Sunday, May 03, 2009

Book Look: Inferno

Book Look: Inferno by Dante Alighieri: The Divine Comedy of Dante is frequently mentioned as a poetry on the level of Shakespeare, at least when read in the original Italian. I don't speak Italian, nor am I very skilled at reading poetry even in translation so any sheer artistry is lost on me. There are about nine-million translations that have been published over the centuries; some try to hold closely to the meter of the original, others resort to straight prose; some keep to the flowery vocabulary of old, other are more colloquial. One of the first tasks for a potential reader is to pick a translation.

The translation I selected is one by Elio Zappulla. It uses colloquial language and vernacular but is structured as something called "free verse". To quote Wikipedia, "Free a term describing various styles of poetry that are written without using strict meter or rhyme, but still recognizable as poetry by virtue of complex patterns of one sort or another that readers will perceive to be part of a coherent whole." Again, I am so poor with poetry that I can discern no difference between free verse and prose that has superfluous carriage returns. Perhaps I should have gone with a straight prose translation, but this one was quite readable and, I am guessing, on the explicit side when it comes to describing Hell's horrors.

Thumbnail of Inferno: Dante, at age 35, finds himself unable to find "the right path", meaning he is losing or has lost his faith. He awakens in a dark woodland where he is trapped by three creatures -- a leopard, a lion, and a wolf. He encounters the long dead Roman poet Virgil who leads him on a journey through Hell, filled with horrific sights and a final encounter with the Devil, to find his way back. The Divine Comedy includes two further epics -- Purgatorio and Paradiso -- which follow Dante through Purgatory and Heaven to his ultimate goal of communing with God. None of this is news to you. There is little about the Divine Comedy that hasn't been said and the concept of passing through the rings of Hell is thoroughly assimilated into the stream of Western conciousness.

Still, Inferno is the sort of book that causes undergrads to groan when it appears on a syllabus. There are likely many reasons for this but I suspect the main one is that it is so far removed from contemporary experience and mores that it simply will not register in the 21st century mind.

For example, the planted philosophy is that of Catholicism -- hard, unforgiving, psycho-Mother Superior, old-school Catholicism. Confronted with the suffering of the tortured souls in Hell, Dante, at one juncture, pities them. His guide, Virgil, rebukes him and reminds him that feeling sorry for them is in itself an offending act. We just don't get that in the contemporary world where our morality is relative to a fault, and the line between religion and psychotherapy has been blurred. It's the sort of thing one would hear from some lunatic imam.

It warrants mentioning that although Catholicism is the reigning way, specific Catholics are not spared over heretics. Anyone who believes the doctrine of papal infallibility ever carried any weight should read Dante ripping Pope Boniface a new one. Which leads me to another problem. Inferno is seriously axe-grindy. Axe-grindy on the level of season five of The Wire. If you were a political enemy of Dante's you can pretty much figure you'll be burning along with common criminals and other species of dirtbags. In fact, much of the epic is given over to naming names or at least hinting at names of notorious Florentines from 'round about 1300. These names are meaningless to most everyone short of the faculties of Medieval and Renaissance Studies departments.

Perhaps the most glaring difference with contemporary times is the hierarchy of sins. In Dante's Hell, the violent are less severely punished than the fraudulent and traitorous. Here are the various levels of Dante's Inferno:

• Circle One -- Limbo for decent unbelievers
• Circle Two -- The lustful
• Circle Three -- The gluttonous
• Circle Four -- The hoarders
• Circle Five -- The wrathful
• Circle Six -- The heretics
• Circle Seven -- The Violent
          Ring 1: Murderers/Robbers
          Ring 2: Suicides
          Ring 3: Those harmful against God/nature and usurers
• Circle Eight -- The Fraudulent
          Trench 1: Panderers and Seducers
          Trench 2: Flatterers
          Trench 3: Those who buy religious favor
          Trench 4: Sorcerers
          Trench 5: Cheaters
          Trench 6: Hypocrites
          Trench 7: Thieves
          Trench 8. Those who give evil counsel
          Trench 9: Instigators (think Eddie Haskel)
          Trench 10: Falsifiers
• Circle Nine -- The Traitorous
          Region 1: Traitors to their kindred
          Region 2: Traitors to their country
          Region 3: Traitors to their guests
          Region 4: Traitors to their lords

Lots of gray areas and overlaps in there. First note that by this formulation, in the hereafter, pretty much our entire political class will be worse off than your standard axe-murder. That's kinda cool.

Seriously, this does not jive at all with the modern way of thinking. To us, with a few exceptions, most of Circles Eight and Nine are torts -- stuff that gets sorted out by vampiric lawyers. Circle Seven is where the criminals lie, broadly speaking. One can't help but look at this as if it were from some alien culture dreamed up for an episode Star Trek that, however weird, needs to be respected under the Prime Directive.

Of course there are some things that transcend temporal boundaries. Horrific tortures, mutations and mutilations, and unspeakable pain and suffering for instance. Some of the scenes described here are worthy of George Romero or Wes Craven or any of the more deeply disturbed contemporary horror filmmakers. Some of the imagery in Inferno clearly demonstrates that twisted, sadistic imaginations have endured throughout the ages, although Dante does it thoughtfully; souls are tortured and degraded in ways that correspond to their earthly sins. No shock for shocks sake, there is method to this madness.

The trouble with Inferno is that, divorced of the beauty of the poetry -- which is lost on me, through my own linguistic limitations and my taste and experience as a reader -- you are left with needing to be fully immersed in the milieu of Florence in 1300 to really appreciate the content. I doubt there is enough time left before my own afterlife for me to get to that point. I'm going to have to pass on Purgatorio and Paradiso. I'm sure Dante will survive without me, as long as there are frumpy academics and people who can speak Italian. I'm better off losing myself in Rex Stout again before tackling another work of significance.