Good, Evil and the Inferno

Below, Anonymous (he is actually a friend of mine in disguise) has some interesting comments about Dante’s Inferno, one of the greatest books ever written. There are many translations available, but I recommend the one by John Ciardi, who is Italian himself by the way. Dante himself was a rather nasty man, extremely puritanical almost like a Christian version of the Saudi religious police. He used to stand outside and rail at the neighbors, calling them sinners. They probably were, at least in his book, but who likes a prig. He was also a stern, grim and rather mean-spirited fellow who seemed to regard most of his fellow humans with contempt as he felt they were “fallen.”

But then Shakespeare was a cheapskate, tightwad, penny-pinching, greedy bastard, litigiously fond of suing his neighbors for small amounts of cash. His own wife and children were said to not care for him too much.

But when I told my mother this, she got annoyed and basically said, “So what?” He pointed out that we do not remember Shakespeare because he was basically a bastard in day to day life with his fellow humans. We remember him for his greatest achievement, his plays with not only withstood the test of mine but possibly have not yet been surpassed or possibly even equaled.

You can make a good case that he is the greatest English writer of all time. His artistic achievement was so great that it surely outweighed his antisocial behavior in day to day life, although you might have a hard time convincing those who knew him well and suffered through his insufferable behavior of that.

Dante is similar. As a human, he was a pretty lousy. But so what? He is surely the greatest writer of the Italian language ever, surpassing even Boccaccio, and he is up there with Shakespeare with the greatest writers period of all time. He wrote in the 1300’s, but it could have been yesterday.

PS if you have not read the Inferno, you need to go read that book right now, dammit, unless you are one of those who I discussed in my piece who spends their life running from bad things. In that case, you will not enjoy this nasty little book, which is fascinating for its nine circles of Hell descending from the least sinful on the outskirts of Hell to the worst of all frying away for eternity in the boiling black heart of the first circle of Hell.

In limbo, the ninth circle, those who frittered and wasted away their lives for no reason (like me) are condemned to float in the air endlessly like a spaceman drifting about in zero gravity space. They’re the “floaters.” As the sins get worse and worse, so do the glorious punishments! It is ingenious the nasty punishments he comes up to torture these sinners for all of time. This delightful little book should be read with a wicked little glimmer in one’s eye. Be prepared to let your inner sadist out of his cell to romp around a bit as you read this nasty gem of a book. If you have the tiniest bit of cruelty in your heart, this book is plenty enough to sate your appetite for sadistic pleasure.

Purgatorio, the second book of the great Divine Comedy, is also awesome, unless you hate Catholics for their nasty little innovation, in which case, don’t bother.

Purgatory is for those who were not evil enough to be sent to Hell but nevertheless were pretty darn bad, not good enough to go to Heaven so they have to be sent to the way station between Heaven and Hell, Mount Purgatory, where they “work off their sins” in the most horrible of ways for a very long time with the slight solace that once they get through this 14th Century Auschwitz and work off their sins enough to satisfy God, they can at long last be admitted to Heaven. Purgatorio is not quite as good as the Inferno, but it is nevertheless excellent. I highly recommend it.

I have not read Paradiso. It is said to be the weakest of the three, but even a weak book by Dante is still better than 99% of the dreck floating around out there in Literary Limbo.

PS. He comments on “looking at life in the way that is described in the post. The main thrust of the post was supposed to be my idea that an intelligent Hell would be much superior than an insipid Heaven. I also discussed how most people spend their whole lives running from their pain, their painful history, their possibly painful futures and the painful world that surrounds us all.

While it makes sense to be an optimist, I personally have nothing against thinking about lousy things that have happened to me, are happening to me, or are happening around me because first of all, that’s how life is (Buddhists say “all of life is suffering”) so there is no sense running from 50% of the universe, and also because I have either made my peace with most awful things (especially those in my past) so it doesn’t really bother me or upset me too much to think about them.

I then point out that even lousy experiences, of which life has a ton, can at the very least be seen as a learning experience or an interesting bit of life if you want to step back, detach and be a bit analytical and philosophical about things, which isn’t as Aspie as it sounds. Sure life is painful, but it ought to also be numbing. That’s how you toughen up after all. You get a bit hard. And so what? That’s called “getting it done.”

Anonymous writes:

Inferno is a very interesting book, Dante uses symbols, metaphors, and allusions for pretty much every aspect of Hell. I thought this epic (I believe that’s its classification, since it’s poetic). But, despite this coping mechanism he uses to help liberate himself from depression, I don’t believe he ever got “better”.

On another note, would you call Dante hypocritical? Yes, his Hell did feature political rivals and other assholes that deserved their punishments. But, Dante himself, was not perfect (I am referring to his rumored love affair with Beatrice). Even his Hell is contradictory: his map of Hell is based off of the Heliocentric Theory, yet he sticks with the more conservative view that those who are not Christian stay in Hell (reason for Virgil being there).

