Sunday, September 13, 2015

Reading Dante's Inferno 2015: Cantos I to III


Danté's Inferno is a self-help guide book that can aid you as you navigate your way through Hell (with a capital H). In 2015, most students may find this work challenging, but if you think of how Danté is relevant today that can help make The Inferno one of your best reads yet.

Some things to keep in mind, Danté wrote YOU into The Divine Comedy, an epic poem of 14,233 lines. That may sound like a lot of reading, but they are short 3-line verses (tercets) divided into 100 cantos (verses) and we are only going to look at Hell (34 cantos). So keep an eye out for friends, family, and yourself as we make our descent.

The Inferno is very descriptive and we'll look at many illustrations to help see what Danté was trying to show us, like the picture above. Danté's Hell is based on varying circles, or levels, with the worst sinners at the bottom.

Everyone in Hell gets the punishment they deserve, and the farther down one is located in Hell, the worse the punishment. Hell is broken down into three sections; one reserved for the incontinent (no self control), another for the violent (crimes committed in passion), and the lowest level contains those committing fraud (using one's intellect to commit crime).

Danté is the main character and the story takes place over the course of a week in 1300. Dante' set this story in his past, a past where he was somewhat of a big shot in Florence, but was written after he had been exiled from his home. Exile is a cruel thing for someone growing up in the powerful city state of Florence, but if Danté had not been exiled all we would have is some really good love poetry.

Cantos I and II

Danté finds himself on a path in the dark woods at the middle of his life - yes, it's one long allegory. Think about your own life, don't you sometimes find yourself mixed up in things you would really rather avoid? A time when you say, "What the heck am I doing?" and make an exit. Have you ever left a group of friends who weren't a good influence, tried to stop gossiping, or drinking, or partying, or doing drugs.

Sometimes it is hard to make it out of the dark woods without a friend (or sponsor), so Danté is paired up with Virgil (the Roman poet and author of The Aeneid). Virgil knows about Danté's plight from one of his old flames, Beatrice, who basically tells Virgil to help Danté find his way back on the right path before he ends up in Hell permanently, it's "tough love" medieval style.

Virgil is an inhabitant of Limbo. He is a "virtuous pagan" and can't enter Paradise because he was never baptized - kind of hard considering Virgil died 19 years before Christ was even born. Virgil is a good guide because he lets Danté discover things on his own and often gives him a verbal slap to get him back on the right track.

Canto III: Circle Zero - The Indifferent or Neutrals


Okay, now that's hell. Think about it. As humans we live for hope. We hope we get into that good school, we hope we get a good job once we graduate. We hope that our friends and family get better when they are sick. We hope we haven't gained five pounds and our pants still fit. That's the human condition and that is what Danté is saying - Hell is the place where there is no more hope.

The first "people" we meet in Hell, on circle zero, are the neutrals. Who are these shades? In Danté's Hell the neutrals are the angels who sat on the sidelines when Lucifer (the fallen angel) rebelled against god and other people who just didn't do anything good or bad.

Don't see yourself yet? Have you ever been in a conversation when one of your friends says something that is contrary to popular opinion and everyone jumps all over him or her for being a narcissistic, homophobic, bigoted, racist (the worst epithets in our 21st century society) and you know that your friend has a point, but you say nothing . . . guess what, you just entered circle zero. No way, you say, nothing really happened, your friend is just a little uncomfortable.

Another way to look at it is through the lens of history. In the early 1930s, the Nazis gained parliamentary seats in Germany - a party that most Germans thought was made up of a bunch of rabble rousers. By 1939, the Nazis had taken over the country and were rolling over Europe. Many of the Jews remained in Germany thinking that the most progressive nation in the world (at the time) would never really annihilate an entire population. But the Nazis came pretty close. At the end of World War II many Germans claimed the neutral position, they didn't know what was going on in the camps, they didn't suspect, they were worried for our own safety, they remained indifferent.

So how does Danté punish neutrals?

Have you ever seen a protest march, or been a part of a protest march? Those protesters are not going to end up as neutrals. They are (com)passionate about something.

The neutrals, or the indifferent, end up following a blank banner for eternity on an endless protest march about nothing. They are continually stung by wasps (sting of conscience) as maggots suck their blood (repugnant sin). Pretty gross for all time, and these shades have not even crossed the Acheron.

What? The Acheron? That's a river from classic times. Yes, Danté loves to borrow from everywhere as he writes his way through Hell. At the end of Canto III, he is about to enter the boat of Charon (another classic reference), but he faints.

Next: I'll meet you in Limbo . . .

Do you see yourself at the cusp of Hell? Are you a neutral? Not even sometimes? Where do you see this occurring in our society today?

1 comment:

  1. If I were to be placed in the same century with Dante I honestly do believe I would go to hell. It seems to me that if you do not follow the rules and guidelines to the T you go to hell. I think I would be a neutral because I think that they are the ones that haven't really done anything wrong but they did do things that God did not agree with. In my opinion everyone is a neutral in today's society. I mostly see people who look out for themselves and tend to feel like they don't need to help other people because they aren't getting any help.