Jan 29, 2013

The Inferno: Introducing Canto I

The dark forest—selva oscura—in which Dante finds himself at the beginning of the poem (Inf. 1.2) is described in vague terms, perhaps as an indication of the protagonist's own disorientation. The precise nature of this disorientation—spiritual, physical, psychological, moral, political—is itself difficult to determine at this point and thus underscores two very important ideas for reading this poem: first, we are encouraged to identify with Dante (the character) and understand knowledge to be a learning process; second, the poem is carefully structured so that we must sometimes read "backwards" from later events to gain a fuller understanding of what happened earlier.

Characteristic of Dante's way of working, this "dark wood" is a product of the poet's imagination likely based on ideas from various traditions. These include the medieval Platonic image of chaotic matter—unformed, unnamed—as a type of primordial wood (silva); the forest at the entrance to the classical underworld (Hades) as described by Virgil (Aeneid 6.179); Augustine's association of spiritual error (sin) with a "region of unlikeness" (Confessions 7.10); and the dangerous forests from which the wandering knights of medieval Romances must extricate themselves. In an earlier work (Convivio 4.24.12), Dante imagines the bewildering period of adolescence—in which one needs guidance to keep from losing the "good way"—as a sort of "meandering forest" (erronea selva).

From Danteworlds
The University of Texas at Austin
According to Dante, Canto I serves as an introduction to the whole Divine Comedy.
  • Dante is the central character in the work. It's about "our life's journey" (we're all invited to read ourselves into the story allegorically), but it's essentially, especially about one man, Dante himself.
  • We seem to know very little about him, but we know more than we think, if we do a really careful, close reading, as we will. He'll become very recognizable, I think—all we have to do is put ourselves in his shoes and look around and there's a lot we can relate to. How did we get here? What does it feel like? Where are we going? How will we get there? Fundamental questions all.
  • Canto I brings us up close to one man who has to go on a "journey." It's a journey that's a kind of a rescue mission. Our character is "lost" in "dark wood." At the end of the Canto he's "found" (by Virgil) and ready to undertake a journey through an "eternal realm." He's stepping out of time into eternal time. (That sounds familiar to us, I hope.) Who is Dante as he starts out? Who will he be by the time he's finished? Will he grow and change as a result of this journey? What will he learn? 
The Inferno is a book about the problem of evil, the nature of "sin" and its punishment; it's a kind of a moral map and compass. Dante has a lot to learn about the nature of evil, about the nature of divine justice. It's based on a system of rewards and punishments; the justice in Hell is eternal punishment. Canto I puts Dante in the "valley of evil-where corruption is the rule and where people suffer wrongly and needlessly. Treachery, fraud, violence, chaos is everywhere, infecting everything. Is this valley of evil our Hell on Earth, the world outside of the Garden? It seems that the wood is our world, and Dante wakes up to an awareness of it. It's a dark wood, a dark labyrinth, a "moral maze" to get lost in-and we may wander in the same maze today, coerced by propaganda, advertising, materialism.

In the beginning, we'll see, he's lost, confused, almost in a kind of stupor, a little "stupid." In the early Cantos he has to struggle with the pity he feels for the suffering he sees (the sinners who are being punished). He has to learn not to misplace his sympathy, and to trust in the divine justice he's experiencing.

His journey in the Inferno is going to take him through nine circles of Hell, where the punishments gradually get more and more severe as the sins become more and more "evil." Divine retribution functions according to a system he gets to observe, a system of "contrapasso"-the punishments are ingeniously suited to the sins, sometimes mirroring them. This isn't the wilderness, the savage maze of man's imperfect justice, but God's perfect justice, and it takes a little getting used to, as we'll see.
Canto I, The Dark Wood

1. What is the "dark wood"? How did Dante get there?

The dark wood is vague and not clearly defined; it's really open to our interpretation. As an image it seems hugely archetypal-a wild place, fearful and dangerous. It's a place we might get lost in, confused, or a place where we might end up when we've become lost or become confused. Dante says that he lost the straight path and must have wandered there somehow, though he doesn't remember exactly how or why.

The interesting thing is that by the time you finish reading the Inferno, you'll have a pretty strong notion of the nature of this place. Hindsight.

But for now this dark wood seems like an intentionally vague place. The character who wakes and "finds himself" there is as disoriented as we are. He seems to be thinking, where am I? I'm lost, this is terrifying! How do I get out of here??

