Sin's Entertainment: On Dante's Inferno

Martha Cooley | March/April 2009

Martha Cooley


Dante's descriptions of his imagined underworld creep right into that part of the mind which simply cannot shake off the willies. Children know that the scariest things are those we dream up in response to a few well-placed hints—and Dante is nothing if not a master of the beautifully dropped, deeply unnerving suggestion.

Dante's Inferno is far better known to most American readers than Purgatorio and Paradiso, the other two canticles of his immense Commedia Divina or Divine Comedy. And for good reason: sin's more entertaining than grace. L'Inferno has been widely and variously translated into English, and weighing in on the results has become, over the years, a kind of literary sport. Fierce admirers and equally fierce detractors of John Ciardi, C.S. Singleton, and Robert Pinsky (among others) have tossed the football of judgment up and down the field; no one wins the game, but it's lively and fun to watch.

Recently, John and Jean Hollander have brought out the final volume in their remarkable translation of the entire Divine Comedy, an achievement that has garnered praise from all manner of critics. (Robert Hollander is a formidable Dante scholar, Jean Hollander a poet. They've written astute introductions for each canticle as well as lengthy annotations for every canto of the poem. Their marvelous version of the Inferno is the one to which I'll be referring in this essay.)

Before visiting or revisiting the Inferno, the reader does well to pack in his or her bag some overarching question or consideration to keep in mind while getting spun around the precincts of Dante's Hell. This is, after all, an adventure designed to provoke and unsettle. For my money, the most urgent big-picture question begged by the Inferno concerns something that Italo Calvino, one of Dante's latter-day compatriots, has called multiplicity.

I'll discuss this concept in more detail shortly. For now, let me say that it came into sharp focus for me when, a few years back, I read the New York Times and saw several disturbing front-page images of the mutilated, burned bodies of four American security guards who'd been ambushed in Falluja, Iraq. The next day, the Times featured an article about the four victims' families. Asked by a journalist how he felt about the killings, one victim's brother replied (with remarkable politeness, I thought) that he didn't want to answer the question. Then he added, "How many different types of dead are there?"

Now that's a remark Dante would have admired. On the physical plane, there is, of course, only one kind of dead: the dead kind. Yet the question posed by the victim's brother suggests a fundamental paradox: there's only one kind of dead and there are infinite kinds. None of us has any idea how we'll die, or what particular notions or ends our deaths might serve; and in this sense, there are multiple (indeed, infinite) kinds of dead—as Dante knew well.

Before drawing lines from the 13th century to the 21st, however, one must consider a few facts about Dante the man: Christian believer, poet-fabulist, political exile... And to do so, readers of his work must first bow before the ranks of scholars and commentators who've collectively erected what must be one of the most magnificent (one way of looking at it) or terrifying (another way) critical edifices known to humankind. It's akin to a Rube Goldberg contraption, full of unresolved theological, philosophical, linguistic, moral, and emotional arguments and pitfalls.

One can't read or discuss Dante's life and work without being daunted by this huge apparatus of commentary. Very few other writers in what we've come to call the Western canon have excited so much outpouring of ideation and feeling—and as it all started several long centuries ago, it's a big mountain indeed.

Two excellent resources can help readers skirt it. The first is the Hollander free-verse translation of the Inferno. (In a moment, I'll get to the thorny matter of translating Dante; for now, suffice it to say that you can't hope for a clearer, smarter, or more quietly humorous tour-guide to Hell than this pair of Americans.) The other resource is The Poets' Dante, which includes essays by T.S. Eliot, James Merrill, C.K. Williams, and Mark Doty, among others (there are twenty-eight responses in all). This book offers just the right antidote to straight-ahead scholarship. It's full of quirky voices and opinions, though bristling with erudition.

So just who was Dante Alighieri? For starters, he was a very political animal who served as a prior in his beloved city of Florence, where he was a member of one of the two political parties in power at the time (i.e., the late 13th and early 14th centuries). Dante was a Guelph—a White Guelph. (There were also Black Guelphs, who were less rich but more authoritarian than their White counterparts. Actually, Dante came from a White Guelph family but married into a Black Guelph one, which complicated things for him.)

