New series! Recently I have been suffering from insomnia, and to give a sense of routine to my bedtime (which should help) I’m trying to read a short amount before I go to bed every night. To get me into the swing of things I’m reading one Canto per night of the Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri, in the Oxford World’s Classics Edition translated by CH Sisson.

Because I am a pie-eyed narcissist incapable of having an experience without wanting to blog about it, I’m going to write about this. The only rule is that I have to wait until the next day to do so, and I’m not allowed to check the book. So only the memorable impressions will get through. You can follow the individual posts on Tumblr but I’ll post “digest” versions here too – with comments! I already know I’ve got some completely wrong impressions about Dante and Beatrice (for instance) though I’ll get a chance to correct those.

And that ends the introduction.

Inferno I: There’s A She-Wolf In The Closet

Even if you’ve not read the Divine Comedy you probably know the basic structure, or at least the fact that Dante wrote a book called Inferno and it was about going to HELL. And maybe you know the opening too, which is very matter of fact – “Halfway through the course of my life I found myself in a dark wood” – or something like that, depending on the translation.

This opening stuck with me from an earlier attempt to read the book, when little else did. It’s a very matter-of-fact description of, essentially, a mid-life crisis, and it’s no surprise I’ve picked this book off the self shortly after my own 40th birthday and during a period of directionlessness and self-doubt. I don’t intend to dwell too much on that stuff and I don’t want to turn Dante’s knotty and very personal epic into any kind of self-help book. But it resonates nonetheless.

So he’s in the wood. It’s not a real wood. Except it is also a real wood – the settings have that mythic character of being real and not real at the same time, something the best fairy tales and fantasy fiction have part inherited from the Divine Comedy (or from a more intuitive pre-Enlightenment understanding of allegory, I dunno). The wood is a physical place, the entrance to hell is a physical place, it’s only the means of transport to these places that are obscured by fog. Dante can’t remember exactly how he got there, and he also can’t get out – again, a diagnosis of a dysfunctional mind and spirit as well as a physical set-up.

From “An Inferno Paper Doll Set”

He tries to get out, and this is what the Canto is about – he attempts to take the easy road up the hill of salvation, and gets blocked by a succession of beasts: leopard, lion and a perpetually hungry she-wolf. These are allegorical, not sure of what – there’s a whole Roman thing going on in this book so maybe the She-Wolf is pride or Earthly Power or something – but they work just as well as magical way-guardians in a story, since everything here is its real thing and also its magical self. The poet Virgil turns up – a ghost – and offers Dante an out: take the long way round (THROUGH HELL) and get to Paradise that way. From a storytelling perspective, it’s an admirably rapid set-up.

Inferno II: No Bechdel Test In Paradise

A flashback in this Canto – Dante asks (reasonably enough) why me and why you, and Virgil tells him: the poet in on commission from Dante’s dead ex, who was in Heaven talking with her girlfriends about Dante and noticed he was in trouble in the dark wood.

(I don’t think this really answers the “why Virgil” question, but perhaps I misunderstood it. The “why me” part lets Dante seem humble – important as this is a book of discovery, I guess – and is a clever feint away from the fact that the casting of Virgil, Italy’s original epic poet, is surely a MASSIVE bit of self-promotion on Dante’s part. Which his later reputation justifies – you win this one Dante!)

Dante decides he’s up for the challenge, and through the door to hell they go. That’s about what I can remember from this chapter, so a quick note on the translation.

This translation, for World Classics, is by CH Sisson. He writes a long intro about how he never wanted to translate Dante and would be an idiot to do so but then decided for fun to tackle Canto I and immediately realised he would be amazing at it. The rest of the intro is about how bad most of the other translations have been, so our translator comes across as something of a cock. (But then Dante wasn’t exactly modest, so all’s well.) Anyway, this Wonder Translator’s style is quite dry, very blank verse – I’m usually hard pressed to find any metre – but has the great advantage of really rattling along even when not an awful lot is happening.

Inferno III: Don’t Shilly-Shally

This Canto is AMAZING, and Metal, and AMAZINGLY METAL – it’s our first proper glimpse of Hell (well, just the lobby of Hell really), and it starts with the 9-line inscription on the gates of Hell, which is generally remembered these days only by its final payoff – “Abandon hope all ye who enter here” (Wonder Translator puts it differently because that’s just how badass a translator he is, but it’s the line). The first three lines of the gate inscription are great too – something like “Welcome to the CITY OF PAIN”.