So, what I am trying to “get at” is why is it okay to view yourself as good and others as evil. I think it’s okay to view yourself as innocent, but is it okay to view yourself as good…? Good and innocent are often associated with each other, but good is an adjective that describes character, while innocent is an adjective that can also describe an action. So, while a person can be innocent, they may not necessarily be good.

Don’t get me wrong: it is tempting to look at life in the way that’s described in this blog post. But, I keep feeling like there should be a grey, in-between area because I don’t want commit hypocrisy.

Maybe I misunderstood what was typed…but…


Filed under Literature, Philosophy, Poetry, Theater

12 responses to “Good, Evil and the Inferno

  1. Stary Wylk

    “I have not read Paradiso. It is said to be the weakest of the three, but even a weak book by Dante is still better than 99% of the dreck floating around out there in Literary Limbo.”

    I tried to, long ago. It was a bore and I quit on like the third or fourth page. I agree that there is a lot of dreck out there. I used to be very fond of science fiction and would read about five books a week and one of something else. Now, there are three current writers I consider good.

    My understanding of his “affair with Beatrice” is that he saw her once when he was twelve and she eleven. Then he fell in love with her and she was the inspiration for many of his poems.

    It was customary at this time to be in love with someone else’s wife and to write poems to and about her. To actually have any acquaintance with her would end the experience or at least cheapen it. It’s also possible that talking to her would have got him stabbed.

    I loved the coarseness of his language and imagery in Inferno, especially the demon who played a trumpet with his ass.

    Dante must have really hated the people he had in Hell and been unable to do anything real to them. The only trace of sympathy I recall was for a pair of lovers and I may have imagined that. Someone, Dante?, Virgil?, did say they were sinners and deserved it.

  2. Jason Y

    I’m convinced the Catholic church’s interpretation of Hell is wrong. I think Hell itself, is purgatory. Of course, later the protestants also took this “Catholic hell” with them.

    All in all, hell served the Catholic church as a teaching to scare the masses into following them. Note the medevil masses could not read, much less read the Bible. They only went by whatever their local priest told them was correct.

    Also, the Eruopean medevil masses may have been inbred and had some genetic low IQ, much as many in the world have now.

  3. Hasdrubal

    I don’t know which version of Inferno I read but I really liked it’s set up. It would give a one or two paragraph of the chapter then have the translated text in iambic pentameter and an appendices explaining who people were. I know who Caeser was, but was less familiar with some of Dante’s contemporaries that he sent to Hell, which made it a pretty amusing read.

    On great artistic assholes, Neil Young is one of my top 5 favorite musicians and I’ve met 4 people in my life who claimed to have met him (3 working at concerts and 1 who helped put in his pool). All 4 have said he is a raging asshole. My response is always the same “I don’t care, I don’t want to be his friend I just want to listen to his music”.

    • Jason Y

      Young is definitely a preachy self righteous bastard (songs: Alabama, Southern Man). Never heard of him being an asshole though. Yeah, all his songs are great including the preachy ones.

      • Hasdrubal

        Fun Fact: A lot of people know about the feud between Neil Young and the band Lynyrd Skynyrd with their retort to the above mentioned songs in Sweet Home Alabama. There was no feud and Neil Young wrote the song Powderfinger, probably my favorite Young song, for Lynyrd Skynyrd. Unfortunately Skynyrd frontman Ronnie Van Zant died in a plane crash before having a chance to record it. Fortunately Young did record it for his seminal 1979 album Rust Never Sleeps.

        • Jason Y

          Ultimately, health and enviro Naziism and other weird lefty things will cause one to become an asshole. Also, becoming too politically correct in regards to politics, even for a lefty, will do the same. We all need to lighten up sometime and face reality.

        • Jason Y

          Neil Young had a lot of balls to write those songs, especially back then. Did he get any death threats?

        • Hasdrubal

          I’m sure he got death threats, but I don’t think he cares or they were that serious.
          From the Wikipedia entry on Southern Man ” In his book Waging Heavy Peace: A Hippie Dream, Young stated that Lynyrd Skynyrd wrote “Sweet Home Alabama” not in response to “Southern Man”, but rather to Young’s song “Alabama”. Young noted that Lynyrd Skynyrd’s implied criticism was deserved because Young’s lyrics to Alabama were condescending and accusatory, that he does not like how he used his words in the song, and the lyrics were not fully thought out and too easy to misconstrue.”

          Bob Dylan wrote When the Ship Comes In after a hotel clerk was rude to him and Joe Strummer of The Clash wrote White Man in Hammersmith Palais after attending a disappointing Reggae concert. Sometimes even the minor annoyances can produce great art whose scope is much wider and deeper than than the moment of inspiration that birthed it.

        • Jason Y

          Neil Young was politcally correct before the term even existed.

        • EPGAH

          As opposed to modern songs where the condescension and sarcasm are in your face, the lyrics nearly impossible to misinterpret?

  4. EPGAH

    This reminds me of the StarDestroyer “Armageddon” fanfic!

  5. small correction

    Dante wrote much earlier than the 1400’s.

    The Divine Comedy is from 1300 circa.

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