Although this dark wood is Dante's image, and it will always be associated with him, he may have had several sources in mind as he invented it. Guy P. Raffa (Danteworlds) suggests that he might have been thinking of Plato's vague, primordial "chaotic matter." Dante calls it a wild, savage, untamed place-the image of a "jungle" comes to mind, and even Joseph Conrad's (and Francis Ford Coppola's) "heart of darkness." The dark wood may represent our primordial human condition, perhaps, our earthly home away from home, out of the Garden and into the Dark Wood. Perhaps, in the Ptolemaic scheme, the dark wood is our earthly home, imperfect, savage, corrupt. Raffa goes on to suggest that Dante may be borrowing Virgil's image from the Aeneid-because there's a forest before the entrance to Hades-and because Dante borrows images from Virgil's underworld throughout the Inferno. Then again, he suggests, it could be an Augustinian wood, a dark place to mirror the darkness in our souls when we sin; so perhaps Dante wanders here because this is where all sinners wander, all bad choices and irresponsibility lead to this dark wood. There are plenty of dangerous, dark woods in the medieval romances of the period, and Raffa offers this suggestion as well. He tells us, too, that Dante wrote in the Convivio about adolescence as a time when it was possible to "lose the good way" and wind up in a "meandering forest."

It's possible that the dark wood is ambiguous and not completely knowable because the journey we are taking involves a learning process, and understanding the dark wood represents knowledge we don't have yet, but will get soon.

I think it is all these things. And more.

It might also be personally, for Dante, the dark wood of exile, of a kind of homelessness (though he was never destitute). It's a dark wood of isolation, alienation: the sense that you are "THEM" in an "US and THEM" world.

It might be personally, for Dante, the dark wood of intellectual error. It might be the error of mistaking human reason for the agent of salvation, which is not reason but love.. Philosophy is a consolation, but ultimately it is only that and no more. It can set you on a straight and level path, but it can't climb the stair. It won't get you to St. Peter's Gate. In fact, in a worst case scenario, it might even lead you astray. The problem is that philosophy cannot account for the problem of evil, the problem of pure evil in the world-because philosophy is rational and pure evil is irrational, savage.
2. What's the significance of Dante "waking up" HALFWAY through the course of his life? He says he was so "full of sleep" that he can't even tell when he began to lose his way….why does he wake up HALFWAY through?
  • A time when you've had a chance to make lots of choices, and you've made a lot of bad ones
  • A time when you've begun to realize your mortality, which is scary
  • A time when you may panic: "I've got to change my life!"
That halfway point = mid-life… Mid-life is that time when you've already had lots of time to make a lot of choices in your life, a lot of important decisions. Why would that make a difference? Because if you've had a chance to make choices, there's a good chance you have made some pretty bad ones. The syllogism goes something like this:
[Major premise] If humans have free will,
[Minor premise] And free will implies choices, some of which will necessarily be bad,
It follows that humans make bad choices.

Most people will agree with that conclusion. Then what follows:
If humans make bad choices,
And Dante is human,
Then it follows that Dante by mid-life, will have made some bad choices…taken some wrong turns, lost his way.
There are a lot of significant premises up there, the most important one being right at the top: humans have free will. Mid-life would not be a time to be aware of bad choices if we did not have those choices to begin with. The reality and the consequences of our human free will, which we saw so deftly and so eloquently depicted in Genesis, is going to be a major theme of this work. As one of the commentators in the video explained, Dante insists that we are moral agents acting on our free choices.

We take this so for granted that it almost seems to go without saying, but it was not exactly taken for granted in the middle ages. The classical view of the universe, as well as the view of things from a biblical perspective, is that God, the divine presence, in whatever form, is here with us, acting upon us, acting through us. If something happens, it happens because God willed it to happen that way, not because people had that power. Gradually the concrete presence of the divine recedes, until, in the Renaissance, the human subject becomes absolutely central. But here, in this work, just a little ahead of its time, human consciousness, human behavior is already front and center, and free will is front and center. The further we get from the actual presence of God and the direct knowledge of "God's will," the freer we become, until, in Dante's poem, the human subject is something completely, and terrifyingly, free. That is the terror that Dante feels in Canto I. The terror of becoming unmoored. The terrifying understanding that we're all free to make a complete mess of things. It's not the same message as Genesis, which we looked at earlier in the term; in that story, human beings are disobedient—but they know God's will.

The result could be anarchy, existential anarchy-meaninglessness. Nihilism. A savagely dark wood from which there is no escape. But Dante does escape, and The Divine Comedy is an attempt to bring order to the moral and social chaos of free will and bad choices. Because your bad choices don't affect you alone; they affect the whole social fabric.

