Rating: 4 out of 5.

Originally known simply as Commedia, this epic poem is considered by some to be the seminal religious text, perhaps even the seminal text, of the Middle Ages. It is actually composed of three “books,” if you will: Inferno, Purgatory, and Paradise. Like some of the other classic works that I’ve read, this one ended up on my reading list because of references. It seems almost impossible to avoid referencing Dante in some way shape or form, and I personally reference him semi-regularly, despite having never read his magnum opus. So, despite the fact that I don’t generally enjoy poetry, and that I find poems translated from other languages especially irksome, and that you my readers would probably prefer that I was reviewing something a little less archaic (we had a few more recent books in there for the past few reviews), I decided it was finally time to sit down and read what has become known as The Divine Comedy.

Inferno

Since The Divine Comedy is composed of three texts, I’m dividing the review into three sections, one for each book, although there may be some overlap, and some of the observations I make will apply to all three parts of Dante’s journey, like the fact that this is at least as much a political text as it is a religious text, to the point that if it weren’t for the helpful footnotes and extra information that the translator includes in this version it would have been difficult to know what was going on, especially in the Inferno. For every classical or biblical reference that Dante includes, there are at least two references to Italian or Florentine noble houses, artisans, or other contemporaries of Dante. But that’s getting ahead of ourselves, because we need to talk a little bit about framing.

I’m not sure that I’ve done a post dedicated to framing stories (maybe I should), but the framing story for Dante’s journey is so integral to understanding the entire Comedy that it’s worth taking a paragraph in this review to discuss the subject. A framing story is the context in which a narrative or plot takes place. Perhaps the most famous example of this is Frankenstein, or at least it was hammered especially hard in every literature class I had the misfortune of taking. If a story is being told through diary entries, for instance, or maybe through letters, or a travel journal, that is a framing story. The Hobbit is more or less told with the framing story of Bilbo being the one writing the plot. I like to split framing styles into the explicit, like Bilbo writing There and Back Again, and implicit. If you’re reading speculative fiction, and there isn’t an explicit framing story, you can probably assume an implicit framing story. This is the idea that most authors use to address the continuity issue of writing a story set in an alternative world in English. Okay, so there’s a fair amount to talk about in this technique, and I should definitely dedicate a post to it.

Anyway, the explicit framing story for The Divine Comedy is that Dante is, while alive, whisked off upon a divinely mandated journey to save his soul, and that he is writing the poem we read to record and share what he experienced during that journey. Additionally, he is writing the journey as if it took place several years before he is actually writing it, which allows him to insert prophecies that are prophetic to the character of Dante in the poem, but had already come to pass for the author by the time he “recorded” his journey. It’s a peculiar twist on a first person narrative, and with that I will stop belaboring framing.

One of my mentors once suggested that if the afterlife is defined by human expectations for it, then it’s probably time for an update, because the modern conception of what the “Inferno” is like is little changed from the concept that Dante created for us. That conversation went on to conclude that someone ought to write an updated vision. In broadest terms, I would say that’s true: our conception of the “Inferno” really is closely aligned with that given to us by Dante’s Inferno.

I mentioned that Dante apparently wrote this epic for as much political reasons as religious ones, and it is quite evident in the individuals he decides to consign to various eternal torment. Popes of whom he disapproved? Political adversaries? Maybe they’ll get the message if we freeze them solid with the wind from Satan’s wings. I think if I were reading this book in its contemporary context, I would find it somewhat off-putting as a result, but the continued popularity of political books today indicates I would likely be in the minority.

Maybe it reveals my lack of knowledge about orthodox Catholicism, and the fact that I really ought to sit down and read the entire Christian Bible someday, but reading this book highlighted some very interesting and obscure parts of that text and that religion. What struck me as especially jarring in the Inferno was the fact that anyone who died before Christ, or died without being baptized, was automatically consigned to never reach paradise. People like Plato and Socrates, whose teachings have often been compared to those of Jesus, cannot be “saved.” This includes many of the key figures of the Old Testament (although some were apparently brought up to heaven directly by Jesus after his crucifixion), despite the fact that these people may have been following the teachings of God as they stood at the time. Such people are not tortured, but neither do they have hope of salvation.