It’s such an effective scene-setting intro and for me really good evidence that this stuff was intended to be read episodically, maybe read aloud episodically. I have forgotten anything I did learn about the way Dante was spread’n’read in his day. You’re surely meant to be thinking, right where were we, Dante and Virgil are going into hell, then WHAM all this “BEYOND ME IS DEATH” stuff comes out of nowhere, And this Canto ends on a cliffhanger for goodness’ sakes – a great hell-wind sweeps up and casts Dante into unconsciousness. (It’s not a GOOD cliffhanger – “And then I knew no more” rarely is – but it is one.)

Between that we get Dante’s horrifying first encounter with the inhabitants of the underworld, except these are the PUSILLANIMOUS, the people who won’t take a side in the struggle between good and evil, and so get it worse than anyone. Or at least that’s what they think now. They’ve ended up as disembodied howlers following a banner endlessly in circles through the lobby of Hell.

This section has the “Who would have thought death had undone so many?” line I remember from The Waste Land, which T S Eliot is using to suggest that the masses of the 20th century are like these feeble Dantean souls, and very high-handed he is about it. Dante would probably have sympathised – the pusillanimous obviously disgust him.

People talk about The Canon and its influence on Western Thought and it’s usually either in an abstracted sense or in this Rock Family Trees diagrammatic “influence” way. But this Canto really gave me the sense of how Dante bleeds into vernacular Western thought – not just in every “Welcome To Hell” scene-setter (it’s on the away player’s entry of Fenerbahce football stadium!) but in the way the religious element to Dante’s viewpoint here (God has no time for fence-sitters!) has leeched out into secular thinking with actual post-death judgement by a Divinity being replaced by a kind of vague “posterity” – the “test of time”. Nobody will remember you unless you STAND OUT (but of course death has undone far more than you can possibly imagine, and few will remember you anyway) Dante’s treatment of the pusillanimous is the underlying revulsion behind every call to GET SHIT DONE. It’s the deaths head behind every motivational quote, and I work in marketing so I’ve seen a few.

Then there’s an encounter with Charon – retconned into a demon – and a nice bit of business where Virgil has to explain to Dante that, duh, Charon not wanting to let you into Hell means you’re not as damned as you think you are. And then hell-wind, unconscious, boom, see you next time

Inferno IV: Hell’s Velvet Rope

My first encounter with the Divine Comedy was at school – we read some of Inferno, and this very first Circle Of Hell was the part which stuck with me. I was an atheist then, and I’m an atheist now, but at 18 I was like most clever atheist boys, i.e. pretty insufferable (Obviously I may still be this). Of all the religious injustices for me to get worked up about, the distribution of souls in an afterlife I didn’t believe in anyway should have been fairly low, but I guess this Canto really rankled with me because I remember it very well.

It’s the circle of the Virtuous Pagans – including everyone who lived and died before Christ, without doing anything particularly terrible, but obviously not being redeemed by him, so they don’t get passage into the higher sections of the Christian afterlife. It also includes virtuous people of other faiths, as we’ll see.

This is also Virgil’s home circle in the afterlife, and he’s understatedly upset about it, pointedly making sure Dante knows about the composition of this circle (whose sufferers aren’t really being actively punished, just enduring eternity without hope of salvation). Dante, on the other hand, as a good 14th century Christian, is basically fine with the arrangement and wants to get through the lower levels as soon as possible. Virgil then leads him to his actual home – a kind of luxury part of the circle where the souls of the REALLY virtuous pagans (great poets, scholars, philosophers and so on) get preferential treatment – cool water, warm grass to sit on – and hang out together in an eternal sausage party. Dante gets to mingle with Homer, Ovid and the other greatest poets of history (who accept him as their equal, according to Dante – no false modesty here!) though leaves the exact details of their conversation to other fanfic writers.