3. What was the sleeping state Dante was in before?

That would seem to be "youth"—innocence, ignorance, youth.
  • Youth, that sense of invincibility. Immortality.
  • Youth: the future is full of promise. Dreamy.
  • Youth: you have dreams. Illusions, fantasies.
All of these things are mainly positive, and we'd like to keep them forever, but sadly we can't. Eventually we fall into an awareness of mortality, like Adam and Eve; we reach the peak of that crest and we start looking back instead of forward; our dreams have faded. Once you get the knowledge of good and evil, you have to leave the Garden, and the imperfect world you enter may feel (by comparison) like being "lost" in a "dark wood."

Do all adults "wake up"? Is this something that happens to everyone? Or just to Dante?
Some people stay asleep, in good ways and bad.

On the positive side, don't you think there are lots of people who even when they're 95 are able to "think young," retain their dreams, or dream new dreams when old ones fade? One of my comp students wrote a paper recently about her 78 year old grandmother who went to college for the first time and got her degree at age 83. That's thinking young! Some people never lose that sense of promise when they think about the future, and we would call this good, I think. There's a kind of innocence associated with people like that, and I don't think you'll find any of them in the Inferno. They may have found salvation by another path. Or maybe they just aren't in need of it.

But there are other adults who "stay asleep" in a less positive, more negative way. Dante characterizes these folks as the "Neutrals," and we meet them in Canto III. These are the comfortably numb-the complacent, the endlessly distracted, the ones who know what's right but never act on what they know. On the more painful side, these are the nihilists who see the world as it is in all its imperfection and seeming absurdity, and declare everything to be meaningless, purposeless.

Dante, then, can consider himself lucky he wakes up. He might have stayed asleep and been one of those Neutrals, or worse.

4. Let's stay with this image of waking up in a strange, dark, savage, tangled, rough place—a place you don't entirely recognize and which you can't remember getting to. It sounds like someone on a bender, doesn't it? A kind of hangover from drunkenness? What's that feeling, and why is there at the beginning of the Inferno? When you imagine yourself in those shoes, what state do you realize Dante is in as the poem opens?
  • A state of confusion!!
  • Shame
  • Loss of control
  • Can't undo what he's already done; he's here and he can't "put the toothpaste back in the tube"-he doesn't even fully remember what he's done
  • Stupor
  • Despite his confusion, he's stuck dealing with the consequences: he's lost
The consequences have arrived whether he was aware he was headed towards them or not. Consequences, if you are walking blindly, eventually you may walk into a pole, or off a cliff. If you choose blindness over sight, ignorance over understanding, neglect over responsibility, you're going to meet the consequences, and it may be unpleasant.

Consequences. Suddenly you wake up and you're in the middle of them. Maybe you wake up and find you've graduated from college an alcoholic; or maybe you were raped, maybe you got pregnant. Maybe you hurt someone; maybe you can't find your way back to reality, you've lost all ambition like Keats' knight in "La Belle Dame Sans Merci"; maybe you'll become willing to do anything for another fix; maybe you have lost all tender feelings and become hardened and cold inside; maybe you made people so mad at you that you are exiled, excommunicated, sentenced to be burned at the stake.

Consequences: everything is changed. It's a long, tough road out of the woods. And it's a long road out for Dante in this poem, as he has to arrive at a more complete understanding; he has to put the whole world back in order before he can save himself. You'll notice that he has to choose to make that journey. Virgil has to persuade him. There's always that choice. You might be thinking, with all the divine help on his side, the three women in Canto II, he'd be pretty stupid not to do it, right? But still, he has to choose. People have been known to make the stupid choice now and then, but Dante the Pilgrim makes the "right" one this time.

Approaching The Divine Comedy

The Divine Comedy is an architectural masterpiece-the representative work of the middle ages, the masterpiece of medieval aesthetics, cosmology, politics, theology, psychology, philosophy, and even science, with a little bit of the world's first "science fiction" tossed in (at the end of the Inferno).

AESTHETICSThe Divine Comedy right up there at the top for its allegorical magnificence; it is meaningful in more than one dimension. Dante explained it in a letter to Can Grande della Scalla: "the sense of this work is not simple, rather it may be called polysemantic, that is, of many senses. The first sense is that which comes from the letter, the second is that of that which is signified by the letter. The first is called the literal, the second allegorical or moral or anagogical." In other words, if we can take Dante at his word, the work is rich in its layer upon layer of meaning. There is the literal level-Dante's travels through the difficult, harrowing, graphically concrete landscape of Hell; the allegorical level-the soul's journey to salvation; etc. It's a rich work with layers of meaning.