In Herodotus’s Histories, I mentioned that it was interesting how he aligned other cultures’ religions with his own: had Herodotus written about the Norse, he would not have mentioned Thor, but simply called him Zeus. There was far more sharing between religions than I would have expected or than we are led to believe from modern, secular readings. Even having read that, I would still have expected a greater divide between the Abrahamic faiths and what could be called “classical” mythologies. Yet in the Inferno, Dante freely draws from Greek, Roman, and other, earlier religions to populate his own’s afterlife. There are giants, monsters, and demigods populating the Comedy that jump write from Homer or Ovid. For a religion that in its own texts tends to hold itself aloof and superior to such polytheistic, “pagan” faiths, that seemed startling to me.

Especially hard to reconcile for me was the idea that sympathy for those being tormented in the afterlife is itself a sin. This point is emphasized to Dante on his journey upon several occasions, until by the end he is actively adding to the torment of condemned souls. From what I understand of Christian teachings, I would have expected that being sympathetic to sinners would be a virtue. By the way, and I probably should have made this disclaimer sooner, I intend no offense nor judgement upon any religion with anything I say or ponder in the course of this review. I know they say not to discussion religion, politics, or the Great Pumpkin, but it would be exceedingly difficult to give a meaningful review of what is fundamentally a religious text without discussing religion. With that said, let’s move on to Purgatory.

Purgatory

In my imagination, Purgatory has always been a sort of antechamber to the two possible afterlives. Like the atrium of an office building, only with a really, really, really long line, and you go in and wait around until it’s your turn to be seen by the receptionist, who pulls up your records and decides if you get to take the up escalator or the down escalator. According to Dante’s rendering, at least, I was quite a bit off of the mark. In many ways, the main difference between Dante’s Purgatory and Dante’s Inferno is that the people undergoing torture for their earthly sins in Purgatory will eventually attain paradise, while those condemned to the Inferno have no hope of salvation or relief.

Each level of Purgatory is dedicated to a particular sin (gluttony, lust, greed, pride, and so forth), and each sin is given a particular punishment, just as in Inferno. More so than in Inferno, Dante embraces larger, overarching structures to the poetry of Purgatorio, with each level of Purgatory including a “whip” and “rein,” meant to respectively encourage abstinence from sin and discourage partaking in sin through examples, usually including an example from the classical period, and an example that involves Mary. The climb becomes easier as Dante goes, because he is leaving behind the literal weight of sin.

After very pointedly consigning some prominent political adversaries to eternal torment in the Inferno, Dante does at least have the honesty in Purgatorio to admit that pride is his greatest sin. One gets the impression from reading the Divine Comedy that Dante knew just how monumental of a work he was creating, and had every intention that it should be groundbreaking and enduring. Were he still alive, I suspect he would not be the slightest bit surprised that he is still being discussed, referenced, and reviewed, or that his vision of the Christian/Catholic afterlife in many ways has become the shared vision of those entire faith groups.

Perhaps the most peculiar aspects of Purgatory, at least to my mind, is the way that each soul is tormented in accordance with what it believes is just. Thus, a soul forced to carry a giant rock around because of his mortal pride can theoretically stop at any time and advance to the next circle, but will not until he feels that his weight of mortal sin has been atoned. To me, this particular affectation was easy to understand, until I stopped to think about it a little more closely, and then it became more and more challenging a concept, especially where it intersects with ideas of free will.

A soul is not reduced to a single, dominant sin, but must spend time in each circle of Purgatory according to the degree to which that particular sin is applicable. Thus, some souls will labor for centuries in a single circle, and then drift right past the others, while a different soul might labor for a decade in each circle on the journey up the mountain. Despite being objectively tortured, all of the souls that Dante encounters simply take their punishment as their due, and look at it the way your or I would approach any other solemn and important, if somewhat onerous, duty. Indeed, it is rarely referred to as a punishment at all.

Unlike the souls in the Inferno, for which Dante was reprimanded for feeling sympathy, the souls in Purgatory can be aided by prayer. Thus, whenever the souls notice that Dante is still flesh-and-blood, they implore him to seek prayers for them when he returns to his earthly existence. Prayers, apparently, can reduce the amount of time spent in any given circle, and also reduce the wait time. While there is a lot more to Purgatory than my vision of the foyer of Heaven with a really, really long line, each soul must wait a period of time before beginning to atone for its sins in proportion to the amount of time that the individual “made God wait.” Souls that waited their whole life before converting, therefore, are obliged to spend centuries waiting to even start their purification on the mountain of Purgatory.

If I had to summarize Dante’s vision of Purgatory, I think I would call it a grist mill of souls, grinding inexorably round and round while the sinful souls tumble around upon it until they have been ground down to a sufficiently pure, edible state that they can pass on to Heaven.