The Guelphs were opposed by the Ghibellines. Essentially, if you lived in Florence, your choice of party had to do with what you aligned yourself with, philosophically—the papacy or the emperor. (Or rather, the reality of a pope or the idea of an emperor, a newer and better emperor than the ones who'd already shown up.) Here, Dante made things even trickier for himself, as his political sympathies really lay not with his own party but with the Ghibellines. He was in favor of an emperor's rule for Italy, but he couldn't abide the Ghibellines's lack of a proper religious foundation for their politics. They just weren't good enough Christians for him, in short. Thus he aligned himself uneasily with the Guelphs, strong papists that they were.

This political stuff infuses the whole poem—but more crucially, it infuses Dante himself. He was, after all, a powerful wheeler-dealer who nonetheless got booted out of his city by Black Guelphs (on trumped-up corruption charges), and was forced into exile until his death. Dante wandered around Italy, settling for a time in Verona and then in Ravenna, where he died, in 1328, of malarial fever at the age of fifty-six. He left a wife, three sons, and a daughter (who, poor girl, ended up entering a convent and renaming herself Beatrice). (Talk about "they fuck you up, your mum and dad / They may not mean to, but they do"!).

Throughout his exile, Dante never returned to Florence. One of his former allies sold all his possessions behind his back, for which Dante meted out the ultimate payback: he made the man a sinner in the Inferno. (This happens more than once in the poem: Dante retaliates against his political enemies as only a poet can, by writing them into damnation.)

A century after his death, the city of Florence tried to get Dante's body back. It had been interred in the church of San Francesco in Ravenna, and the monks there managed to hide the remains from the Florentines; the Franciscans repeated this act a hundred and fifty years later, but thereafter Dante's bones were lost. It wasn't until some construction workers in Ravenna unearthed them, in 1865, that his remains were returned to their final resting-place at San Francesco.

What did this itinerant, politically astute exile-writer have in mind when he undertook the Divine Comedy? What, in other words, is the essential premise of his magnum opus?

In short: a thirty-five-year-old Florentine who's having a midlife crisis is taken in hand by Virgil, the ancient Roman poet—himself set in motion, as it were, by the soul of a woman named Beatrice. Virgil leads this midlife-crisis-suffering fellow—Dante the character, that is, as opposed to Dante the narrator—on a trip to Hell and thence to Purgatory, where Beatrice picks him up for the balance of his journey, which ultimately leads him to Heaven. The visit to Hell takes a week, during which there's nary a moment of rest.

It's fascinating that Dante chooses Virgil as his guide, for the author of the Aeniad wasn't a Christian but a pagan—a fact of vital importance in Dante's poem and, more broadly, his worldview. Virgil is a denizen of that section of Hell called Limbo, which is reserved for nonbelievers and others who aren't saved Christians. Although Dante reveres Virgil, he can't forget his guide's spiritual status, and he sometimes undercuts Virgil during the course of their infernal perambulations. (As the Hollanders put it, "Sooner or later the fact that Virgil is treated, on occasion, rather shabbily begins to impress us.")

The crucial point about Virgil as the chosen guide is that Dante thought him the best of all poets, and poetry is for Dante the highest of creative activities. So Virgil earns the moniker "master," and Dante repeatedly pays homage to Virgil's skills as both writer and tour-guide; yet at the same time, he reminds us that Virgil is fatally flawed. Much of the poem's poignancy and drama inheres in the relationship between its two main characters, the inept yet redeemed Dante and the wise, rueful Virgil, who can't hope for salvation but who really knows what poetry can do for a person—even (or especially) a person who's visiting Hell. In this sense, the Inferno is also a drama about poetry's makers and inheritors, not to mention an up-close-and-personal look at poets' ambition, competition, and anxiety of influence.