COSMOLOGY: The Divine Comedy reflects the medieval view of the Ptolemaic universe, a cosmology that originated with Aristotle and was refined by the 2nd century astronomer, Ptolemy. Aquinas added an overlay of Christian theology, and Dante refines it even further. The Ptolemaic universe is a geocentric universe with Earth at the center, surrounded by nine concentric spheres (inverted downwards in the circle layout of the Inferno). In this worldview, the Earth is central and static, while the universe spins all around it. Although it never really worked scientifically, it was extremely compelling philosophically and artistically. It was believed that everything below the moon was corrupted by the fall of man (Genesis) but that the heavens were perfect and unchanging, immutable, incorruptible. That perfection of the heavens was idealized as a kind of music, the "music of the spheres"-the sound of the heavens in motion-the harmony that's the essence of all creation. Unfortunately, we lost our ability to hear this music when we were tossed out of the Garden. Oh, well. We can at least try to imagine it, though.

The Divine Comedy is a full-scale, technicolor production of this only slightly outdated vision of the universe, with its orderly circles reaching not only out into the heavens, but funneling down into the very center of the earth, which is the very bottom of Hell, the point at which Dante gives the world its image of Lucifer halfway submerged in the icy lake beating his big, grotesque wings, causing the frozen wind that seals this last region of Hell in a blanket of ice.

POLITICS: This is perhaps the most striking, and maybe the most confusing thing about The Divine Comedy. The vicious personal attacks. The local names and faces that Dante uses to populate the whole work. He's "keeping it real." We get the low down dirty picture of the all the dirty politics of the day. The power struggles, the egos, the bitter battles. The feuds. The winners and the losers. The corruption. For such a timeless, "eternal" work about the universal journey of the soul from sin to salvation, it's a very specific poem that insists on naming names. It is the thing that sets this work apart in its day, the individuality of its vivid characters. Their so, so vivid human weaknesses.

THEOLOGY: Christian salvation, front and center. Grace, love, sin, punishment. Reward. And most of all, as we'll see, the belief in FREE WILL. But, lo and behold, interestingly enough, there is no God present in the work at all. They are alluded to, of course, but they are never named outright, nor are they active participants in the action. The trinity is present everywhere in the symbolism of the number three, but it is Beatrice who takes action and saves Dante from the dark wood, Beatrice who sends Virgil to persuade Dante to follow. The central characters in the work are Dante, Virgil, Beatrice, and the many sinners and saints. The human actor on the stage is front and center.

PHILOSOPHY, SCIENCE, PSYCHOLOGY: But since the first two are so very complicated, let's save them for another time and focus on psychology: specifically, the medieval notions of the self that have emerged from the earlier classical notions of the self. As a kind of herald of the Renaissance to come, with its insistent focus on the individuality of its characters, its very life-sized human hero, The Divine Comedy is a kind of fulcrum in the literary history of the West, in which the medieval is slowly but surely inching its way towards the modern. One of the more modern things about this work is its psychology.

Let's think back to that Ptolemaic model of the universe. Another aspect of that worldview was the idea of the Great Chain of Being, introduced by Aquinas.

 In this great chain, which extended from stones all the way up to God, humanity finds itself sandwiched between beasts and angels. It was widely believed that we shared characteristics with both, which makes us a kind of mongrel beast-angel. Why exactly this is preferable to Darwin's theory of evolution, I'm not entirely sure, but we'll leave that for now!

Here's humanity: part beast, part angel. How did this affect our notion of the self?

In this worldview, humans find themselves in a constant struggle to overcome the animal part of their nature-it's the animal in us that's responsible for all of our messy, troublesome drives, appetites, emotional extravagances. The angelic side is our intellect, our reason, our rationality, which puts everything in order, assigns everything its proper place. Let's put it this way: in this worldview, it's not our inner animal that's getting to heaven. Only reason gets us there. The Inferno, Virgil tells us in Canto III, is littered with "the wretched souls who have lost the good of the intellect." Those, in other words, who have circumvented, tuned out, or completely corrupted their inner angel, their inner voice of reason.

Why is reason so important? In the Inferno (and in Purgatorio) reason is everything.
Reason is at the heart of our ability to be independent moral agents, capable of making choices, acting on our own free will. In Dante's world, and maybe ours too, it is the power we have to save ourselves from ourselves.

