Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Book Review: Inferno by Dante Alighieri

  • The Divine Comedy; Volume 1: Inferno

  • By: Dante Alighieri, Translated by Mark Musa

  • Pub. Date: December 2002

  • Publisher: Penguin Group (USA)

  • Format: Paperback , 432pp

  • Series: Penguin Classics Series

  • ISBN-13: 9780142437223

  • ISBN: 0142437220

  • Source: Personal Copy

  • Synopsis:

    This vigorous translation of the poet's journey through the circles of hell re-creates for the modern reader the rich meanings that Dante's poem had for his contemporaries. Musa's introduction and commentaries on each of the cantos brilliantly illuminate the text.
    My Review:

    I read Inferno for the October Group Read hosted by Allie at A Literary Odyssey. I did finish this in October, I just got very busy and wasn't able to post my review in time for the group read. I read The Inferno once before, in high school. The translation I read then was the Longfellow translation, which I really struggled with back then. This time, I bought a newer translation by Mark Musa. I found the Musa translation much more accessible.

    The Inferno is Dante Alighieri's view on Hell. Here is an illustration that gives the overview of the layers in Dante's Hell:

    This picture shows Dante's divisions of sin in Hell. Each sinner is punished accordingly to their main sins. Each punishment fits the sin. For example, flatterers ("brown nosers") are immersed in shit for figuratively kissing the asses of their superiors to gain favors. This is probably one of my favorite punishments. I know its gross, but it's so easy to picture and relate the sin to the punishment.

    I really encourage everyone to give The Inferno a try. I believe that it is one of those classics that everyone should read. It's a large part of our culture as well, everyone has heard of Dante's levels of Hell. Mark Musa's translation is wonderful and the endnotes for each canto include great notes to make some of Dante's references to specific people or places understandable for today's readers.

    I am going to include my paper on The Inferno that I wrote in 11th grade as the end of this post. I did quite a bit of research for that paper and I'm proud of it for a high school paper.

    My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

    “All hope abandon, ye who enter in!” (Alighieri 14) states the sign on the gates to Hell, according to Dante Alighieri in his book, The Inferno. The Inferno is one of Dante’s masterpieces in which both the story and the meaning behind it have intrigued readers for centuries. Dante wrote the book to be read and understood in multiple ways. A reader could read The Inferno literally, allegorically, morally, or anagogically (“Dante Alighieri” 1533). The different levels of comprehension and discernment serve Dante’s purpose of writing The Divine Comedy, which was “to remove those living in this life from the state of misery and lead them to the state of felicity” (qtd. in “Dante” 4).

    Arguably, the best way to read The Inferno would be allegorically. To read a book allegorically is to look for hidden meanings and symbols. As defined in the dictionary, symbolism is the “a: artistic imitation or invention that is a method of revealing of suggesting immaterial, ideal, or otherwise intangible truth or states b: the use of conventional or traditional signs in the representation of divine beings and spirits” (Mish 1194). If read allegorically, The Inferno becomes an insightful book in which Dante employs highly developed and meaningful symbolism to express both religious and political views.

    The Inferno is a story about Dante the Pilgrim and his journey through Hell. In the beginning, Dante the Pilgrim finds himself lost in a dark forest, where Virgil finds him and offers to be his guide and protector through Hell. Dante the Poet greatly admired the work of Virgil, explaining why it is no surprise that Virgil is the guide in Dante’s story. Once Dante the Pilgrim accepts Virgil as his guide, Virgil conducts him into Hell and though all nine circles.

    The main symbols Dante the Poet uses are numbers. For example, the number three is constantly utilized. On a religious aspect, the number three can signify many things, such as the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, or power, wisdom, and love, or faith, hope, and charity (“Dante Alighieri” 1532). The most obvious way Dante utilizes the number three is his The Divine Comedy, which is broken into three books, The Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso. A vital part of the Christian faith is one God in three persons, just as Dante’s book is one story in three books. In addition, the poems in The Inferno are written in the terza rima rhyme scheme, which results in each rhyme occurring three times (“Dante Alighieri” 1532). The significance of the reoccurrence of the number three in Dante’s work, particularly his poem The Inferno, is how it can embody many things in Christian theology. Dante also uses nine, as a multiple of three, in his work. For instance, there are nine circles of Hell. Multiplying three by itself only increases the significance of the number three as a symbol.

    Another numerical symbol is the mystical number seven (“Dante Alighieri” 1532). Dante the Pilgrim’s journey through Hell lasts seven days, which is also the length of time that it took God to create Earth; “By the seventh day God had finished the work he had been doing; so on the seventh day he rested from all his work. And God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it he rested from all the work of creating that he had done” (New International Version, Genesis 2: 2-3). Just as God created a new world, Dante the Pilgrim became a new person, all in the same length of time.

