To reach one’s 750th birthday and still be talked about by voices around the world is an achievement few could boast of, even were it possible to relay messages from any part of an afterlife. That undertaking – relaying messages from the afterlife of a 14th century Christian – is of course the great undertaking of Dante Alighieri, who reached that august age in May or June of 2015. One wonders, inevitably, how the pilgrim-poet would have reacted to the hashtag #dante750 that was promoted in Florence for tourists taking photos with cardboard images of the man himself, and indeed how he would respond to the continued cultural celebration, adaptation and appropriation of his Commedia, particularly its visceral and haunting first canticle, Inferno. Dante is one of vanishingly few writers throughout history whose work is almost universally familiar at some level; even people who have never actually heard his name will know the phrase “abandon all hope, ye who enter” (or, more usually, the slightly misconstrued “abandon hope, all ye who enter”), from the final line of the warning that hangs over the Gate of Hell in Canto III, “lasciate ogni speranza, voi ch’entrate”.
From high-brow to the most populist of popular culture, the Commedia in general and Inferno in particular resonate throughout the cultural marketplace, continuing to inspire music and poetry, as well as popping up in potboiler thrillers and video games. So what is it that keeps Dante’s writing so relevant, 750 years after his birth? The answers to this lie in the unique – and frankly peculiar – structures and focus of the work, and in the extraordinary balance Dante achieved between fine human narrative and epic mythological grandeur. Dante’s tempering of the grand narrative of moral turpitude and exaltation, with gossipy, familiar, even petty tales results in a story that satisfies both the ethereal and the earthly sides of our narrative desires. Perhaps unsurprisingly, an epic that is both sacred and profane turns out to have a longer shelf-life than either alone. It’s worth considering in greater detail the particular alchemy of Inferno, which is the best known and most popular, though Dante himself seems to have regarded Paradiso as the masterwork. The opening canticle – dark, often vicious, and lyrical – persists most doggedly in contemporary culture, which arguably reveals as much about the present as about the past.
Dante’s Commedia traces the spiritual journey of its narrator through Hell, Purgatory and finally Paradise. Written between c. 1307 and the poet’s death in 1321, while he was in Ravenna, exiled from his native Florence, a cultural centre on the cusp of the Renaissance, the poem consists of three canticles, the first two of which contain 33 cantos and the last of which – Paradiso – contains 34, adding up to 100 cantos. The pilgrim Dante is led through the first two canticles – Hell and Purgatory – by Virgil, sent to aid him from Limbo, eternal dwelling place of the virtuous heathen, then through Paradise by Beatrice. That both guides are real historical figures – Virgil the poet and Beatrice Dante’s deceased beloved – immediately situates the epic squarely between this world and the next. Along the journey, Dante encounters both figures from history and mythology and figures from his own milieu, mainly political allies and enemies, painting a rich and complex allegory of the Christian faith. A striking feature of Dante’s masterpiece is how very earth-bound it is, for a work of spiritual awakening. The author’s heavy involvement in politics is clear, in the gritty humanity of worldly concerns, combined with his religious convictions, giving rise to an artistic vision that married the physical and the metaphysical, its universality of experience – hunger, thirst, love, fear – paving the way for the centuries of multilingual, global resonance it has enjoyed in art, culture and literary endeavour.
The first canticle, Inferno (Hell), is an extraordinarily visual work, dense and sensuous, a long way from the luminous insubstantiality of Paradiso. Dante’s macabre imagination of damnation is arguably more gripping than the other two canticles – certainly it is the one that persists most doggedly in contemporary culture – which may reflect our readerly appetite for misery and vicarious suffering, or the possibility that we give more vivid voice to imagining horror than we do to imagining bliss, which remains insubstantial and vague, much as people recall frightening or traumatic memories in greater detail than good ones. Easily the most corporeally involved of the three canticles, Inferno opens as follows:
“Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita,
mi ritrovai in una selva oscura
che la diritta via era smarrita”
Sinclair translates this opening as follows: “In the middle of the journey of our life I came to myself within a dark wood where the straight way was lost” (Inferno, 1:1-3) I have used Sinclair’s translation here and elsewhere for consistency, and because it is one of the clearer prose translations of the work: translation here is intended for clarity rather than poetic understanding.