Dr. Gary Gutchess explains it so well in his online essay, "Dante and the Medieval Invention of the Self." The classical notion of the self (it's not even a word in the classical era, but we'll use it anyway) is passive. In important divine matters, the self is acted upon, not an agent of action. "The lightning bolt hit me, and I was possessed." Think of those colorful stories in Ovid that we read. "I was changed into a deer!" "I was changed into a bird!" "I was changed into a flower!" The self is an object acted upon, a vessel to be possessed, a puppet (in some cases) of the Divine Will. This is Oedipus, who suffers his fate because it is his fate, and he cannot change it. (Though Sophocles is such a great artist that and such a keen observer of human nature that he can problematize this view without seeming heretical.) The Renaissance, or modern view is that the self is active, a subject rather than an object. The Gods are removed, far away in the farthest heavenly sphere; people are front and center on the stage, taking action. They are agents of their own Free Will. "I see the light!" "I'm going towards the light!" (Or, Descartes, "I think therefore I am!") If the self is an actor on the stage and not just an object to be acted upon, then that implies the need for notions of "responsibility"—you make good choices or live with the consequences—"morality"—you have to recognize the difference between right and wrong choices—and "individuality"—your choices reveal your particular individual character. You have a unique personality that's all yours based on your own choices. And this is the aspect that Dante most insists on throughout the Inferno. You have free will, you have choices, you are an independent moral agent. You can neglect your responsibilities to yourself, to society, but you do it at a great risk of suffering the punishment for doing so.

So although The Divine Comedy is visionary, a long strange trip in the burgeoning tradition of religious mysticism that was characteristic of the late medieval period, it's also paradoxically, ultimately, a very down-to-earth human work. Most people who read it remember it vividly for the human portraits it presents more so than its theology. The humanity overwhelms the theology. Not God, but Dante the individual is the real focus of the work; no poem better illustrates the "self-centeredness" of this amazing period.

Relating to Dante's Inferno

Illustration by Gustave Dore
For the math enthusiasts among you, the good news is that it's possible to read the Inferno with an eye for numbers. The number "three" is especially significant and practically everywhere. But there are other significant numbers like ten, seven, and four. You can have observing the numbers and making all the intricate allegorical equations balance neatly, because they do balance-they balance in many dimensions, according to Dante himself, forming a structure that's at least four-dimensional. These three books totaling one hundred cantos of intricate terza rima verse do certainly represent an engineering feat as far as epic structures go. The Divine Comedy richly deserves its reputation as the ultimate voice, the masterpiece, of medieval aesthetics, cosmology, politics, and theology. As perfectly as it seems to sum up the late middle ages, it is also a herald of the Renaissance to come. A truly amazing work.
I'm afraid, however, it would be possible to notice these things, to attempt to understand and appreciate them, but to never feel the heat, so to speak, of Dante's achievement. You can make reading The Divine Comedy too intellectual an experience and lose the immediacy of the emotion. If we get too pedantic in our academic discourse about this or that neatly structured allegory, this or that philosophical nuance, on our first reading we may lose sight of the poem's infinitely great humanity. Even inside the vivid torture chambers of the Inferno, it's possible to tune out the meanness of the personal attacks, our hero's battle against pity, the closely observed personalities of all the sinners historical and literary, the sheer audacity of the plot and the individuals who people it-we can miss all of this by erecting instead a spectacular but ultimately static "cathedral of images" (my husband's phrase) that walls out the relevance of the work's meaning for us here and now, today.

I don't want to do that, not on our first reading. Later, if you decide you want to study The Divine Comedy in further depth, and I hope you do some day, you can pursue a deeper appreciation of its allegorical, philosophical, and spiritual magnificence. You will find that this is a giant of a book, that it IS the apotheosis of medieval art and philosophy and literature, and literary history, but for now, we want to bring it down to earth, back to its human roots, its ability to move and touch us on a personal level. We want to know what's happening and how we feel about what's happening. How does it touch us? This need not be a textbookish poem. It's a poem written for people, in the language of the people, to communicate with people. Dante deliberately wrote this book, not in Latin, so that only the educated would be able to read it, but in the vernacular-in the Tucson dialect of his hometown, Florence-in other words, in the Italian that people would immediately understand. That was just not done, but Dante did it. And here's the power of literature: the Tucson dialect eventually became THE language for all of Italy, thanks in great part to this poem.

