s a lengthy discussion on God’s divine justice and mercy and Jesus’ death and resurrection, which was really great. The best part has to be at the very end when Dante, with the help of Mary and St. Bernard (not the dog) gets to see the three Persons of God at the still point of the turning universe surrounded and emitting the most powerful light (pictured above). It was breathtaking.

I’m blessed to have read it, and I know it’ll serve me well in grad school. Still, it wasn’t always interesting to read. My curiousity about the next circle in whatever place oftentimes was the only thing keeping me reading. My translation was done by Henry Francis Cary, and he did fine — it was all in blank verse, which makes reading a fun challenge. Cary includes a little summary of the action at the beginning of every canto, and that helps me out in understanding it. My book also has really cool woodcut pictures by Gustave Doré (see the above pics); they aid in comprehension, plus they’re really neat.

Will I read it again? I may. There wasn’t a really gripping plot, which I always love, but there was a lot to enjoy. Still, it was trudging at times. I give it a 7.5/10 and a B.
*Best literary heaven I’ve read belongs to Mr. C.S. Lewis in The Great Divorce. Check it out.

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Responses

  1. Heaven in the Great Divorce was by far one of my favorites–and I don’t generally do favorites. I find the idea of Hell being more of a choice than people often concieve fascinating. We are damned by our favorite sins.

    However, dear English grad student, Beatrice was not Dante’s wife. He married to a woman called Gemma, and had two sons with her. He only saw Beatrice twice, once when he was nine and she eight, and once a few years later, when she smiled at him.

    He wrote the Divine Comedy in order to write a love poem that had never been done.

    I’d say he succeeded.

  2. Oh the pain! The shame! Well, if I had to be corrected, I’m glad it was by someone as knowledgable as you, Carolyn. This makes his weird devotion to her even weirder, especially considering that not only is she super hot in the text (and he makes that very clear), but she’s also super holy. She’s just a step down from Mary up in the heavens. Now, that’s devotion. Thanks for dropping the knowledge.

  3. Great review. I read ‘Inferno’ once upon a time, and was fascinated by the people/levels/punishments as you were. Perhaps someday I’ll encounter the other cantos. They’ll be much more uplifting, to be sure.

    It’s interesting that the gluttons in ‘Purgatorio’ seem to parallel Hell’s sinner in Lewis’ ‘Great Divorce’. Neither can have what they so terribly desire. I wonder why Lewis (and Dante, for that matter) chose to put such a punishment where he did.

    Along the same lines, I wonder how much Dante’s ‘Divine Comedy’ influenced Lewis’ ‘Great Divorce’.

  4. Well, given the traditional church separation between the sexuality and holiness of a woman, I’d say the holiness thing is easy to explain away. What do you do when you see the sun setting over the Rockies? You thank God for it, don’t you? Dante was doing the same thing, only on a much more nuanced level. If he’d actually married her, he would have also seen her as a sexual being, and that probably would’ve negated some of her holiness to his Roman Catholic mind, no?

    Then we’d have no Divine Comedy, and the language of Italian would be totally different.

    How’re classes?

  5. Well, PK, I’m pretty certain Lewis would’ve at least experienced Dante at some point along the way. It would be an interesting study to compare and contrast The Divine Comedy and The Great Divorce and their respective ideas about the afterlife.

    Carolyn, you’ve got a great point about the strict divide between flesh and spirit whose nasty effects we still feel today. This whole idea of Dante composing this epic to express his affection for a hot stranger is very interesting to me, but I find it insufficient to “explain” why Big D wrote this work. Beatrice only shows up at the top of Purgatory (sure, she’s introduced in Inferno, but still). If it’s all for Beatrice, why spend all that time in Hell and Purgatory? Perhaps to show the how cool Beatrice is by negative comparison? But that’s a lot of work.

    Plus, I just think DC is too big of a work to attribute solely to the admiration of one lady. There’s an awful lot of theology, philosophy, and art in here that’s pretty unrelated to Beatrice. I think your dead-on about how important she is to the composing of this work, but I don’t think Dante wrote it only for her — in part, yes. You’ve always been great at taking the counter viewpoint of mine and making it seem reasonable and frequently better than mine. I thank you for that.

    I haven’t started classes yet. Monday! I’ve got Modernism and 18th Century Travel Lit on the docket. Hope it’ll be good. I’ll keep you posted.


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