The physicality of these opening lines is sustained throughout the 100 cantos that form the Commedia; like Homer and Virgil before him, Dante literalises the journey he takes. This sensual engagement is one of the most striking similarities between the Commedia and Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, which is equally strongly rooted in the human. Other points of contact strengthen the comparison, as, for instance, in the following examples. Firstly, and at a very basic level, both narratives deal with an arduous and dangerous journey through an unfamiliar landscape. Allegory though it may be, however, the Commedia is a sensually engaging itinerarium mentis in Deum, in which the Dante-poet describes the sensations experienced by his pilgrim avatar – cold, heat, fear, exhaustion, thirst and so on – in detail, making his spiritual journey a decidedly physical one. As Luce notes, “Dante’s vision [...] makes concrete too his own spiritual progress through cosmic realms.” (Luce, 72). Not only is the physical self foregrounded throughout the first two canticles in particular (although Dante seems to become somewhat less substantial towards the end of the Purgatorio, crossing into the Earthly Paradise), but the poet takes very literally the itinerarium part of the itinerarium mentis in deum, and the journey or quest aspect of the work is perhaps its dominant feature.
In situating the poem in transit, Dante engaged both directly and indirectly with a rich tradition of epic travelogues. In Dante’s Epic Journeys, the argument is made that the Dante-pilgrim, by making his journey physical, follows Ulysses and Aeneas into the list of mythological wanderers. This Dantean/Homeric tradition of literalised underworld narrative journeys seems to exert a persistent spell over readers across the ages; Homer sends Ulysses to the lower regions, Virgil sends Aeneas, and Dante himself to survey hell. After Dante, countless other writers invoke the same journey, pitching into the dark to consider the survey of the uttermost conditions of hopelessness, among them TS Eliot, who fashions a hell from urban London, and Cormac McCarthy, whose bleak masterpiece The Road offers a secular – or post-theist, perhaps – version of the trip. Significantly, this tradition is one in which all protagonists emerge from Hell and achieve great things. Thompson compares Dante’s arduous literary journey with that of Petrarch, who wrote of climbing Mount Ventoux. Petrarch explicitly said that his physical experience in climbing the mountain “happens to thee, as to many, in the ascent towards the spiritual life” (Thompson, 8). Dante’s Commedia, Thompson argues, is a two-fold journey like Petrarch’s, both physical and figurative, just as the Odyssey and the Aeneid were.
It may be that this faintly surreal insistence on the physicality of the spiritual or psychic journey partly accounts for the Commedia’s extraordinary longevity: while almost everything about human existence has changed beyond recognition since these epics, ancient and medieval, were written, the sensations of an arduous journey remain familiar, even if the details are different. We know the exhaustion of a long journey, the frustration of being unable to ascertain our whereabouts; the physical realities of travel for the body remain basically similar across the ages. A long plane journey, replete with airline food, cramped seats, interludes of the non-time of airport transit and the hideous variations of human behaviour under duress may not be exactly the same as a three day journey through the afterlife, but the echoes are remarkable. Dante’s fatigue and irritation ring true and familiar for the traveller, as Ulysses’ surreal voyage and Aeneas’ homesickness do, with the addition of the dense physical description that oral or mock-oral poetry cannot sustain.
The physicality of the poetry works in another way as well: while we recognise the sensations of fatigue, the bodily ache of weariness and the solitude of traveling alone, we also respond strongly to the visceral sensations of fear and disgust that the Dante-pilgrim encounters. At an atavistic level, Dante’s description of Hell is enormously powerful. We know, still, at a deep and irrational level, what it is to be lost at night, to be desperate and confused and frightened of the monsters in the dark – these emotions are the stuff of childhood. Dante’s fearful encounters with the three beasts in the opening canto of Inferno, where he is stalked by a leopard, a lion and a she-wolf, are heavily symbolised in the poem, generally taken as representing the poet’s fear of facing the sins of concupiscence, pride and avarice (while there are differing interpretations of their meanings, these are the most common of the early interpretations, with another interpretation suggesting that the animals embody the divisions of Hell into incontinence or greed, violence or wrath, and deceit or fraud, although it is less clear which animal is associated with which section). However, while the symbology of the animal predators is certainly interesting, it is the viscerality of the fear that we respond to, shuddering in fascinated recognition.