To be sure, we can't overlook that Dante was an extremely well read man-a self-educated man. At a certain point, he deliberately set out to acquire what learning was appropriate for his day. Aside from the Bible, which was a major influence, two sources absolutely essential to an appreciation of Dante's learning would be Virgil and St. Thomas Aquinas. The way I understand it, Dante was not satisfied until he managed to make something of all that learning, not just to "show off" but to create a new synthesis, something new and amazing. Virgil was a pagan of the old Roman empire, but he was still recognized as Italy's greatest poet. How to integrate him into the Christian fold? Thomas Aquinas wrote brilliant philosophy that brought Aristotle to the medieval world in a big way, but he was writing in the rational, unemotional language of logical reasoning. Brilliant, but philosophy tills an arid soil. A poet in the courtly love tradition, who'd made a name for himself with an exquisite book of love poems to Beatrice, La Vita Nuova, Dante brings the fresh air and cool rain and makes Aquinas bloom. It's no small achievement that Dante is able to synthesize Virgil and Aquinas. But to read the Comedy as nothing BUT those influences is to lose sight of how it can appeal to us purely on its own terms.

It's possible to relate to Dante on a more personal level. For me the appeal of his great work is the bare essence of the thing, the fact that here is a man who's writing to save his soul. And to save your soul in the bargain would be fine, would make the poem useful, as Horace instructed. (Dulce et utile: pleasure and beauty.) But primarily, the main character, who is called Dante, and who is often referred to as "Dante the Pilgrim," is on a journey to save his soul-meaning, whatever you will. Dante is writing, it seems to me, to rescue hope, to rescue belief in a meaningful order that seems to be disintegrating. For the author Dante, the world and his place in it must have seemed to be slipping away, losing meaning. His life has literally been turned upside down, inside out. Here he is, one day a man of fame and fortune, successful poet and politician, and the next, on the losing side of a political power play, he's wandering around in exile, dependent on the good will of others, eternally ascending "another man's stairs." Corruption, dirty politics, double-crossing Popes and deadly serious, bloody family feuds akin to war have run him out of his beloved town, separated him from his wife and children. If he returns to Florence, he's dead. Sentenced to burn alive at the stake. It doesn't get any more despairing than that, does it?

You can't forget (and you never do forget, reading the Inferno) that Dante must have come very close to becoming an embittered man, a lost, hardened soul pickling in the withering brine of sour grapes. Yes there was Philosophy, a certain consolation in the life of the mind-and Dante turned to that for a while-but there could be nothing, no consolation, for losing your home, your land, your family. And philosophy must seem a dry mistress, compared to love. You can feel throughout the poem how the fight against bitterness must have been a tough struggle for Dante. How to keep hold of one's humanity, one's dignity, in the face of utter political defeat? (I've asked myself the same question ever since last November.) How to keep from descending into an overwhelming bitterness or despair? You might think one solution would be: don't get mad get even! But it's really not that simple. Dante the Pilgrim is never bloodthirsty, never vengeful. On the contrary, he's depicted as a sensitive, caring individual, fainting away at least twice in the first several cantos as gets his first glimpses of the sufferers in Hell, many of them acquaintances of his. Was this disingenuous of Dante, depicting the Pilgrim this way on the one hand while inflicting (in his vision) horrendous tortures upon his enemies on the other? I don't think so. Although there's plenty of room for differing opinions here, I don't think this is a man sadistically reveling in revenge fantasies.

But some readers and critics are turned off by Dante; they accuse him of "justifying torture." It's a complicated, sensitive point. We should understand, however, that punishment of the body (for sins of the body) is deeply embedded in the morality and the "criminal justice" system of the middle ages. If anything, I think Dante reconsiders it rather than indiscriminately adopting it. In the beginning the Pilgrim is terrified of the violence he witnesses in the name of justice. He is moved to pity, and several times he faints (the "strife of pity" theme that runs through poem). The "righteousness" of this kind of justice is something he has to learn-for the salvation of his very soul. Keep in mind that throughout The Divine Comedy, and especially the Inferno and Purgatorio, it's God's not Humanity's justice we're witnessing. If it's terrible, it's because God wants it to be terrible, not Dante-not us.