The problem of the Virtuous Pagans must have been a keen one to a man of Dante’s sensibilities and I guess only got keener as the Renaissance got underway. From a Renaissance perspective in particular it’s a thorny injustice: here are people who our declined Earthly civilisation needs to rediscover and draw example from, but from a theological perspective there’s no hope for them. Was the theology ever changed, I wonder? Dante asks whether anyone ever gets out, and Virgil’s reply is the answer to the second part of the VPs problem: what about Abraham, David et al? They get special dispensation, is the answer – Virgil reports that a bit after he ended up in hell, Christ came through and rescued his ancestors, the Old Testament patriarchs, etc – the story of the “Harrowing Of Hell” which was so popular in Medieval Christianity. But before that (and implicitly since) nobody was saved.

I wonder if the VP’s VIP area is a Dantean compromise – he knows his doctrine, and there’s no salvation for Virgil or the other poets and philosophers, but he’s enough of a proto Renaissance man to want to make their stay in Hell as comfy as possible.

For me the most interesting inhabitant of this area is Saladin, the 12th Century Muslim ruler and military commander – shown as a solitary figure standing “off on his own” among the Greeks and Romans. It reflects Medieval fascination with the man – a great enemy of Crusader Europe, but later seen by Europeans as more chivalrous and honourable than most of the Crusaders who fought him (which, given the thuggishness of Medieval Europe and the origins of Crusading as a means to control endemic violence by armoured bandits, wouldn’t have been hard).

You’d think the man who reconquered Palestine for Islam might have been placed lower down by Dante, rather than in First (Circle) Class, but as well as an urge to stress the might of a successful foe, there might have been a dim, highly-filtered awareness of how relatively advanced Arab civilisation was compared to 13th Century Europe (though none of its poets, arithmeticians, etc show up here). And anyway, by 1300 the concept of Crusading was a discredited embarrassment, so poor Saladin gets to enjoy an eternity of being a token Muslim among the Virtuous Pagans, given the side-eye by the Roman and Greek greats.

Inferno V: Cleopatra Comin’ Atcha

We’re now past the people who Dante basically doesn’t want to be punished, and the ones (i.e. the pusillanimous) who he does but has no doctrinal justification for it. So from now on it’s literally torment all the way down, and here to kick it off is MINOS, judge of the damned. Minos’ excellent gimmick is that he has a horrible tail which he lashes round each sinner, and the number of times it twines round you is the circle of Hell you end up in. He gives Dante a warning about how dangerous the journey is, but divine authorisation means he has to let the travellers through.

We’re into the second circle, which is full of wantons and love rats. Faithless and doomed lovers throughout history now swirl around in an implacable tempest (probably representing their inability to control their passions) and we see a few of them. Most of them are women, who – surprise! – seem to get the blame for extramarital badness from Dante more than the men. Cleopatra shows up here, for instance. And Aeneas gets a slot in the Virtuous Pagan Lounge, but Dido (who loved him then killed herself) is dumped in the second circle. (Continuity buffs might have expected Aeneid author Virgil to have something to say about this, but he’s quiet for most of the Canto rather than involve himself in metafictional blame games).

One man I can remember seeing in the initial parade of dead lovers is Tristran (of “Und Isolde” fame), whose adulterous story was a medieval sensation and – OK I checked Wiki for this – particularly popular in Italy. The reason Tristan’s story was such a winner seems to be its invocation of courtly love – a kind of fashionable and glamorised adultery (if memory serves MEANT to be unconsummated, hmmm) whose DIRE CONSEQUENCES are shown in this Canto’s featured interview, with Francesca and Paolo, a pair of Italian lovers and murdered contemporaties of Dante.

Obviously a feature of the Divine Comedy is Dante’s mix of classical allusion and hot Florentine gossip, the latter of which has often faded a bit with age. But Francesca’s testimony is – Minos’ awesome tail aside – the most captivating bit of this Canto,. Francesca’s fatal encounter is spurred by sitting together reading the story of Lancelot and Guinevere. Alas the lovers are heedless of the likely conseqence of reading this intoxicating story, and Francesca’s account is a stylised description of the moment courtly love turns into unfortunately consequential lust. (“We read no more that day”)

It’s corny but sweet, but that – according to the chapter notes, so this may be CH Sisson projecting – is how Dante wants you to react so you see the TERRIBLE TRAP of courtly love: the way you end up led astray by romantic stories and fail to take responsibility (Though at least Francesca stands up for herself – Paolo just floats around blubbing). The real sin in the second circle is the Sin Of Corniness.