Like the best speculative fiction, Dante’s poetry offers us space in which we can safely confront our most human fears; the primary difference is that his landscape of exploration is couched in religious, rather than scientific or the various kinds of fantastical speculation that have become prevalent in the intervening period. Not unlike the contemporary vogue for dystopian vistas, Dante’s Inferno pitches the reader into a hypothetical hereafter, inviting them to consider what it would be like if they lived in such a world, not in the future, but as they are – physical, imperfect and frightened. Dante’s poet-pilgrim is a highly individualised everyman, a familiar and flawed hero, whose persistent tendency to faint and constant questioning of his guide offer his readers a kind of access to his perspective. By so consistently embodying the experiences of his pilgrim, Dante familiarises the strange landscape of Hell, using his corporeal experiences as touchstones to orient the reader and to connect Hell to medieval Florence. The perils of the world hereafter are no different than those of the world herein, he suggests; the difference is their eternity. It is this, indeed, that exerts a hold on the imagination, in a strange way; Hell is characterised as a whole not so much as the collection of grisly and inventive punishments, of which more anon, but as the absence of hope, the total impossibility of redemption. While at one level that absence might make the unrelenting parade of horrors almost tedious, Dante’s careful humanity re-temporalises his experience of them, reminding us that while the damned are indeed damned, there is hope for those alive who suffer. Throughout Inferno, the Dante-pilgrim insists repeatedly on his separateness from the shades he encounters, hysterically repeating to those who would impede his progress that he is there on sufferance and will not stay, growing indignant and spiteful in his words. In an early exchange with his real-life enemy Filippo Argenti (Canto 8), in response to Argenti’s question “Chi se’ tu che vieni anzi ora?” (“Who art thou that comest before thy time?”, the pilgrim says “S’i’ vengo, no rimango;/ma tu chi se’, che sí se’ fatto brutto?” (“If I come, I do not stay; but who art thou, that art become so foul?” Dante is full of disdain for Argenti, partly out of personal dislike, but partly also out of a nearly panicked need to differentiate himself from the condemned. (It is not fully clear why Dante chose to damn certain of his acquaintances, bar spite, and this gossipiness is another appealing element of the poem: we like to read the personal as well as the metaphysical.) Indeed, further compounding the dismissal, Dante has Virgil praise him for his hostility to Argenti, suggesting that Dante saw, or wished to see, this as a model of righteous anger rather than as either simple score-settling or a manifestation of the fear of identification that persistently manifests throughout the canticle. It is notable, in this respect, that Dante does not treat the inhabitants of Purgatory or Paradise as so separate from himself, and is less fervidly inclined to highlight the distinctions between his condition and theirs.
Besides the righteous indignation that Dante exhibits here, he is equally inclined at times to swoon in pity. A different emotion, certainly, and one often elicited by the shades of people who suffer for love (Paolo and Francesca, the doomed adulterers, and Brunetto Latini, among them), Dante’s pity is a more complex beast than his spite, and again resonates with the reader’s worldly experience of pity. Dante is scolded by Virgil for his pity in Canto XX, among the fraudulent, where Virgil suggests that by pitying those so tormented (these souls have their heads on backwards) he is questioning the righteous judgement of God, but in earlier instances his lamenting goes unremarked. Again, Dante’s radical humanism is what brings the poetry to life, and what keeps it relevant long after its ostensible subject matter has lost much of its power to enthral. Here, perhaps, we encounter the greatest division between the legacies of Dante; the symbolism, history and particularly religion that pack the epic so densely are extremely finely wrought, and account for the work’s continued scholarly popularity; writing in the New Yorker in May of last year, John Kleiner recalls a semester abroad at a university in Florence, where he sat in on a Dante lecture that spent the full semester on Canto XIX of Inferno, which deals with simony – hardly the most scintillating of sins today. Kleiner recalls the class discussing how future miscreant popes might be accommodated in the pit, an example of the delightful mental acrobatics required to account for the vagaries of a simultaneously physical and metaphysical universe, which Dante helpfully does not bother questioning. I recall a superb Dante lecture from my own undergraduate, in which the lecturer almost wistfully noting that even after teaching Dante (to slightly slack-jawed undergraduates, remember) for over fifty years, she still found new layers and nuances in the text, which she knew (of course) by heart.
