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Discussion of Dante's Inferno

May 5, 2017

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today's post.

Enjoy Liszt's “Dante Sonata” while reading today's journey into hell.

I spent a few hours last week discussing the various virtues of Dante's Inferno. I could spend endless hours discovering the ways in which one gains knowledge of virtue through sin in Dante. His brilliant and horrific punishments both captivate and repel. Clearly, Dante thought deeply about the idea of judgment and what it means to live an honorable life. I am not sure that the answer is as clearcut as we would like for it to be, however. As Dante struggled to navigate the religious division of his times, he placed popes and clergy in this dark narrative. This real-life divide, which would have affected his family, neighbors and community, may be one reason that he deals so harshly with people who have caused other schisms. Either way, it demonstrates that, for Dante, virtue is not necessarily tied to the church, but only what is right in the church. In this sense, the Inferno leads the reader to a path of divinity.

In Dante's Inferno, the reader listens to Dante's questions and Virgil's answers in a descent through the many circles of Hell. (I have often wondered how we are participating? Are we a fly on the wall?) For this discussion, we focused on the Malebolge section, which descends into the darkest realms of Hell. Virgil guides as Dante observes and questions. In nearly every section, Virgil gives concise, straightforward answers meant to keep Dante on the right path (and on time!). Hell includes a hodge-podge of mostly male unrepentant sinners. These people come from all walks of life, some mythic and some from Dante's own life. While they witness absolutely horrific punishments (dreamed up by Dante and meant to match the crime), Dante expresses sympathy, anguish, and horror. Virgil rejects all of these emotions, claiming that those who have sinned must be punished. In Canto 29, Dante identifies a family member, and Virgil reprimands his emotional response. He says, “Be no longer broken/ Thy thought from this time forward upon him;/ Attend elsewhere, and there let him remain”. This lack of mercy or emotion confuses me, however. If this is an educational journey, why are we to completely disregard or remove emotion? Is emotion a hindrance on the path to virtue?

Our wonderful discussion enlightened many aspects of this educational journey. Yet, in addition to the question above, I have a few more questions that bear contemplation, and so I list them here. Feel free to add to the discussion!

First, why does Dante mix real-life figures with those of mythology? Is he trying to do more than write an instructional guide to virtue? Is this a work of art which he intends (or hopes) will rival those of Ovid and Virgil? If so, why is Virgil his guide? More than that, isn't it a bit problematic that pride is a sin, and yet, Dante wants to broadcast his own genius?

In partial answer to a discussion of genius, I think that Dante attempts to deal with this idea of pride and genius in Canto 26. In a beautiful section of the Inferno, Dante recounts Ulysses' actions and ambition. As a punishment apparently fit for the overly ambitious, flames continually devour Ulysses. Whereas Dante thanks God for his ability and genius, Ulysses ambitiously pursued knowledge, wisdom and virtue on his own. Perhaps this inclusion of Ulysses is meant to instruct Dante on how to avoid arrogance. So, what is an appropriate amount of pride, and how must it be demonstrated in order to avoid the flames of Dante's Inferno?

Secondly, in Canto 25, Dante uses very little dialogue, which stands out when compared to other sections. Generally speaking, each canto relies heavily on dialogue between Dante and Virgil. A lot of information is transmitted through this question and answer pattern. In fact, it is an efficient use of space considering the fact that the reader meets people from all walks of life (and myth). Dialogue offers a nice, succinct style of filling in the details. In Canto 25, however, Dante describes mythological beings in such a way that might rival literature from antiquity. Was that one of the goals when writing the Inferno, or did his pen get away from him here?

Third, what is the relation of sinners to those who punish sinners? All sorts of beasts mete out punishment. Where do these beasts come from and, in being relegated to live in Hell, are they in a sense also being punished for some fault of their own?

And finally, is there an element of witness that makes sin that much worse? In walking this cavernous dark hole, many of the sinners ask Dante to remember him. I wonder why? Do they want him to remember the crime, or the man before the crime? Do they want to be remembered for greatness, even if it is their sin which causes them to be great? What is it about witness that allows an entrance to memory? Is the reader also participating in this act of witness? Is memory an important element of education, experience, knowledge or something else?

I will have to leave the answers to someone else. I look forward to future discussions on Dante, but greatly thank those who took the time with me last week. Our upcoming July Quarterly Discussion will focus on Plutarch. Email asimon@hmu.edu for more details and information.

Sites that I found useful while reading Dante's Inferno:

- The Paris Review runs through each Canto with a little wit, humor and information: https://www.theparisreview.org/dante

- An introduction into Dante's Worlds by Dr. Guy Raffa: http://danteworlds.laits.utexas.edu/

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