    Another religious symbol in The Inferno would be Mohammed, who is in the ninth Bolgia of the eighth circle in Hell. Mohammed’s sin is causing division among people. Dante the Poet puts Mohammed in his story specifically to express how he felt about other religions. Dante the Poet is a devout Christian; he does not agree with other religions and shows that through the punishment of Mohammed. Mohammed’s punishment is to walk in a circle and to be cut apart by a devil with a sword. Mohammed’s placement in Hell represents Dante the Poet’s feelings against other religions.

    Some of the most noteworthy depictions in The Inferno would be the forms of punishment that each sinner must endure. Each sin correlates specifically to the main sin of the individual. For example, before Dante the Pilgrim enters Hell, he and Virgil come upon the space known as the Ante-Inferno. Here is where some angels and humans, who never committed themselves to either positive or negative, are sent, since neither Heaven nor Hell will accept them. Their punishment is to be chased into action by being stung by bees and other insects while chasing a blank banner:

    And I, who looked again, beheld a banner,
    Which, whirling round, ran on so rapidly,
    That of all pause it seemed to me indignant;
    And after it there came so long a train
    Of people, that I ne’er would have believed
    That ever Death so many had undone […]
    These miscreants, who never were alive,
    Were naked, and were stung exceedingly
    By gadflies and by hornets that were there (Alighieri 15-16)

    The blankness of the banner represents their lack of affiliation, thus their punishment compares to the sin they perpetrated (Musa 39). Since they were always passive in their lives on Earth and never took action, the bees force them to take action now. In addition, since the action that the bees perpetrate makes the sinners chase the blank banner; both the bees and banner represent the action they should have taken.

    Another example of a case where the sin fits the punishment is the sin of lust, which is punished in the second circle of Hell. The sinners there are swept around in a constant frenzy of wind, where they are forever in the “embrace” of the wind (Bondanella XL). Dante the Pilgrim talks to two of the sinners in the second circle, Paolo and Francesca. Francesca relates their story to Dante the Pilgrim and how they came to be in Hell. The use of the wind holding the sinners in an embrace is the perfect metaphor for the embrace and lust that they lived in during their time on Earth.

    Additionally, the flatterers are another notable example of Dante the poet’s genius in ensuring the symbolic representation of the punishments doled out in Hell as relating to each particular sin. The flatterers in the eighth circle, “who made their way figuratively by ample applications of their tongues to the objects of their flattery are now immersed in human excrement, produced by the same posteriors they so obsequiously kissed to further their nefarious causes” (Bondanella XL-XLI) are punished in the literal meaning of the sins they perpetrated on Earth. Dante the Poet’s brilliance and humor show with the way that Dante takes the figurative meaning of their sin and symbolically changes it into a literal punishment.

    As indicated by the numerous uses of numbers and sin/punishment correlation as religious symbols, Dante the Poet emphasizes the Christian religion throughout his entire work. One of the very first religious symbols that can be seen is Dante the Pilgrim as an ordinary man, Virgil as reason and wisdom, and Beatrice, who comes to Dante briefly in the beginning, as faith and love (Durant 1067):

    With voice angelical, in her own language: […]
    Beatrice am I, who do bid thee go;
    I come from there, where I would fain return;
    Love moved me, which compelleth me to speak. (Alighieri 9-10)

    Dante the Pilgrim is an everyman, which means that he stands for all human beings and their journey through sin and temptation. Dante the Poet’s use of Virgil as logic represents how logic can make one worthy of the first circle of Hell, but cannot allow one into Purgatory, and much less Heaven. Beatrice, who stands for compassion, is in Heaven and defines how one can attain the right to be there. Both Virgil and Beatrice are prime examples of Dante the Poet’s religious symbols.

    In addition to the religious symbols contained within The Inferno, Dante the Poet included a few political references. Dante wrote the book mainly for religious reasons, but he included many of his own feelings and views; as a member of the Council of the Hundred, Dante saw many different sides of the political matters in the early 1300’s (“Dante” 3). One paradigm of Dante’s political views is the prediction that Ciacco makes in Canto VI. Dante the Pilgrim asks Ciacco what will happen to Florence if things continue as they are:

    ‘[…] But tell me, if thou knowest, to what shall come
    The citizens of the divided city;
    If any there be just; and the occasion
    Tell me why so much discord has assailed it.’
    And he to me: ‘They, after long contention,
    Will come to bloodshed; and the rustic party
    Will drive the other out with offence.’ (Alighieri 32-33)

    As a White Guelf, a faction of the Guelf party, which supported the pope, Dante was exiled from Florence by the Black Guelfs when they came into power in 1301 (“Dante” 3). Dante the Poet has Ciacco make a prediction about what had already happened in Florence to take a political stand, which was the fall of the White Guelf party in Florence. Dante the Poet’s word choice in the aforementioned quote distinguishes his personal views on the political perspective in his world. By using words like divided city, rustic party, and offence Dante deliberately adds another meaning to the passage.

