Donnerstag, 31. Mai 2012

Inferno by Dante Alighieri


Inferno tells the story of Dante's descent to hell and his journey through its nine circles. The book was written at the very beginning of the 14th century and is the first part of the famous Divine Comedy.
It is also the most impressive work of literature I ever read.
"I found myself within a forest dark, for the straightfoward pathway had been lost. Ah me! How hard a thing is to say, what was this forest savage, rough, and stern, which in the very thought renews the fear. So bitter is it, death is little more..."
I will probably not win a prize for originality by stating that Dante's language is absolutely sublime. I am not even a great fan of poetry, but these lines had something to them that made me read on and on, sucking in the colourful images they created. It was very strange, although I am not really religious these words evoked in me the vague feeling of something grand.
What I did not expect though was the vividness of the writing; hell arose before my eyes as if I was wandering through it myself.

Dante's hell is an enourmous creation: diverse and detailed and absolutely terrifying. I can hardly imagine how long the planning phase must have been, for it is thought-out to the smallest detail.
For every sin the souls are punished accordingly, the fortune-tellers for example have to walk with their heads turned backwards because in their lives they tried to see the future when they had no right to.
I did not always agree with Dante's division into circles, for instance I found it unreasonable that fraud is punished more severely than murder and in my opinion some souls, such as astrologers and alchemists, but more than anything the virtuous pagans who committed no other sin than being born before the time of Christianity, ought not to be in hell at all. Also, looking at sins such as greed and anger I could not help asking myself if any of us would not end up in hell.
Those were the moments when I had to remind myself that Dante lived in the Middle Ages and that his view of life was probably completely different from ours. Nonetheless the knowledge that this book determined the human idea of hell for hundreds of years impressed me deeply and never really left me while reading.

A big part of the journey through hell is made up by the stories which the damned souls tell of their lives and crimes. I was astonished that these souls were not invented by Dante, but all either real historic persons or characters from mythology such as Ulysses. The person who is in fact the reason for the whole journey (she sends Virgil to Dante to save him after he had lost the right path) is Beatrice, who died very young and is the object of Dante's eternal love. I cannot wait to finally meet her, but I am afraid she will not turn up until Paradiso.  Whenever someone I knew appeared I was amazed: Sophocles for example, Brutus or Helen of Troy, but there were many Italian noblemen I had never heard of before and although their names were explained in footnotes I think a better knowledge of Italian history would make me appreciate the book more. Another thing that took me by surprise is Dante's criticism of the church; there are more than a handful of popes and bishops suffering in his hell.

However, what surprised me most is how political the Divine Comedy actually is. Obviously Florence was in terrible uproar at that time, with fights between two parties, the Guelphs and the Ghibellines. This conflict is featured prominently, probably because of Dante's strong involvement in it in real life. He was even expelled from Florence, his home which he (and many of the souls in hell) loved dearly and never returned to it until he died.

Did I understand everything I read? Certainly not. There were some lines whose meaning remained a complete mystery for me even though I read an annotated edition and others where I was not sure whether my interpretation was right or utter nonsense. I tried not to worry too much about that though: I know that I probably only understood a small percentage of the Inferno accurately, but I feel that the Divine Comedy is much too multilayered to be fully comprehended after  reading it just once. Most importantly, am enjoying it a lot, so onward, to the Mountain of Purgatory and into Paradise!

Kommentare:

  1. Oh, you're making me want to read it again!

    I am not sure how much of the design of the circles was based on theology and how much was Dante's own design. It does seem weird to put fraud below murder, but I suppose there was some reason we moderns don't understand without a full explanation. Perhaps violence was supposed to injure the victim's body, whereas fraud injures the soul? I'll have to look that up.

    I agree with you about virtuous pagans, but that was the conundrum the Church found itself in. The Bible says that if you don't believe in Christ and get baptized, you can't be saved, and medieval people believed that was true even of infants, which the Bible doesn't say. There are a couple of ways out of this; nowadays the Catholic Church does not teach Limbo and various denominations say different things, but few would say that virtuous pagans and little babies are doomed.

    But yes, Christian theology teaches that none of us would deserve heaven (or be able to endure it). We're all broken and pretty screwed up; Christ fixes us and makes heaven possible anyway. That's what Christianity boils down to. It's unrepentant greed and anger and fraud that keeps the denizens of Hell where they are in Dante's universe--they'd rather stay where they are than let go of their anger.

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    1. That was my aim all along ;)

      I was wondering about that too. My notes say something about fraud being worse because that is consciously deceiving another's soul, but I am not really sure.

      Thank God! (The pun was not intended...)I'm glad we have evolved a little from the Middle Ages.

      I am really curious about Purgatorio, for there I will meet the repentant souls who still have a chance for heaven. We#ll see what I think of Christian theology after that.

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  2. I think Dante must have had a really incredible imagination! (And I'm not sure how good that is given all the horrors of his hell.) I was also surprised by the outspoken politics in the work--both because I would have thought it very, very risky to speak against the Catholic Church at the time, and because some of it seems to prefigure the Reformation two centuries later. Although, I suppose Dante's already been exiled from his beloved Florence--maybe he felt he didn't have anything to lose.

    If I remember correctly, Beatrice shows up again at the end of Purgatorio, so not quite so long to wait. Enjoy!

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    1. That's what I thought too! He was surely a controversial man, putting a bunch of popes into hell. I would love to go to Florence now, if only to imagine Dante walking through its streets :)

      Yeah, Beatrice! I'm really curious about that woman.

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  3. I am impressed that you have read this! I have to admit that I've never been drawn to it as I have this impression of it being too difficult and I've struggled with epic poems before. Your review has opened my mind towards it though and made me want to at least give it a try.

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    1. I was quite unsure whether I would manage it myself, but one day I simply picked it up without thinking too much about it and read the first few pages. Then I was already hooked!
      I think this is one of those intimidating books one has to read spontaneously, without giving too much thought to its significance.
      You should definitely try it!

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  4. You're making me want to re-read it again, too! I loved it, read it in October. I'm not so good with poetry, but like you, I wanted to read on and on. I was so disappointed when it ended! Had a similar experience with Faust Part I by Goethe, have you read that yet?

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    1. I'm glad I managed that :) I really loved this book!

      Goethe and I have a relationship all of our own. Since he is pretty much the only German author who is valued abroads too our teachers preach us his magnificence from kindergarten onwards. Unfortunately I tend to refuse those things which have always been praised to me. It's a bad habit, I know.
      So no, I never tried it, but since you liked it so much that will change quickly.

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  5. I have to read this in a bit, and am even more excited by the prospect after having read this blog post!

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    1. I hope you'll like it as much as I did! Hurry up, I'm anxious to hear your thoughts on it :)

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  6. Ah, Inferno. I loved this when I first started it, then my reading-rut-from-hell (no pun intended) struck and that was pretty much it. I couldn't focus on another book for a couple of months. But (and this is a good but) I'm back and ready to give it another try, so imagine my excitement when I saw this post.
    If I remember correctly, Dante held a pretty big grudge against quite a few members of the Church, because he blamed them for the failure of the ideal of a universal order. He lived during an age that was relatively close to the downfall of the Roman Empire, so Catholicism was the only way he saw towards the order his generation grew up to believe in. When that didn't work, well... he literally sent them to hell.

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    1. I'm so glad you're back! And which book could be more motivating to read than a nice tour of hell? ;)

      I quite agree with Dante, considering some of the "holy" popes of the Middle Ages, but his courage to openly critisise them amazed me.

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    2. Oh, and I hope you'll love it as much as I do when you finish it! I'm looking forward to your thoughts.

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