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I’ve Been Through Hell …

November 16, 2010

… with Dante – and it was a hoot. My tour was prompted by a friend’s enthusiasm, but it’s been on my list since reading Dorothy Porter’s verse novel Wild Surmise in which Daniel, dying of cancer, tells himself:

I’m getting too comfortable
picnicking with Dante
in the Inferno

like a porpoising sinner
flashing his arse
in the boiling pitch
I’m getting the hang
of the place

My journey took a while. I read a canto a day, first in the Dorothy L Sayers translation (picked up second hand decades ago for 30 cents), then in the Mandelbaum version here on the University of Virginia’s website The World of Dante. Sayers tries to maintain the rhyming scheme, and I feel the result is often awkward. I enjoyed Mandelbaum more, especially when reading aloud. I liked Sayers’ commentaries, but the 60 year gap between Sayers and us sometimes seemed bigger than the 600 year gap between Dante and Sayers. That’s a comment on the pace of change and doesn’t imply any greater enlightenment on our part – our era has its own twisted values and shibboleths.

Yet Dante’s attitude to the various sinners is curious. He shows contempt for many and treats some of them very badly, abusing or tricking them. This serves the purpose of allegory – he is on the side of God’s judgement, turning away from the sin represented by the tortured soul. But it still seems unchristian to kick a man when he’s down.

The curious thing is that when he meets people who are gay it’s a different story. “Sodomites” are in the Seventh Circle, along with murderers, suicides, blasphemers and usurers, and they must perpetually run through a rain of fire. The first one he meets is his old teacher and mentor, Brunetto Latini, and Dante addresses him with great affection and deep gratitude for past benefits. Then he meets three others that he knew and respected, and his heart is pierced with grief at seeing their tribulation. If he wasn’t scared of getting burnt he’d join them. It’s almost as though Dante had unconscious doubts about the prevailing homophobia.

As an allegory, the poem is still rewarding for those who no longer believe that hell exists. Sayers comments: “The punishment for sin is simply the sin itself, experienced without illusion.” It is the end result of a course freely chosen. Being a murderer is the punishment for murder, whether or not the wrong-doer is caught and jailed. At least that’s how it seems to me. If I killed another person, I would have destroyed everything of value in my life. Illusion is stripped away by insight and remorse, not by going to hell.

You might point out, “But what if there is no insight or remorse? What about the guy who commits murder, doesn’t get caught and still has a happy life? How is that person punished?”

The answer to this is hard to express convincingly. If one knows that one has done wrong and feels terrible guilt, that is a punishment. But it is a far worse punishment to lack insight and not feel guilt. Here’s a hypothetical: an angel is preparing you for birth on earth. “What sort of life would you like?” he asks you. “There are two choices: In the first, you treat other people badly, but are not troubled by it. Through corruption and theft you accumulate wealth, live a happy life and die with no regrets. In the second, you try to do the right thing by other people, you grieve for their pain, you have your own share of pain and unhappiness, and you suffer remorse for the wrongs you do to others. But you develop an understanding of goodness and beauty, of what is of value in life. Which do you choose?”

To not feel remorse is to miss out on our humanity. It is a sort of hell.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Claire Wood permalink
    November 25, 2010 2:07 am

    Congratulations Bryce! What an organized way you have with your reading. I too loved the Mandelbaum version, having as yet not been able to access the Sayers version. I have an extract from the Sayers version and really liked it. I hope your blog encourages others to read Dante, if for nothing else than his wonderful language.

  2. Bryce permalink*
    November 26, 2010 11:09 am

    Thank you, Claire, for prompting my tour of Hell. I’m looking forward to Purgatory for my next trip.

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