Technically, the beginning of Heaven actually occurs in Purgatorio, but I am going to review that portion under Paradiso, because a) it fits there better when you’re not confined to a strict poetic structure, and b) I have quite a lot to say about it. Speaking of which, lets move onto the Earthly Heaven

Paradise

I probably should have established this at the beginning of the review, but the whole, “world-building” concept of the Comedy‘s structure is based on that Ptolemaic model of the universe. This is closely related to Aristotle’s theory of the crystalline spheres, with some modifications to better account for observed motion. The famous circles that Dante travels through in the Inferno, therefore, are actually concentric spheres, with Satan being found at the absolute lowest point. All of the action in Purgatory occurs on a mountain rising from the Earth’s western hemisphere (which in this paradigm is nothing but water – Dante believed there was only land north of the equator and in the eastern hemisphere). The progress in Paradiso involves Dante ascending through the “heavenly spheres” – that is, what we know today as the planets and the sun – plus the sphere of the fixed stars, and the Primum Mobile, which was a concept introduced to explain why the other spheres began moving in the first place (a sort of early theory of gravity, if you will).

Apparently, Paradiso is considered by many to be the hardest part of Dante’s trilogy: hardest to read, hardest to understand, hardest to relate to, hardest to imagine. While I would say that it was less interesting that the preceding two “books,” I actually found the Cantos (Dante’s version of chapters) on the Earthly Paradise to be the most challenging. Not because the text was especially opaque (though Dante’s writing does become harder and harder to digest the more celestial his topics become), but because I found some of their assertions discomfiting.

One of the core concepts of the overall story is that Dante is assigned a guide for his journey. Initially, his guide is Virgil, who has been consigned to Limbo with the other “holy pagans,” since he died before Christ (see discussion in the section of the review on the Inferno). In reality, Virgil was one of Dante’s greatest poetic inspirations. Through both the Inferno, and Purgatory, Virgil guides Dante on his journey. Then, after reaching the Earthly Heaven, Virgil disappears without a word of warning or goodbye. To my mind, Dante is justifiably upset by this, but his new guide for the heavenly portions of the Comedy, Beatrice (in reality a former love interest of Dante’s) berates him for this sin, and in many ways acts like a jealous lover (she’s supposed to be the incarnation of heavenly love and divine revelation). This scene was possibly the most off-putting in the entire Comedy, even more than consigning people like Socrates to the Inferno simply because they happened to be be born a few centuries early, and it colored my perceptions of the entire journey through Paradise.

Despite that, I have to admit that I enjoyed Dante’s descriptions and interpretations of what he experienced in Paradise. He did not make it a brighter reflection of earthly life, and he stated explicitly that much of what he “saw” was Heaven condescending to acquire a form that he could comprehend. God, when Dante finally encounters Him, is conceived as a paradox, a single, non-dimensional point that simultaneously encompasses all of Creation. From an author who has spent a great deal of time throughout the Comedy using the journey as a façade through which to lambast his rivals and enemies, this was a surprisingly complex and resonant description of God and of Paradise as a whole.

Of course, the problem with any attempt to write about Paradise is the problem of trying to conceive a utopia: how can there be a plot, if everything is perfect, since plots require some kind of conflict, and if there can be no plots, how do people find fulfillment, and not grow bored? Paradiso does suffer from this problem, and definitely moves more slowly than the other two poems. There was little to keep drawing me back to the story, because the story became more or less a very long exposition of the nature of Paradise.

Conclusion

This book took me a very long time to read (in fairness, I was unusually busy over most of the weeks during which I was reading Comedy), and it was at times tedious and challenging. The version I had was full of footnotes following each Canto, which were invaluable. Without the footnotes, I can’t imagine most modern readers being able to understand half of what Dante wrote. His poem is supersaturated with allegories from and references to both classical and modern (for him) history, literature, and people. Even having read some of the Greek classics Dante references, I would not have understood most of the obscure stories and characters he utilizes, and I would have been completely lost in his frequent discussions of medieval history, and Florentine politics. For better or worse, Dante does provide his definitive answer to the classic question of philosophy: is conduct right because the Gods demand it, or do the Gods demand it because it is right?

While it did take a long time, and was a more challenging read than the other classics and older works that I’ve been tackling, I am glad that I read The Divine Comedy. Not just because it is referenced so frequently, which was the original reason I read it: I learned a great deal about the Catholic faith, and it helped improve my overall understanding of belief. Perhaps most importantly, it left me with a lot to think about in terms of morality, justice, religion, and history. I hope you consider reading The Divine Comedy.

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