A few weeks ago, I had one of those “Welp, time to read Dante’s Divine Comedy” moments. Perhaps it was the fact I’ve only ever traveled along the West Coast of the United States and I just wanted to indulge in some light travel reading (through Hell). Or maybe it was my own recent floundering but continued interest in the Christian faith which drove me to Dante’s theological musings. Most likely, I was bored. The reason is usually “I was bored” but who wants to admit that? It’s boring.
Luckily, The Divine Comedy wasn’t boring until Dante gets to Heaven. The darker the locale he’s traveling through, the better the story. By the time I got to the highest level of Heaven, I was snoozing, wishing I was back in Hell.I don’t know if that makes me perverse or human. Dante’s Hell is rife with the stuff of drama: pain, struggle, punishment, guilt, etc. Even Purgatory possesses plenty of clever ideas about the ways one would go about expunging the consequences of the Seven Deadly Sins (the gluttons look like famine victims, the prideful walk with stones on their backs so they assume a stance of humility, etc.) His Heaven put me to sleep because it came across as 360 pages which could have been summed up in 3. It’s like stretching a novel out of Frodo enjoying his time in The Gray Havens. We want to know how he got there, not what it’s like. Even the Bible is more sparing in its treatment of Heaven than Dante. Hell and Purgatory still feel like the worst parts of Earth. Heaven is too unrelatable and inhuman. Revelation’s picture of a new Heaven and Earth, populated by embodied human beings is much more palatable (thank you, N.T. Wright).
When I told my friends about my recent quest alongside the medieval Italian poet and his Latin predecessor, Virgil, through darkened metaphysical territories, the response was perplexed. “Why would you read that?” (Because it’s Dante?) “Is this a girl thing? Like, is a girl you’re into into Dante?” (No, but I did go on a date where we talked about our mutual appreciation for Dante after I’d finished Inferno. It could’ve been serendipity except she didn’t text me back.) “Getting ready for where you going after you die, huh, you hellbound, post-Christian, agnostic heathen?” (Okay, no one actually said that but I wish they did). All to say, maybe I am weird for wanting to read a medieval epic poem about a voyage through the afterlife but, overall, I don’t regret the vacation.
Dante’s an interesting companion for the journey. For every profound theological observation, there are one or two encounters with someone Dante personally knew back in his time in Florence. In hindsight, it’s kind of an egotistical move. The most ironic aspect of the Comedy is how much it allows Dante to play God. He gets to assign who goes where in Hell, Purgatory and Heaven from personal acquaintances to famous historical figures. In this sense, the pen is mightier than the sword. You could exile Dante from his hometown but he could immortalize you as burning in hell for centuries to follow.
It’s also interesting to see Dante oscillate between moments of profound and progressive humanism and startling barbarity. The concept of Limbo (where the nonbelieving virtuous are punished with boredom) and the stratification of Hell and Purgatory based on the “badness” of a given person’s sin is at least more just than saying everyone from Hitler to the nice, nonbelieving lady across the street is going to burn the same amount for all time. Still, it’s hard to understand how the medieval mind was capable of thinking things like homosexuals and suicides should be worse off than murderers for their “crimes against nature.” If that doesn’t seem off to you, I’d say there’s something off about you. It’s decisions like that which remind you why it’s better, in at least some ways, to be alive in 2014 than it was back then.
Even if he’s a bit off-putting for his self-importance and self-righteousness, he makes up for it with his sense of humor. Of course, the word “comedy” meant something very different to Dante than it means to us. It didn’t mean a nonstop jokefest but a story in which things turned out alright in the end. Still, Dante’s jokes are pretty funny here. The flatterers (read: asskissers) are punished by having to swim around in excrement for eternity. Demons blow bugles out of their butts, one asks “Want I should touch him on the rump a bit?” and the others respond “Go on and give it to him!” Say what you will about the 1300s but I can’t imagine Dante writing things like that without thinking he brought some laughter and light to the Dark Ages.
If you’re thinking of reading Dante, you won’t regret the first two chapters of his journey. It serves as well as an aesthetic experience as it does an ethical guide. He follows through the consequences of our actions and negative, self-centered attitudes to their logical end. That’s useful information even if you think this planet is it. So check it, homeyz.