    After Dante’s exile from Florence due to the rise in the Black Guelf power, Dante was separated from his family, job, and political connections (Ferrante 137). Dante the pilgrim is alone in the dark woods, away from all other people, echoing Dante’s feelings in the commencement of The Inferno (Ferrante 137). The resemblance between the two events, Dante the Poet’s exile and Dante the Pilgrim being alone in the forest, indicate an intentional symbol by Dante the Poet. Dante the Poet puts Dante the Pilgrim in the same kind of situation that he had been in, in order for the readers to relate to Dante the Poet.

    In addition, to Dante’s current world, Dante looked to the past for political aspirations. Dante the Poet felt very strongly about the benefit of having an empire as the ideal form of government. For example, he admired the Roman Empire and wanted Italy’s government to be set up likewise. To express his view in The Inferno, Dante the Poet creates a Hell as an unorganized city with very little central authority. Adversely, Dante’s heaven is set up as a well-maintained city with authority (Ferrante 45). Dante the Poet’s placement of the chaotic government in Hell and a well-maintained one in Heaven represents Dante’s love for a strong empire with a central authority, and therefore is a political symbol.

    Also, Joan M. Ferrante believes Dante’s “Hell reveals what society is when all its members act for themselves and against the common good” (132). All of the sinners in Hell are there because they did not recognize God and lived for themselves on Earth. The sinners do not change much in Hell, for they continue thinking about only themselves. Dante the Poet’s story can be read allegorically, but the moral reading is also the political reading since “it is impossible to be a moral human being without being a good citizen, and it is difficult to be either a good citizen or a moral person in a bad society” (Ferrante 136). Therefore, the moral symbols in The Inferno equate very much to Dante’s political ideas and vice versa.

    Just as Dante cherished the Roman Empire, he also loved the rulers in Rome, especially Julius Caesar; Lucifer, in the ninth circle of Hell, is seen chewing on Brutus, Cassis, and Judas Iscariot:

    When I beheld three faces on his head! […]
    At every mouth he with his teeth was crunching
    A sinner, in the manner of a brake
    So that he three of them tormented thus.
    To him in front the biting was as naught
    Unto the clawing, for sometimes the spine
    Utterly stripped of all the skin remained.
    ‘That soul up there which has the greatest pain,’
    The Master said, ‘is Judas Iscariot.
    With his head inside, he plies his legs without.
    Of the two others, who heads downward are,
    The one who hangs from the black jowl is Brutus;
    See how he writhes himself, and speaks no word!
    And the other, who so stalwart seems, is Cassius (Alighieri 176-177)

    Brutus and Cassius were the two men who deceived Julius Caesar and assassinated him in order to take the Roman Empire from him. The reality of Lucifer chewing on Brutus and Cassius as well as Judas, the betrayer of Jesus, shows that Dante the Poet sets the betrayal of Jesus and Julius Caesar as equal. The equivalence between the two betrayals denotes Dante’s esteem and love of the Roman Empire.

    In addition to Dante’s adoration for the Roman Empire, he also wholly appreciates the great philosophers. Some of the philosophers are named specifically in The Inferno, and include Homer, Horace, Socrates, Plato, Ptolemy, Orpheus, and Virgil, who is taking a short leave to guide Dante the Pilgrim through Hell, and later Purgatory. According to Will Durant, the placement and specific naming of the great people who came before Dante allows readers to know whom Dante respected (1070). Most of the great people Dante admires are in the first circle of Hell, called Limbo, because they were believed to live a virtuous life yet were never baptized. In Limbo, they are free to do much as they please, which is why Dante the Poet placed them there since he could not bear to have them punished for something he so strongly believed in. In fact, Dante was so generous as to give them a castle in which to stay. Dante the Poet made a political statement through placing the philosophers in Limbo.

    In The Inferno, Dante makes use of many different types of symbolism and representations throughout the novel, such as number symbolism, religious symbols, and political symbols. Religious symbols such as the sin and punishment correlation makes moral statements for how Dante the Poet believed people should live. In addition to the religious symbols, Dante the Poet adds some political symbols, such as the city representation in order to express his views. The use of the symbolism is highly developed and very influential since most readers are able to recognize the symbols and apply it to their lives. The Inferno is influential because symbolism is basically dripping from every page, so any reader can notice it. After a reader recognizes what Dante the Poet is trying to get across, the reader can take many lessons from the book and lead what Dante considered a better and more moral life. All of the symbolism contained within The Inferno combines to create a unique and powerful book, for the past, present, and future readers.

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