Tim Parks (an excellent translator of many contemporary Italian writers) has noted that it's Virgil who set the pace of the Inferno, hurrying Dante along when he's dithering and encouraging him to stop when there's something he ought not overlook. The old master, says Parks, is the one who really grasps what poetry's job is: "to take us to the core of things, but then to get us safely out on the other side."1

What about Beatrice, the other central character in the Comedy? She was in all probability Beatrice Portinari, whom Dante first met when he was nine, and with whom he subsequently fell in love. His adoration of her was powerfully shaped by notions of courtly love expressed in the music and verse of Provençal troubadour poets. (The troubadours' main loyalty was to music, not to popes or emperors. This made them interestingly problematic for Dante, who sought to do them one better, as it were, in his own verse. His Comedy was a direct response to the troubadour traditions with which his beloved Beatrice was affiliated.)

Beatrice died in 1290, and Dante turned her, in his poem, into a remarkably potent figure of grace, the best that love could offer him. Buckets of commentary have been spilled in Beatrice's name; she plays a crucial role in the whole drama, though not a very big part in the Inferno.

So then: what happens down there in Dante's Hell? His vision of it is extraordinarily detailed and concrete. The Inferno has levels or circles, all manner of geology and weather, and complex clusters of sinners and sins. It's a list-maker's and categorizer's heaven, in fact. Various commentators have drawn maps and diagrams of it, but most readers feel lost while there—which is not, I'm sure, an unintended effect. That's because, as T.S. Eliot has helpfully pointed out, Dante's Hell isn't simply a place but also a state of mind. Put differently, it's akin to an infectious disease or the plague, and spreads like a contagion (to borrow an analogy of the Russian poet Osip Mandelstam).

Dante's descriptions of his imagined underworld creep right into that part of the mind which simply cannot shake off the willies. Children know that the scariest things are those we dream up in response to a few well-placed hints—and Dante is nothing if not a master of the beautifully dropped, deeply unnerving suggestion.

Before saying more about what Hell looks like to our hapless Tuscan and his guide, or what they encounter there, I must first talk about the all-important matter of language—the particular Italian, that is, in which the Divine Comedy is actually rendered. Dante, many people say, invented modern Italian. Not quite so; what he really did was to make use of the possibilities of the vernacular spoken by Tuscans, which no one had ever exploited as he did.

"Our illustrious vernacular," he wrote in one of his treatises, "wanders like a stranger and finds hospitality in lowly refuges." Dante was effectively announcing (to all of Italy, and to the wider world beyond) that Latin was no longer the only language in which serious matters could be treated. Instead, Italian (rather, the Tuscan version of it) would be a literary language capable of dealing with topics of utmost importance.

Dante didn't simply opt for the Tuscan vernacular. He also devised a verse form, called terza rima, in which to tell his entire tale. Each canto of the Divine Comedy is written in stanzas of three hendecasyllabic or eleven-syllable lines, and each of these stanzas has end-rhymes that interlock like this: ABA, BCB, CDC, and so on.

What this form does is supply the poem with incredible momentum. As James Merrill states, comparing terza rima to a scull (a light racing boat): "No verse form moves so wonderfully... the way a scull outstrips the twin, already dissolving oarstrokes that propel it. As rhymes interlock throughout a canto, so do incidents and images throughout the poem."2

This rhythmic propulsion of music and image, of rhymes and events, is Dante's central, towering achievement as a poet. His terza rima is flexible and ever-unfolding, yet also orderly and beautiful to hear; it's capacious yet concise. Dante described poetry as a rhetorical art set to music, and this is certainly what he achieved in his masterwork.

As a form, terza rima capitalizes on the many feminine endings in Italian—that is, lines ending with words accented on the penultimate syllable rather than the last one (for instance, selva oscura or dark wood, that famous phrase from the first canto). These feminine endings lend Italian something of what Mandelstam amusingly yet insightfully called "infant babbling... some kind of eternal dadaism... Each word rushes to burst forth, to fly from the lips, to run away, to clear a place for the others."3

Yet as we read Dante's verse in the original, we don't feel that anything's ever spinning out of control, either musically or substantively. There's terrific compactness as well as forward movement in his work. And as Merrill has noted, this verse form "sweetens the pill of dogmatic longueurs": the reader isn't given much time to pause over them.

