Sunday, 30 November 2008

Impressions of Inferno

I have just finished the first part of Dante's Divine Comedy and thought to jot down some thoughts.

In point of fact, it has taken me long enough to finish it. I have started it several times and never made it past the beginning of the Eighth Circle. In fact, the first time I started it was when I was about nine on Christmas Eve, to pass the time as I held vigil during the night in the (vain) hope of catching Santa Claus in the act- which just goes to show what a strange child I was (if memory serves, I didn't get past the fifth canto). However, coming up to this Advent, I decided to make a fresh go of it and try and get the thing finished. And, as I say, I have just finished Inferno. So far, so good then. With a bit of luck and continued persistence, I might get to Heaven before...well, before I get to Heaven (assuming, of course, my perseverance in grace). Certainly before Epiphany, anyway. So, anyway, some initial and not particularly scholarly or groundbreaking impressions.

The one thing we don't appreciate about the medievals (or one of the things) is the multi-layered nature of their thinking. Some of my more traditional friends deplore the superficiality of the Novus Ordo Mass where only one thing happens at once, much preferring the layered richness of the Tridentine (I must confess I often have trouble keeping up with the Tridentine for precisely that reason- there are too many layers and connections to properly grasp, let alone appreciate, everything that's going on). In the Inferno, we moderns are, I suspect, tempted to just read on the surface, as we tend to do with most things. We expect that if there are hidden meanings, they should be pointed out or hinted at. The notes I used caught a lot of meaning, but they were by no means exhaustive- a fact which the translator, to his credit, acknowledged several times throughout.

To take one example (which was not mentioned in the notes and I only noticed upon further reflection), a sizable number of the souls Dante meets are very concerned to have him mention them to others when he goes back to the world of the living. In fact, if memory serves, once or twice Dante actually uses the offer to do such as a conversation-starter for some of the less communicative souls. Many have a preoccupation with their own memory or legacy. Here we see the very essence of Hell, the self bound up in itself, obsessed with itself. Robbed of life, it seeks to perpetuate its existence in the only way that remains to it- by having other people remember it. Even in Hell, the self tries to get the universe to revolve around it. Indeed, one doesn't notice it at first (and the temptation to pity the souls and regard them as victims or hard-done-by is very great, especially for us moderns who find it so easy to impute victimhood), but the souls without exception talk about nothing but themselves, their lives, their present circumstances, etc. Morally speaking, this is completely accurate but, as I say, its not signposted. Dante expects you to notice it for yourself.

Another thing- in each part of Hell, Dante somehow participates in the sin being punished there. This I didn't notice until the Ninth Circle, actually. It serves as a kind of mea culpa of the author, robbing him of any sense of moral superiority and showing him his own sinfulness (and encouraging the reader to notice theirs). Kind of like Mel Gibson hammering in one of the nails in The Passion.

Two other things made an impression on me in particular. One is, I think, a very necessary corrective to popular imaginiation. That is, that Satan is not the Lord of Hell. It is not his dominion or realm over which he rules. Dante, quite rightly, has him trapped, imprisoned in a sheet of ice (the ice, I suppose, to symbolise a realm as far removed from the warmth of divine love as it is possible to get) and- and this is what surprised me most of all- weeping. Tears of pain perhaps, or tears of agony or regret, but not tears of repentance. A very different image of the Devil from what one is accustomed to.

Finally, one was initially impressed by the creativity behind the punishments, the contrepasso and all that, and was curious to see what would come next and who the next famous soul would be (although, of course, some of them haven't been famous for quite a few centuries now). However, I don't know if it was just me- how I was feeling on the day or a symptom of my wanting to hurry up and finish, or if it was a subtle function of the writing intended by the author, or what; but by the Ninth Circle I had the overwhelming sensation of "I don't want to be here." The experience was no longer pleasant. I didn't want to meet any more damned souls. They weren't actually pleasant people to talk to or spend time with. Their stories grated and bored- like an obnoxious dinner guest's. To see the stars at the end of canto 33, after so long in the physical and moral dark, knowing that now Hell was behind for good, was one of the most exquisite literary experiences I've had in recent memory.

On to Purgatorio, then.