As children of the Enlightenment, and of Romantic notions which affirm the basic goodness of humanity as opposed to its basic depravity, we may very well reject the morality of the Middle Ages. In fact we do. We claim to believe in a different kind of justice-one that's in favor of tolerance and one that reflects a belief in rehabilitation. But let's face it, that belief is sometimes only lip service and not real conviction; our "rejection" of "punishment of the body," our abhorrence of "cruel and unusual punishment" is sustained by only a hair. Revenge fantasy breaks out everywhere (does anyone remember Rambo?-just to name one very influential popular fantasy that probably inspired the first Gulf War). We split hairs to justify torture, today, at the highest level of our government, even in our highest courts. In the trial of two prison guards accused of torturing Iraqi detainees at Abu Ghraib, their defense attorney argued that the images shown in the photographs-naked prisoners tethered to leashes; naked, hooded prisoners piled in a pyramid-represented legitimate methods of controlling detainees and did not amount to abuse. Now that seems to me a clearer justification of torture than anything Dante, with his fainting pity, provides, as does this statement by the defense: "Don't cheerleaders form pyramids all over the country?" And then he noted that parents sometimes use leases to keep track of their toddlers. "You've probably been at airports or shopping malls and seen children on tethers. They are not being abused." No, but with those kinds of justifications of torture, we are.
Nevertheless, some readers detect a certain sadistic cruelty in Dante's graphic depiction of the torturous punishments throughout the Inferno. (I wonder how much that "sadistic" quality has to do with the translation one happens to be reading!) The concrete, graphic nature of the Inferno can't be denied, however-and we wouldn't want to deny it. That is the essence of the book-and no doubt a great part of its appeal. The violence is probably a big draw for some people. But the way I relate to what Dante is doing is with violence is that what he's reaching for is an order to things, a reasonable, rational order. Law and order. Crime and punishment. (Is Dante Nixon or Dostoyevsky in a previous incarnation?) If we understand the sin, we understand its punishment, which is "rationally" suited to the sin. Understanding is the key. Understanding has to occur through reason. Dante the Pilgrim struggles to understand what he sees, just as we do-but we have Virgil, the voice of Reason, to guide us. If we can understand, instead of becoming bitter, maybe we can put the universe, the moral universe, back in order. But what is it that he's supposed to understand?

Dante the Pilgrim, as he tours Hell, learns a number of things that he needed to learn for the salvation of his soul. First, even though he's midway through his life, in his mid-thirties somewhere, he still doesn't have a clear understanding about the nature of evil, in himself or in others. In his trip through Hell, he has to learn the real nature of sin and the various ways it is divinely, poetically, and justly punished. The case is laid out before his eyes (and ours). Here are the sinners, and here is their place in hell. But what is not so easy, what he has to strive to put together and what Virgil has to work to teach him, is that despite his heart's natural tendency, the sinners he sees being painfully punished do NOT deserve his pity.
In the second canto, Dante the Poet, the narrator, tells us that getting ready for the journey means stealing himself for a "double war"-for the harshness of the journey itself, down into the pit, but also for the battle against pity. Why does he have to battle pity? Is it because the punishments are so harsh that the natural thing to do would be to feel sorry for all the people suffering in Hell? Yet that's what Hell is all about, right? If you really want punishment-not rehabilitation but punishment-then you have to steal your heart against pity. These souls in Hell are the ones who are completely damned (in Christian theology); they are souls beyond Jesus' helping hand. Which is a pretty hard place to be, considering all they needed to do (when alive) was to simply ask for that hand, to truly regret and repent their sinning ways. But they didn't do that, they never fell out of love with their sin, and here they are in Hell. They are beyond redemption, beyond Christ's reach so to speak, so to pity them would be to say that you have a bigger heart than Jesus, which of course you couldn't possibly. EVEN SO, our natural human tendency is to feel pity for those we see suffering. So how does this battle with pity resolve itself? Read and discover!

The Inferno would be a little boring, a little pedantic, a little too didactic if it just dealt with all of these issues abstractly. It's anything but. It's scary to think what kind of movie this would make with the CGI capabilities we have now. Terrifying. The goriness. There's nothing abstract about this poem, and that is a big part of its enduring appeal, I'm sure. There's nothing indefinite about the punishments inflicted in this vision of Hell. This is a torture chamber, make no mistake about it. "ABANDON ALL HOPE, YOU WHO ENTER HERE." Abandon all hope…God is not messing around. No rehabilitation, remember. Pure punishment. The great majority may not agree philosophically with that approach in 2005 (as opposed to 1320), but there's no denying that pure revenge has always been and still is out there as the alternative to rehabilitative punishment: an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. Let the punishment reflect the crime. Dante pours so much of his creativity into bringing this (to some repulsive) idea to life. The word for it in the Inferno is "contrapasso." Sinners are punished in a way that somehow reflects what they did wrong on earth while they were living. Sometimes the punishment is very much like the crime, and sometimes it's a kind of mirror image.