What's a translator to do with such a verse-form? It's impossible to imitate terza rima closely in English, which simply doesn't offer as many or as varied end-rhymes as Italian does. Some translators have chosen to render Dante's work in end-rhymed and/or vowel-rhymed verses, with varyingly effective outcomes. Longfellow, among others, chose unrhymed blank verse. John Sinclair opted for prose, and Charles Singleton's translation (an emendation of Sinclair's) was taken up and reworked by the Hollanders. Still others have cut it down the middle-preserving Dante's three-line stanzas while dispensing with rhymes, or loosening them considerably. Robert Pinsky, for instance, defines rhyme consonantally in his translation of the Inferno, and strives for similar consonant sounds at the end of each line rather than aiming for vowel-rhymes. He's also less worried about enjambments than other translators have been. (For readers interested in looking at various translation strategies, a good place to start is Dante's Inferno: Translations by Twenty Contemporary Poets, edited by Daniel Halpern.)

The translation problem might well have been added by Dante to his Hell as a particular circle of its own. In any event (and to return to his story), Dante (the omniscient narrator) is a highly political, highly devout man who, prompted by his devotion to God and a girl named Beatrice, decides to write a long poem about an ordinary fellow, also named Dante, who's having an existential crisis, and who recounts his experience to us. Here's how the poem begins (per the Hollander translation):

Midway in the journey of our life
I came to myself in a dark wood,
for the straight way was lost.

Notice how Dante immediately drags his readers into the poem. This is the journey of our life, not just his; the dark wood entails a nastiness as frightful to us as to him. Immediately we get not only what Merrill called Dante's "touching, first-person particularity," but also an invitation to join in—to experience the same terror and confusion he does. And as we do, what Dante shows us (regardless of whether we buy into his Christian worldview) is the indisputable fact that we bring our manifold sufferings upon ourselves.

Robert Pinsky has observed that Dante grasps a crucial fact about the psychological and moral makeup of human beings: we wound ourselves. Thus, what we're really doing, when we accompany Dante, is witnessing what Pinsky calls "the pageant of unbeing... all the ways that souls hurt or destroy themselves."4 Forced to recognize and then further imagine the torments awaiting us in Dante's Hell, we see that they are always and forever created by the self—by our selves, that is.

Throughout his exile, Dante never returned to Florence. One of his former allies sold all his possessions behind his back, for which Dante meted out the ultimate payback: he made the man a sinner in the Inferno.

"Who heaps up," Dante muses in canto seven, "such strange punishments and pain I saw there? / And why do our sins so waste us?" God's justice (which the poet is addressing in this apostrophe) may explain the necessary fact of Hell, yet the really big question becomes how its occupants manage to end up in an eternal misery that's of their own making, not God's.

I'll return to that question soon. First, though: who are some of the sinners Dante describes, and for what sins do they suffer? And what's Dante's attitude toward them—by which I mean both Dante the character and Dante the narrator?

The sinners are so numerous and varied that they can't possibly be described in full, but a few are especially noteworthy. There are the ones who "sowed scandal and schism while they lived," and are "hacked asunder" in Hell for this sin of divisiveness. There are the hoarders and squanderers—the greedy and the profligate, in the Fourth Circle—who run and collide into one another endlessly, as if in a parody of a bad football pile-up. There are the angry sinners in Styx, a swamp in the Fifth Circle, whose bodies are naked and mud-smeared, and who tear at each other with their teeth. (Virgil explains to an overwhelmed Dante that these people, done in by their own anger, are now "sullen in black mire" just as, alive, they were "sullen in the sweet air" on Earth above.)

Anger in its various permutations is an emotion frequently on display in the Inferno, and Hell's sinners aren't the only ones expressing it. Virgil, normally composed, gets angry at several points when his powers as a guide are tested. And Dante himself—the character and the narrator—expresses anger in this poem, which, absorbed as it is in sin, does expect its reader to maintain a certain stance toward wrongdoers.