Studying the Commedia for the first time, I remember being enchanted, not so much by the actual dogma of the work, but by its sheer allusive intricacy. For someone with no actual interest in religion, I was fascinated by the layers of reference that wove religion into so human a narrative. In this, I think, I am not unique. Certainly, the religious aspect of the epic, while intriguing and rich, does not have the same relevance to twenty-first century readers, and indeed it is not really his exploration and frequent challenge of religious doctrines that we see reflected in contemporary culture; that exploration continues to form the basis of scholarly discussions and rewarding study, but it is the embodied Dante, the human narrative, that we see persisting in art, music, literature and even digital culture. Last year, for example, the print magazine Abridged offered an adaptation of the epic that retells aspects of the journey across various media, and engages with Dante in the new issue (Floodland) once more; there is a popular game by the video game company Electronic Arts that dramatises the first canticle with the player as hero (re-imagining the pilgrim as a Knight-Templar, which one can only imagine he would have been horrified by, and which rather undermines the observational purpose of the poem, and its author’s insistent flâneur-ism in the original work).
Earlier artists have found it no less inspiring: countless painters from Botticelli to Blake and Dalì have drawn inspiration from the poet’s grim imaginings, which include everything from relentless buffeting wind and submersion in thick, boiling mud at the milder end of things, to raining fire, cannibalism, and Satanic mastication in the deeper reaches of misery. Bougereau’s Dante and Virgil in Hell offers a particularly strange depiction of the cannibalism of Canto XXX, in which he shows Gianni Schicchi, the impersonator, biting the neck of Capocchio, the alchemist. Virgil and Dante stand to the side wearing expressions of the kind of shock one expects from ladies of a certain age in response to public profanity, rather than violent assault. Above them, a weirdly muscled demon hovers, grinning and posing in a manner that for all the world anticipates the flying monkeys in The Wizard of Oz. Auguste Rodin famously depicts Dante’s work in his monumental “La Porte d’Enfer” (“The Gates of Hell”), which dominates the entrance to the Musée Rodin in Paris. TS Eliot, in The Waste Land, echoes Dante’s remarks about Hell, applying them to post-War London; indeed, Eliot turned to Dante constantly for inspiration, and remarked in an essay that "Dante, more than any other poet, has succeeded in dealing with his philosophy, not as a theory...or as his own comment or reflection, but in terms of something perceived." Eliot here seems to hit upon something crucial about Dante’s work, the thing that keeps it alive and compelling seven and a half centuries after its author’s birth: it is the humanity of Dante’s writing, its fear and physicality, its surreal, long-before-its-time devotion to the primacy of perception and its final, uncompromising insistence on hope, on the temporality and therefore the potential futurity of humanity, that brings us back to it time and again, continuing to inspire and enchant readers, writers and artists of all media, while its ostensible purpose fades into the background hum of diligent scholarship. Kleiner notes that in Italy, particularly, there is a widespread effort to keep Dante at the forefront of cultural production and discussion; this may be true, and the cultural value we assign to such venerable works is a powerful reason for their longevity, but he points out also that Dante’s frustrations with politics, religion and corruption “still feels fresh”. While the cultural arbiters of the last several centuries have for better or worse kept Dante at the forefront of the canon and, like the much later Shakespeare, it can feel a little exhausting to turn once again to a long-deceased white man’s dark night of the soul, the persistent presence of the Commedia in general and the Inferno in particular in popular culture seem to me to suggest that it is the human Dante, not the pilgrim, nor even the philosopher, whose visceral, visual imaginings of a dark future still move us to horror, fascination and even empathy. It falls to later eyes to tell whether in another 750 years, we will still be discussing the inventive hideousness of Dante’s vision of Hell, but one rather suspects so.