The Inferno, and The Divine Comedy as a whole, is a torching vision, a tour de force of the imagination. In its sweeping affirmation and faith in divine love and divine justice, it's an attempt to hold onto-or recreate (or create)-whatever meaning still exists-or used to exist-or might exist-in the world. It's a battle cry in the name of faith, a sword to the gut of corruption. The Inferno represents a vision in which divine justice exists, sheds meaning, and will ultimately prevail in the face of rampant, unpunished human depravity, dissolution, perversion, and amorality. Even if you disagree with him, I think it's possible to admire how Dante writes to recover meaning, to preserve it, to convince himself (and us) that it (meaning) is still out there-there IS an order to the universe; love matters. There IS such a thing as divine justice, even if man's justice is hopelessly weak and corrupt.

Superficially the Inferno is about an imagined afterlife. But more subtlely, it's about our what we have to do to save ourselves, our souls (or be saved, depending on your personal theology) in THIS life. Dante the Pilgrim is alive in his tour through Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise (as we're constantly reminded). This is not a poem about being dead, but about being alive. Even the dead souls that people the Inferno are filled with a kind of inalienable life. While there's time, Dante the Pilgrim can still recover from the confusion that has led him to become lost in the "dark wood of error." Yes, the poem makes the muscular assertion that there's a paradise, and a horrible place for the world's countless evil people to go. But the more important point, it asserts again and again, is that there are consequences for your actions while you're alive. So don't think for a minute that your life is meaningless, that your actions should be relativist, that this is all just a pleasant little hedonistic stopover on your way to oblivion. There's no such THING as oblivion! God exists. Love exists. Justice exists. Forget oblivion-that most certainly does NOT exist, though you may wish it did.

Everything you do in this life MATTERS; it matters crucially, deeply. Whether you have a good heart or a hard one, whether you do good deeds or evil deeds, whether you admit or deny your mistakes, weaknesses, shortcomings, and especially your ugliest sins all MATTER. In Dante's audacious moral world, there is punishment waiting, divine, poetic justice for those who walk the earth arrogantly, violently, negligently. But there is also purgation, and finally, for the worthy, for the graced, for the saved, there's paradise.

What was Neoclassicism in literature?

Here's a handy, clear summary of the Neoclassical period in European art and literature from Imaginative Literature II: from Cervantes to Dostoevsky, a Supplement to Encyclopedia Brittanica's Great Books of the Western World set, by Mortimer J. Adler and Seymour Cain:
Neoclassicism, which arose in France in the seventeenth century, aimed to imitate the clarity and simplicity of the ancient Greek and Latin classics. It sought a literature in which decorum and correctness according to fixed rules prevailed. Inspired by the rationalism of the new science and philosophy of the age (Newton, Descartes, etc.), it emphasized intellectual perfection -- the witty thought pefectly expressed in an elegant phrase -- rather than imaginative color or feeling. In form, Neoclassicism fostered formally correct, elegant, urbane expression. In thought, it emphasized an unsentimental realism, which viewed certain characteristics of human nature as permanent and univeral, and did not consider the individual variations important or interesting. (The French Neoclassical tragedians put the ancient Greeks into seventeenth-century French clothing.) 
The great Neoclassical literature was that of the French writers of the seventeenth century -- Moliere, Racine, Corneille, La Fontaine, etc. -- and their influence extended to the latter half of the eighteenth century and was represented by Alexander Pope, Addison and Steele, Samuel Johnson, and other writers of the so-called Augustan Age of English letters. It was in England that the reaction against Neoclassicism, called Romanticism, originated among such poets as James Thomson, Thomas Gray, William Cowper, Robert Burns, and William Blake. From England the revolt spread to France, Germany, and Italy. The French philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau was the greatest single intellectual influence on the Romantic movement.  (106-107)

Adler and Cain are equally lucid at portraying the shift from Neoclassical to Romantic:

The Romantics espoused imagination, feeling, passion, vitality, nature, and individuality, as against the decorum, rules and universality, of the Neoclassicists. The Romantics emphasized the inner depths of the human soul and the immensities of the natural world, the expression of intimate personal experience, of joy, and especially of melancholy and suffering. For the Neoclassicists the dominating attitude was rational detachment; for the Romantics it was sensitive inolvement. The Neoclassicists stressed the values and forms of European civilization and urban, advanced, Western society. The Romantics stressed the natural, the primitive, the medieval, the oriental, the ancient, and remote. (107)

While fundamental periodization of this kind is unstable, slippery, and far from absolute, such provisional distinctions are practical, sensible ways to grasp the intellectual impulses happening in the 18th century.