What stance, exactly? Well, a stern one: Hell's no place to cut anyone any slack. The character of Beatrice establishes this premise clearly, when, making a brief appearance at the start of Dante's journey, she displays no sympathy at all for the souls in Limbo—not even those unfortunate enough not to have been born in the Christian era. And Dante the narrator makes the premise plainer still when he has Virgil repeatedly remind his naïve partner that Hell's residents often argue for their innocence without copping to what they actually did.

But as a response to sin, sternness pure and simple doesn't wash, and Dante knows this. No reader of the Inferno can fail to recognize that as the poem's protagonist, Dante experiences moments of pity and sorrow that nearly overcome him. He cannot help but be moved (to cite the most famous example) by Francesca, the adulteress whose account of her love affair with her husband's brother, Paolo, would wring the hardest of hearts. Virgil, however, urges Dante to remember that his reaction of pity is ill judged, given the evidence. All these dead souls are manipulative, Virgil reminds Dante over and over—be careful, or they'll twist you right around their little fingers! As the Hollanders put it, "Sympathy for the damned, in the Inferno, is nearly always and nearly certainly the sign of a wavering moral disposition."

That's so. But the act of consolidating a wavering moral disposition carries with it a fundamental risk: namely, the collapse of compassion. Dante's own anger is in fact the most problematic feature of the entire Inferno. It shows up most visibly in cantos 32 and 33, by which point Dante and Virgil have descended into that deep region known as Cocytus, the icy riverbed of Hell, beneath which lie countless frozen sinners. Some of these souls have their heads above the frozen ice. As Dante puts it, they're trapped "up to the place the hue of shame appears"—that would be the cheeks—"their teeth a-chatter like the bills of storks." Amidst them, Dante recounts the following:

...if it was will or fate or chance
I do not know, but, walking among the heads
I struck my foot hard in the face of one.

In other words, though he won't say how or why—he claims not to know how or why—Dante kicks one of the sinners, rather as if the guy's head were a soccer ball. Then he asks the kicked man's name. He receives not an answer but a volley of curses and insults, which seems reasonable enough, given that the guy—a soldier named Bocca, who betrayed his fellow Guelphs in battle—has just had his cheeks buffeted, as he puts it.

Dante tries to persuade Bocca to tell his tale: "...and if it's fame you seek, / it might turn out to your advantage / if I put your name among the others I have noted."

Bocca wants none of this. "Take yourself off and trouble me no more," he responds. This so enrages Dante that he grabs Bocca by the scruff of the neck and says: "Either you name yourself / Or I'll leave you without a single hair." Still met with defiance, Dante actually starts pulling out Bocca's hair.

I'd call this a marked loss of composure. The anger of Dante the character has conferred upon him a sense of utter moral superiority—and in the next canto, he shows himself to be every ounce as capable of betrayal as are the sinners among whose heads he's trodding. It should be noted that Dante is now in that area of Hell called Ptolomea, where those who betray guests and friends are eternally lodged. He encounters Fra Alberigo, a Guelph who had several dinner-guests murdered at his table. Alberigo is stuck in the ice up to his neck, his face tilted upward. Here is Dante's memorable description of what this icy interment is like for Alberigo and his fellows:

The very weeping there prevents their weeping,
for the grief that meets a barrier at the eyelids
turns inward to augment their anguish,

since their first tears become a crust
that like a crystal visor fills
the cups beneath the eyebrows.

These icy, crusted tears, Dante suggests, are fit punishment for such traitors as these. It's their contrapasso, as he called it. The term refers to a match between the crime committed and the mode in which the criminal suffers eternally for it. In this instance, those who betray friends and guests are rendered incapable of weeping; their tears have frozen and blocked all subsequent crying. One might say that the rage that led to the betrayals these souls committed on earth has resulted, in Hell, in the deepest kind of inner blockage. These sinners cannot weep for anyone or anything, including themselves.

Alberigo calls out to Dante, asking for help. "Lift from my face these rigid veils," he says, "so I can vent a while the grief that swells / my heart, until my tears freeze up again."

