Those of you who read my blog over at Hardly the Last Word for the last few years (I love both of you!) remember that, every summer since 2002, I’ve read Dante’s comedy from start to finish, and for the last couple years I’ve also blogged about each canticle as I’ve finished it. I’ve put links to those posts above.
A couple of things have changed since summer 2009. Most obviously, I’m doing most of my blog work here at the Christian Humanist, so for the foreseeable future, I’ll be writing those summer posts here. Less obvious is that this summer, I elected to finish all three before I started my Inferno post. I’m not sure whether the posts’ quality will improve or suffer, but I wanted to try out a global view of the poem this time around, so I have. As with last summer, the translation I’m using is John Ciardi’s paperback edition (whose footnotes I especially like).
Every time I read through this magnificent poem something new occurs to me, and this time what stood out was that Dante’s journey arises not mainly out of his own midlife crisis (though that’s certainly a part of it) but because of the advent of “the Greyhound,” as the poem calls a figure that most scholars identify as Can Grande of Verona. This apocalyptic figure, born in Dante’s own epoch, will be a true Aristotelian king, providing the strong government that will eliminate the dominance of human vice in the realms of power. I don’t think that even Dante is naive enough to assume that his reign would entirely eliminate human sinfulness, but the poem does seem to assume that life in the city-states of northern Italy has become so wretched that God has elected to anoint a king to bring those vices under rein. Since I’m writing this after completing Paradiso, I notice this time around that Can Grande, though Dante never names him, occurs over and over again through the poem, connecting this grand journey far more particularly to the life of Florence and the surrounding areas than I’d ever noticed before. To exercise as much humility as I can muster, when I said on our podcast that I don’t think of the Comedy as a national epic the way that I think of the Iliad or The Faerie Queene as national epics, I think I might have underplayed this end of things pretty seriously.
I also noticed on this run the strong insistence throughout the poem on the will and its nobility. I use that word because “free will” in American English more often than not loses the old sense of “free,” the idea that there are men who are neither slave nor free, the peasants of the ancient world who own no property. Freedom in that ancient and medieval use carries with it the idea not only of non-interference (the extent to which “free” means anything in the political conversations I overhear as I wander the world) but also of domain. Lost is the sense that Hegel assumes when he says that in the Persian Empire only one was free, in the Roman Republic a few were, and in a liberal democratic society all were: what counts here is not an absence of “gummint” but the ability to hold sway in matters of importance, something that comes with nobility. In Dante’s underworld, to get back to the poem, Hell is “the gate denied to none” (14.83), and the souls who go from Ostia to the river Styx go there not under pain of the lash but because their sin-hardened souls result in their own willing themselves into Hell. Nobody especially enjoys being in Hell (understatement, I know), but all of the people there decided to be there.
The usual alienness of the medieval still strikes me as I go through what remains my least favorite of the Canticles: I still can’t figure out why Caiaphas, who among other things abuses the power of the priesthood and leads to the conspiracy to get Christ crucified, is in the circle of the hypocrite-friars (Canto 23). I can’t figure out why falsifiers of currency and alchemists get a far worse punishment than do pimps, seducers, and those who counsel kings to initiate wars (Canto 29). But Dante’s mastery of the horrifying still amazes me: without Stephen King’s penchant for describing human viscera, Dante creates true existential horror not only with the circle of thieves who steal one another’s bodies (Canto 25) but with the story of Guido da Montefeltro (Canto 27), whose reticence to tell his story is the epigraph to T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” Montefeltro’s heart-wrenching story begins with a career advising kings in their bloody conquests, then a turn from the sword to the monastic life for the sake of his soul. But when a deceitful Pope needs an advisor to run his own military endeavors, the wicked Boniface promises him absolution for the blood that will be shed by his counsel. When Montefeltro dies, as the angels are about to carry the Friar off to the mount of Purgatory, a demon-logician arrives and snatches him away.
In sum, although Inferno is the Canticle that I read through with the least pleasure these days, nonetheless it’s still Dante, and his sense of the strong systemic connections between all realms of human life still make it some of the best poetry that one could hope to read.