Dante makes an oath to help. "If I do not relieve you," he promises Alberigo, "may I have to travel to the bottom of the ice." First, though, he adds, Alberigo should tell his name. This the frozen sinner does, recounting his story as well. Then, quite understandably, he asks Dante to do as promised and clear the ice off his eyes. What's Dante's response? Refusing to do as asked, he turns away from Alberigo, stating to his readers: "And to be rude to him was courtesy"—that is, Alberigo deserves to be betrayed.

What are we to make of this? I see it as an act of serious moral equivocation—beating a man when he's down. It's akin to the withholding of water from prisoners of war. For that matter (and to update the context), I see this act of Dante the character as very like what has happened in Guantanamo, Cuba, where the U.S. has held an indeterminate number of men (some in solitary confinement) for upwards of five years without formal charges. Yes, some of these men may indeed be soldiers guilty of specific crimes, but while these men are under our lock and key, we are obliged to treat them according to preestablished codes of wartime conduct.

Dante, of course, would scoff at such comparisons. While prisoners of war have yet to be judged, he would assert, everyone in Hell most certainly has been-and not by men but by God Himself. The souls in Hell are goners, in other words. They've already been subjected to "the dreadful work of justice," as Dante describes it in canto 14. It's all over for them—forever.

Yet a question persists: what does Dante the narrator really make of Dante the protagonist's actions in the lowest circle of Hell? For an answer, we must first look to Dante's guide. Virgil, tellingly, makes no attempt to dissuade Dante from betraying Alberigo, nor does he berate him afterward. In fact, this is the sole canto in the Inferno in which Virgil remains entirely silent. Dante is on his own, and we can only imagine that this is because our author wants us to believe that all's fair in Hell.

How, though, do we shake off all that ice—accumulating on Alberigo's upturned eyes, crunching under Dante's feet—as we try to figure out how to respond to this poem not as Christian dogma, but as a story relevant to our own moral and emotional experience? It was with a grunt of recognition that I read the poet Alan Williamson's take on Ptolomea. This is the region in Dante's Hell, says Williamson, "where there is no emotion but a gnawing, useless, infinite rage."5 It's where Dante first feels the frigid wind from Satan's wings, shortly before making his false promise to Alberigo—a wind so cold it numbs his face.

One wonders whether it numbs his heart as well. Not so, says Williamson, who claims that Dante "continues to bear mindful witness to himself, as he plunges into the cul-de-sac of ultimate hatred." Well, but just how mindful is he? It's one thing to note that Dante ends up shedding his own tears in Purgatory, when he meets Beatrice. He's not, in other words fatally burdened by a blocked heart. But what about that icy refusal—no, that outright betrayal—of Alberigo?

One possible response comes in an essay by Mary Baine Campbell, the sole writer in The Poets' Dante who gets good and mad at our Tuscan author, refusing to honor him past a very limited degree. Dante, she says, has all the power in his poem, including that of his rhetoric to move and convince us. "This narrator," she writes, "is an implacable taxonomist, who knows exactly how much Heaven to dole out to whom." And, she adds persuasively, "the rage I feel against this narrator, against the idea of order itself, is hard to control... I want to protect the dead and the to-be-dead from Dante, because atavistically I feel he has the power to hurt them, and that power must be the power of poetry, since he died banished and poor, in someone else's house.... I've let him make me his puppet."6

I'm not unsympathetic to this point of view. Indeed, I remain unsure how much credit to give Dante the author for mindfulness or compassion. It's true that, as Mandelstam says, Dante doesn't turn himself into a hero in Hell; he creates a Dante-character who doesn't know how to behave or speak. "The inner anxieties which accompany every step of (this) diffident man," writes Mandelstam, "provide the poem with all its charm, its drama, and serve as its background source, its psychological foundation."

But then again, Dante intended his Commedia to track the transformation of that bumbling Dante into someone who realizes he requires divine assistance, and who receives it (in the form of Virgil and, more fundamentally, of Beatrice) because his Christian belief protects him from any real danger in Hell. The poem's drama thus bubbles up from that gap between what Dante the hapless protagonist experiences, and what Dante the poet claims to know—and seeks to advertise—about redemption and its attainment. As one commentator, W.S. DiPiero, puts it, "Dante's poem offers us...the model of a human consciousness that has the power to imagine being at the same time indentured to chance and delivered eternally from it."7

Now, of course, one can set aside the entire Christian scaffolding and find the Inferno marvelous in its depictions of the dark wood, the descent into the realm of self-wounding, and the climb up into the realm of self-healing through faith and love. One should find all this marvelous. Yet one must also be aware, I think, that Dante gets out of Hell by figuratively stepping over, or onto, the dead bodies of his enemies—people he scorns and hates as well as people for whom he feels pity. And while he does finger himself for ignorance and callowness, he never indicts himself for cruelty.
This is, one could say, a significant chink in the Dantean armor. Dante's reliance on a Christian framework carries him only as far as the leash constraining his own angry vengefulness will stretch. To the brother of that American man mutilated by enraged Iraquis in Falluja, Dante would state that there are only two types of dead: the sinners and the redeemed. The former destroy themselves, and the latter aren't, in the end, ever really dead at all, according to Dante. Yet that doesn't get round the problem of what the living actually do with their fury: how they vent it, and how it wounds them in return.

One can't, of course, blast a medieval Christian for being a medieval Christian. It would be ludicrous to shortchange him on this score. Yet I would still like to urge a reading of Dante's Inferno that neither undervalues his poetic and storymaking accomplishments nor overvalues his human sympathies, his taste for ambiguity, or his tolerance for tolerance. He wasn't built for all that.

Hell's no place to cut anyone any slack. The character of Beatrice establishes this premise clearly, when, making a brief appearance at the start of Dante's journey, she displays no sympathy at all for the souls in Limbo.

Dante was, as many commentators have pointed out, the last of the great totalizers. This makes his Divine Comedy an admirable literary instance of that quality Italo Calvino calls multiplicity.

It comes in various forms. There are, for instance, those seemingly unified texts that can be interpreted on multiple levels (Melville's Moby Dick, for instance, or Mikhail Bulgakov's Master and Margarita.) There are manifold texts, which, as Calvino puts it, "replace the oneness of a thinking 'I' with a multiplicity of subjects, voices, and views on the world."8 A fine example of this would be Virginia Woolf's novels. There are books that try to contain everything but can't—such as Robert Musil's The Man Without Qualities—and thus remain by nature beautifully incomplete. There are literary works that proceed aphoristically, or by what Calvino describes as "sudden, discontinuous flashes of light." He cites Paul Valery's essays as an example of this; I'd adduce, in our time, the writings of Emile Cioran, Anne Carson, and W.G. Sebald. And there are books such as Calvino's own novel If on a Winter's Night a Traveler, which embody what he calls networks of possibility. Borges is, of course, a leading creator of such webs.

Then there are works that offer the reader a unified system and sum of human knowledge. Dante is the undisputed maestro of this form of multiplicity. Reading him, observes Howard Nemerov, we're constantly under an enchantment that says, "Everything you need to know is here."9 And not only is everything there, but it's there in multiple genres! (As one of Dante's translators has pointed out, the Inferno is equal parts journey, vision, allegory, autobiography, encyclopedia, and praise of women—Beatrice in particular, although she's not the only one.)

Reading Dante, we do realize that his work is casting a spell. We give over to it, but few of us are taken in by it in the same way that medieval readers once were. Eugenio Montale has observed that in our day, an encyclopedism such as Dante's "can no longer create a universe but only an immense amassing of notions of a provisional character."10 Indeed, our literature since Dante's time takes what some have described as a collective plummet into pure contingency.

That this is so pulls nothing from Dante's achievement. After all, one can expect only so much of any single poet, even one so masterful as Dante. He certainly fulfilled Ezra Pound's injunction to offer a report that's accurate—and magical, too, its concinnities forever inscribed upon our collective memory.

Yet what Dante hasn't done—what he couldn't do, given his beliefs—is to implicate himself in his story in the ways we contemporary writers are forced to implicate ourselves, if we take the making of literature seriously. Forced, that is, because we can no longer subscribe even to the possibility of a totalizing worldview. We've tumbled down the rabbit-hole of provisional truth and likely self-deception, and neither Christ nor Allah nor Moses nor Buddha can return us to a time when a poem might be said to tell us everything we need to know.

The Italian writer Carlo Emilio Gadda claimed that all knowledge inserts something into, and thus distorts, what is real. For Gadda, this fact created a fundamental and irresolvable epistemological crisis, in which (to quote Italo Calvino) "the more the world (became) distorted before his eyes, the more the author's self (became) involved in this process and (was) itself distorted and confused." This perception caused Gadda to burst forth with the following rant in his novel Acquainted With Grief: "I, I!...the filthiest of all the pronouns! The pronouns! They are the lice of thought. When a thought has lice, it scratches...and in your fingernails, find pronouns: the personal pronouns."

Actually, under your fingernails you find words, those inky signs we use to tag the self. And the self resists; it fights being corralled. Indeed, the self as we now experience it is arguably even more multifaceted and shape-shifting than those two Florentine thieves, Cianfa and Agnello, who (in Canto 25 of the Inferno) fuse together like molten wax, mixing their colors "so that neither seemed what it had been before."

Dante, needless to say, found such fusion appalling. The result, he wrote, was "an unnatural figure...both two and none"—unnatural, that is, to someone for whom such an Ovidian transformation threatened the very notion of a unified (and redeemable) self.

Respectful though he is of his Tuscan forbear, Calvino has no interest in a vision such as Dante's. It's not the sort of multiplicity he's after. He's not big on the sureties of selfhood; he's keen on whatever cannot be labeled, whatever transmutes. Calvino recognizes that individuals and nations alike incline toward grandiose, inflexible self-assertions. His writing takes the sting out of contingency, replacing the fear to which it gives rise with an enlivening sense of opportunity. Each of us, he seems always to be suggesting, should remain exploratory and adventuresome as we attempt our own fictions, poems, essays, and mixes thereof. Otherwise, we're just letting ourselves be led around by our noses like literary donkeys. He prefers fecklessness to smugness.

Here's Calvino's way of summing it all up—threaded together from the end of his essay on multiplicity in Six Memos for the Next Millenium:

Who are we, who is each one of us, if not a combinatoria of experiences, information, books we have read, things imagined? ...Think what it would be to have a work conceived from outside the self, a work that would let us escape the limited perspective of the individual ego, not only to enter into selves like our own but to give speech to that which has no language... Was this not perhaps what Ovid was aiming at, when he wrote about the continuity of forms? And what Lucretius was aiming at when he identified himself with that nature common to each and every thing?

One couldn't hope to say it better, nor ask for a wiser latter-day Virgil.


Martha Cooley is the author of two novels, The Archivist and Thirty-Three Swoons. An Assistant Professor of English at Adelphi University, she also teaches fiction in the Bennington Writing Seminars.


  1. Tim Parks, "Hell and Back," Hell and Back (London: Secker & Warburg, 2001).
  2. James Merrill, "Divine Poem," in Peter Hawkins and Rachel Jacoff, The Poets' Dante (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2001), p. 229.
  3. Osip Mandelstam, "Conversation About Dante," in Hawkins and Jacoff, The Poets' Dante, p. 43.
  4. Robert Pinsky, "The Pageant of Unbeing," in Hawkins and Jacoff, The Poets' Dante, p. 315.
  5. Alan Williamson, "The Tears of Cocytus," in Hawkins and Jacoff, The Poets' Dante, p. 361.
  6. Mary Baine Campbell, "Wrath, Order, Paradise," in Hawkins and Jacoff, The Poets' Dante, p. 389.
  7. W.S. Di Piero, "Our Sweating Selves," in Hawkins and Jacoff, The Poets' Dante, p. 349.
  8. Italo Calvino, Six Memos for the Millenium (New York: Vintage, 1993), p. 117.
  9. Howard Nemerov, "The Dream of Dante," in Hawkins and Jacoff, The Poets' Dante, p. 216.
  10. Eugenio Montale, "Dante, Yesterday and Today," in Hawkins and Jacoff, The Poets' Dante, p. 113.

No Comments